Lessons Learned as a Female Business Owner of Color
A couple months ago, on a sunny but brisk day characteristic of San Diego winters, I was bummed to realize my plans of a hardy Cowles Mountain hike were not going to work out. Determined to get some exercise and time to re-focus my mind outdoors, I quickly googled alternative options near me and found one that seemed promising. I put aside my trepidation of traveling an unknown trail alone, hoping the walk would clear my head from a morning spent a little stressed. Little did I know that time of quiet thought sprinkled with obstacles and discoveries would lead me to motivating moments of clarity about what I have learned since co-founding Arboreta Group four years ago as a female business owner of color.
The walk, like the founding of Arboreta, started quietly and uneventfully with a text. In the summer of 2014, while on maternity leave from a local nonprofit, I received a text from a sister friend and colleague about another dear friend and former colleague with whom we had both stayed in touch after all meeting while working for a local organization. They were talking about teaming up to do a different type of consulting work and wondered if I was interested in joining. Though I initially planned to work on the business as a side gig, that quickly changed and, in less than a year, I found myself committed full-time to this rapidly growing business with three dynamic, skilled, strong and opinionated women. We had so much work in the years that followed (plus I added a child to my family in that time period), that I often felt I scarcely had time to get a decent work bag let alone get too far into the kind of strategic planning we adeptly supported our own clients in doing.
And then I blinked and here I was, 4.5 years later, with the first slow down since we started and finally time to buy that workbag, (yes, it took me 4 years to get to it) but also with time to think (and worry) about what was coming and where to head next. Needless to say, this walk was more than exercise time. This time the text was simply a precautionary one letting a couple people know where I would be since the lack of signage and complete absence of other people on the trail didn’t deter me, but it did make me nervous. Those nerves were soon justified as I came upon a fork in the path, with no clear indications of the “right” way to go. I was short on time and had zero cell signal, so I quickly chose the path that seemed easiest and with the most obvious trail. A few minutes later I realized how not easy that path was. I was suddenly staring at a flooded area, like a very small creek, smack in the middle of my way.
It took a while to get past that creek, I didn’t keep time but boy it felt like forever! I experienced a range of feelings from anger and fear to courage and resolve as I considered every option (including turning back) before successfully making it through the creek. Though that “creek” was by far the biggest obstacle I faced on the trail, the rest of the walk was not smooth sailing or exactly as I planned either. The walk was peppered with dead-ends, beautiful views, anti-climactic moments, multiple path options, and also a few easy and fulfilling stretches. Each of these “points of interest” brought with them moments of clarity and I felt compelled to take notes so I could share my thoughts with my partners. Though nothing is quite like that electric feeling of growth and clarity I had on the walk, here is a summary of the “lessons” I connected to my experience as a female small business owner.
1. Yes, our fears are justified. BUT you have to make friends with that fear and keep moving anyway. This was THE lesson of the day. The whole walk might not have happened at all had I made decisions based on fear; the area had poor signage, some cars in the parking lot but no one on the path, and several other factors ALL of which set off my female alarms like “woah”. That “creek” I encountered was a significant enough obstacle for my hair above 5-foot frame it in nearly sent me home defeated. I’m strong but short and most of the ways over or around the creek seemed to require legs or a wingspan I do not possess. That path over the creek clearly wasn’t made for me. No, someone did not intentionally flood the area and fill it with debris. It was not designed for rain nor had it been cleared by anyone for who knows how long. Getting through it meant exploring multiple options, weighing the risks, facing some fears, and ultimately taking some leaps of faith in myself and my environment to make it through. Even once I made it through, other points in the path were also unclear or precarious, which was scary at times.
