Your Answer to This Crucial Question Will Make or Break Your Business’s Growth

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Do you want to be the Queen or do you want to be the Bank? In other words, as a business owner, do you want to have control or do you want cash? This is the question that all entrepreneurs must answer at some point. Running a business is a series of decisions, small and large, with each decision varying in its overall impact. Being an entrepreneur comes with its own set of unique decisions. And being a woman entrepreneur further complicates the choices that you make, as your decisions tend to receive more scrutiny.

I am now in the heat of running my third startup. My journey is like others’; the first startup was a disaster. The product was interesting, but without relevant experience, I had no credibility. I spent all of the money, learned a ton about what not to do and swore I would never start another business.

The next time around, I started a company with a mission that was squarely in my wheelhouse. Be Bold Now is a non-profit dedicated to promoting gender parity by showcasing women’s stories and hosting an International Women’s Day event. This time, we were wildly successful with rapid attendance and revenue growth. But five years into this venture, and just four days ahead of our annual event, the first Covid-19 death was reported in our home state of Washington. Needless to say, our business came to a crashing halt. By spring of 2020, it was clear that we needed to pivot. 

Related: What You Gain With a Growth Team

I started reading the news about the devastating effect that the pandemic was having on women and the immediate loss of economic ground. This, coupled with the increase in online shopping, led me to my next startup: TheWMarketplace. TheWMarketplace is an ecommerce marketplace for women-owned businesses on a mission to be the economic engine for women. I took the lessons I learned from both previous ventures and the passion I have around creating gender parity and started a mission-driven for-profit business.

Growth raises the important question: Queen or Bank? 

My cofounder and I launched TheWMarketplace to shoppers in September 2020, and we now have over 500 brands offering more than 3,000 products and services. It was clear early on that we would need to raise money to support the growth that we were experiencing. We opened a pre-seed round of funding five months after launch and closed it with one investor in three days. The Queen(s) and the Bank were thrilled!

We put the money into enhancing our business on Shopify, hiring a few similarly mission-driven staff at greatly reduced rates and building awareness for a viable shopping alternative to the leading online retailer. We created a place where people could support women-owned businesses and the communities they care about. 

Our revenue has grown over 580% and we have big plans for the future. We are now faced with the original question: Queen or Bank?

Queen means that we own the majority share of the business. We make the decisions without having to consult anyone else and can grow at the rate that our revenue enables us to: presumably slow and steady. As founders, we often are advised to bootstrap as long as possible in order to retain control of the business. And as everyone knows, “Early money is expensive.”

Bank means that we take on other equity partners in exchange for money to accelerate our growth. We may need to share the decision-making about how the business grows, but would also have the cash infusion to accelerate our growth and meet the market opportunity. Being a mission-driven business potentially makes shifting the decision-making to a larger group more complicated. What if our investors don’t align with or want to dilute the mission in pursuit of revenue?

With all of these considerations in mind, what it comes down to for us is: Do we own a large piece of a small business? Or do we own a small piece of a big business?

Related: You Cannot Cut Your Way to Growth

You can’t change the world if you’re satisfied with slow growth

The majority of the roughly 14 million women-owned business in the U.S. today are considered small. They employ fewer than 3 people and typically are considered “lifestyle” businesses. They are either self-funded or operate with small loans or grants. They grow slowly and generally stay in the small-business category.

On the other end of the size spectrum, in 2021, a record-breaking 1,057 U.S.-based companies raised capital through Initial Public Offerings (IPO). Of those 1,057, a grand total of four companies (Bumble, NextDoor, 23andMe and Rent the Runway) were founded by women. And of the thousands of companies that have gone public over the years, there only have been 31 that were founded by women.

The mission of my company is to be the economic engine for women. You cannot change the world and fuel growth for women by planning to be small or being satisfied with slow growth. So my answer to the question of Queen or Bank is clear: Bank. It is critical for us to have capital to grow this business and the 500-plus women-owned businesses that are using our platform. It simply is our mission. But in choosing Bank, we are also prioritizing the right fit in an equity partner. Anyone who shares in our decisions will also have to be fully committed to our vision and mission.

Related: Balance Growth vs. Profitability With These 4 Tips

We know that when we align our vision with partners who can fuel the economic engine for women, we will be on our way to becoming the 32nd women-owned business to IPO. When we ring that bell on the NYSE, we will be Queen for a day — but we would rather be the Bank for life.

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How This Entrepreneur Bootstrapped Her Business, Landed on the Shelves of Target and Ulta and Disrupted the Sunscreen Category

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

For most of my life, I had come to terms with and begrudgingly accepted the fact that no sunscreen would easily blend into my dark skin. I would rub the lotion harder and harder into my skin, only to see the inevitable white cast on my face that would not fade. I would look into the mirror to see Casper the Friendly Ghost staring back at me. I have been on a never-ending journey to countless drug stores and beauty counters to figure out how to make sunscreen blend into my brown skin.

Black Girl Sunscreen

Then I met Black Girl Sunscreen. It was as if the product was made for me. Sleek and modern packaging, an affordable price point, easy to apply and use, with the product melting, blending and drying onto my brown skin. No signs of a white cast; only my own reflection staring back at me.

“We started the anti-white-residue movement back in 2016,” says Shontay Lundy, founder of Black Girl Sunscreen. “It wasn’t even a topic addressed by any major brands or even the sun care industry as a whole until Black Girl Sunscreen arrived.”

The global sunscreen industry is currently estimated to be around $8.5 billion and is forecast to reach over $10.7 billion by 2024. But for people of color, finding a sunscreen that works for their skin continues to be a challenge.

“The biggest concern I hear from my patients with darker skin is about the cosmetic appearance of the sunscreen once it’s applied,” Crystal Aguh, director of the Ethnic Skin Program at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, shared with Consumer Reports. “Too many products give their skin a light cast.”

Lundy is the driving force behind Black Girl Sunscreen, disrupting the sun care category by serving a community that the industry has ignored for far too long: women of color. “I know exactly who I’m serving, because I am my own customer.”

From self-funding her business to now being on the shelves of Target and Ulta, here are three lessons Lundy has learned while building Black Girl Sunscreen.

Lean on your past experiences

“I was always a curious child and wanted to try everything,” Lundy recalls. “I played violin, tap danced and ran track. My grandparents supported me in everything I wanted to do. They taught me to be the best in everything I do, no matter what.” And yet, growing up, Lundy wasn’t always confident in who she was. 

Even though she was excelling, Lundy didn’t always feel like she belonged, attending predominantly white schools and living predominantly in white neighborhoods. “I always wanted that blond ponytail that would swish back and forth, and that wasn’t the texture of my hair.” Her drive to ensure all little girls feel represented would eventually lead her to found Black Girl Sunscreen.

