Natalie Ehrlich only had two years of college when her son was born, so when he was in elementary school, she went back to school and got her doctorate in health science. Believing education is the way out of poverty, Natalie went to Ethiopia in 2006 and worked with the ministry of education. Upon her return to the States, she didn't want to go back to being Dr. Ehrlich, associate professor. She stayed home and healed a little, before opening an Oxi Fresh Carpet Cleaning franchise in Phoenix. Today, Natalie owns and operates seven Oxi Fresh franchises in the greater Phoenix area. In addition, when Natalie isn't running her seven franchises in Arizona, she's running marathons all around the world. To date, she has finished 56 marathons -- including 41 in 2013 alone -- in all 50 states and four countries.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Most great leaders have great organizational skills. When I was a little girl, I'd always be rearranging and organizing the room I shared with my sister. My mom liked having me put away the dishes because I'd make sure everything was neat and tidy.
Being a single mother while a Ph.D student, was also a great learning challenge. They taught me the importance of identifying what needed to be done for success, prioritizing those actions, and then persevering to achieve my goals
How has your previous employment experience aided your position as a franchise owner?
I spent 15 years teaching undergraduate and graduate classes in higher education with an emphasis in Health Administration and Planning, Public Policy and Organizational Development. In addition, I spent almost a year working in Quality Assurance with the Ministry of Education in Ethiopia. These work experiences taught me the importance of both public and environmental health.
Consequently, owning a company that is committed to improving environmental and public health is very important to me. Oxi Fresh is a green company with a low-moisture process that uses 95% less water than traditional steam cleaners. We don't leave our vehicles running during the appointments which also cut down on the emission of harmful pollution. And since our equipment is portable and doesn't require hoses running through our customers' houses, they can keep their doors shut while we clean. All of this makes my company eco-friendly and is something I really believe in and can get behind.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It is important for me to establish my priorities on a regular basis. I can get really focused on work or my personal life, and that's great, but if I'm not careful I can lose focus on other things. So for me, I maintain my work/life balance by being very conscious of it. I can't just tell myself, "I'm sure I'll have time next week." I need to put a date on it or I may get wrapped up in something and never get around to it. Managing and scheduling my time is essential to my overall success.
Another big part of my life balance is keeping a positive attitude and reducing stress. If I allow myself to get fatigued it will affect my ability to work and communicate effectively. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle includes eating right, exercising regularly and getting enough rest. I run six miles three days during the week with a long weekend run; of course this depends on the races I have coming up or have just completed. This is a good time for me to breathe deep and release any anxiety I might be feeling. It gives me time to assess situations and help puts me in the right frame of mind for decision making.
The final key to a healthy balance is being able to trust and relying on my team rather than always feeling like I need to be in charge of everything.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure as a franchise owner?
The biggest highlight for me was being named "Franchisee of the Year" in 2011 and being in the Top 10 in 2013. I've really enjoyed working with all the amazing franchisees in the Oxi Fresh family. Everyone is committed to sharing ideas and best practices; it's great to be able to learn from other successful business owners.
My biggest challenge has been building an excellent team over the years. I want to ensure my customers are receiving the absolute best service possible, so all of my team members must share two important fundamental qualities. People we hire must be absolutely trustworthy and be completely committed to excellence - no excuses, no exceptions.
How has being a 'marathon maniac' benefited you professionally?
It has really reinforced the importance of planning. I wanted to become a 10 Star Maniac, which meant I had to commit to run a minimum of 30 full marathons in 30 different states within 12 months. That's not something you can do without planning ahead.
Another benefit is stress release. Running releases Dopamine (a happy chemical), and since I committed to running on a regular basis I have had less anxiety and been happier. I also have more energy and I sleep better at night.
I've met so many amazing people during my races. I remember running with several established runners and they encouraged me to keep pressing towards my goal no matter how hard - the prize of accomplishment is always worth it in the end.
That's really true in business. Everyone wants a successful company but not everyone is disciplined and committed to doing what is necessary to succeed. That's not an option for me. Becoming a Marathon Maniac reinforced the importance of total commitment. As long as you never quit, you're always moving ahead.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Even though things are better then they used to be, I still feel equal pay is a definite issue. Despite the efforts to equal pay for equal performance, some people still consider women less desirable than men in leadership roles.
In addition, I feel assertive women or those with high expectations are viewed differently than men with the same qualities. When a man has those traits, he's perceived as a great leader; when a woman has them, she's often seen as aggressive and difficult.
What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
I agree with Sheryl Sandberg. Women should believe in themselves and own their accomplishments. Often times women undersell themselves or give credit to others instead of accepting due credit. Most men on the other hand, have no problem taking credit for their work. Women definitely should be respected for the knowledge and abilities they bring to the table. I agree women should take their place at the main table, not the side table. Women should be a part of challenging projects and look for advancement opportunities. It is important for women to "lean in" to be heard while understanding it often takes patience and persistence to be heard.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have been blessed to have several mentors in my life. Bobbie Peters is a person that greatly influenced me. She was my next door neighbor for many years and taught me many wonderful life lessons, like honoring God and expecting Him to answer prayers. She taught me diligence, how to make my house a home and the importance of giving to others. She told me to dream big and live life expectantly.
Barbara Waterbury was another important mentor in my life. She watched me grow up and always encouraged and believed in me. A few short months before she passed away in 2002, we were talking and I shared with her I wanted to be like other women that were quiet and soft spoken, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn't seem to change. She smiled and told me God created gave each of us different talents and my job was to develop my talents and learn to be happy with myself.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire Joyce Meyer because she has overcome great adversity and has been able to use her strong personality in a positive manner to help others. Listening to her has helped me understand myself and become a better person and leader. When I am going through a difficult or stressful time, I remember her words "You can be pitiful or powerful, but you can't be both" and "always keep your peace."
On a humorous note... I have often said I wanted to be like Erica Kane. I watched her for 40 years (on and off). While she didn't always make the best decisions, Erica always believed in herself and her ability to succeed. I think everything we do stems from our belief in ourselves. If we believe we can do something, we will do it.
Which one word describes best how you have got to where you are today?
Perseverance. My first ultra marathon was the JFK 50 Mile. Before the JFK I had never run more than 26 miles. Of those that finished with a qualifying time, I came in last, but I was happy and thankful to make the cut. I persevered and accomplished my goal. I did not quit. This philosophy is the compass that guides both my personal and professional world.