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89 Posts authored by: Bank of America SB Team

Caulipower founder and CEO, Gail Becker, wasn’t afraid to tap into the competitive food industry when she launched her successful company that took the frozen food section by storm. This episode of “The Heartbeat of Main Street” covers the goal and vision behind Caulipower, the obstacles Gail Becker faced as a new female entrepreneur, and the support she found through NAWBO.

 

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Narrator:                     Welcome to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com. And here's your host, Greg Stebben.

 

Gregg Stebben:          I'm here with Gail Becker. She's the founder and CEO of the company, Caulipower. I'm going to say that again in case you think I said cauliflower. I didn't. I said Caulipower. The website is eatcaulipower.com. They're on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram @Caulipower. Gail, welcome.

 

Gail Becker:                Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.

 

Gregg Stebben:          I want to start this interview by saying that you and your company, you and your team, are 100% responsible for my dinner last night.

 

Gail Becker:                That might be the best interview start I've ever heard.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Well, you can hear the bag. I'm wrinkling it in the background here. I had the Spicy(ish) Chicken Tenders, and they're pretty spicy for spicy-ish.

 

Gail Becker:                You know what? Some people think they're spicy. Some people think they're not spicy, so we decided to beg the difference and call them spicy-ish.

 

Gregg Stebben:          I'm going to really heap a lot of praise on you, your company, the product that I had for dinner last night, and what you've done. But I have to tell you one of the best advertisements I've seen in a long time was on your website. So, I knew I was going to be talking to you today. I was doing my research yesterday, and I said I'm going to go get some Caulipower product to try before we talk, because it would be rude of me not to.

 

Gail Becker:                Thank you.

 

Gregg Stebben:          And there was this ad on your website of a woman holding a bag of your chicken tenders. And it said, "I can't believe I ate the whole bag." Only ... I'm looking for the number here. 490 calories? I mean, I've memorized the ad. Only 490 calories. And I knew when I saw that that two things were going to happen before I went to bed last night.

 

                                    I knew I was going to have some Spicy(ish) Chicken Tenders. And I knew, knowing myself as I do, that I was going to do just as she did and I was going to get the entire bag.

 

Gail Becker:                And you didn't have to feel too bad about it.

 

Gregg Stebben:          No, I felt ... First of all, delicious. Easy to make. And the other thing that was interesting to me ... and I just want to say this because it was kind of a real lesson for me in this. I never eat frozen food. Just going to that aisle was an eye-opener for me of all the probably really unhealthy food, and there I was with your chicken tenders reading the back of the bag, and thinking of myself, "This, as promised, is a really healthy option." And it was delicious, too.

 

Gail Becker:                Thank you. That's such a nice thing to hear. The frozen food section has changed a lot over the years for the better, definitely. There's some room to go, but the point is there's something for everybody.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Yes, yes. Well, I discovered that. I think I found my go-to. I do not think we will ever have a freezer without at least one bag of your chicken tenders for an emergency dinner.

 

Gail Becker:                Oh my gosh. Made my day.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Yes.

 

Gail Becker:                Today is all downhill from here.

 

Gregg Stebben:          So, you're ... I hope not. I hope it only gets better and better during the course of this interview. So, the company is Caulipower. What is Caulipower? What is the company? What are your products? And how on earth did you come to make a company called Caulipower?

 

Gail Becker:                The last question is probably the most tricky. I'll start with the easy part. Caulipower is a company that, quite simply, brings meal hacks to life. Better for you, easier, more convenient, and never sacrificing taste for nutrition or convenience. It's a frozen food company. I started it in ... I had left corporate America in May of 2016 and launched the company in February of 2017.

 

Gregg Stebben:          So, you're a newbie at this.

 

Gail Becker:                Super newbie.  We punch above our weight.

 

Gregg Stebben:          I want to take note of the fact that you're new in this business, and getting in the food business cannot be easy. I mean, there's a lot of hurdles you have to jump through far beyond making more common, unregulated consumer products.

 

Gail Becker:                Yeah, no. There are definitely easier industries to go into. I will not lie. But I have to say, it's also an industry that is very welcoming of innovation, welcoming of entrepreneurs, and new blood. While in some ways it's one of the more challenging to break into, in other ways it's actually very welcoming of the innovation that is often brought by small businesses.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Your original product, if I understand correctly, was cauliflower pizza crust under the name Caulipower. Correct? I eat a lot of cauliflower. I make cauliflower rice and things like that. I didn't know that cauliflower pizza crust was a thing. How did this become such a thing that you thought you should start a business revolving around it?

 

Gail Becker:                I'm the mom of two boys with celiac disease, and they were diagnosed at such a young age that there was no gluten free food in the store. Every time they needed something, I would have to make it from scratch, or order it from some funky company that you never heard of online. What I began to notice over the years was how much junk the industry was putting in gluten free food. More fat, sugar, and calories, and less nutrients.

                                    I sort of waited for the industry to do something about it. And when I saw that they never did, I decided to leave corporate America and do it myself. Now, I didn't invent cauliflower crust pizzas. I tried it one time. I've actually only made it at home one time. People find that hard to believe, but it was only one time. And-

 

Gregg Stebben:          You mean the traditional from scratch way?

 

Gail Becker:                Well, yeah.

 

Gregg Stebben:          I'm assuming you've eaten your product many times.

 

Gail Becker:                My product many, many, many times. But I'm saying when I first started, I made ... there were 569,000 recipes online. I just picked one. I couldn't even tell you which one I picked. I made it. It was okay. My sons asked if I would make it again. And I said, "There is no way I'm making that again, because it took 90 minutes to make the crust after I got home from a full day of work."

 

Gregg Stebben:          Right? And you still have to make the pizza.

 

Gail Becker:                And you still have to make the pizza. By the way, it's kind of insulting that people even think that I have time for that. I thought, "Well, I can't be the only one." Clearly there's all these people who are struggling to do this. I was disenchanted with corporate life. I was ready for a change. My father had just passed away, and I was really looking to do something more meaningful. I put all of those three things in a blender, and basically what I came out with was, "Hey, I know. I'm going to quit my job and start a company called Caulipower." And that is exactly what I did.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Looking at your background and looking at it on LinkedIn ... I mean, you have a fascinating background that includes ... you were a reporter, you worked on the Clinton/Gore campaign, you made a transition from there to the Department of Health and Human Services. Then you ended up as the president of Strategic Partnerships and Global Integration for Edelman, which is a huge global ... I guess, would you call it a communications company?

 

Gail Becker:                Yeah. It's the largest PR firm in the world.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Okay, so the largest PR firm in the world. What's interesting is on one hand I would think, "Well, there's probably some things there that would make it easy for you to start a business." Or at least you would have some insights that others might not. But there would have been nothing there to make me think you would, again, start ... not just a food company, but a very, very specific type of food company making very specific products with this real promise. I think you called them food hacks.

 

                                   But really, when I look at your product line, I think what you're really promising to do is to give me a better way to eat at home conveniently and in a very healthy way. How much of an impact, or how much of a benefit do you think you got from your previous experience? And what were the things that were the hardest for you to learn that nothing had ever prepared you for?

 

Gail Becker:                I would say in terms of my background, the things that probably helped the most was actually my time in the corporate world. At my prior job, I ran a lot of the businesses for the company. But I also worked on a lot of clients. I had a lot of exposure to how to build a brand, how not to build a brand, and things to do from a marketing perspective that would help tell your story to consumers.

 

                                   That was a huge benefit to me in starting my own brand. And it's funny when you come from the consulting world, because you sort of spend all those years giving advice to people. Sometimes they take it and sometimes they don't. One of the great things about starting your own company is you get to always take your advice.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Or sometimes you take it and sometimes you don't.

 

Gail Becker:                Yeah, exactly. Sometimes you regret taking it. So, that was a huge help. I would say everything that was difficult had to do with the specific food industry. Being a manufacturer in that industry, making stuff ... making stuff is just hard, whatever it is. I mean, maybe food in particular. But being a manufacturer of anything is really, really tough. I had no idea.

 

                                    And then learning the industry ... you know, I would go into the early sales meetings with different retailers and so forth. There were so many acronyms, and so many ways of doing things, and saying things in this tight knit community that ... I actually would leave a meeting and I had no idea what people were saying, because there were so many words that I had never heard before. So, really learning the industry, learning the jargon that went along with it, and battling it up against the big boys, as it were. When you look at the frozen pizza space, for instance.

 

Gregg Stebben:          But you actually probably went into one of the most competitive frozen food fields, other than ice cream, that exists.

 

Gail Becker:                Yes. I wish I had known that then. I didn't. Ignorance is bliss, I suppose. You are right. The frozen section overall is the most competitive space in the grocery store, because there's the least of it. Anyone that's in there, there is very limited space. If you come in, someone else has to go out. Today we are right up there next to the big boys, I like to say, but it certainly it wasn't like that in the beginning. It's been quite a journey, but a really remarkable one.

 

Gregg Stebben:          I want to call out the fact that you started by making ... tell me if this is correct. Essentially, pizza crust made out of cauliflower. Hence the name Caulipower. And you were making that because you recognize that there were families like yours where flour was not a possibility. But you've expanded now.

 

Gail Becker:               You know what? I would never say that ... I certainly didn't make it for only the gluten free community. That's why I went into it. But my thing was far more… I mean, we don't even market it as gluten free products. We market it as better tasting, better-for-you products that happens to be gluten free.

 

                                   I did that because my insight as a mom of two boys growing up with celiac was that there was always ... there's an art. There was always everybody had to eat something different. My insight at the time was: wouldn't it be great if we could all just eat the same thing even if we had different reasons for eating it? Why do you have to eat something that's specifically gluten free? Why do you have to eat something that's specifically lower in calories, or lower in fat? I just thought: let's make products that really everybody can enjoy even if they have different reasons for enjoying it. Nobody has time today to make three different meals. There's something really nice about sharing from the same plate.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Well, to an equally important if not more important business point, is when you look at it that way, the market is exponentially larger. Correct?

 

Gail Becker:                Correct.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Which we all love that.

 

Gail Becker:                We also love that.

 

Gregg Stebben:          One of the points I want to make is you went from pizza crust, to pizza, what you were saying. Now you're next to the big boys.

 

Gail Becker:                We launched with four pizzas. Three tops, and one plain crust.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Okay. And now there's-

 

Gail Becker:                Now, we have more flavors of pizza, and we have tortillas. We have our brand new chicken tenders, which just launched a few weeks ago. We also have our sweet potatoes, which are a bread replacement made from sliced sweet potatoes.

 

Gregg Stebben:          I will confess, I had some sweet potatoes last night, too. Because once I started down the Caulipower road, it was hard to stop me. I had a really great and healthy dinner last night.

 

Gail Becker:                Oh, fantastic. Okay. Well, welcome to the family.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Thank you. We've been talking about scale here, and one of the things that impressed me ... because you started the business in 2016, really launched the products in 2017. So, two years plus. I went to Walmart to get your products after printing out a coupon. My understanding, particularly of the food industry, is it's really hard to get into Walmart. And there you are after just two years.

 

Gail Becker:                Yeah. It's interesting. Walmart actually brought us in pretty early. We launched in February of 2017. We were in some Walmart stores as early as October of that same year. They've been a great partner to us. One of my objectives for building Caulipower was I wanted to make better-for-you food accessible to as many people as I possibly could, and that's accessible in a number of ways. The way that the product looks, the way that it tastes, the way that our packaging is, the stores that it's sold in, the price that it's sold for, and the fact that we give a percentage of sales to help build Teaching Gardens and underserved schools across the country. Accessible nutrition is a key platform of who Caulipower is.

 

Gregg Stebben:          You've just brought up a point about scale that I think is worthy of a little conversation here. You not only had to master the food business, but by getting into Walmart that quickly, you had to scale in some pretty dramatic ways, I would think, in terms of production and ... I don't know. Raising capital and hiring.

 

Gail Becker:                Yes. You name it.

 

Gregg Stebben:          I mean, Walmart does not take a chance on you. You have to prove that you're ready, I'm assuming.

 

Gail Becker:                I think it was both. I mean, they were looking to expand their better-for-you options, so it was a really nice partnership early on. They did take a bit of a chance on me. Luckily, we've been able to prove ourselves and make the relationship work. But you are right. Scaling as fast as we did was just huge when I think back.

 

                                   And we're still doing it. We're still scaling at a rapid rate. It's very much like building the plane while flying it, you know? We're trying to make it bigger, but we're also trying to run the day-to-day business. It was a huge hurdle for us. But I'm just thrilled and so proud of the team that we were able to manage and keep up.

 

Gregg Stebben:          I'm talking with Gail Becker. She's the founder and CEO of the company Caulipower. It's eatcaulipower.com. If you think I said cauliflower, I didn't. It's Caulipower, spelled exactly the same way but a 'P' instead of an 'F.' Eatcaulipower.com on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at Caulipower.

                                   So, this year as a sign of your success and your ability to have successfully scaled, you were awarded the Woman Business Owner of the Year award by NAWBO, the National Association of Women Business Owners. Can you talk about how a professional network like NAWBO became a very important part of your success?

 

Gail Becker:                One of the things that struck me early on about coming into the food industry is I sort of thought, like all the other industries that I had encountered, this is one where there'd be a lot of women at the top and involved in sort of every level. Because somehow I thought, "Oh, it was food. Clearly there's going to be a lot of women running the industry." And maybe not surprisingly, I didn't necessarily find that to be true. Obviously there are some, but not nearly enough.

 

                                   I also struggled with seeing how difficult it was for female entrepreneurs to raise VC money. When I started to read some of the statistics, it blew me away. Only 2% of VC money goes to fund female-led companies. That's outrageous. Even though they perform better. So when I started to put that all together in my head, it really became important to me to support other female business owners and entrepreneurship.

 

Read next: Angel Investors Seek Women-Owned Business Startups: How to Find a Match by Steve Strauss

 

                                   As I always say, if you want to see more female businesses, there is only one thing you can do. That is support more female businesses. Buy their products, tell your friends, share their social media. That's the only way that we're going to ever break the cycle.

 

                                   As it relates to NAWBO, NAWBO was really a strong part of that. It's so interesting to me because I am new to NAWBO, but obviously now I'm forever a fan and a member. But when I went to the conference, I have to say I was just blown away by what I saw there. I have never been in a business setting like that where so many people were just cheering each other on. Doesn't matter who won the award for whatever category. People were dancing for each other and cheering each other. I had people fixing my jacket before I went on stage. I mean, when does that happen? It doesn't ever happen.

 

                                   I was just blown away by the camaraderie and the generosity. I have since had several other female business owners reach out to me that maybe we could do work together through Caulipower in some vendor relationship, and what have you. It's just this wonderful network to be a part of. And to remind each other that we're all in this together and we're all trying to make this world a little bit better than we found it.

 

Gregg Stebben:          I find it really interesting that a large part of your initial motivation for going to your first NAWBO meeting and other organizations like that was not to get something, but to give something. Because I think ... I mean, it's a bit of a stereotype, but I think we find in business that often women just have a very different view of the world of business that men do. I think you've really just illustrated that.

 

Gail Becker:                Well, it's so interesting because there's been a lot written about this. This is not me saying it. But whenever you talk to female entrepreneur ... I've sat on a number of panels now and I've heard a lot of stories. They're always motivated by trying to improve people's lives, trying to make things better, trying to make things easier, trying to help people.

 

                                    I can't tell you how much I hear that motivation over and over again. I think that's one of the reasons that actually accounts for the success of female business owners, which has a better rate of return from venture capitalists than actually men do. I think the reason is is because that mission is so clear, and so empowering that it just ... you can't help but succeed. It's really quite remarkable.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Okay. So I have one last question for you, Gail. She's Gail Becker. She's the founder and CEO of the company Caulipower. It's eatcaulipower.com on Twitter, and Facebook, and Instagram @Caulipower. The question is this: you've grown so fast, what's next?

 

Gail Becker:                Sleep.

 

Gregg Stebben:          It sounds like you've earned that, and I'm not surprised to hear you say that. But once you wake up ... and I'm sure you're looking ahead to a new year-

 

Gail Becker:                I'm kidding. I'm kidding. I'm kidding. No, I would say that we have a lot of new products coming out that we're super excited about. Our chicken tenders, which are baked, not fried. And really a huge category buster in terms of what else is out there. Those are just launching now. We also have some new products coming out next year, which we're very excited about. And just continuing to grow our footprint, and help people, and most importantly, build a lot more Teaching Gardens.

 

Gregg Stebben:          I want to mention the name of the product, the chicken. We've been calling them chicken tenders, but the name really deserves to be called out.

 

Gail Becker:                I like it. Go for it.

 

Gregg Stebben:          The name of the product is New Chick on the Block. And part of your advertising slogan is, "No Clucking Way!" I mean, you have just really ... I'm sure your background at Edelman didn't hurt. From the name of the company, Caulipower, to New Chick on the Block. No Clucking Way. You've really clearly identified a market. We know you have, because look at your growth, and your sales, and your success. But everything that I looked at in preparing to talk to you spoke to me exactly the way it should after identifying me as a potential customer. Really, I'm very impressed and I'm not surprised at all with the success that you've had. I want to thank you for joining us.

 

Gail Becker:                Well, thank you. That's really lovely to say. The industry has to remember that food is never precious, that the only thing precious about food are the people that you share it with. We like to have fun. We don't take ourselves too seriously. We remind people that food is joy, and there's nothing wrong with having a bag that makes you smile.

 

Gregg Stebben:          New Chick on the Block. I hope you don't mind me mentioning, I did not realize that the chicken tenders were just a few weeks new on the market.

