Bonnie Moore: Bringing the Shared Housing Movement to Boomers

Bonnie MooreWhen asked to tell her story, Bonnie Moore laughs. “Well, I’m 70 years old, I have a long story. I’ve been through three husbands. I was divorced before I even went to college. And while the truth is, I’m not cut out to be a wife, I’m definitely built for working life. I’ve run my own businesses before, but I didn’t become a serious entrepreneur until I was 69.”

At a time when most people would be putting their feet up for a long-deserved retirement, Moore was writing business plans and seeking developers to launch her online network supporting communal living among mature adults.

Moore’s drive to launch the Golden Girls Network was created out of necessity, but perhaps it also has its roots in her early years as a college graduate and divorcee living the hippy life in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. “I’ve always loved the camaraderie and convenience of communal living,” she explains.

A hippy perhaps, but for 27 of the 30 years she lived in the “City by the Bay,” Moore was an accountant. That is until she brought a class action suit against the California State Board of Accountancy in a fight over her right to refer to herself officially as an accountant rather than a bookkeeper. The case ended up before the California Supreme Court, and – although she lost by one vote – Moore became something of a celebrity, giving lots of talks on the issue of commercial speech. The experience sparked an interest in law, and so at 44 years of age she enrolled in law school, while working part-time.

“I was 50 when I graduated and the first question I asked myself was, ‘What am I going to do for the rest of my life?’”

But unlike her fellow eager graduates, Moore had to put her legal dreams on hold. “My 29-year-old daughter was diagnosed with AIDS and there was no question that I would drop everything to take care of her. She was one of the first patients in 1995 to get the untested cocktail because she was dying and had nothing to lose. Within one month she started to improve.”

It took almost three years for Moore’s daughter to get back on her feet, but as soon as she was, Moore decided to move on to the next chapter in her life. With a second divorce behind her, she set her sights on Washington DC, and with nothing more than a 15-year-old two-seater sports car packed with a suitcase and a blow-up mattress, she hit the road to finally live east of the Mississippi.

DC was a good move. After several temp jobs as an accountant, Moore secured a consulting gig with a CPA firm and stayed for 15 years until semi-retiring at age 69. She still works part-time for the firm on a project basis.

Bonnie Moore“I was suddenly lost, sitting around in my PJs. I’m the kind of person who needs lots of things going on. I was itching for my next challenge,” she laughs.

Moore’s inspiration for her next move came directly from her own experience. Divorced for the third time in 2008, she was saddled with a large mortgage for her newly remodeled 5-bedroom home in Bowie, MD. “Home renovation is a stressful process,” Moore says wryly. The recession had started and the house value was plummeting.

“I had my dream home. But my income was cut in half and I had 100% of the bills (her ex filed for bankruptcy). I knew I wanted to keep the house so I decided to start looking for roommates. Bowie is primarily a family town so it was challenging to get people to move out there.”

She focused on women in the same age-group. After some interesting experiences … the woman who reorganized all her drawers and the Jehovah’s Witness who shunned her Halloween decorations … Moore finally found four roommates that worked. Multiple house agreements have helped maintain order and balance the demands of five different personalities.

Fast forward five years to retirement and Moore realized her next opportunity was right in front of her. There was a market of mature women struggling financially and searching for housing, and the Craigslists and rent.coms of the world were not meeting their needs. She would establish a business to help other women do the same thing that she and her roommates were doing: find like-minded individuals to sharing housing.

Golden Girls Network is a membership-based organization modeled after match.com that provides an easy-to-use platform for mature women (and men) to search for and find shared living arrangements from a national database. Users can be seek housemates to share in their home or rooms in other Golden Girls homes. Bonnie is also working on a foundation which will support a home companion program through which a housemate could receive a reduced rate for rent in exchange for providing assistance in the home of an older adult. “This wouldn’t include medical needs, but rather help such as changing light bulbs, doing the grocery shopping, and shoveling snow,” Moore notes.

“I was suddenly lost, sitting around in my PJs. I’m the kind of person who needs lots of things going on. I was itching for my next challenge,”

And while the idea came easily and the business plan has evolved, setting up Golden Girls Network has not been without pains.

“We were trying to do too much and there were liability hurdles that I didn’t foresee. Then I found someone to build the database, but let’s just say it didn’t go very smoothly. I almost packed it in until NPR contacted me. I wasn’t even in business yet! Three developers later, the database was ready to launch and the very same day, we were on the cover of the style section of The Washington Post.”

