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.

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.

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.

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…)

Tina James: Championing Women on and off the Dance Floor

Tina James_ballroom compressedTina James’ heart and passion lie with women’s empowerment and, in case you doubt her credentials, she’s got two businesses to prove it. FemTECH, a support program for women-owned tech-enabled start-ups, helps African women take charge of their destinies by creating growing businesses. On a lighter note, Dancing Divas, a non-traditional dancing school targeting more “mature” ladies, builds confidence on the dance floor that translates into clients’ daily lives.

“I am so fortunate to be involved in two businesses that I am absolutely passionate about. The dancing caters to my creative side and through femTECH I can offer support services to women that inspire them to make their visions a reality. Out of what was not a very nice situation seven years ago, so many wonderful things have happened.” (more…)

Kim Freid: Creating a Treasure Chest of Love

Kim Fried, CEO Project TreasureKim Freid is the first to admit she’s a lucky person. Starting out as a Kelly Girl temp, she was in the right place at the right time to get hooked up with a great job opportunity that launched her career. She’s married to a man who stepped back from his career to look after their kids and manage the household while she moved up the professional ladder. And when Freid “retired” from her job at the tender age of 37, her stock appreciation rights were such that she could focus on making her Second Act more meaningful and fulfilling.

But while luck definitely played a role in Freid’s success, it was only one factor. This active mother-of-five is an entrepreneurial businesswoman, balancing multiple projects and volunteer work with her online keepsake chest gift business. “I have never been one to sit still. We own and operate a couple of franchises but Project Treasure is my passion. I long for the day when it can consume the hours I need to work. I am a bit of a workaholic.”

Freid went to college for one year but dropped out when she realized it wasn’t for her, “It didn’t move fast enough and didn’t pay me so I quit and became a temp.” Based in Sacramento, California, she was placed with FEMA, the US disaster response and recovery agency, to manage the processing center’s front desk during the nearby Northridge earthquake. Due to the scope of the quake, a large number of FEMA employees were being brought in from other parts of the US to help out. “I became known as the ‘housing person’. I stumbled upon a new temporary housing firm called CRS Temporary Housing and referred a lot of FEMA staff there. But when the need expanded to cover the actual disaster area, CRS had no one in place to continue to get the business. I boldly suggested I could be that person and within days became the company’s third employee.”

Based in Northern California, CRS Temporary Housing only serviced that area until Freid got them into Southern California. From there, things just took off. The company slowly expanded, and 16 years later, with Freid as President of the company, the once small agency had grown to be the largest furnished housing provider to the insurance industry in the US with over 100 employees and bringing in $100 million in revenue.

“It was quite a run. I absolutely loved it because we were really helping people. It’s always been important to me to be doing something that made a difference. Our typical client was someone who had a fire or flood in their home and the insurance company was trying to find them a place to live while they rebuilt. Later, as I moved up through the company, my passion became focusing on our employees who worked with these people on a daily basis. We were extremely successful because of that, our personal touch and the staff dedication.”

Kim Freid, Family ShotFour men owned the small business when Freid came on board. Seeing what she was capable of, they stepped back from operations and gave her the freedom to run the company. When she was offered the position of Vice President, her husband stepped up to the plate: “Jason worked for the Dial Corporation and they had put him through an MBA. But pretty early on I was offered a big promotion. We had two small kids at the time and both of us wanted a big family. I lived to work, he worked to live so he said ‘Kim, why don’t you go for it! You can’t turn down this opportunity. I will stay home.’ I always thought it was so ironic, there I was with no college education running a company and he was probably the most over-qualified stay-at-home dad coaching Little League.”

But after 16 years, one of the owners decided to get more involved in day-to-day operations. “We were on excellent terms, but he was interested in leading and I am a leader and admittedly not a very good co-leader. I felt, although we had the same destination in mind, we both had different paths. Because we were both leading, the ship was zigzagging across the ocean and it was impacting our progress. Technically it was his company and, even though I had built so much of it, rather than create too much tension in what had been a wonderful relationship, I decided to go.”

