Stories of women entrepreneurs

Story of Serap Gultekin, an entrepreneur who dedicated her career to helping other entrepreneurs

Serap Gültekin has been providing training and consultancy services on entrepreneurship for 17 years countrywide in Turkey. Since 2003, she has been working on regional development projects funded by the European Union and the United Nations.

We thank Serap for sharing her unique entrepreneurial journey with us from supporting women entrepreneurs to providing entrepreneurial education of refugees in Turkey.

*Yazının Türkçe versiyonunu aşağıda bulabilirsiniz.

My entrepreneurial journey started long time ago…

I studied Chemical Engineering at the university. However, once I started my studies, I realized that I am not interested in the topic. Promises given to my family and responsibilities have always been very important to me. So, regardless of this realization, I completed my degree in 1988. After my graduation, I started applying for jobs and taking courses in the meanwhile, as I did not want to spend idle time. That was a remarkable period for the industry, because PC’s were becoming more and more widespread. To grasp this opportunity, I enrolled myself in a course where I can learn usage and programming. Looking back, I was clueless that this course was going to be the start of my entrepreneurial journey…

My tutor in the computer course offered me a job in a company that he was starting on coding and computer hardware. I started working for him and became a partner in a couple of months. We helped companies to transition their commercial operations to computers for 12 years. Thanks to this experience, I gained knowledge in business activities, which led me to receive a job offer to become a foreign trade director in a company. I was fond of change. In addition to that, our visions with my partner for the company were diverging. So, I accepted the offer and worked two and a half years for this company, exporting various goods from food to plastic to European countries.

In 2002, European Union projects were just starting in Turkey. One of the first projects was ABIGEM, a project by the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey. The aim of the project was on consulting and educating small and medium-sized enterprises. In the scope of this project, I actively worked in Gaziantep for 4 years.  During this time, we got funding and know-how transfer from the European Union. When the project was finalized, we continued our consulting and education services for small and medium-sized enterprises under a non-profit organization structure.

Overall, I can say that I have always been active in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Turkey. Currently, I am giving freelance consulting services to a wide range of organizations, including ministries, international organizations, and private enterprises. My latest project is helping refugees in Turkey to create their own enterprises.

I always like to challenge myself.

I never considered myself as an employee; therefore, I never looked for jobs since my graduation. When you work for a corporate company, you act under specific instructions. But, I always like to challenge myself. Knowing this, entrepreneurship was the right choice for me. It gives me the possibility for constant self-growth and the freedom to apply my learnings.

I prefer having my freedom with all its pros and cons…

You pay for every mistake you make when you are an entrepreneur, both mentally and materialistically. However, the possibility of achieving and learning more always allure me.

For me, success is being happy with myself and being useful to the society…

Success is definitely not about earning a lot of money. Retrospectively, if you are content with what you have done in life, you are successful. The thing that makes me the happiest is being helpful to people to fulfil their dreams.

Unfortunately, women are disadvantaged in our society… To resolve this, women need to collaborate more with one another.

Sociologically, the women in Turkey are raised with certain limitations. This “I can’t do” mentality becomes ingrained in the heads of little girls until they grow up, leading to self-confidence problems. This is why I pay extra attention to workshops in self-confidence when I work with women entrepreneurs. I even recognize this problem when I think of my own journey. Would I start a company, if my tutor did not offer me a job? I am not sure… We need to take an example from the collaboration of men in business. To overcome this sociological problem, women need to collaborate more with one another.

Many things aren’t equal, but everyone gets the same 24 hours a day. And how we use that 24 hours, determines our differences.

My secret for success is waking up early and making the most out of my day. For this reason, I start my day at around 6 am. The early morning hours are very precious for me. I spend these silent early hours doing sports, reading, and planning my day.  Managing your time is very important, especially when you are an entrepreneur.

My mother taught me the importance of education and self-sufficiency.

The woman who inspires me the most is my mom. Coming from a traditional family structure, she did not get an education or had a job. However, she always kept learning, and still, she is very sharp for 90 years old! Growing up, she always encouraged me to be free and self-sufficient. It is very remarkable to grow up feeling that “I can do” and it was my mother who instilled in me this drive.

It is crucial to understand people and read their psychology.

If I pursue a new master’s degree, I would definitely like to study psychology. It is crucial to understand people’s psychology and motivations. Maybe this is why I genuinely enjoy reading bibliographies of people. For example, I recommend everyone to read “Camdaki Kız” of Gülseren Budayıcıoğlu.

If I could send a message to all the women who want to become entrepreneurs, I would tell them

Get an education, read the stories of entrepreneurs, and believe in yourself!


Serap Gültekin, 17 yıldır Türkiye’nin bir çok ilinde, girişimcilik üzerine eğitim ve danışmanlık hizmetleri vermektedir. Bunun yanı sıra, Serap Hanım, Avrupa Birliği ve Birleşmiş Milletler fonlarının Türkiye’de destek verdiği projelerde de aktif olarak 2003’den beri çalışmaktadır.

Kadın girişimcileri desteklemekten, mültecilere girişimcilik eğitimi vermeye kadar çeşitli alanlarda Türkiye’de girişimcilere katkıda bulunan Serap Hanım, bizimle kendi girişimcilik yolculuğunu paylaştı.

Benim girişimcilik hikayem uzun yıllara dayanıyor…

Üniversite’de Kimya Mühendisliği okumuştum fakat başlayınca bu alanın ilgimi çekmediğini fark ettim. Aileye verilen sözler ve sorumluluklar nedeniyle başka bir alternatif düşünmeden üniversiteyi 88 yılında bitirdim. Hemen iş başvuruları yapmaya başladım, ama bir yandan boş ta durmak istemiyordum. Bu nedenle kendimi geliştireceğim kurslara gidiyordum. PC’ler Türkiye’ye yeni yeni geldiği için yazılım ve kullanım öğrenmek mantıklı geldi ve bununla alakalı bir kursa başladım. Bu kursun benim girişimcilik maceramın başlangıcı olacağı aklımın ucundan geçmezdi…

Kurs eğitmenlerinden biri yazılımla ve donanımla alakalı bir şirket kuracağını söyledi ve bana iş teklifi etti. Bir kaç ay sonra şirkete ortak oldum ve girişimcilik yolculuğum da böylece başlamış oldu. O dönemde sanayi ve üretim sektörü bilgisayara yeni geçiş yapıyordu. Biz de 12 yıl boyunca bu tarz şirketlere, bilgisayar satışı ile birlikte satıştan muhasebeye, çeşitli ticari yazılım servisleri sağladık. Bu süreçte çeşitli sektörlerin ve firmaların ticari operasyonları hakkında bilgi birikimi edindim. Bir süre sonra bir şirket bana dış ticaret müdürü olarak çalışma teklifinde bulundu ve o dönemde yavaş yavaş ortağımla büyüme konusundaki vizyonlarımız farklı olduğu ve değişimi de sevdiğim için teklifi kabul ettim. İki buçuk sene bu firmanın dış ticaret müdürü olarak, Avrupa Birliği ülkelerine gıdadan plastiğe bir çok ürün ihraç ettik.

2002’de Avrupa Birliği Projeleri Türkiye’ye yeni geliyordu. İlk uygulanan projelerden biri, Türkiye Odalar ve Borsalar Birliği (TOBB)’nin uyguladığı, KOBI’lere danışmanlık ve eğitim hizmetleri veren ABİGEM  projesiydi. Ben bu projenin Gaziantep ayağında aktif bir şekilde 4 yıl boyunca çalıştım. Bu süreçte bize Avrupa Birliği’nden fon verildi ve bilgi aktarımı yapıldı. Biz de bu proje çerçevesinde işletmelere danışmanlık ve eğitimler verdik. 4 yılın sonunda, Avrupa Birliği ile olan proje sona erince, biz kar amacı gütmeyen şirketler olarak, Türkiye’nin çeşitli illerinde KOBI’lere danışmanlık ve eğitimler vermeye devam ettik.