Lundy’s grit and determination led to a successful career in corporate America before starting her own company. “I worked in the car rental industry,” Lundy says. “It was an industry where I knew I had to be a soldier to survive; it was incredibly number-driven and performance-based.” Lundy says that it’s unfortunate that there are a number of negative stereotypes about the car rental industry, because it was an incredible training ground for her. She learned the importance of being customer-focused, always being on time, and how to communicate with various stakeholders. 

“I watched how different departments interacted — what was needed and what wasn’t needed,” Lundy says. “I understood sales and the drivers of growth, and most importantly, how to stay competitive. All of those past experiences have contributed to the success of Black Girl Sunscreen.”

Related: 5 Ways to Focus on Inclusion as We Return to the Office

Build a brand that’s relatable

Building a brand all starts with the name. When Lundy was thinking about a name for the business, she wanted to make sure it spoke to her and her community, and that it was relatable. “Black Girl Sunscreen just made sense,” Lundy shares. “I love being a Black woman, and I want women of color to know this product is for us.” 

Black Girl Sunscreen is not only for Black women; it serves all women of color. According to Nielsen, Black consumers’ choices tend to influence other consumers of color. When you lead with an insight that solves a problem for Black women, you are likely helping solve a problem for all women of color. Today Black Americans have a spending power of $1.3 trillion; the multicultural consumer’s spending power in total is $3.4 trillion.

Lundy explains that the intentional inclusion of the word “girl” is intended to establish the brand as accessible, friendly and relatable. “When I say ‘hey girl,’ it’s a term of endearment, and it’s how I address and speak with my peers,” she says. “I want Black Girl Sunscreen to be that friend that you’ll take with you to the beach, on a hike, to hang out by the pool with your girlfriends.” The storytelling on Black Girl Sunscreen’s Instagram platform brings this to life: We see the images that reflect our friends, are reminded of the things that are on all of our minds, and are offered tips and support for our beauty regimen.

Related: This Entrepreneur Made a Splash in the $16 Billion Swimwear Market By Listening to Her Customers

Be mentally prepared

“There will always be believers and non-believers,” Lundy says. “And you have to be mentally prepared for those who don’t believe, for those who believe your vision is too small and your idea is too niche and won’t be successful.”

Lundy self-funded Black Girl Sunscreen to start, investing every dollar back into the business. She was frugal, ensuring she knew how she was spending every dollar, so that when she did bring on investors, they knew how she would spend the money. “In the early days, three of us were headed to Michael’s, looking for props and items for our photo shoots. We were creating our content for Instagram, involved in making the product, attending and running booths at expos, and building our online presence all on our own.”

When Target and Ulta came calling, it was because Black Girl Sunscreen already had a massive, loyal following. “Whether it’s a buyer or an investor, my biggest piece of advice is to be prepared with the numbers. Know your business inside and out.”

Since 2017, Black Girl Sunscreen, which is headquartered in Los Angeles, has brought on 12 employees. Since the time of its inception, it has quintupled its revenue and maintained profitability, and Lundy continues to keep an eye on managing expenses. Black Girl Sunscreen is now the official sponsor of Women’s Track and Field at University of Southern California and is the first Black-owned brand to partner with a major university. It’s a perfect partnership for the brand and is an opportunity to build relationships with USC students who go on to be Olympians.

“Our number one mission is to continue to start the conversation around sun safety amongst people of color,” Lundy says. “With Black Girl Sunscreen, we are ensuring that women of color are no longer ignored — they are seen, heard and included.”

Related: How This Entrepreneur Is Changing What We Put on Our Kitchen Tables

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Here’s What You Should Wear on Your First Day Back in the Office, And Why It Matters

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

I have a growing list of anxieties about returning to the office after Labor Day. I joined Carta last October, and I’ve been working remotely since then and have only met one coworker in person (a socially distanced coffee encounter on a city bench.)  A recent survey conducted by Limeade reveals that I’m not alone: Every single one of the 500 people surveyed reported feeling anxious about the idea of returning to the office.  

Although commuting to work, less flexibility and the need for childcare are some of the top concerns, my head has also been filled with a list of much more superficial items. Where will I sit? Who will I eat lunch with? And most important of all, what will I wear on that very first day of work? Do I don one of the dresses I used to love to wear to work, or do I embrace that company hoodie?

As I scroll through blouse options on my phone, revisit old dresses in my closet and receive another hoodie from my employer, I’m buying and piecing together post-pandemic looks. And just like me, more than half of U.S. consumers plan to buy apparel in the coming months, making it the top category of anticipated spending.

“Wear the dress,” Elizabeth Lewis, founder and CEO of Brand, Style, & Bloom coaches me. “Wear what makes you happy, and more importantly what represents your brand. First impressions matter.”  

Lewis is the branding guru and creative force behind Brand, Style & Bloom. Her mission is to help professionals get noticed to achieve their vision of success, using personal branding and styling as tools. Lewis primarily works with women, recognizing that women have many more choices when it comes to what they wear and are also judged more harshly than men on their appearances. Leaders like Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama and Steve Jobs have all publicly proclaimed that they made the choice to wear the same thing every day: A uniform of gray or blue suits, blue jeans and that black mock turtleneck or a simple gray T-shirt.

“I think that is definitely a decision that you can make once you’ve had the privilege of reaching a certain point in your career or have enough zeros in your bank account,” Lewis says. “Most of us do not have this privilege, much less have the chance to explain why we wear what we wear, and that’s especially true for women.”

Related: Barack Obama, Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg All Swear By This High-Performance Habit

As Lewis continues on her mission to help women stand out and embrace their uniqueness, here are three lessons she shares on building a business:

1. Follow your passion 

Lewis has loved fashion for as long as she can remember. She loved dressing up in her mom’s clothes and high heels and flipping through Vogue magazine. She enjoyed experimenting with bright colors and recalls proudly wearing red-orange Calvin Klein jeans paired with lime green socks.

“They say to find your passion, look at the common thread that has run through your entire life,” shares Lewis. Along the way, she pursued some secondary loves, but fashion never left her. “I continued to style my friends and get compliments on my own outfits, and I promised myself one day I would return to fashion.”

In 2019, while working as a brand marketer at Colgate-Palmolive, Lewis decided the time was right to take the leap and start her own company, Brand, Style & Bloom. Lewis’ great-grandmother, who ran her own country store and real estate business in the 1950s in a segregated South, served as a source of inspiration.

2. Provide easy-to-understand solutions

With so many options, styling can seem like an overwhelming, complex problem to solve. Lewis’ approach is to provide a practical, easy-to-understand solution. “Our personal style is a great tool to express who we are and what makes us unique, and I always dress with that in mind,” she explains.