 

Gail Becker:                Yeah, I know. Oh my gosh, I love it.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Great, great. If you go to the website, again, it's caulipower.com. Just like cauliflower, but it's Caulipower. A 'P' instead of an 'F.' And when you get there, you can do what I did. There's a $2 off coupon for the chicken tenders. Very cleverly, you've picked a great vendor for managing that. Because when I printed out the coupon, it also gave me the address of the four closest stores. No matter which direction I went, I had to drive past a place that I knew I could get the chicken tenders, and I'm so glad I did. I had a great dinner last night. And I've had a great conversation with you, Gail. Thank you so much for joining us, and thank you for enriching my when-I'm-home-alone-and-hungry dinners. Because I'm going to be eating a lot of your Spicy(ish) Chicken Tenders.

 

Gail Becker:                Oh, well that's the best kind of endorsement I can hope for. Thank you so much. I had a great time.

Gregg Stebben:          Thank you.

 

Narrator:                     Thanks for listening to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com.

At a recent event the CEO and Founder of Her Agenda, Rhonesha Byng, sat down to talk about how her organization is working to bridge the gap between ambition and achievement among women business owners.

 

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Kate Delaney:             I'm Kate Delaney with Gregg Stebben. We're from “Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks and Bank of America, and we're so pleased to be here at Luminary for the 2019 Bank of America Women Business Owner Spotlight, and we have Rhonesha Byng with us. Think HerAgenda.com, wow. I scribbled that down when that was mentioned.

 

Rhonesha Byng:         Oh wow.

 

Kate Delaney:             Because I thought it was so interesting.

 

Gregg Stebben:          I love the name.

 

Kate Delaney:             I do too. So tell us about HerAgenda.com.

 

Rhonesha Byng:         Her Agenda is the digital media platform, bridging the gap between ambition and achievement for millennial women. We really believe in the concept that you can't be what you can't see. So every Monday we have a story called, “A Peak Inside Her Agenda,” where we feature a different woman in a position of power, from education to entrepreneurship to the C suite. We featured women like Arianna Huffington, Misty Copeland, Nadia Lopez, who went viral after being featured on the Humans of New York Instagram page.

 

                                   So it's very diverse. We feature diverse women across industries, across backgrounds, and the idea is to give you everything that you need to achieve whatever is on your agenda. And the motto is, no one ever slows her agenda, which was a personal motto that I came up with from a nickname of mine. My name is Rhonesha. My nickname is Nesha. So that acronym it stands for No One Ever Slows Her Agenda, and that means whatever your goal is, go for it. Don't let anyone or anything stop you. And we live in this age where media has the power to shape perception and has a power to shape how we think of ourselves and how the world thinks of ourselves. And we want to change how ambitious women are seen by the world and how ambitious women have access to resources and opportunity. So we also, in addition to our articles, have a database of event panels, networking and also a private community called Her Agenda Insiders, which act as a peer mentorship community where you get access to the hidden job market and exclusive events that we can't post publicly on the website.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Sometimes I want to be a woman.

 

Rhonesha Byng:         Wow!

 

Gregg Stebben:          This is so beautiful.

 

Rhonesha Byng:         I get why you say that, but the reason we exist is because we live in a society where for a man this is easily attainable, and accessible, and for women it's not unfortunately.

 

Gregg Stebben:          I was not diminishing what you're doing at all. It's beautiful though. And I guess I want to hear from you. What was the vision or the catalyst for you to see this idea and then that it was possible and then take the steps to do it?

 

Rhonesha Byng:         Well, it started a long time ago, way back when I was in high school and I was one of those young women that were ambitious and, as soon as I found my purpose in life, which was journalism, I hit the ground running. So at 16-17 I was at press conferences. At the UN, I was covering funerals of major figures like Gordon Parks.

 

                                   And I was really taking myself seriously as a journalist and I got all these mentors who were editors of publications. I was also modeling for Seventeen Magazine, literally, I guess you could say. The media world was just so accessible to me because I'm from New York City and I got all these mentors. Then I go to college and take a women's studies class and it was almost like a slap in the face. Like wait a second, I was in a bubble. The world does not look like that. Women are not in power, and I just could not understand why. And so for me, I knew that my talent and my superpower was media. And so I knew the influence impact media had, and so I thought if more of my peers, and more of the world could see these powerful women and they were more accessible and at the forefront, then it could change the ratio of women in power ultimately across the board.

 

                                   Because like I said, you can't be what you can't see. So I literally as a college student was talking about this idea, and it was a friend that was like, you should start a website, and I said, "Oh, someone probably started something," did some market research. No one started it and looked up the URL, HerAgenda, because that was already tied to my motto I had for myself, didn't exist, created it and slowly but surely put it together and it grew into now what it is today. But it started from the fact that I was just shocked that there were not more women in positions of power because all the women I personally knew were empowered. They were in charge. They were not taking no for an answer. They were to me like how celebrities are to kids. Like if you see Beyonce, you're like, "Oh my God!"

 

                                   For me back then, I would freak out to see Danielle Smith who at the time was the editor in chief of Vibe, or someone who was more behind the scenes but had the power to make decisions. That was something that I wanted to see more of and it didn't exist at the time. That was in 2008.

 

Kate Delaney:             What's your ultimate goal for HerAgenda.com?

 

Rhonesha Byng:         My ultimate goal is for us to be more global and just more known and to reach women. Every woman, no matter where she is. If you have internet access you know about Her Agenda in terms of if you're looking for inspiration, if you're looking for information, it's just really to continue to grow what we're doing. Reach more women and have more resources and ultimately we actually want to do is we want to use that platform as a gateway for a pipeline to leadership.

 

                                   And so, we want to do more direct partnerships with companies like Twitter, like Google, like Microsoft that claim that they can't find women. Well, the women that read our website are the women that you want, and so why don't you partner with us, post your jobs with us so that you can reach those women.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Will you make us a promise?

 

Rhonesha Byng:         Okay.

 

Gregg Stebben:          We need to talk to you every three or six months.

 

Rhonesha Byng:         Okay, great.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Because you're the beacon, first of all, but you also have your pulse on something. I think you created something that's a pulse taking environment that maybe nobody ever had a way of taking a pulse of before. I'm stunned by what you've done.

 

Rhonesha Byng:         Can I take you everywhere with me?

 

Gregg Stebben:           I want to take you with me everywhere I go. I'm really blown away by what you've done.

 

Rhonesha Byng:          Thank you.

 

Gregg Stebben:           I can't tell you how impressed I am.

 

Rhonesha Byng:         Thank you. It has not been easy. I started out, like I said, in college, so this was built from my college dorm room, went out into the working world, I thought I was a complete failure because I had branded myself as Her Agenda. No one ever stops her agenda, so I thought I'd be doing that full time after I graduated from college, and I ended up working as a producer at NBC. Now that is not a failure. But at the time I was like, I'm not living what I said I was about, and so I did that. But that in hindsight ended up being the best thing for me because I really got more experience as a journalist and more experience within a corporation itself. Then I went on to be an editor at The Huffington Post, which was also a whole other experience in terms of seeing the digital side of media at scale.

 

                                   And then at that point I got into an accelerator that allowed me to transition to full time. So that was 2015, so I started in 2008, side hustle up until 2015 and then full time in 2015 didn't make money for the first year. And then 2016, 2017 was when the transition in terms of becoming a profitable media company became more of a reality.

 

Kate Delaney:             What do you hope happens when people get in your funnel? I mean you hear their stories and that has to get you excited when there's someone who connects to HerAgenda.com, and because of you, they get the education, they get the mentorship, they figure out what it is they need through what you've given them and what you've written. What do you hope ultimately happens for those women that get in the pipeline?

 

Rhonesha Byng:         Simply that they achieve whatever their goal is. And then once they do that, naturally as women, our natural instinct is to give back and to pour into others. And so, that's really what the hope is, and with the insider community that we created, that private network - first you had the page to opt into that. And so that's something that's a value add service. But also in the community, we always say the mindset to get in is that you have to have the mindset of lifting as you climb. And so, really that's the idea is just to pour into others, share a resource, share an opportunity, invest in another entrepreneur once you've made your first $1 million. It's really just to pour back into the economy as a whole. And there's that statistic where if you invest in a woman, you invest in a whole community, versus if you invest in a man, you invest in that man. That's what the data says. That's not what I say.

 

Gregg Stebben:          I feel it's getting hot in here.

 

Kate Delaney:             Wow. Just absolutely amazing.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Yeah. The website is HerAgenda.com and I'm telling you, this is one of the best things…I talk to a lot of small business owners, a lot of founders. This is one of the most beautiful stories I've ever heard. I can't wait to hear more.

 

Rhonesha Byng:          Well thank you. And we'll be in touch. This won't be our first conversation.

 

Gregg Stebben:           I have a feeling we'll hear from you if you don't hear from us. Thank you.

 

Rhonesha Byng:          Thank you.

 

Narrator:                     For more great small business tips check out Bank of America’s online Small Business Community at bankofamerica.com/sbc. Thanks for listening to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com.

Supporting women in business is the main goal of NAWBO and their NYC chapter president, Elizabeth Foster. She came on “The Heartbeat of Main Street” to discuss the tools the organization provides to women and the community that they’ve built together.

 

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Narrator:                     Now let’s hear from Elizabeth Foster, the President of NAWBO NYC, and CEO and founder of Maison Visionnaire, talking with us from the 2019 Bank of America Women Business Owner Spotlight

 

Kate Delaney:             I'm Kate Delaney with Gregg Stebben. We're from “Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks and Bank of America. We're here at the 2019 Bank of America, Women Business Owner Spotlight and wow, we have a great guest with us. Elizabeth Foster, Gregg, I mean, I'm telling you, people beat the drum for this woman. All I did was tweet something out, and the people are all over me.

 

Gregg Stebben:          It helps that she is the President of NAWBO NYC. Elizabeth, welcome. And I think first, let's talk about NAWBO, and then we want to get into your career. Tell us about NAWBO. Not everyone's familiar with it.

 

Elizabeth Foster:        NAWBO is a National Association of Women Business Owners. That's what it stands for. It actually came into creation in 1975, when a woman business owner could not get a loan without a male family member co-signing. And what happened, there was a woman that went into a bank, she had no male family member. The bank manager said, I'm really sorry. These are the rules. Isn't there somebody? She had a 17 year-old-son, and the bank manager said he'll do.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Are you serious?

 

Elizabeth Foster:         I'm serious.

 

Gregg Stebben:          So I want to interject, that I think a year ago, this was a very big anniversary for NAWBO, or maybe it was two years ago, you'll correct me, but we just celebrated the 30th anniversary of making those rules go away. Correct?

 

Elizabeth Foster:        Correct.

 

Gregg Stebben:          So only 30 years ago?

 

Elizabeth Foster:        Well actually yeah, it's actually less than 30 years ago. NAWBO started in '75, and what happened was, this event happened in '75, and she went out, she said, no, you're not going to have my son as a guarantor. And basically what happened was that she got together with a group of other businesswomen and she said, we need to do something about this.

 

                                   So she was a woman of action, and she met with other women of action, and they got together and they created NAWBO. Then, it took them 13 years, 13 years, till 1988, which was 30 years ago last-

 

Gregg Stebben:          I knew there was a 30 year anniversary. Listen to Gregg’s interview about the 30th anniversary of HR 5050 on “The Heartbeat of Main Street”

 

Elizabeth Foster:        That was the one. Yeah. And it's crazy. I'm like, seriously? It took you 13 years to pass a bill to say that women had the equal rights? 1988? I'm like, shame on you.

 

Gregg Stebben:          A creditworthy woman.

 

Kate Delaney:             That's just sad.

 

Gregg Stebben:          If you were not creditworthy, that's another conversation. But you could have the greatest credit, and you still couldn't get a loan because you were a woman.

 

Elizabeth Foster:         Correct, correct.

 

Kate Delaney:             And obviously you have a beautiful accent, so we know that you were born and raised in England, I'm guessing, and I bet you had that entrepreneurial spirit as a young woman. And I know that you got into the fragrance business. How did that start? Tell us about your journey.

 

Elizabeth Foster:        You're right. I'm not a native New Yorker. I was born in Bath, and grew up there, and then went to London as soon as I could, basically. And I started…I had a few jobs doing this and that, whatever. And then I found a product, and I really wanted to...it kind of came to me as there was something, and this is a skill that I have: I kind of look at something, and then I'll say, well, if you just did this, and if you did this, and if you did this, then you could make a whole different product, and it would be, oh, so much better.

 

Gregg Stebben:          So you're good at leveraging assets.

 

Elizabeth Foster:        Correct. So that's exactly what I did. And the product was an aroma therapy-based product, and I knew a lot about aromatherapy anyway, just out of personal interest. So that was something that was very near and dear to my heart.

 

                                   And we just basically started on the kitchen table. We started at very, very, very humble beginnings. And then, within two years, we had a billion-pound turnover, which is kind of cool actually.

 

Kate Delaney:            So your journey, I mean this has to be more than near and dear to your heart, to see women thriving in entrepreneurial spaces all over the place, right?

 

Elizabeth Foster:        Yeah. Well, very much so. And actually going back to me being here as well. So I've been here for five years now, and I was kind of "fresh off the boat." And I met a woman at an event and I'm like, where do I meet some smart savvy businesswomen? And she's like, you need to go to NAWBO. I'm like-

 

Gregg Stebben:          What's NAWBO?

 

Elizabeth Foster:        What's NAWBO? So she said, she told me what it was, and I'm like, huh, I can give that a go. And then you know, I think the thing is, that you need to be open as well. You need to be understanding and give things a go. So from that point of view, that's what I did. I was open, I went along, and I found my tribe.

 

                                    I found those women that were smart and savvy, and I do consider myself that as well. And I fit in, and it was great. And then they obviously saw potential in me, and they're like, “Hey, you want to come hang out with us?”

 

Gregg Stebben:          Well, so I want to make an observation here. You earlier used the phrase, I think you referred to yourself, as a “woman of action,” right?

 

Elizabeth Foster:         Correct.

 

Gregg Stebben:          And what's interesting is, you moved to an entirely new, not just to a new city, but to a new city in a new country five years ago, and you're now the President of NAWBO NYC. My guess is, they saw in you a woman of action, and you saw in them a lot of women of action, and I'm bringing that up just to really say to other women who are not familiar with NAWBO, if you want to meet like-minded, savvy businesswomen, women of action, NAWBO's the place to go, whether you're in New York City or not.

 

Elizabeth Foster:        Absolutely, yeah. We've got 60 chapters around the country, and even if you're in the middle of nowhere, we have virtual membership too, so you can still connect with us women, no matter where you are in America.

 

Kate Delaney:            What do you think is the most difficult thing that women entrepreneurs go through? What stops some of them from achieving what they could possibly achieve?

 

Elizabeth Foster:        That's a very good question, and I think there's various answers to that. I think that often for women it's actually confidence. I hate to say that. We still don't believe in ourselves enough. And when we don't believe in ourselves, others don't necessarily believe in us. So I think that level of, you've got to just go there, you've got to put yourself out there. That’s what you know…don't hold back.

 

                                    And if you struggle with that, if that's something that you know you struggle with, then get some support. Get a coach, get a whatever you need, even just a friend, like a good strong friend.

 

Gregg Stebben:          And I would imagine also…again, not to spend the whole interview plugging NAWBO, but if one of the things you need is confidence, go be with other women who are being successful.

 

Elizabeth Foster:         Correct.

 

Gregg Stebben:           They'll tell you what you're great at and support you in the things that you need to grow in.

 

Elizabeth Foster:         That's exactly the case. Exactly. And no, we're not just plugging NAWBO, but they are a great organization. So, hey.

 

Kate Delaney:             So we have one last question for you.

 

Gregg Stebben:          You haven't even told us about your business.

 

Elizabeth Foster:         That's because I'm such a good advocate for NAWBO.

 

Gregg Stebben:           You are, but you should tell us about your business.

 

Elizabeth Foster:         I can do that. I'm the founder of Maison Visionnaire, and what we did is, we invented the reed diffusers.,So it's a home fragrance business. What we did, is we brought art to fragrance, and we made it a whole experience for your home. So instead of, I'm sure you've seen them, you know the jars with the oil and the sticks. Well, I'm sorry, but they're not very beautiful, and they're not creative, and they're kind of ugly, and you want to hide them away because you want the fragrance, and you want the benefits.

 

                                   So I decided to make it beautiful. So it's a wooden art piece that has been carved, and that acts as a diffuser, but it's also beautiful to look at. And it also, it's a fusion that accentuates the home. So we also have a product behind it. It's a CDF, a composite diffusion fiber, which kind of acts like the fragrance engine, so to speak. It really pumps out the fragrance, and it's totally natural. So, that's what I'm doing here. That's my business.

 

Gregg Stebben:         And the website for it?

 

Elizabeth Foster:        MaisonVisionnaire.com.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Spell it for us.

 

Elizabeth Foster:        M-A-I-S-O-N-V-I-S-I-O-N-N-A-I-R-E .com.

 

Narrator:                     For more great small business tips check out Bank of America’s online Small Business Community at bankofamerica.com/sbc. Thanks for listening to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com.

 

Read more about Elizabeth Foster, Founder of Maison Visionnaire, on The Small Business Community.

Women entrepreneurs are continuing to grow their leadership stake in the small business market. Bank of America Head of Small Business, Sharon Miller, spoke about how she’s seeing more opportunities for women, including increased woman-to-woman mentorship opportunities, and the positive impact its having.

