Episode 50: Starting a business

October 20, 2014

“Stepping outside of your comfort zone is really, really hard…I did not want to raise venture capital at all. But I did want to have a big successful business. And I got to the place where I realized I’m going to have to go pitch all those guys in suits.” - Julia Pimsleur

"One of these days Mark Zuckerberg is going to hit me, but I believe that if I grew up in a household where I was told to do what I was good at and go after my talents, I would have created Facebook or something even better than that.” - Denise Barreto

24 minutes.

Female entrepreneurship is rising fast. In the US, a third of businesses are now owned by women. But look a bit deeper and you find nearly all these businesses are 'solopreneurships' - they don't have any employees and they don't bring in much money. This is sometimes by design, but not always: many women are unprepared for the inequities that still exist in entrepreneurship. Julia Pimsleur

In this show we meet two ambitious entrepreneurs who want to grow their companies: Julia Pimsleur and Denise Barreto. They have advice about how to survive in the male-dominated world of fundraising, why hiring other people is a must even when you can barely afford it, and how passion for your work isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Denise Barreto

Further reading:

Julia Pimsleur is CEO of Little Pim. She has also founded Double Digit Academy, which holds regular training sessions for women who want to raise money for their companies. You can read more about her early experiences at EO in her Forbes piece, Bunnies to Board Members: When Girls Join Boys' Clubs.

Denise Barreto is founding partner of Relationships Matter Now.

This is the first show I did on female entrepreneurship in the summer of 2012. It's still relevant today.

Here's an article from the Kauffman Foundation's website that contains information about female entrepreneurship around the world. 

This OECD report talks about which countries are the best and worst for women entrepreneurs.

This is a PDF of a short study called Gender Dynamics in Crowdfunding. Here's the interesting thing: although women get 19% of angel investor funding and perhaps 6-7% of venture capital, when they do a Kickstarter campaign they have more success than men. Why? Partly because women aim lower than men. Their campaigns are less ambitious in the first place. They ask for less money than men, so they are likelier to make their goal. But the other reason is that women's Kickstarter campaigns attract women funders - if you're a woman, you are much likelier to get funded when other women are doing the funding. One of the problems with women trying to get VC funding is that there are so few female venture capitalists. The number of women angel investors is growing but it's still relatively small. All evidence - including a panel of female entrepreneurs I attended last week - suggests many men do not 'get' a lot of women's business ideas. They can't see the value in the idea, so they reject it. More female VCs and angel investors could significantly change the ratio of female investors, which could increase the number of well-funded and successful women-run companies. That said, it is a fact that raising funding is no picnic for men either.


Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show…more women than ever are starting their own businesses.

“Stepping outside of your comfort zone is really, really hard…I did not want to raise venture capital at all. But I did want to have a big successful business. And I got to the place where I realized I’m going to have to go pitch all those guys in suits.”

And how much of our success comes down to how we were raised?

“One of these days Mark Zuckerberg is going to hit me, but I one hundred percent believe that if I grew up in a household where I was told to do what I was good at and go after my talents I would have created Facebook or something even better than that.”

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One of the first episodes of this show I ever did was about the hype around female entrepreneurship. Here in the US it seemed you couldn’t click a link without finding another article about the number of women starting their own businesses. Well more than two years later not much has changed. Women are indeed becoming entrepreneurs in droves, and not just in America – it wasn’t all hype. But their companies still bring in far less money than men’s. A tiny minority of women’s firms make more than a million dollars in revenue per year – that’s a big benchmark the business world uses. My first guest Julia Pimsleur is someone who’s passed that benchmark.

“I’m the CEO and founder of Little Pim, language teaching for young children.”

Like a lot of people Julia got the idea for her company from real life. She grew up bilingual in French and English. And when she had her first son ten years ago she wanted to make sure he was bilingual too. But there was nothing on the market to help her with that. So she invented the product.

Now before she started this company Julia had run two other businesses but they’d been very…creative. She made documentaries with a social message, she connected media makers and activists…

“But I had never run a company where the idea was to make a profit. Before I had made films, I had raised money and done all kinds of things where measurable impact was moving people’s minds and hearts – now this was about the top line, the bottom line, making sure we were growing revenues, and that was very new and different.”

She had to switch from thinking of herself as a creative person to thinking of herself as a business person running a company with a creative idea. And that was a big leap for her. But it was not the only one.  She had a bit of a chip on her shoulder about not having been to business school and kept wondering about all those skills she must be lacking. But after going on a course at Harvard she realized she had most of them – she just needed to fill in the gaps. So she took on advisors, a board of directors, and raised money to hire a sales person…

AM-T: “I’ve heard that before, this discussion that obviously you need people around you who do things that aren’t your natural strengths. And I think – I don’t know what you think, but I think particularly with women a lot of us tend to want to do everything on our own and cover everything, like an octopus.”

