BY KELLY EHLERS
Entrepreneurial women aren’t all alike, but our collective experiences have plenty of overlap. Like all entrepreneurs, we start our businesses because we have an idea to share with the world. We have a solution with the potential to offer something new to the market. Driving that solution is a vision, especially in service-based businesses.
My career vision didn’t fit in the channel-centric environment I was working in, so I took a risk. At 30 years old and with a baby on the way, I left my corporate position to pioneer a new concept: a community-driven agency catering to a digitally native consumer. Fast-forward seven years later, and my former one-woman consulting firm is now the 325th fastest-growing private company in the country (Inc. 5000). In this industry, risks can pay off.
Want to take the leap into entrepreneurship? Try these five tips:
Lead with your strengths
Consider what you excel at, even under pressure. Once you’ve identified your strengths, refine them down to an art. Remember, your strengths don’t look like everyone else’s. I embraced my skills in storytelling, digital communication and over-managing the details to differentiate my agency. Leverage what makes you unique. Entrepreneurs are lifelong learners, and learning to solve for weak points is part of leading with your strengths. Hiring a team whose strengths complement yours, instead of mirroring them, will reinforce your infrastructure. As your business grows, develop a company culture that integrates this balance of skill sets into your daily operations. That intersection of skill and process is the sweet spot for successful growth.
Know that EQ is the new IQ
As entrepreneurs, we need the capacity to read the room, to utilize the tool of constructive criticism and to look beyond ourselves for the company’s sake. In other words, we need emotional intelligence. This requires self-awareness and the ability to manage your emotions, and those of others, in an empathetic manner. Empathy is a valuable leadership tool, and many executives are incorporating the value of emotional intelligence and a person’s emotional quotient, or EQ, into the hiring process.
At my company, we offer a horizontal leadership structure, one-on-one reviews with supervisors, and an open-door policy to enforce this culture. There’s a difference between emotional intelligence and emotions, but there’s still a misconception that women may make business decisions based on emotions. This attitude can lead to others unfoundedly challenging your leadership and fundamentally rejecting constructive criticism. Sound familiar? If I could go back in time, I’d tell myself to trust my intuition in all situations. Remember, entrepreneurs discover and implement solutions.
Fight data with data
Business is a numbers game, so play by the rules. I learned early on that, even in the beauty industry, business leadership roles are primarily held by men. However, over the past decade, the number of women-owned firms has grown rapidly. According to the 2016 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, this surge led to an estimated 11.3 million women-owned businesses, employing nearly nine million and generating over $1.6 trillion in revenues in the U.S.
This report considered the country’s troubling economic trends since the 2007-2009 recession, and I’m proud to lead one of the millions of women-owned businesses that broke free of those trends. Unfortunately, these statistic leaps and bounds aren’t always reflected in the workspace. We sometimes run into the particular challenge of pitching a product or service intended for a target market of women to a room full of men, whether they’re venture capitalists, angel investors or C-suite executives. If your audience doesn’t understand the value of your service or product, speak a language we all understand: data. The most effective way to make a change is to persistently excel and show up with the numbers that prove it.
Take your seat at the table
Women entrepreneurs have the right to unapologetically inhabit space in the workplace and voice their presence in the industry. When I started Evoke, social media was only just becoming relevant to brand strategies. I was pitching it as a business necessity within a market space that had yet to be fully realized. I was often the only woman at the table, but I knew that I had a responsibility to show up.
As an entrepreneur, you deserve a seat at any table that could further your business. Entrepreneurs are constantly making challenging calls that align with what will best serve the company. Make sure you are contributing to the ideation at hand by being part of the conversation: Listen, ask questions, share advice, and encourage others.
Understand that empowered women empower other women
They say it’s lonely at the top and that isolating feeling is common to entrepreneurs, but don’t be afraid to ask for help. Networking is about more than advancing your career: It’s about developing a support system. Maybe this means a mentor, a cohort of peers or a strong business partner. Whether you’re personally or professionally acquainted, other women can offer a lot of insight and solidarity. I’m grateful to have an incredible group of smart, kind women as a support system. Entrepreneurs are never truly off the clock, and social connections are incredibly important to ensure work-life balance.
Leaders are also in the position to structure an in-office support system and model the behaviors we want our teams to enact. There is an accountability that goes into pioneering positions, and women entrepreneurs often become role models and mentors. I’ve made an effort to foster an inclusive company culture. I want to offer my employees the support that wasn’t available to me in the workplace less than a decade ago.
Nurturing a company culture where women can advance and lead side by side ensures that the next generation has the models and support they’ll need. I’m of the mindset that the nice girl does finish first, and that entrepreneurial women are starting to take the lead.