 

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Kate Delaney:             I'm Kate Delaney with Gregg Stebben. We're from Heartbeat of Main Street with ForbesBooks and Bank of America, and we are so pleased to be here at the 2019 Bank of America Women Business Owner Spotlight. And we are with, I've got to call her my nickname, the grand dame of banking, Sharon Miller, who is the head of Small Business for Bank of America. It's so great to meet you and be here at this fabulous event.

 

Sharon Miller:             It's so great to be here, Kate and Gregg. Thank you so much for having me.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Absolutely. This is one of your premier events of the year.

 

Sharon Miller:             It is. It is.

 

Gregg Stebben:          So tell us about the event and about the data and the statistics and the research behind it.

 

Sharon Miller:             For the last four years, we have produced a Women Business Owner Report just to understand how women are feeling about the economy, about what's happening with their own business and their revenue outlook. And this time, for the first time over the last four years, women have a higher expectation for hiring plans, for revenue growth of their business and the outlook than their male counterparts. So, that's a pretty fascinating data point when you think about the optimism out there in the economy and what's happening in the political climate right now.

 

Gregg Stebben:          You talk to a lot of women business owners. Do you have theories of your own about why there would be that change?

 

Sharon Miller:             You know, women, I mean Kate, we're women, right?

 

Gregg Stebben:          I'm always the guy here.

 

Kate Delaney:             Yes, you are.

 

Sharon Miller:             You're always the guy.

 

Gregg Stebben:          The lone guy.

 

Sharon Miller:             You're the lone guy. And we are sitting in a fabulous place that is dedicated to women, Luminary, that is a co-op of women entrepreneurs working together, that's why we chose this spot in particular here in Manhattan. And to me, women, we are more and more getting out there, starting our own business, wanting to take control of our own destiny. And I think that as that settles in, as you see sustainability, women are understanding, "Hey, I can do this. I feel confident, I feel good about what's going on." And I think it's just time.

 

Kate Delaney:             I love numbers and I'm wondering if there's some trends or stats from the 2019 Bank of America Women Business Owner Spotlight that we should look at, that we should call attention to for people who are listening to us.

 

Sharon Miller:             Well, 84% of women told us that they expected their revenue to be higher at the end of this year in 2019 versus last year. So, that's a pretty good majority of business owners out there.

 

Gregg Stebben:          It's also—they're predicting that for themselves after a previously great year.

 

Sharon Miller:             That's right.

 

Gregg Stebben:          So, it's not a reaction to something bad, but it's a greater reaction to something great.

 

Sharon Miller:             It is. It's continuing that increase, it's continued optimism. And we're already in October.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Right.

 

Sharon Miller:             So when you think about, a lot of the year has passed. We're in the 10th month of the year and we're hearing this from business owners, so that's a pretty good indicator of how they feel they'll end the year.

 

Gregg Stebben:          One of the things I want to ask you about, Sharon, because this really fascinated me, partially I think because I am a man, but I think it's going to be really eye-opening for women as well. One of the things you asked as part of this was, "I believe blank will be impactful in helping women in business over the next five years." And first of all, I love the question, I love the collection of responses you got, but I love the fact that the number one thing that women said they thought would be impactful was achieving work-life balance. Because I think that's also aligned with more and more people, thanks to millennials, are looking for in their business whether they own it or they're an employee. And I want to hear you talk about that.

 

Sharon Miller:             I agree, and I think that's not just for entrepreneurship, but it's for corporate America.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Yes.

 

Sharon Miller:             And I think about Bank of America and the benefits we give: 16 weeks of maternity or paternity leave when someone has a baby. Whether you're the man or the woman, you get that leave, you get to spend time with your family. More and more, people want to spend time with their family, and it's a blurred line of work and life. And when you can have it both together, and you can do what you love and still be with your loved ones, and your company is committed to that, or you're an entrepreneur and you lead that type of organization, he's got greater followership and greater commitment. And especially in the millennials, we're finding that.

 

Kate Delaney:            Talking about the millennials, here at the 2019 Bank of America Women Business Owner Spotlight, what would you tell young women as they jump into owning their own businesses?

 

Sharon Miller:             I think it's important to be positive. Be confident. Follow your passion, follow your dream. Because the more I hear and I read articles and I listen to business owners about, "Why did you do it?" "Well, I followed my dream, I followed my passion." Then don't limit your dream and don't limit what's possible, because when you got into this business, you felt the sky's the limit.

 

                                   So keep dreaming, keep thinking about how I can do things differently, how I can continue to expand or go into different markets, and don't ever stop that creative engine that got you here to begin with. Because when you just get stale and you don't keep thinking, "Okay, how can I do this better, faster, more efficient?" You're not going to keep growing. And so that's what I would encourage any business owner to do, but especially millennials as they're getting into the start of their own business.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Millennials, yes, and women, yes. Because one of the things you mentioned early on as we've been talking today, and I think one of the things that's so visible at this event today is that—and you found this in the report—the more there are women who are successful in business, the more it impacts other women and empowers them to do the same thing. For a lot of reasons, including, "Oh, there are lots of mentors now. There's lots of women that have experienced this. There's more women in banking, so that I do have access to capital," on and on and on and on. And I want you to talk about the network effect of that for women, that your report really beautifully displays.

 

Sharon Miller:             I think it's important, and especially when you think about networking and mentorship and connecting with other women, many times when you have a man and a woman coming together to network or mentor, you're going to have differences. And what we found from clients, and we talk about this a lot, many times men are talking to women about, "Okay, maybe you need to navigate this politics or that," versus the tactical, operational, "Here's the finances, here's the P&L-

 

Gregg Stebben:          Oh my gosh, you sound like my wife and I.

 

Sharon Miller:             "Here's how you operate a business." I mean, so it's important. And I think the more women that know those types of functions and how to do it and how to drive it, they're going to be able to pass that on and understand that, you know what, yeah, there's politics involved, but there's also brass tacks of how to run a business, how to operate a company. And that's all very, very important.

 

Gregg Stebben:          You're talking about a cultural shift as a result of more and more women being in business and owning business and being in positions of leadership.

 

Sharon Miller:             Absolutely. And what we find is that women bring that back to their communities more so than men. Women are coming back, they're investing in their communities.

 

Gregg Stebben:           Why are you both looking at me?

 

Sharon Miller:              We're not trying to!

 

Gregg Stebben:           But you, I mean it is, there's research to support that. Women share, and men don't.

 

Kate Delaney:             But that's exciting, because that means that the more of those tactics that spread, the more the fear or the barrier to entry will lower, I think, for women. What do you think?

 

Sharon Miller:             Yeah, because I see someone, "Oh, they're like me. They can do it, I can do it." You have to, when you can see what's possible and people paving the way, these great women, then you can say, "Wow, I can do that, because I see they're like me."

 

Gregg Stebben:          What kind of programs do you have at Bank of America that are taking advantage of the things you're learning from the report?

 

Sharon Miller:             Well, my favorite is the Women Ready to Lead Conference, and we do this in various cities across the country. And really it's about women understanding that, you know what, you don't have to have all of it right here and there. Raise your hand, let us know you're ready to lead, let us know you want to grow with the company, and we're going to support you, and we're going to help you get to where you want to go.

 

Gregg Stebben:          So in other words, what you're doing is saying, "If you have the right mindset, we'll help you get the right skillset."

 

Sharon Miller:             Absolutely. Absolutely. And we're here to support you, to train you, to mentor you, to connect you with other women within the company. When I think about Bank of America, 40% of our management team is women.

 

Kate Delaney:             Wow.

 

Sharon Miller:             I mean, it starts at the top with Brian Moynihan and our board setting the vision. 30% of our board, women. You don't find that in corporate America. So it's not just we talk about supporting women, we are-

 

Gregg Stebben:          You're doing it.

 

Sharon Miller:             ... a company made of great women and men.

 

Gregg Stebben:          You mentioned few minutes ago about mentors. And you told us off mic that you know, you had had some great mentors or still have great mentors that were men.

 

Sharon Miller:             Yes.

 

Gregg Stebben:          It's easier and easier for women to have great female mentors, because there's women who have now succeeded at higher and higher levels. But it also occurs to me that there will be another shift culturally when men can find great female mentors. Because now you're cross-pollinating all of these things in a very deep way.

 

Sharon Miller:             You are. And I think you're bringing together the best.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Yes.

 

Sharon Miller:             Because women and men, they bring together different perspectives, and different backgrounds, and that's what diversity inclusion is all about: bringing your whole self to work and feeling comfortable doing that. So it may not be just a man, woman, it might not be just race. It's where did I grow up, am I from the Northeast, am I from the West coast? Very different, very different culturally. And I think that the best companies and the best organizations allow that to come through so that you're able to get the best outcome.

 

Kate Delaney:             What's your ultimate vision? What would make you get up in the morning and say, "Wow, I just completely have nailed this. I am so happy with where I'm at." Because you're growing, growing, all these different programs.

 

Sharon Miller:             I think every day we have to get up and say, "What can we do more of?" I don't think you ever arrive and say, "Hey, it's here," right? We've got to keep thinking and keep getting better and keep growing, because every day, you learn something new, and how can we be better at supporting all people?

 

Gregg Stebben:          Everybody.

 

Sharon Miller:             All people.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Everybody. And I want to ask you about one last thing. We've talked about this with you before in previous interviews. The program you just told us about, it's called Ready for Leadership?

 

Sharon Miller:             Women Ready to Lead.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Women Ready to Lead. It reminds me of something you told us about before, the Bank of America Institute for Women's Entrepreneurship at Cornell.

 

Sharon Miller:             Yes.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Can you update us... first of all, remind people what it is and then update us on what's happening there today?

 

Sharon Miller:             So it is a program that we put together in partnership with Cornell University to help women entrepreneurs. Anyone can access the program, but we put it together with women in mind around education, around training, around how to access capital. Because in this report too, we talked about access to capital, and it's still a barrier or a perceived barrier of many women. And so it is an online institute where you can sign up, your company can. We've got courses and professors and students that are coming together, every single session that we have. And there's different sections, there's different focuses, but what we've heard from business owners going through is, "It has made the world of difference to my business." We have over 13,000 businesses that are in the queue going through this program, which, that's, doesn't sound like, I mean it's a lot of businesses, but how many more can we reach?

 

Gregg Stebben:          How much bigger is the opportunity?

 

Sharon Miller:             How many more can we reach?

 

Gregg Stebben:          How do you scale?

 

Sharon Miller:             That's right.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Yeah. The website is bofainstitute.cornell.edu, bofainstitute.cornell.edu.

 

Kate Delaney:             Perfect place to end us. Sign up.

 

Sharon Miller:              Thank you so much.

 

Gregg Stebben:           Thank you Sharon.

 

Sharon Miller:              Thank you.

 

Narrator:                      For more great small business tips check out Bank of America’s online Small Business Community at bankofamerica.com/sbc. Thanks for listening to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com.

 

 

Duane Topping.pngVeteran and small business entrepreneur, Duane Topping, didn’t let PTSD get the better of him. This episode of “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with Forbes Books dives into how he conquered his challenges and went from army veteran to a debut at New York Fashion Week.

 

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Narrator:                     Welcome to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com. Beginning in November 2019, US veterans are eligible for Bank of America's small business veteran's discount initiative, featuring an exclusive 25% origination fee discount for their Bank of America small business loan or line of credit. Visit bankofamerica.com/smallbusiness for more information.  And here's your host, Greg Stebben.

 

Greg Stebben:            I'm here with Duane Topping. His company is Topping Designs, his website, duanetopping.com. He's on Instagram @duanetopping. Let me spell Duane. It's D-U-A-N-E, Topping as you would expect, T-O-P-P-I-N-G, duanetopping.com and on Instagram @duanetopping. Duane, first of all, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

 

Duane Topping:          Oh, thanks for having me. It's a pleasure, and it's always an honor to be able to really share my story.

 

Greg Stebben:            Well, your story, actually, there's more than one story, I'm going to say. So, first of all, I want to introduce you by saying Duane is a fashion designer, and there is a story about how he got there. But before we even get to your story, Duane, I want to say, first of all, I'm not the most fashion-conscious guy in the world, but when I went to your website and your Instagram and checked out your Facebook account and your Twitter, what I saw there, the photos of the clothing you're making for women, they made me rock back and go, "Whoa." You create some very, very beautiful clothing for women.

 

Duane Topping:          Well, thank you. Thank you so much. Yeah, I think the only one not well-dressed on the website is myself.

 

Greg Stebben:            Well I will also, just as a tease, say that it's worth going to the website to see the clothes and also to see Duane and his t-shirts, because you have a pretty special collection of t-shirts, from what I could see.

 

Duane Topping:          Absolutely.

 

Greg Stebben:            So I think it's fair to say you do not have the typical fashion designer story. Do you want to tell us how you got into the world of fashion?

 

Duane Topping:          It's certainly not a typical story. Just to start off, an overview, I retired from the army in 2012, and, as you can imagine, I did three deployments while I was enlisted. After about 11 years, I retired medically, and I struggled. I struggled reintegrating myself back into the community, back into civilian life. I really struggled with mental illness, and I really struggled with PTSD.

 

Duane Topping:          I spent a number of years running from those demons, and I tried so many of those one-size-fits-all, out-of-the-box treatments that the VA passes off to you. None of them were really working. I went back to school. I went to try… I thought to myself, "Well, I'll be a writer." So I went back, and I went back to school. During that portion, I actually had a minor in philosophy. I took my first philosophy class. I hated it, absolutely hated it.

 

Greg Stebben:            But still got a minor.

 

Duane Topping:          No, actually. So here's the story. So I actually transferred over to feminist theory, and I ended up getting a degree in gender studies. During the course of that is really when I turned my own perspective around and realized, "You know what? I don't have to try all of these out-of-the-boxes things." They weren't working. So, by the last semester, I said to myself, "You know what? I really need to try something new, something different, something really out-of-the-box."

 

Duane Topping:          I've always been an artist, and I've always had this really subdued level or love of fashion. Even when I was deployed, I would be getting the women's magazines and pouring through them and cutting them out and making collages and sending them home and critiquing the garments. So I paired up. I said, "You know what? I'm an artist. I can do fashion."

 

Duane Topping:          So I thought I was going to teach myself to sew. I literally came home one day, and I told my wife ... I said, "Listen, I'm going to teach myself to sew." She turns around and she says, "Well, when are you going to do that?" Well, I held up my sewing machine, and I said, "Well, I'm going to do it right now." So I sat down at a TV tray, and I made a purse.

 

Greg Stebben:            So, before you go on, did you buy the sewing machine that day, or did you already have one?

 

Duane Topping:          I literally bought it that day. On my way home, I said to myself, "I'm going to teach myself to sew." I swung into Walmart and bought my first sewing machine.

 

Greg Stebben:            And made a purse.

 

Duane Topping:          And I made a purse. This was the fall of 2016. Well, I just fell in love with sewing. Yeah, 12 inches is something I could control, and I really found peace in that creative process. As I began to develop my sewing skills, I made a dress for my wife. I got tired of patterns. I started draping, and she says, "You know what? Why don't you just make a collection?"

 

Duane Topping:          So I did. I made a little six-piece collection. I got a photographer, and there's a funny story with my first model. She was actually in my English class, and I came to her after class one day and I said, "Hey, listen, I'm going to try to do a fashion line for women, and I'd like to use you as inspiration. Do you want to model for me?" The poor young woman looked at me crazy, but you know what? She took a leap of faith, and we did that first photo shoot the next spring.

 

Duane Topping:          In 2017, I did my first runway, and we've just exploded since then. We've done New York Fashion Week, two seasons. We've been published in Vogue, been in shows from New York to LA. We just absolutely exploded. So that's sort of the short version.

 

Greg Stebben:            Well, and you know what's amazing is, I'm thinking back on what you said. You started in 2016.

 

Duane Topping:          Yes.

 

Greg Stebben:            That was only three years ago.

 

Duane Topping:          Oh, man, and it's been a wild ride. I tell you, I've really had to learn a lot, and there's been a lot of obstacles along the way. Primarily, I don't look like a typical fashion designer.

 

Greg Stebben:             I will vouch for that. You don't look like a typical soldier, either.

 

Duane Topping:           Well, no, but I retired, and I protested haircuts and shaving. So you can imagine what I look like now, seven years later.

 

Greg Stebben:            Yeah.

 

Duane Topping:          So, yeah, I've got the long hair, the beard. I'm the typical biker. I ride every day. I don't even own a car. So when I would go to shows, even now, I'm mistaken for the maintenance man or I'm the doorman taking IDs, or I've been the janitor. I did a interview with Telemundo six months ago, and they thought I was a contractor there to fix the building.

 

Greg Stebben:            No, you were the guy that designed all of those beautiful clothing that they had B-roll of in the background.

 

Duane Topping:          Well, and it's funny, though, because, in the beginning, I was kind of offended by that. Then I realized, "You know what? It's that contrast that really leaves that mark, that people immediately have to question their perspective."

 

Duane Topping:          So since then, the brand has really evolved, and now I have to remind people that I'm more than the label, just like you are. I'm more than the aesthetic you see, and you can be, too. Don't let people tell you who you are, what you can be, because it's that depth of character in all of us that really makes life beautiful.

 

Duane Topping:          Yes, I'm a biker. Yes, I'm a veteran. Yes, I've struggled with mental illness. But you know I'm also an artist. I'm a fashion designer. I can be a diva. I can be a photographer. I can do any number of things. So there's no holding you back. You're only limited by your own imagination, really.

 

Greg Stebben:            I actually want to read something from your website. I'm talking with Duane Topping. His company is Topping Designs. The website is duanetopping.com. He's on Instagram @duanetopping. Many, many, many beautiful photos of the beautiful ... Beautiful is not even really the right word for the clothing you're designing. What came to me as I was looking at the photos is that there's a sense of airiness and freedom to what you're designing, and I want you to comment on that.