Freid’s financial position was a key deciding factor. Due to the company’s explosive growth under her leadership, she had built a comfortable stock appreciation rights package that would enable her to “retire” at the age of 37. Rather than staying on and hoping for the best, possibly risking her retirement cushion should the company go into decline, she decided to cash in and spend time with her kids.

“There wasn’t a day at CRS that I didn’t love my job. It was a fabulous career but it was better to leave wanting more rather than leave wishing I had left earlier. It was time for me to enjoy the life we had built.”

While at CRS, Freid had created a signature gift she would give to friends, family and colleagues, a kind of “love box” for new moms or farewell present forShot 25D_E departing employees, for example. “In the case of a mother-to-be, I would get everyone who knew her to write a letter to her baby telling the baby why they were so lucky to have her as a mom. Or on someone’s birthday I might get friends to write ‘what I love about you’ notes that I would print out in different styles and put in a decorated box.”

Shortly before she left CRS, Freid made a box for her Aunt Linda who had started her battle with cancer. Hitting “reply all” to her uncle’s email about her aunt’s condition, Freid reached at least 100 people asking them to send her “a note of encouragement to Linda” that would be gathered into a box to be presented to her on her first day of chemo. “I got a great response. That was one of my favorite boxes because I learned so much about my aunt. More incredibly my cousin, Jeff, flew to Arizona, box in hand saying ‘this is the most incredible thing, you have to market this.’ At the time, I was newly retired but searching for inspiration for my next move because I am unable to sit still. He convinced me people could really benefit from this and so, after some time, we launched Project Treasure.”

Together the pair recruited a “technology mastermind” and slowly developed a business plan and online process to create the “boxes of love”. “Having three of us was great because we bounced ideas off each other and balanced our strengths and weaknesses. It turned into something I would never have dreamed of when I was making these boxes in my kitchen.”

Launched in 2011, Project Treasure’s initial marketing plan was to use limited advertising but rather to work with disease-fighting non-profits and research organizations who would promote the box and in return get $5 per sale attributed to them. “So while they are marketing for us, it is also a means of fund raising for the organization,” Freid explains. “What I knew was that every time I had made a box for someone, within one year, they had done the same things for someone else. So I knew we could count on some organic growth.”

But many NGOs are understandably particular about what they endorse. And even explaining the objective behind the box to bigger organizations has been difficult. “It’s going to take some time to get the word out and help overcome the belief that we are trying to capitalize on devastating illnesses like cancer. So now we are focusing more on individuals and smaller organizations. We know this is a powerful thing. We are using technology to make the world a better place, helping people reconnect in a more personal, meaningful way.”

Freid is in this for the long haul. She and her partners have all had careers or are still actively working. Project Treasure’s system is easy and flawless but the struggle has been to raise awareness. Seeing that 80% of people who have received a box have turned around and sent one, she is confident the business will come. But even if takes ten years, she doesn’t seem to mind, “This is not my ticket. I get paid with the thank-you notes of people who have received a box of love, the 80-year-old who writes, ‘this is the best gift I have ever received, I cannot hope to receive anything more beautiful than this’… that is a deposit into my heart.”

Watch a 3-minute video to learn more about Project Treasure  on the homepage of the site:

Freid’s Tips for Starting an Online Biz:

  • Surround yourself with tech experts.  It is impossible to stay up on all the latest and greatest innovations in this world unless that is what you were born to do.  Make sure these tech experts are as passionate about your product as you are.
  • Be willing to reinvent often.  Things are constantly changing on the World Wide Web.  If you don’t change with them, you will quickly become irrelevant.
  • Personal touches are imperative.  Your online business must have the heart and soul that a non-tech business offers through its people. This can be done with photos, videos and verbiage but most importantly with your interaction and availability to your customers.

Susan Fletcher: From Writing Algorithms to Nurturing Absorbent Minds

tophatHow would personality-typecaster Briggs-Meyer classify a problem-solving, puzzle-loving woman who spent 20 years in computer programming only to leave the sector in her early 50s to open a Montessori childcare center? Is there a personality that combines being analytical, systematic, and detail-oriented with a sensitive, spontaneous and playful side? If so, then Susan Fletcher surely would fit that bill.

