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

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.