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Business Advice for Women Entrepreneurs

Shape the Work World You Want

When women find that the corporate life isn’t right for them, starting businesses of their own suits their sense of self.

Maddy Dychtwald



Women entrepreneur on her phone

As CEO of legendary ad agency N.W. Ayer in New York, Mary Lou Quinlan had it all. “A huge office, a fantastic view, my own bathroom, hundreds of people reporting to me, galas left and right. I succeeded on anybody’s ranking of success in advertising,” she told me. She’s a cheerful redhead with a warm laugh and boundless energy. Maybe you’ve seen her as a judge on the reality show American Inventor or as a regular contributor on the CBS program The Early Show, or perhaps you’ve read her books on marketing and the workplace, including Just Ask a Woman and Time Off for Good Behavior.

But even this amazingly successful woman felt the traditional corporate world wasn’t working for her somehow. She didn’t have enough time with her husband and she spent more time at her office than in her Manhattan apartment. “Between your own fear of failure and the way your boundaries get narrower,” she says, “you can narrow yourself into this version of you that has nothing to do with who you really are.”

Quinlan had achieved so much, but she hadn’t created a life that let her truly be herself and shape her world in her own, unique way. In the three stages of financial awareness model [survival, independence, influence], I’d say she had reached independence but hadn’t reached economic influence — the ability to use her financial resources to make her mark on the world.

In 1998, she stepped away from the pinnacle of corporate success to start her own company, called Just Ask a Woman, a five-person firm focused on marketing to women. Since then, she has written books, magazine articles and columns, and has appeared often on television. Today, still running Just Ask a Woman, she says, “I don’t have to be somebody else’s version of me.”

Quinlan was able to reach the stage of economic influence only because she’d moved through the earlier stages. She rose through the ranks of advertising on her own merits and used her growing financial confidence to save and invest until she had the financial freedom to break out on her own. She also approached the move cautiously, testing the waters, taking a sabbatical from her job to write and think about her next steps, then moving ahead. Ultimately, her well-established financial security and confidence gave her the freedom to launch her business.

“My resources and planning put me in a place where money did not have to be the No. 1 driver,” she says. “I see a lot of women who say they feel stuck and want to follow a dream, but they’re not doing what they need to do to get into that position — putting money aside, putting their toes in the water; the dream is more likely if you don’t just leap off the bridge hoping to get it. Women are great at starting their own businesses, but they need to go about it with a straight business head on their shoulders, understanding what the risks are and what they can tolerate.”

Quinlan waited until she was in her mid-40s to make the leap, but many younger women aren’t waiting that long. Aliza Freud was 35, a marketing executive at American Express, when she decided to start SheSpeaks, a social network marketing firm. “In my last job at American Express, my responsibilities were global and there was a lot of travel. It was a dream job in many ways, but it was not a dream when I was sitting jet-lagged in Japan with my husband and two children at home,” she says.

Most corporate jobs today are still set up on the assumption that somebody else, like a wife, is at home taking care of the kids. Freud also felt restricted by the narrow requirements of the corporate world: They didn’t fit her real self.

“Senior female executives often have this feeling that somebody is going to tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘We just figured out you stink and you’re not talented,’ ” she says. “They call it the ‘impostor’s theory.’ I felt like that was happening to me and my female colleagues at all levels.” The impostor’s theory, first identified by two women psychologists in 1978, argues that many high-achieving women attribute their success not to their own smarts, experience and positive personal qualities, but to dumb luck, good timing and other factors.

As these women rack up more and more achievements and promotions, their fear of being “found out” intensifies. One possible explanation for this fear of being caught is that traditional (male) definitions of success and the trappings that come with them just don’t feel quite right for women. That was certainly the case for Freud and Quinlan.

Another factor: To a certain extent and at certain companies, women are impostors, trying hard to play by men’s rules in an environment created by and for men. As long as she felt like an impostor, Aliza’s professional and financial success wasn’t enough to let her project her authentic self into the world, to make an impact in her own way.

