If you're someone, like myself, who loves to follow inspirational pages on Instagram then you have definitely seen countless quotes about a very uncomfortable topic– failure.
It's almost as if you're reading the same thing over and over again, but written differently every time. The ole "failure makes you stronger" and "rejection is just the Universe redirecting you." While these quotes are inspiring in the moment, when we actually experience failure in our real lives, we quickly find ourselves ready to throw in the towel and give it all up. However, for one entrepreneur, no amount of rejection or failure were enough to dissuade her from accomplishing her goal of establishing a successful legal startup.
In an interview with SWAAY, mompreneur Janine Sickmeyer talked about her experience in turning her disappointment into determination to build her business from the ground up. She began her career in the legal industry as a bankruptcy paralegal for a law firm in Columbus, Ohio. Over a period of time, Sickmeyer began craving the flexibility that came with being her own boss and later started her own virtual paralegal firm where she prepared bankruptcy documents online for attorneys all over the country. With over a decade of experience working in the legal industry, Sickmeyer realized there was room for a more efficient and intuitive way to meet the needs of her clients and legal professionals that the current, yet antiquated, methods were incapable of doing.
In 2015, Sickmeyer founded NextChapter, a cloud-based web application that allows bankruptcy attorneys to prepare, manage and electronically file bankruptcy cases. With an innovative and unquestionably game changing idea in her midst, Sickmeyer was hopeful that she and her co-founders would successfully build a platform that would receive a positive response from VCs and ultimately lead to funding. However, her reality appeared to be far from that of her expectations.
With little technical experience, Sickmeyer entrusted the CTO position to her then co-founder who took the reins in coding the application. Understanding the difficulties building this platform entailed prompted Sickmeyer to offer as much help as she possibly could despite not being a technical founder. However, her string of seemingly endless bad luck began when her co-founder unexpectedly left the position after realizing how challenging their goal had become. When her second co-founder left, Sickmeyer was taken aback feeling lost and alone. "I took a few days to really process what was happening. That's when I decided I would start learning to code – I would become a technical founder. Because after going through it twice, I knew I couldn't allow myself to depend on someone else to make it happen, said Sickmeyer.
Taking full ownership of bringing her idea to life, she teamed up with developers to work part time and for equity as she taught herself how to code— all while pregnant with her first daughter. With her newfound technical knowledge, she was then able to set realistic development goals such as timelines and tangible product features for the app. Despite things looking up for the CEO, Sickmeyer encountered countless hurdles in her efforts to get funding. After pitching VCs 82 times, she was met with rejection each and every time "Many investors decided to pass on NextChapter because it was too niche. At the time, NextChapter was only built out for bankruptcy law, and investors saw the market potential as too small," stated Sickmeyer. Unfortunately, being too niche was not the only issue investors had with the entrepreneur.
To no surprise, legal and tech industries are male-dominated fields which bring with them their own unique set of challenges to female entrepreneurs who aspire to become leaders alongside their male counterparts. For Sickmeyer, her gender played an unquestionable role in her failed efforts to receive funding. While she admits that these fields have become far more diverse and inclusive of female founders, her initial experience was less welcoming than it is today. "Many times, I felt like no one took me or my company seriously because of my gender. Instead of really listening to me, they would look at the size of my wedding ring or ask me inappropriate questions," said the founder. Despite struggling to navigate the relentless cycling of pitching to different VCs, Sickmeyer eventually self-funded her business without ever accepting any outside funding.
While Sickmeyer's achievements are inspiring, to say the least, her most impressive feat has been overcoming obstacles while raising a family. Just weeks before the launch of NextChapter, she gave birth to her first daughter. Sickmeyer also bore three more children, two of which were twins. As any parent can attest to, taking care of a family is a mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting job, but despite the uncertainty of NextChapter's future, Sickmeyer never allowed her fear of being unable to provide stop her from pursuing her goals, in fact, she was able to reinvigorate those feelings of joy that her work and motherhood gave her. "I found ways to streamline my life and outsource things that don't bring me joy. I don't want to spend my time doing yard work or going grocery shopping. Instead, I'd rather be playing make-believe with my 4 children or working on growing NextChapter," said the mompreneur. Following her passions while making time for what mattered most to her fueled her drive to persevere in spite of her tumultuous entrepreneurial journey.