She works with clients one-on-one and offers workshops to organizations to help people find three words that signify how they want to show up and what they bring to the table. Lewis’ three words are fearless, joyful and artistic. Using these words, her wardrobe choices manifest in bright colors, interesting patterns and of course her signature red lipstick.

During her time at Colgate-Palmolive, she spent much of her time as a marketer on product packaging. “Not every product has a big campaign budget and gets featured in high-profile commercials,” explains Lewis. “And so a product needs to have strong packaging to be noticed on the shelf and stand out among the other choices.”

Lewis started to compare this thought to people. “We can have all the right ingredients and still not know how to present ourselves.” So she began her mission to help professionals reach their full potential. “Visual signifiers are very important, because people make snap decisions about us before they get to know us, and at the end of the day, we need the help of others to reach our goals.”

Related: These Sisters Relied on Side Hustles to Pay the Rent While Bootstrapping Their Food Business: “We Were Pinching Pennies Then Would Walk Into a VC’s Office and Act Like We Didn’t Need Their Money”

3. Be ready to solve problems differently

During this pandemic, women-owned businesses have been more likely to close than businesses led by men. They have also been more likely to report a greater loss in sales. Lewis’ business faced yet another challenge: being part of an industry that was devastated by the pandemic.  Retailers closed stores, major industry events were postponed indefinitely, and consumers’ preferences drastically shifted to embracing loungewear, slippers and Zoom tops.

Struggling to grow her business, Lewis turned to innovation, launching her membership platform, Style Wellness, in the middle of the pandemic. Lewis honed in on the insight that what we wear has a proven effect on the way we feel about ourselves and our outlook on the world. According to the study of enclothed cognition, clothing has the power to “affect our mental processes and the way we think, feel and function.”

“Color psychology shows up differently in our communities and can have a huge impact on enhancing our moods,” explains Lewis. “For example, red can signify confidence and passion, yellow for optimism, and blue and green for trust and harmony,” she says. “It can have a huge positive impact on our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around us.”

She launched the community for women, and it’s packed with body inclusive fashion collections, how-to guides to help members look and feel their best and webinars featuring inspirational speakers from fields beyond fashion. “After all the grief and loss so many have us faced during the pandemic, I am focused on one singular mission: I want all women to feel fabulous, joyful and empowered.”

Related: This Founder Is Disrupting How We Consume the World’s Most Popular Beverage

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Her Daughter’s Food Allergies Made Finding Healthy Snacks Impossible, So This Mother Quit Her Corporate Job to Change That

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The first time I tried a Partake chocolate chip cookie, I knew I would need a second one — and probably a third. My husband and two young kids joined in, and the box was empty in minutes. My husband was recently diagnosed with Celiac disease, and this was the first gluten-free snack we’d found that our entire family enjoyed. 

Courtesy of Partake

Partake is a Black-owned, woman-owned business that was born in Denise Woodard’s kitchen. Her daughter Vivienne was diagnosed with severe food allergies as an infant, including allergies to most tree nuts, corn, bananas and eggs. Woodard and her husband struggled to find healthy snacks that were not only safe for her to eat but also delicious.  

“I quickly realized that a lot of vegan and gluten-free products aren’t healthy, and the healthy ones didn’t taste good,” she says. “I also noticed that, starting at a very young age, many social events and activities for kids involved food. I didn’t want Vivienne to feel left out and excluded. I wanted her to be able to partake and participate with other kids.”

So Woodard left the corporate world and her successful career at Coca-Cola. She took her sales and marketing expertise and her passion for making healthy and delicious snacks for her daughter to start Partake.

Today, Partake is growing and thriving. But unfortunately that’s not the case for most small businesses during this pandemic — and it certainly hasn’t been the case for most Black-owned businesses. Over 100,000 businesses have closed since the start of Covid-19, and many continue to struggle to stay open. Black-owned businesses are confronted with disproportionate hardship, including having less access to capital from both commercial banks and the Paycheck Protection Program than non-Black-owned businesses. 

“Like many companies, a lot of our marketing strategies for our products hinged on in-person interaction,” Woodard says. “We had to quickly pivot to the virtual world.” As Woodard and team continued to build the business in a virtual world, the country was experiencing another racial reckoning and increased conversation and action around racial injustice following the death of George Floyd. At that moment, there was a massive influx of support for BIPOC-owned businesses.

“It has been a challenge and a heavy, bittersweet time,” Woodard says as she reflects on Partake’s journey and the success she has experienced. At the beginning of 2020, Partake products were in 350 stores. Now, Partake has deals with Target and Whole Foods and will be in 6,000 stores by the end of 2021.

As Partake expands from cookies into other healthy and delicious snacks, here are just three of the many lessons Woodard is instilling in her daughter Vivienne and future women entrepreneurs:

1. Never give up

Woodard was rejected 86 times when seeking seed funding, but she received funding on her 87th try. Although the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S. is Black women, they still receive less than 1% of funding. What kept Woodard going when all she was hearing was “no”? “I knew I could never look my daughter in the eye if I quit just because it got hard,” she says.

In the beginning, Woodard would go pick up her cookies from a climate-controlled facility in New Jersey every day. She would take them to stores, go to trade shows on weekends and do product demonstrations at night.  

“It was a family labor of love,” Woodard shares. “It gave my daughter a glimpse into entrepreneurship, and a lesson on going out and doing the hard work every single day when you have an idea that can help others.”

2. Choose who you want to work with

Woodard said she knew as a woman of color it would be really hard to raise money. But for her, raising money was important for reasons other than just keeping the lights on and the cookies baking. “In the early phases, you take what you can,” she says. “I built as sustainable of a business as I could so that we could say no [to funding] if necessary.”

Woodard wanted to build a sustainable business so that she could be intentional about her cap table, her partners, the direction of her business and the causes she wanted to support. 

“In our series A round, we brought together partners who were mission-aligned, and half of our cap table today is Black,” Woodard says. Partake and its partners continue to rally around causes like childhood food insecurity and increasing diversity in the natural food space.

3. Support those who support you

“When I started Partake, it was so my daughter and others with food allergies were able to partake,” Woodard explains. “But as a woman, as a Black woman, and as a founder, I realized a lot of other people needed an opportunity to partake. I want investors aligned with investing back into the community and helping underserved, underrepresented folks. I knew we could have an impact on a broader ecosystem.”

Ultimately, Woodard wants to take Partake’s success and use her power and influence to put more good into the world. That means doubling down on efforts to feed food insecure families. It means helping first-time fund managers build track records of success and continue investing in women and people of color. It means launching a Black Futures in Food & Beverage fellowship program to increase opportunities for women and people of color seeking careers in the food industry. 

