These Female Founders Put Health First to Thrive in Business
If you were to believe the headlines about entrepreneurship, you’d think it was the sexiest job around. A job of passion and wealth. Pick something you love, find a venture capitalist, sell before you’re 30 and live the good life.
If only it were that easy. The reality of entrepreneurship is that in order to have this lifestyle, you have to ensure that you have the physical, mental and financial health -- and be invested in the long game.
When you ask an entrepreneur what a typical day looks like, one theme emerges: She is always working. There is no happy hour at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, because she doesn’t "clock out" that early. At 4 p.m. on Friday, her day may only be getting started. Most likely, she's working into the evening and preparing to work over the weekend. Personal relationships can be strained if the non-entrepreneur in the relationship needs a lot of time from the entrepreneur. If friends and family aren't understanding of the limits on an entrepreneur's time, they likely won't be in that relationship for very long.
I spoke with four entrepreneurs about the idea of balance and the realities of leading successful businesses. All of them have found what works for them to maintain health, so they can lead effectively and attain financial success. Each woman had a personal-balance strategy or ideal in place which is what makes them successful. All of them work a lot -- but it’s part of the lifestyle they each want to live.
Sarah LaFleur is the CEO and co-Founder of MM.Lafleur, a fashion company dedicated to “making the purposeful woman look and feel beautiful without having to work too hard at it.” She started the business about five years ago after working as a management consultant. She was inspired by the idea to design clothes for professional women that were washable, traveled well and “put the fun back into the ritual of dressing for work.”
When Sarah was in startup mode, she was working 12 to 18 hours per day. She would spend the first part of her day managing the logistics of the garment industry in New York City by delivering fabric to the factory, delivering patterns to the patternmaker, having samples made, picking up samples and delivering samples to the designer for fittings.
The next part of her day, she worked part-time, where she earned money to pay her bills, because she wasn’t drawing a salary from her company yet. At 9 p.m., she would follow up on emails and other administrative duties. Around midnight, she’d go to bed and start all over again until the weekend when she would travel to do trunk shows.
Sarah’s always been 125 percent into her career. While you’re in startup mode, you don’t have time to stop and think: “I need to take a yoga class. You’re just trying to get stuff done.”
Now that she’s five years into the business, she works less -- 65 to 70 hours per week -- because she’s built a team that is able to handle the day-to-day duties. Now, she’s able to take a step back and identify what she needs physically and mentally in order to sustain the high-level of energy required of a CEO.
Some of those needs include running, eating right, alone time with a good book on the weekends and seeing friends. Most importantly, she takes 20 minutes in the morning alone with her coffee and reads the printed issue of the Wall Street Journal.
Narie Foster, MM.LaFleur’s COO and co-Founder, worked alongside Sarah during those startup years. Narie said she wasn’t consciously aware of how hard it was, because she was trained to work like that as a management consultant at Bain & Company. She feels she’s getting closer to the ideal of balance, but for right now, things are as they should be.
Her typical day starts at 9 a.m. once she enters the office. The day unfolds with back-to-back half-hour or one-hour meetings, where she's making decisions about technology, operations and personnel. Every side of her brain is engaged for 10 hours. Her day at the office ends at 7 p.m. She spends her evenings networking, speaking on panels and business development. She gets home at 10 p.m. and jumps on email to finish any outstanding items for the day.
Currently, her main health priority is to make sure she manages her time and energy appropriately so she can be the best for her team at MM.LaFleur. She relies on her weekends to relax, unplug and get lots of sleep.
Christina Ngyuen has always been an entrepreneur. She started her first business with her mom when she was 17 years old. Her second business, The Design Collective, was her very own, and she started it at age 20. Her latest venture with her husband is HOLA AREPA. HOLA AREPA is a restaurant and food truck serving Latin cuisine on the streets of Minneapolis. They specialize in Venezuelan stuffed arepas. Yum!
The entrepreneurial lifestyle works for Christina, because she describes herself as an “insane optimist.” She grew up in an entrepreneurial family, she doesn't have kids and gets to work with her husband everyday. She’s thrilled when she gets an 80-hour work week!
Now that the restaurant is running smoothly, Christina realizes that she needs to exercise during the week or she lacks energy. She was also able to finally get married to her boyfriend of eight-and-a-half years, and they were able to go on a honeymoon without much worry.
Jo-Ná Williams owns J.A. Williams Law, an artist empowerment firm. They specialize the in the practice of entertainment, business and intellectual property law. They help artists protect their work and build their empires.
When Jo-Ná was starting her business, she was working her nine-to-five job while she built her law firm. Once she was able to quit her job and run the firm 100 percent, she worked 12 to16 hours per day, seven days a week. In her first year of business, she got very sick and realized that she needed to build self-care into her life -- or the work that she loved would kill her.
Her approach to health is not about balancing everything, because trying to do so will stress her out. For her, it’s about building a structure that includes taking care of her physical and mental health, so she can do the work she is supposed to do.
Part of her strategy includes recovery. Just like professional athletes, she needs time off the field to recover and gain back her strength in order to run her business. She also makes sure that she connects with people she cares about everyday and is very conscious about what she eats.
Attention paid to good physical and mental health are important to being an entrepreneur. Financial health is the secret sauce. Recently, it seems like the financial hardship of entrepreneurship has been removed from the conversation. It should be clear that before setting out to lead the entrepreneurial life, financial sacrifices are necessary. You may not get to eat out at the hottest restaurants or buy that new pair of shoes whenever you want. You have to be rooted in reality about money and understand how it works, so you can continue to run a profitable business.
When Sarah was starting MMLaFleur, she re-invested all profit into her company. She also did most of the day-to-day work, so she didn’t have to pay someone else. Both her and her co-founder, Narie, worked part-time jobs for personal cash-flow, so they didn’t have to draw a salary from the business.
When Christina started HOLA AREPA, it was a food truck, and she lived on personal savings for two years. She only paid herself when there was money leftover because everything was re-invested into the business. This led to being financially able to open the restaurant where she and her husband built most of the space with their own hands. Again, for a period of six months, she lived off of her savings and didn’t draw a salary during slow months.
To manage the fickle pipeline of a service business, there were times when Jo-Ná had to skip drawing a salary and dip into her personal savings in order to keep J.A. Williams Law moving.
The sexiest part of the entrepreneurial lifestyle is that you get to choose. You choose the work you do and how you want to do it. All of these women lead great businesses and exemplify the very spirit of entrepreneurship. They each understand what it takes to maintain their health -- physical, mental, financial -- so they can reap the real benefits of entrenreurship: They have control over how they spend their days.
With over 15 years' experience as an entrepreneur and award-winning creative director at Dee Design Company, Mary offers her clients a unique, dual expertise -- clarifying their business problems and responding with elegantly simple branded design solutions. She embraces duality in her personal life, too, describing herself as an unpretentious foodie, a structured free thinker and standoffishly approachable—a walking oxymoron who also likes to run.
Previously, Mary was Vice President and Director of Membership for AIGA-MN. She graduated with a bachelor of arts in marketing from the University of St. Thomas and recently completed an executive education course at the Yale School of Management.