 

Greg Stebben:            But first, let me read something from your website. It says, "While on my path," and, as you shared with us, when you got out of the army in 2012, you struggled with PTSD. "While on my path, I found I could be more than expected, more than a veteran with PTSD. I discovered that I am not a label. I hope you can be motivated through this collection to say, 'Neither am I.'" That's really what I see when I look at the photos. So talk to us a little bit about the inspiration for the clothing. Where is that coming from, inside of you?

 

Duane Topping:          So much of the inspiration for the designs come from my story. They come from my journey. I always take just a little snippet of it. The fall/winter collection that you see on the website now is really a representation of my struggle with PTSD and with mental illness. In the beginning, I felt trapped, locked in the dark, and it was through fashion that I was able to escape that and find a freedom and make my way out into the light.

 

Duane Topping:          So if you look at that collection in its totality, I think you can see that story, because each piece represents a chapter, a sentence, a part of that journey. It starts out with simple lines, but the detailing is ... You've got belting and straps that look very confining, and then, as the collection progresses, it begins to open up. There's some runway pieces that really reflect that notion of freedom.

 

Duane Topping:          For me, the inspiration always comes from some portion of my story, some notion of perspective, some way in which to reevaluate how you not only see yourself, but see the world. I tell people, "You're never going to get people to stop putting labels on you, and the trick is to not start to believe them. You've got to shut those off and start creating your own."

 

Duane Topping:          That's what I'm about, and I think that's what the clothes are about. Each collection is a representation of a part of that journey. Then, as you add them together, at some point, it'll be a story. It'll be my life story, and I think that that drives my purpose, because, even now, while I love the artistry, I love the clothes, I love seeing faces of my customers when they're wearing them, it's still so much about that message of not being a label.

 

Greg Stebben:            What's interesting is you came from a world that ... I've never served, but my impression of the military is it's largely about labels and rank and things like that, and probably necessary in that environment. So one of my questions is, how did your army service help you with the business part of your business, and maybe even the creative part of your business? I'm really interested in hearing if and how the army part of your life has really helped you become who you are, doing what you're doing today.

 

Duane Topping:          Oh, certainly. The army broke me. There's no doubt, and I came out wounded. You can't see all of those wounds, but they're there. But I'm thankful to it, because, in particular, the business side is easy - the discipline, the organization, the motivation to push for a goal and not stop until you complete it. So that's really what I took from the military, in terms of the business side.

 

Duane Topping:          It's interesting. So many people assume that that structured environment is difficult to then match with the creative side. For me, I think one of the things that that structure allows me to do is it allows me to create that purpose that I have in the creative. It allows me to start with a story and then develop the creativity from that framework. Then, that way, the clothes themselves still represent ... Like you did, you can see what I'm trying to do. So that's kind of a nuanced way to see it, but certainly purpose, because the army only tells you purpose, direction, motivation. So you still carry that.

 

Greg Stebben:            My understanding is that being a veteran also helped you raise capital for your business. My understanding is you got a $10,000 loan from a CDFI, the Colorado Enterprise Fund, as part of Bank of America's Veteran Access Loan Opportunity Resource Program?

 

Duane Topping:          Oh, 100%, and I think, without that, we wouldn't be where we're at now. That was very, that was very good.  Particularly as a veteran, you come out of the military, and you're sort of left to fly in the wind. There's a lot of things about the civilian world that they don't tell you, because in the military, everything's structured. You know what's coming. In fact, you know what you're going to wear every single day.

 

Greg Stebben:            Yes.

 

Duane Topping:          You know what time you've got to be where you're going to be. Everything is structured. You know who's going to be there, and there's no deviation from that. So when you get out into the real world, the civilian world, so much out there feels like it's left to chance. But it's just because you don't have the knowledge, and it took Colorado Enterprise Fund and Bank of America to really say, "You know what? We appreciate your service, and, honestly, we believe in what you're doing. Let us help you."

 

Duane Topping:          The money was wonderful, and we've been able to utilize that very effectively. But I think more importantly is the support, even after the loan process, because, in fact, just yesterday ... and I sit down with their financial advisors. When I have questions that nobody else will answer for you, they're there to answer that for you, and I think that that's essential for a veteran in particular, because you've come from such a unique environment that really doesn't allow you to acclimate easily to a less structured world.

 

Greg Stebben:            I want to ask you two more questions, Duane, and one of them really builds on what you just said. That is, you came out of the service. You had the struggles that you did. You found something that really enabled you to get beyond that and create a successful business.

 

Greg Stebben:            I'm talking with Duane Topping. The company is Topping Designs. The website is duanetopping.com, D-U-A-N-E Topping, T-O-P-P-I-N-G, dot com, duanetopping.com. You can see many photos of the beautiful clothes that he's designing on Instagram @duanetopping.

 

Greg Stebben:            But the question I want to ask you that really builds on what you said is, when you think about the process you've been through in starting and building your business and getting it to the point where it is today, what advice would you give to fellow veterans who are in a place similar to where you were a few years ago, thinking, "Maybe I could start a business. Maybe I could fuel my passion as well"? What kinds of words of wisdom could you share with them now, knowing what you know?

 

Duane Topping:          Well, knowing what I know now, I think one of the key elements is you have to be able to go out and get those questions answered that you need answered. Don't take that first answer you get and run with it, because, oftentimes, there's many different ways to do things, and there's many entities out there that don't necessarily want to jump right into business with you. The Colorado Enterprise Fund was literally the sixth or seventh bank entity that we had tried to develop some funding.

 

Duane Topping:          So take that military training, that tenacity, that motivation, that purpose-driven, goal-oriented lifestyle that you came from, and carry that through to your business. Don't stop until you get those questions answered in a way that's positive and meaningful to you, because, eventually, you will find somebody who's going to reach out, because, unfortunately, you don't know what you don't know. So you've got to ask those questions, and it is. It's a lot of pride-swallowing, in terms of going into someplace and saying, "Listen, I don't know anything. Can you teach me?"

 

Duane Topping:          I think that's with any business, because not only did I not know the business world, but I didn't know anything about fashion - absolutely nothing. I knew nothing about balance. I knew nothing about construction, the marketing plans, any of that. Then, on the business side, I didn't know retail map. So all of these things, I had to keep asking and keep asking until I was able to get the questions, and don't be afraid to take that help, because, ultimately, small businesses thrive in a community. You have to begin to build that community, and a lot of that takes courage to open up, again, to that community.

 

Greg Stebben:            It's really perfect to hear you say that, because the last thing I want to ask you is really about the larger community. I mean, you came from a world of veterans. We know that lots of veterans start businesses because ... You talked about discipline. I think there’s sometimes it's a challenge to assimilate into the civilian world. But when you own your own business, you have control, and that feels more comfortable.

 

Greg Stebben:            But I'm guessing that, today, you find that you're a role model for all kinds of people, whether they served or not, and I'm just wondering, when you are talking to other small business owners and aspiring small business owners in your community, do you find that there's a big difference in the kind of questions they ask, whether they are veterans or not?

 

Duane Topping:          Actually, no. I really don't, because business ... I'm always surprised. When I got into fashion, I thought to myself, "Well, fashion is a different kind of business. There's so many different nuances, and a lot of this general business information is not going to translate," and it really is.

 

Duane Topping:          But I don't think that there's different questions. I think the problem is that, oftentimes, veterans run into the scenario where, because they don't have experience in the civilian world, they often don't know what questions to ask. So I think that that's the struggle. I think that the problem that veterans run into is just that when they get out there, they know that there's things they don't know, but they just don't know how to ask the question.

 

Duane Topping:          So, in that sense, I think it's different going in. Then, once they develop a fundamental knowledge of the direction they're going, some of the questions start being the same. "How do I get financing? How does that look, in terms of my business? How do I pay that back? How do I guarantee that the business is going to thrive in the future?", these kinds of things. "How do I market my product? How do I market my brand?" or whatever, those kinds of things.

 

Duane Topping:          The questions are similar, even without a veteran. But the problem is I don't think the veteran is given the tools to know that "marketing" is the word that they need to use or things like costing sheets. They have an idea of what the end product is going to look like. They just don't know how to ask the questions, necessarily.

 

Duane Topping:          But that's the nice thing about entities like Colorado Enterprise Fund, is that they will sit down with you and say, "Okay, these are your goals. Let me help you along the way and get you to ask the right questions to the right people."

 

Greg Stebben:            That's really well-said, because I realized, as you were talking, that if you're in the civilian world, even when there's things you don't know, you've seen other people do them, and you've been around the language and the vocabulary and the concepts, whereas when you're coming from the military world, it's a very different world.

 

Greg Stebben:            So, in a sense, you get some advantages, as you talked about. For instance, that's a great place to learn about discipline and things like that. But, on the other hand, there are some disadvantages, which is, in a sense, kind of playing catch-up with the civilian world and how the civilian world operates.

 

Duane Topping:          Oh, unquestionably. I mean, especially for soldiers who've been deployed, I mean, I don't think people can imagine being completely out of the loop for a year. I remember when cell phones first started doing texting and having email integrations and things, and we had no idea what that was. We had a whole conversation about ... We saw a headline about soldiers addicted to BlackBerries. Well, we didn't know what BlackBerries were, and we argued for three weeks, "Why blackberries? Why not strawberries? Why not raspberries?" We had no idea.

 

Duane Topping:          Then we went back to the same place where we saw the headline, and there was another soldier in front of the line. He turns around. He says, "Hey, you guys know that's a phone, right?" We're like, "Well, what's so big about the phone?" "Well, you can text." "What's text messaging?" I don't think people realize that that literally was ... So much of what you take for granted as a civilian, the world sometimes passes you by, and that is definitely a distinct disadvantage.

 

Greg Stebben:            Well, thank you for doing what you're doing. I really do want to encourage everyone listening to go to Duane's website. Again, it's duanetopping.com. Duane is D-U-A-N-E, Topping, T-O-P-P-I-N-G, duanetopping.com. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful fashion for women. You can also find him on Instagram @duanetopping, the company Topping Designs. He's Duane Topping. Duane, thank you so much for joining us.

 

Duane Topping:          Oh, thank you for having me. It was such a pleasure, and it's always an honor to be able to share my story. Hopefully, I can inspire somebody else to take that leap.

 

Greg Stebben:            I know you have. Thank you.Duane Topping.png

 

Narrator:                     Beginning in November 2019, US veterans eligible for Bank of America's Small Business Veterans Discount Initiative, featuring an exclusive 25% origination fee discount for their Bank of America small business loan or line of credit.

 

Narrator:                     Visit bankofamerica.com/smallbusiness for more information, and for more great small business tips check out Bank of America’s online Small Business Community at bankofamerica.com/sbc. Thanks for listening to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com.

 

Read next: A Plethora of Resources for Women and Veteran Entrepreneurs by Steve Strauss

Vetlinks.jpgOn this episode of “The Heartbeat of Main Street,” Steve Strauss speaks with Jessica Kavanagh, founder of VetLinks.org, and Lieutenant Colonel Kirk Duncan, the military affairs director of the organization. Listen to learn about the journey to create VetLinks and discover how it empowers veterans – with tips to help entrepreneurs everywhere thrive.

 

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“The Heartbeat of Main Street” delivers timely insights tailored to the needs of small business owners and entrepreneurs. Featuring a rotating line-up of small business experts and industry leaders – and covering a range of topics – each episode explores the trends that have an impact on revenue creation for small business owners.

 

The series is hosted by ForbesBooks, and more information can be accessed through a dedicated home page. New episodes will appear regularly on the Small Business Community podcast page. Be sure to check back often – so you don’t miss a beat.

 

Narrator:         Welcome to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com. Here’s your host, Steve Strauss.

 

 

Steve:             Jessica and Kirk, great to have you on the show. Welcome, Kirk Duncan and Jessica Kavanaugh, of VetLinks, VetLinks.org. Jessica, let me begin with you. VetLinks is an amazing organization. What inspired you to help create it?

 

Jessica:           My husband, Brian Kavanagh, he was an Army infantry officer, he was a ranger, and back in 2014 he came home one day and he was asking for help with his post-traumatic stress. And so we called the VA, and they had put us on a six week wait time for mental health. So we took matters into our own hands and we found him a place on our own for private care, and got him help. And after that, we called the VA again and they put us on another six week wait time, and so we've started our own private treatment again for mental health appointments.

 

Jessica:          By the summer of 2015, things were not getting much better by any means. So this time we called the VA and we kept our six week wait time appointment, which ironically fell on September 11th. And then when we went to the appointment, I was so hopeful that she was going to give us this magical place that was going to help Brian with his post-traumatic stress, and his substance abuse, and instead, all she could offer was a psych unit. So I started calling anyone, everyone who would listen to me. And finally, this woman called me from Texas and she said, "I've heard your story from two different people, one in Florida and one in California, and you really need to go down to Washington DC to a Congressional hearing on October 7th, and Bob McDonald's going to be there." Bob McDonald was the former secretary of the VA.

                                                                     

Jessica:          So I went down, and I went into the Congressional hearing, and I met with every single person in there. I had written out our story, typed it out, gave it to everyone. I introduced myself to Bob McDonald, and I told him our story and said that we needed help right away or that Brian was going to die. And in three days, he got him into an inpatient facility out in West Virginia with the VA.

 

Jessica:          So Brian went into the 90-day program. And he was meeting veterans left and right who weren't getting help additionally with benefits that they deserved, so he started holding classes on how to get these resources until finally, someone said to him, "Brian, you're a patient here, you can't just hold these classes." And so when he got out of the inpatient, he told me of the idea that he wanted to help these veterans. And he wanted to help take care of them and get them the resources that they needed. And of course, I was so supportive, but at the same time, I thought well, great, let's add caregivers to the list because I couldn't get you help, it took me months to get you into a facility.

 

Steve:             Your husband had the inspiration to create VetLinks, and I know he's not with us anymore, you carried it on. Could you just maybe tell us about that a little bit.

 

Jessica:          Yeah, absolutely. So when he passed away, I vowed to take over the nonprofit in his honor, and I wanted to carry his vision on. So after the funeral, a bunch of us were just sitting around the table, and I was telling a lot of Brian's friends about his vision, about what he wanted to do with VetLinks, and they said, "Let's do it." So we decided right then that we were going to take the nonprofit and move it in the right direction.

 

Steve:             Well it's so admirable. And VetLinks has been around for how many years now?

 

Jessica:           It'll be two years on December 20th.

 

Steve:             Way to go. Kirk, let me ask you this. How did you meet Jessica and how did you get involved with VetLinks?

 

Kirk:                Well first Steve, I want to echo Jessica's sentiment and just thank you for the opportunity to be on the program.

 

Kirk:                The short answer to how Jessica and I met was through her relationship with my best friend, Brian Kavanagh. Brian, as Jessica mentioned, was really the inspiration behind VetLinks.org. The slightly, I guess, longer version of how we got together, Brian and I grew up in a small town in Pittsburg, Kansas. We did everything together, hung out, we played sports, found creative ways to get in trouble at times. We were basically together almost every day from preschool really through high school graduation. So about as tight as two guys could be.

 

Kirk:                Flash forward a couple of years, and Brian had gone through the ROTC program at Pittsburg State University in our hometown, got commissioned, and eventually the Army stationed him over in Baltimore where his relationship with Jessica begins. And about that same time, I was also on active duty and serving in Iraq at that point. And honestly, Brian had dated other people, but when we communicated on email and phones, there was just something different about the way he was talking about Jessica. He was certainly smitten with her, head over heels.

 

Kirk:                So I returned that deployment in May of 2011, and Brian brought her to our good friend, Pat McNally's wedding, and that was the first time that we met in person.

 

Steve:             It must have been so hard for you to see your best friend, your pal, suffer from such severe PTSD.

 

Kirk:                Yeah, you know, it's hard to imagine knowing someone for over three decades, and then seeing their personality almost fundamentally change in front of you. It's one thing to hear words like post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, but to see the effects of that on someone you care so much about, it's almost impossible to describe. It was like when I'd go out to Baltimore with friends to kind of help Jessica intervene a little bit, and get Brian to realize what was going on, it was almost like a shell of himself. You look behind his eyes, and it just wasn't the same man that I'd grown up with and grown to love.

 

Kirk:                The other thing that was interesting for me in my initial journey with VetLinks, was it was hard for me to kind of understand their struggle. As an active-duty Army officer, the healthcare that I'm provided and still am has been phenomenal, the Army really takes care of its soldiers. But you know, when Brian left active duty he kind of gave up that camaraderie that is so unique to soldiers, you know, the bond that you form when you're in combat with somebody, it's indescribable for someone who hasn't been there. And so when Brian left active duty, he left that kind of network, that camaraderie of veterans.

 

Kirk:                And then the second thing is, when you leave active duty, the level of care that's available to veterans just is not up to par compared to what's provided for us on active duty. And so what I kind of came to realize in seeing Jessica and Brian's struggles, is ... it's difficult for the VA to provide the individual, necessary support, if you will, that our veterans deserve.

 

Steve:             So Jessica, let me ask you this, clearly you created VetLinks in honor of our husband and to help other soldiers like your husband. Can you tell us though a little bit more about what exactly VetLinks does, and who it's for, and how it helps them?

 

Jessica:          So VetLinks is for veterans, it's for our caregivers, it's for family members. And we want to be able to provide the immediate resources that they may need in a very immediate fashion. Whether that may be an inpatient stay, whether that might be therapy, alternative treatment, whether that's just getting a massage or acupuncture, or having a babysitter come over to the house so the couple can go get the couple's therapy they may need. Or as a caregiver, getting a flight to be able to go see their veteran while they're in an inpatient center. I mean, it really could be anything. As long as ... our criteria is based off of our story, as far as post-9/11, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, TBI-related. But however and whatever resources they need, we want to be able to provide.