“Black and brown people are underrepresented in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) food and beverage workforce, and we feel it is both our opportunity and our responsibility to help open doors for Black students interested in exploring CPG career paths,” Woodard says.

Although Partake is still finalizing some of its long-term charitable goals, including partnering with the Food Equality Initiative, Woodard is clear on her focus: “My personal mission is to really lean in and drive how Partake can continue to bring positivity to the world.”

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The Founder of the ‘World’s Best’ Whiskey on What It Takes to Be a Real Leader

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The long and winding road to success is filled with challenges and stumbling blocks. There’s so little room at the top — and the climb to get there can change people. A once powerful visionary bends to the will of his or her investors, losing sight of his or her narrative and purpose in the name of profitability. It’s a common story. 

But Fawn Weaver, CEO of Grant Sidney Inc. and Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. 

The whiskey chronicles

History begins with a story, but sometimes the most important chapters of the narrative get lost in time. For Weaver, this hidden genesis in the rich history of Tennessee whiskey would help propel her success in the world of spirits. 

As it turns out, the distillation process behind the iconic Tennessee whiskey we all know today as Jack Daniel’s was actually handed down to the young boy Jack by the first known African-American master distiller: Nearest Green. 

When Weaver learned of this remarkable history the world never knew, she saw an opportunity. The story was one for the ages: Generations to come could revel in the whiskey chronicles. Weaver also thought that people would want a taste of Green’s water of life, so she founded the award-winning Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey brand in 2017, and the rest is history. 

On her road less traveled to the top, Weaver learned a few things about entrepreneurship. I had the opportunity to speak with Weaver, who was gracious enough to share these leadership tips for aspiring entrepreneurs. 

Related: Whiskey Brand Announces $50 Million Fund to Help Other Minority-Owned and -Founded Spirit Brands

The power of no

A lot of people say yes to things they’d rather not do because they want to avoid immediate consequences of discomfort. But saying yes only brings temporary relief — in the long run, it wastes time and stymies real progress. 

“You have to learn how to say no,” Weaver says. “There will be countless situations and decisions that you are going to come across where it’s going to give you heartburn, make your back tight, your neck pinch, and your shoulders hurt in order to say no. You can deal with discomfort on the front end or the back end, but the difference is that you will make strides toward your goals with a no. You will not get to them with a yes.” 

Adding no to your conversational toolkit can serve as a form of self-preservation, safeguarding your energy. “You will drown in too many unnecessary yeses,” Weaver says. “Don’t waste time doing things you really don’t want to do with people you really don’t want to be with. We have the power to say no to these things, and that gives us the space and bandwidth within our minds to be able to actually progress towards what we are purposed to do.” 

Yes, saying no can feel unpleasant, but sometimes it’s an absolute necessity. 

Take the right money

Is the investor’s relationship to you or your profits? Weaver’s culture of saying no took center stage during Uncle Nearest’s Series A, when she decided that the company would be built without a board. Weaver grew the Uncle Nearest brand with a dedication to saying no to the wrong money.

“Where so many people get in a bind is that they are so focused on what they don’t have and what they need, that they are willing to take money from anyone,” Weaver says. “It inevitably goes bad. Choose your partners and your investors like you would choose your romantic partners, because you are in fact in a marriage for as long as they are invested in your company. You wouldn’t marry just anybody, so why would you take money from just anybody? It’s why I’ve never taken money from venture capital or private equity.”

By taking the right money, Weaver ensured that Uncle Nearest would remain aligned with her vision. 

Related: How 2 Brothers Revived Their Family’s Tennessee Whiskey Distillery

Be your honest, authentic self

People who say yes all the time are not being honest with themselves. And honesty is the first step towards self-actualization and genuine achievement.

It’s a misconception that saying no creates conflict. In reality, conflict comes from saying yes. “I am creating a culture of people who are honest with what it is they want in life,” Weaver says. “When people are saying yes to things that they really don’t want to do, it eventually comes out.”

Being inauthentic with yourself and taking on tasks that don’t align with your goals can result in a bad attitude, burnout or missed deadlines — all of which get in the way of true growth. 

Earn trust

Learning to say no is not the end game: Leaders also need to walk the walk when it comes to what they say yes to.  

“If you say you are going to do something and you do something else, that impacts the trust, it impacts your authority,” Weaver says. “People are only going to listen, truly, to those that they trust. Trust is not given to any leader, you have to work hard to earn it.”

At Uncle Nearest, Weaver promises to open lines of communication for all employees. “My door is open for anyone in the company, even if they just want to shoot the breeze,” she says. “Pick up the phone and call me, or text. [My team members and I] DM on instagram all the time. I think that having that open line of communication builds trust.”

Related: From MMA Champ to Whiskey Entrepreneur: a Conversation With Conor McGregor

Saying no is more than a negotiation skill; it’s a style of leadership. And although it might sound like tough love, saying no creates a foundation of respect for yourself and others that fosters strong, trusting relationships. The lesson is simple: Get comfortable saying no so that you can create the yeses that you need.

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DeFi Will Help Women Take Back Control of Their Finances and Close the Wealth Gap

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Entering into the crypto markets and the DeFi (decentralized finance) financial system can be a challenge. The crypto markets have been dominated by men until now, but this trend is changing. Women can make a big impact on a market that will be the next big driver of financial innovation.

DeFi is a fresh start

DeFi is new, but it also represents a huge change in how money moves. The potential use cases for DeFi are global, as DeFi can make connections that no other form of financial technology is capable of. This opens up a new avenue for women around the world to participate in the DeFi ecosystem both as developers as well as users.

Because the blockchain industry hasn’t cemented itself in society yet, most people don’t have the general industry knowledge necessary to get started in DeFi. The new industry also has a fairly complex learning curve in regards to the tools used. Many fresh investors stick to mostly safe investments like Bitcoin or Ethereum. But as crypto slowly enters the mainstream, the public is beginning to want to know more about how blockchain technology, crypto and DeFi fit into an overall investment strategy, as well as how the market works.

This presents an even greater opportunity for women to get involved in an industry where men have led for over a decade. Some women are already taking advantage of this to bring education, technical know-how and the accessibility of DeFi to other women entrepreneurs. Some of these women are trying to change the way the blockchain and decentralization are utilized in underprivileged communities around the world, changing our perspectives and breaking fresh ground. 

Related: Everything You Need To Know About Cryptocurrency’s Next Big Thing: Decentralized Finance

Freedom is power

Economic freedom, entrepreneurial pursuits, independence and security are empowered by decentralization. There are no gatekeepers, and public blockchains are open to all. While this is clearly powerful for larger financial entities, the unbanked masses may be the largest untapped market for DeFi. 

