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 have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."