Sunday, 8 Dec 2019

Starting Your Own Business Is Hard. Here’s Some Advice.

This article is part of our Women and Leadership special section, which focuses on approaches taken by women, minorities or other disadvantaged groups challenging traditional ways of thinking.

These women are shaking up their industries around the world by making bets on their vision and on themselves. They have started their own businesses to solve problems, to follow dreams and passions. While they have doggedly kept their businesses moving forward, they have reached back to counsel and invest in other women.

One big factor in a rise in female entrepreneurship is the increasing number of role models and leaders, said Joanne Hession, founder of The Entrepreneurs Academy. They are “important, observable examples of what can be accomplished by women,” she said.

They talk about how they launched their organizations, the challenges of fund-raising, and they provide some advice.

LuLu O’Sullivan

As a young girl, Ms. O’Sullivan spent Saturday mornings watching her grandmother deftly chat up customers at the counter of her sweet shop on Merrion Row in Dublin. “Granny was quite a character,” said Ms. O’Sullivan, founder of, the largest online retailer in Ireland, and, which sells Irish products globally. “She loved running her own business. Customers would walk blocks past other similar stores just to spend a few minutes with her.”

In 1987, Ms. O’Sullivan embarked on her own journey as an entrepreneur, selling teddy bears and driving a moped to deliver them. She took off with start-up capital of 2,000 pounds funded by her friends and family — and the soul of her grandmother driving her forward.

Seek out women-friendly initiatives and supporters. “Going for Growth is an initiative to support female entrepreneurs in the Republic of Ireland. Look for funders who support women-owned businesses. Enterprise Ireland, for example, has a special fund for female entrepreneurs.”

Keep learning. “In 2009, the opportunity to attend an intensive yearlong program sponsored by Enterprise Ireland, Leadership 4 Growth, held at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, boosted my leadership, strategic capability, and confidence. It was like an M.B.A. with no exams, thank you. This was a game changer in the business. It allowed me to step back and say ‘hang on a second what is it we really need to do to get to the next stage?’”

Build a strong team. “Hire the right people around you. You don’t need to be sitting in every meeting. Delegate, and take time for self-reflection. Have an excellent financial person beside you. I was all about sales and marketing and a beautiful website, and I had to learn that one. Know what you’re good at and not good at to fill the gaps in the leadership team.”

Core leadership traits for women entrepreneurs. “I look for perseverance and creativity because you don’t know what will be thrown at you the next day. Finally, being an entrepreneur requires you to be an optimist. You can say that’s a disaster because of x or y. It is really about how can we maneuver our way through this and keep going?”

Kristen Miller and Amanda Johnson

Mented Cosmetics

Ms. Miller, right, known as KJ, and Ms. Johnson, founders of New York City-based Mented Cosmetics, were frustrated they couldn’t find makeup for dark-skinned women like themselves. “We decided if we couldn’t find that brand, we would create that brand,” Ms. Miller said. They started in 2017.

Start small. “If it’s something you’re passionate about, find a way to start testing it and doing it, even if it’s on a really small scale,” Ms. Miller said. “Instead of debuting with a wide range of makeup products, we had a niche product-nude lipstick.”

Partner with someone. “There are eight bazillion things that have to be done, and having someone who is a sounding board to bounce ideas off, to push back when something doesn’t make sense, is really helpful,” Ms. Miller said. You can play off each other’s strengths. Ms. Miller focuses on communication and long-range strategy; Ms. Johnson is the day-to-day- detail-oriented, hands-on operator.

Go after your network. “The world truly does work on a ‘who you know’ basis, and even in the best intentions people invest in, and want to work, with people who look like them, talk like them, have similar experiences,” Ms. Johnson said.

Practice makes perfect. “When we talk to investors now, we ask them what they can do for us,” Ms. Miller said. “In the beginning, we never did that because we needed the money. Our question was always: what can we do for you, and how many ways can we show you how amazing we are, and how much data can we show you, what kind of dog and pony show can we put on? Now we have a better understanding that No. 1 this is a partnership.”

