Saturday, June 11, 2011

Business-Building, Your Way: Entrepreneurship

We're wrapping up our 2011 MBA Women's Conference with a topic that has proven a perennial favorite amongst our MBA women: entrepreneurship. Our panel this afternoon, moderated by Natalie Cofield, CEO and Founder, NMC Consulting, included:

  • Jacquelyn Cuccaro, Founder, Mongoose Ventures, MBA Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon
  • Jai Jai Greenfield, Harvard Vintage and Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern
  • Nicole Lindsay, Executive Director, New York Needs You, MBA Darden Graduate School of Business at Virginia
  • Coye Nokes, President and Creative Director, Coye Nokes II LLC, MBA London Business School
Coye recently launched her own line of luxury shoes. She's at work on her sixth collection, distributed in the US, Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

Nicole helped launch New York Needs You two years ago providing career and leadership development for first-generation college attendees in New York City. Today they are working with their second class, of 100 fellows and have a staff of 8 with an operating budget of over $1million.

Jacquelyn helped turn around a cosmetics company, Vincent Longo, achieving profitability and stability, and today she has clients in social media and software. She's also found time to earn a fine arts degree, which she hopes to combine with her business experience to create a unique blend of business and creative skills.

Jai Jai opened the first boutique vintner in New York's historic Harlem, teaming up with a friend to debut what has fast-become a very successful small business.

The panel agreed that to be an entrepreneur, first and foremost, one has to be a leader. Nicole recalled that while she was working in admissions at Yale School of Management, something "clicked": she got in touch with a sense of passion and ownership that inspired her to believe that she could own her own future, and led to a career in social entrepreneurship.

Jai Jai offered up what she sees as three key traits of successful women in business: confidence, decisiveness and directness. "The latter is very important in corporate America," she says. "Women tend to shy away from the ask. The ability to ask for what you want is one of the traits of leadership that I would apply both to the corporate realm and the entrepreneurial realm."

The panel also talked about sacrifices - from leveraging one's home, to passing up a new handbag in order to save those pennies - that they made along the way in order to build their own business. Coye, who started a luxury business in fall of 2009 in the midst of an economic downturn, spoke frankly about how economic conditions complicated even the best-laid business plan. She used her own money to place an order that would support establishing an e-commerce business, something she hadn't foreseen. "I ended up with all of these shoes, which, to my relief, I eventually sold. But the economy was a major obstacle I hadn't planned on, and I overcame it by being flexible. I had my business plan down to the T and within six months, it was irrelevant. You need to be able to rethink things and redirect yourself."

The discussion also touched on the challenge of providing infrastructure for yourself as an entrepreneur. "All of those decisions--finding an office space, a computer, clients--all of that is something you make happen for yourself," says Natalie. She also talked about the need to "invest completely" in a fledgling business. Nicole spoke to that kind of total commitment: "I found a passion in my work and, frankly, lost all work/life balance at that point!" she says. The group shared tips on raising funds, building a brand, playing to your strengths and differentiating yourself from the competition.

The audience chimed in with their own enthusiasm for entrepreneurship, and it was evident how many MBA women in the room have a goal of career self-determination. Wen Jacquelyn asked how many women in the room consider themselves entrepreneurs and want to pursue that path, more than half raised their hands.

It was great to end the conference with that kind of enthusiasm and energy in evidence. Thank you to all of the corporate sponsors, partners, business leaders, Forte Fellows, volunteers and MBA women (more than 400 of you!) who helped make this year's conference such a success. We look forward to following your many successes as you cultivate your careers!

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