Completely self-funded (although looking for an investor), the network currently includes more than 900 people in 47 states. Moore is in licensing talks to expand the network outside of the US. And even though she doesn’t sport a hoodie, she joined a business incubation center at Bowie State University shortly after her launch.

“We’ve tapped into something that people are really interested in, it’s a sleeper thing. Baby boomers are retiring and their situations are not what they expected. There is an epidemic of middle-age divorce. People who lost the value of their homes or their jobs through the recession don’t have the money to retire the way they thought they would. What’s more, women’s salaries are lower than men’s and often they don’t have secure retirement plans. Retirement communities are expensive, especially for people on a fixed income. Living in shared housing helps cut costs dramatically and the bonus is you don’t have a house or yard to take care of. It’s kind of nice.”

So what’s next for the septuagenarian after she finds that investor and takes Golden Girls Network to the next level?

“Oh, I’m going to be the ‘Where’s the Beef?’ lady – the face of the company – and let someone else run it! One of these days I’m really going to retire and live the life of a Golden Girl.”

Pam Holland: Moxie and Tech, a Recipe for Success

Pam HollandIf she’d had a magic wand, Pam Holland would have been a photo journalist or done something in the arts, but instead the New Jersey girl, with a dash of New York, ended up in law school.

“Part of me loved the problem-solving aspect, but after law school I worked at a law firm doing commercial real estate transactions and I really hated it. It was like being a wedding planner for lawyers, too much detail, too many boxes to check.”

To her delight, she got laid off and was recruited to Fannie Mae where she did mortgage policy work. She loved it and stayed over two decades thanks to the interesting work, great benefits, and a near-perfect family/work-life balance.

But the itch to start a business was constant.

“I’d drive my husband crazy with my ideas. There was Kippah Girl, producing colorful kippahs, the beach buggy rental business (secretly it was just because I loved the name Buggies at the Beach) … I recall standing in front of a soda machine many moons ago saying ‘I wish I could get bottled water from this.’ I’ve always been identifying opportunities.”

Toward the end of her time at Fannie Mae, Holland went to a career counselor and discussed her Pam Hollandentrepreneurial dreams. “Even as a kid, I’d been trying to figure out how to make money. I’d have garage sales and made candles, selling them door-to-door. I remember the coach said if that little voice has been talking to you since you were eight, then maybe it’s time to listen to it. I never thought starting something new was an option for me, but after that I began playing with the idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up.”

About a year or so later and one year before she turned 50, Holland decided to resign. The mortgage crisis had hit, Fannie Mae was in conservatorship, and the economy was blowing up.

“There were no longer opportunities. I had totally outgrown my seat, there was nothing left that I really wanted to accomplish. I felt like I had one more career in me and knew that never starting that business would be my number one regret.”

Despite all the ideas bouncing around in her head, Holland didn’t jump right away into entrepreneurial life. She took a consulting position with Bank of America, but after two years hit a wall and decided to leave – but not without a plan.

“I remember the coach said if that little voice has been talking to you since you were eight, then maybe it’s time to listen to it. I never thought starting something new was an option for me, but after that I began playing with the idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up.”

For some time, she had been thinking about a business that would teach technology to “late adopters,” both the tech adverse and older generations. A lover of gadgets, Holland was always playing with the latest technology, testing out apps, and troubleshooting devices. It all began with a class she called “Getting to Know your iPad” which she offered at a local community center. “Bingo! That was it. The class was full with a waiting list. I went to other community centers and started picking up one-on-one clients. It’s mostly coaching, filling in the gaps, and getting the client comfortable with the technology.”

Pam Holland
A Tech Moxie client showing off the new iWatch

That was two years ago and Tech Moxie continues to evolve. While Holland still does classes and works occasionally one-on-one with clients, she hires contractors to provide most of the services while she concentrates on growing the business. That has proven the biggest challenge thus far: “It’s a very scalable business, I want to go national, but I need to step back and see the bigger picture.”

Tech Moxie is all self-funded. To her husband’s dismay, Holland said she was “willing to live in a cave” to make this happen. Marketing has been her biggest expense, the website and branding and so on, but the loss of her corporate income has easily been the biggest startup cost. But this tech moxie is in it for the long haul.

