At the suggestion of Kathy Caprino, a colleague, mentor, and all-around great lady, I adjusted my focus to start helping as many women entrepreneurs as possible. That’s been both rewarding and challenging. Women represent, in my mind, one of the greatest talent pools and sources of business growth for this century. According to the Women Entrepreneurs Summit Series report by the Small Business Administration (SBA) and Visa, “Women-owned businesses represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the economy.” Citing the National Women’s Business Council, the report notes, “women-owned firms grew 44% from 1997 to 2007, twice as fast as male-owned firms.”
The report also states that, in spite of the strides made by women in starting and maintaining business, challenges remain. One of the challenges, in my mind, is creating awareness of the specific needs of women entrepreneurs among their male contemporaries. To help accomplish that, Kathy suggested I join a number of women based discussion and networking groups. While I’ll never completely know what it’s like to be a woman in today’s business landscape, I can at least hear from women in the trenches and see issues discussed from their perspective. Yes, to start getting a real grasp of what women business owners face, I had to go to the source.
Doing that isn’t always easy. For one thing, identifying the source is sometimes challenging. Granted, in my case it was pretty simple, but that isn’t always the case. Let’s say you’re interested in learning about the ramifications of a new ruling governing international trade. Who represents the source? Would it be the issuing body (the FTC for example)? They created the ruling, true. But is it in the best position to advise you on the ruling’s ramifications? You may find the source in this case is a business person or industry adviser involved in the process to draft the ruling. They may see potential advantages and pitfalls the issuing authority does not. Another challenge comes in the form of resistance to your course of action. In my case, that came from some who feel a man has no place on a forum for women. I can empathize with them. For so long, narrow-minded, short-sighted men excluded women from opportunities. That makes some women wary of men. Additionally, some feel it’s nice to have a place they can call their own without having to worry about any unnecessary attitudes, viewpoints, and what-have-you men may bring. So I try not to take any negative comments or feelings personally. Still, I know that those forums are some of the best sources of insight into the challenges facing women, and that insight leads to greater understanding. So I’ve determined to continue going to the source, even while trying my best not to offend others.
What’s the point of all this? Simply put, if you want to excel in any given endeavor, go to the source for the best advice on succeeding in that endeavor even if doing so is unpopular with many.
How does this apply to business and leadership? Let’s consider a few examples.
Going Against the Grain: Urban Dove Charter School
When Jai Nanda decided to open a sports-based charter school, people thought he was crazy. Designing a curriculum around physical education, recruiting the students other schools have given up on, and starting in an area of Brooklyn, NY that is one of the neediest communities in New York City seemed impossible. What made him sure this would work? He went to the source – the students themselves. His experiences as a coach helped him see things from their perspective. Simply put, sports are fun! This led to the creation of an after school program for inner city kids where he encouraged at-risk students to lead other children. This empowerment worked wonders for the students (over 98% of those enrolled graduated high school, and the program has a 95% college attendance rate). So Jai decided to create the Urban Dove Charter School. Of course, there are challenges. Right now they’re renting space in the upper floors of a Methodist Church. They’ve lost approximately 10% of their initial enrollees (they went from approximately 108 students to 95 in their first year). Yet they expect to start their second year with most of their original students and 85 new students. So, although many thought he was crazy, “wisdom is proved righteous by its works,” as stated at Matthew 11:19. Going to the source definitely paid off for Jai, the school, the community, and especially the students (for more details see the CBS News report by Jeff Glor).
Sometimes You Have to Look Inward: Kathy Caprino
Going to the source isn’t always about looking to someone else. Sometimes you have to look inside yourself. Since Kathy Caprino helped inspire this post, it’s fitting we look to her example. Kathy was a corporate marketing executive for 18 years and, by all accounts, she had it all: Great job, rewarding work, happy family…all the elements of success. Yet as time passed, something changed. Though still outwardly successful, she struggled inwardly, and it had an effect on her work, family life, and health. She sought assistance from therapist, career counselors, and mentors, yet she still couldn’t find the fulfillment she sought. It wasn’t until a brutal layoff after the 9/11 attacks that clarity finally settled in. She had to look inward to find her answers, and she did. She focused on helping others going through similar career crises, and has never stopped. She’s also never been happier. Granted, there are still challenges, but the feeling of satisfaction she now receives from her work is priceless.
What’s YOUR Source?
The examples above highlight that going to the source isn’t always easy. Sometimes you have to go against conventional wisdom. You may have to go against the grain and ruffle a few feathers. It almost always brings challenges in one form or another. Yet is it worth it? Jai Nanda and Kathy Caprino certainly think so, and I agree with them. What do we learn from the examples above?
- Identify the Problem. Before you can figure out the source of the solution, you first have to figure out what’s wrong. In Jai’s case, he needed to know why children ditched school, particularly in impoverished areas. For Kathy, she had to figure out why her formerly satisfying career no longer filled her needs. Knowing the problem provides a clarity that sheds light on the solution.
- Have the Courage to be Different. Both Jai and Kathy had to go down a different path. Seeking out the students no one else wanted and enrolling them in a curriculum that stressed physical education seemed insane, but Jai knew it would work. Striking out on her own instead of fighting for another piece of the corporate world was no doubt both risky and frightening for Kathy and her family, yet it also led to freedom and satisfaction (as well as notoriety and prosperity in time). Without the emotional strength to weather those storms, they would not be where they are today.
Whatever project you choose, you’ll have to identify the challenges, the work out how to address them. Once the issues are clearly in focus, finding the right source for advice, guidance, and information becomes easier. When you identify the source, have the courage to tap into it. In many cases, that will be easy; the source is often conventional and highly respected. However, in those cases where you have to blaze a new trail, resistance is common. Be prepared to handle it, tap into your source, and reap the benefits. Have you found your source? Was it easy to identify? Did it take courage to travel down that path? Share your thoughts and experiences in the Comments below.
- NEW YORK: A school driven by physical education (charterpulse.com)
- Maverick Entrepreneurs Share Career Change Advice (changingcourse.com)
- A school driven by phys ed (cbsnews.com)
- I speak frequently at women’s networking events and some men always turn up. Why do you think that is, and is it OK? (linkedin.com)
- Top Woman Entrepreneurs to Follow on Twitter (grasshopper.com)
- Untapped Potential for Expanding Women’s Entrepreneurship Holds Promise to Grow the U.S. Economy, According to Kauffman Report (kauffman.org)