Women in Business: Q&A With Shelly Sun, CEO and Co-founder of BrightStar Care

"Balancing those three personas is something I have learned to take on a weekly basis -- some weeks I balance two out of three really well, sometimes I'm able to wear all three hats at the same time, and some weeks I settle with one."
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Shelly is CEO and co-founder of BrightStar Care, one of the fastest growing medical and non-medical home healthcare and medical staffing providers, and author of "Grow Smart, Risk Less." Since BrightStar's inception, she has lead the company to more than 250 locations nationwide.

As a 15-year veteran of corporate America, Shelly used her business background to form the foundation of this successful organization. Shelly is also actively involved with Ronald McDonald House Charities and the Alzheimer's Association.

How has your real-life experience of trying to obtain quality healthcare professionals for your family aided BrightStar Care?

In late 2001, my husband's grandmother was in need of quality in-home health care. For several months we tried a series of different agencies but could never seem to find an option that lived up to the standards we had set out to find. Through our personal journey, we identified a gaping hole in the health care sector -- we saw the need for a better in-home care option.

The day before our wedding in early 2002, my husband's grandmother passed away -- it was a difficult and emotional time for us. Shortly after her death, we were given the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki as a gift. The book relays a message for its readers to take control of their own destiny, and we took this as a serious sign to start our own business, a thought that could not have been further from my mind in my 15 years of living the corporate life. So, we set out to start a business that would offer families like us a service that we were once desperate for, a service that was not being provided anywhere else. Thus, BrightStar Care was born.

What is your business background, and how has this influenced the way that the franchise operates?

Through many years of working in the corporate world as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), I have embraced my tendency to focus on metrics and the financial aspect of business. This has led to the implementation of many performance indicating tools across the BrightStar Care franchise. We have invested a great deal into benchmarking technology and performance groups that allow us to analyze performance system-wide. Thus, giving us the ability to ensure we are performing up to company standards. These metric inspection tools provide us with early-warning indicators of low performance and, on the other end of the spectrum, give us the ability to celebrate and reward those within the franchise system who reach new milestones. We also track metrics on a customer basis to monitor whether our agencies are reaching certain thresholds in terms of customer loyalty and satisfaction.

How you maintain a work/life balance?

Maintaining a work/life balance between being a mother, wife and entrepreneur is something that comes much easier now than when I first started BrightStar Care. Balancing those three personas is something I have learned to take on a weekly basis -- some weeks I balance two out of three really well, sometimes I'm able to wear all three hats at the same time, and some weeks I settle with one. That being said, I have implemented a strategy for my own life that, over a month's time, as long as I'm able to give appropriate attention and energy to all three aspects of my life, albeit not always in the same week, then I have come out ahead.

To balance work and home life, we aim to sit down as a family for dinner two-three nights a week. Saturdays are reserved for my 8-year-old twin boys -- who get to plan a day with mom. And, Sunday afternoons are typically set aside for family time.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure as CEO of BrightStar Care?

I have one answer for both aspects: keeping my finger on quality talent. The biggest challenge of my job is to get the right people in their right seat on the bus. What I mean by this is that some people are great entrepreneurs but are not fit to lead a team or some may be excellent employees who seek new opportunities -- it is imperative to ensure everyone is in their rightful place.

BrightStar is a rapidly growing company and we are constantly aiming to strengthen our middle level to shape great employees in to senior level executives. The ideal senior level staff member is one that has been promoted from within, who knows company practice and policy and is able to grow from within the system, perhaps even to a c-level position. It is always less of a risk promoting internally than bringing in someone from the outside, and it is something we aim for on a system-wide level. So, it is rewarding for us when we are able to promote or provide new opportunities to existing team members and, in turn, it is challenging for us to keep our finger on good talent while they grow and mature within our organization.

What advice can you offer small business owners who are seeking to become a franchisor?

The best piece of advice that I can give to a small business owner looking to franchise their concept is: make sure you have enough capital to run a franchise system. This may seem obvious, but I have seen several franchises fail because, while they had enough capital to start their business, they did not have enough to support their franchisees once they started rapidly opening additional locations. A franchisor must ensure he or she is adequately capitalized to the point where the business becomes self-sustaining. I recommend overestimating the perceived capital it will take to franchise.

