Winning in a Man's World
In a landscape dominated by white males, these minority women are finding the support they need to run thriving small businesses.
Shazi Visram started her organic food company, HappyBaby, in 2006, and if you ask her how she was able to grow it to an $8 million business with nine full-time employees, she'll rattle off a list of mentors, advisors and industry resources.
"I found people who helped and supported me," she says.
While most every entrepreneur faces a host of challenges starting out, women and minorities often have the toughest time because many can feel isolated in what is still a business world dominated by white males. Women make up less than 30 percent and minorities about 18 percent of business ownership in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Many women have told me they have trouble being forceful when it comes to pushing for investors or dealing with contractors and manufacturers. And the rejection that's inevitable with entrepreneurship can derail some.
"You have to be ready for a lot of nay-saying," Visram stresses.
Visram, whose company is based in New York, started working on the concept for her business in 2003 when she was at Columbia Business School. Her background was in marketing so she had little knowledge of the natural foods industry, or the food industry at large.
"I know that feeling of inertia," she says about first coming up with the idea for her company. "You don't know what to do, and it's hard to find a place to start."
Her plan was to reach out to as many industry sources as she could.
She was able to meet a top buyer from Whole Foods when she was still in college, and that person connected her with successful food entrepreneur Seth Goldman, the founder of Honest Tea. He's been her mentor ever since.
"Seth has been a great strategic advisor to us from the beginning, helping to vet partners, think about our go-to-market strategy, fundraising and so many other areas," Visram says.
Visram also reached out to the Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship in New York, a group that helps small-scale food entrepreneurs find their first manufacturing facility and packers.
Norma Polcek, president of Samco Promotional Products in Rockford, Illinois, believes the keys to her success have been local, regional and national networking and professional associations, including:
- Women Presidents' Organization, a membership association for women presidents of multimillion-dollar companies.
- Leadership Illinois, a statewide women's leadership organization that educates, energizes and empowers professional women.
- International Franchise Association, which offers networking and large annual business expos.
- Her local chamber of commerce, which keeps her abreast of current news and allows her to network in the business community.
And Indian-born Ila Mehta, founder of Chicago-based Little Write Brain Inc., an education site for kids ages 3 through 8, has her list of favorite resources that helped her grow her business: women and "mompreneur" business groups, Indian entrepreneurial groups, the South Asian Professional Association, and outreach efforts through the college alumni network at the University of Chicago.
The ultimate goal is getting the information you need to build your business from sources that understand your business and background, and finding people who will help build you up when the daily struggles of entrepreneurship tear you down.
Amber O'Neal, owner of Atlanta-based fitness and nutrition company Café Physique, said a national group called Ladies Who Launch was invaluable, especially the mentor she found through the group, Angela Stalcup, who runs the organization in Atlanta. "An entrepreneur herself, she has helped keep me motivated during the down times of my business and has been a huge cheerleader for me during my successes," she says. And she also uses The Joy of Connecting, a national women's entrepreneurial group.
The connections she's made through a variety of networking groups have opened up doors for O'Neal--and participants also give business to each other when possible.
"These organizations serve as the traditional 'golf course' for men," she says. "We make deals at our meetings like men make deals on the golf course."
Known online as Careerdiva.net, Eve Tahmincioglu is the author of From the Sandbox to the Corner Office, an in-depth look at top U.S. CEOs and the lessons they learned on how to succeed in business, as well as a career columnist for MSNBC.com.