Lisa Becker: The Accidental Author

Headshot 2.jpgWe’re a dime a dozen….those of us who dream about writing The Great American Novel, or a children’s book or even a magazine article for that matter. But few do, and even fewer find a way to repeat the success of one book and turn it into a career as a writer. But Lisa Willet Becker did it even though she never actually fantasized about being a writer. “I do remember writing short stories and poems as a little girl, and I remember telling myself I’d write a book one day but never really knew what that would be.”

All through her time at the University of California, San Diego, the practical California native had her sights set on becoming a lawyer. She majored in English and American Literature, applied to law school, got accepted but then decided to defer for a year. She took a one-year position as a field representative with her college sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma.  During that year, she traveled to 30 universities across North America, meeting with students, school administrators and alumni, to help further the scholastic and philanthropic goals of the overall organization. It was a year of introspection and growth which enabled Becker to make some career changes.

“I decided I would make an awful lawyer. I didn’t think I would be disciplined enough and I didn’t think I would enjoy the work. And I really enjoyed what I was doing in the moment.”

What she was doing in the moment she defined as public relations. Years later she realized it wasn’t really “PR” but it still turned out to be a fortuitous decision. “Never mind that PR turned out to be a lot more writing and strategizing and media relations than what I was doing which was more interpersonal communications. But it still turned out to be what I really enjoyed doing and what I think I was meant to do.”

So, again, always the practical one, she decided to hone her skills and back them up with a degree. Heading East, Becker applied for and secured a spot in Boston University’s College of Communications where she earned a Master’s  in PR. She reveled in the coursework and her part-time job as a writing fellow and graduate teaching assistant. She loved Boston as well, but when it came time to graduating and looking for a job, she knew she had to look elsewhere.

“Boston is full of great PR firms, but it’s also full of talented graduates looking for local jobs. There just are not enough jobs for everyone.”

A professor of Becker’s suggested, “Hey, why don’t you move to New York and get a job at Burson-Marsteller? They’ll work you to the bone for two years, but then you can write your ticket.” Becker remembers thinking, “Gosh, I’ll never work for a big firm like Burson-Marsteller.”

Although the professor’s suggestion would prove to be prophetic, at the time Becker had no interest in living in New York or working for a big agency. “I was from California and I loved Boston, and while I didn’t need to go back to California right away, I didn’t really have any interested in New York.”

It was 1995 and the Olympics were heading to Atlanta, Georgia, that year. Becker smartly assumed that the city would be ripe with marketing jobs in advance of the events. So despite knowing just one person in the city, she moved there, crashed on a couch for two weeks and networked nonstop. Within three weeks she had a job and an apartment: “I wound up working for a small boutique PR firm called Cookerly and Company. It was just six people at the time so I got a lot of experience in the three years I was there.”

Becker believed she did everything at a small agency that would have taken her twice as long to learn at a large one. Responsible for everything from making copies to figuring out how to dial up to AOL (1996 remember), Becker also was responsible for managing client budgets, strategizing and writing communication’s plans for the year, and managing client relationships.

After three years, when Becker was feeling the pull of her native California, she felt equipped to go after jobs at bigger agencies that once turned her off. “My professor was right after all. I decided I really needed something different, and I wound up working in the Los Angeles office of Burson-Marsteller.”

Becker settled nicely into her career at Burson. She loved the people, the work and despite it being the boom years in California where job offers were aplenty, she stayed put for about 14 years.

During that time, Becker also met her future husband during the nascent days of online dating. “I figured people were married to their cell phones and laptops, so why not really use that technology to get married, right?”

After the wedding, she began to jot down funny stories from their courtship as well as stories from friends.  For a while the stories seemed to be working themselves nicely into a novel, but with a full time job and two children they sat on her computer, mostly untouched for years.

But when Becker turned 40, she had a novel idea. “I decided that instead of buying a red convertible to symbolize my midlife crisis, I would quit my job.”

Although she stayed on for an additional two years as an on-call employee with Burson, Becker relished the idea of more time with her children and more time for projects that she had set aside in the crazy days of working and child rearing.

When she was cleaning out her files at work, she stumbled upon her old draft of a manuscript, called Click: An Online Love Story. The story is told entirely in Click cover photoemails between the heroine, her friends and the dates she goes on. She took it home and made the commitment to work on it a little bit each day. “I wrote at night or while the kids were napping. I like to say it was a year’s worth of writing spread out over the course of eight years.”

When the book was done, she shopped for an agent but found the process discouraging. “It’s a lot of waiting and a lot of rejection.”

But one person who read it suggested she self-publish and Becker decided she was ok with that. “I thought, I’m not planning on being a writer anyway. This way I can get my book out there, and my mom and dad can say their daughter wrote a book.”

Oh how silly she was.

Unlike many authors, Becker wasn’t intimidated by the idea of self-publishing because she felt her marketing background gave her an advantage in the competitive world of self-publishing. So with no agent or publisher biting, Becker went ahead and published Click, her fictional account of an online romance. She put a marketing plan together just like she would have for one of her clients and started promoting it.

“Surprisingly people started reading it and then people I didn’t know started reading it.” The readers came in droves, and they liked what they read. In fact, they liked it so much, and grew so attached to the characters that they wanted to know, “What happens next? When’s the sequel coming out?”

cover double clickBecker responded and started work on a sequel, Double Click.  When she completed the sequel, she assumed correctly that she might have an easier time landing an agent already having one book with great reviews under her belt. But after letting the agent shop the book for a year unsuccessfully, Becker decided again to self-publish. The second one did well enough that she wrote a third, at which point, Becker didn’t even look for an agent and went straight to self-publishing.

Becker’s third Book Right Click came out this past summer. And Becker made it clear to her fans that it was a trilogy, and that was the end.

But it wasn’t the end of her creativity.

“As the third book was being edited I had an idea for another book but when I started writing it, it seemed more like a screenplay to me.”

So Becker bought some software to coach herself through the screenwriting process for what became, Clutch, the story of a handbagfront cover final copy designer searching for true love told by comparing men to handbags, i.e. “the Hobo bag” (the loser boyfriend who steals money from you) and “the Wallet” (the one who lavishes you with expensive gifts but nothing else.)

As she was wrapping up her screenplay, Becker got a call from a family friend who asked if she’d be interested in optioning her first book.

“I said yes of course, and sent him Clutch as well.”

The ink is still drying on the deal, but as of last month, Becker’s first book and first screenplay have been optioned by a production company housed at Sony. She is now working on her fifth screenplay and pursuing a career as a screenwriter. See you at the movies.

Some personal words from Becker on getting published:

As a graduate student studying public relations at Boston University, I was asked to interview Charles Rosen, a producer for the original “Beverly Hills 90210,” for an article in the alumni magazine. During our chat, he said, “Don’t fall in love with your words, because somebody above will probably change them.”

During my 18+ year public relations career, I’ve worked with some of the biggest consumer companies in the world including McDonald’s, Ford, Sony, and Gatorade.  And, I’ve spent countless hours writing news releases, bylined articles, marketing proposals, brochures, advertising copy, public service announcements, radio copy, mat columns, fact sheets, photo captions, media alerts, pitch letters, letters to the editor, video news releases, etc.

I carried Mr. Rosen’s words with me every day as colleagues, bosses and clients have “changed my words” sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

When it came time for me to write something personal, based on my own experiences and initially for my own pleasure, I relished the opportunity to write what I wanted, how I wanted and when I wanted.  It was only after I considered publishing the book that I nervously harkened back to Mr. Rosen’s advice.

But, I took the plunge and explored the traditional publishing route, getting feedback from multiple literary agents.  One suggested that I rewrite the book into a typical format with just a few emails here and there.  But, I wanted to stay true to the narrative that I thought worked best.

Another agent explained the current economic state of the publishing industry to me.  Due to the large investment to edit, produce, distribute and market a work by an unknown author, many large publishers won’t take the risk.  She recommended self-publishing as a way to get my work out there and allow me to control the process.

And, so, I decided to self-publish my novels.  And honestly, I couldn’t be happier.  For better or worse, this is the story I wanted to tell, the way I wanted to tell it.  Thankfully, readers and reviewers seem to be enjoying it.  And so, thanks to the popularity and ease of self publishing, I say to all of the aspiring writers out there, “Go ahead and fall in love with your words.”

Find Lisa: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | Pinterest  | Web

Dr Phil Pizzo: Founder of Stanford University’s Distinguished Careers Institute

Phil PIf Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, two of the founders of PayPal and still two of most influential Silicon Valley investors, believe life extension technologies are the next wave of hot Silicon Valley start ups, then it’s a good thing that other forward thinkers in Silicon Valley are spending their time focusing on how to improve the quality of our longer lives.

