Thirty years on Wall Street has taught me a few things about being a woman in the business world that I'd like to share with the next generation of multicultural women who want to start and scale a business. In the early days of my career, I had my own personal missteps amidst numerous victories.
I always vowed that when I reached senior management, and people came to me for advice, I would provide them with the tools, strategies and pearls of wisdom honed by my own experience. That's why it is such an honor to be chair of the National Women's Business Council and have an independent platform from which to share my pearls of wisdom. Here are five of my “Carla's Pearls:"
1. Build Your “Relationship Currency"
Starting out as a woman in the male-dominated industry of investment banking, I thought working hard was enough, but quickly realized it was not only hard work, but the people who leveraged their relationships were actually the ones able to climb the fastest. My advice to young professionals and entrepreneurs is, don't over invest in your performance because it really is the 'relationship currency' that gets you the next great assignment, a piece of business that generates visibility or the ability to have access to someone that can make the difference. Relationship currency comes from spending time with people inside and outside your organization that can positively impact your career or business. Some of the most important relationship currency I amassed in my journey to becoming a major decision-maker has been from mentors and sponsors.
First, understand the distinction between a mentor and a sponsor. Your mentor needs to know you very well and be willing to give you unaltered feedback in a direct way, while also understanding your work context, and always have your BEST interest at heart. My advice to anyone, and particularly women of color is, do not be confined to choosing someone that looks like you or that works in your organization. As long as you believe that the person knows you really well, and you are able to give them the “good, bad and the ugly" of whatever your concern or situation may be, then they can be an effective mentor for you. Your sponsor is the person who will use their social and political currency to advance your career or professional decisions being made about you behind closed doors within your organization. You need to identify the person who has a seat at the decision-making table, who has the power and influence to get to an affirmative decision on your behalf. If you are an entrepreneur, then your sponsor can be the person who is using their personal connections to introduce you to sources of capital, new customers or even new suppliers.
2. Expand Your Network Far and Wide
Always be thinking of every person you already know and new ones you meet in terms of how they can help you grow your professional network. You must build your network far beyond mentors and sponsors. Make sure that you are constantly taking time to connect with new people, and also maintain existing relationships in and out of the office. Even if it's just to say “hi, how was your weekend?" or “let's catch up over coffee," these light touches can give you the basis to start building intentional relationships that can be meaningful to you and your business. The key to success is the follow-up with people.
Consider individuals such as family, friends, employees, co-workers, customers and service providers that not only know who you are, but are also connected to other people who might turn out to be helpful to you. You'll be surprised at the network of people that are available to you that you already know – your doctor, your peer or a former teacher for example. You have to start talking to people about what you are planning to do, what you need, etc.
Entrepreneurs of color should especially over invest in building relationships in order to have access to the people that could make the difference in having the capital needed to scale or the customer that could change your business in an exponential way.
3. Seek Out All Available Resources
Take the time to learn what resources are available to you. During my travels across the country as Chair of the National Women's Business Council, I found that city-by-city, there are economic development, small business and even financial resources that are not used because many people are not aware they even exist as options.
To potential, current and future small business owners and entrepreneurs, start by going to the NWBC website (www.nwbc.org) to see what resources are in your city. You can also check the state or mayor's website and the SBA website for additional resource partners in your area such as the Women's Business Centers. With a few clicks, you will find resources in your area that you should fully leverage before making the extraordinary effort to go beyond your geographical boundaries. These resources are so important because of the challenges faced by women when it comes to securing capital funding, a particularly daunting challenge for multicultural women-owned businesses.
Consider the company you are currently working at as a tremendous resource as well. Try to work for a business that is in the same sector as the company that you want to start or that is very similar to your prospective business model.
You can learn how your company put their business together, how they obtained capital financing, how they attracted customers, etc. You want to achieve the highest level of success possible, and you cannot do it on your own. Emulate the people around you working towards similar goals.
4. Consider Many Options for Raising Capital
While working, save, save, save! You want to have your own capital to put into your business. If you have a great idea, but have no capital, it will be easy for investors to have disproportionate leverage in your business.
A growing and optimal arena where women have proven to excel in raising capital is crowdfunding. Although more men use seed crowdfunding, research shows that women are more successful in this growing funding arena.
This is most likely due to women creating larger and closer social networks, which I can't stress enough is the true key. Remember that 'relationship currency!' It will help you towards crowdfunding success. Women crowdfunding campaigns have higher success rates in comparison to men, averaging to be 4.6% more successful than their male counterparts in funding a campaign.
As your business starts to grow, don't forget about human capital early. Remember to add human capital so that you have the capacity to handle the growth. I have seen so many entrepreneurs who had to walk away from a valuable business and customers simply because they had no capacity to execute the business.
