How to Leapfrog to Entrepreneurial Success

Photo credit Tanya Malott

As published on LinkedIn Influencers on September 4th, 2018.

I met the amazing Nathalie Molina Niño a couple of years ago when a mutual friend made an introduction, and we immediately bonded over our shared passion for supporting women entrepreneurs. This passion led Nathalie to found BRAVA Investments in 2016, a company that invests in start-ups that disproportionately benefit women. Their goal is not to create the next billionaire woman, but rather, BRAVA aims to put more wealth into the pockets of as many women as possible, and to this end, Nathalie has a pragmatic, no-nonsense insistence on results. In fact, BRAVA goes so far as to define the kind of investing they do as “outcomes over optics” rather than impact, which can mean so many things to different people. For Nathalie, it is all about real, measurable results.

Needless to say, Nathalie and I hit it off immediately, and I recently became a member of the leadership council at the Athena Center for Leadership studies at Barnard College, of which she is also a member. Nathalie also co-founded Entrepreneurs@Athena in 2012 with the express purpose of supporting the next generation of women entrepreneurs. When my daughter Allie was going through the college application process last year, this program was one that really stood out for her as a true differentiator for Barnard. There are countless studies that show that the deck is stacked against women entrepreneurs from the outset, so I’m happy to support any initiative that is working to level the playing field. Which bring us to last week, when Nathalie released her first book for women entrepreneurs, and one which I was eagerly awaiting.

LEAPFROG: The New Revolution for Women Entrepreneurs is the result of Nathalie’s over 20 years of experience working with start-ups. In fact, Nathalie launched her first tech start-up when she was just 20 years old, and in the years since she has grown multiple companies into $100M+ operations. Along the way she’s picked up numerous hacks for entrepreneurs to get ahead, which is exactly what LEAPFROG is all about. This book is packed with wisdom from her 20 years in startups, as well as interviews with nearly 50 amazing entrepreneurs who share real, pragmatic hacks for growing businesses that they themselves used on their own paths to success. After reading LEAPFROG, I had some questions for Nathalie, which she graciously took the time to answer. If you are as inspired as I was after reading her answers below, be sure to pick up your own copy and leapfrog away! As an active angle investor with over ten portfolio companies, you can be sure I will be sharing this book with all of their founders.

Jacki Zehner: You are quick to dispel the notion that leapfrog hacks aren’t cheating, but rather advantages that everyone can and should use when the system is already stacked against them. Why do you think people have such a negative reaction to the idea of taking ethical shortcuts when (as you point out) successful entrepreneurs do it all the time?

Nathalie Molina Niño: Women and men of color have good reason to worry about not doing things exactly by the book. We have a history of being intentionally locked out for any variation from the norm and let’s be honest, some of that idiocy is still happening, just look at this example from recent headlines in Japan. As a result, we put pressure on ourselves (and our kids) to be perfect and follow the rules. We worry about being singled out as the “affirmative action” candidate, of people thinking we’re only in the room because of our race or gender and not on merit. Those fears are not unfounded. But the way we win is to get beyond that and understand that what got us here isn’t going to help us where we’re going next. Anyone who has achieved success did it by taking some short cut, even if they don’t realize it. Being born in the right neighborhood is a shortcut when you consider what your prospects are, statistically speaking, when compared to someone born in the south side of Chicago. Luck is a shortcut too. As underrepresented communities, we – more than anyone else – need to use every shortcut we can possibly learn about because we have ground to make up. The World Economic Forum says that it will take 170 years to get to gender parity at the rate we’re going. That’s unacceptable, I’m sure everyone will agree. So, however uncomfortable it might make us, we owe it to the next generation to find every hack we can for winning at business, faster, cheaper, and more efficiently than anyone who came before us!

JZ: You return over and over again to the importance of storytelling throughout the book. Why do you think this is such an overlooked aspect of entrepreneurship?

NMM: I don’t think it is, I just think we call it different things and make it all seem magical and unattainable, which serves no one but those already in power and circles of high influence. We call it charm, we say someone is a natural born salesperson, we say a leader is charismatic. When the truth is that the thing that these people all have are just storytelling skills. I think de-mystifying that is important because it’s not magic; it’s a skill that you can develop and a muscle that simply needs to be exercised and often. Making something teachable into something magical only serves to alienate, and it’s time to put an end to that tired, old entrepreneurship culture. Storytelling is one of the most important skills in business and what’s great is that it’s eminently learnable.