Her zaman girişimcilik ekosisteminin içindeydim ve şu anda da serbest danışmanlık hizmetleri verdiğim kendi şirketim var. Bakanlıklardan sivil toplum örgütlerine, girişimcilerden yerel yönetimlere, Uluslararası kuruluşlardan çeşitli kurum ve işletmelerle çalışmaya devam ediyorum. Şu andaki projelerimden biri Türkiye’deki mültecilere girişimcilik desteği vermek.

Hep kendimi zorlamayı sevdim.

Ben kendimi hiçbir zaman memur olarak görmedim. Mezun olduğumdaki ilk iş arama sürecim haricinde hiç iş aramadım. Çünkü kurumsal şirketlerde çalıştığında hep talimatlar doğrultusunda hareket ediyorsun. Girişimcilik her zaman benim için en uygun seçenekti. Girişimcilik insana kendini geliştirme, sürekli olarak öğrenme ve öğrendiklerini uygulama özgürlüğü veriyor.

Özgür olmayı artısıyla eksisiyle tercih ediyorum…

Girişimcilikte yaptığın her hatanın maddi, manevi bedelini kendin ödüyorsun. Fakat yine de daha fazla başarabilme ve daha fazla öğrenebilme seçeneği beni hep cezbetmiştir.

Benim için başarı kendimle mutlu olmak ve topluma katkıda bulunmak demek…

Başarı kesinlikle çok para kazanmak değil. Arkaya dönüp baktığında yaptıklarınla mutluysan başarılısın. Hayatımda yaptıklarıma geri dönüp baktığımda beni en mutlu eden şey insanlara hayallerini gerçekleştirmek için destek olmuş olmam.

Ne yazık ki bizim toplumumuzda kadınlar ikinci planda… Bunun için biz kadınlar birbirimize daha çok destek olmalıyız.

Sosyolojik olarak, Türkiye’de kız çocukları bir takım kısıtlamalar ile yetiştiriliyorlar. “Ben yapamam” mantalitesi büyüyünceye kadar kadınlarda içselleşmiş oluyor ve bir takım özgüven problemlerine yol açıyor. Bu nedenle kadınlara yönelik yaptığım eğitimlerde özgüven konusundaki çalışmalara büyük önem veriyorum. Kendi girişimcilik deneyimime dahi baktığımda özgüven problemini görüyorum. Kurstaki eğitmenim bana gel beraber şirket kuralım demese belki de o cesareti başta gösteremezdim. Bu özgüven problemini yenmemiz için erkeklerin iş dünyasındaki birbirlerine yardım etme kültüründen ders almamız gerekiyor. Kadınlar olarak bu sosyolojik problemin üstesinden gelmek için, daha çok birbirimize destek olmamız gerek.

Hepimizin eşit olduğu tek bir şey var: zaman. Hepimizin 24 saati var fakat bu 24 saati nasıl kullandığımız aradaki farkları oluşturuyor.

Girişimcilikteki başarımın sırrı erken uyanmam ve günü fazlasıyla kullanmam. Günüme 6 gibi başlıyorum. Mesai saatim başlayıncaya kadar olan zamanın hepsi bana ait ve çok kıymetli. Bu süre içerisinde, sporumu yapıyorum, okuyorum ve gün için programımı hazırlıyorum. Sabah saatleri günün en verimli, sessiz ve güzel zamanı. Zamanı iyi kullanmayı öğrenmek çok önemli.

Annem bana okumanın ve kendi ayaklarım üstünde durmanın kıymetini öğretti.

Bana ilham veren kadın, annem. Ağalık kültüründen gelen bir kadın olduğu için okutulmamış ve meslek sahibi olamamış. Fakat her zaman öğrenme peşinde olan bir kadın ve halen 90 yaşında olmasına rağmen zehir gibi! Beni büyürken hep özgür ve kendi ayakları üstünde olan bir kadın olmaya teşvik etti. “Ben yapabilirim” mantalitesinin gücü ile büyümek çok farklı ve bunu bana annem aşıladı.

Psikolojik analizler yapabilmek ve insanları anlayabilmek çok önemli.

Şu anda yeni bir yüksek lisans yapsam kesinlikle psikoloji üzerine okumak isterim. İnsanların psikolojilerini ve motivasyonlarını anlayabilmek çok önemli. Bu nedenle gerçek yaşamdan hikayeler okumaktan keyif alıyorum. Örneğin, Gülseren Budayıcıoğlu’nun Camdaki Kızı’nı herkese tavsiye ederim.

Şuanda, dünyadaki bütün girişimci olmak isteyen kadınlara bir mesaj gönderebilsem…

Eğitimlere katılın, girişimcilerin hayat hikayelerini okuyun ve kendinize güvenin derdim.

Sitting on Both Sides of The Table: Nadia Stand’s Journey from Finance to Entrepreneurship

Nadia is a down-to-earth dreamer convinced that the sustainable, prosperous, equitable and fair world we deserve is achievable by harnessing the power of impact investing and social entrepreneurship to efficiently solve social and environmental challenges we face today.

Nadia worked as a Financial Innovation Coordinator, structuring more than 15 PE and VC funds in Bogota, Colombia. She changed her career after attending to MSc in Sustainability and Social Innovation in HEC Paris and became an entrepreneur.

Currently, she is the co-founder of The SASI Co, a company dedicated to helping corporate players to become sustainability leaders and the co-founder of GoLupa, helping entrepreneurs to find investors as well as helping companies embrace corporate venturing in am impactful way. She also teaches entrepreneurship in Colegio de Estudios Superiores de Administración in Bogota, Colombia.


How did you start your company? What motivated you to start it?

After HEC Paris, I came back to Bogota, and at this point, I had started two companies. The first company I started was with fellow students from the masters, and we literally did everything that everyone told us not to do, like having over 40 shareholders!

The second company was based on the corporate experience I had before leaving Bogota for my master’s at HEC Paris. I worked in private equity and venture capital as an investment analyst, as well as structuring funds. When I went to HEC, I already had this business idea about connecting entrepreneurs and investors, so I worked on the business model throughout my studies at HEC. All the classes I took were related to that, and at the end of the year, although I had a clear business model, I was a little scared to take the next step.

I had a very stable income for over 7 years, and entrepreneurship is entirely different. On top of it, people didn’t understand me…My parents, brothers, and friends would ask me why I would not take “a regular job.” People have different opinions about what is right and successful.

Right after the masters, when I arrived in Bogota, I had a big break up and was also having some pressure from my family. I had to rethink everything about my life and myself. I was super scared, and I was not sure about anything, which made the decision of becoming an entrepreneur quite unsettling.

I remember my first consideration of becoming an entrepreneur. It was around March 2018 when I was in HEC because that was the time when everyone was applying for jobs. I questioned myself a lot and I knew that I didn’t want to go back to working for a company. At that point, I made a decision to move back and build a new life.

Currently, with my two partners at GoLupa, we connect startups with investors and structure corporate venture strategies to help them become active participants of the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem. At The SASI Co. we design tools that make sustainability accessible to companies and individuals; and we’re currently in the European and Latam markets, with some initial activity in India..

Did you attend any entrepreneurial training?

There are different ways I learnt about entrepreneurship. Before HEC, I worked with a lot of entrepreneurs. I was going to all the entrepreneurial events when I was structuring alternative investment funds. So, I was judging their pitches and telling them how to improve, etc. When I shifted sides, and I understood that it was easier to give advice!

At HEC, I did a course called “Business Plan Workshop.” It was the best class I took at HEC. You either come up with your idea or join someone, and you develop that business idea all semester long. It really helped me to bring everything together. My teammates were French at the school. So when I came back to Bogota, I had to adjust the business model and make it more “tropical” to fit regional challenges and culture. Most of things we learned by doing… We had a lot of co-founder sessions to set and understand our identity as a firm: “who we are” and “what do we want to stand for as a company.”

