As part of Crain’s Small Business Week, the Small Business Forum panel discussion was held at The Standard Club on Thursday, May 3 and focused on how to foster and sustain women-led businesses across a range of industries.
Kris Martinez was honored to join her fellow panelists on stage for an engaging conversation about business and entrepreneurship.
Claire Lew is founder and CEO of Know Your Company, which captures and analyzes worker engagement data to help managers better understand their employees. Claire started the company in 2014 and is a 2011 graduate of Northwestern University.
Dee Robinson is founder and CEO of Robinson Hill. The company, which is certified as a woman- and minority-owned business, operates restaurants and stores in airports around the country, including both O’Hare and Midway, as well as Navy Pier.
Marie Tillman founded Mac & Mia, a boutique clothing delivery service for children, in 2014. Mac & Mia has grown to 140 employees and recently raised $5 million in funding, bringing the company’s total funding to $9 million.
Michael Arndt, Editor of Crain’s Chicago Business, moderated the discussion.
Leaning in to failure
For most entrepreneurs, failure comes with the territory. For as many successes a business might have, there are many more failures in the rearview mirror that helped pave the way to success. All of the panelists agreed that they learned more form their failures than their successes and that learning to accept failures quickly is the key to growth and resiliency.
Accepting failure is all about what you can learn from the experience and how it can help you grow. It’s important to take time to evaluate what went wrong in specific situations – whether it was an internal mistake, an oversight, or an external factor completely outside of your control.
Marie said, “Shifting the way you think about failure – that’s critical. Failures happen every day. You have two choices – stop and give up, or figure out how to learn from failures and use them to your advantage.”
Dee added, “When you experience failures, those lessons are yours. You earned them. Figure out how to use failure to your advantage.”
The biggest challenge all panelists experienced? Those little negative voices.
Dee summed it up by saying, “By far, the biggest challenge is what goes on in your own head. Fear is so inhibitive; you need to think positively. Resiliency is crucial.”
Building a team you can trust
For an entrepreneur, it’s critical to have a positive mindset and to trust the strengths of your team – and develop a deep bench where you need it.
Kris said, “When a client first approached us to build an iPad app, we had never designed one before, but I immediately said yes. I knew our backend development team was more than capable to carry out the vision, and I trusted that they could do it. And they did.”
It’s just as important to build an external team of resources you can trust.
“Most business owners start off by running everything themselves. It’s in our nature. But at some point, you have to take a good hard look at your strengths as well as your weaknesses. If it’s not your expertise, learn to outsource those skills,” said Kris.
Dee agreed. “The partners that you choose – an accountant, your lawyer, or your outside HR team – be very careful. Talk to people that you know and ask them to refer people that you trust and that can truly add value. They should be true partners in your business.”
Underestimating women in business
All of the panelists agreed that it can be challenging to be a woman business owner, especially in male-dominated industries.
Claire said, “It can be frustrating when you’re not taken seriously because you’re a woman. When you’re paid a compliment on your appearance, rather than looked at for your business acumen.”
Claire had advice on how to turn those challenges into strengths. “I’m usually the only woman in the room, the only person of color in the room, and the youngest person in the room. Over time, I’ve learned to see it as an advantage. They remember me.”
Commenting on the #MeToo movement
When it comes to dealing with sexual harassment, the panelists said it’s an unfortunate distraction that they’ve experienced way too often, and it needs to be discussed.
Dee said it’s important to trust your gut and listen to red flags when they come up. “Not all business is not good business.”
“By talking about it and sharing our stories, we can learn that we’re not alone and start to understand each other,” said Claire. She added, “Let’s encourage a dialogue between men and women so we can meet in the middle.”
Marie added, “One positive thing that comes out of this movement is the conversation that comes out of it. Let’s talk about it with our daughters – and also with our boys. Let’s all start learning to respect each other better.”
Resources for women
The group agreed that there are many associations and resources available for women that can help with financing, networking, and certifications.
Kris said, “Networking is very important. Join associations that make sense for your operation. The more resources you have, the more opportunities you create for you and those around you.” But networking alone just for the sake of exchanging business cards isn’t quite enough. Kris added, “Make sure you’re meeting and speaking to the right person in an organization. Who are the decision makers? Figure out who those people are.”
“If you’re a woman business owner, look into becoming a woman certified owned business through WBENC. It can open a lot of doors for you,” Kris said.
Dee agreed that the Women’s Business Development Center is a great resource for women. “The WBDC is an amazing resource. We don’t do this alone! You can find support, resources, maybe even financing, at the center. They can help you with your WBENC certification. If you don’t know how to get started, start with the WBDC.”
A special thank you to Michael Arndt and Crain’s Chicago Business for organizing the energetic event.