What Is Working Spotlight is an ongoing series that aims to highlight the successes, challenges and unique lessons faced by different group of entrepreneurs. This April, What Is Working: Small Businesses will be talking to female small businesses owners. Below, our editors ask Miki Agrawal them about her biggest challenges, proudest achievements and what the future looks like for women in business.
What, according to you, are the main challenges facing women small business owners today?
I've been a competitive soccer player all of my life. In fact, I played on men's teams on three different occasions.
Being five feet one and half inches tall (yes, the half inch matters), often times I faced opponents more than a head taller than me, trying to push me around and out-muscle me. I learned a few lessons very quickly from this. One, if you're small, you gotta be fast. Two, if you're playing on a field with a man, you have to show assertion and ASK for the ball with confidence. And third, you have to learn to be scrappy.
I think this is no different in business, especially for women. Yet many women have a hard time with this.
One, because a woman is already more scrutinized in business, she is generally more of a perfectionist than a man and will move slower as a result. It's not a bad thing to be a perfectionist but being first to market or competing to win business requires a level of speed.
Two, women often times have a harder time asking for what they want with confidence. Building confidence in "male-dominated" industries requires practice.
Three, women often times don't like to be scrappy and do things "out of the boundaries or the rules" whereas men have less fear with that.
How are women business owners different from men? What specific strengths do they bring to the table that business owners could do well to learn from?
I think, generally speaking, it's sort of like sex (is that bad to say?).
Men think short-term (how fast can I orgasm) and women think long-term (how can we lengthen foreplay and connect on a deeper level). Men generally want quick financial profits in whatever way possible and women want to nurture a team and make them feel like they are building something important together.
As a result, women generally give their employees more autonomy whereas men seem to micromanage more. Giving employees autonomy creates "active participation" vs "just doing what I'm told" and employees will begin to rise up and complete tasks on their own, and even better than you would have asked. The more autonomy you give (as long as you hired correctly, that's a whole separate conversation), the more likely your employees will face challenges and solve problems on their own.
What inspired you to start your own business and what is the biggest challenge you've faced to date?
It was 2005 and my stomach hurt all of the time.
Back then, I was working in the film business and every time I ate out, I would come home with a bellyache. It was so frustrating that one night when I was in more pain than usual; I decided to GTS it (Google That Shit). I discovered a key statistic: 1 in 5 Americans are lactose intolerant and 80% of the world is lactose intolerant (to varying degrees).
I discovered that the hormones, antibiotics and pesticides didn't help people with their tolerance much either.
I then researched my favorite food that I had since given up: pizza.
I realized that pizza is a 32 billion dollar industry and yet no pizza company was making pizza "good for you" and using good, local, farm-fresh ingredients. None of them were using dairy alternatives and crust alternatives (gluten-free, wheat free).
So I decided to open up New York City's first "farm-fresh pizzeria" with organic dairy and free-range meats and dairy and crust alternatives (originally called "SLICE", now rebranded and relaunched as "WILD"). I have been in business for over seven years and I am now opening a location in Las Vegas with the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh.
The biggest challenge I have faced to date is finding the right personnel. The restaurant business is a transient business and the turnover is high. As much as I want to create a long-term, nurturing environment for my staff, it's hard to do so when people's dreams aren't always to be a server or pizza maker for the rest of their lives.
What's the one piece of advice you'd give to aspiring women business owners?
I had a chance to give a talk at the United Nations for the 400 future leaders of the world (pretty neat experience), and I talked about this recurring thought: the motivation to act.
Starting our new business, THINX (www.shethinx.com), has been quite the experiment. We're three women founders and none of us have worked in fashion, let along textile technology innovation.
But we're motivated to act. We knew that we were onto something because sometimes during that "time of the month", we'd forget to change our tampons (we're friggin' busy!) and leak in our underwear and stain them and we'd have an embarrassing situation. We realized that there was no underwear that thought of girls/women during this time and we have an audience of 2 billion women. We also discovered that girls in developing countries have major issues with this and millions of women miss up to 1 week of school every month and many end up dropping out and getting pregnant early, thus making them unproductive members of society.
We started working on this idea in 2011 and we worked on it almost every single day for almost three years (even if it was just one email asking the prototype maker where they were with our product). Since then, we have learned how to create a new product (gorgeous pair of leak and stain resistant underwear) that is first of its kind, we found a manufacturing partner, distribution and fulfillment, we learned about online marketing and finding sales reps and how to PR a fashion product. We created a partnership with AFRIpads, who produce washable cloth pads for girls in developing countries. For every pair of underwear we sell, we fund the production of 7 washable cloth pads for these girls around the world who need it just to stay in school/work.
Starting and owning a business is a grind, often times thankless and can send you on an emotional roller coaster.
All of this requires energy. A lot of it. It requires daily discipline, failing forward (yes, fail) and figuring things out day by day. To keep motivating to do something every day requires so much passion for your business EVERY DAY.
My advice is this: You must dig deep inside and find the motivation to act on your idea every single day for at least a month straight (to start). Try it. Ask yourself if you can do that. Your passion must be unwavering. If you do occasionally feel yourself losing passion for your business (after 30 days of day in, day out - you are human after all), take a couple of days off, recharge, go find nature and allow yourself to stop and think and find the motivation to act again.
If you have the motivation to act and are moving forward, gender plays no part in this equation.
What's the one achievement you're particularly proud of?
I talk about this in my second to last chapter in upcoming book "Do Cool Sh*t" (DoCoolShitBook.com), and the Chapter heading is "Doing cool shit is an exercise in evolution".
I've had my restaurant "SLICE" for seven and a half years and I feel most proud of the fact that I was okay letting it go and evolving it under the new name "WILD" (www.eatdrinkwild.com) and under a whole new branded concept (still healthy pizza but so much tighter!). I can't be more proud of the work that was done to iterate this concept into what it is today.
Change is hard for most people but I welcome it as long as it's a positive iteration. You can't be married to any part of your business, everything can change as the environment changes and it must be welcomed.
How empowered do you feel by other young female business owners?
I was reminded of the quote "There is special place in hell for women who don't help each other" by Madeleine Albright and I truly believe that.
All of my female friends who are business owners are so supportive and generous with their relationships; I have no time for any other type of person, I already have plenty of adversity with my business! I love watching women gain strength to start their own businesses more and more (500,000 new women-owned businesses opened just last year in the United States!) and to realize that the only way to succeed is to collaborate.