By Becky Beaupre Gillespie
Heidi Albert has surprising advice for recent college graduates eyeing entrepreneurship: Get a job. At least for awhile.
It may not be what entrepreneurs-to-be want to hear, but Ms. Albert’s business is to dole out this kind of real-world guidance. She and Susan Newman are the co-founders of school2life, teaching high school, college and graduate students, recent graduates (and even some not-so-recent grads) the street smarts of transitioning from campus to career. That can include finding jobs, managing money and marketing themselves confidently. The two Chicago moms leveraged their passions and past career success to launch school2life in 2009. Since then, their client base and workshops have grown and evolved and, late last week, they launched an online tool called WUHU (Would U Hire U?) on their website that leads users through common job interview questions to assess their effectiveness and help them hone their answers.
I recently caught up with Ms. Albert, 42, and Ms. Newman, 40, to talk about why being an employee makes for a better entrepreneur, how motherhood has made them ideal business partners, and how this generation of graduates defines success.
Previous career experience can be a big asset for entrepreneurs. You each have strong backgrounds in different fields: Heidi as a lawyer, investment banker and entrepreneur; Susan as a marketing professional with Leo Burnett, Playboy Enterprises and Make-a-Wish Foundation and as an instructor at Columbia College. How have past experiences and choices helped you build this business?Ms. Albert: I worked on Wall Street and … every year no matter how big or small my bonus was, I put money away. I was able to start the business (I had before this) because I really planned for it. I can talk to people about the importance of saving, the importance of having money put aside, so when an opportunity comes up you can take it. I always joke with the students: I’m very high maintenance but I know when not to buy a pocketbook and put the money away.
Ms. Newman: (Being a marketer) certainly helped me take the business from an idea and then execute it and make it happen. In addition to that, I think the biggest thing that’s helped me as an entrepreneur is … my networking background. The street smarts of how I’ve managed my own career enabled me to get in front of people, to present workshops, to tap into people in my network to get our name and our services out there. It’s very similar to what we teach on the job search: managing relationships. (It’s been about) having a successful career evolution as a whole and then applying it to my own business execution.
The current generation of graduates has been criticized at times for jumping on the so-called “work/life balance” bandwagon too early and expecting workplace flexibility before they’ve paid their dues. Of course, others say shifting expectations will lead to positive changes in workplace culture. I’m curious about your take: Does the current generation have a different set of expectations than, say, their parents did?Ms. Newman: I think the current generation has the perspective they were raised with. They’re known to expect a lot. They watched their parents get everything —and then things changed.
Ms. Albert: A lot of people have seen parents who have worked really hard and maybe had no work/life balance, and then all of a sudden lose their jobs and lose everything. I think there’s a lot of questioning. They’ve seen both sides — they’ve seen people who have busted their butts their whole lives, and some of those people have been incredibly successful. We’ve created vast amounts of wealth in this country. But they’ve also seen people who’ve busted their butts and lost it all.
I don’t think there’s an entitlement so much as looking back and (saying), “I’ve seen a lot of mistakes made, whether it’s (lack of) career balance, whether it’s how I spent my money, whether it’s how I plan my life. And I just don’t want to make those mistakes.”
So this generation is thinking more critically. Instead of saying, “I need to move in this linear path and just keep going, going, going,” they’re taking a broader look and saying, “OK, the way it’s always been done doesn’t always work …”
Ms. Albert: Exactly. I think the interesting part — and Susan and I have both seen this — is it so doesn’t matter where you come from. We’ve worked with kids on the North Shore who come from very privileged backgrounds, and then there’s a bunch of kids I teach who come from a really poor neighborhood … and both sets of kids want to learn and understand and reassess.
Ms. Newman: When I started teaching at Columbia 10 years ago, one question I’ve always asked my classes is, “How do you define success?” For a good four or five years, it was always money. Success meant money. (Now) … it’s happiness.
Let’s switch gears a bit. Listening to the two of you talk, you seem to have very complementary styles, and you have complementary skills. What’s the secret to building a strong business partnership?
Ms. Newman: I know what I don’t know. And I have much respect and admiration for Heidi’s background. We can do a workshop together very easily but our curricula is so different. I couldn’t do (her part) if I tried. So it is nice to be able to relinquish that part and say, “Go get ‘em, you’re great at this,” and know that’s her forte.
And going back to work/life balance — we both had similar values when we started this company with where we wanted to be as professionals, as entrepreneurs, as moms, as wives — all these roles in our lives.
Ms. Albert: The fact that we are both moms really helps. If I say to Susan, “I can’t talk today, my daughter’s projectile vomiting” — she gets it.
It also helps that we’ve parked our egos at the door. Quite frankly, I don’t think I could have done that 10 or 15 years ago. When Susan is interviewed by a magazine or on TV, I think that’s awesome. Whomever does whatever and helps promote us as a unit is really phenomenal.
Last question. Let’s say a young woman, getting ready to graduate, has her eye on becoming an entrepreneur. What are the most critical skills and experiences she should seek out to ensure success?
Ms. Albert: I actually think you need to get a job. As much as people don’t want to hear that. There’s lots of people who have made it as entrepreneurs, very successful, and have never worked for anybody else. But I think the vast majority of people … need to get a job doing something (first). You need to get your financial house in order … maybe you need healthcare, and you need to have money in savings in case your great idea doesn’t work. But I also think you need to know what it’s like to work in a real grown-up job. I don’t think I could have done what I did if I’d never worked in a (salaried) job—and shown up on time, and worked with people I didn’t like or I didn’t respect, or, on the flipside, did respect and learned from.
Even if you are the most successful entrepreneur, you’re eventually going to hire people. My grandfather owned a hotel … and he always said, “You can’t run the restaurant or hotel until you’ve swept the floors, and made the beds, and you’ve washed the dishes.” It gives you a better perspective.
Becky Beaupre Gillespie is a Chicago-based journalist and the co-author of “Good Enough Is the New Perfect: Finding Happiness and Success in Modern Motherhood.” She speaks on work/life issues and perfectionism at corporations, conferences and to women’s groups, and she blogs at TheNewPerfect.com.
Her posts on women in entrepreneurship appear here every Wednesday.
Follow Becky on Twitter: @beckyinbalance.
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