Last and not least, I am currently teaching “entrepreneurial spirit” at a business school here in Bogota, and it is a great learning experience for me as well! Every class I teach, I am questioning my companies comparing with the theory I teach. Teaching is the next level of learning. My students became a constant source of inspiration, sort of like my private consultants.

In your opinion, what does success mean?

I grew up believing in a definition of success that I would never like to live now. Working from 7 am to midnight, having drinks with the client was a success to me at the time. I was thinking I made it. It just happened, I wasn’t as genuinely happy as I thought. So I chose to redefine success in my life.

Now my definition of success is centered on “how am I feeling about what I am doing.” If I feel happy, fulfilled, and excited every day to do what I am doing then I am successful. If I know that it is also contributing to the greater good, then again I feel I am successful. Success is not about how others think or feel about what I should do.

What was your biggest struggle so far in your entrepreneurial journey?

I would say that in both companies I co-founded, I had the same struggle. In the beginning, you start being too in love with your idea. Thinking “this is it, and this is how it will work.” It is an arrogant position as  an entrepreneur. Because soon, you realize that what market tells you about what they want and their willingness to pay doesn’t really always match with reality.

For example, in The SASI Co, everyone loved what we were doing, and we were pitching to companies. We would pitch to a company, different teams and even the board of the directors for a month about how they can become a leader in sustainability, and they would say it is great, and they want to do it. When the time to close came, the CFO’s approval, they would tell us that they don’t have a budget for it. It was very frustrating for us…

How to read a market is really important, and it is not about what people tell you. Reading the market is not just about listening to what people say. It is really reading what they really need based on the clues. Understanding their actions and their motivations and knowing who the real decision-maker is and what drives him or her.

One solution to this problem I have encountered is co-creating with the client. When you involve your client in the solution and hold them accountable, then you can get to the root of the problem.

Another challenge we had was also differences in the team in my first startup. It was great to have a group of 40 people from different countries sharing the same vision. Handling such different personalities and styles can also be complicated. You have to know that these differences not always fall down to culture. That is why it’s important to know yourself and have each team member know themselves and what drives each other to act. For example, we did the MBTI test at GoLupa, and we shared the result with each other. Now, we know the strengths and weaknesses of each other by using this framework. It helped us to understand each other and work better together.

In your opinion, what is the most difficult thing about being a woman entrepreneur? 

I went through a process where I accepted my femininity and my style of leadership. It did take me years to get there.

When I was working in finance, which is a very masculine environment, I was exposed to a very intense leadership style. I started leading a team at a very young age, and my managers would give me advice on how to lead. He would say  “You have to be firm, and you have to be rigid!”, “You can not show any emotions because if you show them, that means you are weak.”. Everything was leading towards a perception that associates being successful with having a masculine leadership style. And I was following this style when I was managing two associates.

I am a very sensitive and intuitive person. I worked on accepting and embracing myself for years. I embraced myself through therapy, Akashic healing, and mentorship. These practices made me see my personality as a strength, and I realized the importance of being emphatic.

I believe in empowering people around me. And I think that we, as women, are much better at empowering as we are nurturers. The uncomfortable part is embracing yourself and your unique leadership style. You can be nurturing, empowering, and empathic. There is a value in being caring.

What would you do differently if you know what you know now?

Nothing. If I change anything in that journey, I wouldn’t be the person that I am today, and I wouldn’t know the things I know now. I am very happy with who I am. I love the person who I became! It took me a lot of time and learning to come to this point. Trusting my essence, my abilities, and everything I lived, brought me to this point.

In your opinion, what are the habits that helped your success?

I struggled a lot with imposter syndrome. The most important thing that helped me was understanding myself and being proud of who I am.

Therapy is now a part of my life. When I realized that I was following the definition of success of other people, my journey to find myselfstarted. The first thing that allowed me to be a good entrepreneur has started with having a good relationship with myself. I have a spiritual therapist,  a coach to liberate emotions and another coach for Akashic healing.  It may not be obvious at first. It is super important to accept your own strengths, gifts, and doing the things you are set out to do. Trusting yourself, even in adversities…

Taking some time off and having a balance are also very important. Today, I block my agenda for two hours of lunch. It is my moment to meditate, to have a lunch and to talk to people. It is important to have that balance.

Which woman inspires you? Why?

I admire all the women who show that you don’t need to sacrifice family and relations for their career and do it both at the same time. I believe that you can still be a great wife, nurturing mother, and a successful professional.

Can you recommend a resource, book/podcast/movie, for our readers?

I recently watched “Self Made” on Netflix, and I literally got goosebumps watching it! No one had done what Madam C. J. Walker did before her. What she did at her time as a black woman in America is really impressive. It really shows you that anything is possible. 

If you would send a message to all the women on earth who are trying to build their companies, what would it be?

Be loyal to yourself, who you are as a person and who you are as a woman. We all have different definitions of success; so be loyal to yours.

Journey of an entrepreneur and sustainability advocate, Sephra Abraham

Sephra Abraham has obtained her Master of Science degree in Sustainability and Social Innovation from HEC Paris. She is the co-founder of Greend India, India’s first vegan product hamper and gifting service headquartered in Mumbai and operating pan-India. She is also a consultant with Archipel&Co – working on sustainability & strategy consulting in developing countries.

Sephra is passionate about various subjects related to sustainability. Her TEDxHECParis talk “The Bloody Truth” tackles a very pressing but rarely addressed issue related to the environmental impact of conventional menstrual products. She is actively participating in the operations of “Red is the New Green” – an organization dedicated to educating and training women about effective menstrual hygiene management (MHM) and sustainable menstrual products in India. Veganism is another topic of great importance to Sephra. It a lifestyle that aims to cause the least damage to the environment and helps protect all species of animals on the planet.

You can check out her TEDxHECParis talk “The Bloody Truth, dissecting the meaning of sustainable menstruation”!

And her startup, Greend India, a vegan product hamper service:

https://greendindia.com/

How did you start your company? What motivated you to start it?

I began following a vegan lifestyle in early 2016. I was in Mumbai during that time, and I often struggled to get the right kind of vegan food to prepare my meals. Everything was either too expensive or unavailable. When I first met with my current business partner, Sana, in 2017, she was inspired by me and chose to make the transition to veganism as well. Over the years, we spoke a lot about possible business ideas regarding vegan products.

Finally, in October 2019, Sana reached out to me about a business venture for vegan hampers and wanted my advice/mentorship. Instead, I found the concept amazing and thus we decided to pursue this idea together. As I was based in Paris, and she was in Mumbai, we had to define our roles very clearly. We conceptualized Greend India in October and launched it officially on December 1st, 2019.

The motivation to create this enterprise was born from a personal need. As a vegan, I always felt that there was a clear gap between the demand and supply of high quality, affordable vegan products in the Indian market. And I knew there were many others like me! So, to fulfill this need and to help many others in the same boat as I was, was the primary motivation for me. Also, the fact that my partner was super enthusiastic about this solution motivated me immensely.

Did you attend any entrepreneurial training? 

I took a few social business and entrepreneurship classes at HEC Paris. But, given the nature of Greend India’s business and its niche clientele, not much of the knowledge gained at a business school could be applied in a venture like this.

In your opinion, what does success mean?

“Success” can be following your passion, believing that you are worth it and making a career out of something that gives you happiness! At the risk of sounding too cliched, I believe that if you are willing to go out there, follow your passion and sustain yourself whilst doing it, it is synonymous with success.

What was your biggest struggle so far in your entrepreneurial journey?

Getting new customers initially was a challenge for Greend India. Building the trust of customers is not an easy task and it is definitely not something that can be achieved overnight. The company has been active for 6 months now and are still working on different ways to engage our existing customer base and gain new customers, all whilst staying true to our brand and all that we stand for.