“Absolutely. Not being able to delegate is probably the Achilles’ heel of all women everywhere, not just entrepreneurs. But in entrepreneurship that is especially limiting because you really can’t do everything yourself. If you want to grow your business you have to be able to let go a bit.  And it’s very painful. Because part of the reason we want to be entrepreneurs is often we have a high standard, we want to create something that’s very, very high quality, you want to have a personal touch on everything that goes out the door. And at certain point that becomes impossible. I came up with this 80 percent rule: if I can hire someone who can do something 80 percent as well as I’d like it done then that’s a win, and the little 20 percent I’ve given up is worth it because I just got back all this time to do other things.”

And one of the things she did was join a professional organization called the Entrepreneurs Organization or EO. It’s a prestigious group, and she was excited to join the club and to learn from other successful entrepreneurs. But she soon found out only 12% of the group was women. And at her first meeting there – and this was just a few years ago – she watched a slide show. And there on the slides some of the male members of EO were sitting around with Playboy bunnies on their laps.

“So right away I could tell this was a culture where the history had been a boys’ club. Now I went to Yale, founded in 1701 and it only admitted women in 1969, so I had practice being in a place with a very patriarchal culture. Just as a funny anecdote I’ll always remember my first week at Yale when they invited us into this big, venerated room with high ceilings and gothic structures and on the walls were probably about 30 framed paintings of these men with white hair and gowns from the 1700s. The master of our college – Master Winks – swept his arm and said, ‘These are your forefathers’. And I just remember thinking, those guys have nothing to do with me or my experience. Here I am, I’m 18, on practically full scholarship to Yale, this is not anything I can relate to. So I think of that moment often. These Master Winks of the world, they mean well, they’re trying to give you this sweeping context of history. But as women we’re pioneers. We’re still pioneers.”

She certainly felt like one at EO. She says the culture there is getting much more women-friendly. And she has been instrumental in that. Within a couple of years after that first meeting she was a member of the board, and the organization flew her to Greece for a conference of EO members from all over the world.

“And I showed up feeling the most empowered one could possibly feel. Here I had gotten to the heights of this organization, I was there for this global leadership conference, I sat down in the third row ready to learn. And much to my dismay the MC who got up made three back-to-back sexist comments. It was everything from, ‘Oh ladies, there’s a guy who runs a successful retail company, so if you want to do some shopping…’ and then it was jokes about which of us was going to want to date him, and jokes about the women in Greece and how beautiful they are. And I went from the heights of leadership to feeling so deflated in such a short amount of time. And I thought, ‘This is not OK.’

She fumed through the rest of the speech. Later on, she she sought that guy out and she said something.

“And he was very receptive to my comments, and to my surprise this was someone who had recruited many women for EO, but just didn’t have that sensitivity training you’d hope most men would have these days to understand the impact of his words might make the women in the room feel not valued. But once I pointed it out to him to his credit, again, at the closing remarks, he brought forward that women were only 12 percent of EO and we needed to change that. He invited some women entrepreneurs up on stage and really made good. And for me that experience was in a nutshell what’s happening right now in all echelons of leadership for women. Because there’s a lot of good intention but there’s a lot of floundering about, and a lot of not treating women like they really should be at the leadership table, and we have to speak up and say when it’s not OK and what can be done differently. So that’s something I’m really trying to take an active role in and hope other women will do the same.”

Another thing she hopes more women will do is try to raise money to fund their companies. The statistics on this are pretty stark. Women founders get less than 20 percent of angel investments and much less when it comes to venture capital funding. Now an angel investor is a person of means who invests their own money in your company hoping fervently for a return. And venture capital comes from a firm of investors – it’s the hardest type of funding to get. But why do women get so little of it?

“I think women are not moving in circles right now where they have as easy access to growth capital as men do. Men tend to know other people who work in finance, to have social circles where they know someone who has raised venture money or angel money or has access to that circle. Speaking of old boys’ clubs, venture capital, especially, which is the highest high growth money the hardest money to get in the food chain of fundraising, only four percent of venture capital was being invested in women-run companies when I went out to raise venture capital a couple of years ago, that number has now climbed to maybe seven percent, but those are still very low numbers. And that really is an old boys’ club that has not yet broken up. So it’s partly access and partly mindset.”

The mindset you need to have, she says? It’s an ambitious one. Think big about your business.

“If you can’t paint that vision, first for yourself, right, you have to believe it, and then help others see it and buy into it, then you can’t raise money.”

Even though Julia was ultimately successful, even though she used to raise money for nonprofits, raising her first round of funding for Little Pim was hard. She thought afterwards: there has to be an easier way to do this. So she started an organization called Double Digit Academy. It trains women entrepreneurs who want to grow their companies how to navigate the heavily male world of venture capitalists – how to speak their language, how to present, how to take rejection time and time again. She says she’s seen her sons on their sports teams being coached in how to fall down and get up again. But in the US, teenage girls give up sports at twice the rate boys do. And so many women founders don’t have that built-in resilience when they go out to pitch their companies.