 

Kirk:                Like any small business or nonprofit starting out, kind of identifying that target audience and developing our niche was hugely important for us. There's a lot of great nonprofits that do some really amazing things to assist veterans. So as we sort of developed our initial focus as a board, we thought let's model our target customer, if you will, on the Kavanagh family. So as Jessica mentioned, that's a combat veteran and their families who are struggling specifically from the effects of post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and substance abuse.

 

Kirk:                And our original thought was, hey, if we can save one veteran, we can impact one family's life, we'll be successful. And so as we progressed a little bit, the other thing we came to realize is that one of the forgotten parts of this epidemic involves those caregivers that Jessica talked about. Those persons, or people that live day in and day out with their veteran.

 

Kirk:                The other thing we learned is that the effects of post-traumatic stress can have profound impacts on the children of those veterans as well. So some of our focus has been specifically for those caregivers and children of veterans, in addition to trying to help veterans themselves.

 

Steve:             So you make a really great point, Kirk. I mean, one thing I always talk about to my small business brothers and sisters is that you have to serve the market, and find a need and fill it. And clearly there is a great need for the work you are doing. I'm going to ask this question to both of you, and Kirk, I'll go to your first. What is it you find most rewarding about your work with VetLinks?

 

Kirk:                Well I think first and foremost, it's the realization that we're helping people through our work. We've helped some people in some big ways, paying for inpatient treatments and such, and also in smaller ways. If I could I'd like to tell you a story about one of the first people that we helped. He was a Marine combat veteran named Matt. And when Matt got out of the Marine Corps, he really struggled with that transition back into civilian life. He had the telltale signs of suffering from post-traumatic stress, and was really abusing alcohol.

 

Steve:             Right.

 

Kirk:                And when we learned about Matt's story, we said, "Hey, this is exactly who we're trying to take care of." So VetLinks’ board kind of looked at the case, we voted wholeheartedly, let's get Matt some help. So we were able to provide six months of inpatient treatment therapy out in California. And Matt really took the treatment really well. And so we kind of followed his story as a new nonprofit startup, and I'm so proud to tell you, Steve, that he completed the six months of treatment, he got sober, and more importantly he got employed. And I'll tell you the great thing about that employment, Steve, is that he's actually employed with the VA right now. So it's about a story going full circle. Here Matt is struggling and we were able to help him through that struggle, and now he's living proof of what nonprofits like VetLinks can do, and we're so proud of the work he's doing in the VA to help his fellow vets out.

 

Steve:             Well that's fantastic, and congratulations, and it's stories like that that are so heartwarming. I'm sure, Jessica, that is the kind of thing that you find incredibly rewarding as well.

 

Jessica:          Yeah, absolutely. We get emails and text messages and phone calls all the time, thanking us for everything. So it's really rewarding.

 

Steve:             Jessica, I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about some of the unexpected challenges you have faced along the way. You know, it's not easy to create a business, it's not easy to create a nonprofit, an organization, a website. What unexpected challenges have you found?

 

Jessica:          Yeah, absolutely. Well, I personally think that one of the biggest challenges we have is dealing with getting past the stigma of these men and women wanting to get help. I know Brian never wanted to get help, he never wanted to talk about his struggles, or his issues, until he finally did, and hit a wall, and then it was too late. So there's a stigma overall, I think, with people struggling with mental health.

 

Jessica:          But just reaching them, and getting them to want to you know accept help, and get help has been one of our biggest challenges.

Steve:             Clearly you're getting there. And Kirk, what about you? What do you think?

 

Kirk:                Yeah, you know Steve, surprisingly, one of the unexpected challenges that we've faced was actually finding veterans and their families to help. As we started our nonprofit and found some initial success raising funds, we then had to figure out well how do we connect our resources, our monetary resources to those that need it? Reaching our target customer, if you will.

 

Kirk:                Another challenge involved the need to screen veterans' requests, kind of ensuring that we were in compliance in terms of like the regulations safeguarding peoples' private information, their identity, and their health information. And luckily, these are both kind of challenges that we've been able to work through by our networking efforts.

 

Kirk:                One thing that I think is valuable, whether you're serving the Army like I am, running a for profit enterprise, or working in a nonprofit like VetLinks, is really the power of networking. I think Jessica has been an absolute pro at networking in the Baltimore and greater Washington DC area. Her efforts and relationship building skills allowed us to connect with a great partner, and this organization that's called Code of Support. And Steve, what Code of Support and their partners do is they basically link together different veteran's charities, and are able to leverage the capabilities of each nonprofit in this collective partnership.

 

Kirk:                So if a veteran reaches out through Code of Support and has the need that fits our model and our criteria, they pass that referral on to us and we're able to connect our resources with that veteran's specific needs.

 

Steve:             Nice. Well clearly, Jessica, you are a master networker. Your story of how you went about helping your husband is pretty incredible. And if you brought those same skills to this endeavor, I'm sure you guys have an incredible network.

 

Steve:             I'm wondering, in fact, how creating this organization and VetLinks has impacted your personal life. It began as a personal story, you and your husband, and you taking the mantle from your husband. How has it affected your personal life since then?

 

Jessica:          You know, it's a challenge. I feel at this point I'm basically running three full-time jobs between our two little girls, and I work for a medical sales company that I've been with for 14 years, and that, of course, pays the bills, and now running the nonprofit. So it's just ... the challenge is time management, and just figuring out the priorities for the day. And that's all I do, is I just take it day by day.

 

Steve:             And Kirk, you, I'm guessing, have never started a business before, never created something from scratch. This has to have affected your personal life in ways you didn't expect either.

 

Kirk:                Yeah, it's really brought into focus the criticality of managing the work/life balance. Like Jessica, I have children, I have four kids, and they're all active and doing sports and school activities, and so trying to fulfill my duties as an active-duty Army officer, balancing that with being a husband and a father, and having such passion to try to help veterans that are like my best friend, Brian, it's been a challenge. But what it's taught me, as far as helping VetLinks, is just learning to balance and manage my time better.

 

Kirk:                The other thing that kind of comes out of this is actually learning how to say no. When we first started out, we took every opportunity we could, we'd go speak to any group, big or small, and then now we have to really kind of weigh our opportunities, because our time is limited and we have to choose those opportunities that give us kind of the best return, if you will, on that precious resource which is time.

 

Jessica:           Absolutely.

 

Steve:             And Kirk, would you do anything differently now two years in that you think people might want to know about?

 

Kirk:                You know, it's ... when you start any business, there's going to be certain things that you're good at, your core competencies, those things that you inherently feel comfortable with doing. And looking back, we were blessed to have a group of friends that had some unique talents that all contributed in meaningful ways to us starting VetLinks.org. But the one kind of, I guess, missing component was someone in our group, our initial Board of Directors, that had true nonprofit experience. It's different than running a for-profit business. So if I could rewind time a little bit, the one change would've been to reach out to a mentor, or someone with that nonprofit experience to really be an initial guiding hand, as we launched this journey that is VetLinks.org.

 

Steve:             That's a great tip. And I'm wondering about you Jessica, anything you might do differently and any advice you would give entrepreneurs or other people listening to our show today?

 

Jessica:          Yeah, absolutely. You know, I would say if you have a conviction about what it is you're trying to accomplish, you're going to get there. I know we had a problem, and we still have a problem today, taking the proper care of our veterans and caregivers. But that caused us to learn, and to put one foot in front of the other. So if you believe in your product, don't be afraid to go for it, because success can only come from taking action.

 

Steve:             You know, one of the things I love most about meeting the people I get to meet on this show is their enthusiasm and the initiative they take and creating something out of nothing. As I mentioned, it's not an easy thing to do. And so, whether that's a small business or a nonprofit, it really makes no difference. And what you're doing is admirable and great, and you're doing it so well too, so I would just recommend to anybody listening who has a veteran who needs help, VetLinks.org is a great website and a great organization, and we are all lucky to have you doing the work you're doing.

 

Steve:              So Kirk Duncan and Jessica Kavanagh, thank you both so much for being with us today.

 

Narrator:         For more great small business tips check out Bank of America’s online Small Business Community at bankofamerica.com/sbc. Thanks for listening to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com.

 

Related resources:

Veterans Make Ideal Entrepreneurs: Here are the Resources You Need to Start a Small Business by Steve Strauss

“The Heartbeat of Main Street,” Episode 3: Exploring Veteran Entrepreneurship Part I

“The Heartbeat of Main Street,” Episode 3: Exploring Veteran Entrepreneurship Part II

See how Bank of America shows its support and commitment to veterans and their families.

  Learn more about the Bank of America $20 Million Lending Program for U.S. Military Veteran Entrepreneurs

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To celebrate women business owners, Bank of America and ForbesBooks took time to speak with small business experts at their recent panel event. Panelist Cate Luzio, founder and CEO of Luminary, created the female-focused collaboration space for professional women to network, develop, and connect.Tune in to this episode of “The Heartbeat of Main Street” for Cate Luzio’s entrepreneurial journey.

 

Listen next: Stories from the Spotlight, Part 1: Deepti Sharma & FoodtoEat

 

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“The Heartbeat of Main Street” delivers timely insights tailored to the needs of small business owners and entrepreneurs. Featuring a rotating line-up of small business experts and industry leaders – and covering a range of topics – each episode explores the trends that have an impact on revenue creation for small business owners.

 

The series is hosted by ForbesBooks, and more information can be accessed through a dedicated home page. New episodes will appear regularly on the Small Business Community podcast page. Be sure to check back often – so you don’t miss a beat.

 

Transcript:

Narrator:                   Now, let's hear from Cate Luzio, founder and CEO of Luminary, the venue hosting the 2019 Bank of America Women Business Owners Spotlight.

 

Kate Delaney:           We're at a very cool place, Greg, called Luminary.

 

Gregg Stebben:        That is very cool. Luminary.

 

Cate Luzio:               Yes.

 

Kate Delaney:           Yes.

 

Gregg Stebben:         Luminary. Who's here with us?

 

Kate Delaney:            Cate Luzio's with us. She is the founder of this place.

 

Gregg Stebben:         And CEO. Founder and CEO of Luminary.

 

Kate Delaney:            Yes. And she's a 20-year banker.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Before Luminary.

 

Kate Delaney:            Yeah.

 

Cate Luzio:                 Yes.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Yes.

 

Cate Luzio:                 I quit my job to do this.

 

Gregg Stebben:          So, I want to hear the whole story.

 

Cate Luzio:                 Yeah.

 

Gregg Stebben:          How did you get here? Actually, you know what? Before you tell us that, tell us what Luminary is so people understand. I mean, we are in this  beautiful brick, I guess ... Is it loft-ish or a loft?

 

Cate Luzio:                 Yeah. Well, we're 15,000 square feet, so you guys have only seen one part. We've got a fitness studio, we have a beauty bar-

 

Gregg Stebben:          Oh, my gosh.

 

Cate Luzio:                  ... we have a dozen meeting rooms, we have a dozen phone booths, we're opening up our rooftop. It'll be open all year round.

 

Gregg Stebben:           Now, wait a minute. And I'm not invited. Well, no, I am invited.

 

Cate Luzio:                  No, men are absolutely welcome.

 

Gregg Stebben:           Oh, it is. Okay.

 

Cate Luzio:                  100%.

 

Gregg Stebben:           So, it's not a women-only co-working staff. Okay.

 

Cate Luzio:                 We're not. So, we are a female-focused collaboration space for professional women to network, develop, and connect. We're built on programming and content. So, we think of ourselves as here's a community gathering hub for women and male allies where you can come and learn, develop, and connect with other women, no matter if you're a banker, an entrepreneur, a yoga instructor, a teacher, really breaking down the silos that women face all over, no matter what profession they're in, especially for those that we’re trying to retain in the workforce, and then women entrepreneurs. So, we do workshops and courses, almost 20 a month.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Wow.

 

Cate Luzio:                 So, we've already done 150 this year. We've been open nine months. So that, whether it's professional and career development, small business entrepreneurial, personal wellness, and career changer and pivoters, we're supporting the woman, not a specific woman.

 

Kate Delaney:             Did you decide you were going to do this because you saw the need for women?

 

Cate Luzio:                 Very good question, Kate.

 

Kate Delaney:            Yeah. No man would have figured out that question.

 

Cate Luzio:                 No. You know, actually, I had this amazing career, 20 years. I spent a number of years at BofA, JP Morgan, and HSBC, and what I saw was that there were a lot of focus on the senior women and the junior women as they're coming in and as they have reached the top, but what about the pipeline. So, how do you invest in the pipeline of women in particular? Women are raising their hands all the time saying, "I want more. I want to do more. I want to learn more." So, how do we advance them into leadership roles in whatever they want to do so that we can change those numbers at the top that we keep hearing about? That's the gap. It's the same whether you work for a bank or you're an entrepreneur. How do you get access to the tools to develop yourself, to develop your business, develop your acumen?

 

Gregg Stebben:          It's interesting, Cate. In a way, that's a big focus of what Bank of America-

 

Cate Luzio:                 Yes.

 

Gregg Stebben:          ... is reporting in the 2019 Bank of America Women Business Owner Spotlight, which is why we're here. But I have kind of a two-part question for you based on what you just said.

 

Cate Luzio:                 Sure.

 

Gregg Stebben:          One is I want to know what the ramp up was for you to go from, "I'm committed," to actually opening the door.

 

Cate Luzio:                 Yeah.

 

Gregg Stebben:          But on top of that, I'm just wondering, we're in this place right now, we call it the war for talent, right? Was that one of the factors for you, that companies are struggling so much to get great talent? Was that a piece of your thinking?

 

Cate Luzio:                 Yeah. So, I'll take that question first. I think companies have the talent, they're just not investing in the right way. So, we see so many recruiters out there, they give a woman a call or even a person of color or men, too, and say, "Hey, come to this great company." Well, are you looking in your pipeline? I've been doing this for nine months, right? We're open nine months. I still get calls from recruiters about banking jobs.

 

Gregg Stebben:          For you?

 

Cate Luzio:                 For me.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Hello? LinkedIn.

 

Cate Luzio:                 There's women right-

 

Gregg Stebben:          In your company.

 

Cate Luzio:                 ... in your company.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Which is, really, the bigger point here.

 

Cate Luzio:                 Absolutely. So, they're right there. In banking, if 51% of the workforce is women, how are we still saying there's not a CEO out there that's a woman for any of the big banks, right, the top Wall Street firms. Stop looking outside and look inside, right?

 

Gregg Stebben:          Yes.

 

Cate Luzio:                  Also, give opportunity. But I think-

 

Gregg Stebben:           And groom.

 

Cate Luzio:                  And groom.

 

Gregg Stebben:           But groom opportunity.

 

Cate Luzio:                 Really invest, right, and developing them. I think, to your point, where did I come from? I had a great conversation with a male mentor of mine in early 2018. I was still in my job. I quit. There's a long story behind that, but I quit. Then, a month later, I wrote a business plan for Luminary. I decided to self-fund it, so no outside investors because I wanted to build a community that was maximizing the value for our members versus an investor, and there's nothing wrong with taking on money. I had made a very good career and wanted to invest and put my money where my mouth is. So, nine months later, we opened. So, it was a pretty fast ramp. We've been open nine months and we've got over 600 individual members and we also do corporate memberships. So, we have JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs and Unilever and others that are corporate members because they're looking at different ways to invest in their own talent, and Luminary's a great space to be able to deliver that.

 

Kate Delaney:             We're speaking with Cate Lucio, and she's the founder and CEO of Luminary. As you just heard the tale, funded it herself. Wow. That's so admirable. When you launched this, did you expect it to take off the way it has so fast? It hasn't even been a year and you've got all these big things happening.

 

Cate Luzio:                 Yeah. You know, actually, I hoped, but what I think is there is a real need for this, back to the earlier question, and I think women are looking for community, they're looking for connection, and they're looking for tools to continue to advance themselves in whatever they do. I think we have to stop siloing them and bucketing them in this one thing. "Kate, you do this. Jane, you do that." Let's bring women together. We can all learn from one another and really propel each other forward. Oh, by the way, let's make sure men are at the table helping us, right? That's one of the reasons we don't exclude men. It's really important in building a really inclusive, diverse space. We don't have an application process. I don't want someone to apply to become part of our community. That's not a community. That's already excluding people. So, we are a “join now” and we have just unbelievable members from all different places.

 

Gregg Stebben:          You mentioned your corporate sponsors.

 

Cate Luzio:                  Yes.

 

Gregg Stebben:           What is it that they're bringing to the table and getting from Luminary that makes it an attractive opportunity for them as well?

 

Cate Luzio:                 So, every company, if they're even at the mid size and large size, has a women's group, right, and it's usually back on those women to deliver the programming and the content and the speakers. We believe that we're an extension of these women's groups. We take the heavy lift off, but then it puts the individual back in the driver's seat around what types of skills they want to focus on versus just what their company is offering. So, that's one way on the employee engagement experience. There's a huge opportunity around brand awareness and engagement for these companies around, again, putting their money where their mouth is to support their women. Then, third, there's a great opportunity for both customer and talent acquisitions. You never know who you're going to see or meet in the space.

 

Kate Delaney:             Yep. Absolutely.

 

Cate Luzio:                 For me, as somebody who worked in corporate America for over 20 years, it's kind of a no-brainer.

 

Kate Delaney:            Last question, and this is a tough one. What keeps you up at night?