As a medical doctor, researcher, and educator, Phil Pizzo has always been drawn to the transformative power of research.  Earlier in his career, he led changes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the treatment of children with cancer and AIDS, pioneering techniques that are still used today. And he used those examples to persuade a new generation of aspiring doctors to consider the field of pediatric research when he served as Pediatrics Chair of Harvard Medical School and then Dean of Stanford Medical School.

Pizzo attributes his mission-focused approach to his fundamental belief that anyone can produce great change when it’s needed. As a child of the sixties, he witnessed significant cultural transformations take place, and he believes we are on the cusp of yet another — we are no longer living in the era of a single career that leads to retirement at 65, but rather people can live two or perhaps even three professional lives. And at 69 years, Pizzo has launched his own second act, leading the charge to help people, corporations, and educational institutions make that cultural transformation a reality.

The brainchild behind Stanford University’s Distinguished Career’s Institute, Pizzo has foreseen his own reinvention for nearly four decades. “As a young intern in Boston, I met some extraordinary people in medicine who had had great careers but weren’t really ready to move on or in other directions. But they had nowhere else to go; so they were hanging on, and it was then that I vowed I was never going to do that.”

Born in the Bronx, NY into a working class family – his mother was a part-time beautician and his father worked two jobs, selling women’s coats and as a check out person at the race track – Pizzo was the first person in his family to graduate from high school. “So I was immediately a success,” he jokes “a relative success of course.”

He earned full scholarships to undergrad at Fordham College in New York City, and then another full ride to the University of Rochester Medical School.  He moved to Boston for his clinical training, and it was there that he became much more interested in the fundamentals of research as he specialized in hematology/oncology and infectious diseases. In a few years, he was recruited to work at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland.  It was a supposed to be a 2-year stint but ended up lasting 23 years.

“That was a big part of my life. I had the opportunity to put together the pediatric department at NIH, and we played a large role in developing AIDS and cancer treatment protocols in children. And it provided a significant imprinting for me about the power of research to improve lives.”

Pizzo loved his work in Bethesda and could have stayed for longer, but a new  challenge was concerning him in the mid-90’s…the lack of pediatricians who were focused on careers in science.

“Everything I’ve done in my life has been mission oriented. I’ve always been led by the question, ‘how can you do something that’s going to change the world in some way?’”

So for the first time, Pizzo sought out a job rather than being recruited into one. He decided to return to a medical school teaching assignment, and wound up in Boston as chair of the Pediatrics Department at Harvard.

Happily ensconced at the ivy league university, a call in the Spring of 2000 came totally out of the blue asking if he would be interested in becoming the Dean of Stanford’s Medical School.  “I said no at first. It seemed so foreign to me.”  But he eventually agreed and served as Dean for the next 12 years. “It was a terrifically exciting time — leading a medical school and center that was going through a lot of transitions.”

Stanford was an exhilarating change for Pizzo. “It’s a very exciting and entrepreneurial campus and the acceptance of failure around trying new things is very much in the culture. It’s about trying to be transformative.”

But even as Pizzo loved Stanford, he remained committed to his own career 2.0 always remembering his pledge as an intern to acknowledge when it was time to move on. We spoke with Pizzo about his decision to finally take the leap.

Phil P_2You loved your role at Stanford, so how did you decide to leave?

After 10 years there I made the decision that I wouldn’t go beyond 12. Even though I had stayed in medicine and science my whole career until that point, I had moved around a lot. I like change and I like to engage in new activities and challenges whether it’s in research, academia, advocacy or public policy.

Going back to my time in Boston, the seeds were sown for my career transition early on.  I witnessed incredible individuals being moved aside and I made a resolution at that point that I would not let that happen.

How did you figure out what that transition would be?

When I began thinking about it a long time ago, I thought I would do a PhD in history. So for 40 years, I have read history as a hobby. But fast forward to when I really began thinking about it more seriously, I had this epiphany that I probably wasn’t alone. When your career has run that 20- to 30-year gamut, which is the traditional amount, you oftentimes don’t have a clear path to follow next. And that’s what really led to the formation of what is now Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute.

Why do we need a program like the Distinguished Careers Institute?

Frankly, because everyone is out of sync with reality – not just traditional businesses but everyone. We’re caught up in the 20th century narrative that says you do something for a career, and then retire at 65. That may have worked when most people died at 68, but those days are gone. That’s not the narrative that the people living through the experience are having today. Many people have to continue working because they need the money, but – even if they don’t have to – many people want to keep working and they want to try new things.  They want the intellectual stimulation, the community and the sense of purpose.

What are the goals of Stanford’s program?

Well, I began formulating this idea about three years ago and then two years ago I heard about Harvard’s Advanced Leadership program. It’s a very seminal program that broke ground, but there are pretty big differences in the way the Stanford program will work. What we have in mind is much more about personal transformation. It’s a year-long program, initially for 20-25 participants or fellows. We’re going to take them on a scholarly path in a chosen field – there are nine potential paths to choose from like education, energy, engineering, health and healthcare, the arts and more—they cover a whole array. Once you pick a path, senior faculty members mentor and guide you to probe deeply into a field that is quite different from where you’ve gone in the past.

The other part of our program is community building. We will bring people together for faculty forums, transformation series, deep-dive think tanks and more and couple that with evening social events as well. We are really aiming to build a community among the fellows. And then we’re building into that counseling and career placement services with Stanford and external search firms. We will also look at ways of making this a multiyear experience. If we’re successful and personal transformation later in one’s career becomes a national effort, then you can envision that the dialogue can shift and change around this topic.

Why is a University the right body to spearhead this kind of cultural change?

The way I see it is that universities and higher education play a critical role for younger people today. And I’m interested in universities scaffolding that experience for midlife – meaning from the 50’s to early 60’s. If you look at it that way, people have almost as much time for their second career as they did for their first career.

But here’s where universities can and should play a role.  Without a path, many people panic and don’t know what to do, they hang on longer than they should in their current jobs, or they retire early and squander their time and just react to things that come at them rather than actively shaping the next path.

I’m really interested in the transformation of higher education at large, and the program at Stanford is just a start.

How can and should other educational institutions play a role?

By necessity, to begin with, the Stanford program will be very small and elite to a certain extent, but the bigger issue is how we can use what we learn at Stanford to engage community colleges and other institutes around the country. Most people will not have the opportunity to take a gap year at Stanford. I have many family members approaching retirement age who would be unable to do it.  But they ought to be thinking of other ways to approach retirement, and we should be thinking of how to use all kinds of higher education to help people reroute and recalibrate their thinking as they get older.

As a medical doctor, what role does your interest in public health and medicine play in this?

People are going to be living into their 90’s and beyond, and I’m interested in paving the way for what’s going to happen in 2050 when that’s the norm. I won’t be around then but I’m interested in creating a legitimate, clear path where people can say, ‘I’m going to take time and probe deeply and see where I’ve been and where I’m going.’ The second part of the Institute’s work will be to look at the public health angle or repurposing your life and career in middle age. If you couple a new direction of purposeful living, value-based and goal-directed, with a recalibration of health and wellness programs, you could potentially attenuate some of the chronology of things that occur over time.

So that’s the big question – is this the start of something that can have an impact on how people live and their health in old age?

That is the big question indeed. Will programs like this make life in older age happier, and healthier and less debilitating?   From a public health point of view, I think if we can change the paradigm, I believe it will have a huge public health impact.

Who else needs to be on board to really change the culture?

What we need to do is change the narrative for employers across the board and that’s the next phase of this. At DCI, we are now beginning to meet with corporations and having dialogues with them. Right now they are in the mindset of ‘we need to get rid of people at certain points to make room for new people.’ But what I’m envisioning is that these people will broaden the pie – they won’t take jobs from new entrants. They may create new jobs some of which we haven’t thought about yet. New opportunities will unfold and people will approach them with different needs.

What can you accomplish starting this at Stanford as opposed to somewhere else?

Stanford is a great place to be doing this… if I were at a state university in the middle of the country, the chances of having this kind of engagement with corporations, the public health world and others would be much different. Being at Stanford helps tremendously in the facilitation of that dialogue. We’re very fortunate to be a part of that. But we don’t want to limit these opportunities to just few places. We hope for novel programs emerging from those universities and colleges across the country and around the world.

So what’s next?

We are ahead of the curve right now. The way change happens is that ideas transform behavior and we’re currently already beginning that transformative phase. Twenty percent of the US population will be 65 by 2030, and that’s a plurality of people whose views are going to be important. I’m focused not on what happens in the next five or ten years but paving the way for what happens in 2050 or 2100. I’m obviously not going to be around to experience it personally but I’m interested in planting the seeds.

If you are interested in becoming a fellow at the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, the 2015 Class is now filled but positions are available for 2016. See  http://dci.stanford.edu/ for more details.

