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In our “Leading Together” series, we’re bringing together women who carved out new career paths, harnessed their skills, and overcame the burnout of managing competing priorities. They’re sharing their insights and the tools women need to say “yes” to career advancement and “hell yes” to that next leadership role. Hosted live on the Booz Allen Facebook page every third Thursday of the month, tune in live, view previous episodes, or read our key takeaways below.
Being an entrepreneur can provide a tremendous amount of personal and professional freedom, but jumping into and navigating the startup world comes with its own obstacles. As women-owned businesses are growing in size, companies with female founders earned only 2.2 percent of the $130 billion venture capital investments awarded in 2018. The statistics are even more grim for female founders of color.
Alexé Weymouth, Global Women’s Business Resource Group lead at Booz Allen, sat down with B.J. Wiley Williams, founder and CEO of SoHookd, and Michelle Brown, founder and CEO of CommonLit to discuss how they built their startups from the ground up, approach risk taking, and stay empowered in traditionally male-dominated spaces. Here are their top takeaways for taking a professional leap:
Navigating your career can sometimes feel overwhelming—especially when jumping from a stable corporate life to the more volatile entrepreneurial world. When she became unsure about what to do next, B.J. said, “I used passion and intuition as my compass.” Both B.J. and Michelle went through a series of jobs and academic degrees to figure out what they wanted––and didn’t want––to pursue.
In B.J.’s case, her love for the wellness industry led her to want to learn more and start her own wellness-focused company. To fully immerse herself, she left her corporate consulting job to work as a store manager for an athleisure brand. Working on the sales floor, interacting with customers every day gave her the opportunity to better understand the market. While she left what might have been seen as a more stable and safe job, following her passion and curiosity led B.J. to gain knowledge that ultimately equipped her to found her own company.
For Michelle, learning in grad school about how slowly educational policy moves ignited her fervor to find a solution. After expressing her frustration, Michelle’s academic advisor suggested she develop a business plan to fill the gaps she saw in the system. That business plan became the foundation of CommonLit.
B.J. and Michelle’s companies didn’t come together overnight; however, they made the most out of each opportunity by enjoying and learning from what the present moment had to offer.
It’s common to hear a lot more “no” than “yes” when first getting your startup off the ground. However, “A ‘no’ is one step closer to a ‘yes,’” said B.J. When met with resistance or criticism, use it as an opportunity to improve your pitch or idea so that you eventually get a “yes.”
To persist, try Michelle’s “every floor, every door” mentality: If you keep knocking on every door on every floor in the proverbial building of entrepreneurship, you’ll eventually find someone who’s going to buy into your idea and support your next steps.
There’s strength in numbers. As an entrepreneur, surrounding yourself with the right people can provide a solid foundation while establishing your business and reaching goals. When building your advisory or executive board, start by selecting people you know you feel comfortable around. If you don’t feel like you could talk to them about a nascent idea or complex question, they’re probably not the best fit.
Michelle and B.J. encourage selecting those who complement your skill set. While the typical inclination can be to want the highest profile people for a star-studded group, that’s not always the best fit, depending on your needs. You may need someone who can get their hands dirty and help with legal advice or financial operations. If you’re trying to expand your network, however, looking for more prominent individuals may be the right move. Regardless of who they are, never be afraid to ask for help. “It’s amazing how many people will say ‘yes’ if you just ask,” Michelle said.
No matter where you are and where you intend to go in your career, B.J. and Michelle’s advice can help direct your next step.