 

Cate Luzio:                 Honestly, as a self-funder, founder, and CEO, everything. I want to make sure that we really live and breathe what we're saying in the community and not diluting. How do you keep growing without going too fast?

 

Gregg Stebben:          Want to make one last point before we wrap this up. You talked about self-funding.

 

Cate Luzio:                 Yes.

 

Gregg Stebben:          The point I want to make is that getting funding may not be right for every business. Self-funding may not be right for it.

 

Cate Luzio:                  Oh, exactly.

 

Gregg Stebben:           That's a consideration that every small business should think about, is not just, "I need money," but where's the money coming from?

 

Cate Luzio:                  And why do you need it?

 

Gregg Stebben:           And why do you need it is essential. When it's your money, I bet you treat it a lot differently.

 

Cate Luzio:                 Absolutely. But I think there's a huge opportunity for banks to play in this space versus everyone just looks at, "Oh, I've got to raise a bunch of money."

 

Gregg Stebben:          Yes.

 

Cate Luzio:                 Banks have amazing tools, and we need to educate mainly women business owners on what tools that banks can offer so that you can grow your business.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Beautiful.

 

Kate Delaney:             Yep. Thank you so much. This was terrific.

 

Cate Luzio:                 Thanks for having me.

 

Kate Delaney:             Thanks.

 

Narrator:                     Thanks for listening to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com.

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To celebrate women business owners, Bank of America and Forbesbooks took time to speak with small business experts at their recent panel event. Panelist Deepti Sharma, founder of FoodtoEat, is creating opportunity and increasing the odds of success for caterers and restaurants. Tune in to this episode of “The Heartbeat of Main Street” for Deepti Sharma’s entrepreneurial journey.

 

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“The Heartbeat of Main Street” delivers timely insights tailored to the needs of small business owners and entrepreneurs. Featuring a rotating line-up of small business experts and industry leaders – and covering a range of topics – each episode explores the trends that have an impact on revenue creation for small business owners.

 

The series is hosted by ForbesBooks, and more information can be accessed through a dedicated home page. New episodes will appear regularly on the Small Business Community podcast page. Be sure to check back often – so you don’t miss a beat.

 

Transcript:

Kate Delaney:             I'm Kate Delaney with Gregg Stebben. We're from “Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks and Bank of America. We're here at the 2019 Bank of America Women Business Owner Spotlight, and we're here with Deepti Sharma. She is the founder and CEO of FoodtoEat. What is FoodtoEat?

 

Deepti Sharma:          So, first of all, thank you for having me.

 

Gregg Stebben:          You're welcome.

 

Deepti Sharma:          FoodtoEat is a corporate catering concierge service where we partner with immigrant women and minority-owned restaurants in New York City. Essentially, we help them by taking over their sales and marketing for catering and help them book catering opportunities at large clients. And we're getting these corporations that we feed to do two things. One, we help them consolidate their food and beverage programs, so they don't have to go to 10 different restaurants in order to book catering opportunities, and then two, we're helping them look at diversity and inclusion through the lens of food and beverage, so thinking about how they can invest by using their purchasing power in small businesses in the community and the businesses we represent, as I said, are immigrant- woman- or minority-owned, and two, we're also allowing them to think about inclusion. So, inclusion is not just hiring women and people of color, which is how D&I is usually looked at. So, we say, "How about you do that through your food and beverage programs?"

 

Gregg Stebben:          Culture.

 

Deepti Sharma:          Yes, culture. Exactly. Get the people you've hired to feel as if you're actually trying to think about where they're from and the cuisines that they grew up eating. So, again, it's such a simple thing. Food is sustenance, but it's always put on the back burner. What's the least amount of money I can spend on food? But at any event, good food and good drinks, people remember that.

 

Gregg Stebben:          It also brings the best out of people. So, you're probably going to have some really great gains in productivity and-

 

Deepti Sharma:          Absolutely.

 

Gregg Stebben:          ... and engagement amongst your employees-

 

Deepti Sharma:          Absolutely.

 

Gregg Stebben:          ... that produce results that frankly were unpredictable around a pizza.

 

Deepti Sharma:          Absolutely. As you're talking about that, one of the things we've done to humanize the experience is we started a campaign called I Made Your Food where we photograph all the owners, chefs, and operators holding the sign called “I Made Your Food” because we want those photograph to be in front of the catering and people to look at it before they pick up that free food and say, "Oh, wow. This is the person that has literally had something to do with putting my food together." You see these people standing in line, they're like, "Oh, what is that? I'm so curious and interested." We've even had companies send out the links to the blogs of the interviews that we've done because they want to promote the D&I experience, and they want to promote that they're actually doing this for their team inside.

 

Kate Delaney:             What a brilliant idea and with, of course, the explosion of social media, all different platforms, I would imagine that really took off like wildfire.

 

Deepti Sharma:          Yeah. I mean, a lot of the companies that we're feeding loved it and, essentially, have literally switched over from other organizations that they used to work with to us because they loved that we actually care about the vendors that we represent, that we care about the businesses that we work with, because we don't want to be seen as a third party to them. We want to be able to be seen as an extension of their business.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Talk to us about the kinds of restaurants and food companies you're working with. Would they be in the catering business if they had not created a relationship with FoodtoEat?

 

Deepti Sharma:          Yeah. So, some of them are ... We're in New York City, so we work with some local chains like Dos Toros or fresh&co, which are ... they have above 10 locations in New York City alone.

 

Gregg Stebben:          That's still local or regional companies?

 

Deepti Sharma:           Yeah.

 

Gregg Stebben:           Okay.

 

Deepti Sharma:           They are still local, regional companies.

 

Gregg Stebben:           So, not Taco Bell or-

 

Deepti Sharma:            No. No.

 

Gregg Stebben:            ... Chili's?

 

Deepti Sharma:            No.

 

Gregg Stebben:           Okay.

 

Deepti Sharma:          We try to avoid those. But we do have clients that have requested them sometimes. Again, we don't want to be representing those businesses, but we have mom and pops, organizations like Ja Dijo Dom (Owner/Chef Charles Chipengule). He's an individual that actually used to work for another vendor of ours. He learned everything he could, left, and started his own business. He's from Botswana and wanted to bring the cuisine of not just Botswana, but the continent of Africa and he wanted to educate people because he himself wanted to educate himself about what the cuisine all over Africa is like. So, he started a catering company. So, we have vendors like him, Mamagyro, which is a mother/daughter-owned Greek restaurant and catering business.

 

                                   So, those are the stories that I feel like are the fabric of our country. When people think about what's American food, I don't think it's burgers and fries. I think it is the cuisine of the world, right, because that's who we are. We're immigrants. That's why, as a first-generation woman of color, I think it's really essential for me to represent where I come from, which is ... Obviously, I'm In ... not obviously, but I am an Indian American.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Not as obvious to a radio audience.

 

Deepti Sharma:          Yeah. Not as obvious, but I am Indian American, and so I wanted to represent that, but I wanted to represent people from all over the world.

 

Gregg Stebben:          What fascinates me about what you've done is you're actually creating opportunity and increased odds of success for the caterers and the restaurants that you work with and, at the same time, creating this opportunity for inclusion and understanding and opening people's minds about food and culture on the company side, and on top of that, we also have a much more diverse workplace. So, it must be very thrilling for people at a company to have their culture represented from time to time as opposed to the standard stuff you get from a company.

 

Deepti Sharma:          Absolutely. We want them to not only do it when it's Hispanic Heritage Month or Black History Month. We want them to know that every one of these restaurants or caterers that we work with should be represented throughout the year, right? It's not just these specialty moments or months to celebrate them. So, that's when ERG groups do it. So, we, again, are changing that conversation to say, "You should have cuisine from all over the world all the time."

 

Gregg Stebben:          All the time.

 

Deepti Sharma:          Exactly.

 

Kate Delaney:            I mentioned at the top that, of course, we're here at the 2019 Bank of America Women Business Owner Spotlight event, and Deepti, for you, obviously, there has to be a connection. What would you advise young women who want to be entrepreneurs, who want to be business owners like yourself, what would you advise them to do?

 

Deepti Sharma:          I was talking about this earlier with someone. I always try to tell them to be passionate, but passion isn't enough to run a business. So, what I think is really important is when you're walking into a room, be able to back up anything you do with facts. People will always ask, "Why you? Why now? Why does this business need to be started now?" and, "Why does it have to be you?" So, just make sure you have the facts of why it is you should be this right person and have those facts of what is the problem that you're trying to solve and why is it now that's most important to get it done.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Okay. I'll take the bait. Why you? Why now? What happened in your life to make you see that this was an opportunity?

 

Deepti Sharma:          When I started FoodtoEat, it was a very different business. I started as an online ordering platform for food trucks and carts, like a Seamless for food trucks. Why me? Because I'm a New Yorker, I absolutely love this city, community has always been a big part of whatever I've done, and I wanted to help create opportunities for underrepresented, marginalized communities. I've worked in politics before it. I had seen what it was like to bring people together for one cause. So, why me? Because I've done it in the world of politics, where I've worked on a number of campaigns. Why at that time? Food trucks were booming. It was 2011 and it was an interesting time and I wanted to help grow and scale them, but not the hippy, the hipster type of food trucks. I wanted to help the small business owners that technology was emerging, but they weren't actually using it-

 

Gregg Stebben:          Yes.

 

Deepti Sharma:           ... so I was sending them, through our system, text messages with orders from people that were sitting in their offices. So, why me? Because I've done things before where I've brought people together for a cause and I felt like I could do it for these people to help them grow in scale. At the time, like I said, food trucks were hot. Then, we solely pivoted for a lot of reasons, which we could spend another 30, 40 minutes-

 

Gregg Stebben:          I'm sure we could.

 

Deepti Sharma:          ... but the pivot was great for us because we were able to continue helping the food industry in a different capacity.

 

Gregg Stebben:          I love the fact that in your original model, you were helping the food trucks and hungry people and now you're helping a very specific set, immigrants, women, on one hand grow their business with your help and expertise, but also, there's this whole inspirational, educational, cultural enlightenment part, which, if I had to choose one of those models to motivate me to get out of bed in the morning, I would definitely pick what you pivoted to. I really want to congratulate you for that.

 

Deepti Sharma:          Yeah. Thank you. I mean, we always worked with immigrant women, minority, but the funny thing is it was always something I knew I was doing, but it wasn't a part of my branding.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Yes.

 

Deepti Sharma:          It became more a part of our story because we saw that that's what would really push our business and that's what would really get the habits of corporations to change.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Yeah. Because you have two tribes now, and one of them is very big and powerful and well-funded.

 

Deepti Sharma:           Exactly.

 

Gregg Stebben:           That's very exciting.

 

Deepti Sharma:            Corporations needs to spend their dollars in the right places.

 

Kate Delaney:              Yeah. Yeah.

 

Gregg Stebben:           So, let's help them.

 

Deepti Sharma:           The challenge is always with Fortune 500 companies. There's always a lot of red tape. How do we break that? How do we get them to change the habits of conforming to what they're used to, which is working with companies like Aramark and Sedexo?

 

Gregg Stebben:          The thing I love about, I think you said, the hashtag or that what you put in the photo is I Made This.

 

Deepti Sharma:           I Made your Food.

 

Gregg Stebben:           I Made your Food. What I love about that is so often, the food we eat, nobody made it.

 

Deepti Sharma:           Yeah.

 

Gregg Stebben:           A machine made it. A robot made it. It's not even really food.

 

Deepti Sharma:           It's processed. Yeah.

 

Gregg Stebben:           It's processed. You're delivering real food made by real people-

 

Deepti Sharma:           Exactly.

 

Gregg Stebben:           ... that provides real jobs and real opportunity. That is very exciting.

 

Deepti Sharma:          So, for us, that's what I'm thinking about, is that how do we change the conversation, and that's why we really started investing our time in D&I because we realized that people ... It's a hot topic. Everyone wants to be a part of it and everybody wants to be doing something new and different. So, it's still tough, right? Corporations don't change with the snap of a finger, even though I wish they did.

 

Gregg Stebben:          Not even when Deepti snaps her fingers.

 

Kate Delaney:             That's right.

 

Deepti Sharma:           Yes.

 

Kate Delaney:             Thank you very much. It was lovely meeting you. I love your mission. I can't wait to see where it all ends up.

 

Gregg Stebben:          I want lunch.

 

Deepti Sharma:           Thank you.

 

Kate Delaney:             Yeah, so do I.

 

Deepti Sharma:           I'm always hungry.

 

Narrator:                     For more great small business tips check out Bank of America’s online Small Business Community at bankofamerica.com/sbc. Thanks for listening to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com.

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National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) hosted its annual National Women’s Business Conference to bring together women entrepreneurs from across the country to learn, network and share their ideas for the future. NAWBO, which is celebrating its 44th year as an organization, chose “Our Time is Now” as this year’s theme—and our team fully embraced that sentiment! Marking Bank of America’s seventh year as the presenting sponsor of the event, our team walked away energized, empowered and inspired by the incredible women business owners who are making strides across the country.

 

One of the highlights of the conference was the presentation of the annual Woman Business Owner of the Year award. From hundreds of nominations submitted from NAWBO Chapters all over the country, the field was narrowed to three finalists: Gail Becker of CAULIPOWER; Merrilee Kick of Buzzballz/Southern Champion, LLC; and Lynn Weirich of Business Financial Group (BFG). Gail was selected as this year’s winner.

 

While on the ground, we had a chance to talk with the three women and get some advice on business best practices and advice for building a successful small business:

 

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Gail Becker, CAULIPOWER – 2019 winner of the Woman Business Owner of the Year Award

 

Prior to founding Caulipower, Gail’s career covered media, politics and business. However, as a mom of two boys with celiac disease, she couldn’t find pizza options that were tasty and gluten-free. So, she left her corporate job to launch CAULIPOWER, with a mission to reinvent favorite foods one healthy meal hack at a time. In two years, she turned her idea into the No. 8 best-selling frozen pizza brand in the United States, extended the product offerings and created a $100 million-plus company.

 

What advice would you give prospective or new women business owners looking to start and grow their businesses?

 

Never be afraid to bet on yourself, because if you don’t, no one else ever will!

 

What skills or characteristics are foundational to be an entrepreneur or small business owner?

To be an entrepreneur today you have to be pretty fearless. I inherited my fearlessness from my father, who came to this country as an immigrant with absolutely nothing and built a small business, which I got to work in every Saturday for $20 plus lunch. When he passed away, he really passed along onto me this fearlessness, which I’ve used every single day in building my business.

 

Merrilee Kick, Buzzballz/Southern Champion, LLC – Finalist

 

Merrilee is CEO and founder of BuzzBallz/Southern Champion, the only woman-owned distillery/winery in the United States. BuzzBallz/Southern Champion makes ready-to-drink cocktail brands and premium spirits brands sold in 43 states and seven countries. The company is family operated out of the Dallas area. Merrilee is a winner of the 2018 EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award Southwest, EY’s Winning Women Award 2016, and many other accolades.

 

What moment would you say has had the biggest impact in shaping your professional success?

One of the most important things that happened to me in my professional career was attending a trade show. I was having a hard time getting sales in different states. We barely had any money when my son and I hoofed it to that trade show, got a tiny little booth, and then overnight we had 15 new distributors for our product. They were statewide distributors, which was a big deal for us. That’s when I knew we were going to make it.

 

Lynn Weirich, Business Financial Group (BFG) – Finalist

 

Lynn is president of BFG, a human resource consulting firm she co-founded in 1997. BFG helps business owners manage their back-office issues related to their most important asset: their people. Services include payroll processing, timekeeping, onboarding, training, HR information systems and more. Lynn is one of three founding members of NAWBO-San Antonio and she has won numerous awards, including the San Antonio Business Journal’s leadership award.

 

What would you say has had the biggest impact in shaping your professional success?

I would say that it’s recognizing that my internal clients come first and foremost. If they are happy and they’re productive and the culture is right, then my external clients will be well taken care of too.

 

For more from this year’s finalists, check out NAWBO’s September interviews with them here.

For a range of historically disadvantaged small business owners, Supplier Diversity programs present an opportunity to get a leg up in a very competitive landscape.

Specifically, benefits include:

 

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  • Access to supplier diversity and procurement executives at hundreds of major U.S. corporations and some federal, state and local government entities
  • Formal and informational opportunities to pursue business deals with National Corporate Members
  • Access to mentoring, education and capacity development
  • Opportunity to promote your business through event participation

 

It takes tremendous effort and dedication to get any small business off the ground, and supplier diversity programs are intiatives to help expand business opportunities, such as help for bidding on large contracts. These opportunities for growth bolster both the small business itself and local communities through job creation and revenues that are shared across the local economy.

 

The support and advantages these programs provide are vital to the select small business owners who may face additional challenges in getting started and expanding their operations.

 

The eligible groups are:

 

  • Women-owned Small Business - Owned and operated by a woman or women
  • Small Disadvantaged Business -  Owned and operated by socially and economically disadvantaged persons
  • Service-disabled Veteran-owned Small Business Concern - Owned and operated by U.S. military veterans who acquired a disability during their service

 

A Banking Partner

 

Small businesses with diverse ownership have a well-equipped ally in Bank of America. BofA’s Supplier Diversity Program, which works with those businesses to ensure that they are afforded opportunities to participate in competitive  bids and/or aid in assisting them grow their existing business with BofA.

To participate in BofA’s program, small businesses must become certified as a diverse supplier, which can be done through one of several organizations like:

 

 

     These organizations help confirm that the business fulfills all of the criteria necessary. Bank of America supports categories including:

 

    • Minority-Owned
    • Woman-Owned
    • Veteran, Disabled Veteran, and Service-Disabled Veteran
    • Disabled-Owned
    • LGBT-Owned
    • HUBZone Businesses (Historically Underutilized Business Zone)

 

     From there, a small business can begin to work with BofA under the Supplier Diversity Program.