In your opinion, what is the most difficult thing about being a woman entrepreneur?  

Not being taken seriously enough is the biggest fear I have. That being said, my business partner and I have been privileged enough to be treated with equality and fairness in the vegan community.

In your opinion, what are the habits that helped your success?

Juggling two jobs has taught me how to prioritize and balance my workflow. Being open-minded and ready to listen to the opinions of my business partner, customers as well as suppliers has helped Greend India grow significantly. Lastly, being persistent and not giving up has shaped me to a be a stronger individual.

Which woman inspires you? Why?

My mother is my biggest inspiration. She has taught me how to be empathetic, ethical, opinionated, and independent. She has been my biggest cheerleader and my support system since day 1. It is the values that she has instilled in me that has helped me become an entrepreneur. All that I am today is because of her!

Can you recommend a resource, book/podcast/movie, for our readers?

I highly recommend “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things” on Netflix and the book “Zero Waste Home” by Bea Johnson. I found these two resources very useful to reduce decision fatigue, lead a more sustainable life and believe in the philosophy “less is more”.

If you would send a message to all the women on earth who are trying to build their companies, what would it be?

DO NOT GIVE UP! You have good ideas; you are worth it, and you are amazing! Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

Debbie Phillips- Women Entrepreneurs #7

Debbie Phillips is the inspiring founder of Women on Fire® and a pioneer in the field of executive and life coaching. She is known for her work in transforming women’s lives. Her gift is her ability to see and nurture the strengths, gifts and talents of the women she works with. She is also an author, speaker and producer.

Prior to becoming a coach, she was a reporter for the Columbus (Ohio) Citizen-Journal; a deputy press secretary to former U.S. Senator John Glenn during his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination; press secretary to former Ohio Governor Richard F. Celeste; and the executive television producer for the U.S. Health Productions Company, which featured the internationally syndicated television health and lifestyle show “Life Choices with Erie Chapman.”

Debbie has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from The Ohio State University and a master’s degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

How did you start Women on Fire? What motivated you to start it?

I think for almost anybody who starts a business, a lot of times, it originates from a pain.

For me, the motivation to work started when I was a child. My mother had five children in 7 years, and I was the oldest of five kids. So I grew up helping my mother be in charge of the household. My mother didn’t get her education, and every day she lamented with me saying, “I didn’t get to do what I want to do,” and I grew up feeling so terrible that my mother didn’t have her dream. On the other side, my father was working. And I was much more interested in my father, and I loved that he was going to work. So I knew that I would grow up and work.

In the first part of my career, I was a journalist, and then I did the flip side of that, and I worked in politics and government. I was very fortunate to work with the former U.S. Senator John Glenn when he ran for the Democratic nomination for president. I had these fantastic jobs, but always in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “I want to do something for women.”

So eventually, when I was 48, everything came together. There is this concept “stomping your perimeter,” allowing one experience, hardship, and success to build upon another. I was a journalist, I was in politics and government, I was in business, and then you put it all together at some point and do the thing that you are meant to do in the world.

Did you attend any entrepreneurial training?

Well, my father was an entrepreneur, so I learned a lot from him. I learned from my father that it is tough to be an entrepreneur because he tried all these different businesses, and he failed. What was amazing is that in his 50s, he started a business and became successful. Up until that point, I just saw failure, and so I made a vow not to become an entrepreneur, which is hilarious because what did I do but become one!

As I said, most of my learning came from watching my father. But, I have always been a learner even to this day, I am 64 now, I still have a budget for my education. Everything I need to learn, I go and learn it.  For example, I took Gestalt therapy training. I am not a therapist, but as a coach and as somebody running a company, I have a background in therapy. It has probably helped me more than anything in really understanding the human condition.

What does success mean to you?

Success to me is that I can help other people and change their lives for the better and freedom for me. The freer I am, the more successful I feel.

Honestly, entrepreneurship is challenging a lot of times in the early stages and even now. Of course, I am now so used to it, and it is okay. But the fact that I have the freedom to make the choices I want to make feels really nice. I can make a choice based on what is best for me or best for the company. It makes a lot of difference.

What was your biggest struggle so far in your entrepreneurial journey?

My biggest fear was criticism. I was so afraid to be criticized, and now I couldn’t care less. My steel rods inside of me were not strong enough at the beginning. I was not secure enough, and felt comfortable enough to put myself out there.

I had to learn to do that. And once I did, I felt better and got better at it. I had to keep studying and practicing so that I felt confident. And that gave me my steel rods. I think early on, that was a challenge for me because everything felt hard even though I kept the bigger vision of serving women in my mind.

Women on fire was created for busy women who seek for inspiration and support. My dream has always been that its everywhere in the world. That is a huge vision, and 17 years later, I am still working towards that. My dream is hundreds of thousands of women being involved in Women on Fire.  And one of the other challenges is attracting people who want this information.

In your opinion, what is the most challenging thing about being a woman entrepreneur?

You know I had a whole career before Women on Fire. It was fine when I was in journalism and politics and government. When I got to business, which I spent five years running a television production company, that’s where I started to notice a disparity in pay. Partly I became an entrepreneur so I could be in control of my destiny.

Is there anything you would do differently, knowing what you know now?

I think about this question a lot. The only reason I look back is to reflect on “how am I going to move forward.” So there isn’t anything that I would change as long as I am building on the past. My vision is to help women express their gifts, strengths, and talents in the world. I am always forward-thinking, so I question “Am I achieving that” and “Am I helping women express themselves” rather than I would do this or that. It is about constant learning and growing.

What habits helped you succeed so far?

First of all, I think it is important to come at things with a positive attitude. I was just blessed that I am looking at the positive, and I attribute this to my dad. When I was a really irritable teenager, my dad used to march me in front of the mirror, and he would put his hands on my shoulder, and he would say, “okay, repeat after me ‘I will greet each day with love in my heart.’” That really launched me into being really clear about how I start my days.

I start my day with morning practices such as morning meditation and nonlinear dance and some other feminine practices that I learn from my own personal coach, David Deida. He has shown me a number of practices to get my energy going and be really in my body. I also have night time practices before I go to bed. I start and stop my day in a very positive way, regardless it was a bad or good day, I make sure I stay centered and steady.

Is there a woman who inspires you?

I feel very fortunate because I had an opportunity to meet Gloria Steinem, who is considered one of the leaders of the women’s movement.

I met her when I was really young. I had an experience where I was speaking with her, and someone else who was famous just came between us and started talking to her. She said to this famous person, “Oh, you must know Debbie Phillips,” and this famous person, of course, didn’t. But it was the greatest lesson in the world. Gloria Steinem showed me how to behave in this type of situation as a powerful woman. I was in my late 20s, and it was a life-changing moment for me. Cause I wanted to be like her; gracious, loving, and treating everybody the same. My great fortune is that I had a lot of experiences with Gloria since then, and I feel very grateful.

Can you recommend a resource, book/podcast/movie, for our readers?

“20 Feet from Stardom” is a great documentary film. I also highly recommend “The Art of Possibility” by Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander.

Imagine at this moment, you can send a message to all the women entrepreneurs who are trying to build their companies, what would you tell them?

Dream big and keep your support system close.

Nilgun Asci Wolpe- Women Entrepreneurs #6

Nilgun is the president and founder of NY Engineering, the only woman-led structural engineering company based in San Francisco, serving in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Projects of NY Engineering include commercial structures, seismic upgrades, new constructions, residential multi-family units, and soft story. She has engineered projects totaling over seven million square feet. 

In 2018, she received the Bala award for “The Remodel of the Year.” 

To further explore NY Engineering and its achievements, you can check the website www.nyengineering.net.