After losing co-founders, failing to receive funding and being worn down by sexism in a field she aspired to innovate, the tech CEO remained passionate and driven to bring her application to the legal industry. Today, Sickmeyer revels in knowing her hard work and dedication paid off as her beloved company, NextChapter, has been acquired by leading legal publisher, Fastcase. Looking back, Sickmeyer has no regrets about jumping right into the world of entrepreneurship and offers aspiring mompreneurs a little piece of advice.
"Just start up! Sometimes the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur is just taking the leap and deciding to go for it. You are more than capable; believe in yourself and have confidence. I have a blog and podcast where I share actionable tips, including how to find a product-market fit, managing a team and more."
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With so many groundbreaking medical advances being revealed to the world every single day, you would imagine there would be some advancement on the plethora of many female-prevalent diseases (think female cancers, Alzheimer's, depression, heart conditions etc.) that women are fighting every single day.
For Anna Villarreal and her team, there frankly wasn't enough being done. In turn, she developed a method that diagnoses these diseases earlier than traditional methods, using a pretty untraditional method in itself: through your menstrual blood.
Getting from point A to point B wasn't so easy though. Villarreal was battling a disease herself and through that experience. “I wondered if there was a way to test menstrual blood for female specific diseases," she says. "Perhaps my situation could have been prevented or at least better managed. This led me to begin researching menstrual blood as a diagnostic source. For reasons the scientific and medical community do not fully understand, certain diseases impact women differently than men. The research shows that clinical trials have a disproportionate focus on male research subjects despite clear evidence that many diseases impact more women than men."
There's also no denying that gap in women's healthcare in clinical research involving female subjects - which is exactly what inspired Villarreal to launch her company, LifeStory Health. She says that, “with my personal experience everything was brought full circle."
“There is a challenge and a need in the medical community for more sex-specific research. I believe the omission of females as research subjects is putting women's health at risk and we need to fuel a conversation that will improve women's healthcare.,"
Her brand new biotech company is committed to changing the women's healthcare market through technology, innovation and vocalization and through extensive research and testing. She is working to develop the first ever, non-invasive, menstrual blood diagnostic and has partnered with a top Boston-area University on research and has won awards from The International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Northeastern University's RISE.
How does it work exactly? Proteins are discovered in menstrual blood that can quickly and easily detect, manage and track diseases in women, resulting in diseases that can be earlier detected, treated and even prevented in the first place. The menstrual blood is easy to collect and since it's a relatively unexplored diagnostic it's honestly a really revolutionary concept, too.
So far, the reactions of this innovative research has been nothing but excitement. “The reactions have been incredibly positive." she shares with SWAAY. “Currently, menstrual blood is discarded as bio waste, but it could carry the potential for new breakthroughs in diagnosis. When I educate women on the lack of female subjects used in research and clinical trials, they are surprised and very excited at the prospect that LifeStory Health may provide a solution and the key to early detection."
To give a doctor's input, and a little bit more of an explanation as to why this really works, Dr. Pat Salber, MD, and Founder of The Doctor Weighs In comments: “researchers have been studying stem cells derived from menstrual blood for more than a decade. Stem cells are cells that have the capability of differentiating into different types of tissues. There are two major types of stem cells, embryonic and adult. Adult stem cells have a more limited differentiation potential, but avoid the ethical issues that have surrounded research with embryonic stem cells. Stem cells from menstrual blood are adult stem cells."
These stem cells are so important when it comes to new findings. “Stem cells serve as the backbone of research in the field of regenerative medicine – the focus which is to grow tissues, such as skin, to repair burn and other types of serious skin wounds.
A certain type of stem cell, known as mesenchymal stem cells (MenSCs) derived from menstrual blood has been found to both grow well in the lab and have the capability to differentiate in various cell types, including skin. In addition to being used to grow tissues, their properties can be studied that will elucidate many different aspects of cell function," Dr. Salber explains.
To show the outpour of support for her efforts and this major girl power research, Villarreal remarks, “women are volunteering their samples happily report the arrival of their periods by giving samples to our lab announcing “de-identified sample number XXX arrived today!" It's a far cry from the stereotype of when “it's that time of the month."
How are these collections being done? “Although it might sound odd to collect menstrual blood, plastic cups have been developed to use in the collection process. This is similar to menstrual products, called menstrual cups, that have been on the market for many years," Dr. Salber says.
Equally shocking and innovative, this might be something that becomes more common practice in the future. And according to Dr. Salber, women may be able to not only use the menstrual blood for early detection, but be able to store the stem cells from it to help treat future diseases. “Companies are working to commercialize the use of menstrual blood stem cells. One company, for example, is offering a patented service to store menstrual blood stem cells for use in tissue generation if the need arises."