Juliana Maio: From Hollywood Contracts to Espionage on the Nile

Maio_author-photo-783x1024For as long as she can remember, Juliana Maio has nurtured two identities: her creative side came with a love of literature and storytelling while her more practical diligent self longed for bringing greater justice and harmony to the world. As a child, she kept her classmates rapt with invented tales and plays and yet, as a refugee, it was impossible for her to remain untouched by her circumstances. “It was amazing to see even as a child how powerful words could be, what language was capable of, but equally I was also very much in touch with what was fair and unfair. I wanted to change the world and I thought maybe I could do this through words.”

Maio was born in a suburb of Cairo known as Heliopolis, City of the Sun. During the Suez Crisis, her third generation extended Jewish-Egyptian family was expelled from what had been a very pluralistic and tolerant country. Some went to Brazil, others to Italy, Canada and the United States, but thanks to her mother’s French passport, the three-year-old Maio immigrated to France. “We were basically refugees. My life was uncertain and unstable growing up. I never really knew if we were coming or going or where we might move. I went to boarding school from about 5 years to the age of 12 because my parents had to work full time,” she recalls.

After many years, Maio and her family took up an invitation from her uncle to join him and his wife in California. Eighteen years old at the time, Maio was less than positive about the decision, especially as she had just been accepted to study acting with a troop: “I ran away from home. I wrote a letter to my parents explaining I loved them but couldn’t join them in America. My sister was supposed to deliver the letter at 7pm. In the meantime, I had arranged to meet my boyfriend at 5pm so we could leave together. He never showed up due to a mix up with the meeting point and so I frantically ran home with my suitcases hoping my sister had not yet delivered the letter. Arriving just five minutes after 7pm, I was confronted by my entire family … I mean my entire family, my aunts, uncles, everyone was there. I was immediately locked up and that was the end of it!”

Initially the move to the US was very difficult as Maio did not speak English very well. “All of a sudden, language was no longer available to me. It was a huge handicap, both in practical terms but also in terms of my identity. I couldn’t express myself.”

JM-362
Maio with her husband and daughter. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Sanabria

Thrown into the deep end, she enrolled at the University of San Diego and to her credit, did well enough to transfer to University of California at Berkeley. “God bless their hearts. I will be forever grateful to them for accepting me. I remember my first year. I was basically taking PE, French literature, Spanish, and maybe one English class. I studied very hard and wherever I went, I carried a dictionary.”

Maio graduated from Berkeley with a degree in Political Science, but realized she could not fulfill her dream of becoming a writer, journalist or even an actress due to language constraints. So she leaned into her other side, the wanting-to-change-the world side, and decided to go to law school. “I got in to UC Hastings, again I couldn’t believe my luck. I did very well as a student but I must admit I chose my classes carefully,” she laughs. “Finally I felt like I was on equal footing with everybody else. It was a new vocabulary for everybody. It was a new way to write and think for all the students.”

Realizing her English skills might somewhat limit her ability to be a litigator, Maio decided to become an entertainment lawyer. It was a natural extension of her love of the arts. “If I couldn’t be a writer or actor myself, then at least I could represent them.”

She interned with international law offices O’Melveny & Myers and after graduation, nabbed a plum job with a top entertainment law firm, Schiff, Hirsch & Schrieber. “I was drafting contracts for the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Dick Clark, Cliff Robertson, Walter Hill, you name it. But even more lucky for me was my mentor Gunther Schiff, the head partner who himself had immigrated to the US as a teenager. To this day, Gunther is like a second father to me.”

Although women were starting to make inroads into the law profession at that time it was not easy for the less-than-conventional Maio. “I found it difficult as a woman, especially a woman with a French accent. Some clients crossed the line and asked me out. It was always a dance in terms of ingratiating yourself to them as a professional and yet making very sure you did not alienate them when trying to make it clear you had no interest in them in a romantic sense. Maybe because I was single and French and refused to put my hair in a bun … people made assumptions,” she says.

When the firm broke up, Maio followed her mentor Schiff to new offices where she continued to practice law for five more years. But the pull of the entertainment business was too strong and she briefly left law to indulge her creative side. She joined a studio, Triumph Films, a joint venture between Columbia Pictures and Gaumont Films, as VP Worldwide Corporate & Business Affairs, where she was involved with the acquisition and distribution of foreign and indie films. She loved it but it was hard going. “There was a tremendous amount of internal politics, and I was not comfortable in that environment. Law firms are much more businesslike. Even if you have issues, as long as you do your work, people treat you professionally. To be a lawyer is probably the safest profession in the entertainment industry. It’s a cocoon,” Maio explains.

The division was eventually dissolved at Columbia and, after the birth of her daughter, Maio returned to the safer soil of law, founding a new practice with her partner Leanna Heath. “Before we knew it, we were representing major talent like Frank Darabont as well as production companies like Vestron and New World, and even banks.” They ran the business successfully for five years until Maio decided once again to try her hand at the creative side of the industry. She teamed up with her husband, Michael Phillips, Academy-Award-winning producer of films classics like The Sting and Taxi Driver, to set up Lighthouse Productions. Maio was the business affairs manager and her husband’s “lawyer with benefits”.

Maio_bookjacket“It was wonderful to finally get so close to the creative process. Representing talent was the first step but as part of a production company, I was finding the books to turn into movies, seeking out authors, working with writers. I enjoyed it so much, I decided to launch myself more completely into the process and began writing myself.” An established lawyer with a husband and child, she finally felt she was in a safe enough place to take the time to work on one particular writing project close to her heart that had been consuming her for some time. She explains, “People would ask me where I was from. I always said France but at the same time I knew I was Egyptian. My family often spoke Arabic at home, I grew up on Egyptian food. I kind of poo-pooed it and yet my past was so complicated, I never quite understood it. Why were Jews living in Egypt? Why was my father Italian but spoke English, French, Arabic, and Greek? How did my mother get her French passport? I was simply curious and motivated by a deep desire to understand where I was from.”

When she started reading, she discovered the fascinating world her parents grew up in. “Egypt had hundreds of thousands of foreigners. Cairo, in 1941, was ten times more exotic than Bogart’s Casablanca. It was the tail end of the Golden Age where all these communities – including Arabs, Jews and Christians – lived together so peacefully. I couldn’t stop researching, I couldn’t let go of it. If I was so fascinated by it then others will be too. So it gradually it became the kernel for a book.”

She was elated to learn her agent in New York thought the first chapter had potential. She wrote five more chapters and waited on pins and needles for the response: “I was on vacation in Montana when I called her to hear her thoughts. All of a sudden, there was a bear and everybody was screaming, ‘Run! Get out of the way!’ and I remember just standing there with the phone to my ear as all hell broke loose around me. All I cared about was what this agent thought about my work. My heart fell at her words, ‘This is promising’, because I thought I had it done.”

And so basically for the next ten years what kept Maio going was ‘This is promising’. While still practicing law and working at Lighthouse, she wrote and rewrote, did additional research and tried to find that delicate balance between thriller, love story, and real history. “If becoming a lawyer was difficult it was nothing compared to becoming a writer,” laughs Maio.

Published in March this year, City of the Sun tells a tale of life in Cairo – “Paris on the Nile” – during WWII. To Maio’s delight, the book hit number 1 on Amazon’s bestseller list for eBooks on the 4th of July weekend. As NY Times best-selling author, Nicolas Meyer, says this work of historical fiction “weaves a tangled tale of espionage, wartime romance, political intrigue, and action in a city crawling with all four.  If you liked Casablanca, this story is for you.”

With plans for a sequel, Maio is obviously undeterred by the time it took to write the book. “I had a passion, I had a dream and had to get it done. But also I thought my book would make a difference as it portrayed how Europeans, Arabs and Jews lived peacefully together in an extraordinary society. It’s so disheartening to see that it’s gone forever. The hatred today is completely political. Politics hijacked the hearts of the people. But if it was possible before, maybe it is possible again.”

Tips from Juliana Maio:

  • Listen to your own voice and put blinders on (don’t compare yourself to others).
  • Be 100% focused and determined.
  • Do your homework.
  • Find people who believe in you.
  • Be grateful for having a passion.
  • Be ready for when the miracle happens.

Felena Hanson: From Hawking Peacock Feathers to Building Work Nests for Women

Hera Hub Felena Hanson SorrentoIf one of your early childhood memories is that of your mother bottle-feeding a baby tiger, the idea of starting your own business might not be that scary.  But for Felena Hanson, the native Californian whose bloodline is saturated with entrepreneurs, a formal education and job in corporate America seemed like a safe path for her…initially.

Hanson had an opportunity not many of us have been given – when she graduated from high school, her father offered, “I’ve saved up some money, and I can give it to you for college or to start a business. It’s your choice.”