Beyond her career as an entrepreneur and engineer, Nilgun has a very active social life! She spends her free time dancing and participating in dance competitions in Ballroom Dancing, specializing in the Argentine Tango. She also likes downhill skiing and marathon running. In fact, she recently competed in the San Francisco marathon in 2020!

How did you start NY Engineering? What motivated you?

I started N.Y. Engineering in the spring of 2004, but the story of it goes way back. When I immigrated to the U.S. in 1999, I was looking for jobs. In my first interview for a structural engineering entry-level job, the company owner asked me whether or not I knew the California Building Code. I honestly answered that I didn’t, but if given 6 months, I would learn it. I learned the code, studying hard every day in the local library while my son was reading children’s books. Not only did I learn the code and pass the professional licensing exams, but I was also made manager of the company within a year. I realized that I had to work hard to learn many new things about my profession to excel in the U.S.

Two things motivated me to become an entrepreneur. The first was fulfilling my promise to my father. Before leaving my country, my father asked me what my dream was. I said that I wanted to start my own structural engineering company in the United States. A year later, my father succumbed to cancer, but he had the pleasure to know I had started my company. He told me then that he always knew I would do it, and that if he had left me a desert I would have made that desert livable.

The second motivating reason for me was being financially independent. When I started my first job in San Francisco, I witnessed a lot of people getting laid off. In the U.S. it is very easy to lose your job, and it puts a certain pressure on you. I wanted to have my own business and eliminate this risk. And also, as a mother, I wanted to support my son for college. To ensure that financially, building my company seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

What does success mean to you?

Success is about competing with yourself and challenging yourself to become better in every way and finding out who you really are. It is achieving small victories along the way. When you set a more challenging goal every single time along the way, you achieve great things. Whether it involves competing in a dance contest, running a marathon, or starting a company, this technique helped me to stay motivated while raising the bar each time. Don’t make yourself upset by setting very high goals initially. Breakdown your goals to achievable ones!

In all things in life, success means being brave enough to try to achieve your goals whether or not you get all the way there, and that even if you fall, having the gumption to pick yourself up and struggle forward. As an example, part of my dream of company ownership included having my own space to work comfortably with my staff. I was recently able to purchase my own office building in San Francisco a couple of blocks from a beautiful beach in San Francisco.

Did you attend any type of entrepreneurial training? 

I didn’t get any entrepreneurial training. At the very beginning, I was learning everything by myself, for example, I learned company management, accounting, bookkeeping. However, once the company started to grow, it became very complicated to do everything by myself. So, I hired people for all the administrative things such as bookkeeping and financial advisory. This enabled me to focus full time on sourcing contracts for the company.

I still keep learning about my own profession. I take webinars every week and continue studying and taking exams to get new professional certifications in my field. I will keep learning until I die!

There are multiple reasons why a company fails such as running out of cash or problems within the team. Which one did you have the most difficulty?

Finding the right team is very difficult. It is all about trust… I had an instance where one of my employees stole data from the company. It is a serious crime, but I did not sue her because she was so young. I wanted to give her a chance, so I just let her go. Forming a team that you can trust and count on is truly one of the biggest challenges.

I think there is another challenge that is ahead of us; the impact of Covid 19. A lot of companies will have difficulties surviving it. When I see a problem coming, I try to prepare myself ahead of time. I took it really seriously to prepare for the impacts of Covid 19. I made backup plans and went through all the possible government support plans.  If you run your own business, always have a contingency plan for two-three months to support yourself and your team!

Did you have any particular difficulty because you are a woman entrepreneur?

I think right now, it is mostly uneducated people who still discriminate and undermine you because of your gender. I sometimes have difficulties with the construction workers when I go to inspect the buildings. They sometimes don’t take me seriously, but then I don’t give up. I change their minds with my work.

How did you build credibility? How do you fight against “legitimacy doubt”?

The best way to build credibility is by being knowledgable in your area. For example, I can not talk about engineering with a construction worker, they don’t listen. You have to speak the language of the people with whom you want to build credibility. They begin to understand that I am knowledgeable, and this fosters respect. I show them it is possible to reduce their labor with a smart move and make things move more efficiently. At this point, they stop focussing on my gender any more and start to see results.

I don’t think women and men are different. I try not to bring up my “woman identity” in every struggle I have. I am an engineer in my work above everything. It is all about being knowledgable in your field, and credibility comes with it!

Is there anything you would do differently, knowing what you know now?

When I started NY engineering, I was still a manager at another private company, and it was my side job. Knowing what I know now, I would have stopped working for a private company, which was my first engineering job in the US.

Out of a sense of loyalty and need for financial security while a single mother, I believe I remained there too long. When I met my second husband, Alexander Pierre Wolpe (a professor of French and Spanish), he encouraged me to take the plunge by totally going out on my own and putting all my energy into my own company. After I started working on my company full-time, the company started growing extremely fast. Since then, my company has grown twenty-fold.

What are the habits that helped your success?

Having hobbies and being disciplined helped me to be successful. I am very energetic, and I try to channel this energy with my dancing classes.

I also love running and skiing! For example, I ran my first half marathon in 2020. My goal was just finishing my first race. In these races, there is what’s called a “sweeper bus,” which picks up the runners who are taking too long to finish the race, removing them from the competition. I was looking for that bus all the time when I was running and telling myself, “finish before the bus takes you!”. I could have competed with the people who were racing at the same time as I did, but it would not have been fair to me. Instead, I set my own goal to finish the race and beat the bus, and I am proud of myself for that! After all that, I ended up placing in the fastest group in my age category.

Setting personal goals that are not related to your work helps your success. Life is not only about work, and success is not only about achieving great things at work. Success is sometimes “not being picked up by a bus”!

Whatever type of success you are aiming for in any case, you need to be disciplined and work for your goals! For example, I dance Argentine Tango professionally, and I go to training after work from 9pm to 11pm. Also, during the weekends, I go to the dance studio from 8am to 10am when my family is sleeping. If you love doing something, you need to work for it!

Is there a woman who inspires you?

I met Leyla Janah 5 years ago, and I am truly inspired by her. She founded two companies to end global poverty by giving work to people in need. She was helping a lot of people, and she had this big ambition to work for an important cause. She liked helping people, and she was also a dancer and surfer. She was a person with very different interests and ambitions.  We recently lost Leyla to cancer.  We need those kind of brave and socially conscious people in this world and she will be missed.

Can you recommend a resource, it can be a book/podcast/movie, to the women entrepreneurs who are going to read this interview?

They should read “Becoming” by Michelle Obama and “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro “Mona Lisa Smile” and “The Intern”.

Imagine at this moment, you can send a message to all the women entrepreneurs who are trying to build their companies, what would you tell them?

Don’t give up and keep trying. Not trying is the biggest reason that most of the people are not successful. Set goals and then break down those goals and achieve them one by one. Don’t compete with anyone else, and just keep pushing your limits in every aspect of life.

Don’t focus only on your professional life. Try to find who you are by trying the things that you are naturally attracted to. The point is being happy, and when you are happy, you make the people around you happy too.  Not taking a risk is taking too big of a risk.

Chiara Condi- Women Entrepreneurs #5

Chiara is an entrepreneur, women’s empowerment advocate expert, and speaker. After completing her bachelor in Romance Languages and History at Harvard University, she pursued a master’s in International Political Economy in The London School of Economics.

She is the president and the founder of Led by Her. Led by Her is an initiative that challenges gender-based violence from an innovative angle and encourages women’s entrepreneurship through the values of collaboration, mutual support, and community.

Chiara recently started a podcast “The Other Half: Conversations with Men on Gender Equality” and she is interviewing influential men of our world (CEOs, athletes, actors, etc.) who are making a the difference in their everyday lives at home and in the workplace to create a more equal world we can all be proud of. With every initiative that she starts, Chiara strives to improve women’s place in society.

How did you start Led by Her? What motivated you to start it?