5. Help Each Other Out
I am a firm believer that our young girls need our help early on with exposure to financial literacy education to inspire greater interest in finance careers and to better equip young women as budding entrepreneurs.
My grandmother, who was the first female entrepreneur that I knew, would often let me count the money from her business and by the time that I was in 8th grade, I was helping her with her bookkeeping. It gave me an early interest in money and finance and as I got older and then became exposed to Wall Street, I was all in!
In the end, women need to band together, just as they are with other social issues. Through the creation of a community, there is a place where women can exchange their ideas and their challenges. Your family, friends, mentors, employees, co-workers and customers not only know who you are, but are also connected to other people who might turn out to be helpful to you and your business. You'll be surprised at the resources that are available from the people that you already know. Be an advocate for yourself and for others to create positive outcomes for women entrepreneurs and business owners.
In many ways I am a shining example of the American Dream. I was born in Hungary during the Communist era, and my family fled to Israel before coming to the U.S. in pursuit of freedom and safety. When we arrived, I was just a young, shy girl who couldn't speak English. After my childhood in Hungary, New York City was a marvel; I couldn't believe that such a lively, rich place existed. Even a simple thing like going to the market and seeing all the bright, colorful produce and having so many choices was new to me. I'll never take that for granted. I think it's where my love affair with color truly began.
One thing I had was a strong work ethic. I worked hard in school, to learn English, and at jobs including my first job at Dairy Queen -- which I loved! Ice cream is easily my favorite food. From there, I moved into the garment district where my brother-in-law's family had a business. During this time, I was able to see how a business was run and began to hone in on my eye for aesthetics and willingness to work hard at any task I was given.
Eventually, my brother-in-law bought a dental supply company in Los Angeles and asked me to join him. LA, a place with 365-days of sunshine. How could I say no? The company started as Odontorium Products Inc. During the acrylic movement of the 1980s, we realized that nail technicians were buying our product, and that the same components used for dentures were used for artificial nails. We saw a potential opening in the market, and we seized it. OPI began dropping off the "rubber band special" at every salon on Ventura Blvd. in Los Angeles. A jar of powder, liquid and primer – rubber-banded together – became the OPI Traditional Acrylic System and was a huge hit, giving OPI its start in the professional nail industry. It was 1981 when OPI first opened its doors. I couldn't have predicted our success, but I knew that hard work and faith in myself would be key in transforming a new business into a company with global reach.
When we started OPI, what we were doing was something new. Before OPI came on the scene, the generic, utilitarian nail polish names already on the market – like Red No. 4, Pink No. 2 – were completely forgettable. We rebranded the category with catchy names that we knew women could relate to and would remember. The industry was stale and boring, so we made it more fun and sexy. We started creating color collections. I carefully developed 30 groundbreaking colors for the debut collection -- many of which are still beloved bestsellers today, including Malaga Wine, Alpine Snow and Kyoto Pearl.
There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does.
With deep roots in Tinseltown, we eventually started collaborating with Hollywood. Our decision to collaborate with the entertainment industry also propelled OPI forward in another way, ultimately leading us to finding a way to connect with women beyond the world of beauty, relating our products to the beverages they drink, the cars they drive, the movies they watch, the clothes they wear – even the shade they use to paint their living room walls! There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does. It also propelled my growth as a businessperson forward. I found myself sitting in meetings with executives from some of the top companies in the world. I didn't have a fancy presentation. I didn't have a Harvard business degree. I realized that what I had was passion. I had a passion for what we were doing, and I had my own unique story that no one else could replicate.
Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today
Bit by bit, I grew up with the business. Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today -- an author, public speaker, and co-founder of OPI, the world's #1 professional nail brand.
I learned quickly that one can be an expert at many things, but not everything. Running a business is very hard work. Luckily, I had someone I could collaborate with who brought something new to the table and complemented my talents, my brother-in-law George Schaeffer. My business "superpower," or the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently, kept me ahead of trends and competition.
Another key to my success in building this brand and in growing in business was being authentic. Authenticity is so important to brands and maybe even more so now in the time of social media when you can speak directly to your consumers. I realized even then that I could only be me. I was a woman who knew what I wanted. I looked at my mother and daughter and wanted to create products that would excite and empower them.
There's often an expectation placed on women in charge that they need to be cutthroat to be competitive, but that's not true. Rather than focusing on my gender or any implied limitations I might bring to the job as a female and a mother, I always focused instead on my vision. I deliberately fostered an environment at OPI filled with warmth. After all, at the end of the day, your organization is only as good as its people. I've always found that being nice, being humble, and listening to others has served me well. Instead of pushing others down to get to the top, inspire them and bring them along on the journey.
You can read more about my personal and professional journey in my new memoir out now, I'm Not Really a Waitress: How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry One Color at a Time.