As many female entrepreneurs know, men still heavily dominate the world of business. It can be uncomfortable being one of the only female CEOs at leadership conferences and networking events, and women often don't have a large group of fellow female business leaders to connect with. American Express OPEN set out to solve this dilemma with its first annual OPEN for Women CEO BootCamp.
OPEN is the small business arm of American Express. It helps entrepreneurs achieve their goals by offering insights and advice from experts and other business owners. After years of talking with customers and sponsoring other women-oriented business events, American Express felt the time was right to launch its own leadership program just for women.
"We've had such a rich history in the women's advocacy space," said Alexandra Ytuarte, senior manager of American Express OPEN Live. "Through our research, we've gained an understanding of women business owners and what their needs are. We want to help these women shift their mindset and really start thinking and acting like a CEO."
On Sept. 20, 2013, about 300 women gathered at the American Express Building in downtown New York City to hear talks from prominent female business founders like Angie Hicks (Angie's List), Robin Chase (Zipcar) and designer Tory Burch. More than 800 online viewers live-streamed the general sessions, led by Melinda "SmallBizLady" Emerson, and event attendees participated in two smaller breakout sessions of their choice. Topics for breakout sessions included team building, leadership and finance.
The women in attendance received some valuable lessons in what OPEN referred to throughout the day as the "three C's": confidence, competence and connections. Every female entrepreneur must work on these three areas to grow her business and her leadership skills, the event speakers said. Here are five of the most important takeaways from CEO BootCamp.
Step out of your comfort zone
Angie Hicks, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Angie's List, was an introverted college graduate with aspirations of being an actuary when she was approached about starting the now-national customer-review service.
"My biggest challenge was combating the fact that I was really shy and quiet," Hicks told BusinessNewsDaily. "In starting a business, you have to get out and talk to people. I was doing door-to-door [subscription] sales, which was the last thing I ever thought I would do."
Working outside of her comfort zone allowed Hicks to take advantage of opportunities that never would have arisen otherwise. Some women hold themselves back due to their fear of the unknown, but Hicks urges entrepreneurs to take that leap.
"Don't miss out on opportunities that come your way," she said. "Put yourself in a position to have those opportunities, know when one is facing you and take it."
Don't go it alone
When you're just starting out, you may not have the budget to hire someone to join your company. That doesn't mean you should rely only on yourself. Mentors and coaches can grant great feedback and advice on running your business. Family, friends and fellow business owners can also be valuable sources of help.
"Running a business is so much easier when you can utilize connections to navigate challenges, see opportunities and think bigger," said BootCamp speaker Gina Bianchini, founder and CEO of MightyBell.
BootCamp attendee Nicole Sanchez, founder of healthcare tech startup Tender Caring, said that the event taught her the importance of partnering with other businesses and organizations that may bring things to the table that an individual, by herself, could not bring.
"By partnering, we're able to focus on our own core competencies," Sanchez said. "This empowers us to then focus on growth."
Encourage each other
In covering the "three C's," several of the speakers stressed that women entrepreneurs should help and support each other, not compete against each other. Encouraging other female business owners within a community can give them the confidence they need to successfully grow their businesses to the next level.
Entrepreneurs can and should utilize social media, discussion forums, blogs and other platforms like OPEN Forum to share their experiences and help others achieve their goals.
As a BootCamp attendee, Bernadette Schopfer took this lesson beyond its face value.
"Even more inspiring than spending the day with such talented and passionate women was the fact that so many highly successful business women would take time out of what must be incredibly demanding schedules to contribute towards an exceptionally productive day of sharing insights," said Schopfer, partner at Maier Markey and Justic LLP.
"There's a very fine line between crazy people and entrepreneurs," said BootCamp speaker Jane Krauss, founder of Peach Underneath. "We see what other people don't."
Startup founders, especially those with an idea unlike anything else currently out there, are often subject to criticism and doubt about their ventures' chances of success, even if it's just coming from themselves. There are certainly a lot of risks involved in starting a business, which can be intimidating since there is no surefire guarantee of success. However, if you aren't willing to push yourself and take those risks, you'll never get off the ground.
"I was nervous about showing people my website, and kept pushing back my launch because it 'wasn't ready' yet," said attendee Olivia Chin, who recently launched an alternative wedding registry, Better Ever After. "The lesson that [your business] doesn't have to be perfect and you don't need to have all the answers right away really resonated with me. It's more important to just put it out there, and you can always adjust for obstacles and opportunities along the way."
Believe in yourself and your business
No business venture is without its challenges. You will experience some difficulties along the way, and a solid business plan and support network will certainly help you face them, but above all, you must believe in your own ability to lead and grow.
"You have to be realistic, but you also need blind faith that it's going to work," Mally Roncal, founder and CEO of Mally Beauty, told BootCamp attendees. "Get out of your own head, and listen to your gut."
Bianchini noted that it takes a lot of courage to lead a business, but was quick to point out that courage doesn't mean not being afraid.
"It's being afraid — hearing that little voice in your head say you're not good enough — and doing it, anyway," she said.
American Express OPEN plans to take its CEO BootCamp for women to multiple cities in 2014, including Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles. OPEN wants this program to be accessible to all female business owners, so additional, related information and support for women entrepreneurs is available on the CEO BootCamp website.