 

Why Participate

 

Bank of America works with suppliers to understand their capabilities and to align them with upcoming opportunities where the needs of their business fit the services and/or products that the supplier provides.

 

Bank of America works with both buyers and suppliers to develop the best business matches and foster diversity in the supply chain. To successfully do so, the team at Bank of America has added resources like legal services, marketing and advertising support, digital and social media staffing, design & construction, promotional products, office supplies, global tech and ops and call center support.

 

Starting a small business is never easy but finding the right tools and partners can help diverse businesses  start strong while building a vibrant and thriving business.

For further information, please visit the Bank of America supplier page.

The research presented in this report, sponsored by Bank of America Private bank and developed in partnership with Babson College, offers a rare look into the unique experiences of women entrepreneurs. As they navigate their way to building successful businesses, the report is based on in-depth interviews with 30 women entrepreneurs operating companies in a variety of industries, all of which generate a minimum of $5 million in annual revenues.

 

Through their collective experiences, three key themes emerged, all highlighting the barriers that women often encounter in their endeavors to achieve successful business growth. To help others identify opportunities for similar growth, read the full report for seven actionable strategies direct from successful women entrepreneurs.  

 

Click here to read the full report

 

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Women entrepreneurs plan to grow their businesses and hire more workers in 2020. As they grow as business leaders, it is vital for women to mentor the next generation of female business owners. Bank of America’s Head of Small Business, Sharon Miller, encourages women business owners to dream big and keep pushing to achieve their goals. On this episode of the “The Heartbeat of Main Street,” hear more on this and other findings from the 2019 Women Business Owner Spotlight.

 

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“The Heartbeat of Main Street” delivers timely insights tailored to the needs of small business owners and entrepreneurs. Featuring a rotating line-up of small business experts and industry leaders – and covering a range of topics – each episode explores the trends that have an impact on revenue creation for small business owners.

 

The series is hosted by ForbesBooks, and more information can be accessed through a dedicated home page. New episodes will appear regularly on the Small Business Community podcast page. Be sure to check back often – so you don’t miss a beat.

 

Transcript:

 

Kate Delaney:            I'm Kate Delaney with Gregg Stebben. We're from Heartbeat of Main Street with ForbesBooksand Bank of America, and we are so pleased to be here at the 2019 Bank of America Women Business Owner Spotlight. And we are with, I've got to call her my nickname, the grand dame of banking, Sharon Miller, who is the head of Small Business for Bank of America. It's so great to meet you and be here at this fabulous event.

 

Sharon Miller:            It's so great to be here, Kate and Gregg. Thank you so much for having me.

 

Gregg Stebben:         Absolutely. This is one of your premier events of the year.

 

Sharon Miller:            It is. It is.

 

Gregg Stebben:         So tell us about the event and about the data and the statistics and the research behind it.

 

Sharon Miller:            For the last four years, we have produced a Women Business Owner Report just to understand how women are feeling about the economy, about what's happening with their own business and their revenue outlook. And this time, for the first time over the last four years, women have a higher expectation for hiring plans, for revenue growth of their business and the outlook than their male counterparts. So, that's a pretty fascinating data point when you think about the optimism out there in the economy and what's happening in the political climate right now.

 

Gregg Stebben:         You talk to a lot of women business owners. Do you have theories of your own about why there would be that change?

 

Sharon Miller:            You know, women, I mean Kate, we're women, right?

 

Gregg Stebben:         I'm always the guy here.

 

Kate Delaney:            Yes, you are.

 

Sharon Miller:             You're always the guy.

 

Gregg Stebben:          The lone guy.

 

Sharon Miller:             You're the lone guy.

 

                                   And we are sitting in a fabulous place that is dedicated to women, Luminary, that is a co-op of women entrepreneurs working together, that's why we chose this spot in particular here in Manhattan. And to me, women, we are more and more getting out there, starting our own business, wanting to take control of our own destiny. And I think that as that settles in, as you see sustainability, women are understanding, "Hey, I can do this. I feel confident, I feel good about what's going on." And I think it's just time.

 

Kate Delaney:            I love numbers and I'm wondering if there's some trends or stats from the 2019 Bank of America Women Business Owner Spotlight that we should look at, that we should call attention to for people who are listening to us.

 

Sharon Miller:            Well, 84% of women told us that they expected their revenue to be higher at the end of this year in 2019 versus last year. So, that's a pretty good majority of business owners out there.

 

Gregg Stebben:         It's also—they're predicting that for themselves after a previously great year.

 

Sharon Miller:            That's right.

 

Gregg Stebben:         So, it's not a reaction to something bad, but it's a greater reaction to something great.

 

Sharon Miller:            It is. It's continuing that increase, it's continued optimism. And we're already in October.

 

Gregg Stebben:         Right.

 

Sharon Miller:            So when you think about, a lot of the year has passed. We're in the 10th month of the year and we're hearing this from business owners, so that's a pretty good indicator of how they feel they'll end the year.

 

Gregg Stebben:         One of the things I want to ask you about, Sharon, because this really fascinated me, partially I think because I am a man, but I think it's going to be really eye-opening for women as well. One of the things you asked as part of this was, "I believe blank will be impactful in helping women in business over the next five years." And first of all, I love the question, I love the collection of responses you got, but I love the fact that the number one thing that women said they thought would be impactful was achieving work-life balance. Because I think that's also aligned with more and more people, thanks to millennials, are looking for in their business whether they own it or they're an employee. And I want to hear you talk about that.

 

Sharon Miller:            I agree, and I think that's not just for entrepreneurship, but it's for corporate America.

 

Gregg Stebben:         Yes.

 

Sharon Miller:            And I think about Bank of America and the benefits we give: 16 weeks of maternity or paternity leave when someone has a baby. Whether you're the man or the woman, you get that leave, you get to spend time with your family. More and more, people want to spend time with their family, and it's a blurred line of work and life. And when you can have it both together, and you can do what you love and still be with your loved ones, and your company is committed to that, or you're an entrepreneur and you lead that type of organization, he's got greater followership and greater commitment. And especially in the millennials, we're finding that.

 

Kate Delaney:            Talking about the millennials, here at the 2019 Bank of America Women Business Owner Spotlight, what would you tell young women as they jump into owning their own businesses?

 

Sharon Miller:            I think it's important to be positive. Be confident. Follow your passion, follow your dream. Because the more I hear and I read articles and I listen to business owners about, "Why did you do it?" "Well, I followed my dream, I followed my passion." Then don't limit your dream and don't limit what's possible, because when you got into this business, you felt the sky's the limit.

 

                                  So keep dreaming, keep thinking about how I can do things differently, how I can continue to expand or go into different markets, and don't ever stop that creative engine that got you here to begin with. Because when you just get stale and you don't keep thinking, "Okay, how can I do this better, faster, more efficient?" You're not going to keep growing. And so that's what I would encourage any business owner to do, but especially millennials as they're getting into the start of their own business.

 

Gregg Stebben:         Millennials, yes, and women, yes. Because one of the things you mentioned early on as we've been talking today, and I think one of the things that's so visible at this event today is that—and you found this in the report—the more there are women who are successful in business, the more it impacts other women and empowers them to do the same thing. For a lot of reasons, including, "Oh, there are lots of mentors now. There's lots of women that have experienced this. There's more women in banking, so that I do have access to capital," on and on and on and on. And I want you to talk about the network effect of that for women, that your report really beautifully displays.

 

Sharon Miller:            I think it's important, and especially when you think about networking and mentorship and connecting with other women, many times when you have a man and a woman coming together to network or mentor, you're going to have differences. And what we found from clients, and we talk about this a lot, many times men are talking to women about, "Okay, maybe you need to navigate this politics or that," versus the tactical, operational, "Here's the finances, here's the P&L-

 

Gregg Stebben:         Oh my gosh, you sound like my wife and I.

 

Sharon Miller:            "Here's how you operate a business."

                                   I mean, so it's important. And I think the more women that know those types of functions and how to do it and how to drive it, they're going to be able to pass that on and understand that, you know what, yeah, there's politics involved, but there's also brass tacks of how to run a business, how to operate a company. And that's all very, very important.

 

Gregg Stebben:         You're talking about a cultural shift as a result of more and more women being in business and owning business and being in positions of leadership.

 

Sharon Miller:            Absolutely. And what we find is that women bring that back to their communities more so than men. Women are coming back, they're investing in their communities.

 

Gregg Stebben:         Why are you both looking at me?

 

Sharon Miller:            We're not trying to!

 

Gregg Stebben:         But you, I mean it is, there's research to support that. Women share, and men don't.

 

Kate Delaney:            But that's exciting, because that means that the more of those tactics that spread, the more the fear or the barrier to entry will lower, I think, for women. What do you think?

 

Sharon Miller:            Yeah, because I see someone, "Oh, they're like me. They can do it, I can do it." You have to, when you can see what's possible and people paving the way, these great women, then you can say, "Wow, I can do that, because I see they're like me."

 

Gregg Stebben:         What kind of programs do you have at Bank of America that are taking advantage of the things you're learning from the report?

 

Sharon Miller:            Well, my favorite is the Women Ready to Lead Conference, and we do this in various cities across the country. And really it's about women understanding that, you know what, you don't have to have all of it right here and there. Raise your hand, let us know you're ready to lead, let us know you want to grow with the company, and we're going to support you, and we're going to help you get to where you want to go.

 

Gregg Stebben:         So in other words, what you're doing is saying, "If you have the right mindset, we'll help you get the right skillset."

 

Sharon Miller:            Absolutely. Absolutely. And we're here to support you, to train you, to mentor you, to connect you with other women within the company. When I think about Bank of America, 40% of our management team is women.

 

Kate Delaney:            Wow.

 

Sharon Miller:             I mean, it starts at the top with Brian Moynihan and our board setting the vision. 30% of our board, women. You don't find that in corporate America. So it's not just we talk about supporting women, we are-

 

Gregg Stebben:         You're doing it.

 

Sharon Miller:             ... a company made of great women and men.

 

Gregg Stebben:         You mentioned few minutes ago about mentors. And you told us off mic that you know, you had had some great mentors or still have great mentors that were men.

 

Sharon Miller:            Yes.

 

Gregg Stebben:         It's easier and easier for women to have great female mentors, because there's women who have now succeeded at higher and higher levels. But it also occurs to me that there will be another shift culturally when men can find great female mentors. Because now you're cross-pollinating all of these things in a very deep way.

 

Sharon Miller:            You are. And I think you're bringing together the best.

 

Gregg Stebben:         Yes.

 

Sharon Miller:            Because women and men, they bring together different perspectives, and different backgrounds, and that's what diversity inclusion is all about: bringing your whole self to work and feeling comfortable doing that. So it may not be just a man, woman, it might not be just race. It's where did I grow up, am I from the Northeast, am I from the West coast? Very different, very different culturally. And I think that the best companies and the best organizations allow that to come through so that you're able to get the best outcome.

 

Kate Delaney:            What's your ultimate vision? What would make you get up in the morning and say, "Wow, I just completely have nailed this. I am so happy with where I'm at." Because you're growing, growing, all these different programs.

 

Sharon Miller:            I think every day we have to get up and say, "What can we do more of?" I don't think you ever arrive and say, "Hey, it's here," right? We've got to keep thinking and keep getting better and keep growing, because every day, you learn something new, and how can we be better at supporting all people?

 

Gregg Stebben:         Everybody.

 

Sharon Miller:            All people.

 

Gregg Stebben:         Everybody. And I want to ask you about one last thing. We've talked about this with you before in previous interviews. The program you just told us about, it's called Ready for Leadership?

 

Sharon Miller:            Women Ready to Lead.

 

Gregg Stebben:         Women Ready to Lead. It reminds me of something you told us about before, the Bank of America Institute for Women's Entrepreneurship at Cornell.

 

Sharon Miller:            Yes.

 

Gregg Stebben:         Can you update us... first of all, remind people what it is and then update us on what's happening there today?

 

Sharon Miller:            So it is a program that we put together in partnership with Cornell University to help women entrepreneurs. Anyone can access the program, but we put it together with women in mind around education, around training, around how to access capital. Because in this report too, we talked about access to capital, and it's still a barrier or a perceived barrier of many women. And so it is an online institute where you can sign up, your company can. We've got courses and professors and students that are coming together, every single session that we have. And there's different sections, there's different focuses, but what we've heard from business owners going through is, "It has made the world of difference to my business." We have over 13,000 businesses that are in the queue going through this program, which, that's, doesn't sound like, I mean it's a lot of businesses, but how many more can we reach?

 

Gregg Stebben:         How much bigger is the opportunity?

 

Sharon Miller:            How many more can we reach?

 

Gregg Stebben:         How do you scale?

 

Sharon Miller:            That's right.

 

Gregg Stebben:         Yeah. The website is bofainstitute.cornell.edu, bofainstitute.cornell.edu.

 

Kate Delaney:            Perfect place to end us. Sign up.

 

Sharon Miller:            Thank you so much.

 

Gregg Stebben:         Thank you Sharon.

 

Sharon Miller:            Thank you.

 

Narrator:                    For more great small business tips check out Bank of America’s online Small Business Community at bankofamerica.com/sbc. Thanks for listening to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com.

“I’ve often looked at something and thought that if it was just tweaked a bit, it could be a whole lot better,” said Elizabeth Foster, founder of Maison Visionnaire.

 

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Foster owned a home fragrance business in the United Kingdom before selling it and moving to the south of France for several years.  She learned a great deal from her frequent visits to Grasse, in the hills north of Cannes, a long-established fragrance center.  When she moved to the U.S. in 2014, Foster started a new fragrance business, Maison Visionnaire.

 

Through much trial and error, Foster started developing a new kind of diffuser for the home.

 

“When you invent something there are always so many ‘trials’ that you have to go through,” she said. “We trialed many different fragrances, making sure they not only smelled fantastic, but that they kept smelling fantastic. We trialed various bottles – which ones didn’t topple over? We trialed different inserts to stop our designs from falling to one side.”

 

Foster wanted to know what people liked and “what did they love?”

 

Maison Visionnaire invented a product called a Composite Diffusion Fiber.  She called it “magic” as it  looks beautiful yet it also “acts as the fragrance ‘engine’ and constantly delivers fragrance until the bottle is empty.”

 

 

In July,  Foster launched her new product line of scented art diffusers and candles.

 

In addition to running her company, Foster is the newly installed president of the New York City chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO).  NAWBO was founded in 1975 with the vision to “propel women entrepreneurs into economic, social and political spheres of power,” and represents over 10 million women-owned businesses in the U.S.

 

Read our interview with NAWBO CEO, Jen Earle.

 

See the Scented Art Diffusers on Instagram @maisonvisionnaire

 

Learn more about NAWBO at www.nawbo.org.

 

Video transcript:

 

[Elizabeth Foster] Women still face a lot of problems when starting a business. The percentage of women's small businesses is huge and definitely on the increase. So those women need to be taken seriously.

 

Super:

Elizabeth Foster

Founder, Maison Visionnaire

President, National Association of Women Business Owners NYC

Bank of America Customer

 

 

I'm Elizabeth Foster, I'm the founder of Maison Visionnaire and I'm also the president of NAWBO New York City.

 

Maison Visionnaire is a home fragrance company. We specialize in scented art diffusers.

 

When I first came to America, the bank that opened the door to me was Bank of America. They actually offered me a credit card, which completely changed everything.

 

I'm very proud of the work that I've done, but I'm also really proud of what I do with NAWBO. NAWBO is the National Association of Women Business Owners. We support women growing their businesses, anything from a solopreneur up to a multimillion-dollar business.

 

Bank of America supports NAWBO in various ways. One is that they are a sponsor of the national conference, and another is that they’re a supporter of the national and all of the local
chapters.

 

One of the best parts about being in the NAWBO community are the amazing women that I meet and that I connect with both on a personal level and on a business level.

 

I would like the power to support women business owners to have an equal place, and support them in growing their businesses.

 

End Card:

What would you like the power to do?

Bank of America logo

Learn more: bankofamerica.com/Appointment

 

Bank of America and the Bank of America logo are registered trademarks of Bank of America Corporation. All other logos and company names mentioned herein are the property of their respective owners and are used pursuant to license. Bank of America, N.A. provides informational reading material for your discussion or review purposes only. Interpretations in this release are not intended, nor implied, to be a substitute for the professional advice received from a qualified accountant, attorney or financial advisor. Neither Bank of America, its affiliates nor their employees provide legal, accounting or tax advice. Bank of America, N.A. Member FDIC © 2019 Bank of America Corporation.

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In this episode of “The Heartbeat of Main Street,” Reema Shroff, owner of Frost 321, shares how she beat the competition by turning liquid nitrogen ice cream and cocktails into an experience that tantalizes the senses and leaves a lasting impression. Listen to her story—and get great tips for standing out from the crowd—below.

 

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“The Heartbeat of Main Street” delivers timely insights tailored to the needs of small business owners and entrepreneurs. Featuring a rotating line-up of small business experts and industry leaders – and covering a range of topics – each episode explores the trends that have an impact on revenue creation for small business owners.

The series is hosted by ForbesBooks, and more information can be accessed through a dedicated home page. New episodes will appear regularly on the Small Business Community podcast page. Be sure to check back often – so you don’t miss a beat.

 

Narrator:                Welcome to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.comand Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com. And here's your host, Steve Strauss.