Upon my graduation from LSE, I worked for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) for two years, specifically on the implementation of its Gender Action Plan. During my experience at EBRD, I learned how behind we were in terms of gender equality and realized the importance of advancing women in the workplace. It became very important to me, and it motivated me to do something very proactive to narrow this huge gap.

I wanted to create an initiative that recognized the power of women and helped them transform. Statistically, one-third of women are affected by violence, and this culture of violence negatively affects gender equality. If we empower women without fixing the culture around them, it will not work. This is why I started Led by Her to transform women from vulnerabilities to leadership. Led by Her recognizes the power of women and strives to change the environment around them.

Did you attend any entrepreneurial training? 

No, I didn’t have any entrepreneurial training. I think it is more about the mindset, perseverance, and motivation than anything you learn. It is, of course, good to have a structure at the beginning and specific things to work on, and in that sense, training might help to guide you. But it is okay not to know about marketing or finance because you learn all the necessary skills you need on the job.

In your opinion, what does success mean?

I think the most important thing about success is that it is very personal. In my opinion, it is being your best self. People can think that you are successful and you might not feel successful unless you feel that you are doing your best. If you think that you are doing your best, then you don’t even need that external validation.

In my personal definition of success, the most important thing is how I feel. Nobody can tell you “you are good enough” except yourself. You have to feel “good enough” and capable regardless of how much you accomplished. Unfortunately, a lot of women don’t start their projects because they don’t feel “good enough,” “accomplished enough,” or they need this or that. But no, we have to think that “we are ready,” “we are good,” “we have what we have, and it is enough,” regardless of how much we have done or have not done.

What was your biggest struggle so far in your entrepreneurial journey?

In the beginning, fundraising was much harder than I thought it was. It was hard to build without exhausting myself because I did not have enough resources. As Led by Her is a Non-Profit organization, I had to find private donors, corporations, and foundations to raise money.

In your opinion, what is the most challenging thing about being a woman entrepreneur?

The environment is more difficult because, as a woman, you have to prove your credibility much more. We have both self-imposed limitations that we are led to believe and social constraints that prevent us from succeeding. So, there is a bigger obstacle to being a woman entrepreneur. I think as we start having more women succeeding, it will change our perception towards our own limitations.

Is there anything you would do differently, knowing what you know now?

I would have focused more on myself. I would have more strategy and think more about what do I want to get out of a project before I start it, instead of just throwing myself into something and figuring it out.

I would think more about my motivations, my vision, where I want to be in 5 years, how much of myself do I want to invest in this project, for how long. It is essential to think about these questions ahead of time so that the project doesn’t overwhelm your life.

What habits helped you succeed so far?

Being perseverant, I mean putting in time and energy to my projects and keep doing things. Not stopping.

Is there a woman who inspires you?

Prime Minister of New Zealand inspires me because I think she embodies a really authentic leadership. She is very compassionate, empathetic, and also strong, these are things that we don’t necessarily associate with leaders. She is not afraid of showing her vulnerable side.

Can you recommend a resource, book/podcast/movie, for our readers?

Well, my podcast, the Other Half!:) I interview male leaders about gender equality, but there is also a lot of useful information about being a good leader and leading a successful company.

Imagine at this moment, you can send a message to all the women entrepreneurs who are trying to build their companies, what would you tell them?

You already have the power in you! You just need to transform that power and externalize it.  

Karolina Czaplicka- Women Entrepreneurs #4

Karolina is the co-founder of the Subjective Guide App, a new generation social and recommendation network for travel enthusiasts, and she is also a philosophy enthusiast! After she completed a major in International Business Administration and a minor in philosophy, taking classes in The New School, The American University of Paris, and John Cabot in Rome, she started her entrepreneurial journey. She is passionate about the ethics of emerging technologies and trans-humanism, which encouraged her to enter the startup world.

Hello Karolina, how did you start your entrepreneurial journey with Subjective Guide App? What motivated you to become an entrepreneur?

I believe that upbringing is crucial. Everyone in my family is an entrepreneur; my father, my mother, my sisters…And I knew that sooner or later I was going to be an entrepreneur, but I wasn’t sure when.

I graduated in May 2018 and came back to Poland to look for jobs. Still, I was not happy with the idea of working in a corporation, so I co-founded the Subjective Guide App. I wasn’t scared to build my company because my sisters are strong women, and I had a lot of encouragement from them.

The idea of the Subjective Guide App actually originated from personal experience. We travel a lot with my friends, so one and a half years ago, when we were in Cuba, we had a struggle finding things to do that fit our taste. All the recommendations we encountered were very generic, and they weren’t suited to our liking. So we decided to build an app for it! This is how my journey with Subjective Guide App has started. Subjective Guide App is a social recommendation network, everyone can show the way they travel and find specific tips to their taste. It has been a fascinating journey so far.

Did you attend any entrepreneurial training?

I have a degree in business, which, of course, helped me. But I think to be an entrepreneur, it has to run in your blood.

We attended different accelerators and boot camps in Armenia, Poland, and Baltics, which are cool at the idea stage. These programs helped us to build a business plan, but there is a huge gap between business plan and execution. The best thing about these programs is meeting with people who have the same struggles with you.

During different accelerators and boot camp programs, we met mentors around the world. Everyone in the entrepreneurship world puts so much importance on mentorship. It is funny because, often, mentors are quite discouraging. And to be honest, I think the importance of mentorship is overrated! Let me give you an example. We were the youngest woman team in the accelerator in Poland. One guy, a mentor, asked us what did we study, and when we told him philosophy, he said: “Why are you not working at Starbucks then.”

The entire idea of mentorship is challenging you all the time. Building a company is already hard work, and there are a lot of people who are discouraged by mentors without even trying. Discouragement is really wrong. If only there was more encouragement than criticism, there would be more people building their businesses.

What does success mean to you?

Building a product that I am going to be proud of, and that is aligned with my values. I really want to succeed, and I want to influence the way people travel. Not crossing my moral standards while building a business is also a success. When you create an app, based on the context you have a database about peoples preferences, and a lot of companies are selling the data. We knew that we did not want to harvest data. This might be something small and personal, but I believe it is essential to have a vision that is aligned with your ethics.

There are multiple reasons why companies fail. What was your biggest struggle so far?

For us, the product-market fit has been the biggest struggle. We had a particular experience when we were traveling, but you can not base your company just on your experience. There has to be a trend in the problem that people are trying to solve. In social platforms like ours, the hardest thing is to find and attract people to your platform and identify what they exactly need. Sometimes the problem you think is not the biggest obstacle. This is why we pivoted a little bit; you get to know your customers through beta tests, and you adapt. I believe the most challenging thing is finding an ideal match between the product as you think it and the problem that the customers are trying to solve. 

Did you have any particular difficulty because you are a woman entrepreneur?

Yes, the constant doubt.  When you are young and woman, people just think that you are naïve and didn’t think it through. They think you are just playing with your idea and that it is another experience and it will pass. Guys who are at the same age are not questioned as much. When even your friends are doubting you, you realize how much effort and courage it takes to build a company. Not being taken seriously pissed me off, but it also pushed me to work harder. My sisters are my mentors, they were an excellent example for me to be aware of my capabilities and build a company despite what everyone else says.

In addition to the constant doubt, I observed that women are not asked real questions. We are reduced to what purse we are wearing, but we also have a fault in that. I have to say that I have a problem with celebrity culture around entrepreneurship. I don’t understand why women entrepreneurs are connected with being famous or fashionable. Most of the known women entrepreneurs are side celebrities, and it pisses me off. Look at the men, do you follow the Instagram of, let’s say, CEO of XYZ company who is male?

How did you build credibility? How do you fight against “legitimacy doubt”?

To build credibility, “the outside world” has to acknowledge you. Before we got our first investment, people were always telling us how to do things or explaining to us why startups fail… When the outside world gives you a high five, everyone who doubts you start to say yes.

