Women's Small Business Month - What's Your Iowa?

10/29/2013 04:25 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Women with dreams of starting their own business -- or growing their existing business -- need to find their Iowa.

In celebration of Women's Small Business Month (wrapping up this week), we are spotlighting several small businesswomen who did just that: found their Iowa and went after it.

What's your Iowa?

The question is a page out of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign -- a great lesson for anyone interested in creating a strategic plan for business success. In the book Take the Lead, author Betsy Myers shares how the Obama campaign focused singularly on "winning Iowa." That strategy filtered out the extraneous and brought "clarity to an organization under siege."

So, what's the question you need to ask yourself to focus on winning your Iowa?

In each of the five businesses highlighted here, including my own company, /'sas∙s'ē/ agency, a woman created a strategy and won her Iowa.

Susie Danick -- founder and co-owner of TAD Relocation and sister company, TAD Transport -- found her Iowa after realizing that her hobby was a model for a cottage industry business.

Jillian Copeland -- founder of The Diener School -- found her Iowa in her son Nicol, who had medical and special needs.

Valorie Thompson -- principal of Innovations Consulting Group -- found her Iowa after decades in the male-centric world of big business pharmaceuticals.

Karen Bergreen -- writer and comedian -- found her Iowa and began writing and doing stand-up comedy with abandon after realizing that NYC corporate law didn't feed her creative side.

Cari Shane (that's me) and my business partner, Julie Schumacher -- we found our Iowa in 2010 when we glued together our overlapping backgrounds in public relations and marketing, respectively, as part of our mission to help small companies make noise about their businesses within the exploding world of social media and beyond.

Where to start if you are a woman:
There's been a lot written about strategies for starting and growing a business. But, as we look at the success experienced by each of the small businesswomen earmarked here, we see that the lessons for men are quite different than those for women because, as Sheryl Sandberg points out correctly in her recent book, Lean In, 1) men still run the world; and, 2) women are still challenged by sexism in business.

Some facts to chew on before moving forward:

U.S. Population-2012 statistics (from the United Nations):
102 women to every 100 men

U.S. Politics:
18% of congressional offices held by women.

U.S. Business:
Top 500 companies by revenue-21 are headed by women.

Worldwide Politics:
197 heads of state - 22 are women.

To combat these facts, women need a different strategic plan for success than men because society's attitudes -- and women's attitudes about themselves -- remain a hurdle. To use a phrase oft-spoken by my own mother, a brilliant 60s, 70s, and 80s NYC Public Relations Executive who helped carve a path for women in a formerly male-centric career - we need to stop being our own worst enemies.

Studies show that, on the whole, we are just that -- our own worst enemies -- but we're not alone in that department. According to Sandberg's tome, which should be required reading for every incoming college freshman, girl and boy, the challenge, while exponential in nature, can be explained in part by our culture's perception of women:

1) A woman's perception of herself
2) A woman's perception of other women
3) A man's perception of women
4) A woman's perception of men

Sandberg sums up the research: "...success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women." When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less. This truth is both shocking and unsurprising: shocking because no one would ever admit to stereotyping on the basis of gender and unsurprising because clearly we do." Sandberg takes this research and theorizes: "I believe that this bias is at the very core of why women are held back. It is also at the very core of why women hold themselves back. For men, professional success comes with positive reinforcement at every step of the way. For women, even when they're recognized for their achievements, they're often regarded unfavorably."

And, this the reason we are celebrating Women's Small Business Month. The women who have forged ahead, ignored those possible internal and external obstacles, took risks, challenged themselves, etc., etc., etc., are the champions who have laid the groundwork. Reading the stories of how other women succeeded in business could be all that it takes for that next woman with an idea to start a business -- next week, next month, next year.

Millions of women have already overcome these challenges and, as a result, the United States brags 8 million majority-women-owned businesses generating $3 trillion in business and providing 23 million jobs. These stats, from the National Women's Business Council, are encouraging and show us that the impact of women in business is positive.

So, let's get to it and celebrate some women who found their Iowa:

Today we are celebrating Susie Danick, founder of TAD Relocation, a move-management firm in the Washington, D.C. area, a company that grew from a "hobby," as Danick called it, to a major small business that employs more than 25 people with more hires on the way. After 13 years, in 2013 the company expanded to include a sister company, TAD Transport.

TAD is a move-management firm. Danick likes to sum it up by explaining, "We're wedding planners of the moving industry," organizing and arranging the entire move process. Danick explains that TAD serves to "erase 'the overwhelming' and replace it with 'organizing' exponentially reducing 'transitional trauma' -- the physical and most especially, mental, toll of a move."

A registered nurse, Danick founded TAD after her own experience when downsizing her grandmother (moving her from a larger home to a smaller one). Her grandmother's friends saw just how easy Danick made it, and called her to move them, too. "Every day since our first move, our days end with many hugs and kisses not only from the people we move, but from their families and adult children as well." With 4000 moves behind her, that's a lot of hugs and kisses for Danick.

