Women’s Entrepreneurship: A Discussion with Susan Hall

November 28, 2016

Each November, both National Entrepreneurship Month and Women’s Entrepreneurship Day are celebrated. We spoke with 2016 I4E winner Susan Hall of Hall Brands LLC to get her thoughts on the issues women business owners face. Here’s what she had to say.

What is the most critical piece of advice you’d offer a woman looking to start her own business?

  • Listen to your intuition: Women have a very strong sense of intuition that I feel, guides us in certain directions. From my personal experience, it has been accurate most of the time. Being in tune with your intuition will help you make tough decisions and overcome challenges.
  • Build relationships and networks: Regardless of which industry you are in, I have found that building relationships with people (customers, vendors, partners, etc.) is critical to growing your business and achieving long-term success. Growing as big of a network as you can beyond your circle can help you down the road. Network building requires much time and effort (e.g. for face-to-face meetings, social media, social functions, etc.), but can greatly benefit you in the future. Treat everyone you meet with the utmost respect, as you never know who can rise above to be the next decision maker, or will be key to helping you make your next sale.
  • Work hard and be prepared to make sacrifices: Starting a business is not easy and requires a lot of physical strength, emotional strength, and perseverance. You may have to forego sleep, vacations, leisure time, family time, and possessions in order to survive and grow the company. Further, the financial commitment can be steep - you may not see profits for a very long time.
  • Get a mentor(s)/advisor(s) and become one yourself: Seek a mentor(s) and/or advisor(s) within or related to your industry to discuss ideas and to help steer you in the right direction. They can provide great support when you are in unfamiliar territory. Become a mentor or advisor for others to give back. I am currently helping other startup food companies by sharing the knowledge I’ve gained over the past three years and manufacturing their products in our facility.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a female business owner and how did you overcome them?

  • Trying to be a superwoman: There is a societal belief that women can have it all with a family and career or business. The expectation is to do it all and be a superwoman 24/7, 365 days a year. I strive to be the best superwoman I can be, but I have found that if I don’t ask for help, I go through stages of burnout and I end up resenting myself for not accomplishing enough. For me, the key to overcoming the superwoman myth is to not be afraid of seeking help from others to lighten my workload. Asking for help and delegating tasks has always been a challenge for me, but I have learned it is essential to growing a business.
  • Dealing with rejection: In the food industry, the competition to get accepted into new stores and to stay on the shelves is fierce. Rejections are somewhat out of our control, but I have learned some sales strategies and techniques to help get buyers’ attention and to win sales. I think and execute on creative ways to positively stand out. Have confidence in your abilities and your business. Surround yourself with supportive people who can help you through the tough days and weeks in order to move ahead.
  • Facing humility: When you start your own business, you may have to wear multiple hats and start from the ground up. This may require doing tasks that you were not initially trained for in school. For my food business, I had to work in production baking Chedz for two years, which required a lot of physical labor, in addition to managing accounts, growing sales and marketing. There are lovely pics of me on the web with my hairnet and no make-up as I slaved in a kitchen making Chedz. In addition, having to constantly ask for help, ignoring the naysayers, and being in an industry where rejection is high, keeps me humble. I just face the humility head-on because I’m confident in my business and believe that my product has a lot of potential. I also surround myself with supportive friends, family, colleagues, and other groups to help me through those tough days. The fan mail keeps me going.

Since 1997, women-owned businesses have increased in number by 74 percent, grown revenues by 79 percent, and added nearly 1 million additional jobs. What do you think has contributed to this rise?

I can speak to my personal experience of how I have contributed to the rise in these percentages:

  • Accidental: I left Intel after 11.5 years to stay home with our first child. I took up baking as a hobby, and my experimentations led to the creation of Chedz. Therefore, my hobby led me to pursue my own food business by accident. I am usually a compulsive planner, but this business was not intentionally planned.
  • Childcare and flexible hours: I decided not to go back to the corporate world because I wanted a part-time career that provided the flexibility to allow me to stay at home with my children. For years, I searched for that “perfect fit,” but could not find any positions that both interested me and offered the flexibility I sought. Therefore, I decided to give my own business a try. Although owning my own business is not part-time (it’s 24/7), I do have the flexibility to balance between my home life and my work life.
  • The gap: Having a long gap on my resume due to childbearing was a concern; I was worried that I would not be as marketable as others, and that my skills were rusty. In addition, I feared that I would not be able to compete with the younger generation in the workforce. Therefore, I was not motivated to go back to corporate.
  • Being my own boss: In corporate, I worked well with people and teams and enjoyed the collaboration. However, I have always had the drive to lead, make my own decisions and create something unique. Therefore, being an entrepreneur is more of my calling vs. working in corporate and reporting to others. It allows me to be in control of my own destiny, make my own goals, and take risks. I’m willing to take responsibility for my risks, failures, and successes.