All of which made me think about…me. Not just my own lack of resilience but all that stuff she talked about earlier: how you have to delegate if you’re going to be successful. How you have to bring on other people for the good of the company. Well I’m an entrepreneur too – this show takes up a lot of my time and I love it but I often feel it’s not getting the attention it deserves…

AM-T: “I’m torn in 15 different directions because I can never be completely focused and just do the things I need to do, which is trying to find mentors, and I’d love to have a little board of people who I could say, look, what should I do next? And I’m not doing any of that because I’m so busy dong stories for this or that person and trying to bring in some money as well as the sheer labor intensiveness of creating audio. Anyway, I’m just one of those people who feels intimidated by not being a business person.”

“That really resonates with me and when I started Little Pim I had those same feelings of how am I ever going to put all this together? But at the same time I looked around at people who ran successful businesses and I thought, well, they’re not smarter than I am, I just need to figure out what they’ve figured out. And one thing I saw them all doing was joining professional organizations. And I think women need to join more professional organizations because it gives you a built-in professional development infrastructure and a community of people doing what you want to do. But I also think stepping out of your comfort zone is really, really hard. I did not want to raise venture capital at all, but I did want to have a big successful business. And I got to the point where I realized the only way to get from here to there is to raise venture capital. I’m going to have to go pitch to all those guys in suits. As much as I don’t want to do it I have to do it. And by the way I’m the only one who can do it. I’ve outsources sales, marketing, I’ve found all these other great people to do things at my company. But the CEO has to be the one to raise the money. And if you have the vision and you have the dream why not go for it. So I really pushed myself to overcome some of these self-limiting thoughts I had about what I could or could not be in the world, and to stop thinking of myself as oh, I’m just a creative person who doesn’t understand business. I thought you know what, I’m a smart person. I’ll figure it out. And lo and behold, that’s what everyone else is doing. Even people who are running businesses that earn many more millions in revenue than I did or even do today, we’re all on the same journey. “

Before we finished talking I brought up one last thing – I was reminded of it when Julia talked about watching her sons play sports and build confidence. I’ve been reading a memoir by the New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

AM-T: “And there’s this bit at the beginning of the book where she talks about…her little boys were running about, and the little one was only two…her husband was saying let’s go to this monument, and the little boy said we can do it because we’re men. And she thought, Where did that come from? You know, because she’s like, I didn’t teach him that. But it was her making the point that it’s just in the air for guys. They have this innate confidence that most of us do not.”

“That’s so true and I see it with my sons too. I was a women’s studies minor at college, I’ve always been a feminist and I’ve taught them to have respect for women and everyone. And yet these things come out of their mouth every so often that, it’s just in the culture. So that’s also where I think we need to be kind to men in a way. Because when you’re in the majority and you are the privileged one, you rarely get training in sensitivity and on how to bring others into the loop. Look, we’re all guilty of it. I’m a white woman. I’m sure I do and say things that have offended women of color, and I have to own that, because I have this privileged position of never having to experience my skin color as being the first way someone interacts with me. And I know from my friends who are of color that that is not how they experience the world. So I try to think about that when I ever feel frustrated with men that they’re not more accommodating of bringing women into their world. A lot of times they just haven’t been trained in it.”

She’s willing to cut them some slack.

For my next guest, her skin color is the filter through which people perceive her…

“Oh, we could have a whole show on this.”

We’ll have part a show. Stay tuned.

Denise Barreto lives about 40 miles from Chicago. She’s a marketer by trade, and for a long time she had no thoughts of starting her own business.

“I grew up in a household with a retail worker and a mechanic. I mean when you talk about a mechanic or you talk about a retail person, those are jobs that are very prescriptive, right, people tell you what to do. My dad never said to me, ‘Denise you’re really good at this, you should do this.’ That just didn’t happen.”

She says she only really caught onto that whole idea when she got to college. She spent years in marketing roles for some really big companies.

Then she went out on her own four years ago. She owns a consultancy called Relationships Matter Now. It does strategic planning and marketing. She’s thrilled to be doing her own thing, but sometimes she thinks back to what she might have achieved…

“I always say this, and one of these days Mark Zuckerburg is going to hit me. But I 100% believe that if I grew up in a household where I was told to do what I was good at and go after my talent I would have created Facebook or something even better than that.”

After all, she says, she’s in her forties now and she’s given birth to this business – she already has two kids, they’re 9 and 13, and a husband. It’s a lot. She’s happy with  her life now, she’s not complaining, but she thinks too many women have a restricted view of the world…

“The sooner that we can get girls especially and minority girls too, that we can get them seeing and understanding that there are choices, there are many, many things in this world that they can do.”

