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.

Let’s Kickstart What We Want to See in the World

0bcfabd Published on LinkedIn Influencers on May 16, 2014.

In the not so distant past, access to capital was extremely difficult. It didn’t matter how brilliant your idea or project may have been, the reality was that a select few people held all the cards in terms of financing, and whether you were trying to record an album, start a company, make a movie, or write a book, your project lived and died by those select few gatekeepers of capital. But no longer! We’ve seen the rise of the phenomenon known as crowdfunding, and last year I wrote about crowdfunding and highlighted Catapult, an online crowdfunding resource for backing projects that support women and girls across the globe. Now it is time to share the story of a particular Kickstarter campaign, one that could not be nearer or dearer to my heart.

The back story: It’s no secret that I love superheroes. I’ve written many times about my love of superhero movies, my obsession with Wonder Woman, and my frustration with Hollywood’s inability to get Wonder Woman to the big screen. This love of superheroes began as a child with my weekly dose of the Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends, but as an adult, my passion for superheroes was ignited in 2001 when I read an article by Tom Peters in Fast Company Magazine: “50 Rules of Leadership”. The last rule was left blank, inviting readers to come up with their own rule of leadership, and after thinking it through, I wrote in, “Be A Superhero.” I typed up this statement, and a colleague of mine added superhero visuals around it, in which Wonder Woman was prominently displayed. The finished product remained on my desk until I left that job, and it is currently hanging in my home office, reminding me every day to be a superhero and to strive to be the best I can be.

30327d3That colleague’s name was Dawn Nadeau, and just this week she and her partner, Julie Kerwin, launched a kickstarter campaign to support their new company, IAmElemental, that will produce a series of female action figures that represent The Elements of Power. These elements form a new version of the periodic table, and are based on the idea that we don’t need a radioactive spider to bite us in order become powerful; we are all already powerful, and that power comes from within. The action figures will be released as a series, with each series consisting of seven figures that each represent an element of a particular power. The first series is that of Courage, with the seven elements being Bravery, Honesty, Energy, Persistence, Enthusiasm, Industry, and Fear. Should these prove successful, IAmElemental has plans for many more series that when combined will create a periodic table of power.

What is potentially revolutionary about IAmElemental’s toys is that these figures do not have set origin stories, but instead encourage kids to create their own stories based on their own ideas and the powers they see within themselves. 0c7b276As the Kickstarter campaign states, IAmElemental believes that kids “are not only capable of creating their own stories, but that story creation is a vital part of their emotional development.” In other words, these action figures are meant to be more character than characters. It’s an amazing example of the power of play, and how something as simple as an empowering action figure can have a huge impact on a child’s imagination. It also helps that these action figures look amazing, and for once, offer realistic body sizes and ratios that stand in stark contrast to the female action figures currently on offer, thereby making them every mother’s dream come true for their impressionable daughters (and sons!).

So why did Dawn and Julie decide to start this company? Because as mothers they were frustrated with the lack of quality superheroes and action figures on the market for girls. Although my baby just turned 14 years old, I remember feeling the same way when she was younger. That is why I know this company will be successful. Smart, intelligent, let’s get it done women are creating something that they would want to buy, and know their friends would want to buy as well. They are not waiting for the market to give them what they want, they are creating the goods themselves. This is what is at the heart of the growing trend in women’s entrepreneurship, and platforms like Kickstarter are helping their dreams and hard work become a thriving business.

3ef8b00Needless to say, I immediately backed this campaign, not only because a dear friend started it, but because I want this product to exist. I know so many little girls who all have birthdays coming up, and this is a gift I can’t wait to give. A set of female action figures that helps us find our superpowers! Are you kidding me? Aside from a pint sized Wonder Woman t-shirt, this has ‘Jacki gift’ written all over it. And I’m not the only one who believes in this project, because just three days into the campaign, it met its initial goal of $35,000, and as of this writing, it’s 193% funded and climbing. Let’s not stop there. Join me in supporting these two incredible women and turn it from a campaign into a movement, and prove to the powers that be that there is a market for empowering female action figures and superheroes. Let’s bring the GIRL POWER to these GIRL POWER toys. And better yet, let’s bring the GUY POWER too.

