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 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.