Certainly, not all women feel this way, and many have done stunningly well in corporate positions. Being a woman at Ogilvy & Mather in the 1970s, for instance, “was fabulous,” says Shelly Lazarus, who rose through the ranks to become chairman of the company. “If you can’t be brilliant, be memorable. If there were 15 people in the room, I tended to be remembered because I was the only woman there. There would come the inevitable moment when everyone turned to me and said, ‘Well, Shelly, what do women think?’ ”

She says she always felt the freedom to manage in her style, to wear what she wanted and to be herself. “Part of that was because David Ogilvy had an amazing instinct for putting people in positions where they would be successful. It was a true meritocracy.” It certainly helped that her husband, a pediatrician, had more flexibility than she did, and that their combined earnings gave them the financial ability to hire a nanny and outsource work that would once have been done by a stay-at-home wife — giving Shelly the freedom to work “like a man.”

Still, for every Shelly, there are dozens of Mary Lous and Alizas, leaving to launch their own businesses. And they’re not just influencing their own careers: They’re changing our economy for the better. Consider: Nearly half (47 percent) of all nongovernment employees work for small companies, and 60 percent to 80 percent of new jobs in the past decade were created by small firms. In 2008, at a time when big companies were filing for bankruptcy, closing their doors and laying off thousands of people, small businesses were adding jobs. Example: In July 2008, medium and large companies laid off 41,000 people. But small companies — those with 50 workers or less — were actually hiring. Not just a few employees, either. Small companies added 50,000 new jobs that June — enough to hire all those fired by big companies that month, and then some. The trend was strong enough to prompt Nell Merlino, the founder of the Make Mine a Million initiative, to write in a blog on the Huffington Post: “Women will lead the country out of this recession.”

Author, speaker and Age Wave co-founder Maddy Dychtwald is a leading expert on the changing demographic trends—both generation- and gender-related—shaping the marketplace, the workplace and our lives.


Business Advice for Women Entrepreneurs

From Buffy To Business: Sarah Michelle Gellar Opens Up About How Hollywood Helped Prepare Her for Launching A Company

Sarah Michelle Gellar and her co-founders share lessons learned and how acting helped her deal with rejection and how being a celebrity in the startup world can have its drawbacks.

Andrea Huspeni



Sarah Michelle Gellar

Everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. With a turbulent economy, companies cutting jobs and employees fearful they’ll be replaced by robots, people of all backgrounds are looking to take control of their financial future and pursue their passion, including celebrities.

Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, George Clooney and Victoria Beckham are just some of the stars who decided to transition from La La land to entrepreneurial land.

And now Sarah Michelle Gellar, best known as the star of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is also part of the startup world. The actress-turned-entrepreneur joined forces with friends who are also parents, Galit Laibow and Greg Fleishman, to launch Foodstirs in 2015. The DIY baking company, which sells kits and mixes, wants to provide parents fun, yet simple desserts for their children, with a focus on organic, ethically and sustainably-sourced ingredients.

“We’re determined to help bakers around the world take pride in their pantries, joy in their treats, and time together in the heart of the home,” is part of their mission.

After raising a reported $5 million, the company has expanded beyond just ecommerce; Foodstirs is now in approximately 7,500 stores, including Whole Foods.

Related: The Important Entrepreneurship Lesson From Jessica Alba And Sarah Michelle Gellar

We caught up with her before the event to chat about finding success, her journey and lessons she learned.

Before you got into the world of entrepreneurship, you were best known for your acting. Why did you decide to jump into this world?

I always knew I wanted to do more than just be an actor for hire. I thought producing might be enough, but I realised I still desired more. That’s when I realised I could utilise my great existing platform and actually be a part of creating something tangible. It’s been such an interesting process, learning how much of my existing skill set is applicable to being an entrepreneur.

Why did you decide to have a focus on food?


Food has always been an important part of my life, as it should be for everyone, but that magnified once I had children. Our kids were so interested in baking, yet there was no readily available brand that had the attributes we would want and expect – organic, ethically sourced, easy and affordable that also tasted amazing.

What has been the mantra that has helped you find success as an entrepreneur?

The one thing being an actor prepares you for is rejection.  I spent the better part of my life facing and dealing with rejection, and I have never let it stop me from achieving something I was passionate about. When it comes to business, for me the word “no” is just the first step to yes. That rejection inspires me to work harder, and prove those no’s to be a mistake.

What is something that would surprise people about your entrepreneurial journey?