 

Steve Strauss:       Today we're really pleased to be speaking with Reema Shroff of Frost 321. Frost 321 uses an innovative technique to create ice creams, sorbets, and I like this one, frozen cocktails, right before your eyes at events. How do they do it? Well, by using liquid nitrogen at negative 321 degrees, Frost 321 creates these unique concoctions.

                               

They have been doing this at corporate events and important celebrations and backyard gatherings and all sorts of other places for years, and they don't just deliver delicacies. Frost 321 brings a unique ice cream and cocktail bar designed to be chic and sophisticated, blending with any event's distinct look, and letting the experience itself really shine. So Reema, great to have you on the show today. Welcome.

 

Reema Shroff:       Thanks Steve. Great to be here.

 

Steve Strauss:       So I explained a little bit about what makes Frost 321 unique, but I think it would be far better if you did it. So tell us about your ice cream and your cocktails and how you make them and what is different about them.

 

Reema Shroff:       Absolutely. You're right on the mark. What we do create is unique cocktail and dessert experiences. What we're doing is using liquid nitrogen as a freezing agent to freeze right in front of our guests frozen cocktails, sorbets, ice creams, boozy snow cones. The newest thing that's hot for the summer, a drink called a Frosé.

 

                                   What we can do is take an experience, take a menu, take an event, take a celebration, take a company gathering, make it unique, make it customized, and do this right in front of our guests. So what it is, it's not just a great product, it's not just a great frozen cocktail or an ice cream, but truly what it is is an experience. So when we have the gathering, when you see us, you not only remember the product, you remember the experience. This is an experience you can share with your friends, you can share with your coworkers, you can tape on social media.

 

                                   That's what we love about it and that's where we get most of our repeat business from, is that memorable piece of this which is the experience. Now what makes the difference is liquid nitrogen has been used for years by chefs in their back kitchen. It's truly a great way to make an ice cream or a frozen cocktail.

 

                               However, what we try to do is also to make it truly an experience where people can enjoy seeing it being made, where we can tailor the experience to the actual event. Also what we've done is, because my background is ... I'm a lawyer, and my business partner is a West Point grad and an amazing engineer ... We have tried to make this as safe as possible and as scalable as possible.

 

                                So let me kind of explain on that a little bit more. From a safety standpoint, you are dealing with liquid nitrogen that's a negative 321 degrees below zero. So what we want to do is just make it safe, make it where any staff member we can train on safely operating this machinery, to make it safe at any event.

 

                                As you know, we have done this in backyards, we have done this on golf courses, we've even done it on a yacht, on top of a rooftop, so we have to make it safe in a lot of different instances. Then on the scalability standpoint we can do parties of 500, but we've done parties of 5,000. So we need to make sure that we can produce these cocktails and ice creams in a very efficient manner.

 

                                In fact, the way that we've designed the machines is one of our machines taken to its capacity could easily make about 500 servings in an hour. And when we do very large events, like our 5,000 person events, for example in Vegas, we can put several machines on and make this experience for all of our guests.

 

Steve Strauss:        Oh, that's super. You're doing lots of things right, but one of the things I really love that you're doing that other people can learn from is you're personalizing it and you're making it an experience. Those are kind of the buzzwords in small business these days. Because there is so much competition and there is so much technology available, people love a personalized experience and they love an experience experience.

 

                                So you're doing that right, and I must say as a former lawyer myself, I love that you too have come to your senses and found something better to do. So let me ask you this Reema, how did you get started? How did you leave the legal world and end up becoming an ice cream entrepreneur?

 

Reema Shroff:         Well, as fellow lawyer you know one of the big things in being a lawyer, and I was a healthcare lawyer, and especially in the healthcare sector you're always telling physicians what not to do, what business they should not engage in, here are the risk factors, all of that.

 

                                Whereas I loved that ... Both my parents are physicians, my husband is a doctor and all of that, I wanted to actually create something. I mean there is ... Every day as an entrepreneur working in this business there's a challenge, there's a reward, there's an opportunity, and it's really, really satisfying to me to be able to create something, to go to an event and see what we have created.

 

                                The reward is when people try it, when people see it, when people talk about it, that's really what's satisfying, and that's something that couldn't as easily get in being a lawyer. So here every day, no matter what the challenges I face are, there's definitely something very rewarding at the end of the ... To have been creative and have someone taste the product.

 

Steve Strauss:        Absolutely. I mean that's what I love about it too, working with entrepreneurs and being one, is the idea of you're creating something. But how did you come up with the idea of creating ice cream at negative 321 degrees? That is really different.

 

Reema Shroff:        Well, that is a great story. You never know how things happen, but truly this was a great story. I was actually in Paris. I was at an amazing wedding and I saw this in a certain way being made, using liquid nitrogen to create this experience for great cocktails. You know, it's something ... On the way back from Paris to Texas, you know, we had an eight hour flight, so over a glass of champagne just kind of talking about the wedding, what really stood out was this really interesting cocktail.

 

                                You saw it being made, you saw the mist, and it was a good cocktail. So it's actually funny, my family was like, "Wow, you like cocktails and you like parties. This is something you should try." It really started with something like that.

 

                                So I started researching it, found a couple of articles on it, found some companies that actually were working on these type of systems, and literally ordered one and started in my kitchen. Invited friends over for a party, got some feedback on it, and it really just kind of took off from there. But I had no idea of kind of where this would be four years later, but it's something that I just had to try.

 

Steve Strauss:        Did you ... Obviously your parents aren't entrepreneurs. They're both physicians, your husband is a physician. Did you have entrepreneurial bent earlier in life or was this all together something out of the blue for you?

 

Reema Shroff:         You know, looking back on it I think that ... You know, I was fine being a lawyer, but I think that there was always something missing. I'm pretty social. I'm an extrovert. I like to engage and be with people, so I think this type of business for me allows me to really, you know, focus on what I really enjoy and I think what my forte is.

 

                                So it just kind of all came together, and I'm so happy that I had the support of my family, my friends, and I was in a position to be able to reach out to my network and be able to develop this. So it's been a great ride.

 

Steve Strauss:        Yeah. In fact you've grown it pretty substantially pretty quickly. You're not only in Texas now, but you're also in Las Vegas, and I think you're branching out into San Diego, if I'm not mistaken?

 

Reema Shroff:         Oh, yeah. So I mean we started this in San Antonio. We've grown to Dallas, Houston, Austin, and then slowly took this to other markets, I mean Vegas, Miami, Phoenix, Chicago. So it's been an amazing journey and I think what we've right now done is hit national markets.

 

                                In fact that's a great question, because what we've been wanting to do is figure out how to expand this nationally, and in fact in about mid-October we're working with a franchise company to be able to franchise this and expand nationally, so we're really excited about that.

 

                                   But the key to all of this was ... And this is a very interesting story. It comes to how I met my business partner. As I mentioned, I was still practicing as a lawyer in the early days of Frost and I actually was working on a legal case, and I happened to sit next to a gentleman, Mark, who was helping on that same case, and we started talking about my business and he said something very interesting, and that is, "Wow, you're working with liquid nitrogen. It seems like a great concept. You've actually done a lot of events. You seem to be moving quickly, but hey, you should own your own system. You shouldn't rely on other people to do that. You should actually build your own. That's the core to your business."

 

                                Of course I laughed and I said, "Hey, that's easier said than done. I don't really have manufacturing contacts. I'm not an engineer. I've never designed anything before. My forte is marketing, business development, creating these experiences," and he basically looked at me and he said, "Well, guess what? I have those contacts and I would love to be able to help with this."

 

                                So it's one of those really amazing moments where I sat next to the right person at a business dinner, and it has been a great three years, where we complement each other very well. He is the technology, the brains behind the operation. He's a former West Point grad and a engineer, and he's developed the whole liquid nitrogen system. So where he has the strength on the technology and operations, I'm able more to focus on the marketing and the business development. So it's been really, you know, a great combination of strengths and attributes that really have helped us along quite well.

 

Steve Strauss:        Boy, everything is really working out so well for you, because that's exactly what I think you want in a partnership. You want somebody who fills in your gaps and can do things that you can't do, and then all of a sudden the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts, and obviously you're doing that well.

 

                                  Can you tell me a little bit about the alcohol aspect of it? Because you're not just making ice creams, but you're making adult beverages with your technology. How did that come to be and how is that ... How popular is that among your clientele?

 

Reema Shroff:         Well, I cannot underscore more that alcohol really is what drives a lot of our business. Almost 80% of our revenue comes from our spirited ice cream, our frozen cocktails, our boozy snow cones, our spirited floats. So yes, because that is really what's unique about this, because there's no other way you can freeze alcohol.

 

                                So when we actually do one of our most popular items, is our wicked chocolate whiskey with Maker's Mark. That is a true shot of Maker's Mark in your chocolate ice cream. It's an awesome after dinner treat. People love their Maker's Mark, so here now we're putting it into ice cream. We do the same with tequila, with rum, with vodka. We've been able to partner with a lot of different alcohol companies because it's a different way to feature and showcase their spirit.

 

                                Remember, we can do this not only with the liquors, but we can do that wine and champagne and, gosh, even a great beer for a stout ice cream. So we've really tried to come up with innovative ways to do frozen cocktails, to bring something new to the market on the spirited ice cream side, and really that's been ... That's done very well at our corporate events and galas and parties and all of that.

 

Steve Strauss:        It sounds like that's probably a unique niche to you. Is there a lot of competition for that aspect of your business?

 

Reema Shroff:        Most of our competition is on the ice cream side. There's a lot of brick and mortars in the space and different types of franchises that you have, or there's retails that are serving ice cream. I think on the special events and catering where our focus ... A lot of it has been on frozen cocktails and the spirited ice cream. We don't find as much competition, but what Mark and I tired to do very early on is to forge really good relationships and partnerships with hotel groups, convention centers.

 

                                For example, we work in McCormick Place, one of the largest convention centers in Chicago, where they offer our services. The same thing with the MGM group. The same thing with Marriotts all over the country. So that's been very nice, is that they are able to sell our services as part of their catering and special events menu.

 

                                That has helped us, where now we have a lot of different arms, a lot of different sales and catering departments selling our services, and we can focus on what we do best, and that is executing and doing our special events and focusing on our creative ice creams and frozen cocktails for the events.

 

Steve Strauss:        We are speaking with Reema Shroff of Frost 321.

 

So Reema, I want to ask you a little bit about the challenges you've faced as a small business owner and entrepreneur, because as we all know it is not just a clear path from idea to execution, right? There are bumps along the way. What are maybe some of the bumps along the way that you faced and how did you overcome them?

 

Reema Shroff:       That's a great question Steve. What I would say is, especially with a small business, you wear a lot of hats. You do operations, you do marketing, you do finance, you're HR, and that all can get overwhelming and sometimes maybe some of these are not your key strengths.

 

We've had to learn along the way all these different aspects, all these little departments that usually you could call HR or you could call somebody to help with, and now that's it. You're on our own. So what I've learned from that is it's essential to listen, it's essential to build the right team, and whereas you might have weaknesses in certain aspects, there are others that can fill in those gaps for you.

 

                              Mark and I, our biggest challenge is we had no experience, prior experience, in the food and beverage industry, so the first thing we did is try and surround ourselves with the right mixologists, the right chefs. Our biggest consultant when we came to designing our menu is one of the top pastry chefs in the country. We listened to people that have worked in retail and worked in food and beverage before, because those were not our areas of expertise.

 

                              So because we were dealing with so many things that were unknown to us, we didn't know what was out there in all these different landscapes because those weren't our prior specialty, what we needed to do was create the right team and build the right network to fill in those gaps.

 

Steve Strauss:       Yeah. I think that's a common lament from many small business people. I guess the good news is you have to become or like being a lifelong learner if you're going to be a small business owner, because you're always having to learn something new, whether you want to or not, right?

 

Reema Shroff:       Yes. Really what I've also learned from that is people are to help. I think there are a lot of resources out there. I think that it's ... Now with the internet, with technology, you can always go onto social media, you can read blogs. There's so much you can do to give you ideas and to help strengthen your position on things and to really every day, just like you said ... I mean we're learning something new every day, so we never stop reading, we never stop talking and building relationships and learning from people around us.

 

Steve Strauss:       You’re branching out into Vegas and you're branching into an area you've not gone before, what ... Is it social media, or how do you attract new people to your business?

 

Reema Shroff:       It's a combination. It's a combination of number one is we focus on our relationships, so we work with people maybe we've worked with in different cities. For example, different hotel groups that we might have worked on in Dallas, we reach out to them when we're in different cities. We think one of the biggest ways that you can grow is by cultivating relationships, making them feel comfortable to trust you and your business to execute events, what they've been doing for years and you're a newcomer. They need to trust you, they need to know that you would do a good job, that you will be on time, that you will be able to execute the way they and their clients will be happy.

 

                              So that's number one. However, with social media we're able to post a lot of the things that we do all over the country, so that's a great way for others to see the different types of parties we can do, the different types of venues we serve, the different types of frozen cocktails and ice creams that we can create to customize their events.

 

                                  So that is a great tool, because that's constantly being updated, and it's a great resource for really anybody who's throwing an event to think of us, because not only are we tagging ourselves, but others are reporting on us and taking visuals whenever we go and do an event for them.

 

Steve Strauss:       Reema, you're doing great work. I love your business and I love your energy and passion for it. We're unfortunately out of time, but I could listen to you for a long time. Let me ask you this in closing. What maybe do you wish you had known about being a small business owner, about being an entrepreneur that you didn't know when you started, and what do you think people can take away and learn from your experience that might help them grow their business?

 

Reema Shroff:        I would it's the importance of having a network, having a support structure. I think that it's so important, and I think in this day and age especially with technology and use of email and texting and all that, it's really important to develop personal connections. I think that being in this business kind of underscored the importance of that for me, because it's very easy to sit at your computer and send out emails and do direct marketing and then text people, and I think people forget sometimes that even though technology has allowed us to do amazing things, that critical to all this is that building a connection and building a relationship. I think that that brings me a lot of joy, I think there's a lot of reward in that, but I think that it's also been critical to the success of our business.

 

Steve Strauss:      Fantastic. Reema, if people want to know more about you, about Frost 321, where should they go to learn more?

 

Reema Shroff:       Our website is a great place, frost321.com. We can answer any emails, we answer any event requests, and we would love to personally speak to anyone that has questions on our business.

 

Steve Strauss:      Fantastic. Thank you so much for being with us today, and continued success to you.

 

Narrator:               For more great small business tips, check out Bank of America's online small business community at bankofamerica.com/sbc.

 

Thanks for listening to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com

and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com

Avni Patel started A28 Architecture in 2015.  She had a vision for the type of architect she wanted to be, but “when I first started, I was a very young idealist and I just wanted to create great buildings.”

 

As her career grew, the Chicago architect focused on inclusive, environmentally and tech friendly design ideas to “make life just a little bit easier or better,” Patel said. "There are ways to design that allow a space to be flexible and work for a multitude of users and design ideas.” Patel saw, though, in many of the current small buildings, these design ideas were not typically integrated.

 

 

Patel felt the only way to address such issues – “there were certain things about the building industry that just didn’t make any intuitive sense to me” – and to do it right meant to commission projects so “I could truly focus on the design,” she said. “That’s why A28 was designed to be a real estate investment and architecture firm.”

 

A28_AvniPatel_SBClientStory_Thumbnail.jpg“As I started working, I realized I have to work within the existing reality. Navigating that reality to find a path that led us here wasn’t easy,” she said. “It took a lot of preparation to really understand financing, real estate investment, business, architecture, design, technology, psychology, and engineering well enough to make them work together and develop a business to achieve their integration.”

 

Together with Bank of America she’s able to pursue her dreams of building, both on the job and for her business.

 

Video transcript:

 

[Avni Patel] Architecture was actually, kind of a calling for me. I just knew I needed to be involved with it. I think I just started thinking a lot about how our environment affects us.

 

[Super]

Avni Patel

Founder and CEO

A28 Architecture

 

[Avni Patel] I’m Avni Patel, an architect, and I started my own design firm, A28 Architecture.

 

I think architecture should be flexible enough to accommodate for everyone. It’s here for us.

 

I just want to be able to bring details that big projects get to have, like eco-friendly design, tech-friendly design, to smaller projects likes homes or residential. Whereas right now they don’t get that kind of attention.

 

Being able to get to a point where you’re financially stable. Where the business could then do the projects that we believed in, was very difficult point to get to.

 

[Super]

Gladys Castillo

Small Business Banker

Bank of America

 

[Gladys Castillo] I first met Avni when she came into the financial center for a simple transaction, and that’s how the relationship began.

 

So once I understood Avni’s business, the two biggest things we were able to help her with was how to save her time through our mobile capabilities. And we’re also able to help her establish credit, for her business.

 

[Avni Patel] Gladys is great. She knows what my goals are, and so these steps are aligning with that.

 

[Gladys Castillo] When I am able to work with strong women, and the fact that I can support them and be an advocate for their financial lives, that to me is amazing. I’m proud of Avni, and it makes me feel really good to be able to support her business.

 

[Avni Patel] I would like the power to bring great design to the everyday person.

 

[End Card]

What would you like the power to do?

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Learn more: bankofamerica.com/Appointment

 

Bank of America and the Bank of America logo are registered trademarks of Bank of America Corporation.  All other logos and company names mentioned herein are the property of their respective owners and are used pursuant to license. Bank of America, N.A. provides informational reading material for your discussion or review purposes only. Interpretations in this release are not intended, nor implied, to be a substitute for the professional advice received from a qualified accountant, attorney or financial advisor. Neither Bank of America, its affiliates nor their employees provide legal, accounting or tax advice. Bank of America, N.A. Member FDIC @ 2019 Bank of America Corporation.

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