Women Entrepreneurs Share Six Keys to Success

Do you dream of becoming the CEO of your own business? Women founders describe launching their companies as exciting, exhausting, and full of unexpected challenges — and they wouldn’t trade it for any other career. At Forté’s 2020 MBA Women’s Leadership Conference, Janis Collins, founder of The Refinery, a business accelerator for women-led companies, moderated a discussion with two entrepreneurs. Kathryn Bernell is the 2018 Forté Power Pitch winner and the founder of reBLEND, a company that makes frozen smoothie pops from surplus and imperfect produce. Marguerite Pressley Davis is founder of Tulle La La, managing director at Marguerite Pressley Davis Inc., and host of the Finance Savvy CEO podcast.

Janis, Kathryn, and Marguerite spoke about their entrepreneurial experiences and provided down-to-earth advice to help other women as they start their own business ventures. If you’re interested in becoming a woman entrepreneur, here are six things to keep in mind.

1. Build a support system.

Kathryn started her company while in business school at Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management. When she relocated to Colorado, she felt very alone and wished she had built an informal board of directors that she could turn to for feedback. She said, “I would have been really intentional about structuring that before I left business school.”

Janis agreed, and mentioned her TEDx talk that urged entrepreneurs not to go it alone. Relationship-building is an important part of launching a company, from the people you hire as you build out your team, to the early customers you ask for feedback. If you have a cofounder, your relationship with that person is especially important. Janis said, “In our program at The Refinery, we say, “Go slowly. Really ‘date’ before you sign up with somebody to be a cofounder and get into an equity role with them. Work on that partner relationship before you make a commitment, because things change all the time.” Janis had a bad experience with a cofounder early on, but said that working with a cofounder on The Refinery has been “fabulous.” She recommended, “Look for complimentary skill sets.”

2. Expect to wear a lot of hats.

After earning her MBA at NYU Stern, Marguerite worked in the corporate world, where she had all sorts of resources, systems, and processes at her disposal. She said, “When I started my first company, it was almost as if in my mind, I thought all of those things would exist, but the reality is you’re building all of those things from scratch yourself. You’re building your own subject matter experts that you can go to. You’re building your own systems and processes that work well for you. And oftentimes, they’re not as fancy as the ones that you had in the corporate world.”  Part of making the transition to entrepreneurship is figuring out how to make finite resources work well for you.

With that in mind, Kathryn encouraged MBA students to take all of the entrepreneurial courses available to them. She said, “As Marguerite noted, when you start a business, you don’t have another department to do your hiring, you don’t have the marketing department and the HR and the finance departments. You are all of those things.” You may not be an expert in those fields, but if you leverage your time as an MBA student, you’ll know enough to ask the right questions.

3. Schedule your short- and long-term goals.

Kathryn said that her biggest challenge as an entrepreneur has been staying focused, because, “Every single day, my brain goes a thousand different directions. There are a thousand things that are considered urgent, and I don’t have a thousand hours in a day.” To keep herself on track, she had to become very disciplined. Each week, she asks herself, “What are the three things that need to happen this coming week? What are the activities I have to accomplish to achieve those? What can wait a week? What can I offload to someone else?”

As your company grows, you need to be able to step back and look at the big picture. Marguerite said, “It’s really important for you, as a CEO, as a founder, to be able to pull yourself out of the weeds and take ownership of the strategic direction of your companies. I know it may sound simple, but being able to pull yourself out of all of the day-to-day, so that you can make sure that you’re pushing the company forward as you intend, is super critical.”

Entrepreneurs also have to keep in mind their personal goals, outside of work. Marguerite loves the flexibility that entrepreneurship offers, but she emphasized the importance of planning ahead. “It’s about making certain decisions at certain points in time that are right for you, and being able to structure your business in such a way that you’re thinking, ‘In life, I want to do this in three years…,’ so you can hit the ground running in years one through three for your business.”  

4. Develop your communication skills.

As an entrepreneur, you are the voice of your company, so you need to be aware of how you’re coming across to others. While fundraising for her company, Kathryn had a helpful conversation with a mentor: “She recognized that my language when I was going to raise funds was such that I was asking them to do me a favor, whereas she repositioned it, ‘You’re giving them an opportunity to do a transaction. They’re in there wanting to find cool opportunities. You’re doing a favor by pitching a really high value opportunity for them to make more money.’”

Janis said that one of her early mentors hired an executive coach to work with her on how she communicated, so that instead of using an apologetic tone or asking for favors, she could treat the sales process as telling people about an opportunity.  She said, “I think that’s really important. Language is important.”

5. Understand the financial landscape before you start fundraising.

In addition to being an entrepreneur, Marguerite is both a venture capitalist and an angel investor, so she has a well-rounded perspective on how companies raise money. She said it’s crucial for entrepreneurs to know where they are in the process and what type of investors they need, because, “If you’re coming to me at the wrong stage, you’re wasting valuable time.”  She said entrepreneurs have to be as prepared as possible. “Understand what your financial projections look like. Understand what your ask is, if that ask is even realistic, and what you’re going to use those funding dollars for, if you get it. Have a plan for how you’re going to grow and scale your company.” Marguerite also pointed out that you may not have to fundraise at all. She bootstrapped her first company, which allowed her to grow and scale a bit quicker.

Janis urged entrepreneurs to hold off as long as they can before giving up equity in their company. She said, “It’s always preferable to grow organically and bootstrap, because you hold on to your equity. Only raise money if you’ve got product market fit, you’ve got scalability, and you’re ready to take off.”

6. Buckle in for a rough ride.

Kathryn believes entrepreneurs need three things to be successful: “You have to start from a place of understanding a key problem that exists, you have to be passionate about solving it, and you have to be really determined to take punches every single day as you fight challenges to solve that problem.”  If you don’t care deeply about what you’re doing and have the grit to stick with it, she said, “It’ll be really easy to turn around as soon as you hit some of your first challenges.”

For Marguerite, it’s about “knowing your why.” She said, “When those days are really tough, and the business deal you were banking on fell through, it’s your ‘why’ that gets you through it.”  She has her ‘why’ posted on the wall in her office, because, “That is what will allow you to have tough conversations with people. It’s what will keep you pushing when you feel like giving up.”

Entrepreneurship can be a roller coaster of highs and lows, but all three women said they prefer this career to the corporate world, because they’re always learning new things. Marguerite said that on any given day, she could be doing something completely different than what she was working on the day before. She doesn’t think she’ll ever return to a corporate environment, because with entrepreneurship, “The possibilities are endless.”

Want to meet more women entrepreneurs? Visit our Mavens in the Marketplace.

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