I think people assume that being a celebrity makes it easier to raise money and achieve mass distribution and that is not the case. Maybe it gets you in a door, as a novelty, but then you have so much more to prove.

Related: 46 Facts You Should Know About Entrepreneurship (Infographic)

What is one piece of advice you will share ?


This piece of advice came from Galit Laibow – one of my two amazing partners along with Greg Fleishman. Always surround yourself with people who are smarter and know more than you do. We have such an incredible group of advisors with vast experience in all areas of business that we can call on at all times. Their knowledge is invaluable.

What is on the horizon for you?

We just achieved wide retail distribution (in over 7,500 stores) so our main focus at the moment is supporting our stores through quarter four and at the same time dialing in our innovation pipeline for 2018.

This article was originally posted here on

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Business Advice for Women Entrepreneurs

Farah Fortune Of African Star Communications On Choosing The Right Clients

Publicist extraordinaire Farah Fortune of African Star Communications built her business not by courting big clients, but by backing young up-and-comers, and growing her brand right alongside theirs.

Monique Verduyn




Vital Stats

  • Player: Farah Fortune
  • Company: African Star Communications
  • Established: 2008
  • Contact: +27 (0)79 826 1955,

The 36-year-old publicist launched her celebrity PR business in 2008, with R1 000 in her pocket — she spent R589 of that on registering a CC and the rest on business cards.

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From working on her bedroom floor and sharing two-minute noodles with her daughter as she struggled to survive, today African Star Communications represents high-profile rappers such as K.O and Solo, and stand-up comedians Loyiso Gola and Jason Goliath.

She has an office in Nigeria and plans to open two new offices in Botswana and Ghana.

You pulled yourself up by your bootstraps. How did you overcome the hurdles?

I lost my first business to a crooked partner in 2006. I was determined to try again and I went in search of funding, but no-one would give me money.

When the last thing I had to feed my child was a mouldy piece of cheese, I went back to work for a PR company, earning R12 000 a month, managing accounts worth millions. I hated every minute of it. In June 2008, when my CC registration came through, I walked out the door.

My first pitch was for a small charity day that AIG hosted for Manchester United in Johannesburg. I was the only woman in the reception area, but my offer to do the job for R10 000 was irresistible and I signed my first client. That was just the beginning of a long struggle. I was broke for the next three years.

Friends bought my groceries, and I would feed my daughter and have her leftovers for dinner.

I couldn’t afford petrol so I walked from my house in Randburg to do pitches in Sandton in my takkies, and then changed my shoes at the client’s office. The only thing that kept me going was the belief that I could somehow make it work.

What was your big break?


In year three rapper AKA was about to release his first album. He pursued me for four months. Initially, I didn’t want to work with him, but his ambition won me over.

I’ve never regretted the decision. We signed a contract, and shortly after that more clients came my way, mostly for small events.

Working with AKA made me realise that my passion was for music and I decided to channel my energies into promoting South Africa hip-hop stars. That’s how I ended up specialising and finding my own niche in the crowded PR sector.

Our team convinced 8ta/Telkom to look at AKA for their ads and it worked. I branched into corporate PR after the celebrity side took off.

What made your business stand out from other PR companies?

First was affordability. Publicists do not come cheap. I signed up many young artists who had not yet hit the big time, and charged them as little as R4 000 a month to manage their publicity and help make them famous.

Taking on lots of small clients meant that I could spread the risk. We still structure our packages according to what clients can afford and I’ve kept the overheads low. To this day, I’ve never advertised.

Second was my focus on hip-hop. Before 2011, corporates were not interested in rappers and the scene was very much underground. I convinced Vodacom to sponsor a big hip-hop party with AKA as the star attraction.

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After that, many other corporates woke up and took advantage of the popularity of the local rap scene. I like to think I played a part in mainstreaming South African hip-hop.

How have you stayed relevant in a fickle industry?

Once the business was pumping, I built my own brand. I never planned to be in the spotlight, but the more I appeared in the media, the more I was able to build my clients’ profiles, and get bigger accounts.

I focused only on doing business-related interviews and people started to take me more seriously. I could not believe how many corporate contracts I did not win because I refused to sleep with the client.

It’s a disappointing reality of this business when you are young and female. Developing my own brand helped me to build a career based on respect and professionalism.

