Those of you who have been around APW for awhile know that one of my driving passions is women and business ownership. We live in a world where our work culture is fundamentally designed to serve a patriarchal system. Women “opt out,” not because it’s their first choice, but because it often seems to be their only choice. I want to live in a world where women create more, and where creating a family does not rule out other forms of creation—and I think small business ownership is one solution to that problem. In July, I was lucky enough to get to speak at Alt SF about entrepreneurship, and after my talk I met Kelly Keenan Trumpbour, the founder of See Jane Invest. She’s working on exactly this problem: how do we get women access to the funding, skills, and networks they need to start their own businesses? I asked her to write an essay for Risk Month on female entrepreneurship, and what she wrote has echoes of my thoughts at the beginning of this month, on creation from decay.
by Kelly Keenan Trumpbour, CEO, See Jane Invest
So I Started A Business.
I went to college in Detroit and lived two miles closer to downtown than Eminem’s 8 Mile. The 1968 civil rights riots lingered in the shells of burnt-out houses just blocks from my campus. The city had its own subtle swagger that the rest of the country sampled during Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” Superbowl ad campaign. I had the privilege of living and working among people who saw the city’s problems for what they were, but would never let anyone give up on them.
In a neighborhood where prairie grass shot up through concrete, what had once been manicured front lawns had become fields. With the skyscrapers of downtown visible on the horizon, I came upon a collective of beekeepers and jam makers. Mostly made up of women from the community, their staff was local elementary school children. They used the hives and small gardens to teach nature appreciation, cooking, and basic sales distribution. The revenue from honey and jam went toward buying much needed school supplies. They seemed very content in their little operation, not existing because they lived on a crumbling block, but in spite of it.
Years later, when my husband and I started trying for a family, I decided to take a break from my career because a rare reaction to fertility drugs known as OHS (Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome) hit hard. Six months later, on the day before I was scheduled to transfer two remaining embryos, I fell and broke my arm so badly my elbow was locked, clutched at my side at a thirty-three degree angle. Two surgeries and eighteen months of physical therapy later, I thankfully regained full motion. A negative pregnancy test confirmed that frozen embryos come with no guarantee. Giving it one more go, I again was hit with OHS despite being placed on the safest treatment possible. I found myself in a hospital completely ill, numb, and at a dangerously high risk of blood clots. It was hard not to feel like I had gambled away two years of my life, and lost badly.
So I started a business.
Sometimes, the people who know about my fertility experience see what I’m doing and they equate it with a kind of substitution. I can see their logic since both a baby and a business are born from creative acts. We present them to the world hopeful they represent our best selves. We sleep less with them around and we can’t stop fearing for their well-being. Sometimes we are tempted to skip the experience entirely knowing that in its absence, we can spare ourselves the agony of watching them struggle and very likely fail. I see all that, but there’s a crucial distinction that makes me think I’m not trading one parenting experience for another.
What If I Don’t Have The Chops?
Let me tell you about the risks I’m not taking as an entrepreneur. A start-up is unlikely to land me in the hospital. With a fair amount of certainty, I can promise myself that my business will never make me pray for the basic existence and good health of my children, even the ones I have yet to meet. Is there a chance that my husband and I might squabble over how much time and money can go into my business? Sure. But I’m fairly certain that our disagreements about my company will never hinge on who we invite into the intimate details and frequency of our sex life. Yes, I am putting my name and reputation on the line, but I can’t imagine one false move as a CEO will cost me the use of an entire limb. Risk is relative.
The women I meet who are hesitant to start a business usually reference the very real risks of investing scarce time and even scarcer money into something that might not succeed. It’s a fair point, except I find that the “might not succeed” bit has more teeth than time or money. What if I don’t have the chops to make it? What if my idea is lousy? What if I can do it, but I’m not willing to kill myself to make it a reality? What if I’m the thing that prevents my business from succeeding?
I asked myself the same questions before I jumped. After what I had been through, I bypassed my fears faster than I might have at other times in my life. Good health brought an awareness of what I had at my disposal, things like solid experience, a fantastic education, and a gut-level passion. You don’t have to walk through fire to come to the same conclusion. I’m not alone in having nothing to lose.