If this project does not ring your bells like it does mine, consider supporting another project. With over 4,700 hundred live Kickstarter projects at the time of this writing, and more being added every day, there’s a project out there to suit everyone’s interests. And that’s just on one platform! Regardless of what project you ultimately decide to support, the important thing is that platforms like this are democratizing capital and I love it. While unlocking bigger pools of capital is still challenging, the proof of concept that success on kickstarter demonstrates offers a big head start, so let’s all support the projects we believe in and help make dreams a reality. Now that’s the stuff of superheroes.

Jacki Zehner and Laura Moore


Rising International and Using Our Financial Power for Positive Change

Carmel-JudOn March 19th, I was honoured to give the keynote speech at the 5th Annual Hands of Hope Luncheon for Rising International. Rising International is an incredible organization that seeks to eliminate extreme poverty in the world through the economic empowerment of women in some of the world’s poorest countries.

I love the layered effect, the wave effect, the ripple effect of this organization’s work. The women who create the product, called Rising Artisans, create beautiful homemade crafts providing them with money to support themselves and their families. The product is then sold  by Rising Representatives in the United States, most of whom are  from low income backgrounds themselves. Women like me, like you, then host the parties where the Rising Rep presents and sells.  The monies raised support Rising’s minimal, and I mean minimal, infrastructure costs, the sales representative, and the producing woman. Meanwhile we get to buy really cool goods and feel great about it. This is what you might call a win, WIN, WIIINNNNN. ( you can also buy direct from their web-site.)

Through this partnership, Rising International is building a community of women who are taking charge of their lives, and are helping each other to rise out of poverty by becoming economically self sufficient. Founded by Carmel Jud in 2003 ( pictured) , Rising International looked to the business model of Avon, where 5 million women generate $10 billion in revenue every year by selling Avon products. Imagine the economical and social impact of 5 million women selling products to benefit the world’s poorest women. The possibilities are endless and paradigm shifting.

When Carmel asked me to give the key-note speech, how could I say no?  My remarks followed the logic model of the TED Talk I gave last year. In this speech I talk about the reasons why there is no better time than the present day to address the gender inequalities that exist on every level of life in every country in the world, and do something about it!  While there are many reasons for why now is the right moment, the four primary points I address are:

1) The fact that there is a growing body of research that shows that gender equality is good for economic development, peace, and sustainability. We case has been made! ( see my resource section)

2) That men are recognizing the benefits and importance of gender equality and are joining women to create positive  change. Gender inequality is no longer framed as a women’s issue, it as a human rights and economic development issue.

3) That technology is now playing such an important role in both communicating need, and enabling action.

4) The fact that more and more people are using their money and resources to advance the causes and values in which they most believe.

With all of these factors combined, there has never been a better time to enact real and lasting change for the empowerment of women and girls worldwide.

My speech went on to say that money should not be viewed as a symbol of power, but rather as a powerful tool for social change. Money is not the end game, it is the means. It is high time we rethink about the role that many plays in our lives and in our culture in general.  I asked everyone consider how they are using their financial resources to serve their values and vision.

It is well documented that women make the majority of purchasing decisions in households in the United States. This is why billions of dollars are spent every year in ad campaigns that are targeted directly at women. Imagine how quickly things would change if we were to use that incredible financial power to support women and women’s leadership? If, for example, women were to put their purchasing power behind companies that had a critical mass of women on their boards, and stop buying products from them if they don’t, imagine how quickly corporate boards would diversify.   If you think that is a good idea but are asking yourself how would I know that? Check out Women on Boards 2020 and their corporate directory.  An IPHONE AP is coming!

What I hope people took away from both my speech at Rising International, and from watching my TED Talk, is that a world where women and girls enjoy more equal status at all levels of society is a world that is not only attainable, but one that we all have the power and resources to make happen, today. How we use our financial resources: our giving dollars, our investment dollars, our spending dollars, are key to this vision. When it comes right down to it, there is simply no good reason for the stalled progress of the past decade. It is time for NO EXCUSES, let’s work together for change.

Generously said from Carmel..

Jacki Zehner, CEO of Women Moving Millions delivered the keynote address for our Hands of Hope Luncheon on March 19th. We’ve been producing this luncheon event for 5 years now, and this was by far our most successful event ever.  Jacki’s message was powerful: that we must more fully use our financial resources; our giving, spending and investing dollars, in greater alignment with a vision for a more just and equitable world.  Event attendees have been calling and emailing our office expressing their excitement and conviction for joining Jacki in supporting and empowering women and girls. Jacki Zehner is a powerful speaker with a powerful purpose who is transforming lives, and we are deeply grateful she shared her passionate message at our event.