“Sometimes I wish I had started sooner, but I’m not sure the market was ready. Tech needed to catch up. Mobile phones have really changed the game because, as people age, the accessibility features open up doors that were previously closed. I love when I show a client with Parkinson’s how to use Siri for example. Helping people understand the tech puzzle gives me such a sense of accomplishment and the best part is finally my time is my own.”

Tips from Pam Holland
  • Fake it! You don’t need to be an expert, just be confident … look for breadcrumbs.
  • The only way to learn how to run a business is to go through it.
  • Work on the most important issues first, not the easiest, otherwise you’ll never get to the big stuff!
  • Having an idea does not mean you can execute it. You need to think about the means to manufacture or produce something, but tech has definitely leveled out the playing field.

Recycling My Life by Helping Others Recycle Theirs

Tiffany BeverlinTiffany Beverlin is the Founder and CEO of DreamsRecycled.com, an online marketplace specializing in divorce items such as wedding dresses and rings and comprehensive website for the divorce community. 

Let’s face it: Life can suck at times. Perfect families, perfect relationships, and perfect lives is not reality for most people. Life is a constant stream of ups, downs, plateaus and curve balls for the majority of mankind.

I had spent the majority of my adult life married, a devoted mother to my three children, and wife to my now ex-husband. I loved it. I gave up my career to stay home and raise my children. I felt fortunate to be able to do so; after all, not everyone gets this privilege. I was happy – or so I thought. I had three healthy kids, a husband who made plenty of money to support us, a beautiful home, a great group of friends and so on. It was pretty much everything many women dream about.

Then life happened – the sucky part I mentioned earlier. And I wasn’t prepared for it. That’s where the dream died.

When you find yourself going through a divorce, you quickly realize that the financial burden rests squarely on your shoulders. You can’t rely on your spouse’s income anymore. That’s hard enough. But what nobody tells you is that trying to go back to work after a 12-year hiatus makes you virtually unemployable by most human resource department standards. This was the reality I faced.

I wish I could say I handled it well, that I was the poster child for being strong and holding it all together. But the truth is that divorce could bring Hercules to his knees. I was a mess: A crying, depressed, may-not-ever-get-out-of-bed disaster. A few months in to a very messy situation, I had that realization that hits you like a ton of bricks: My dream really was dead.

On one of my darkest nights, I went to bed exhausted, as I often did, from the emotional trauma of it all. Struggling to figure out how I would find a job or earn cinderellyany income, I drifted off to sleep. That’s all it took to start my entrepreneurial journey.

That night, I literally dreamt that I had to sell my engagement ring for the money but couldn’t find a jeweler or pawnshop that would take the ring and give me a fair deal. I was desperate. I needed the money. Yet there was no place I could turn to sell what was once one of my most prized possessions.

Upon awaking, I realized that this dream was actually a reality. I did some research and quickly discovered that there was no marketplace for what I needed. Pawnshops would rip me off, jewelers would buy it for 50 percent below market value and selling privately could take months, if not years.

I started to wonder why there was no website for people like me. There were divorce lawyers and therapists everywhere, but there was no community, no support, no advice and certainly no place to sell my old ring and dress to fund the next stage of my life. I could name at least a dozen wedding websites but couldn’t name a single URL for divorce.

I wish I could say I handled it well, that I was the poster child for being strong and holding it all together. But the truth is that divorce could bring Hercules to his knees. I was a mess: A crying, depressed, may-not-ever-get-out-of-bed disaster.

Days later I had incorporated my company and retained a web designer to build the first online community and marketplace specializing in selling items from divorces. My old, dead dream of marital bliss and the perfect family had spawned a new dream: entrepreneurship.

I worked hard, educated myself, and studied all of the things I thought I should know to make this business a success. From e-commerce and marketing to branding, SEO, social media and Google analytics, I threw myself into it head first, mostly at 1 a.m. while my kids slept. I also started to research divorce, something I quickly realized was a giant of an industry ($50 billion a year in the U.S. alone).

When DreamsRecycled.com launched I was unbelievably lucky to have my story air on Fox News and syndicated throughout America. I was quickly featured in Dreams Recycled LogoThe Huffington Post and numerous other media outlets. It was at this time when I realized the size and scope of my business endeavor. There were millions of other people like me who felt lost, lonely, and were in need of practical information. They needed a place to connect, bond and find their next dream. Over the course of the first year I was contacted by thousands of men and women who simply wanted to share their stories and connect with me. Some simple thanked me for inspiring them to recycle their lives after divorce.