Entrepreneurship probably seemed like a no-brainer to her father.  After all, he had dropped out of college his junior year, started a floor-covering business, and never worked for anyone else a day in his life. And her mother, also a college drop out, had done everything from managing an exotic animal zoo to designing jewelry, all on her own terms. “College wasn’t a priority for them,” says Hanson.

Hanson had felt the entrepreneurial tug at eight years old. Capitalizing on a resource in her own backyard – peacock feathers – she diligently collected them one fall and then sold them at the corner market for a quick $80 profit.

Despite the interesting offer from her father, she realized she didn’t have the acumen to start a “real business” so she took the money to enroll in a community college before transferring to University of San Diego, and ultimately graduating with honors. Four years later, she went back for an MBA from Cal State.

But despite the degrees and honors she earned, Hanson is hoping to one day lead a movement to ensure that the approachgoats  to entrepreneurial and business education is radically different than it is today.

“I wouldn’t change my education for anything, but to me, learning entrepreneurship from a textbook is not effective. There are so many ways you can learn.” Admittedly, it took a while for her to trust that instinct in herself.

After getting her MBA, Hanson sought to learn lessons from the start-up world thinking it would be a nice compromise between launching a business herself and working in a huge corporate environment.

“My career in high tech marketing was a bit bumpy. As many venture-backed companies experience, two sold and one ran out of money. I was attracted to nimble, innovative companies, but unfortunately that meant a lot of job insecurity.”

The constant ups and downs of the startup world, wore on Hanson. Like the peacocks that shed their feathers each year, Hanson felt all the layoffs were calling her to reinvention.

Another lesson in entrepreneurship came with a relatively early marriage (age 24)  In addition to being the primary bread winner, Hanson backed her husband as he set off to launch a  surf-apparel business and film and produce surf movies. It gave her first-hand access to entrepreneurial experience, but when she got divorced, she left the business – and all the money she had personally invested – with her husband.

Thirty, and determined to work for herself, Hanson launched a marketing business from her home that allowed her to use the best of what she had learned in the start-up world for the benefit of her clients. While she loved working for herself, she also found the experience isolating.

She looked around at potential office spaces where she might lease or share space.  There were plenty to choose from and they all had one thing in common – they were either way over the top or were geared towards young males – beer kegs and ping pong tables were in abundance. “Playing beer pong was not how I envisioned spending my free time or brainstorming my new business with my colleagues. And yet the panic of ‘will my new client be ok having a meeting at Starbucks or at my dining room table?’ was not working for me.”

Hanson envisioned a space where female entrepreneurs could have access to professional space and a collaborative community. She started speaking with local women’s groups about their needs and it became obvious that she wasn’t the only one looking for increased opportunities for collaboration.

Hera HubThe seed for HeraHub was planted and she started looking for space immediately.  Named for the Greek Goddess of women – Hera – and the need for women to have a community gathering place, or a Hub, to share ideas and lean on each other, Hera Hub officially launched in San Diego in August 2011.

The co-working space is spa-inspired, which means soft music, water features, great lighting, candles, and the aroma of fresh flowers – an open space with no cubicles but plenty of areas for quiet reflection or co-working.

And just as important, Hanson didn’t see Hera Hub as a space just for entrepreneurs to host a client or take a break from the dining room table. “We are very focused on education and community and connection. We collaborate with many professional women’s organization – to provide them with a physical platform to host workshops and meetings.

Since launching in San Diego and seeing the response – immediate and enthusiastic – Hanson quickly realized the opportunity in expanding. Putting in $60K of her own money and another $30K loan from her father, she opened a second and third location in San Diego County. When she was ready to expand outside San Diego she took on a female angel investor to support the company in franchise growth. This angel (Silvia Mah) has also spearheaded the educational arm of Hera Hub – www.Hera-LABS.com.

Hanson has successfully secured her first franchise location in Washington, DC, with long-time resident Julia Westfall – www.HeraHub.com/DC

“My BHAG (big, hairy audacious goal) is to support over 20,000 women in the US and abroad with 200 locations in the next five years.”

And with the watchful eye of Hera over her, she is confident she’ll be able to do that. “It wasn’t until after I chose the name Hera that I realized her symbol is the male peacock feather: the same product that launched me as an entrepreneur at age eight. When I found the reference, I knew I was on the right path.”

Tips from Felena Hanson

  • No one has it figured out. That’s what I learned working in corporate America. We’re always pivoting. I’ve made a million mistakes. There’s never a time when you get to lean back and say, ‘Oh, I figured it all out.’”
  • For people who have a desire to start their own business, but fear the loss of a safety net?  With multiple rounds of layoffs over the last decade, I’ve found working for yourself (taking charge of our career path) is less risky.  I’m proud to say I’m unemployable!

Chef Hollie Greene: From Human Resources to Healthy Hearts

Hollie GreeneChef Hollie Greene makes a mean cornmeal-crusted sautéed okra. And she is pretty sure she can teach you how to too and convince your finicky vegetable-phobic 8-year-old to try it and even love it. “Have you ever seen the delight in a child’s eyes when they discover they love a blanched green bean or a stuffed zucchini boat? It’s magic. That’s what I love doing most, unleashing the joy in exploring fruits and vegetables for kids and their parents.  I don’t start with a ‘get healthy’ objective. I start with joy. Good health and feeling great from what you eat is a natural outcome.”

Fresh out of grad school and armed with an undergrad degree and Masters in Human Resources (HR) from the University of South Carolina, Greene was recruited by Citigroup to join their management trainee program, which promised her a global rotation in HR. The fluent French speaker and lover-of-all-things-foreign was first posted to NYC but quickly transitioned to São Paolo, Brazil, where she worked on various projects. “I appreciated that CitiGroup sent me to a place where I didn’t speak the language. I had to learn very fast and rely on other skills. It stretched me to be out of my comfort zone. If you are worried about being an expert all the time, you lose a lot of learning opportunities. I embraced the idea of fitting in but I also learned patience and how to adapt to a different way of thinking. Brazil taught me you don’t have to stress about everything all the time to get things done. There are times to stress but most of the time, really, everything is going to be tudo bem. You’ll end up a lot less tired if you can take on this way of living.”

After a year in Brazil, Greene returned to NYC where she was a HR business partner, overseeing offshore banking investments for non-resident aliens for one-and-a-half years. After 9/11, her partner had trouble finding work so they moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where Greene worked in pharmaceutical sales for a year. “I quickly learned it wasn’t for me. I really missed HR. I had always been more of a consultant as people were asking me for ways to improve their business.”

So when Citibank re-recruited her for a position in its regional office in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Greene jumped. The bank even went as far as to help her then husband find a job, kind of a “two-for-one special”.

After seven years with CitiGroup, Greene moved to competitor American Express in South Florida, which was known for its leadership development program at the time. On a professional level, everything was going great. On a personal level, the situation was far from ideal. She and her husband decided to part ways. It was a life change for her: “It’s something that shifts you. You’re going along and everything’s fine and then something happens. For me it was the personal relationship not working out. My planned trajectory hit a bump in the road.”

Free to make her own decisions and finally do something she has always dreamed of, Greene went on a cooking vacation alone to Tuscany, Italy, in late October. Staying just outside the idyllic town of Lucca, she cooked from 10-1 every day in the kitchen of the 15th century estate and toured the countryside in the afternoon. Being immersed in the experience was therapeutic. Greene recalls, “There is something about getting your hands into food, it’s very healing. In a corporate setting you are using your mind a lot but in the kitchen, you take something from a raw ingredient and you working with it to create this beautiful outcome that gives people a lot of pleasure.”

The return journey to the US was nothing short of disastrous. Stuck at Pisa airport for 24-hours and again in Milan for even longer, Greene used the time to write in her journal. The trip had triggered some self-doubt about whether she was on the right path. She made a list of what she could do in life, what she is good at and what she liked. “It dawned on me that everyone on the trip had been in their late 50s and 60s and yet it was the first time they had experienced extremely simple healthy cooking that was delicious. I kept coming back to the same thing. I teach people leadership development, I connect them with information to improve their lives. Why couldn’t I do this with children? Why couldn’t I teach kids about the joy of understanding what a balanced relationship with food is like. It’s as simple as that. When you are in that place in your life where it could go any which way, you are just crazy enough to think of the possibilities. You are open to change.”

Greene had been with Amex for only one year, so it was with some trepidation that the then-33-year-old approached her manager, Janice Carulli, to tell her what she wanted to do: “I know this is not your problem, but this is just what I have got to do. I need to make a change. I’m going to move to NY and attend culinary school and I’d love to stay with Amex so if I could get a transfer to our NY office, that would be great. And if you can’t help me, I understand but then we need to start talking about my departure.” A 20-year veteran of Amex, not missing a beat, Carulli replied, “Hollie, most people at some point in their life will say ‘I wish I had done X’. If this is something you really want to do and I can help you in any way, then I really want to help you.” True to her word, she rang the NY office and – serendipitously – there was a position open in leadership development.