“I loved working in IT but I’ve gone from logical and impersonal to warm and intensely personal. I get such a kick out of watching the children learn and grow. It’s not just about reading and writing. Little kids are learning to put their dishes away when they are finished eating. They are learning about nature, geography and art. I had to smile the other day when the mother of a 3-year-old told me the response she got to ‘How was school?’ was ‘Great! We painted Starry Night by Van Gogh.’ We are accomplishing what I want. The parents are seeing it and they are excited by it.”

Fletcher’s career in IT got off to an early start. In the 9th grade, she joined her father after school in his lab at a hospital where she programed a new computer they had just purchased. “Keep in mind this was the 1970s so I’m talking the early days of computing. I would sit and write programs to teach the computer to draw graphs. I just loved it, it was so much fun.” Fletcher’s path was clear and she went on to study computer science and mathematics at DePauw University in Indiana.

She married and, joining her then-husband in Washington DC where he was studying law, Fletcher took a position with government contractor SYSCON developing custom applications for the Navy for five years. “I found out recently they are still using one of the systems we wrote in 1986. I don’t know what that says about the Navy, but for me it was kind of exciting to hear I wrote something they are using today,” she laughs.

Fletcher took a two-year “break” to have kids while doing Masters course-work in computer science from the University of Virginia. From there, the family moved to San Antonio, Texas, where she developed software applications for a variety of mid-sized telecoms, hospitality, and retail businesses. Moving again in support of her husband’s career – this time to Atlanta, Georgia – Fletcher briefly stopped working until her marriage came apart and her husband relocated to Hong Kong following their divorce. “It was tough. I was working as a systems analyst for a large agriculture cooperative and the kids were only 4 and 7 years.

With parents living in DC, Fletcher decided to return to the nation’s capital and look for work. She landed a position with USA Today supporting advertising department applications and, after three years, moved over to the Bureau of National Affairs (today known as Bloomberg BNA) building websites and managing content delivery. Seeking more seniority and a supervisory role, the ambitious Fletcher did an MBA at the University of Maryland while working fulltime.

Anthony Susan at Malia's weddingThe new degree paid off and Fletcher signed on as VP Operations for a small publishing company. It was all going swimmingly until the market crash in 2008 and the 44-year-old mother-of-two-bound-for college found herself unexpectedly laid off. After six months, she joined the Federal Trade Commission as an IT project manager but it was a morale-breaking three-year stint. “All the fun of solving puzzles and writing software that people would use was gone. There was lots of politics, a lot of hand-holding, making sure people were doing their job. It was frustrating. My life had changed. I had gotten remarried and the kids were gone. I wanted to do something more personal, feel again like I was contributing more.”

Searching around for inspiration, Fletcher thought back to earlier days when her boys had attended a Montessori, an experience she loved. But as a busy single mom it has been difficult to juggle before- and after-care, and the spring and summer camps that were always needed while she worked. “I thought if I had wanted the best experience for my children during the day – with stimulating activities and a warm and supportive environment – and without interruption during summer and other breaks then of course others would too. I wanted to have a Montessori like the original founder intended as true childcare facility supporting working families from drop off in the morning to pick up in the evening. Just because you have to work fulltime, you shouldn’t have to accept a lower quality program.”

Fletcher hit the ground running. She did a lot of research on childcare licensing and regulations, and started looking for locations. She finally got to a point where a decision had to be made, one way or the other: “It seemed like the right time. I found a commercial realtor and partnered with a Montessori teacher. But then the hard work began as Maryland has very specific staffing and facility requirements. Ideally I would have bought land and built a school but the cost was prohibitive at $2–3 million. At one point, I almost gave up because I found the perfect location but then ran into zoning issues and had to abandon the process.”