I still love connecting with my users, but the biggest miracle of all of this was that I was inadvertently recycling my life as well. My company gave me a career, a purpose and a reason to get out of bed. Each person I helped propelled me to make the website bigger and better. Each story I heard inspired me to keep going. My website inspired me to date again. After all, how could I blog about moving on if I personally wasn’t attempting to do so? It made me realize I wasn’t alone, not even in my most dismal divorce moments.

My story may not be the norm in business. I had no tech experience, no startup knowledge and no e-commerce background. But if you believe in your product, follow your passion and focus on the task at hand, anyone can recycle their life and start their next dream.

 

Lynne Goldberg: OMG! I Can Reinvent Myself

Lynne Goldberg MeditatingIn a short period of time, Lynne Goldberg lost all the personas with which she had come to identify herself.  They fell away, one after the other. No longer expectant mother, daughter, wife, sister or businesswoman, she was left with only one face to look at in the mirror and she didn’t like what she saw.

Goldberg grew up in Montreal, Canada, and joined the family retail chain business where she spent more than two decades in charge of merchandising management. She was a typical type-A executive, stressed out and overworked, which wasn’t exactly helpful when she and her husband decided to start a family.

“We had a lot of trouble getting pregnant and went through numerous failed fertility treatments. I was overjoyed when I finally discovered I was pregnant with twins after four years of effort.”

“It really helped me. We wear so many masks all the time and when you finally get down to it, who you are at your core really doesn’t change. Knowing that helped me shift from meeting external identities to finding myself.”

Her joy turned to sorrow, however, when Goldberg’s mother was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. The stress, combined with her full-on work Lynne Goldbergschedule, forced Goldberg to take bed rest on her doctor’s orders to save her pregnancy. It was all in vain as she miscarried and had to deliver the fetuses. Within the year, Goldberg’s mother died and her world fell apart as her brothers pushed her out of the family business.

“My mind was just not there anymore. I couldn’t perform at work and wasn’t able to do what they needed done. It was a business after all, so they asked me to leave. And despite having adopted two children, my marriage unraveled. I lost everything in a few short months,” she recalls.

She threw herself into a new line of work, using money from her buy-out to launch a home décor importing business to support herself and her children. Nevertheless, it was hard, as she was constantly travelling to China and Europe. On a personal level, Goldberg was angry, disconnected, and generally unhappy. She carried around the feeling that there had to be more to life.

Seeing her struggle, a friend turned her on to meditation.

“It really helped me. We wear so many masks all the time and when you finally get down to it, who you are at your core really doesn’t change. Knowing that helped me shift from meeting external identities to finding myself.”

She continued running the business but was really drawn to meditation and signed up for more and more courses, trying to figure out how she could develop that aspect of her life further. She began teaching meditation at hospitals and schools, until she finally came to the realization that teaching was what gave her the most satisfaction. Although her importing business was doing well, with clients like Costco and Walmart on board, Goldberg decided to sell and focus full time on teaching meditation.

“It was an easy decision.  There wasn’t any meaning in what I was doing; it didn’t make me feel good. Teaching did. When you get out of your own personal drama and look at the world from a bigger perspective, what good you can do, your mentality shifts. It’s empowering.”

And her perspective did change. Goldberg reconnected with her brothers, with whom she is very close today. She remarried and – most importantly – she’s happy and fulfilled.

“I went from being consumed with anger to having family that I love. It’s like that expression says, ‘Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal withOMG I can Meditate! Poster the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.’ One of my biggest life lessons has been forgiveness. Now I choose to find the things that give me joy. Instead of feeling something was taken away from me, I shifted to what I have.”

But the Type-A exec still lurked beneath the surface, and Goldberg wondered how what she was doing could be bigger – how she could reach more people and give them the same joy she was experiencing. As it happened, Goldberg’s husband, a fellow meditation convert who had been in tech, was feeling the same way. His last business produced ringtones and mobile content, and his number-one selling app was the fart ringtone. So it’s hardly surprising, he too was having the sense there’s got to be more and wanted to help his wife in her mission. The couple teamed up with another husband and wife duo who also meditated and had experience building apps.

After one year in development, the result was OMG I Can Mediate, a mobile app targeted at people who have never meditated before. The app launched in March 2015 with 12 weeks of content (the first of which is free) and over 100 specialty meditations from helping you wake up in the morning or go to sleep at night to dealing with your kids. There’s even the wonderfully named “My Boss is a Jerk” which teaches compassion.