Core leadership traits for women entrepreneurs. “Running this business is the hardest thing I have ever done,” Ms. Miller said. “It is incredibly, unbelievably difficult. I’m filled with anxiety on most days. It’s not for the faint of heart. The leaders I admire are women who are taking risks, who are very assertive about their vision and somewhat unapologetic about pursuing that vision and have a way of getting others on board with them.”

Fran Dunaway and Naomi Gonzalez


Ms. Dunaway, right, wanted a comfortable, button-down dress shirt. “What really kicked off this journey was my frustration with the lack of choices that fit my style,” she said.

In 2013, she started TomboyX with Naomi Gonzalez via a Kickstarter campaign to fund the manufacturing of the shirt. The next year, TomboyX introduced its first boxer brief for women — a product requested by numerous customers. Based on the demand for the briefs, TomboyX pivoted to focus on gender-neutral underwear and related apparel.

Lean in to each other. “Women are gathering into groups, teaching each other and getting smarter about investment, about finance, about funding,” Ms. Dunaway said. “Seek out pitch competitions and incubators and women’s entrepreneur networks near you. Look for firms that make investments in other women, such as the Women’s Capital Connection.” Being part of the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program in 2017 also bolstered Ms. Dunaway’s network. The program provides high-potential women entrepreneurs with education, connections, and community.

Lay the groundwork. “Have a thoughtful strategy around why you are raising capital and what your investors will get out of an investment,” Ms. Dunaway said. “Build a strategy around who you talk to, so you don’t waste your time kissing any frogs. Have they invested in companies like you before? Is this their sweet spot? What do I want from them besides a check? You will save yourself so much heartache by being strategic about that and using your network on LinkedIn to get introductions.”

Core leadership traits for women entrepreneurs. “It’s the ability to inspire, keep people focused and motivated about what your vision is and moving the needle,” Ms. Dunaway said. “Plus, you need an ability to communicate that in an effective way so that people feel empowered.”

Amy Nelson

The Riveter

Ms. Nelson of Seattle was looking for a workplace where she could network with other women. When she could only find a co-working space that was male-centric, she decided in 2017 to open her own — The Riveter.

Know what you’re selling. “Your job as an entrepreneur is to tell them how they will make money. I have had to overcome the perception that I am a woman, a mother, in my late 30s, so I made a decision to take it head-on and describe how I see motherhood as a strength. I would hear: ‘Great pitch … but I have to ask are you physically up for this? Are you physically up for building a national company? You have three kids and one is a baby, can you do this?’”

Put yourself out there. “Enter pitch competitions. I entered a small-business competition when I was thinking about launching The Riveter. The competition forced me to get everything together — to write a financial projection, a business plan, to figure out how to pitch my business. It was a compressed amount of time, and I was forced into this funnel. I often wonder: Would I have made the jump if I hadn’t done that? It pushed my idea forward to a place of action.”

Core leadership traits for women entrepreneurs. “Patience — parenting has taught me patience with myself and patience with those around me that I didn’t have before.”

Claudine Adeyemi

Career Ear

Ms. Adeyemi, creator of London-based Career Ear, discovered the challenges of trying to find a job and a career path when she didn’t have resources or role models. She lived it and was determined to make that transition easier for others, so in 2016 she launched her own online career advice and networking app and website.

Think bigger. “I’m still learning this myself. Most women and, certainly, women of color, often don’t dream as big as men. If you’re thinking of a particular problem that you want to solve, or business you want to launch, be thinking of how that can be done at its biggest possible scale.”

Take action. “If there’s a cause you care about, or an issue that you want to resolve, do something. Maybe your project will turn into a hobby and not a business venture, but you get into the habit of making a start. You will learn along the way and impact, no matter how small, is still impact.”

Core leadership traits for women entrepreneurs. “Putting the ladder down behind you is a key quality of a female leader. You must mentor others and be visible to encourage and support others. Share your story, nurture and develop others to become leaders. That’s what leaders do.

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