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Business Advice for Women Entrepreneurs

Ezlyn Barends Of DreamGirls On Igniting Passion

According to Ezlyn Barends of DreamGirls, great leadership is about finding and fostering passion in others. That’s how sustainable organisations are built — and grow.

Monique Verduyn



Ezlyn Barends

Vital Stats

  • Player: Ezlyn Barends
  • Company: The DreamGirls International Outreach and Mentoring Programme
  • EST: 2012
  • Visit: 

‘Lead from the back.’ That’s one of the leadership lessons from Nelson Mandela, and it’s an approach that has worked for Ezlyn Barends, a social entrepreneur and all-round high achiever who is passionate about empowerment.

Through The Dad Fund, launched by her father Lyndon Barends in honour of community leader Daniel Arthur Douman (DAD), she started the South African chapter of a US-based girl education and empowerment initiative, the DreamGirls International Outreach and Mentoring Programme.

DreamGirls aims to increase the number of girls who complete high school and enter tertiary education. A total of 450 girls have participated so far, and all beneficiaries do community service, which extends the benefits of the programme even further.

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Barends describes DreamGirls as a sisterhood of young female professionals, entrepreneurs and leaders who mentor and guide teen girls from poor communities to gain an education that will enable them to achieve success, so that in turn, they too can contribute positively and meaningfully to society.

What happens when you let go?

“One of most important things I have learnt is to let other people in your organisation take the lead,” says Barends. “That has been an important realisation for me as I am involved in many initiatives, which makes time a very precious resource.

“Teaming up with people who have the same values and vision as you do, letting go of the need to control — which is common among entrepreneurs — and empowering others in your organisation is key to success. That is how DreamGirls has grown and developed into a successful social business.”

It also means Barends isn’t alone in her passion to change lives, but has been instrumental in creating and fostering a group of individuals with the same goal.

Every entrepreneur has a finite number of hours in each day. Being able to spread the load amongst trusted individuals is key to growth — and growth is Barends’ ultimate goal, as it means more lives are touched and changed.

The power of passion

Barends has proved just how powerful a passion for helping others can be. When DreamGirls was launched, there was no budget, but her desire to do good and her commitment to the cause were so all-consuming that everything somehow fell into place.

It helped that a range of corporate donors came on board to help fund the programme. Since then the programme has received significant support from corporate South Africa in the form of funding and in-kind donations, facilitating workshops and events.

The ability to encourage and inspire others to take ownership has enabled three branches to flourish in Gauteng, the Western Cape and Polokwane, with further possibilities for growth in Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Durban and Kimberley.

In the first two years, Barends ran DreamGirls full time, together with a team of women. Because of the passionate assistance of her team, she was able to complete an MBA in the UK in 2014, bringing valuable skills and insights back to the organisation.

“We have developed our own culture, which we call the DreamGirls way of doing things,” she says. “Because the organisation has been built on a specific set of values, it is about so much more than merely helping girls to get a tertiary qualification. The essence is about being helpful and supportive of everyone involved.”

With her team firmly in place, Barends has taken on a full-time job in business development at Microsoft. Being able to rely on others to run DreamGirls’ daily operations means she has more time to focus on strategic growth and creating greater financial sustainability for the programme.

“It has brought fresh perspective, and that’s one of the reasons why we have now decided to go the franchising route — simply because I had the time to step back and look at what we were trying to achieve a little differently.”

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Applying the franchising model to a social enterprise


Equipped with an MBA, Barends has used the knowledge she acquired through her studies to continue improving the DreamGirls business model.

“Part of the process of letting go was to create a social franchising model that we are now in the process of rolling out,” she says.

Franchising the DreamGirls concept required her to systematise the business model first, to ensure that it can be replicated successfully.

That process in itself can be a real game changer for a social enterprise as it elevates operations to the next level, with the operating manual becoming a day-to-day ‘how-to’ guide for the organisation.

“We have documented and put together all of the training materials and tools required to run a branch of DreamGirls. Now we are seeking franchisees who are committed to becoming social entrepreneurs. The franchise system will enable us to cover our operational costs, which is necessary because corporate sponsors are understandably keener to fund the programme than its running costs.”

Franchising is certainly a quicker and more cost-effective way of scaling up when it is difficult to access capital, and the legwork has already been done.

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