Given these advantages, many people are turning to the blockchain as a way to get around restricted traditional monetary systems and gain more control over financial opportunities for themselves, their families and their enterprises.

Decentralized finance improves transparency, accessibility and equality. It maintains a borderless system that allows for equal access to anyone. As long as they have a connection to the internet.

Women are increasingly turning to cryptocurrency as a means of taking advantage of these strengths as well as avoiding a system that is designed to reward entrenched interests in a largely patriarchal society. DeFi use cases give broader access to financial tools to supplement their incomes without relying on their spouses or traditional banking institutions. In other words, the blockchain provides a mechanism for women to participate in an industry that allows them to take control of their financial independence. Access is open to all now. It’s time for women all over the world to take notice and use this as a chance to fight back.

DeFi democratizes finances

Female-led firms received only 2.3 percent of VC investments in 2020. That number is a mere 2.1 percent in the first eight months of 2021. As more women enter the startup and tech worlds, the demand for equality grows. That’s because data shows that diverse teams are more profitable, regardless of the field. 

Only around one in ten people in America invest in crypto, and the market has yet to gain traction among women either. That’s especially strange considering that crypto has, in many other ways, delivered on its promise to spread equality. It is the only financial system in which young people actually have a higher participation rate than older people. 

In the early days of Bitcoin, it was widely thought that cryptocurrencies would bring in a new era of diversity in the financial services business, which has been plagued by gender inequities for years. In spite of the ability and claims of crypto to address inequality, The State of U.S. Crypto Report found that 75 percent of crypto owners are men. 

On the other hand, people of all races are roughly equally likely to hold cryptocurrency: 11 percent white, 11 percent Black, 10 percent Latino, 14 percent Asians own Bitcoin, with the remaining 13% of owners being undetermined. That means that Bitcoin has managed to break down barriers to investing based on race, but it has failed to do so in terms of gender. So far.

Related: How Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Can Revolutionize Businesses

Women are breaking into crypto

The problem lies in investment opportunities, not in interest or aptitude. A 2016 report shows that women leave corporate tech jobs at twice the rate of men. The male-dominated culture tends to drive women out. But in spite of how difficult it seems to be for women to break into crypto, a few noteworthy women have shared their thoughts on how the industry is evolving. There is good news.

Kinjal Shah is a senior associate at Blockchain Capital and a backer of the Komorebi Collective, which supports female and nonbinary crypto entrepreneurs. She believes that this new financial system can be built in a different way, and she hopes that more women and minorities will enter the trillion-dollar industry. “If this is the future of finance,” she remarked, “I want more women to be sharing a piece of that pie… From the outside looking in, the face of crypto is very male. Now that I’m on the inside, I know so many women.”

Related: This Is Why We Still Need Women’s Networking Groups

Julia Rosenberg is one of the few female founders at Orca Protocol. While raising funds for her company, she realized that she hadn’t spoken to any female investors for four weeks. The investor? Kinjal Shah. 

Both Rosenberg and Shah saw an opportunity to influence the developing DeFi world in a way that was distinct from the traditional tech and banking systems they were used to.

That meant actively employing and recruiting women, especially on the technical side, for Rosenberg. Orca Protocol boasts a female co-founder, chief executive, adviser, and product design lead among its nine workers.

Another great example of how women are entering the blockchain industry is the launch of Defy Trends – which is a women-led DeFi analytics firm. On September 30th, the four female founders were named as one of two winners at The Startup Showdown in Miami.

They were awarded a $120,000 USD investment from Panoramic Ventures, which was also one of the competition’s judges. They were chosen as “best company” for the competition out of 200 promising applicants. This puts them in the above-mentioned 2.1 percent of women-led companies that got investment funds in 2021.

The platform is designed to assist investors in making smarter decisions with real-time data analytics and a social sentiment tracker for each coin. The data is crunched by machine-learning AI algorithms. 

It even includes an environmental impact assessment to help investors make responsible decisions as well as profitable ones. This is combined with a worldwide analysis that tracks how each coin interacts with each other in a broader ecosystem. 

The future of blockchain is inclusive

In 2020, a survey by CoinMarketCap revealed a 43 percent increase in women in business. The earnings potential of investing in women-led firms is attracting the attention of blockchain companies. Women Who Code just received a $150,000 grant from Algorand to fund their blockchain deep-learning curriculum for women engineers. Gemini and The Giving Block, two companies that help others raise funds through cryptocurrency, have raised their own funds by reaching out to cryptocurrency donors on International Women’s Day 2021.

The UNICEF Innovation Fund is an ambitious fund created to help children around the world. It is focused specifically on blockchain-based startups that help facilitate financial inclusion. Over 50 percent of the companies involved here are women-led. The goal is to make open-source, decentralized financial instruments and marketplaces more accessible to local communities and small business owners, allowing them to interact with these revolutionary systems in new, useful ways.

In fact, some studies suggest that the use of small-scale, informal lending in poor nations is extremely common. This implies that women could easily transition away from illegal lending, and use DeFi platforms that simply require the use of a smartphone, and cryptocurrency. In addition to helping the unbanked access credit at fair rates, illegal money lenders would be impacted negatively. 

Having women at the forefront of the industry’s early phases of development is a promising sign. Because this time around, education and access are much more important points of focus. It is reasonable to think that, moving forward, growth will begin to spread more evenly. 

However, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. According to the World Economic Forum, it will take over 200 years to close the global economic gender gap at the rate we’re going. It is vital to ensure that women continue to have equal access to blockchain technologies and education and that great ideas like the ones mentioned above are given support.

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Women Founders Need Radical Self-Care. Here’s How to Make It Happen.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Women founders are arguably the most overworked and underappreciated leaders in the business world. Some 48% of them report struggling with the high expectations of being an owner, and they are more prone to experiencing burnout than men.

The instinct to take care of everything while asking for nothing in return is most prevalent among women entrepreneurs, but it’s time for a change. Women founders need radical self-care, not just “regular” self-care. Regular self-care is a stereotypical routine: bubble baths, massages and the occasional glass of wine at the end of a busy day. We as women founders need to go deeper. We need to move towards a radical-self care routine where we are putting our mental, physical and emotional wellbeing first.

The word “radical” implies that something that’s transformational. It’s a continual process that requires coordination and consistency. By using the word radical, we become intentional about doing certain activities that feed our wellbeing everyday, without cessation. 

Here are the cornterstones of developing a mindset that can help steer women founders toward radical self-care — even if they’re busy.

Radical self-care is ongoing

As a Black woman founder, the urgency of radical self-care especially hits home. Although Black women entrepreneurs are starting businesses at higher rates than men or white women counterparts, they’re held back by the stress and pressure of doing it all with little or no support.