Like Julia, Denise has a lot of energy, even if she jokes about leaving a few brain cells behind with her twenties and thirties. But her business is much more typical of the type of business women start – it’s a services business, and she has not tried to raise funding of any kind. She bootstrapped to begin with: she used her own savings, her credit card, and she went after clients – hard. She now has three employees.  And the pressure is on to keep doing well. Her husband is a laborer and he doesn’t have a degree.

“I absolutely have always been the main wage earner, which by the way was part of the fear factor of actually going out there and doing my business. Think about that, when you are the six-figure backbone wage earner of your family, this idea of going and starting something from nothing is very, very, very scary.”

And there’s been plenty more to contend with to make this work.

“It’s perseverance, I mean there are so many things it takes to be a business owner.  Not to mention the business acumen, like I’ll tell you right now the one thing I started with because I’m Type A…I was like, I’m going to run my business. I mean, 8 months in I hired an accountant, even though I didn’t have very much money, and I was like, I have to hire somebody to do the things I’m not good at.”

She’d handled $50 million dollar budgets in her old job – but she found doing her own books just was not the same.

Now when she and I first spoke we’d talked about this thing you hear about all the time in the job world – and specifically the world of entrepreneurship. Passion. You’ve got to be passionate about what you do. It’s the key to success.

“See, I love the advice we get about passion, but it’s flawed. It’s flawed because passion alone can’t do it. I mean passion is great fuel, and trust me I have lots of passion. You can probably hear it through the phone. But at the end of the day, it’s talent that pays the bills. So the story I often like to tell is, I love baking. I’m very passionate about baking. But Ashley, my stuff is ugly.“

The icing never seems to go on the cupcakes quite right. The cookies are always deformed. A cake will lean like the Tower of Pisa.

“It tastes good, but it’s ugly. Nobody is going to buy it. So as passionate as I am about baking, and I am very, very passionate about it, I could not make a living baking.”

So she sticks to marketing. She thinks too many first-time entrepreneurs make this mistake of wanting to do something they love without backing it up with enough ability.

Denise is an avid networker. She’s someone who keeps in touch with lots people she’s worked with in the past. That’s what’s brought her most of her current clients. She says women have to get out there and meet people face to face as much as possible. She’s pleased with her progress so far. Next year she’s aiming to bring in half a million dollars in revenue.

I asked if her parents are still around and what they think of her achievements…

“I have my dad. My mom actually passed away very early in my life, I think that’s part of the reason I am the crazy that I am. My dad is so proud, he is approaching 80 and he has retired to a small community down in Alabama where he’s from, and it took him a while though. I’m not going to lie. He was not a fan of me being my own boss, he was like, why are you going to leave your job? And he was very concerned if I could make enough money and if people thought I was as great as I thought I was. And you have to think my dad is black man from the south where about 80% of his life was spent being told he was less than everybody around him. So it was a big shift for my dad to understand why I would work for myself and a big shift for him to understand that people were accepting from me and people were buying from me.”

Still, she’s not saying it’s always straightforward. Part of her dreads walking into a roomful of people to make new business contacts. She says so many people have a negative image of black women.

“They have the image they get on the media, right, like Real Housewives of Atlanta, which I don’t watch, or Scandal. Oh, we could have a whole show on this. I literally believe that there is a one-dimensional story about black women out there, and I believe that living the life that I live I’m helping to paint other pictures and give other views and other images. And people often say to me, ‘I don’t see you as black.’ How in the world can you say that with this huge Afro on my head? You can definitely see that I’m black. I guess what I’m saying is what those people are trying to say is I just like you Denise, I just like doing business with you or hanging out with you or whatever. But what they don’t understand is by saying that you don’t see me as black it means you’re only seeing what you’re seeing on TV or in the movies. And I think you need to see me as black because I’m one of many different stories of black women in this country and in this world.”

She plans to keep going to events and keep doing speaking engagements to build her business.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. You can find more information about female entrepreneurship in general and today’s guests at The Broad Experience.com.

One of things you can read about there is female entrepreneurs and crowdfunding. Although women raise far less than men through traditional investors, when it comes to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter…women are more successful than men.  But the reasons for that are a mixed bag.

If you’re not already a subscriber to the show, please subscribe over on iTunes and while you’re there I would love it if you could write a review. All this stuff helps the show get noticed by more people. And thanks so much to those of you who are backing the show with donations. I really appreciate it.

You can also support my work here at The Broad Experience by going to my sponsor’s website and checking out their offer at foreignaffairs.com/broad.  That’s foreignaffairs.com/broad.  

Thanks to April Laissle for her help with this episode. And if there’s a topic you’d like me to consider covering on the show, let me know. You can find me at ashley at TheBroadExperience.com.

I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.