OMG I Can Meditate! Logo“If you live in NY or LA, then meditation is widely accessible. But in most other places, it’s still primarily just the early adopters. We wanted to give everyone the opportunity to meditate and make it less daunting and a little fun,” the 52-year-old explains. “The irony is that the very devices that have made us more frenetic can also be the means to finding peace and happiness.”

They are constantly updating and adding new content to the app. After the launch, they were the number-one app in India – an unexpected but pleasant surprise. And AppPicker.com called OMG I Can Mediate “best meditation app available in the app store.”

Looking back at how her life has changed, Goldberg is effusive “I feel blessed, truly grateful. I cannot believe how lucky I am. We wonder why tragedy happens. Sometimes the explanation takes 20 years to figure out. If I knew back then how everything would turn out, I would have been a lot happier. But at least now I have this sense of trust that when stuff happens, it’s meant to happen and it’s going to be OK. It takes the drama out of the day-to-day stuff.”

Test drive the meditation app.

Tips from Lynne Goldberg

  • Building a business process requires a great deal of perspective.
  • Do what you are passionate about. You’ll find success, if you truly love what you’re doing. But remember, you can define success in many ways. Happiness should be the baseline.
  • If you’re thinking of launching an app, keep these things in mind: Keep it simple; Be patient. It takes time to build a brand; Believe in it and let go of expectations; Breathe!

 

 

Nichole Montoya: “Nacho” Ordinary Payment System

Nichole Montoya and Molly DiCarlo at National PTA EventAccording to the Urban Dictionary, the go-to source for the definition of all terms hip and cool (or in our case, slang we hear our kids using) to “Cheddar Up” is “to gain money through legal or illegal means.” As in “Man, I gotta get my hustle on and cheddar-up.” No small irony then that two moms in Colorado, by way of the Iowa and Nebraska plains, should settle on Cheddar Up for the name of their venture, the latest and most innovative arrival to the stage of group payments.

“Every time she hears me explain that ‘cheddar’ is slang for money, my co-founder Molly can’t keep a straight face. There is just something about two moms, handing out cheese cubes and company flyers at a school carnival that doesn’t scream Jay-Z,” laughs Nichole Montoya. (more…)

Calee Blanchard: Leaving Teaching to Test Her Talents

Calee Blanchard at the DeskCalee Blanchard thought she had finally worked her way up to her dream job of teaching literacy in elementary school. She had taught abroad, taught students with special needs, acted as a resource teacher, and was now teaching reading to small groups of first graders in Nova Scotia, Canada. She had thought, at one point, that it was just where she wanted to be.

The problem was that as much as Blanchard enjoyed teaching, there were aspects of it that she just couldn’t embrace. After ten years she found that while she loved working with the kids she didn’t like the strictures of teaching. She didn’t like the fact that no matter how hard she worked and honed her skills, the job itself didn’t change much, and there was little to distinguish the hardest working teachers from their less motivated peers.

“I worked my butt off and thought I was a good teacher, but you might be standing next to someone who hated what they were doing and you’re both regarded in the same way,” she recalls.

Calee Blanchard iMac-27All that changed in 2014, when Blanchard decided she needed to make a change. Blanchard’s friend, Katelyn Bourgoin, was in the early development stages of an innovative new idea and suggested that Blanchard would make a great partner. Blanchard had done some volunteer work with Bourgoin and clearly saw the possibilities for herself and the new company. So Blanchard quit her teaching job and together they launched Vendeve, an online marketplace that allows women to buy, sell, or swap services based on their own skills. It is, as far as they know, the world’s only skills marketplace for women.

Blanchard knew when she left teaching that she was stepping into a completely different world, but it was these differences that intrigued her. “The coolest thing is that as a teacher your pay is based on a set number of hours, and no matter how hard you work or how many extra hours you put in, the pay stays the same. In my new world, it’s all about results; it’s all based on talent and hustle. If you work really hard and are good at what you do, it pays off. The energy that I’m surrounded by now is amazing.”

“As founders, we have to be super organized and wear all the hats to get all the jobs done. As we grow, we may be able to specialize more. But you have to get your hands dirty. Luckily, we’re realizing that as women we’re pretty good at everything.”