Is there anything you would do differently, knowing what you know now?

I am thinking about all the mistakes we made, but you know what? You will always make these mistakes at the beginning. I would say, “Karolina, believe in what you think and don’t listen to people: it creates more mess than it helps.” All of this is of course very personal, and there is no absolute answer.

What habits helped you succeed so far?

80/20 rule, also known as Pareto principle, helped me a lot. You can apply this rule to many different areas of life. For example, for 80 percent of my time, I focus on the things that are directly related to the startup. For 20 percent, I concentrate on things that can indirectly help me grow my business.

For me, knowledge is the key. And you don’t only need to read about startups. Everything that you learn serves your company. Honestly, it has been the best year of my life.  I am my own boss, and I choose my own books.

Is there a woman who inspires you?

There are three women who inspire me: my sister, my co-founder Tola and Sophia Amoruso.

My sister doesn’t give me advice when I don’t ask her. I see in her eyes that she truly believes in me and I appreciate that a lot. Someone believing in you is much better than any piece of advice.

Tola, my co-founder, is a great source of inspiration too. First of all, she is the creative mind behind our product. She is a true dreamer – we often laugh her ideas stand on the verge of crazy vs brilliant. She has this inner wisdom that is so inspiring. Subjective Guide would not exist if not for her.

Sophia Amoruso, the Founder, and CEO of Girlboss, is very inspiring as well. She created a professional social network for ambitious women. I love her story.

Can you recommend some resources, book/podcast/movie, for our readers?

Here are books which can be useful while creating a startup: Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant.

But I have to mention that my favorite book is “ The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera and highly recommend it.

Imagine at this moment, you can send a message to all the women entrepreneurs who are trying to build their companies, what would you tell them?

Trust your instinct and be persistent. Don’t be scared of failing. I didn’t want to say to people that I was building a company because I was scared of failing and was thinking about “what my friends would say.” But if you are brave enough to try, it already tells a lot about you! So just continue. 

And don’t forget the importance of the team. It is the most critical aspect of startup creation. My co-founder, who is also my best friend, always pushes me forward, and I saw the importance of that. Team up with someone who encourages you!

Helena Bajaj Larsen- Women Entrepreneurs #3

Meet Helena Bajaj Larsen, a passionate young designer who blurs the lines between art and fashion! Upon her graduation from Parsons School of Design, along with two other seniors, she was awarded a fellowship organized by Donna Karan’s brand Urban Zen and Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation. She launched her business shortly after completing her Bachelor’s degree at only 22 years old. The brand has been recognized and featured by several notable publications in the likes of Vogue, Forbes, Conde Nast Traveller, Elle..

How did you start your company? What motivated you to start it?

During the last year of Parsons, we had to develop a senior thesis, meaning we had to write proposals, create look books, photoshoots, digital portfolios… Everyone was free to choose their own topic and the thesis could take on any form. I approached the thesis as a 360degree brand proposal including essays, sketches, fabric developments, fully constructed garments, printed look-books, promo campaigns as well as an auxiliary jewelry collection.  

In those last few months at school, I was given the opportunity to participate in several competitions. I really enjoyed this process, the presenting, the feedback – interacting with judges. When you participate in competitions, you see if your idea becomes relevant in a real-life, post-academic setting as it is presented to industry professionals and no longer just your professors. Through this process, I got a lot of valuable advice and a comment I often received was that there was a very clear esthetic and design identity within my work. The people telling me this believed there was scope to venture out on my own following university and this is why I didn’t rush to find a job.  

I loved New York but I did not want to stay there just for the sake of being there (rent, visas, it is no easy feat!). The only person that I saw myself working for was Donna Karan as I thoroughly enjoyed the fellowship program. That year the company did not hire any of the participants and I took it as a sign that there was no reason to stay. Based on the feedback I got from judges, professors and other audiences in different competitions and panels, I felt ready to take a leap of faith and start working on my own brand.

The competition circuit which I got a taste of while in college, is the strategy I adopted once leaving the confines of school. In the fall following graduation, I applied to 4-5 competitions for emerging designers based in a variety of different countries. One of the competitions was Lakmé Fashion Week Gen Next. They take on 5 budding designers a season and I was lucky to have been selected for the February 2018 showcase. I made a whole new collection, had to look for suppliers, had to report back to an assigned mentor on a monthly basis.. Lakme as a platform is what whipped all my thoughts into shape and really provided structure for me to launch properly.

Did you attend any entrepreneurial training?

I really enjoyed my time at Parsons, and it was key in teaching me how to navigate working within the design industry: rendering ideas, networking, presenting to audiences, brand-image…. That being said, they mainly emphasize design thinking as well as technical making. The assumption perhaps being that most students will not be launching their company as fresh graduates and don’t urgently require any entrepreneurial training.  This means I basically learned on the go bit by bit, it was definitely a process and I still am in the midst of it. I am very fortunate that I am half-Indian. This gave me access to valuable production resources back in India – which allowed me to access the supplier end of things more easily.

What does success mean to you?

To me, success is not purely professional. Success is the ability to turn something that you truly love into a source of revenue. It is being financially comfortable and being able to pursue what brings you joy without the weight of constantly thinking about money. But it is also emotional stability: being surrounded by people who make you feel secure and supported and allow you to use your potential to its fullest. It is being with people who highlight the good in you and make you want to thrive for better at all times (as corny as this sounds haha).

There are multiple reasons why companies fail. What was your biggest struggle so far?

I think the biggest difficulty is knowing where you are supposed to spend your money and how much of it. As a young business owner, “how much do I spend on marketing”, “should I hire someone”, “do I need to pay an influencer and is it worth it?” are all questions buzzing in my head at all times. I personally opted for a less risk forward method, I do not do paid adverts, influencer campaigns… I have no one on payroll, everything is outsourced in limited quantities. Perhaps this is not the best strategy, perhaps it hinders exponential growth (as in gong viral) but in the end, I broke even in the first year and started being profitable in my second year. Perhaps I would have more followers if I paid 2k to a PR office each month or partnered with a celebrity for paid posts. I just felt that if I didn’t know the direct result of such investments, it was best to mainly pour the limited finances into production..  This is the biggest question.. You never know how much to invest when and where. Is it smart to be cautious? Is it smart to ride a wave fully and cash in all chips? Still unclear haha.

Did you have any particular difficulty because you are a woman entrepreneur?

The fashion space is a female-dominated and female-friendly space I would say, in that sense, no I have not. That being said, I have had horrendous experiences with production while dealing with certain suppliers. They were often Indian men who were older and did not necessary see a 22 year-old girl and take her work seriously. They probably assumed I was making pretty clothes as a hobby till I get married, which culturally makes sense for a lot of people in India. Often my deadlines, my quality control, my technical specifics were overlooked and I was told “yeah, yeah it’ll be done. Why are you so worked up?’. In those times I did wonder, perhaps they would have been more diligent with my work had I been a man.

Is there anything you would do differently, knowing what you know now?

Sometimes I do ask myself if I should have gotten a job for one year. But it is not because I was not ready to start my brand, it’s simply because when you start a company, everything goes really fast and it is easy to feel a slight burn out. 24 is a bit young to experience these feelings and that’s the only that makes me question it at times. Another downside of having your own business is that you are always reaching out to people and attempting to sell/pitch your work. It can get overwhelming at times. But honestly, looking back, I would not have done anything differently because I learned so much, and mostly things I believe I would not have been exposed to as an assistant designer in a big firm, or a grad school student.

What habits helped you succeed in the past 2 years?