Within three months of her trip to Tuscany, Greene was in NY with Amex. Two months later she started 9-months of night classes at the French Culinary Institute. It was pretty grueling, but she loved it, “I worked 45-50 hours a week and then headed off to culinary class around 5.30 and stayed until 11.30. It was very physically demanding but I thrived on the intensity in the kitchen. Once you find your tribe of where you are supposed to be, you will take off. Yes, you have to cook dishes over and over again until they are perfect but unlike business, where you talk circles around the elephant in the room, in cooking this is not possible. You learn by making mistakes. You may have a good night or a bad night in the kitchen but you know where you stand.”

With no plans to be a restaurant chef, Greene took her newly minted skills to the not-for-profit world and volunteered with the Sylvia Center and Wellness in Schools while she still continued to work Amex. “Amex was exceptional. They wanted employees to give back to the community so were very supportive of the work I was doing in afterschool programs. There was no risk for me personally in doing this work, I just wanted to grow myself as a person.”

Blueberry and peach crumble from Joyfoodly
Blueberry and peach crumble from Joyfoodly

But then the magic happened! When teaching her first class of inner city kids about cooking with fruits and vegetables, Greene was amazed at their enthusiasm. “They absorbed it like sponges. Even if they didn’t like the food it didn’t matter because they were having fun in the kitchen, having a positive experience. It was really fulfilling to be giving them a window into this new world, helping them to see fruits and vegetables in a new way. Planting that seed of possibility.”

As her volunteer work became more serious, the non-profits offered her paid hours as Education Director at the Sylvia Center and a school chef at Wellness. It was an offer she couldn’t refuse despite Amex dangling the potential of a promotion. “The universe was really tempting me, but I told Amex I really needed to do it and it was now or never. I had to explore this path and see if this was my true calling. I figured I’d give it a year and I could always go back to the corporate world if it didn’t work—like a year-long anthropological study of me!” So she resigned.

The move from corporate banking to non-profit was most definitely a step back financially but she had savings and her partner to support her, “Up to that point, I had always been the breadwinner and so definitely it was very scary to take that step to the side – but it was calculated risk. But I am very thankful I made that move. I’ve never been happier.”

After a few years, Greene and her husband moved to San Francisco for his job and Greene had to rebuild her community. “The best way to meet people and build you base is to get involved! I consulted with some non-profits as a chef to improve nutrition in schools and with families at home for about a year.”.

Last year, she started writing a food blog, Joyfoodly, targeted at parents to promote eating seasonal fruits and vegetables throughout the year. But importantly she didn’t want it to be a pet project and toyed with turning it into a business. So she hired a business consultant, Stella Grizont, founder of Woopaah and former co-managing director of Ladies Who Launch, to map out her brand identity and spent six months doing lots of research to uncover the biggest “pain points” around food in our country today. After many surveys and lots of brainstorming, Greene hosted an ideation session with parents, community thought leaders, and educators.

“I didn’t want to take something and just do it better. I really wanted to fill a need,” she explains. “A couple of themes emerged, the first being that their children’s health is the number one priority for parents, they want to feed their kids well even if the culture doesn’t support children eating healthily. They also lack the time and the skill to put healthy and tasty meals together quickly. I thought ‘I know how to teach kids how to love fruits and vegetables, I’m good at it.’ So my plan centered around engaging kids in ways parents would not necessarily think about and sharing my simple yet proven techniques both in cooking and exciting kids to love trying new foods.”

Because Greene’s key goals in launching JoyFoodly had been to make learning how to cook fruits and veg easy and fun but also economical and readily accessible to a wide audience, a tech solution seemed the best way to go in terms of scale and ease of use. Greene’s Creative Director, Michelle Venetucci-Harvey brought the design perspective and together they developed a prototype of the Joyful12™ concept last Fall at the San Francisco Food Hackathon.

joyful12-logo-blackAn online Kitchen Learning Lab, the Joyful12 is a web-based cooking crash course for families that teaches them how to love cooking and eating 12 vegetables and fruits each season. A members-only site, it features video tutorials with Greene, allergen-and-gluten-free recipes, a time-saving shopping list generator, and a community forum to share successes and challenges with like-minded parents.

“Everyone can learn the basics of cooking fruits and vegetables and when you ask your kids to be part of the cooking process, that’s when they start to feel confident to explain how to make the food better…or at least taste better from their perspective. The Joyful12 is a self-paced course that guides you through each season and, depending on your constraints, let’s you try basic-to-adventurous recipes of in-season items. I believe it’s brings together the best of what’s out there in a unique and family-friendly way. It really is a true learning lab.”

The learning lab has been live for less than a month but subscribers are growing and Greene has created partnerships with companies like WholeFoods.

Potato-and-Leek-Soup-hi-res
Potato and leek soup from Joyfoodly

“We’re trying to do it the right way. Spring and Summer are built and I’m working on Fall and Winter. Basically I’m building the train and the tracks as I go along.” But it’s going well. Although all the recipes are gluten-free, she has hired Chef Annie Rose Hanrahan, a Natural Gourmet Institute graduate and former Sylvia Center and Wellness in Schools colleague, to re-test her recipes keeping an eye out for vegan, nut, and egg issues and to ensure any potential allergens are highlighted and substitutes are offered.

“I always look back at what I learned in culinary school. You learn by failing and clearly everything hasn’t been perfect, but I trust my instinct,” Greene says. “I’m surrounded by great people, people who stand by me, believe in what I’m doing, people who open doors for me. But I’m still learning, I have to have a lot of patience with myself. I still have that thread within me that wants it perfect today and wants it yesterday. That’s my journey … patience. If the intent of what I’m trying to do is good and the intent is for people to have a more balanced and enjoyable relationship with fruits and vegetable then it’s going to happen and it’s going to happen in its own time.”

You can sign-up for the Joyful 12 here and learn how to make a subscriber favorite: Japanese roasted green beans with a sriracha mayo dipping sauce.

Tips from Chef Hollie Greene

  • Figure out your value, don’t undersell yourself.
  • Believe in your intent, keep your head down and do the work: you’ve got to be in it for the long game.
  • When you do your own thing there are no checks and balances so be sure you have the support around you to give you a reality check.
  • Keep going because you have to complete the story!

Aud Melås: Banking, Bulldozers, and Brewing Beer

Aud-1 2 (2) There are not many successful business women who would give up a well-paid and prestigious position at a successful start-up to move to a small Norwegian town – population 350 – to run a hotel. You might even call Aud Melås crazy, as she thought she was at the time, but there is a method to this ambitious woman’s madness: “I’ve lived in this role of change for so long it’s natural to me. It’s something I just do because I’m a very curious person. I love to learn new things. I hate to get stuck.”

While studying for her degree in business economics at the Norwegian Institute of Banking & Insurance and the Norwegian School of Business, Melås was working at Sparebanken Hedmark (a savings and loan bank) in the town of Hamar, Norway. Upon graduation, she took up a full-time position as a mortgage and tax advisor at the bank, and, by age 24, her career path in the banking sector lay solidly before her, but she wasn’t sure she liked what she saw. When they offered her a promotion to a management position, she thought, “If I say yes to this, I’m most likely going to stick with banking for the rest of my life. So I asked myself ‘What are you going to look back at when you are 50?’ Are you going to say ‘I wish I had’ or are you going to say, ‘wow! I’ve done a lot of interesting things in my life, not all of them went well, but at least I tried,’ So, I chose the latter, declined the promotion, and decided to return to school.”

Melås informed her (very supportive) employer of her decision and left with a “four year leave of absence” instead of a termination and even a scholarship to help pay school fees.

Looking for an English-speaking environment coupled with warm weather, she followed her life-long dream of moving to California. She did some undergrad work at the University of San Diego and started the MBA program there. On moving to San Francisco, she finished the MBA with the University of Phoenix and – in order to remain in the US – took a position at Civic Bank of Commerce outside San Francisco as a credit manager and later VP & Manager of commercial lending at California Bank & Trust. Despite earlier misgivings about staying in banking and finance, altogether Melås spent 15 years in the sector.

One day she got a call from a former employer’s HR Manager about an opportunity to work with an online auction start-up for heavy construction equipment. They were seeking people with talent to build up the business. “I said to her ‘Are you crazy? I don’t know anything about backhoes or bulldozers!’” Melås laughs. The woman agreed but added, “But you do know about finance and building networks.” Melås declined the high risk venture but the woman was persistent, calling her for three months.

After some reflection and on hearing the company’s new name, Ironplanet, she decided to go for it. “I knew the company was going to be a success. It was the right name. Building business is something I really like to do. I believe the name tells you a lot. And besides, the business plan was excellent,” she reassures.

