#SWAAYthenarrative

#WhatWeNeedToSucceed: An Open Letter To Our Next President

Lifestyle

I grew up in a lower-middle class family where female entrepreneurship wasn’t discussed. It wasn't even a possibility on the radar. My family and my family’s family worked to pay their monthly bills, and talk of female-led tech organizations or small businesses, for example, was unheard-of. The women all worked just as hard as the men, yet they still remained, in many ways, invisible. They were contributing women, yet they were somehow just still women.


My mother was a nursing assistant who worked the late shift when I was child, my maternal grandmother sold a small inventory at a church sale every couple of weekends and my paternal grandmother emigrated from Italy and became an X-Ray technician in the Women’s Army Corps.

When it comes to women entrepreneurs, I think of how far we've come and how hard we’ve worked — some of us from nothing, from systemic, sexist obstacles — to achieve the autonomy to create, to innovate and to inspire the next generation. And I think of myself and my own media company or my future e-commerce business. I think of my friends who created apps and organizations, my colleagues who digitally influence others and my friends who lead organizations to make our country better.

So when “#WhatWeNeedToSucceed: A Letter to the Next President on Behalf of Women Entrepreneurs,” was published, its purpose was to identify the ingredients for success — the very things that our country should afford our women. It was written and co-signed by several dozen women in executive positions from companies all over the spectrum — including Estee Lauder, GIPHY, Birchbox, Mogul, Care.com and Buzz Marketing Group. The signature line, to put it lightly, was breathtaking.

How could these voices be ignored?

"Women put 90 percent of their income into their communities and families, therefore we believe their success will not only benefit our economy, but will also have a positive impact on society."

All they're asking is for the government to consider and fight for equality. Parity. A fair chance — especially given the fact that women are starting businesses twice as fast as men, yet are facing unfathomable (yet enduring) challenges that must be addressed: receiving less venture capital and media representation.

It’s as if we’re working harder and harder, all while invisible. As if that invisibility is built into the system and hasn’t been addressed because it’s so status-quo. Well, the reality is this: it is.

In fact, according to one piece published at University of Penn, Katherine Hays, the co-founder and CEO of venture-backed Vivoom (her first start-up), says that she’s usually the only woman in the room. “Male VCs — and obviously most are — are very comfortable now giving female entrepreneurs capital for ‘girl stuff,’” she says. “Want to rent dresses or sell baby wipes as a subscription? No problem. The VCs ask their wives or girlfriends if the idea is cool, and they’re good to go.”

If women and men participated equally in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, the United States’ GDP could rise by $30 billion.

Should women have any other idea, though (like proprietary tech), it’s all crickets: “Sometimes I believe if I were a 21-year-old male in a hoodie, Vivoom would be even more appealing to VCs.”

And here’s another unfortunate anecdote ripe for change: according to Catalyst.org, women hold only 4.6% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. So, if women aren’t even finding themselves in positions of leadership in the workplace, how are we expecting them to find the confidence, resources or backing to start their own companies?

This is exactly why the letter states, “If women and men participated equally in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, the United States’ GDP could rise by $30 billion.” So what’s stopping everyone?

It’s as if we’re working harder and harder, all while invisible.

To expedite the brainstorming process, the letter offered up some specific and tactile strategies that could lead to successful women-led businesses, including focuses on “gaining access to capital, expanding and supporting networks and markets and addressing the changing face of business through technology.”

The minds behind the letter believe that “access to and development of financial and human capital” is vital to encouraging and supporting women entrepreneurs. From incentivizing organizations to invest in women-owned companies to “considering a shortening of government payment cycles from 90 days to 30 days for small women-owned suppliers.” While these may seem like small movements in a huge engine, they're actually not. The little things matter. No one ever said starting a business should be easy, but unnecessary obstacles should be removed. And if those obstacles are preventing half of the workforce from even getting close to where they should be, it's time to re-think the system.

"We believe that access to and development of financial and human capital is essential to fostering women’s entrepreneurship."

More so, they believe that “increasing access to local and global networks and markets” is critical — including “supporting trade agreements that liberalize and trade and open new markets for businesses of all sizes,” supporting mentorship and — so important — “encouraging conscious placement of women on boards, in venture partnerships and on executive teams.”

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they ask for specific, logical and, yes, overtly obvious steps that will help future generations of women. They ask that government and business leaders help women entrepreneurs thrive in the face of changing technologies by emphasizing (STEM) and digital literacy in school, enabling access to the Internet — everywhere — and making it known to women the “hardware, software and digital resources they need to scale their companies.” Sometimes, for many people — especially those who don't come from privileged families or a circle of entrepreneurs — just having access is enough.

Not only do all of these ideas make a real, every-day impact on the way women run their businesses, they say out loud, “We’re here. We’re not leaving. And this is just the beginning.”

3 Min Read
Business

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.