Career 20 March 2017
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.
3 Min Read
With a lack of certainty surrounding the future, being and feeling healthy may help bring the security that you need during these unpredictable times.
When it comes to your health, there is a direct relationship between nutrition and physical activity that play an enormous part in physical, mental, and social well-being. As COVID-19 continues to impact almost every aspect of our lives, the uncertainty of the future may seem looming. Sometimes improvisation is necessary, and understanding how to stay healthy and fit can significantly help you manage your well-being during these times.
Tip 1: Communicate with your current wellness providers and set a plan
Gyms, group fitness studios, trainers, and professionals can help you to lay out a plan that will either keep you on track through all of the changes and restrictions or help you to get back on the ball so that all of your health objectives are met.
Most facilities and providers are setting plans to provide for their clients and customers to accommodate the unpredictable future. The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C. An enormous amount is on the table for this coming fall and winter; if your gym closes again, what is your plan? If outdoor exercising is not an option due to the weather, what is your plan? Leaving things to chance will significantly increase your chances of falling off of your regimen and will make consistency a big problem.
The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C.
Tip 2: Stay active for both mental and physical health benefits
The rise of stress and anxiety as a result of the uncertainty around COVID-19 has affected everyone in some way. Staying active by exercising helps alleviate stress by releasing chemicals like serotonin and endorphins in your brain. In turn, these released chemicals can help improve your mood and even reduce risk of depression and cognitive decline. Additionally, physical activity can help boost your immune system and provide long term health benefits.
With the new work-from-home norm, it can be easy to bypass how much time you are spending sedentary. Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity. Struggling to find ways to stay active? Start simple with activities like going for a walk outside, doing a few reps in exchange for extra Netflix time, or even setting an alarm to move during your workday.
Tip 3: Start slow and strong
If you, like many others during the pandemic shift, have taken some time off of your normal fitness routine, don't push yourself to dive in head first, as this may lead to burnout, injury, and soreness. Plan to start at 50 percent of the volume and intensity of prior workouts when you return to the gym. Inactivity eats away at muscle mass, so rather than focusing on cardio, head to the weights or resistance bands and work on rebuilding your strength.
Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity.
Tip 4: If your gym is open, prepare to sanitize
In a study published earlier this year, researchers found drug-resistant bacteria, the flu virus, and other pathogens on about 25 percent of the surfaces they tested in multiple athletic training facilities. Even with heightened gym cleaning procedures in place for many facilities, if you are returning to the gym, ensuring that you disinfect any surfaces before and after using them is key.
When spraying disinfectant, wait a few minutes to kill the germs before wiping down the equipment. Also, don't forget to wash your hands frequently. In an enclosed space where many people are breathing heavier than usual, this can allow for a possible increase in virus droplets, so make sure to wear a mask and practice social distancing. Staying in the know and preparing for new gym policies will make it easy to return to these types of facilities as protocols and mutual respect can be agreed upon.
Tip 5: Have a good routine that extends outside of just your fitness
From work to working out, many routines have faltered during the COVID pandemic. If getting back into the routine seems daunting, investing in a new exercise machine, trainer, or small gadget can help to motivate you. Whether it's a larger investment such as a Peloton, a smaller device such as a Fitbit, or simply a great trainer, something new and fresh is always a great stimulus and motivator.
Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine.
Just because you are working from home with a computer available 24/7 doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your entire day to work. Setting work hours, just as you would in the office, can help you to stay focused and productive.
A good night's sleep is also integral to obtaining and maintaining a healthy and effective routine. Adults need seven or more hours of sleep per night for their best health and wellbeing, so prioritizing your sleep schedule can drastically improve your day and is an important factor to staying healthy. Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine. This can help the rest of your day feel normal while the uncertainty of working from home continues.
Tip 6: Focus on food and nutrition
In addition to having a well-rounded daily routine, eating at scheduled times throughout the day can help decrease poor food choices and unhealthy cravings. Understanding the nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy can help you stay more alert, but they do vary from person to person. If you are unsure of your suggested nutritional intake, check out a nutrition calculator.
If you are someone that prefers smaller meals and more snacks throughout the day, make sure you have plenty of healthy options, like fruits, vegetables and lean proteins available (an apple a day keeps the hospital away). While you may spend most of your time from home, meal prepping and planning can make your day flow easier without having to take a break to make an entire meal in the middle of your work day. Most importantly, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
Tip 7: Don't forget about your mental health
While focusing on daily habits and routines to improve your physical health is important, it is also a great time to turn inward and check in with yourself. Perhaps your anxiety has increased and it's impacting your work or day-to-day life. Determining the cause and taking proactive steps toward mitigating these occurrences are important.
For example, with the increase in handwashing, this can also be a great time to practice mini meditation sessions by focusing on taking deep breaths. This can reduce anxiety and even lower your blood pressure. Keeping a journal and writing out your daily thoughts or worries can also help manage stress during unpredictable times, too.
While the future of COVI9-19 and our lives may be unpredictable, you can manage your personal uncertainties by focusing on improving the lifestyle factors you can control—from staying active to having a routine and focusing on your mental health—to make sure that you emerge from this pandemic as your same old self or maybe even better.