As the company continued to grow each year, Danick knew it was time to take TAD to the next level. She decided to ask her husband, the COO of a major business, to join her business. She laid out their skill sets: She is an organizational guru with a nursing background and a passion for design; he is an expert and established businessman.

He left his job and "moved" to TAD.

"Nine years ago, we created a great team, set a great foundation for TAD and have never looked back," says Danick. "Finding a great partner is essential to help find balance in your personal and professional life. How lucky I am to have my life partner along for the ride in our business!"

I'll state here for the record that it has nothing to do with luck. Maybe Danick is "lucky" that her husband is such a supportive partner and husband, but her success is more than about luck. It's right back to that, "I deserve it" piece that Sandberg talks about. Danick focused on her Iowa, stated her case and her husband listened.

Jillian Copeland found a support system in her community, family and husband as well. In 2006, Copeland, an educational consultant, took a need -- her son Nicol's medical and special needs -- and opened a school. Now in its 8th year, The Diener School has not only made magic happen for her own child, but she has created a foundation of learning for hundreds of other children giving them a future where their families had never imagine one. "The Diener School is an exemplary business model," says Copeland, who named the school after her grandfather, the "wise owl."

"We are kind and fair and a model for other schools and businesses to follow. We are advocates for children and families who need guidance and support... I am most proud of the virtues we exhibit as a community: passion, compassion, kindness, diligence, dedication and commitment. It is a culture of respect which we hope will permeate through our community and beyond."

Starting a school is unlike starting any other business. There are hurdles, both educational and monetary, regulations that must be followed, testing requirements and overseeing bodies with rules that must be adhered to. None of that stopped Copeland, a busy mother of four boys under 12. Her resolve, her drive to help her son whose brain had been damaged by years of seizures since toddlerhood, was too strong.

So how exactly did Copeland do it? She called on friends and family, fundraised and fundraised more. But there was still more to do. So, she hit the ground running with an energy and resolve that didn't quit, with a business formula that was/is creative and a networking ability that is brilliant. Says Carol Kranowitz, M.A., Author of The Out of Sync Child, of The Diener School: "1) Kids gotta move 2) Movement IS learning 3) Children learn optimally when their bodies, minds and spirits are engaged and 'in sync'. The Diener School 'gets it' about these three basic facts and provides every student with the ideal environment for developing academic, social, and life skills." Copeland won her Iowa.

According to the SBA's Office of Advocacy "99.7 percent of all employer firms," such as TAD Relocation, which employs more than 25 individuals, and The Diener School, with a staff of more than 2 dozen, are classified as "small businesses (less than 500 employees);" small businesses employ 51% of all people; have generated nearly two-thirds (64%) of net new jobs over the past decade and a half; and produce 13 times more patents per employee than large patenting firms." When it comes to women-owned businesses, statistics show that between 1997- and 2002, women-owned firms were growing at twice the rate of all other groups.

According to the National Women's Business Council:

  • There are 27-million small businesses in the United States.
  • 28% of those businesses (7.7 million) are owned by women.
  • In 2013 there are 20.1% more women owned businesses than there were in 2002.
  • It's projected that women owned businesses will account for one-third of all new jobs created in the year 2018.

Many of today's female-owned small businesses have grown out of or developed because of big business - women who have chosen to leave big business in exchange for being their own bosses, running their own companies.

With a resume of both big and small business success, Valorie Thompson, Principal of Innovations Consulting Group, LLC in Washington, D.C., left big business in 2001 to became a small business owner. Like so many, Thompson's story is a lesson of tenacity and drive and learning to play in the big leagues. After decades in the trenches and that feeling of negative reinforcement for success along with yet "another impending relocation, I decided to leave corporate life and begin a new phase of 'self employment'," says Thompson. "Fortunately, I was able to establish myself as a consultant directly upon leaving corporate life and after the first year of consulting, the decision was made to formally establish a consulting group."

Thompson did it with the support of colleagues and friends, "and the incredible support from many of the individuals with whom I had worked during my years in corporate life." Over the past 12 years, Thompson's business has steadily grown. "There have certainly been very long days coupled with a never ending learning curve but I have been able to work in an area that I am passionate about, along with world-renowned researchers, clinicians and patients who share the same focus - making life better for the millions of individuals living with arthritis. This was my first foray into owning a business and after establishing the for-profit company, 5 years later I established a non-profit organization focused on educational and research initiatives."

