What an invigorating conversation it was at the Lean In Canada Women in Entrepreneurship panel. Female entrepreneurs from diverse industries - fishing, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, and skincare, participated in the speaker panel to share their lessons on the road of entrepreneurship has challenged them, and how they have overcome such obstacles.
Here are the three panelists:
Close to 120 attendees sat attentively as the conversation began on the topic of why each panelist chose the path less traveled - why entrepreneurship?
Lee compares the entrepreneurial journey as choosing a different path to cross the river; one could safely walk across the bridge overtop, or they could choose to skip across on the slippery stones, sometimes covered with moss, to achieve the same objective. Her career began in the education realm, and when her son came home one day with his Social Studies textbook printed in 1995, she knew that she had to make education and its methodology more useful and relevant for the current generation. Another story she shared was that she had met a skilled immigrant with not one, but two engineering degrees, who worked as the cleaning lady in her office building. Lee asked why the woman hadn't gotten a job with her engineering background, and the women said it was because she didn’t speak English, BUT, she says, ‘both my sons go to UBC’. This encounter also triggered Lee to take it upon herself to solve the problem of language barriers, because skilled immigrants coming to Canada could both add value for the economy and for themselves if they knew how to speak and interact in English. This is why Lee founded Argotian and Virtro Entertainment Inc.
Patrice and Sonia both shared that for them, it was seeing a problem, seeing that no one else was bothering to solve it, and taking it upon themselves to find a solution.
For Patrice, she had a career in journalism and was also a television anchor before she embarked on the entrepreneurial journey because of her daughter’s eczema issues. When she created her first product, she started in farmer’s markets and went around to different stores hoping they would carry her product; the first woman she approached simply told her no, to which Patrice countered ‘well, do you have any skin issues?’ The woman said that there was this rough patch on her ring finger she couldn’t get rid of, and Patrice asked her to try Satya Organic’s eczema product to see if it helped. The next day, the woman called and said she would carry the product.
In Sonia’s case, she started out wanting to help fishermen, who have historically been paid a meager wage for their work, and have often just accepted it as a fact, instead of figuring out how they improve their standard of living. Often fishermen would have to go into debt to purchase monitoring equipment if they want to fish a special breed, such as Halibut, where the monitoring camera would cost ten thousand dollars. It was a hefty investment before even knowing if there would be any return. Sonia’s business, Skipper Otto Community Supported Fishery, now supports thirty families through figuring out creative solutions to helping them get started and to become sustainable. Her team helped the fisherman purchase the ten thousand dollar camera, and over the course of the camera, he was able to repay them and now owns the camera he uses to generate more revenue from his labor.
THE FEAR OF GETTING STARTED
One of the fears for aspiring entrepreneurs is getting started - most would defer to the excuse that they don't know where to begin. Speaking to this point, Sonia says that “You don’t have to have all the answers. You need to know there’s a problem that has to be fixed.”
Sonia's teaching background and interest in sciences led her to take on a hypothesis-based approach to starting and building her business. “I have a hypothesis. There’s something I want to try. When you hit on the thing that works, then it takes off.”
Patrice wanted to start slowly, but the rapid adoption and demand for her product took her from the farmer’s market to hundreds of retail locations within the same year. For her, it was the need to focus and take on the challenges of rapid growth head-on. Patrice says that she didn’t go to business school, but ‘don’t let the people in suits tell you what to do, you know your business better than anyone else on the planet.’
ON SELF CARE | Don’t be a Martyr
The panel also agreed that while it is important to hustle and work hard, self care is of utmost importance. Patrice says that we shouldn't "race to the suffering", and that we shouldn’t be a martyr, where we compare ‘achievements’ like not having slept for days, or not having eaten properly for a week. Sonia added to this point by saying that if you are not properly taking care of yourself "you won't HAVE 100% of yourself to bring to work."
How about dealing with 'rainy days'? Where the business isn't doing well or the stress is simply overwhelming? Patrice shares that the entrepreneurial journey is a very isolating one, so we have to be prepared that there are some challenges we must face alone; Lee shared with the audience that while that is true, it is important to find and establish a supportive network that can 'tell you straight' and 'be ok with you having a bad day'. For true friends and supporters, it is as the old saying goes, ‘if they can’t handle you at your worse, they don’t deserve you at your best.’
Looking from the outside in, observers would have said that when Satya Organics was featured in a Montreal newspaper, had just shipped a large shipment to Hong Kong, and been featured on Dragons' Den was a great period for Patrice, but it was also when she was facing inventory and cash flow problems resulting from the 'success'. The point is, the entrepreneurial route may look glamorous on the outside, but you must be prepared for the hard work and roller coaster that entrepreneurship is. What is perceived as ‘success’ on the outside could be the toughest time period for the entrepreneur.
FULL-TIME OR PART-TIME ENTREPRENEURSHIP?
To this question, the panelists say that it depends on the industry. In the case of Sonia’s business, building a community supported fishery takes years of work and dedication and she was able to begin to test her hypothesis off the side of her desk while she was still teaching; whereas for business in tech, such as Lee’s AI and VR education business, there are certain windows they have to make, before a competitor leaps ahead with the next update.
The answer is, to do what you have to do and get started, but when it gets serious, it is very difficult to run a business and really get it off the ground as a part-time job.
When asked 'when and how do you know when you want to commit to entrepreneurship full time', Sonia shared that she had once thought about giving up on Skipper Otto because she was torn between her interest in teaching and her passion for supporting the families and changing their work environment in the fishing industry. Her mentor had asked her 'imagine a world where you stopped doing Skipper Otto, someone else will come along, because they will since it's such a great idea - how would you feel?"
Her response was immediate in that she knew she had to tackle this problem and it was on her to make the difference.
Similarly, Patrice and Lee saw a problem and saw that no one else was moving to attempt to create a viable and sustainable solution, so they took it upon themselves to seek the answers to benefit the people they care about. You could feel from the conversation that the drive behind each of these businesses is the entrepreneur’s commitment to helping the end-user of their product and services, it isn’t all about the money for them.
ON RETAINING TALENT
As the conversation moved into how the speakers recruit and retain talent, Patrice simply said 'pay a living wage'. Patrice also creatively engages stay-at-home moms to work with her on her business, because stay-at-home moms are 'a huge untapped potential workforce." Doing this gives moms an opportunity to work flexible hours, and also helps Patrice grow her business in a sustainable way - a win-win solution only a creative problem solver would be able to come up with!
The room was abuzz with energy as aspiring entrepreneurs, fresh graduates and seasoned entrepreneurs who listened and nodded in unison to the authentic conversation on stage. The lesson is entrepreneurship is hard, it's not for everyone, and you don't have to start out with all the answers. The most important thing is to take care of yourself as you are striving to build your business - always take care of number 1 so you can bring 100% (and your A Game!) to your business!