There is a simple vetting system required to become a member of Vendeve, after which a member is able to set up a profile offering their skills, and if Calee Blanchard Offersthey wish, requesting the skills or services they are hoping to find. The services offered are richly varied – logo design, nutritional counseling, interior decorating, legal services, and proofreading are but a few of the offerings. Some services, like hair cuts or personal massage, require that both parties live in the same area, while many can be exchanged virtually anywhere in the world. Members can choose whether they wish to sell or swap their service.

Blanchard, listed as Vendeve’s COO and co-founder, refers to herself as the yin to Bourgoin’s yang. “Katelyn is definitely our spokesperson; she excels at sharing our ideas and vision, and I love the behind the scenes execution. It’s a great balance —  she’s the maker and I’m the doer.”

Coming from a teaching background there were definitely some adjustments that Blanchard needed to make. “In teaching you often have to work solo. But now, collaboration is huge and at times I have to push myself to get out of my comfort zone. I am an introvert by nature. But I’ve learned that putting your ideas out there, making yourself a bit vulnerable, is what takes you places.”

Calee Blanchard Black and White
Vendeve co-founder, Katelyn Bourgin

And Vendeve is going places. They have four employees currently on their team and are looking to add a fifth. They have secured funds from angel investors and are in final negotiations with a venture capitalist firm. And, in just a few short months, they’ve enrolled close to 2000 members in over 18 countries.

“Sometimes fundraising and financing can be frustrating because it takes us away from other things we’d like to prioritize, but it’s a necessary part of the process,” Blanchard says. In the interest of raising capital they’ve hosted investor nights, participated in Launch 36, an accelerator program, and perfected their pitch.

“As founders, we have to be super organized and wear all the hats to get all the jobs done. As we grow, we may be able to specialize more. But you have to get your hands dirty. Luckily, we’re realizing that as women we’re pretty good at everything.

“Sometimes it feels like things are going slowly but then we look back and we’re like ‘Holy crap, we have really come far.’ We can actually just log onto our page and see the results right in front of us, the things we were just thinking about that are now reality.  We are right on target or even ahead, so we’re pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished. It’s only been a few months and we have come a long, long way.”

Think Vendeve sounds intriguing?  Interested in learning more? Calee and Katelyn would like to offer Career 2.0 readers full and instant access to Vendeve so you can check it out for yourself. Just go to Vendeve and enter Invite Code C2.0Passion.

Tips from Calee Blanchard
  • You have to have the right mindset for a start-up. You need to be stubborn and competitive and keep pushing forward.
  • Stop thinking about it, dreaming about it, reading about it. Take the plunge.
  • Share your ideas and get feedback. Ask for things. It’s amazing what can come from being direct. And offer help in return; it has to flow both ways.
  • The best advice we got from an adviser was this: When you pitch, share the big-picture vision of where you want to go. Don’t frame your pitch based on where you are now; it should be about your dream and where you hope to be – your vision. That made all the difference for us.

One-on-One With Alicia Syrett, Angel Investor and Start-Up Advisor

squareAlicia Syrett is the Founder and CEO of Pantegrion Capital, an angel investment vehicle focused on seed and early stage investments. She serves on the Board of NY Angels as the Chairman of the Board of HeTexted and her past and present advisory board roles include Enerknol, iFunding, Cuipo, The Pitch Deck, Beauty Booked, Cissé Trading Co. and Willa. A recurring panelist on CNBC’s PowerPitch, Alicia was voted one of Wharton’s “40 Under 40” young alumni and has been featured on Fox, MSNBC, Inc, Associated Press, Huffington Post, and USA Today, among others. She mentors start-ups and students alike and is a member of Women Corporate Directors. 

(more…)

CJ Scarlet: What Doesn’t Kill You Helps You Change the World

CJ color 5At 15 years of age, CJ Scarlet won the title Miss Optimist in a local competition. In the intervening 39 years, that optimism has been sorely tested, but today she is once again the reigning queen of positivity. The 54-year-old is out to change the world by reducing violent crime using technology and she believes – as do many around her – she’s got a pretty good chance of succeeding.

Following a brief but memorable career as a Sonic Drive-In carhop on roller skates, Scarlet joined the US forest service straight out of high school. She returned home to attend college but dropped out after an event that would forever change the course of her life.

“Although there was no a term for it back then, I was date-raped. He was a sheriff’s deputy and it was our second date. He told me no one would be believe me and, 19 years at the time, I believed him. I didn’t tell anyone; I felt so ashamed and blamed myself,” Scarlet recalls.