In the meantime, the business-savvy Norwegian had negotiated a good package in terms of options and severance so she felt confident to change tracks. “Once I took the decision, I moved very fast. I didn’t hesitate. Clearly it was a life-changing move because if I had not left, I would have stayed in the banking industry.”

And so there she was, co-founder responsible for risk assessment, supported by a staff of only ten, with the goal of selling excavators and the like online. It was overwhelming starting from scratch to build the behind-the-scenes infrastructure, but Melås saw the potential in the online auction business and stuck with it. It was a good call. E-bay tried unsuccessfully to buy Ironplanet in 2002 and today it’s the world’ largest online auction platform for heavy construction equipment.

After 4 years at Ironplanet, Melås got her second interesting phone call. This time from her brother, a psychologist based in Norway, with the “opportunity of a lifetime” for his sister and her American husband, Evan. He had found a small 8-room inn with an indoor/outdoor café situated in an ideal location — Sognefjorden, Norway. “Frankly, I thought he was off his rocker. I could not believe he would seriously think I would want to leave this fantastic company that I love so much to start working in the hospitality sector.”

That evening she recounted the story to Evan, laughing as she imagined herself running a B&B at the end of fjord in Flåm, almost 5 hours by car from Oslo, the capital of Norway. Her husband’s response nearly knocked her off her feet. “Well, I might be interested,” he said. Evan’s Silicon-Valley- based graphic design company had suffered during the 2002 crash and in the meantime he was making ends meet as a carpenter and a mortgage officer. “Basically he was miserable,” Melås recalls. “Norway has always been a fairytale country for Evan. So naturally he jumped at the chance to start over and do something new. But I remained unconvinced.”

Knowing that his wife was the key, together with Melås’ brother, Evan starting plotting how he could change her mind. They called in the big guns with comments like, “your mother is not getting any younger”. It took three long months but she finally agreed to visit the inn, examine the balance sheets, and talk with the accountant about the health of the business. In early January 2004, Melås met the owners. At 5pm, it was already pitch black. But not dark enough that she couldn’t read the look of distrust on the owners’ faces: “I knew they were thinking … ‘oh this American woman will ruin everything.’”

But Melås was impressed with the figures put before her. Although there are only 350 inhabitants in Flåm, she learned that 1.3 million tourists come through each year and all of them have to pass the inn when they get off the cruise ships and boats. There was clearly more to the place than met the eyes. The next morning with the sun resting on the snow-capped mountains, she saw for herself: “It is an incredibly beautiful place. The inn is situated right on the water in idyllic surroundings. The potential was palpable. It would seem my brother was not crazy after all.”

Copy of R. Sørensen Bilder Hotellet 050 (1)Dazzled by the scenery, business potential, and plans for expansion, Melås agreed to give it five years on the condition she would keep the house in California and they would return if it didn’t work out. A key decision-making factor was her ability to maintain the current staff. She signed on the dotted line and got on a plane to San Francisco to pack up her life. Midway over the Atlantic, panic set in. “I thought ‘Oh my god, what have I done?’ It was almost like it wasn’t me who had been to Norway. The numbers had looked great but in reality I had no idea how I was going to do it.”

The next few weeks were difficult. She had to face the fact she was leaving Ironplanet, a company she had helped build from scratch. “That was tough. It was my baby. But I had made a decision and needed to move forward. Evan had no such doubts. He was over the moon!” she laughs.

Melås had no romantic illusions about running an inn. “My aunt and uncle owned a small hotel and worked themselves into the ground…literally, as they both died before turning 70. I learned an important lesson from that. I would not want to build a business in such way that it would stop functioning without me being present.”

While her previous experience was clearly a bonus in terms of organizing, planning, putting start-up strategies and infrastructure in place, and dealing with the local bank, the first two and half years were hard going (to put it mildly). Legal issues put the plans for upgrading the hotel and building a micro-brewery on hold, but also it was difficult for Melås to return to Norway after so many years abroad. She recalls: “I don’t remember how many times I almost packed my bags to go back to California. I loved my life in the US. I had great friends, a wonderful job. The culture here was so foreign to me even though I visited every summer. Being the boss was hard as I tried to navigate the labor laws. It was much easier for Evan. He adjusted really well and picked up the language. He was adopted right away. Me? I was known as ‘Iron Woman’… let’s just leave it at that.”Aud & Evan ved Ægir ute

Once they got past the legal wrangling, the couple renovated and expanded Flåmsbrygga Hotel and went ahead with their plans to open a Viking-themed brewpub (a pub that brews its own beer), on the premises. They were only the second brewpub in Norway at the time and the 9th micro-brewery overall. Eight years after taking over the inn, a brand new production brewery and a 15-room staff house were installed.

Named after Ægir, the Norse giant who lived where the river and the ocean met and brewed beers for the gods of Åsgard, Ægir Brewery boasts 40 varieties of beer, has won the accolade of ‘Best Beer’ in Norway, and taken home three silver medals at the Australian “Olympics of Beer Brewing”. “Norwegians are usually quite modest, but if I am allowed to brag a little, we are number one in Norway in our category,” Melås says. “Unlike the US, the brewpub is a unique experience here. We are investigating franchising opportunities and looking to increase exports to the US market. Our unofficial slogan has become ‘Why not?’ as this has proven to be an effective approach up to now,” she laughs.

The five-year self-imposed re-evaluation deadline came and went unnoticed. In year six, they knew they were staying. Now, in their tenth year of operation, Melås and her husband have grown the business from a small B&B to a multi-million-dollar venture. “I would never have seen myself here. Everyone thought we were going to fail … many were eagerly awaiting a big bankruptcy when we started investing in brewing. But Evan and I believed in our dreams and in the end, it’s been a wonderful ride. We had one goal: one day we would make money while we were sleeping!  We reached that goal some years back and now we sleep very well indeed.”

Tips from Aud Melås

  • Follow your gut and dare to be different. You don’t have to be a sheep.
  • Don’t fool yourself. Running an inn is like any other business – to get to the stage where you make money you, you must work really hard. You are always working when  your friends are on holidays, you work weekends, etc. There are no short-cuts!
  • When you open yourself to change, the most unexpected things can happen.

Questions for Aud? Post them in the Comments section and we’ll be sure she sees them.

Mary Hickey: Found a Niche and Filled It

mary_hickey_june_2014I’m chatting on the phone with Mary Hickey, and we are giggling and gabbing away for at least ten minutes, forgetting that the reason I called was to interview her about her business. It’s easy to see how she’s built two successful careers, first in sales and marketing, and then as an entrepreneur.  Her gregarious personality certainly helped put her on a great first career path, but it was her desire for warm weather that really motivated her.

Hickey graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1985 with a BA in communications, and a specialty in marketing, and within four days found herself in California. “I needed to get out of dodge and into the warm weather.”

She landed in a pre-internet-boom San Francisco, and with no friends or family to rely on, knew she had to hustle to land a job and make a living. In a sign of just how much things have changed in the nearly 30 years since then, Hickey’s first “real job” was selling coupon books for Entertainment Publications, followed by a sales job with the Pacific Sun newspaper where she was responsible for selling time on their printing press.

She was supporting herself and living her California dream in Mill Valley, but at just 24 she was already bored having already learned the ropes of the job. “I had always wanted to be in sports somehow and had recently volunteered at the TransAmerica Open tennis tournament, so I thought I’d call them and poke around and pitch myself for a job.”

When she called the tennis organization, instead of reaching a lowly assistant or intern on the phone, Hickey spoke with the tournament owner himself, Barry MacKay, the famous tennis player and commentator-turned-entrepreneur.

“It would be like today getting Rodger Federer on the phone when you called his organization,” said Hickey. “I was so taken aback but continued, ‘Hi, I’m Mary Hickey and I’d like to help the tournament make some money and sell sponsorships for you.”  MacKay liked the proposition and told her to come in for an interview.

Months later, she asked him why he hired her. “I had no experience in sports marketing! I guess I had a little bit of chutzpah, but Barry said, ‘I have all these people calling me saying, ‘I’m John McEnroe’s cousin twice removed, and what does that get me? I’ll tell you – someone who has a connection, but needs a lot of training. You called and told me you could make me some money.”

She did make him some money and then leveraged that job into a string of successful sales and marketing jobs – managing the Virginia Slims’ tennis tournaments, licensing for video-game company Sega, and doing client services at an ad agency.

“The agency job was good for my nature because it was fast moving and I never got bored. For me, sitting and doing the same thing over and over is like factory work.”

But in the late nineties, Hickey got the Internet bug. “Everyone else was making it big in the Internet business, so I decided it was time for me to get rich. I moved to estamp.com and promptly got poor.”

Like so many other start-ups in the dotcom heyday, Hickey’s estamp.com shares went from being worth $4 million on paper to $4K in a matter of months. “If that’s not enough to give you whiplash I don’t know what is. But I didn’t learn my lesson. I tried working at AltaVista, but of course I picked the search engine that didn’t make it.”

