I have been reflecting on this topic quite a bit as I made the transition in the last year and a half from employee, to small business owner, to entrepreneur. I was inspired to write this blog after meeting with a group of young and successful women at a Lean In circle and a lot of questions arose about taking that plunge. It seems there are a few key factors that differentiated how I saw myself when I became an entrepreneur.
1. I AM an entrepreneur: First and foremost, I began to actually say those words out loud. It wasn’t easy and I feel there was a lot of pressure around me to never use that title as a product of academia and a public sector professional. Many qualify an “entrepreneur” as a fancy title for being unemployed or without direction (this comment is based on my actual experience and what people said) and to take it on I was abandoning everything I had worked for to this point. That being said, I started to realize that there was no better way to describe myself. Many years of bouncing from subject to subject or from major to major in college, I was at heart an entrepreneur. I especially enjoy making things work and moving on to the next thing.
2. Goal setting vs. planning: Nothing in my life has ever gone according to plan. NOT ONE THING, so I therefore gave up making plans and started setting goals. I usually just set one life goal at a time that is high up and far reaching. My goal for 2014 was to be 100% self employed by the end of the year and 6 months in, I am there.
3. My story: Know your story and tell it, period. I spent the last two years flushing out my own story. Sharing it with others started causing major changes in my life.
4. Identification of an opportunity: The long time entrepreneurs that have impacted my life most recently have the ability to identify potential in an opportunity and/or person and immediately see how they can plug in to “make it happen.” People often stress about the impression they are going to have on potential investors and “millionaires,” but in reality, they know exactly what they are looking for (perhaps not at that very moment, but in general) and they are able to identify it quickly. I think this is a valuable skill that can be learned while someone is an employee or small business owner, but is essential to success as an entrepreneur.
5. Emotional Intelligence: This goes along with #4. I believe some are born with higher levels of emotional intelligence, but I also believe it can be taught. How you see and interact with the world is incredibly important. Being able to monitor your own and others’ emotions is essential in life really, but very important as an entrepreneur. There is really no effective way to lead people if you don’t have a good read on people’s emotions. It isn’t necessary to HAVE all the information either. I personally have practiced withdrawing quick judgment from my thought processes completely (this is not easy btw). Everyone has their story which has brought them to where they are and it is not my job to pass judgment upon them for no real reason. The basis of building effective leaders is helping them know and tell their story.
6. Positive outlook: All things considered, I have flexed my faith quite a bit while becoming an entrepreneur. There is risk involved (and I argue with the state of the economy having a job involves just as much if not more risk), but having the confidence, positive outlook, and a decent amount of faith that you can make it happen makes all the difference. This positive outlook keeps people driving forward despite failure, obstacles, etc. Bad things happen in life, but BEING positive going forward dictates success. If you go into something thinking it is going to fail, it is going to fail.
7. Change: Luckily this was a skill I have always had as a stereotypical millennial jack of all trades. Quick change and adaptation is key to success. I did have to learn to not beat myself up every time a mistake was made and things needed to be changed. Something I have learned from my male counterparts is a, “just fix it and move on” mentality. There is no need to linger on errors as we are all humans. Focus on moving forward. Change is good. Be open to it and embrace it.
8. Never stop learning and listening: Along with change, new information is always available. I treat life like a constant study. Not only does it keep my brain moving, but it is incredibly enriching to learn new things, meet new people, have new experiences, etc.
Barriers to Entry
I am a woman in the tech space. I work primarily with all men. I can confidently say one of my biggest barriers to entry is being a woman. Not only did I have to have the confidence to disrupt a male dominated field, I had to beat down the social expectation for me to sacrifice my career goals to get married, have children, keep quiet, etc. etc. etc. Many people argue this is something women bring upon themselves, which is absolutely ridiculous. Why as an entrepreneur, as challenging as it is, would I manifest crazy ideals about what pressures exist? Well I didn’t and I have been dealing with these pressures my entire life. My confidence wasn’t the primary issue, but the way I was treated because of it was (See the article: The Confidence Gap). Women end up in this Catch 22 of keeping quiet or becoming a “B” or one of the many other names we use to slander women who no one will want to marry and certainly will live the rest of their lives with 22 cats (did I mention the need to have a very good sense of humor?).
It is incredibly difficult to find female mentors in this space and while I have many great male mentors, it isn’t quite the same. It can make things very challenging. It is also very challenging to find mentors, around the same age, who understand what it is you are going through (if you are like me in my late 20s). My business partner dubbed me “The Beautiful Odd Duck” because I was nothing like most the 20 somethings he had seen. Now, this is a complement, but it is also a huge barrier because many of my fellow 20 somethings cannot relate to what I am doing: working 14+ hours a day, sacrificing a slew of social plans, always THINKING, not sleeping, and ALWAYS living out my passion to change the world. Most importantly many people of all ages do not have the vision that this is the best investment I can make at this time for my own future, which is OK.I think a major part of this lifestyle is accepting that people will not get it. I have no disrespect for how others live their lives, but I realized quickly that I was going to have to spend a lot of time combating being lonely and worst case scenario, emotionally isolated <---this right here is a huge deal and gets back to the area of Emotional Intelligence. People often don't like to talk about emotions in business, but we all have them and major challenges tend to bring up a lot of emotions. Women looking to make this shift to entrepreneurship have to be ready to take on one of, if not the hardest thing they have ever done. High levels of resilience and tenacity are key as well as outlets and support.
I can relate to Sheryl Sandberg commenting that she still feels like an imposter sometimes. Waking up every morning feeling like it will be another day in the boys' club. I think women get caught up in trying to act and talk like their male counterparts to be accepted. If you don't care about sports, don't talk about sports. Being confident in who you are is what will propel you forward (noting that being up on current events is a good idea in general). I love sports, playing golf, and drinking beer. I also enjoy pedicures and watching The Bachelor. I also enjoy drinking beer while watching The Bachelor with my nicely pedicured toes while wearing my 49er Jersey. My identity is a little bit of everything and always has been. I laugh when people say, "ok I have you pinned" or "categorized."
I often remind myself that we know successful business disrupts the market which means in order to be a successful entrepreneur I also have to disrupt markets, norms, and expectations.