That fear and that feeling of not having a clear plan or path may be terribly exciting to many entrepreneurs and to some degree it has been for me at various points in my entrepreneurial journey. But I fully admit that unknown causes me real anxiety sometimes, about everything from my own skill/ability to personal finances (hello, mama of four active kids with a recent wave of ER in a year!). The lack of a clear path or plan has at other times sparked great frustration and anger and those feelings are valid too. Yes, women’s entrepreneurship has been on the rise for the past two decades at a rate almost three-times faster than the rate of general small business ownership nation-wide and that’s something to celebrate. But as a Latina with three female partners (two who are women of color), I’m also keenly aware the fact Latinas and African American women own 36% of female owned businesses but account for less than 10% of the revenue from female-owned firms in the US. Furthermore, the percentage of female ownership in our specific industry is less than 1% nationally. The path for a 100% female and 75% minority owned consulting firm doesn’t just seem uncharted, it IS uncharted. When I and/or my partners feel like we have few examples to follow, when our legitimacy is questioned and it shakes us a little, when we feel we are building part of the plane as we fly it, when all of that causes us some hesitation or worry, I remind myself that’s not fear, that’s fact.
But just like I made it across the creek, we’ve made it to nearly five years in business. So no, I won’t ignore my fears. That fear is real and based on logic. But I won’t let it stop me/us from pushing forward.
2. A healthy mix of flexibility and determination is essential. Standing there, staring at the creek, I remember thinking “well sure, if I was half a foot taller, I could get through.” That thought alone made me angry, at whom I don’t know, but that feeling of frustration that the path was clearly not “designed for me” nearly made me label the adventure a loss and call it a day. Luckily stubbornness and commitment are characteristics sometimes associated with me so that frustration turned into determination that sent me back to explore my options, certain I must have missed something. And then I found it. In the far end of the short creek were some sturdier, thicker branches I could step on below and hold onto above with some stretching to get across. I surveyed the area and knew that if I fell I might get a little scratched up and certainly very wet, but those risks somehow seemed less daunting at this point than to give up and leave. So I went for it. And I got across safe and dry! And the skies parted and the heavens sang, lol, because it honestly felt like I had conquered a mountain. What got me through to that empowerment moment was not determination alone. I nearly got so fixated on finding the way across as I envisioned it to be, clear and easy, that I couldn’t see any other option. Had I not had some flexibility, I might have wasted a lot more time finding the “right” option and had to give up and leave because I ran out of time.
Our business survival too has felt like a healthy mix of flexibility and determination with some luck and good timing sprinkled in! In fact, we got our first big break through a contracting process that I don’t think we could have planned out better if we tried. But then we likely wouldn’t have tried because that wasn’t exactly what we envisioned doing. Yet, that process was such an important experience for our firm I can hardly think now of why we would have passed on it back then. Not every opportunity or client has been a perfect fit but I’m grateful for every one of those experiences early on for what they’ve all added to our “lessons learned” list and they’ve made it clearer to us who we are and what we want. And those lessons are PRICELESS. Determination has been key to sustainability. But the flexibility to continually explore the “how” has been essential to our success. By the way, I strongly advise you keep a lessons learned list!
3. Easier is not always better, sometimes the harder path takes you to where you should go rather than where you planned to
go. The walk had started out easy and open and bright, so I trusted that if I kept looking for what looked easy, it would all be fine. When I came to a fork, choosing the easier path seemed like the right choice. Until it was clear it wasn’t. At the end of my walk when I found an easier path back to the start of the trail, I saw that the easier path was connected to the original 2ndpath I had dismissed as too difficult at the start. For a minute I felt certain my “mistake” had been to choose the seemingly easier path that led me to the largest obstacle. And then, in another moment of clarity, there was no way I could have known about the obstacle I would face when I chose that path. Few paths are clearly marked, especially the less you and/or your work fit the traditional mold. We do not have a crystal ball. We do our best with what we know at the time and sometimes we choose wrong. But I’ve come to see “wrong” is only “wrong” if we don’t learn from it. Sure, that easier path meant dealing with the struggle of getting across the creek that required time and emotional energy I had not anticipated spending that day. But I also learned a lot from the whole “creek dilemma.” I ended the day exactly where I needed to be; empowered and with greater clarity than when I began.