CJ in cammies with M16
CJ in cammies with M16

Needing to get as far away from Arkansas as possible, she joined the Marines as a photojournalist. “My father, brothers, and brother-in-law were all marines so I wanted to show them how it was done,” Scarlet jokes. She served for five years before moving to Virginia to work for two NGOs consecutively while attending university. A BA in political science was followed by a Masters in humanities with an emphasis on human violence.

“As an undergrad, I was on the board of the Rape Crisis Center of Virginia. I started working through the trauma of what had happened to me and recognized my story was the story of so many women; it was happening to women everywhere. I started to develop a deep passion for protecting people from violence and crime.”

After graduate school, Scarlet moved from Virginia to North Carolina and became Executive Director of Kids First, an agency supporting child abuse victims and their families, before taking a position as Director of Victims’ Issues for the Attorney General’s Office in Raleigh.

It was there that Scarlet made her mark launching the Commission that designed the Statewide Automated Victim Assistance and Notification System, which alerts crime victims before their perpetrators are released from custody. Over the years, she worked with hundreds of assault victims, but her achievements came with a price.

A decade earlier, Scarlet had been diagnosed with lupus, an auto-immune disease, and had been managing it but, compounded by stress, she got so ill she had to stop working.

“After three years, I burned out. I was tired of being there for victims after the violence had occurred. My health went downhill. I had to crawl on my ands and knees to go upstairs and couldn’t even turn a door knob or hold a hairbrush,” she recalls.

CJ with family
Ode to Joy: CJ and her sons

The next years were dark ones for Scarlet. Doctors told her she was going to die, and, not surprisingly, she withdrew into herself and suffered from depression and severe anxiety. A turning point finally emerged when she met a Tibetan Buddhist lama, a last resort for her at that time.

“I told him my tale of woe and that’s when I learned lamas don’t do drama,” Scarlet laughs. “He very kindly but very sternly told me stop feel sorry for myself and think of the happiness of other people. I replied, ‘I can’t even take care of myself, let alone anyone else,’ but he repeated my mission and sent me on my way.”

It started that very day when an ambulance rushed by and she wished that whoever was inside would find help and healing. Scarlet made her goal reasonable and decided to do one small act of kindness each day, such as letting people get in front of her in traffic or in the checkout line at the grocery store.

“They were little things that cost no time or effort but it felt so good. I didn’t realize it at the time, but with every act of kindness, I was a getting a rush of pain-reducing endorphins and mood-boosting serotonin, and healing my body from the inside out. After 18 months, I reached a point where I was so filled with happiness that it didn’t matter if I was sick or dying.”

To her doctor’s amazement, her lupus went into remission.

CJ with pin hi resIn 2009, feeling like a new person, Scarlet returned to work and launched an international coaching business with two partners. Unfortunately, with the downturn in the economy it was not the best time to seek clients and, after four years, they closed shop. Just as she was winding down her business, she read Abundance, the Future is Better Than You Think It Is, which discussed how technology could be used to address poverty, climate change, and other human challenges.

“I was so inspired. I tried to think what I could do to impact people’s lives. Although it kept popping up, I repressed my criminal justice background because I had gotten so burned out. But it dawned on me I could use technology to keep violence and crime from happening rather than applying it after the fact.”

Thinking of her own experience and that of other rape victims, she brainstormed what could have made a difference and developed the idea for the Tiger Eye Security Sensor, TESS for short. TESS is a wearable security device the size and weight of a quarter that looks like a decorative pin. Voice activated, TESS records audio and photographic evidence, sending it to the cloud, while alerting a monitoring security service of the crime and sending a GPS signal of the victim’s location. It’s like a portable home security system.

“What I love about TESS is that it provides actionable evidence. There won’t be any of this ‘he said, she said’ and women will have the courage to comeTESS forward because their word can no longer be doubted. And they won’t have to go through what I went through,” Scarlet explains.

Starting solo, Scarlet quickly built a team around her to implement the tech solution and develop a prototype. She bootstrapped until small angel investors came on board and she was able to hire a CEO. Her innovation was recently recognized when she was invited as one of 15 finalists from around the US to pitch in the Small Business Administration’s InnovateHER business plan challenge. And although she didn’t win, Scarlet is 100% confident she’ll be able to commercialize TESS on the market in 2016.