The constant pressure of living with racism, sexism and other institutional barriers plays a role in the high rates of chronic illness in communities where black women entrepreneurs work and live. For women founders of color to make a radical self-care routine that’s regular, ongoing and committed is essential to preventing the harmful effects of burnout and allowing us to be successful.

Related: Black Women Founders Face Constant Rejection. They’re Thriving Anyway

Radical self-care is saying no

It’s an act of self-care to say no to parts of the business that drain you or make it difficult to focus on what matters. It’s often seen as “selfish” for women founders to move away from the softer parts of the business, the aspects that require more human connection, negotiation and housekeeping. But if these aspects are preventing you from scaling, elevating or building your business in the ways you’d like, it’s OK to say no and give these tasks to someone else.

Saying no can also be instrumental in the negotiation process with potential clients or customers. If we suspect that we’re being charged for less than our worth, it could be time to walk away. Negotiation is an important part of being a woman founder and growing our businesses, but we also know the pay gap between men and women executives can’t be ignored. Part of radical self-care is saying no to deals, tasks and situations that diminish our value or don’t offer a mutually beneficial relationship that fills our cups and our wallets. 

Radical self-care strategies in 15 minutes or less

As mentioned, self-care goes beyond bubble baths and massages and gets into building a greater sense of self-worth, actualizing our growth and recovering from the demands of being a business owner. Self-care requires time, and not every founder has extra hours in their day. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend a lot of time on radical self-care to reap the benefits. You can arrive at healthy boundaries in 15 minutes or less by following these strategies:

Creating boundaries

Boundaries are the secret weapon to making sure you don’t drown in others’ demands while compromising your personal values. Before making any consequential decision, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I doing this task because I feel obligated, guilty or pressured?
  • Does this task drain me?
  • Is this my burden to carry? Or someone else’s?

These questions can help you distinguish between a task that’s necessary for you to complete and one that pushes your boundaries in a way that leaves you feeling drained at the end of the day.

Reflect on your agenda

A simple strategy that you can do in five minutes or less is to sit in a quiet place and reflect on your to-do’s for the day. Look at your calendar and think critically about what you’re being asked to do, what you hope to accomplish and if the tasks layed out will help you move the needle in your business.

Reflect upon the benefits of each item in your agenda and how you can infuse a moment of self-care into your day. Would taking a few minutes of silence at the beginning of each meeting bring more calm and balance to your workday? Would declining an invitation or moving a conversation to email be a better use of your time and energy?

Reflect on how you can normalize a routine that centers self-care and mindfulness as opposed to putting it at the margins.

Take a movement break

For some founders, movement can stimulate new ideas and relax the mind during busy workdays. If you have access to nature or a place to walk outside of the workplace, take a 10-minute walk to bring new life to your day.

You can turn one-on-one meetings into walk-and-talks or use part of your lunch time to take a stroll at a park. It’s amazing what a quick walk can do to help you get the creative juices flowing, connect with others on your team and invite more balance to your workday.

Lean on an accountability partner

One of the biggest burdens that women founders face is the unspoken pressure to hold all of the weight of the business and lean on as few people as possible. Sometimes it can feel lonely, like you’re on an island with no one else around, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

Part of implementing a successful radical self-care routine is learning to give yourself permission to ask for help. It’s a good thing to lean on others for support and become humble about your strengths and weaknesses at any given moment.

Inviting one of your staff or employees to be an accountability partner can be another powerful way to ensure you get the most out of your self-care routine. This can mean inviting a fellow executive to remind you about your meditation schedule or asking your assistant to encourage a meeting to be a walk-and-talk instead. Leaning on your staff to help you maintain healthy self-care pathways can lead to more consistency and greater results at the end of the day.

Schedule one self-care strategy per day

You don’t have to be a superwoman. You don’t have to run your business, do 15 self-care tasks a day and still find time to spend with your family and loved ones. You can make radical self-care feel more achievable by scheduling just one strategy into your professional calendar per day.

Make sure your staff and employees know that this particular period of time is for you and you only and that you’d appreciate not being disturbed. When choosing a self-care strategy for the day, you can begin by asking yourself:

      • What do I want and need right now?
      • What would fill my cup?
      • Would a short meditation help at this moment?
      • Would turning off my phone and going off-grid help at this moment?

These simple questions can help you customize your radical self-care routine and choose the right strategy for you based on your day.

Related: Managing a Black Woman? Here’s How to Become Her Success Partner and Ally.

The late Audre Lorde once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.” Leaning into radical self-care is not just a nice thing to do for yourself, it’s an act of resistance. It pushes against the narrative that women founders have to do it all, that they don’t need help, and asking for support is a sign of weakness.

Building a self-care routine that you can stick to and infuse into your daily life as a lifestyle change benefits you and everyone else around you. It’s a sign of power, courage and strength that can be felt throughout the company. Women founders who can preserve their mental, physical and emotional wellbeing while running game-changing companies are the ones who will weather the storm of the business world and emerge more resilient than ever.

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Lessons I Learned from Working 200 Days in a Row

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It may sound exhausting to work seven days a week, but entrepreneurship allows us the opportunity to pursue our dreams, and sometimes those long hours are what it takes. We can build the business and life that we love, and if we love what we’re doing then the joy of the work itself transcends any monetary rewards. Entrepreneurs that pursue purpose in their profession can take pride in making the lives of their customers better. They serve others to the highest standard and enrich their employees, investors, and themselves as a result.

Related: Key to Success? Work Like You’re an Intern

Workweeks and working weekends

The experience of entrepreneurship is energizing when your personal and professional interests align. Doing what you love for a career is invigorating and freeing. My career has become an extension of my interests in innovation and entrepreneurship, resultant from my devotion to education and my dedication to pursuing dreams. 

When I got started, I spent seven months engaged with extraordinary mentors and innovators. My Mondays through Fridays were invested in building connections with students, faculty, and successful entrepreneurs as I also taught, mentored and supported an academic community that valued the passion, persistence, and perseverance to become an entrepreneur.

Innovation and entrepreneurship were taught in classes across campus and there was an energy and excitement out toward starting new ventures. The university I was at received rankings as having one of the entrepreneurship programs in the world, and the many shared stories of recent alumni taking companies public made it even easier to extol the amazing opportunities that entrepreneurship opens in our lives. 

While articles of million-dollar raises and IPOs grab the headlines, I have also learned to support the small business owners that drive economic development in their communities. The reason for this dedication to the underdog story is that my small business solely supported my family for years before new opportunities emerged in academia and my current career in national security innovation.

