By Ellen Bari
If an alien landed in New York and wanted to learn about entrepreneurship, it would have no trouble finding events all day, every day. Starting
with early morning Business Network International (BNI) meetings, to evening events like Start Her Up, organized by In Good Company (IGC), BabyBites and KiddyBites for mompreneurs, and daytime conferences like last week’s New York Entrepreneur Week (NYEW ), there is no lack of programs for aspiring entrepreneurs. I think our alien would surmise two things: 1. entrepreneurship is very popular, 2. entrepreneurs are the most generous people in the world. In fact the number of times I’ve heard the words sharing, helping and generous in the last week has only been rivaled by my experience with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators(SCBWI), whose participants are consistently encouraged to openly share information, resources and contacts. Frankly, I had chucked that up to the fact that 95% of the SCBWI members are women, and that children’s book authors might have a slightly more generous nature. But it seems that in the entrepreneurial world, a dedication to sharing cuts across genders and markets.
Last week, I started my week at NYEW with a rousing talk given by HARO (Help A Reporter Out) founder Peter Shankman entitled Self-Promotion will Save the World. The thrust of the presentation was as follows: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, start by giving to people.” This theme of giving and sharing continued manifold at Start Her Up. The event featured numerous businesswomen generously offering their insights and advice to a group of more than 50 information-hungry mom entrepreneurs.
The panel represented all kinds of businesses, large and small, new and old (1989) from manufacturers to recruiters. The panel, Lisa Bochner, The Wonder Girls, Marissa Lippert, Nourish Nutrition Counseling & Communications, Andreea Ayers, Tees for Change, Emily Wolper, E. Wolper Inc., Jodi Katz, Just Say Jodi, Regina Angeles, Talent2050, , Erica Kalick, Erica’s Rugelach, Mary Ann Schwanewede, Metro Tots, was asked to explain three things: why they chose to go into business in the first place, their most useful early resource, and what they liked most and least about being an entrepreneur.
A number of themes quickly emerged. Most of the panelists reported similar experiences and even more to the point, similar personality traits, that had propelled them to start their own businesses. Not surprisingly, though not all of the panelists were mothers, many of the women pointed to some measure of freedom and flexibility as a necessity for anyone with kids or planning to have them. They also said they felt they did not fit the corporate mold, hated working for other people, and basically couldn’t figure out how to have a ‘real’ job and be an effective mother at the same time. A number of the participants described themselves as perfectionists and found it easier to do everything themselves rather than ‘driving other people crazy.” The multi-taskers said they loved the fact that they get to use many different skill sets in their own ventures.
Only a few of the businesses grew out of a perceived need in the market, like Erica’s Rugelach. Erica could not eat one more substandard packaged rugelach (plural?) and took action! Or Metro Tots Mary Ann Schwanewede, whose patented hook to hang strollers was invented, manufactured and distributed out of “desperation, fear and the New York Fire Department regulations.” After she as forbidden to leave her stroller in the hall, the answer seemed obvious- figure out a way to hang it. Lisa Bochner, founder of The Wonder Girls couldn’t stand the barrage of empty pop culture icons who serve as today’s role models for young women. She created “a place where girls age 12 to 18 can interact with exceptional, accomplished women from different walks of life,” to create ‘nutrition’ in response to the cultural ‘junk food’ they were being force fed every day.
In very few cases, the women pointed to financial gain as the primary motivator. Emily Volper, who has an admissions consulting business for college and graduate school applicants, was the exception. She said she realized that as an admissions officer at an Ivy League school, “it would probably take 20 years to reach dean,” and that salary level was not something to aspire to over the long haul in any case. I’ve found this to be a marked difference between male and female entrepreneurs (especially moms)- money is a much stronger motivator for guys.
As for the down side of entrepreneurship, working in isolation and loneliness are always among the top ten, as well as working 24/7, and the amount that’s at stake when you hire the wrong person. Another big issue, was that many of the women found that they had become salespeople above all else- that from the first business pitch, they spend most of their time selling, and less time doing the thing they hoped to do when they initially started the business.
As far as the most valuable early resource, many pointed to a mentor, family member or organization like In Good Company, as invaluable. Almost all the women said that having someone who is able to offer specific recommendations, like which web designer to use, or the best accounting software, was critical to their success. The Mom Inventor’s Handbook was also highly recommended, as well as weekly two- hour massages!
Throughout the week and evening, in addition to a commitment to sharing information, the most unifying trait among all the entrepreneurs was a very strong work ethic and a dedication to working extremely hard against all odds. At one of the NYEW sessions, an audience member posed the following question to the panel: “I work 24/7 and my partner wants to ‘have a life.’ What should I do?” The panel of experts unanimously replied: “Get a new partner.” I’m not sure what our alien friend would make of their answer