But she persisted and using personal savings, a home equity line of credit, and a loan from her parents, Fletcher signed the lease on an old gym in Gaithersburg, Maryland. While construction got underway, she began recruiting Montessori-certified teachers as state licensing rules require having sufficient staff on hand (1.5 teachers to every child for a 12-hour day). Fletcher kept working at the FTC until the summer before Top Hat Montessori opened in 2012 and since then has been onsite except when out taking courses on child development, curriculum and planning, emergency preparedness, and childcare administration to name just a few. “There’s a lot of training involved,” she emphasizes.

“For my mid-life crisis, instead of buying a sports car, I opened a school. It’s been difficult and I’ve made some expensive mistakes. Even with an MBA, I don’t know anything about running an early childhood education business so I have struggled with staffing, navigating the complex regulations and licensing requirements, and marketing to young parents. In hindsight, I realize I was naïve, but I absolutely love it. It is fulfilling in a way that my IT career never was. Even knowing how hard it’s been, and how little I knew when I started, I am really grateful that I have had this opportunity.”


Tips from Susan Fletcher:

  • Be prepared but accept that no matter how many people you talk to, no matter how much you read and how many classes you go to, there are just some things you learn from being in an industry for a while.
  • Use a business consultant from the very beginning if possible. I worked with a childcare specialist to help me turn things around recently but her help would have been even more valuable from the get-go.
  • It’s never too late for a second career. Feeling passionate about my work is rewarding, and makes all the problems seem worth while.

Tiina Zilliacus: From the Security of Tech Giants to the Competitive World of Gaming

Tiina ZilliacusTiina Zilliacus’ last name brings to mind the long-gone days of gladiators and Greek warriors. And in many ways, the Finnish tech entrepreneur has launched herself into a battle of sorts. Leaving the security of the corporate world, with three years of hard work and preparation behind her, Zilliacus has suited up to enter the male-dominated fray of gaming. “What I have initiated is not currently in the scope of most game developers. Within the next five years, instead of Coke and pizza, I hope more of them will become genuinely interested in health. When this happens, we’ll be there with cool employee opportunities,” she adds with a smile.

Following the career path her parents valued, Zilliacus knew she would go work for the big brands. After receiving a business degree from the Helsinki School of Economics, Finland, the dutiful and driven daughter did just that and spent 11 years at the Finnish tech giants, Nokia and Sonera, focusing purely on business-to-consumer (B2C) services such as management of online shops. A consistent thread of supporting consumers in mobile, online and digital environments has run through all her positions.

And yet, despite a clear future of fulfilling and secure corporate opportunities, Zilliacus knew her personality type was meant more for the smaller start-up environment. “I’ve always had something of a fearless adventurer attitude and love a certain amount of risk, so by my early-to-mid 30s I started seeking out CEO roles in the start-up world.”

For the next five years, she moved seamlessly among three start-ups, one mobile phone photo and video service (Futurice) and two gaming firms (Apaja Online Entertainment and Ironstar Helsinki), where she was Managing Director and CEO, respectively.

During her corporate life and especially the stressful years of start-up management, Zilliacus turned to yoga as a form of release. “First it was just a hobby, but quickly became a way of life. I’ve always made time for yoga and been on a lot of retreats. I’m even certified as an instructor.”

The gaming sector in Finland, as in most places around the globe, is male-developer driven. While this bothered Zilliacus, who herself is not a developer, she saw a clear opportunity: “They make games that they would like to play although 55% of casual and mobile game customers are female. I realized that I actually could use my professional competence and understanding of what women like in terms of entertainment to fulfill the needs of a major target audience that the market was not addressing.”

Zilliacus decided to start a business driven by her own values and her devotion to yoga provided the spark of inspiration. “Not many people have the digital and management experience that I have and understand yoga and the well-being world as much as I do. I decide to merge my professional knowledge with my passion to create a gaming business targeting women 25 years and older.”

And so as the next iterative step in her career, she set out once again but this time to found her own gaming studio focusedTiina Zillacius on fun mobile “free2play” games aimed at women with the unique underlying theme of wellness.