JZ: One thing that I love about this book is that even though the hacks are organized consecutively for the process of starting and growing a business, you don’t offer a detailed step by step guide on how to start a successful business. Was this a conscious decision on your part to encourage readers to think outside the book and recognize that there is no one size fits all business model? What would you say to readers looking for easy answers and who might be frustrated with this approach?

NMM: Yes! It’s also the reason the book is launching as a paperback first. I wanted the book to be as hardworking and scrappy as your typical woman entrepreneur. Not fancy, not lofty, but practical and easy to jump into from the front, middle, or end. The kind of book you don’t think twice about scribbling in the margins of, the sort of book you’ll roll up and throw in your diaper bag without a care in the world. I end the book with a quote from poet and writer Yrsa Daley-Ward, “My destiny is louder than my comfort,” which is probably my best answer to anyone who finds the structure a little unorthodox. Starting and growing your own business will never be linear, the way most business books are written. If anything, I wrote the book because after 20 years at it, it was clear to me that most business books don’t reflect the messy, flexible, and far more artful ways that real businesses are built. I wanted to be sure LEAPFROG provided the tools to pave your own path, and the confidence to know that your way is just as good as any!

JZ: So many of these hacks seem counterintuitive at first glance, but once explained they’re so ingenious and you have to wonder why they are not the current status quo. Where are all these misconceptions in business coming from? Are they simply holdovers from an older system that no longer apply? Or is something else at play?

NMM: Yes, definitely something else is at play! I think hacks like these are the reality for most women entrepreneurs, because we’ve had to learn to be ingenious with limited resources. The problem is our stories aren’t being told, and our strategies for surviving against all odds have been relegated to the margins rather than celebrated and normalized. The legendary Marie Wilson, the founder of the White House Project, Take Your Daughters To Work Day, and the longtime head of the MS Foundation founded by Gloria Steinem, who developed some of the very early programs to seed and support women entrepreneurs in the US, said this after reading LEAPFROG, “It feels so familiar to me and the choices I made. It reminded me of the people who didn’t understand the leaps you could make, those who predicted failure and the times when I doubted myself, and much more. I’m grateful for a book that authorizes those decisions, even in retrospect.” I could have written a book of hacks based entirely on my own experience, and it would have positioned me as exceptional and as a thought leader. But I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew that there was wisdom and scrappy entrepreneurial genius all around me, and that’s why LEAPFROG is primarily packed with the stories of entrepreneurs I love and ideas that might seem unorthodox at first. But I hope they take hold and help redefine the tired old dominant startup narratives that rarely reflect women’s experiences.

JZ: I love your emphasis on social entrepreneurship, because as you discuss, any business can have social impact on their community or the world at large. With all of your experience in this area, why do you think women are uniquely suited for social entrepreneurship?

NMM: Frankly I don’t necessarily think they are! I think women are uniquely suited for any kind of business, and the data backs that. But I think that the times we live in demand of us a higher calling, one that uses business as a vehicle for social change and economic justice. So for me, it’s more of a higher calling, a hope and deep wish for us to join forces and use business to solve the intractable problems of our generation. I also think that to galvanize and mobilize anyone, you have to inspire them with something bigger than a pay check. People don’t work for money, people work for things they believe in. And starting and growing a company is hard work. So my hope is that the more we equate growing our businesses with growing our impact on the world, the more brilliant entrepreneurial women will step up and answer my call to play big!

JZ: The lessons from this book can benefit anyone looking to start a business anywhere in the world, but a lot of the specific resources and examples you give are based in the US market. Do you have any plans to expand LEAPFROG into a more international movement?

NMM: Actually the book was purchased by a publisher in mainland China, which is home to the highest number of self-made women billionaires in the world! I’m beyond excited and as someone who has spent her life taking businesses global, I’m hoping it’s the first of many international markets that will join the LEAPFROG revolution!

JZ: I don’t know how it would be possible, but if there was someone out there who has read LEAPFROG and is still on the fence about becoming an entrepreneur, do you have one last piece of advice or motivation to help them take that final leap?

NMM: Yes, to them I’d say, you’ve already got what it takes, no jump needed. What’s next now is just to see it inside yourself, own that hidden entrepreneurial powerhouse that’s ready to come out. Whether it’s a small side hustle providing a little extra income or a full time venture, this is a muscle you can grow over time, on your schedule, in your own way. The important thing is just to start, and be impatient, because there’s a whole generation of brilliant little girls watching and waiting for us to pave the way for them!

Big thanks to Nathalie and feel free to share your hacks below.

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