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.
6 Min Read
I live the pain and stress of being black in America every day: I am a black woman, the mother of a black son, sister to black men, and aunt to my black nephews. I remember what it was like as a young girl to be afraid to go to Howard Beach for fear of being chased out. I know what it's like to walk on Liberty Avenue and be called "nigger" and being so young that I didn't understand what the word meant, I had to ask my mother. I know too well that feeling in the pit of your stomach when a police car pulls up behind you and even though you know you haven't done anything wrong you fear that your life may be in danger from what should be a simple encounter. Like all African Americans, I am tired of this burden.
African Americans have a long history of having to fight for our humanity in America. We have had to fight for freedom, we have had to fight for equality, and we have had to fight for our lives. The fight continues to go on. I have often quoted that line from the character Sophia in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, "All my life I had to fight." When I say this to my white counterparts it can sometimes be uncomfortable because it's clear that they just don't get it. They view it as melodramatic. But it's not. It's part of the black experience, and it is the part of the black experience that black people don't want.
I have often quoted that line from the character Sophia in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, "All my life I had to fight."
While I was out yesterday, passing out PPE and talking to people, a woman asked me, "What is it going to take for this to change?" I told her that I think peaceful protesting is a good start. But it's just the start. We can't elect the same people for the past 20-30 years, some in the same positions, and then talk about how nothing has changed in the past 30 years.
This injustice, inequality, and inequity will not spontaneously disappear. It will take bold, outspoken, and fearless leadership to eradicate the systemic racism in our country. We must address the violence at the hands of a police force paid to serve and protect us. We must address the recurring experience of black people being passed over for a promotion and then being asked to train the white person who was hired. We must address the inequities in contract opportunities available to black businesses who are repeatedly deemed to lack the capacity. We must address the disparity in the quality of education provided to black students. We must address the right to a living wage, health care, and sick pay.
While we like to regard the system as broken, I've come to believe the system is working exactly as it was meant to for the people who are benefiting from it. We need a new system. One that works for all of us. I am running to become the mayor of New York City because I can't assume there's another person who has the courage to do the work that needs to be done to create a fair and just city.
We can't elect the same people for the past 20-30 years, some in the same positions, and then talk about how nothing has changed in the past 30 years.
There are some things we may not be able to change in people, but at this moment I think that whether you are black, white, purple, or yellow we all should be looking internally to see what is one thing that you can do to change this dynamic. Here's where we can start:
If we want change, we need a total reform of police departments throughout this country. That is going to require taking a hard look at our requirements to become a police officer, our disciplinary procedures when civilian complaints are filed, and a review of what and how we police. No one deserves to lose their life based upon the accusation of carrying counterfeit cash. We also need to hold police officers accountable for their actions. While it is their duty to protect and serve they should not be above the law. Even at this very moment, police officers are overstepping their boundaries.
If we want change, we have to build a sense of camaraderie between the police and community. A sense of working together and creating positive experiences. We have to be honest about the fact that we haven't allowed that to happen because we have utilized our police department as a revenue-generating entity. We are more concerned with cops writing tickets than protecting and serving. Even during these moments of protest we are witness to the differences made when the police supported the protesters and stood hand in hand with them or took a knee. It resulted in less violence and more peaceful protest. People felt heard; people felt respected; people felt like they mattered.
While we like to regard the system as broken, I've come to believe the system is working exactly as it was meant to for the people who are benefiting from it. We need a new system.
If we want change, we have to be willing to clean house. And that means that some of you are going to have to step up to the plate and take roles of leadership. In my city alone, there are 35 city council seats that are term-limited in 2021. There are some that aren't termed but maybe their term should be up. Step up to the plate and run. If nothing else it will let our elected officials see that they need to stop being comfortable and do more. We don't need you out in the street taking selfies or reporting the problems to us. We need solutions. We need you in a room implementing policies that will ensure that these things don't continue to happen.
If we want change, we need to support grassroots candidates that are not in corporate pockets, who are not taking PAC money, and who really want to make a difference to their community. We need candidates that know first-hand and can relate to the experiences that many of us are going through.
We are at a pivotal moment. It is inspiring to see people from all races and backgrounds in the streets protesting, standing up for justice, and wanting to see change. We must seize this moment, but we must also be mindful that change requires more.
People often ask me why I decided to run for office? I am running for me. I am running for the little girl that was called nigger on Liberty Avenue. For the woman who has been pulled over for no reason. For my nephew who was consistently stopped during the era of stop and frisk. I am running for your son, your brother, and your nephew. I am running so that the next generation will never have to say, "All my life I had to fight." Because although we won't stop until we see justice and changes that address inequality and inequity effectively, this fight is exhausting.