If this seems Pollyannish, let me add that not every mistake is survivable. I could have ended up soaked and injured in that creek, trying desperately to make it back or call for help. But I didn’t just make a choice based on what I knew at the time, I also put some risk management systems in place. I texted two people to let them know exactly where I was, why I was a little concerned, and let them know I would be texting them at some estimated end time. To some that may seem overly cautious but, as I mentioned in lesson one, the fears of women, both out in the world and in the business world specifically, are often dismissed as “being dramatic” or “overly emotional.” They are not. Those fears are often real and valid and warrant prevention and risk management systems.
But also, hindsight is 20/20. The beauty of mistakes in a culture of learning is that we can (and should!) learn from them to get to a an even better place than we might have if all had gone according to plan. We cannot avoid all obstacles and mistakes, nor should we be frozen into inaction in fear of them. After that success across the creek I found other obstacles and unclear paths I had to make decisions about. Some of them led me to where I wanted. Some did not. All showed me more about this new unknown trail and clarified for me what I was searching for and where I needed to go. There have been decisions as a small business owner I’ve debated intensely with myself and some I’ve debated even more with my partners (did I mention previously we were all opinionated) because of a desire to do things “right” and avoid mistakes. The reality is, learning from mistakes IS a part of the “right” path.
Mistakes are things to be minimized, sure. Though they cannot be avoided altogether we CAN plan strategically and fail fabulously. Yes, that’s a thing. At least at Arboreta it is. Fabulous Flops are such a part of our culture we frequently talk about them in trainings and meetings we facilitate. What does it mean? It means owning that mistake, learning from it, and growing. It may just be my evaluation brain talking but sometimes those mistakes have taught us more than successes. In the long game, learning and growth are bigger contributors to success than a lack of errors down a narrow, set path.
4. Own your magic: Don’t forget to pause and enjoy the wins. Beyond the creek, there were several other moments of success where I just stopped and enjoyed the wind and sun and beauty of my surroundings. I felt calm. I felt grateful. I felt strong. Maybe it looked silly. I didn’t care. I felt MAGIC in that hour of reflection and adventure that has propelled me confidently into this year of business. And that confidence, in part, has resulted in new connections and clients in a way that also feels like magic. It isn’t exactly magic, it’s work and skill and effort and flexibility and strategy and determination. But that timing and luck I mentioned? That’s a little bit magic. And our semi-unicorn status as an equal partnership of four female (three minority) business owners with long and deep non-profit experience authentically working with nonprofits successfully for four years? Well, that’s a little bit magic and in moments of struggle I draw upon that magic to keep one foot in front of the other. In work, whether you are employed by someone else or yourself, frustrations and mistakes will abound. Pausing to take in and reflect on successes and milestones isn’t just motivational, it is strategic. Winning Moments are great reminders of how far you’ve come and the many lessons you have learned and can employ to keep pushing through new obstacles and challenges. You can learn from mistakes but you can from successes as well, and feel stronger through them.
Clearly the benefit of that walk was a bit connected to timing. I was ripe for some reflection and in need of direction. I was ripe for growth. In fact, so was our business. Or, in the words of a great new contact and fellow female business owner of color, Brittany Miller, we were “ready to blow up.” When she shared that observation at a business meeting with us just days before my nature walk, I heard it. But it was that walk where her words reverberated in me and I FELT it. Maybe I would have come to that deep realization another way. But a personal lesson learned that day was the importance of disconnected time to make space for the kind of reflection, growth, and creativity I found that day. It may not always be outdoors. I may not always need to be alone. But clearly stepping away from the work, and clients, and emails, and devices did more for me personally and professionally in one-hour than months of effort surrounded by all those things. Funny, fabulous flops, winning moments, strategic planning and reflection time, those are all things we talk to our clients about in various situations. Maybe the lesson all along was to listen to ourselves. There’s a reason why we’ve made it this far. No matter the stats against us. I did mention we were strong, after all.