The last three years have not been easy. They were spent building a strategy, laying the groundwork, seeking angel and seed investment, and recruiting former colleagues to the team. As the 40-year old Zilliacus explains: “I’ve been married to this company. It wakes up with me on Saturday morning, my weekends, my nights…when you are so invested in bringing something like this to life, you give up not only your time but your mind space. As a yogini and wellbeing enthusiast, it took me two years to accept that there is a time that I just need to let all of this happen to me even though it’s work. But because it relates so much to my personal experiences, I can never describe it as work. It will simply take as long as it takes as long as I am where I want to be. That’s the attitude and mental model I needed to adopt and once I did that, everything fell into place.”

But the hard work has paid off. Gajatri Studios’s first simulation or management game, Yoga Retreat, is just recently available from the Apple App Store. Along the lines of Animal Farm, the mechanics of the game are familiar. Zilliacus has intentionally aimed to keep it accessible and not so difficult that it becomes hostile for the user. Players can access yoga poses, unlock small daily meditations, and challenge friends as they manage, expand, and customize their very own yoga retreat on a paradise island.

Zilliacus’ company has attracted the support of two Finnish female angel investors and a family-owned investment office that are drawn in by the health features within games. Her two co-founders are from Rovio, the makers of Angry Birds: “Games guys are open minded. They like to do stuff that reaches out to people so the first motivation is that they like the plan that there is a different type of business strategy and therefore also leadership style in what you do”.

Gajatri Studios’ business model is sustainable and incorporates a wide theme of health and wellness that can molded into different content. Future games will look at food for instance and there is an opportunity for synergies with the forthcoming IOS8 platform and its Health Kit. “As the Apple platform evolves, we plan to utilize different opportunities in our games. For example, we could offer yoga challenges that we can verify have been completed because the user is wearing an iWatch or something like that. Essentially integrating some real life activity into a game, that’s the wider idea,” Zilliacus explains.

The female gaming entrepreneur, one of few in Finland, is optimistic of what lies ahead but acknowledges with these types of companies, funding must be sought out all the time. “It’s a continuous process and depending on which stage you are in, you know the sums are dependent on that. That’s part of the entrepreneurial life, until you are successful, you are every once in a while almost out of funding and when you are successful, you don’t need it any longer. You just need to go on until you reach that certain critical point.”

Zilliacus will know in a few weeks if she has hit that critical point as sales stats from Apple App Store are reported. But regardless the journey is what counts and of that she can surely be proud.

Tips from the Finnish gladiator of gaming:

  • Really be clear that the core of what you interested in is what you strive towards. It’s so much hard work to launch a business, make sure you like what you do and that you are good at it. Understand your strengths and weakness. If those elements are present, then it will be easier. Be grateful of what you get to do, not many people have the same opportunity.
  • Be persistent. Don’t get easily discouraged. There are so many people who are not going to help you, you need “sisu” (uniquely Finnish expression for grit) to get past the non-believers and be able to do things on your own. You won’t always get approval, but you must sustain.
  • Surround yourself with people with integrity.
  • Find a way to relax every day, clear your head in an efficient way. This enables you to focus on what is essential the next day.

Carolyne Kauser-Abbott: Mapping Her Way to Personal Fulfillment

Carolyne Kauser AbbottAny active foodies hooked on travelling out there longing for a stroll through Aix-en-Provence and a great bowl of Daube Provençal? Montreal-born Carolyne Kauser-Abbott has got something for you. The former project and operations management specialist has launched her own food and travel blog that dips into cultural traditions and the history of cuisine around the world. And in case you get lost while on location or are just looking for some local hidden gems, she’s also created an App to guide your way.

An economics graduate of Queens University, in Kingston, Ontario, Kauser-Abbott took her first job as a runner on the floor of the Toronto stock exchange. She moved “upstairs” to become an equity trader for Wood Gundy (now CIBC Wood Gundy) and worked in the stock market for about five years, trading through the 1987 crash and pocketing what she refers to as “some great learning moments”. (more…)