Similarly, for those entrepreneurs who want to franchise, it is imperative to have successful models open and operating in multiple locations prior to taking the leap to ensure the business will be sustainable. In addition, having a great team of advisers or a network of other franchisors to learn from is extremely beneficial. This gives a potential franchisor the opportunity to learn from the mistakes and successes of his or her peers.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also advise anyone who's looking to franchise to read my book, Grow Smart Risk Less. I collected many of the great lessons I've learned from others and through my own experience of going from 1 to 260 locations.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

Maybe I am unusual, but I don't see challenges in the workplace having anything to do with gender -- both men and women struggle to find balance. I think most perceived struggle in the workplace is due to the lack of a core competency, regardless of gender. Over the years, I have heard a lot of women say that they can't get financing or banks won't talk to them; I see this as lack of financial acumen, an area where some women struggle. This struggle has less to do with them being women and more to do with the need to establish well-rounded core competencies prior to starting a business.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?

I thought her book was a very easy read. As seen by the media backlash, some of her ideas were more controversial for some women, but I think, overall, she has good perspective. She is a successful woman and role model and has found a way to have it all and make it work for her.

After reading her book, I learned that, as entrepreneurs, wives and mothers, we can't expect to be super woman. We have to determine what the trade-off will be on a daily basis to make it work for ourselves on a personal level. Sandberg points out a stereotype that most woman are all well aware of and flips it on its head saying that, as women, we are entitled to shared responsibilities and success at work and at home. In addition, some of the policies she implemented that brought women back into the workplace showed me that I don't always have to be so accommodating to everyone - sometimes that is not what is best for business.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I have sought out mentors ever since I became an entrepreneur in the form of informal meetings as well as formal advisory board settings. Seeking out a mentor or peer to counsel or share best practices is something I advise to any aspiring entrepreneur. As a woman, we don't necessarily gravitate to a golf-course-like setting where we can meet other female entrepreneurs, so we must seek out and create our own opportunities. I have found that people enjoy helping others and like to be asked. Throughout my career I have always had a group of four to 10 advisers or mentors that I can turn to -- these relationships often lead to friendships as you become closer in intellect, and then it becomes time to search for new people to challenge you.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have found that I truly enjoy being a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs -- I spend about ten hours a month helping new franchisors. I aim to give back some of the advice that was generously given to me.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

One person that I admire, as a mother and entrepreneur, is Gloria Jean Kvetko, founder of Gloria Jean's Coffee, the first flavored coffee franchise even before Starbucks. She has been a member of my advisory board for many years and constantly encourages me to see a different perspective and has been a great role model and friend to me over the years. She took such a risk following her passion and established the flavored coffee industry despite naysayers. She is brilliant yet humble and is the most resilient, positive person I know.

Catherine Monson, CEO of FASTSIGNS, is also a great example of an outstanding female leader in my life. A couple times a year we get together for a girls trip to, not only recharge, but to bounce ideas back and forth. Catherine is an amazing leader. She never settles for the status quo and is always reading, learning and sharing to be and make others better. As a woman, I feel it is extremely important to have other women in my life who I can relate to and talk through problems with.

What are your hopes for the future of BrightStar Care, and the charities you are involved with?

Right now BrightStar Care is honored to take care of nearly 20,000 families per month and we hope that by the end of 2018 that number will reach 100,000. That being said, we want to ensure that we grow our business the right way -- we want to reach this number because other families we care for have referred their friends and relatives to our services.

With regard to charities, the Alzheimer's Association is a cause that is near and dear to us as a lot of our senior clients are living with the disease. We have seen first-hand how this illness can affect a family and we give back with the hope someday there will be better treatment or even a cure.

In addition, we also support the Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago. One of my boys received treatment there and we found they are absolutely wonderful with families. Due to our own positive experience, I was encouraged to give back. The hospital relies on fundraising and I thought this would be a great way to help families who may not have the resources or means to help themselves.

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