Karen Bergreen left corporate America as well. A NYC lawyer turned stand-up comedian and novelist, Bergreen says her farewell to the mid-town hi-rise office building grew out of a lifelong creative need. "I wasn't happy working in an office and holding everything in. I treated my quest to become a performer as a job. I threw myself into it. I worked nonstop for free and took a million classes. It started with comedy, moved into novels, then some magazine work, now I am working as a public speaker," says Bergreen who performs in the NYC Comedy circuit as well as around the country and is the author of two novels, Following Polly and Perfect is Overated. "Who knows what I will be doing five years from now," says Bergreen, standing up to her inner-self doubter and refusing to, as Sandberg writes of the curse of the businesswoman, "lower our own expectations of what we can achieve."

Sandberg quotes Deborah Gruenfeld of Stanford University, a professor of leadership and organizational behavior. "'Our entrenched cultural ideas associate men with leadership qualities and women with nurturing qualities and put women in a double bind. We believe not only that women are nurturing, but that they should be nurturing above all else. When a woman does anything that signals she might not be nice first and foremost, it creates a negative impression and makes us uncomfortable.' Acting in stereotypically feminine ways makes it difficult to reach for the same opportunities as men, but defying expectations and reaching for those opportunities leads to being judged as undeserving and selfish."

In other words, there's a downside to achievement.

"Most of us are never told about this downside of achievement," says Sandberg. "Still we sense this punishment for success. We're aware that when a woman acts forcefully or competitively, she's deviating from the expected behavior. If a woman pushes to get the job done, if she's highly competent, if she focuses on the results rather than on pleasing others, she's acting like a man. And if she acts like a man, people dislike her."

Interesting place for me to throw in a personal side bar comment. When I have a job to do, I focus on getting it done and getting it done intelligently and immediately. I have, however, been called out by clients on this matter-of-fact, "let's move it along" trait. As Sandberg writes, it's because -- I suspect -- I am focusing more on results than on pleasing another individual, the "expected" female trait. By way of example, a client emailed, "I don't like your tone," in response to an email that summed up, after myriad discussions and communications, what his company still needed to do so my agency could move along a project that we were hired to do. I have no other explanation for his response than to say he didn't like hearing my to-the-point comments from a woman. I would wager a very large bet that a similar, matter-of-fact email written by a man and intended to move along a project would never have received the response, "I don't like your tone." Try and picture it; it's not even imaginable.

And that's the sexism piece.

"I know a lot if female authors say that there is sexism in the book biz, and I'm sure there is, but it is nothing compared to comedy," says Bergreen. "Comedy is fifty years behind. It's getting better, because the women audiences want to see female comics."

So, it's about our environment as well as our internal obstacles. Or, perhaps it's about the way the two "objects" crash into each other, how the pieces fall, whether we decide to pick them up and how we glue them all back together.

Danick didn't let her internal obstacles (if there had been any) stop her. She saw the value of her idea and she moved forward with it. And we see how important her husband's role was. Joel Danick saw the value of her idea and supported her. We celebrate Danick and her husband for seeing, believing and supporting. Says Sandberg, "The time is long overdue to encourage more women to dream the possible dream and encourage more men to support women in the workforce and in the home."

Susie Danick took an idea and turned it into one of the 7.7 million small, women-owned businesses in the U.S.

Jillian Copeland designed her own pyramid of learning, which became the foundation for her son's success and the success of hundreds of other children. Then, she wrote a mission for her school: To teach through experience, stimulate academically, prepare socially and create a successful educational journey that motivates minds and inspires capabilities for a lifetime. Then, she too became one of the 7.7 million.

And my own agency, /'sas∙s'ē/. We became one of the 7.7 because we had a mission to give the little guys a chance to brag about themselves. Just like the big dogs, the little dogs need a voice and a chance to talk about their platforms and accomplishments and to create business strategies that will help them grow bigger. We forged ahead with our own business because we are passionate about our mission.

We can do it with support of spouses and family and friends. But we can also do it alone -- because we are not alone. There are 7.7 million of us "just doing it."

Playing with the boys:

I have pulled from Sandberg's book and the wisdom of other brilliant women who have written on this subject, a to-do list that will help women play with the proverbial boys:

1) Women need to create a double play scenario with their business personalities, combing "niceness" with "insistence." Be "relentlessly pleasant," suggests Mary Sue Coleman, President of the University of Michigan. And, according to Sandberg, "Women must come across as being nice, concerned about others, and "appropriately" female." And that's because, Sandberg theorizes, "When women take a more instrumental approach ("This is what I want and deserve"), people react far more negatively.

2) Legitimize yourself: "Justify your requests," says Sandberg who points to research by Professor Hannah Riley Bowles who studies gender and negotiations at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. According to Bowles' research, men do not need to do this because they are "expected" to take care of business and themselves.

3) Play by the rules designed by other, stay focused and smile.

4) Invoke common interests and larger goals, rather than goals that appear self indulgent.

5) Be willing to give up being 'liked' for being successful.

When asked if she had any other advice for women, mother, writer, stand-up comic, Karen Bergreen summed it up simply: "Be relentless."

What's your Iowa?