Thirty years on Wall Street has taught me a few things about being a woman in the business world that I'd like to share with the next generation of multicultural women who want to start and scale a business. In the early days of my career, I had my own personal missteps amidst numerous victories.
I always vowed that when I reached senior management, and people came to me for advice, I would provide them with the tools, strategies and pearls of wisdom honed by my own experience. That's why it is such an honor to be chair of the National Women's Business Council and have an independent platform from which to share my pearls of wisdom. Here are five of my “Carla's Pearls."
1. Build Your “Relationship Currency"
Starting out as a woman in the male-dominated industry of investment banking, I thought working hard was enough, but quickly realized it was not only hard work, but the people who leveraged their relationships were actually the ones able to climb the fastest. My advice to young professionals and entrepreneurs is, don't over invest in your performance because it really is the 'relationship currency' that gets you the next great assignment, a piece of business that generates visibility or the ability to have access to someone that can make the difference. Relationship currency comes from spending time with people inside and outside your organization that can positively impact your career or business. Some of the most important relationship currency I amassed in my journey to becoming a major decision-maker has been from mentors and sponsors.
First, understand the distinction between a mentor and a sponsor. Your mentor needs to know you very well and be willing to give you unaltered feedback in a direct way, while also understanding your work context, and always have your BEST interest at heart. My advice to anyone, and particularly women of color is, do not be confined to choosing someone that looks like you or that works in your organization. As long as you believe that the person knows you really well, and you are able to give them the “good, bad and the ugly" of whatever your concern or situation may be, then they can be an effective mentor for you. Your sponsor is the person who will use their social and political currency to advance your career or professional decisions being made about you behind closed doors within your organization. You need to identify the person who has a seat at the decision-making table, who has the power and influence to get to an affirmative decision on your behalf. If you are an entrepreneur, then your sponsor can be the person who is using their personal connections to introduce you to sources of capital, new customers or even new suppliers.
2. Expand Your Network Far And Wide
Always be thinking of every person you already know and new ones you meet in terms of how they can help you grow your professional network. You must build your network far beyond mentors and sponsors. Make sure that you are constantly taking time to connect with new people, and also maintain existing relationships in and out of the office. Even if it's just to say “hi, how was your weekend?" or “let's catch up over coffee," these light touches can give you the basis to start building intentional relationships that can be meaningful to you and your business. The key to success is the follow-up with people.
Consider individuals such as family, friends, employees, co-workers, customers and service providers that not only know who you are, but are also connected to other people who might turn out to be helpful to you. You'll be surprised at the network of people that are available to you that you already know –– your doctor, your peer or a former teacher for example. You have to start talking to people about what you are planning to do, what you need, etc.
Entrepreneurs of color should especially over invest in building relationships in order to have access to the people that could make the difference in having the capital needed to scale or the customer that could change your business in an exponential way.
3. Seek Out All Available Resources
Take the time to learn what resources are available to you. During my travels across the country as Chair of the National Women's Business Council, I found that city-by-city, there are economic development, small business and even financial resources that are not used because many people are not aware they even exist as options.
To potential, current and future small business owners and entrepreneurs, start by going to the NWBC website (www.nwbc.org) to see what resources are in your city. You can also check the state or mayor's website and the SBA website for additional resource partners in your area such as the Women's Business Centers. With a few clicks, you will find resources in your area that you should fully leverage before making the extraordinary effort to go beyond your geographical boundaries. These resources are so important because of the challenges faced by women when it comes to securing capital funding, a particularly daunting challenge for multicultural women-owned businesses.
Consider the company you are currently working at as a tremendous resource as well. Try to work for a business that is in the same sector as the company that you want to start or that is very similar to your prospective business model.
You can learn how your company put their business together, how they obtained capital financing, how they attracted customers, etc. You want to achieve the highest level of success possible, and you cannot do it on your own. Emulate the people around you working towards similar goals.
4. Consider Many Options For Raising Capital
While working, save, save, save! You want to have your own capital to put into your business. If you have a great idea, but have no capital, it will be easy for investors to have disproportionate leverage in your business.
A growing and optimal arena where women have proven to excel in raising capital is crowdfunding. Although more men use seed crowdfunding, research shows that women are more successful in this growing funding arena.
This is most likely due to women creating larger and closer social networks, which I can't stress enough is the true key. Remember that 'relationship currency!' It will help you towards crowdfunding success. Women crowdfunding campaigns have higher success rates in comparison to men, averaging to be 4.6% more successful than their male counterparts in funding a campaign.
As your business starts to grow, don't forget about human capital early. Remember to add human capital so that you have the capacity to handle the growth. I have seen so many entrepreneurs who had to walk away from a valuable business and customers simply because they had no capacity to execute the business.
5. Help Each Other Out
I am a firm believer that our young girls need our help early on with exposure to financial literacy education to inspire greater interest in finance careers and to better equip young women as budding entrepreneurs.
My grandmother, who was the first female entrepreneur that I knew, would often let me count the money from her business and by the time that I was in 8th grade, I was helping her with her bookkeeping. It gave me an early interest in money and finance and as I got older and then became exposed to Wall Street, I was all in!
In the end, women need to band together, just as they are with other social issues. Through the creation of a community, there is a place where women can exchange their ideas and their challenges. Your family, friends, mentors, employees, co-workers and customers not only know who you are, but are also connected to other people who might turn out to be helpful to you and your business. You'll be surprised at the resources that are available from the people that you already know. Be an advocate for yourself and for others to create positive outcomes for women entrepreneurs and business owners.
WRITTEN BYCarla Harris