I spend a lot of time working with women so they can see that they are qualified and more than ready to make the asks that go into launching. Many of these women are mothers, and they would be the first to prop me up if I shared my fertility experience. They would tell me things about how your child teaches you to become a mother, that you already know more than you think, that all the fear is nothing compared to what you get in return. No matter the hurdles, if it’s what I want, they would tell me to keep going until I found my way to motherhood.
Basically, I have the same advice for them. It’s worth it. It’s worth it if you feel like something within you is dormant and shouldn’t be.
Have you ever had the sensation that you parked a Jaguar somewhere in your soul and a desperate itch makes you want to find the keys and take it out for a test drive? The engine that drove you to become Honor Society President, the gears that shifted like silk to land that job, that guy, that whatever, the suspension that made you turn on a dime taking advantage of opportunities no one else saw—when was the last time that beautiful machine had a chance to floor it for its own sake? That’s what got me to start my business.
There is more to life than waiting for everything to fall into place. As women, I often think it is our greatest asset and greatest liability that we can so deftly work with what is handed to us. Life’s turns can keep a girl very busy, to the point of losing track of what we created for ourselves versus what we are required to manage by association. If entrepreneurship could sneak up like an unplanned plus or minus on a pregnancy test, I believe that there would be no shortage of Fortune 500 female executives.
I’m not going to tell anyone that becoming an entrepreneur is the answer to life’s problems. I can’t guarantee that it will bring wealth or any noticeable status bump. I can’t even promise that just because you have a good idea, it will make a good business. But viewed under a certain light, risk is a necessary ingredient to any game and entrepreneurship has that kind of risk. More than showing up to play, it’s a chance to redesign the game.
Disrupt The Game. See Jane Invest.
For the women who bring a serious game to entrepreneurship, I believe there should be more access to financial resources and supportive networks. I’m working on that. The business I started is about helping women become entrepreneurs and investors. I’m working with new tools like equity crowdfunding to understand how it can help women move forward after they have refined their business plans. I also want women to have the best shot at navigating all types of investing including angel and venture capital funding.
I care about other women’s businesses because more often than not, the women I meet aren’t simply pitching me the world’s next best widget. I am amazed at how often the women I meet marry a fantastic concept with solving a significant problem. They have waited and watched, studied and measured, scraped together whatever resources they can find and recruited anyone who can help them. After all of that, their elevator speeches come down to how their products make life better for others. Not superficially better—more like clean drinking water in third world countries better. Selling honey in the middle of decay to buy schoolbooks better.
Let me be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with starting with the expectation that you should make money from a great idea. If you succeed, you will give back in so many other ways. The women who grow a thriving business will have modeled financial independence and executive decision-making. Their communities will benefit from their tax dollars which will increase property values, support school systems, and fund art institutions.
As their companies expand, how these women choose to pair work with family has the potential to set a new norm. For instance, who decided that eighty hours of bleary-eyed work in a cubicle is better than something more rational, focused, and inclusive of family? Maybe the reason there are so few women CEOs in major corporations today is that women aren’t shying away from hard work, but we don’t like the way the game is played. The women who start companies have the chance to disrupt that game.
It goes beyond business. If these women become big success stories, they will become very influential leaders. The workplace standards they design can impact health care, maternity leave, and minimum wage laws. The wealth they create can be reinvested, not just in the next generation of women CEOs, but in the next generation of women political candidates. The sway of women who make a name for themselves in business will matter to presidential candidates who need donors, voters, and advisers.
I haven’t ruled out motherhood. If I ever have a daughter, I would like her to see what happens when a woman allows herself to take the floor for her own sake. You can help me set the stage.
Kelly Keenan Trumpbour founded See Jane Invest to help women gain the confidence and funding they need to turn their ideas into start-ups. She believes entering the marketplace as entrepreneurs and investors enables women to express their values, give back to their communities, and model smart risk taking. See Jane Invest is focused on helping women understand and use the advantages of equity crowdfunding once SEC regulations complete the 2012 JOBS Act. Kelly draws on her experience in Washington, DC lobbying on behalf of women’s business groups, recruiting young professional women to enter politics, and helping them link the personal stories behind their passions with the conviction of leadership. A published author and professional speaker, Kelly holds an MBA from Johns Hopkins and a law degree from the University of Maryland. She and her husband live outside of Baltimore.