In addition to teaching entrepreneurship during the week, every weekend was spent practicing what I preached, as I operated my adventure park business, focused on Ziplining, and brought joy to many visitors every season for years. Ziplining was an activity that had grabbed my attention while living in Hawaii over a decade before and had become a business that brought me as much joy as it brought to my customers. It was a pleasure to get paid to play for a living, and an honor to share the thrill of zipping above the treetops with the hundreds of guests that visited each season, but this dedication to my work meant that I never had a day off—which was fine with me, as I was building a life I cared about. 

Yet,  I still needed to embrace the upsides of downtown. In learning to do that, some things stuck out more than others as guideposts toward having not just meaningful work in my life, but meaningful interactions and an impactful existence. 

Energizing interactions

Finding time to “relax” is rare for an entrepreneur, but we can find purpose in every engagement and create more meaningful interactions. Reading to my children before bed, for instance, becomes a special time when I frame it as such. I enjoy this because I recognize that these fleeting moments must be cherished. This same philosophy translates to team meetings, mentor sessions with students, and chats with customers. Making every interaction energizing and inspiring to others is what feeds my passion. We aren’t here forever, and it’s helpful to recognize that, even in the workplace. When we do, we bring so much more richness to our lives. 

Being present and proactive

Giving your full focus to the most important people in your life is one of the best ways to feel fulfilled. Forgetting about the work that awaits and appreciating the magical moments with family and friends allows me to maximize the benefits of being successful, and helps me to achieve better health and happiness, and even more success, in turn.

Related: Simple Techniques to be More Mindful

Living in the moment

It is easy to get distracted from what is most important when we are always connected to our devices, which ultimately means that we are always multi-tasking. My mother-in-law has wisely stated that she views every family function as a page in a scrapbook, and has suggested that no one wants to see photos of themselves looking at a phone, rather than smiling and engaging with family. This is a great outlook to have, and I have learned to enjoy these small moments with family, not wanting to look back with regret for not being present with the people that I cared about, and that cared about me in return. Email, text, and newsfeeds should always be secondary to time with family and loved ones.

Prioritizing time for oneself

Working every day can be necessary, but it is never necessary to spend an entire day reacting to the requests of others. Instead, it’s important to spend daily time reflecting on one’s priorities and accomplishing tasks that feel personally productive, which inevitably powers one to accomplish even more and allows for better rest when the day is done. Sure, it’s great to respond to the immediate needs of your business, but prioritizing one’s own daily goals over the goals of an agitated-sounding iPhone notification leads to a much better quality of life.  

Related: Working from Home is Leading to Record Levels of Burnout

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How to Break Out of Toxic Patterns and Start Living

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In 2015, I got dumped — at an airport. The breakup was abrupt, and it was painful. It wasn’t the first time I had been dumped, but this time felt particularly traumatic. Perhaps that was due to the nature of the breakup; perhaps it was because I had believed this man and I were bound to be married, but for whatever reason, I was beyond devastated. For months, I did nothing but cry alone in my apartment and write long emails and letters to my ex, begging him to take me back. 

Then, something snapped. I woke up and simply knew that something had to change. So, I decided to make a different decision than I had made with past breakups. Instead of blaming my ex and telling all my friends about how it was all his fault, I made a choice to figure out how, this time, it was my fault. I decided that I wanted to learn something from this breakup. 

In the year that followed this awful experience, I sought out a mentor to assist me and read numerous books on the power of mindset, choices and happiness. For the first time in my life, I made a vision board. Then, I made a vision and mission statement. I began to follow it. I became a marathon runner. Then I met the man of my dreams. Soon after, I became a COO, became a skier and bought my dream home. We’ve traveled all over the world together. Recently, I found the courage to leave my COO role and start my own business. Today, life is more than exceptionally good, and what I’ve realized is that much of my success boiled down to eight universal truths that I adopted and began to follow.

Read More: 7 Mindsets That Guarantee Enduring Success

Today, my life’s goal is to help others become successful and experience all the joy and fulfillment of their dreams. Here are the eight truths that can help you get there. 

1. Our power in life comes from focusing on the things we can control

 Anytime that we start to complain, whine, moan or vent about someone or something else that we can’t control, we start to lose the game. While many of us like to look at successful people and think about how lucky they must have gotten, or how fate just smiled on them, this is a losing mentality. I estimate that only roughly 10% of our success is determined by what happens to us; the remaining 90% is a result of how we respond to what happens to us.

Everything we think, say and do in life is a choice. Regardless of what’s happening to us, we always have a choice in how we respond, and when we leave our focus and energy there, we find ways to win and succeed. Knowing that our thoughts and feelings are all choices — including gratitude, happiness, love, acceptance, appreciation and even forgiveness — changes everything.  

2. Fear is a product of our imagination

When we feel afraid, it’s often about something that may (or may not) even happen. In general, we fear negative consequences that have not come to pass yet. Sadly, however, us being afraid of something bad happening makes it far more likely to actually happen — the true definition of a self-fulfiling prophecy. When we imagine that we’ll fail, we make it more likely that we will. When we imagine that we’ll be successful and win, we make it more likely that we will.

Fear also inhibits action. But action can help us overcome fear. So, when we’re feeling afraid, that’s when we’re least likely to act, but it’s when we often need to act the most. Whenever we’re telling ourselves a story from a place of fear, we have every opportunity to change the narrative. 

3. Mistakes and failure do not run counter to success

They are a part of success. In fact, we often cannot have success without mistakes and failure. When we get comfortable with making mistakes and failing, we allow ourselves to grow and are able to enjoy the process and journey of life so much more. We only truly begin to fail when we feel like we’re failing, when we call it failure. Otherwise, we’re still just in learning mode.  

4. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

The more we’re willing to be uncomfortable, the more that great things can happen for us. And the way to get more comfortable with discomfort is to practice it. Truly successful people don’t shy away from discomfort; they intentionally look for ways to be uncomfortable. 

5. Most of us look for ways to feel offended. Start doing the opposite. 

It sounds counter-intuitive, but often, many of us want to feel like we’ve been wronged. Our ego subconsciously does this for us. We want to feel like we’ve been damaged, that someone owes us. It can be fun to play the victim.

Successful people never do this. Instead, they always seek to understand others and learn what they don’t know. When something hurts, they don’t make assumptions. Instead, they ask questions, listen and discover. When we’re feeling offended, the most helpful thing we can usually do is recognize it and choose not to be. We gain so much time and energy back by refusing to take things personally. 

Read More: How to Stop Taking Things Personally at Work

6. Growth requires change

Many of us want to grow, but most of us are not really willing to experience great change (and the growing pains that come along with change) to get there. We want the reward, but we don’t want to do the work or pay the price for it. If we want things we’ve never had, we have to be willing to do things we’ve never done to get there. When we want to grow, we need to be stretched. When we stretch a rubber band, we’re applying tension and stress to it, and it’s the elasticity that makes that rubber band expand. We, too, must be willing to absorb some tension and stress if we want to expand.

