Growing up in India as a 12-year-old, I dreamt of working at the World Bank. Little did I know I'd find myself an entrepreneur in the U.S. with restaurants in NYC and Chicago, a few careers and many decades into the future. It's been a mystifying, gratifying, euphoric, anxiety ridden, black hole of a roller coaster transition and journey with stark learnings that apply to anyone embarking on this journey.
So beware, this is not a “If you build it, they will come," field of dreams, be-the-happy-entrepreneur column. But I will share what worked and what didn't for me, and hope this will help all entrepreneurs starting out, and women in particular, to navigate their own minefields to seek miracles.
A little on who I am: I finished my Master's in Economics in India and came to the US for a Ph.D. in Economics, all to accomplish that childhood World Bank dream job. At the World Bank, I worked and published in private sector infrastructure development. Working in a multilateral entity with governments to build their countries was riveting, but I wanted to get a little more granular and build hardcore business skills which is where being a management consultant at McKinsey & Co. came in. Getting into McKinsey was the most competitive experience I had ever faced; the work was deeply intense, with Fortune 100 companies on their most pressing issues, and the learning curve was steep and nonstop. A few years in, as food mania and frenzy started raging in the U.S. and across the world, I started obsessing about what I considered an unmet niche – contemporary Indian dining with a twist that would appeal to even the most timid of diners. Enter going entrepreneurial and my founding Vermilion, my Indian-Latin restaurants.
Invest in Yourself First
It alarms me when I hear high schoolers or college drop outs wax on about being the next Bill Gates. Please know, the world is littered with failed entrepreneurs and not all garage start-ups will succeed. So it's vital to build your credibility and to first and foremost invest in yourself - and education and work experience is really the only way to do that. It's also a great backup to have, should your venture go bust, which there's a reasonably high chance of. In my case, my prior business background, ph.d., and McKinsey experience were invaluable and also gave me instant credibility. Even though I was entering a whole new dining industry I knew next to nothing about, other than the rosy fact that 90% of restaurants fail within five years!
Financial Literacy is not Optional
Research has shown that in the U.S., most girls shy away from math and this spills over into business skills and even their choices of careers (flocking to the softer side of even the corporate world – HR, Marketing, versus running Operations). If you're going the entrepreneurial route, however, step one is taking courses to be comfortable with Profit & Loss, Balance Sheets, Invested Capital and Cash Flow statements. I've met friends who say, “Oh, I'll hire an accountant. I'm creative, numbers is not my thing," but without these core skills, you're doomed. It's like driving fast on a highway, blind. The good news is building financial literacy is not hard, and there are tons of resources. Go to Women's Business Centers for virtually free crash courses, go audit a course at your local college, but just do it! You'd be wise to sign up for the Business Plan modules too – because only then can you speak the language of owners, investors, bankers, vendors, partners – which puts you at a whole different level, from inception to when you'll want to scale up.
If you don't know the industry you're entering into, this stage is vital, well before you commit to starting your business. Do all the external research you can, talk to owners, operators, competitors, anyone in the field who'll tolerate you. Try and live the business, collect data and run the numbers – is it economically viable, really and truly? Hold on to that job or take a leave of absence until you know as much as you can, within a specified time limit. And if there are ways to run early concept tests before you commit, that's ideal. I spoke to over 40 owners, managers, chefs; I lived with a restaurateur mentor and shadowed his every move for a week, combing over all the data he shared with me; I hired a concept chef and tested my vision of Indian-Latin dishes with potential investors and consumers to convince myself of concept and economic viability. Only then did I quit my job. This early immersion was eye-opening and educated me outside-in on the many pitfalls of the industry I had chosen.
There is never perfect knowledge and at some point you'll have to take the plunge. That's when many will come out of the woodwork to assure you of the foolishness of your choice. Not just when you start out, but constantly along the way. Naysaying also comes from within, especially if you're going it alone. Building confidence and constantly projecting it (to your team, employees, customers, all stakeholders, even family) can be exhausting and you have to find ways to replenish your stockpile. I'm a strong proponent of women being their own best self-advocates, being entrepreneurial is not for the timid. Actively seek mentors, an advisory board (often investors), peers, industry associations and external networking groups. Over time I've gotten deeply involved with key players both within my industry (James Beard Foundation, National Restaurant Association and it's State chapters, women's organizations in culinary) and outside it (The Chicago Network, NY Women's Forum, International Women's Forum, The Economic Club of Chicago). I've found so many mentors, friends, business opportunities and even investors through these connections. And it helps me renew myself, open my world, or have multiple crutches to turn to when needed.
Knowing when to Outsource
It is true that at the end of the day, you are only as good as your team. Knowing your shortcomings and where and how to bring in talent to build and run your vision is more than half the battle. Through interviews, advertisements, poaching, networking, trials, whatever it takes to get good people on board – spending inordinate time building your team pays off in the long run.
For my restaurants – I had to work with multiple brokers to find the space; I needed a lawyer to navigate opening a business, incorporating it, executing investor documents; another lawyer for retail and liquor permits; a general contractor to execute my design vision and the construction; a manager to hire and train my service team; and I tried and interviewed over 35 chefs to finally hire one to run and staff my kitchen. Then it was negotiating with all the vendors (food, beverage, supplies, equipment, maintenance contracts, over 50 vendors) and finally working on the marketing plan and launch, while building the menu and beverage plan and training all in tandem. It was insane and still is, and I couldn't do it without outsourcing well.
Keeping it Tight & Thinking Scale
The vast majority of early stage businesses fail because they run out of cash before they can hit viability. Which is why it's key to be really tight-fisted when you start out, when you may be flush with cash, and rosy with optimism about the endless possibilities. Remember that every dollar spent will have to be earned ten times over to recover in invested capital, if you run a 10% margin. Knowing where to cut corners and where to over-invest is a delicate balancing art. In my case, I knew the moment I had the keys to the space that my expenses would be ticking and eating into my financial buffer. So I gave myself a six-week turnaround to construct the space and launch the new restaurant. I planned almost every detail prior, had the constructor lined up and ready to go, ordered all furniture and long lead equipment prior, had my permits ready – everything that point on had to be done on site and justified the expense. It's easy to give into ego and build a mausoleum to yourself, but it may land up being just that!
I also strongly endorse dreaming bigger than you initially envision and introducing the discipline and scale of external capital (angel equity investors, commercial or SBA debt, crowdsourcing, VC). That only 2% of women owned businesses in the US exceed the $1 million revenue mark is a tragic reality and waste of our potential as entrepreneurs. It's also because women are least likely to venture out of financing through savings and remain too cash strapped to grow. Dream and plan big, to make miracles happen.
Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.
In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.
What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.
Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.
Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.
While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.
According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.
In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.
Source-Alex Brandon, AP
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.
Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.
The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.