After Severing Ties With a Business Partner, This Entrepreneur Had to Trust in Herself and Go It Alone
In the Women Entrepreneur series My Worst Moment, female founders provide a firsthand account of the most difficult, gut-wrenching, almost-made-them-give-up experience they’ve had while building their business -- and how they recovered.
Haley Hoffman Smith is the author of Her Big Idea and president of women’s entrepreneurship at Brown University -- and before that, she founded a nonprofit and wrote a book for women with big ideas called She Is Without Limits. But when clashes with a co-founder led to dissolving the nonprofit she’d built, Hoffman Smith told herself she’d never start another company again. She tells us how it happened -- and how she turned things around.
What follows is a firsthand account of this person's experience. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“When I was 18 years old, I had just finished my freshman year of college, and I started a nonprofit that donated books to girls around the world. It was called Lit Without Limits, and it was my first entrepreneurial endeavor ever. Then, I wrote a book called She Is Without Limits to donate the proceeds. My name was very much attached to the branding of both, and things were going well with all aspects of the nonprofit. One day, the chief financial officer of my nonprofit approached me about starting another company together -- a for-profit sister company featuring two lines of apparel (like “She Is…” shirts) and a relevant blog. We worked well together, so I said I was in. Plus, she was twice my age and had been in finance her entire life, so she brought experience I didn’t have. We got started, and it was perfect at first -- there’s a sort of honeymoon phase when you first start a new company. I had some hesitations about starting a for-profit company by myself, and I felt I needed the money she was going to invest -- and I didn’t feel like I had the right experience.
After working together for some time, we had a falling out and dissolved the company.
I felt like I’d failed completely -- and I didn’t know how to begin again.
Things turned around when I started working on my honors thesis at Brown University -- it covered self-agency and entrepreneurship for women. It led me to research about how women tend to be more risk-averse and how we can combat that. I talked to a venture capitalist and asked him why such a small percentage of venture capital funding went to female founders. He said he’d noticed women don’t typically come up with ideas that need millions of dollars in venture capital spending.
That was one of the inspirations for me to start working on my new book -- one that covers how women can think bigger about our ideas and have the self-agency to bring them to life. In my book’s introduction, I decided to tell the story of what happened with my first company. I didn’t want to at first because I felt like a failure and didn’t want any bad blood, but a book coach I worked with told me to tell the story in a way that’s peaceful -- a way that could help other women. People have co-founder struggles and failures all the time, and you have to be vulnerable and authentic about them to effect change.
This year, I started an organization called the Her Big Idea fund -- it’s a nonprofit that invests in women’s business ideas, and it’s in partnership with Brown University’s Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship. Half of the book’s proceeds will go towards the fund, and the idea is that women can read the book and learn from its rules for innovation -- things like prioritizing creating over competing -- and apply for the fund with their business ideas. I did this after learning from my own ‘mistake’ -- to make sure women know they have the knowledge, potential and experience to bring any experience to life themselves. I have a board of six people that help to decide on the winning ideas -- one of them is Jennifer Stybel, executive director of the Rent the Runway Foundation and overseer of Project Entrepreneur, a national women’s entrepreneurship program and five-week accelerator program.
First and foremost, this experience taught me I can do things on my own -- I don’t necessarily have to lean on someone. Nobody ever knows anything when they’re going into a new industry or starting a new company. Now, I think I can make even more of an impact on my fellow women, given my experiences, my failures and what I’ve learned from these two very different entrepreneurial experiences.”