The number of women-owned businesses continues to rise, but we’re still seeing low numbers of women-owned tech companies/startups. Why is this?

My personal theory would be the following:

  • Interest: How interested are women in the tech field? Growing up, I do not recall having a strong interest in tech, especially for science and math. My parents and teachers didn’t encourage me to major in engineering or tech-related fields. After graduating with a business and marketing degree, I applied for a project management job at Intel, and that is when I became interested in technology. In retrospect, I wish my parents, teachers and other role models pushed me toward engineering because it appears to be the wave of the future. I am glad to see more of an emphasis in the sciences for women today.
  • Hobby: Many of the women entrepreneurs that I know, including myself, started a business based on their interests and hobbies. Although my interest for technology became strong during my employment at Intel, it was still not enough to drive me to a start a tech business. However, my hobby of baking (which led me to produce Chedz) requires a lot of technology in order to increase manufacturing productivity. This gives me the best of both worlds; my love for baking and interest in technology.
  • Barriers to entry: Even though I have a strong interest in technology today, I did not have ideas for a tech business. In addition, there are many barriers to entry in starting a tech company, including time and financial aspects.

What challenges specifically do you think women are faced with more often - or exclusively - that men aren’t when it comes to small business ownership and entrepreneurship?

  • Trying to do it all (superwoman) vs. sharing control: The mentality of trying to do it all can be a downfall for women entrepreneurs who do not seek help. At the beginning, wearing multiple hats while handling day-to-day tasks is critical to running the business. However, in order to grow, I know that I will have to step back and delegate more of these tasks in order to focus on managing the business, marketing, sales, and PR.
  • Being our biggest fan: It is not as comfortable for women to advocate for themselves as it is for men. This can be applicable to asking for a raise, winning sales, etc. I have been challenging myself to truthfully toot my own horn every chance I get. I was raised to be humble, but I’ve learned in order to compete, you have to sell and market yourself.
  • Differing emotional levels: Some women (like me) are more emotional than men, so they (I) take things such as rejection more personally. Thus, it takes them longer to move on from a setback. We sometimes make decisions based on emotions vs. facts and this can be harmful. I have to consciously put my emotions in check before making big decisions.
  • Relationship building: Women excel at building relationships, but this can be detrimental with employees, colleagues, and customers if boundaries are not set.
  • Networking: Women and men network differently and this is valuable to gain access to funds, innovation, and resources. Men network through sports, drinking, and in other ways. Women hesitate to network with others unless they have an established relationship or bond. Personally, I know that networking is crucial, but it takes a lot of time and energy. When time and energy are short, I choose to prioritize and spend it with my family. Therefore, I have to make a conscious effort to participate in networking and social events.

What attributes do you think women possess that give them an advantage when it comes to running their own business?

Women need strong leadership skills in order to run a successful business. Women in particular excel when it comes to:

  • Communications and relationship building: Women have a strong ability to build and nurture relationships – this includes collaborating, communicating, and being inclusive. These attributes can help with sales and other aspects of growing the business such as assembling, managing and leading effective teams.
  • Time management: Women are skilled at planning, multi-tasking, and organizing. These characteristics are helpful for starting and managing a business, since there are so many strategic and tactical tasks involved.

What are some of the best resources women specifically should tap into in order to grow their business?

  • Other women: It would be nice to see more women inspire and support one another. It’s sad to say that I’ve had many experiences working with other women who are extremely competitive and thus have tried to hold me back. There have been very few women whom I feel have been extremely supportive and have helped me advance.
  • Women organizations: Join Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) and other applicable leadership organizations in your community to learn, share ideas, and network. Hall Brands is nationally certified as a Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) and is in the process of getting Women-Owned Business certification.
  • Mentors and advisors: I highly recommend finding good mentors and advisors to help guide you. We were introduced to an excellent mentor, David Israel, from Pop! Gourmet Popcorn who has been generously donating his time and expertise to help Hall Brands grow.
  • Other Companies: Work and stay connected with other companies that can provide consulting and services within your industry. For example, for the Chedz business, I consulted with the Food Innovation Center (FIC) which is an organization that helps entrepreneurs test and bring products to market.
  • Strategic partnerships: Seek other industry partners that can help your company meet its strategic goals.
  • Workshops, trade shows, and events: Find industry workshops, trade shows, and events to attend in order to network and continuously learn and grow.
  • Awards and contests: If applicable, seek out relevant awards and contests that you can participate in for an added boost to marketing and PR. When I entered the Comcast Business Innovations for Entrepreneurs (I4E) contest, I never dreamed that I would be a grand prize winner. That experience has been and continues to have a positive impact on my business.

We spoke with 2016 I4E winner Susan Hall of Hall Brands LLC to get her thoughts on the issues female business owners face.

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