7. Focusing on what you love and are passionate about is key

 We should never tolerate or stay in any job, friendship or living environment that makes us miserable. Don’t do things out of obligation. Figure out what lights you up inside and chase that down. It’s critical we evaluate what truly makes us tick inside. When we find jobs we love, we never work a day in our lives. The secret to fulfillment in life is aligning our beliefs and our actions. We must make sure what we dream about — and what we do — are congruent.  

8. Yesterday is heavy. Put it down.

Don’t live in the past. It doesn’t matter if you were wronged or mistreated. Focusing on these things — or the past — will not serve us. It has nothing to do with tomorrow. The past is interesting but nothing more. The past can be instructional, but our greatest value to impact ourselves, our lives and the world lies in focusing not on tomorrow or yesterday but today. Staying connected to the present allows us to change the world.

Read More: 4 Ways to Be a Better Communicator and More Present in Conversations

These eight universal truths have changed my entire life. I guarantee that if you start to practice them today with consistency, you will notice major changes in your life too. 

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Can Hassle- and Worry-Free Employee Leave Exist? This Trio Is on a Mission to Prove It

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As a mom of two, I’ve been on maternity leave twice in my career. There was a list of things I worried about, including when to tell my manager I was expecting, deciding how long I would take off and thinking about how to best transition projects to my team. The one thing I never worried about was the actual process of taking my leave — and it was an unexpected nightmare.

Sara Sandstrom

There was no clear explanation of how to apply for state benefits and how that overlapped with what my company offered. One leader told me I could use my unused vacation toward my leave; another leader said I couldn’t. Then, when I had my second child, the company ended up keeping me on payroll longer than it should have. This resulted in me and dozens of other women having to send large amounts of money back to the company while we were on leave. It was unnecessary stress on top of trying to figure out how to feed and swaddle my newborn.

“Every single person we spoke to — whether they were a product manager or a chief people officer — said managing leave was an absolute nightmare,” says Mahima Chawla, CEO and co-founder of Cocoon. “This is why my co-founders Amber Feng, Lauren Dai and I were inspired to start Cocoon. After we stumbled upon the bafflingly complicated world of leave, we knew we could serve as an ally to companies, fix this and empower companies to better support their people.”

Related: How This Former Investment Banker Tapped into 5,000-Year-Old Skincare Traditions to Start His Own Brand

Today in the U.S., more than half of employers (55%) offer paid maternity leave. Forty-five percent of employers offer paid paternity leave, and finally 35% offer paid extended family care leave. During this Great Resignation, organizations are scrambling to offer better benefits to attract and retain talent. And as many have lost loved ones during this time, organizations are also rethinking bereavement leave policies. Yet no one is tackling how to seamlessly administer leave, making it a hassle-free experience for the employer, and more importantly a worry-free experience for employees who are taking leave at critical moments in their lives.

Enter Cocoon. Cocoon is an employee leave management platform designed to address every type of employee leave including parental, medical, caregiver, bereavement and more. The platform covers all 50 states, factoring in company, government and insurance benefits, and manages leave end-to-end, from compliance, to claims, to payroll calculations. 

Chawla, Dai and Feng founded Cocoon in June 2020 to take the pain out of leave. Here are three lessons Chawla has learned since then. 

Stay focused

During her college days, Chawla remembers receiving text messages from her father containing only one word: Focus. “Both my parents instilled a strong work ethic in both my sister and I,” she shares. “My dad always emphasized the importance of being focused, intentional and putting care behind everything you are doing. He always reminded us to do that one thing well before moving on.”

The ability to focus has been one of the drivers for Cocoon’s early success. When starting a company, founders can be pulled in many different directions. Chawla and her co-founders were mindful of this; they stayed focused on tackling one problem at a time. “We did a lot of research on every aspect of leave. From navigating federal and state laws, to hourly workers at large companies, to salaried workers at smaller companies, there were so many areas of opportunity,” Chawla says. “We knew we needed a tight minimal viable product to go to market with.” The co-founders were ruthless and prioritized, staying focused. In January 2021, they decided to launch the product just focusing on parental leave in California, Pennsylvania and Utah before laying the groundwork to go national and expand leave types successfully later in 2021.

Related: How Feeling Excluded as a Child Drove this Entrepreneur to Start Her Own Company

Allow for all voices to be heard

“When I was a kid, every single report card said the following: Mahima should speak up more and participate more,” Chawla says. “There was this societal expectation that I had to be the loudest one to show I was learning and making an impact.” She discovered that she is an extrovert when it comes to social situations and an introvert when it comes to academic settings and how she learns. 

“I don’t need to be constantly talking about what I am doing and what I am learning — it’s not how I operate,” she says. “I like to put my head down and just get work done, and there needs to be space for everyone to be heard, no matter how they work.” In a society where we place a high premium on extroverts, Chawla and her co-founders are intentionally building a company where introverts, extroverts and ambiverts are all welcome. They enjoy healthy debate, problem-solving with different approaches and creating forums where everyone feels like they can contribute. “No matter how you contribute or lead, you are welcome and have a place at Cocoon.”

Related: How this Founder is Disrupting the World of EdTech & Empowering More Students to Break Into Tech

Know your proof points

Chawla and her co-founders spent months researching the leave space from every possible angle before pitching investors and starting the fundraising process. Chawla recalls some of the most powerful quotes they had on how the process for taking leave at companies was broken. “One employee shared with me ‘I had my laptop with me applying for my California state benefits while being rolled into my C-section,’” Chawla says. 

“Another one said: ‘While I was on leave with a new baby the joke was, choose two: “eat, sleep or shower,” and I was instead building spreadsheets to help me understand my pay during leave.’”

Chawla and her co-founders collected hundreds of proof points from their potential customers, clearly outlining the deep need and the huge opportunity they had with Cocoon. “We used all of these customer stories and quotes to build the case for our business,” Chawla says. “We even created design mocks of what the platform could look like for customers. We got very strong buy-in from our early investors because the data was so clear.”

Early investors like Mark Goldberg at Index understood the proof points and signed on. Cocoon recently raised a $20 million Series A funding led by Index Ventures, with participation from First Round Capital, SemperVirens, XYZ, Magnify Ventures and a group of strong individual investors. This brings the company’s total funding to $26 million.

In addition to having your proof points, Chawla’s advice to entrepreneurs is to continuously foster relationships with investors for the long term just like you would with candidates. “Just because they say no now, doesn’t mean they won’t say yes in the future,” she says. “Timing is everything, so always keep the door open to possibilities.”

Related: How One Entrepreneur Is Attempting to Revolutionize the Mexican Food Industry — And Change the World — Using One Unexpected Ingredient

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