When you are charting your own course, be prepared for people to say you are losing your mind. My parents said those words in 2010 when I told them I was going to purchase a 4,000-square-foot warehouse space in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. They questioned not only the location, which is frequented by industrial trucks, but also the intention of opening an upscale special-events venue on a street better known for its junkyards and towed cars. Nearly seven years later and with five venues running successfully, I’m glad I listened to my gut.
I have more than 25 years of experience as an entrepreneur in the entertainment industry.
Here’s what I learned, which I hope helps you as a fellow female leader and entrepreneur:
1. Listen to your gut and not everyone around you.
Not only did my partner Jill Bakehorn and I make that significant purchase in 2010, I also had 4-month-old triplets! I had spent 15 years of working late nights after opening and managing a successful nightclub business in Lexington. It was time for me to make a change, which led to a series of BIG changes at the SAME time.
Again, if I listened to everyone around me, except for Jill, I would have ran away from the purchase. However, I knew in my gut there was a wonderful, creative opportunity sitting in front of me. I also knew the property would take endless amounts of work (which it continues to do), but the entrepreneurial spirit in me told me to go for it.
We now have five industrial-chic, bourbon-themed event venues under the brand of Venues of The Grand Reserve. Each unique, the venues include: The Grand Reserve, The Barrel House Events Center, Garden Branch, The Speakeasy Room and Distillery Square, to open in March 2017.
Kelly (left) and Jill
2. Keep evolving; you have to spend money to make money.
Our business exploded so quickly because we created something new in Central Kentucky that made event-planning an easy one-stop shop. Jill is the co-owner of Bluegrass Catering, which is the exclusive caterer for Venues of The Grand Reserve. She and I also do the majority of the hard work - yes, hammers, saws and nail guns - and have the scars to prove it! We purchased A/V, linens, tables, chairs, décor, etc. When you have consistent conversations with customers about their needs and put things in place to fill those needs, your business will grow quickly.
3. If you believe you can do it, you can.
The road has been long, but worth it. Case in point: In 2010, after extensive remodeling and processes to meet city codes, the first space was transformed into The Barrel House Events Center and opened in the fall. After successfully opening The Barrel House, we purchased a 6,000-square-foot vacant, gravel lot across the street which we bulldozed into a lush outdoor space to hosts weddings and corporate meals.
Not ones to rest on our laurels, in 2012, we bought an 11,000-square-foot covered parking garage in the same warehouse as The Barrel House Events Center. I obtained my General Contractor’s license to head the building and design of the new space. Named The Grand Reserve, this venue features a wall of more than two miles of Kentucky bourbon-barrel staves, which Jill and I designed and built. In 2015, we purchased the remaining square footage (25K) of the warehouse and its surrounding building and parking lots. This space was made into The Speakeasy Room and the coming-soon Distillery Square.
If Jill and I didn’t believe whole-heartedly in this business, we would have stopped a long time ago. The hours are long, vendors and clients can be challenging, the overhead is high, and the projects never end. But, we LOVE what we’ve created and continue to take to the next level. We hope to pass this business on to the triplets, who are growing up at Venues of The Grand Reserve. As strong women, we are often our worst critics. Let’s stop doing that and do more listening to our gut, evolving, and believing we can do it!
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.