Hickey gave up her dreams of Internet gold and took a stable consulting job at Cisco Systems. It was lucrative but didn’t feed her soul. But it gave her an epiphany. “I was almost 40 and I thought to myself, I don’t want to find myself chasing this hourly rate when I’m 50. I wanted to be my own boss by then.”

So Hickey looked at her time at Cisco as a way of stashing away enough money to either buy investment real estate or launch her own company. Making a significant hourly rate, in just three years she was able to amass a sizeable nest egg on top of her retirement savings. “Had I decided to invest in real estate then, my investments would have at least doubled, but no, I decided to start this death business,” she chuckles.

The death business actually turned out to be a great idea.

Hickey and an old friend, Bob Wheeler, whom she met through a friend at Cisco Systems and stumbled upon the concept for Renaissance Urns after Wheeler’s own mother died. He had made an urn for her ashes in a pottery class, and when the funeral director saw it “he went nuts” and asked if he had more. Wheeler had no interest in becoming a potter himself, but Mary thought that this was the inspiration she had been waiting for. She went to a local funeral home in North Beach pretending to look for urns and understood why Wheeler’s urn had been a hit. “They were dated, awful and expensive, but what really cemented the idea was my parent’s enthusiasm. They’ve been married for 57 years and have never agreed on a business idea, but they both thought this was brilliant.”

With the Catholic Church recognizing cremation, it was becoming a more popular option for baby boomers making their parents’ funeral decisions. And the industry hadn’t seen a new player in a long time.

Hickey and Wheeler each invested just $2500, hired a couple of artists, quit their day jobs and hit the road selling their first batch of urns to funeral directors up and down the coast of California. Initially called Urns as Art, the pieces sold wholesale for $150 to $250 each. They sold out but the repeat orders did not come. They scratched their heads in disbelief.

Around that time, Hickey came across a beautiful silk covered plastic box for transporting ashes online and had her second brainstorm. She found a manufacturer in Oakland to produce them and together she and Wheeler set up a website www.nextgenmemorials.com to sell them to a broader audience.

The boxes caught the attention of the press with the Wall Street Journal dubbing them “Kate Spade-esque” and Reuters pointing out the practicality of traveling with them in the post-9/11 era of x-ray machines.

“That’s when the rubber really hit the road,” says Hickey. “Sales took off, and we thought we had it made.”

Rebranded as Renaissance Urns, the pair were still discouraged to be working really hard and not pulling in as much money as they thought they would. “We went through all our costs of websites and logos and office equipment and ran the numbers and figured we needed to make $1000 a day to pay for the cost of doing business and clear a profit.”

So they made a few changes. First, they built a direct-to-consumer website www.nextgenmemorials.com. And instead of doing 80% of their business to wholesalers the ratio flipped and the business took off even more. “That helped us a lot because we didn’t have to give a cut to someone else.”

But they still weren’t making what they thought was a reasonable income, and – when they decided the target number was actually more like $2000 a day – Wheeler decided to leave the business and got his real estate license. “It really helped me having the right business partner in the beginning because he was great at the details – setting up invoicing and quick books, and he called me the pit bull because if anyone said no to me I’d just go to the next person. So I had a really good foundation when he left.”

The sole proprietorship proved to be the right formula for Renaissance Urns. Hickey now produces some of her products in China with partners in the U.S. who can ship directly so she has little inventory and counts Costco.com as one of her resellers. Twelve years into the business she jokes, “I’m getting rich in this business but very, very slowly.”

And despite the fact that Hickey hopped around in her early career because she “didn’t want to feel like a factory worker” she says the day-to-day is still rewarding with challenges like finding new products to design and new sales channels to sell through. “I miss the energy I would get from other people in the office, but not enough to go back.” As for regrets? Hickey’s only one is not starting sooner. “I’m 51 now and I think, gosh, if I had started at 35 instead of 40 where would I be now?” But there’s no time to dwell on that – there are too many new products to dream up.

You can find Mary’s company at: http://renaissanceurns.com

Mary Hickey’s Business Tips:

  • Business partners are like marriage, success rates are not good. You have to support two people so the business needs to make twice the income. This puts a lot of pressure on a new business. If you can, go it alone. If you do decide on a partner, make sure they have skills that you don’t. Ideally their strengths are your weaknesses. Also, get your business agreement in writing before you start.
  • Have a sizable cushion before you start (6–12 months living and business expenses). Businesses are like house projects, they take twice as long and cost twice as much as you expect. If you don’t have that much money see if you can use OPM (other people’s money): angel investors, friends, family, Kickstarter, etc.
  • Think of ways to make money while you sleep. It’s nice to wake up richer than you went to bed without having to do anything. I wrote an ebook (Planning a Celebration of Life, A Simple Guide for Turning a Memorial Service into a Celebration of Life) and I sell it digitally through Amazon and my website www.nextgenmemorials.com. I also invested in real estate, single family rental homes, when it finally became affordable in 2010.

Questions for Mary about starting a business? Post them here:

Karen Lehrer: From High Fashion to a Higher Plane

Karen Lehrer @ Career 2.0Karen Lehrer has always been a seeker. Throughout her life she has reached into her creative side to reinvent herself in new and inspiring ways. She attributes her soul-searching nature to her success and happiness today. “I don’t want to be there on the last day of my life saying to myself ‘Karen, you didn’t try hard enough. You didn’t stick your neck out.’ I don’t ever want any regrets, that’s why I listen to my heart and push through to new experiences.”

Although Lehrer struggled somewhat in her twenties selecting the right path for school and a career (she attended more than five years of undergrad studies, mostly in art, but never graduated), she eventually settled on fashion and enrolled in the LA Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. (more…)

Julie Thorne Engels: Measuring Herself by Different Standards

Juliete Thorne EngelsWhen you look at the course of Julie Thorne Engels’ career, a few themes and success factors repeatedly pop up: passion for creativity, support from good female friends and family, a willingness to push through fear of failure, and a strong desire to champion women, especially in business. Optimistic and confident, Julie herself is curious and always open to change and improvement.

Never really traditional in her choices (at least compared to those of us outside California), the 45-year-old started out dreaming of being an entertainer. She studied film and video, waited tables, and performed Improv with a Chicago-based troupe for a few years before deciding she wanted to be behind the camera versus in front of it. Julie moved to Santa Monica to launch a career in the business side of the entertainment industry. She landed her first job as a runner and later an associate producer at Channel 1 News and eventually worked her way up to a producer on a show for Lifetime. Being exposed to the genesis of reality TV, Julie made a conscious decision to pursue a more personally rewarding path.  “I wanted to attach myself to something more inspirational and soulful … it was an important turning point for me, moving away from what many considered to be a stable career.”

So for a few years, Julie channeled her creative spirit by writing screenplays and teaching herself to paint. At the height of the dotcom boom, she launched her first start-up, Soulgarden. While the business ultimately didn’t take off, it taught her valuable lessons that would guide her future direction: “I was always networking, and I found the best feedback I was getting was from women my own age. All of my vital professional connections came from these women.”

This realization spurred Julie to start a women’s business group called iBettys, in honor of her close-knit group of high school friends who called each other “Betty.” It grew from a small group of 5 women initially to more than 100 (including men), meeting monthly to share ideas, provide feedback and encouragement to each other, as well as solid networking leads.

Julie continued to host iBettys meetings as she launched what became a very successful career at consumer marketing agency, The Regan Group. “I saw for the first time that my ideas could generate significant money. Very quickly I went from being an executor to new business development,” she recalls. This was a pivotal era for Julie as her work involved executive leadership, overseeing budgets, and team building and development. Patti Regan was a great mentor but equally Julie was a great investment, eventually tripling the agency billings and staff.

After nearly a decade, Julie couldn’t shake the notion that something powerful was going on with the iBetty gatherings. So with the confidence she garnered at The Regan Group, she decided to focus more time on championing the needs of women. Julie launched Bettyvision, a community empowering women to visualize their dreams and create goals to make them come true. A first workshop was followed by a second, third and so on … their success propelling her to invest more of her time and money into the concept.

In 2012, she left The Regan Group to work on transforming Bettyvision into a real venture. Her goal was to develop a tech platform to support vision boards (an Oprah favorite), which are essentially a collection of images to show what a woman wants to have happen in her life. “It’s like Pinterest with a purpose for women,” Julie explains.

She raised seed funding again mostly through family, which allowed her to build and launch her propriety vision board platform. Her expectations of the business were blown away after only a short time.  Julie recalls that she could have been better prepared but that her naivité of what lay ahead was beautifully inspired: “If I had really known what I was getting into, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

The initial funding for Bettyvision was not enough to support the high growth technology play, and Julie all too quickly became aware of the discouraging reality that less than 10% venture funds go to women. It became increasingly challenging to raise the necessary capital to take it to the next level and attract advertising targeting millennial women.