“I just feel like I am doing what I was put on this earth to do. I still have health issues and lupus but I don’t ‘suffer’ from it anymore. I don’t suffer from the assault either. I don’t see these things as stumbling blocks but rather stepping stones that got me to where I am today and put me in a position to help other people. And now that I’ve finally got the chance to do that, I’m not going to stop until I succeed.”

Tips from CJ Scarlet
  • Surround yourself with the right people. I wish I had recognized earlier that I’m a great visionary but a terrible manager. You can’t be afraid to hire people who are smarter than you are, or who have skills that you don’t.
  • Financing is a huge challenge. Almost every business starts out by being “bootstrapped” by the founders until you can build the product or company to a point that investors want to get on board. Surviving until you get to that point is probably the toughest and most common challenge faced by companies, but you have to hang in there if you want to succeed.
  • Dream bigger. Only three percent of women-owned businesses achieve $1 million in revenues. If you plan big from the start, you will be more likely to achieve your business and financial goals than if you think small.
  • Don’t be afraid to change the world. Humanity is facing huge challenges and we need people who have the courage and determination to solve them.

Sumeera Rasul: For the Love of Handmade

unnamed (4)Sumeera Rasul was raised with an appreciation for all things handmade. In her native Pakistan, her father made his living exporting handmade furniture and clothing, and her grandmother taught sewing, knitting, and embroidery to underprivileged girls.

“We grew up around that; it was part of our culture,” Rasul says. “We were always watching my grandmother and learning from her. We had respect for people who work with their hands, as well as for the quality of the things they made. I remember my grandmother looking at certain textiles and saying ‘No, I don’t want that, it’s machine-made.’ To her that meant it wasn’t of good quality. Something made by hand, even with imperfections, feels so much more valuable.”

Throughout the years, Rasul never lost that appreciation for handmade items or the people who make them. (more…)

Esther Nio: Bringing the Sweet Taste of Deutschland to Silicon Valley

Esther NioIf you find yourself in Los Altos one day, pining for a bite of some authentic Bienenstich so good you lick your fingers clean of the vanilla custard, then you’re in luck. A small hike from Googleplex and a straight shot down San Antonio Road lies Esther’s German Bakery. You’ll have to do U-turn and probably fight over a parking space but it’s worth every bit of aggravation to get your hands on some of Esther Nio’s Echte Laugenbrezn (real pretzels) or Schwarzbrot (rye pumpernickel bread).

“And don’t worry about the calories,” Nio says, “We use organic whole wheat flour in our cakes to make them less sinful.” (more…)

Leslie Fishlock: The Geek on a Mission to Take the Terror out of Technology

Leslie Fishlock Geek Girls

Leslie Fishlock is an unrepentant geek and self-declared rabble-rouser who loves nothing more than to disrupt.

Questioning her tactics for getting more women into tech, a smug woman once criticized her for “teaching old ladies how to open PDFs.” She was far off base in terms of what Fishlock and her organization Geek Girl is actually doing, but the 50-year-old founder admits if that’s what it takes to help them understand technology, then she’s all for it.

“She totally missed the concept that if you don’t start somewhere learning how to do things for yourself, you’re never going to get into more advanced fields like aerospace or engineering. Maybe I’m not training astronauts of the future but I certainly am making technology accessible.” (more…)

Chanel Turner: Giving the Vodka Industry a Shot in the Arm

Chanal Turner
Courtesy of The Washington Post

To say that Chanel Turner broke the mold in the vodka world would be an understatement. She pretty much smashed it to pieces.

The spirits industry is fairly staid, with few new formulas being created. Most vodka companies get passed down through families for generations. But Turner developed her own formula, started her own company from nothing. She’s a woman in a field where there are very few. She’s African-American; also highly unusual in this business. She was only 25 years old when she started the company. And, oh yeah, she sells her vodka in a lightning-bolt shaped purple bottle.

Turner works as an IT specialist at the Pentagon. She attended Bowie State on a full basketball scholarship, majoring in business administration. After briefly working in the private sector doing web design, Turner began her job at the Pentagon, where she still works today.

The idea for starting a vodka company came to her while sitting around with friends, drinking vodka-based mixed drinks. When they ran out of chaser, no one wanted to go to the store to get more. And there was no way they were going to drink it straight. “When people drink vodka, they want to mask the taste, the harshness, the burn,” she says. “I thought how great it would be if there was a vodka that you could actually enjoy on its own. We all laughed about that, how someone really needed to make that vodka.” By the next morning, most people would have forgotten all about the idea. But not Turner. (more…)