I attended the UMKC’s First Wednesday’s panel discussion on female and minority entrepreneurs on September 5th, 2019. The panel consisted of four entrepreneurs:
It’s interesting to note that while the topic was about diversity in entrepreneurship, the products these entrepreneurs were selling were about as diverse as you could get. They were first and foremost, very different from each other. But they were also very niched products within the industries they operated in. Crumble Co. is selling boutique candles, not your basic ones you can buy at Target. Local Legends Gaming doesn’t create video games or have an arcade, but actually is a sort of hybrid between companies that focus on gaming and companies that put on events.
And while that didn’t come up in the discussion, it rang very true to me. In the crowded marketplace we live in, the most important thing for entrepreneurs to do is to separate themselves in a notable way from their competition. It is just to difficult to compete with big players if you’re doing the same old thing as them. They simply have too many resources at their disposal.
There was some discussion on the difficulties of being a woman or a minority, which I can admittedly find a bit tiring. But it wasn't too bad. For example, Brandon noted that he would sometimes have to do business over the phone instead of in person while intentionally speaking in a lower voice for fear that some might be turned off by his “effeminate appearance.” Carol noted how she felt it was a challenge seeking capital when most of the lenders were “white men” who might be skeptical of her as a young, Latina woman. But for the most part, the conversation focused on universal problems that entrepreneurs face.
Carol made the point that “access to capital is the biggest problem.” She continued “When you need money, it’s not available and when you don’t need money, everyone wants to lend to you.” There was universal agreement on this point.
What followed next was a good discussion of grit; a character trait that seems to get way too little attention these days. Carol noted that she didn’t get an order for the first two years of business and that when she finally did, she didn’t have enough money to float the inventory. She ended up making 81 calls in one day with almost everyone saying “no.” But she finally got a “yes” and has grown significantly from there.
I think that’s a key point that entrepreneurs need to get in their head; you are going to suffer setbacks and hardships. You will hear “no” a lot more than “yes.” You need to be prepared for that.
During the Q&A session, one student asked how they deal with fear. This question goes hand in hand with grit. Grit is how you get through any given problem without quitting. Fear is how your start without giving into procrastination or giving up.
Brandon made the very keen observation that “dealing with failure is a skill you improve at with experience.” I thought this was a great point and reminds me of a print out my brother keeps by his desk that simply reads “make more mistakes.” As Thomas J. Watson put it, “if you want to increase your success, double your rate of failure.” Yes, trying leads to mistakes and failure sometimes. But you won’t succeed without trying. So you have to just go for it. And the more experience you get, the fewer mistakes you will make and the easier it becomes to deal with those mistakes you do.
Carol also gave some great advice that I remember reading in Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Namely, write down the worst-case scenario and how you would deal with that. Once you realize you can survive the worst-case scenario, the fear will mostly go away. I have definitely found this to be true.
There was also a long discussion on company culture that I thought was helpful. Rich―sitting in for Lisa Bledsoe―observed that in most companies, if you asked the staff what the company culture was, you would probably get a wide range of answers. This is, of course, a problem.
To rectify this, Carol pointed out that you should make sure you can (and also go ahead and do) tell your employees what your company culture is supposed to be. And both Brandon and Abdul noted that the culture must start with you. If you’re selfish and secretive, your company’s culture will be as well. If you are open and hard-working, your culture will, more than likely, be open and hard-working too.
Of course, you will have problem employees. And unfortunately, you have to let those people go. Brandon noted that at one point he pretty much had to lay off his whole staff. But while it’s critical to hire and keep a team that embodies the culture you want your company to have, that culture still starts with you.
Overall, it was a good discussion that covered a lot of important aspects and challenges of being an entrepreneur. I thought each of the panelists had a lot of good insights and will probably continue to be successful.
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