But, Julie’s efforts were not in vain. Having pitched her platform to investors, corporations, women’s groups and brands over the course of the year and invested significantly in her technology platform, she was well poised to pivot to her next venture. She partnered with two women within her inner circle and launched Tribemint, a branding, digital communications and experiential marketing agency focusing on millennials. “I got to the point where I had no funds left. I had to figure out what I do really well, what I am passionate about. It kept coming back to the agency world. All my experience led me to this stage and being focused on helping brands and companies create meaningful conversations and deep relationships with this young, enthusiastic Gen Y tribe.”

Only a few months in, Tribemint is making a go of it. When asked how long she is giving herself to see the agency succeed, Julie is adamant: “I’m going to make it work. I am a female pioneer in the tech space and now need to fund future development – mine and that of others – which led me to this moment. I know how to make money in the agency world.”

While growing the business is of course her main focus, the end game is to build the Tribemint Fund  to support millennial entrepreneurship. “I have been fortunate to be surrounded by strong mentors, who have made a large impact on my entire life and career choices. Now, it is my turn to champion the younger generation and help them succeed. ”

A percentage of all Tribemint profits in the first years will go to the fund. “It was really hard not to see Bettyvision take off. My biggest passion takeaway was figuring out how I could turn this around. How I could raise more awareness about the lack of venture funding for women. The Tribemint Fund is my opportunity to make a difference and start being a woman who invests and writes checks to for-profit ventures.”

And if Julie’s chances of success are dependent on her drive, optimism, and spirit, there is no stopping her this time round.

Julie’s Tips for Success
  • If you are going into a new venture, create authentic business relationships.  Also, make a mutual investment with a millennial. They are hungry for experience and are a wellspring of inspiration, knowledge and fresh perspective.
  • Be clear and stand strong in your ultimate vision and “why” you started your business.   However, be prepared to be flexible in “how” you reach your end goals.  Knowing when to pivot is key to maintaining cash-flow, while on the path toward success.
  • It’s empowering to be in charge of your own destiny.  If you are going to make money, make it for yourself and then have the power to pay it forward.
  • Women have such a unique opportunity to leverage their feminine strengths in business: creativity, collaboration, flexibility, nurturance, and multi-tasking.  Since women have more “natural” milestones (such as having children), they are often faced with evaluating their different life-stages and recalibrating to stay on track with their career goals and vision.

Discussion

Julie Thorne Engels has learned from BettyVision that dreams are so personal. What is your dream and how do you plan to make it a reality?

Andie Grace: From Dust to Digital

As the Communications Manager/Regional Network Manager of Burning Man, the annual festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada dedicated to community, art, self-expression and self-reliance, to many, Andie Grace had an amazing job.

Andie-PR-0040
Photo courtesy of Glenn Campbell Photography

“From the outside, it seemed like a job that no one would ever leave once they got it,” said Grace. And indeed, for a long time Grace, too, thought she would never leave. She felt fervently about the mission of Burning Man, dropping out of college and eagerly joining the team when she was invited to transition from volunteer to paid staff in 2000. Within a few months, she became a full-time employee, one of the earliest in the organization, and before long, she was occupying a seat in the boardroom with the event’s executive staff.

“I wasn’t planning on being a festival organizer when I grew up, but I felt that Burning Man was a force for good in the world, and so, of course, when they offered me the job, I took it.”

For 13 years, Grace adeptly handled all communications for the organization, from the website and other external communications materials, to managing the many incoming requests for interviews and permission to film at the event.

“It was a super rich and very exciting job,” said Grace. “ I got to travel, go to fun conferences and speak at events representing Burning Man. I was able to build and expand the program for the regional Burning Man groups, and because there’s significant press attention in the festival, it was always very fulfilling in terms of professional growth.”

The job was very high profile as well. With Silicon Valley captains of industry and Hollywood illuminati coming to the festival as well as every media outlet from Time magazine to CNN and Rolling Stone covering the festivities, Grace’s time at Burning Man was exciting … exciting and busy.

The attention and prestige that came with the job were alluring, but a flip side began to rear its head about eight years into the job.

“It was dreamy in a lot of ways, but it was also a bear. For about five years before I actually left I would tell my closest friends, ‘I think I’m done.’” But she never was. The round-the-clock nature of the job and the social community – an innate part of the job – kept her close.

But then a few things happened. Grace and her husband’s five-year-old daughter, who had been traveling to Burning Man with them for four years, was due to enter kindergarten in the fall of 2012 … the same week as Burning Man.  Grace had also been experiencing asthma-like symptoms for some time and, while she was sentimental about missing her first festival, the joy of seeing her daughter on the first day of school won out, as did the hoped-for relief her lungs might get being away from the dusty desert air.

Thinking of staying home that year proved to be a turning point. “I felt like I was hearing some other music elsewhere, and I had the chance to finally really ask myself, ‘who was I before I did this?’”

The stress and intensity of the job had reached a breaking point, and she was anxious to see who she could be “on the other side of Burning Man.”  In June of 2012, the year she turned 40, she quit, although she was not able to fully extract herself from her role until January 2013 (in fact she still actively participates with the organization  – once again as a volunteer). With no other work prospects lined up – “a scary but amazing feeling” – Grace took a few months to catch up on the rest of her life and “let the Burning Man wash off me.” “I knew I would go back to full-time work and that there would be lots of opportunities – because of my role people were always offering me jobs — so I was anxious but not really panicking. And I knew, if worst came to worst, the door was always open to go back to Burning Man.”

Grace’s husband was a supportive force. Having also once worked at Burning Man, he “was very eager for me to get out from under the weight of the impact it was having on my life,” said Grace.

While the feeling was scary, she was also happy to see where the open space in her life would lead her and which opportunities would present themselves. To line up some immediate work, she hung her own shingle offering communications consulting work.

But when the opportunity came along, she immediately recognized it for what it was – the job she had been waiting for. A close friend asked if Grace wanted to partner with him on his new venture, launching an independent film distribution company, Devolver Digital Films, the arm of an already successful video game firm. Having spent much time at Burning Man supporting independent filmmakers’ needs at the festival, Grace had developed a passion for the art. “I always loved working with film, but I had no idea I could turn it into a career. But now I had the chance finally to say yes.”

For Grace, a slow transition was key to her success in the new field. She started part-time so she could maintain some paying communications clients on the side as she and her partner built the Devolver business. But she trusted the move implicitly. Her partner, Mike, was a long-time, dependable friend, and the new venture was being supported by a profitable arm of his company. The industry was dynamic and there was a lot of opportunity for growth.

A year and a half into her new life, Grace is thrilled. She’s focused on giving filmmakers a chance to see their film come to life which is incredibly gratifying to Grace. “At Burning Man, my work with filmmakers was often about limiting them – no, you can’t film that here, no you can’t use that image, lots of legal wrangling. Now, I get to say to little filmmakers, ‘yes’. It’s a positive spin on the art of filmmaking.  And she and her partner have what she never had at Burning Man, a semblance of a work–life balance.

While the change has fulfilled her soul, she and her husband did have to make some practical changes. They gave up their apartment in San Francisco and private Montessori education to ensure a free, public school spot in Berkeley, where they can also afford to rent a house with a yard for their daughter. She and her husband both gave up a competitive salary and benefits package for the chance to partner on startups of their own.

Regrets?  “I miss the people and the camaraderie of working in the nexus of something so big and wonderful, but no, not a ton of regrets.”

Grace is thinking of returning to Burning Man this year as a participant, but she’s still not sure.  “Not only does the first day of school interfere every year, but I’m not sure I know how to go there and just be a participant. I can’t imagine not jumping in with my old cohort, and being where the action is – I love production too much not to be at the center of it all. I also value my perspective on it from “the outside” now, although having grown up alongside and within the organization, I don’t think I’ll ever stay away completely or quit caring about what happens for that culture. It’s still my friends and my community, and that’ll probably never change.”

Andie Grace’s Tips for a Smooth Transition
  • Grace, whose husband is also now working for a start-up, says the only thing she would change is timing so that both spouses were not in start-up land at the same time. When they both lost health insurance at the same time it was scary, but fortunately, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, this has since been resolved.
  • Don’t rush to form a limited liability company (LLC) when going out on your own. You can freelance without the time and money spent forming an LLC, especially if you are still exploring other options.
  • Be open to opportunities and allow yourself to be nimble – that can lead to a career path.  Leaving Burning Man was scary but Grace knew that if she didn’t leave she wouldn’t know what else was out there, so leaving without committing to something immediately was key.

Discussion

Have you ever left a job without having another one lined up? Was it worth the risk?