I have been very hungry to meet the right people. I made a special effort in every competition to have short but meaningful interactions with the judges, try to find a way for them to remember my work/make an impression on them hopefully. For example, in November I had a full length feature in Vogue US and many people asked me how this came about assuming it was the result of a close contact or PR efforts. Truth is, it just began with meeting one judge at a Vogue Italia competition in Mumbai, who then was kind enough to meet me when I came back to NY for a visit and offered to introduce me to a web editor at Vogue the same week. People have a lot of opinions about networking and how it is artificial and what not; but to me, they are just a different kind of relationship. They don’t need to be fake if you do it the right way. I love meeting new people and have genuine interest in them when I do, I think this shows and perhaps helps me maintain the contacts long after.

Is there a woman who inspires you?

My mother. She is a professional in the creative field (well-known Indian abstract painter, Sujata Bajaj) She is relentless and very driven, socially brilliant and creatively unapologetic. She is fully responsible for the reason I am the way I am and subconsciously informs every decision I make in my work. It is very difficult to make a name for oneself in the Arts and growing up right next to a creative success story helps you keep that faith that things can turn out really well if you apply yourself.

If you would recommend one thing it can be a book/podcast/movie to our readers, what would it be?

The movie Frida and the book “Educated”. Both are inspiring stories about very strong women, one a painter and one a writer. Both creatives, both having overcome extremely difficult circumstances, their work coming out even brighter from it.

Imagine at this moment, you can send a message to all the women entrepreneurs who are trying to build their companies, what would you tell them?

Think about why you want to do it. Are you bringing something new to the world? Only start something if you feel you are either responding to an existing issue or adding value in some way. Are you creating something previously unheard of?

Justine BA- Women Entrepreneurs #2

Justine is a young entrepreneur who founded RoomBâ. RoomBâ is a startup that creates a repertoire of public halls in towns and cities in France that people can privatize for events.

How did you start RoomBâ? What motivated you to become an entrepreneur?

I never thought of being an entrepreneur. I learned about these venues in town halls that are available but not exploited. I started to think that it is a very good opportunity and when I talked to people around me they validated. So I started in April 2019 and it has been one year now.

What does success mean to you?

Success is about how much you can influence people and society. For example for me currently, the definition of success is helping all the mayors in France to generate more revenue thanks to RoomBâ.

Did you attend any type of entrepreneurial training? 

Since I never considered becoming an entrepreneur, I did not get an education about it, in fact, I studied finance. However, the accelerator of French Tech was quite useful!

There are multiple reasons why a company fails such as product-market fit, running out of cash or problems within the team. Which one did you have the most difficulty with?

Finding an associate is difficult. I have right now 7 people who are freelancing for RoomBâ, however, I need a full-time person with technical expertise. Another difficulty is motivating people who are working for you, transmitting your passion for your work to your team is not an easy task.

In your opinion, what is the most difficult thing about being a woman entrepreneur? Did you personally have any problems because you were a woman?

Yes definitely! The entrepreneurial world is a very masculine environment, especially if you are working in tech. Men always try to impose their vision to you. You have these technical experts, who are mostly men, and they sometimes don’t listen to you. As a young woman entrepreneur, it is difficult to be taken seriously. They sometimes explain things slowly… For example, even going to a meeting alone and with a man is different! One time when I was at an investor meeting with one of the people in my team, the investor always addressed the guy in my team when we were talking. He was asking questions to this guy but not me about my own project!

How did you build credibility? How do you fight against “legitimacy doubt”?

First of all, I show them that I don’t doubt my vision of RoomBâ. Secondly, I do everything to make things work. I am not shy to talk to very different people in events. If I see someone at an event who can be interesting to talk to about my idea, I don’t hesitate to meet them. If it doesn’t work it is not a problem but I know that I try everything I can do. And actually, people like helping young and ambitious entrepreneurs.

Is there anything you would do differently, knowing what you know now?

I am not the same person right now. But I would not doubt myself and listen to anyone at the beginning!

What are the habits that helped your success in the past year?

My organization skills helped me a lot because I did not have a choice. You can not forget about your meeting or attend them unprepared! It is about your credibility and to be taken seriously I pay attention to this a lot. I work for my meetings and I take my work very seriously in general. Being an entrepreneur is really like being a project manager. You can have the best idea but if you are forgetting your meetings and not executing well people will stop believing in you.

Which woman inspires you? Why?

It is a funny question because when we think about entrepreneurs always guys come to mind like the founder of Doctolib or Blabla car… But there is one woman who inspires me a lot… Catherine Barba. She is very fresh and gentile but also very ambitious.

Can you recommend a resource, it can be a book/podcast/movie, to the women entrepreneurs who are going to read this interview?

Le Gratin, the podcast of Pauline Laigneau! I actually met a lot of entrepreneurs thanks to this podcast.

If you would send a message to all the women on earth who are trying to build their companies what would it be?

We are powerful!

Gulbin Asci – Women Entrepreneurs #1

Gülbin is the founder of GAB, a project consulting company specialized in infrastructure projects in İzmir, Turkey and she is also my mom! She has raised funds from the government for women entrepreneurs in Turkey (KOSGEB) at the age of 49.

Hello mom, thank you very much for accepting to have this very special first interview which is the start of a series about women entrepreneurs.

Tell me about GAB and your mission with GAB?

Hello, thank you very much for having me as your first guest! Sure, GAB is a project consulting company. We are specialized in infrastructure projects and our clients are mostly municipalities and contractors. Currently we have five people in the team. My vision for GAB is doing the highest quality work I can do, and mainly being useful to my country.

What does success mean to you?

Success to me, is being useful to the community that I am living in.

You are contributing to your community with your project management company. What are the habits or character traits of yours contributed to your success?

Being stubborn. I am not talking about being stubborn because of your ego, there are different types of stubbornness. One should be stubborn on achieving their goals.

Winning the battle that you have with yourself everyday… by doing the things that you should do to achieve something great…not the things you want to do in a fleeting moment just because it feels good.

What were the triggers that pushed you to become an entrepreneur?

I think there are internal and external triggers. First of all, there is this internal desire what triggers someone to become an entrepreneur. I believe that a lot of people actually have this entrepreneurial quality when they are born, children are creative and expressive. But then you learn to suppress it. I always had that drive internally but due to circumstances I had to work as an employee in the government for 20 years. After you work somewhere for a very long time, especially with lots of rules, you develop a learned helplessness. I was feeling trapped and was looking for a life which is more dynamic. So I started my company at the age of 49.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be an entrepreneur?

To me being an entrepreneur means making things better! It doesn’t have to be a groundbreaking idea… There are of course innovators but not all entrepreneurs are innovators. Creating something better than everyone in the market is also entrepreneurship. It is about filling the gaps in a given sector.

In your opinion, what is the most difficult thing about being a woman entrepreneur?

I honestly don’t think that there is an additional difficulty about being a woman entrepreneur. In fact, I think there is even a positive discrimination. I personally benefited a lot from the fund that the government is providing to the women entrepreneurs in Turkey (KOSGEB).

How did you get credibility quickly? How do you fight against “legitimacy doubt”?

If you are building a company without having any work experience, you will probably have problems about credibility regardless of your gender.

I had a lot of problems with credibility at the very beginning of my career. I was one of the few women civil engineers in the government. Men were not listening to me in the meetings or even sometimes not taking me seriously. But as I worked hard and proved myself and gained experience, they started recognizing me.

I would have legitimacy issues, if I started my project management company at the beginning of my career. But I found GAB after 20 years of experience and I have a network of contractors with whom I have been working for a long time. In the end, legitimacy was not a big problem for me.

Is there a woman who inspires you?

All the strong women who are able to stand on their own feet and work for being useful to the society inspire me.

If you would recommend one thing it can be a book/podcast/movie to our readers, what would it be?

I recommend “Self-made” on Netflix, it is a beautiful story of a woman who has worked a lot to rise from her struggles. Watch it to get inspired and to hold on to your dreams!

Thank you mom, last but not least what would be the one message that you would give to an aspiring woman entrepreneur?

Overcome your critical inner voice that tells you “you can’t”. Tell yourself “I can do it” and then work for it.