Panelists at Perspectives ’14: Women Who Excel Conference Thursday, April 10, 2014

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Laura Bennett took on an uphill battle and co-founded Embrace Pet Insurance

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Laura Bennett was trying to get her fledgling pet insurance business off the ground in 2005 when she had to confront the reality that the insurance industry was a male-dominated one.

Bennett and co-founder Alex Krooglik were searching for an insurance partner who would back Embrace Pet Insurance, her company, and left for London to seal a deal with Lloyd’s of London, the global specialist insurance king.

“Well, that was the problem — trying to find a partner that would work with two people who were not from around here,” she says. “I’m British and Canadian and Alex is Australian so we didn’t have loads of connections in the U.S.” 

Watch for traditions

Not only was the mere fact that she was a woman challenging, she was pregnant. And Lloyd’s wanted to do the deal over drinks, dinner and cigars.

“Only one of which I could do! I could eat, but I couldn’t drink, and I certainly couldn’t smoke cigars,” Bennett says. “So I actually took someone from JumpStart with me, Mark Smith, and he was my designated drinker and cigar smoker.

“Otherwise it would’ve been awkward for them with me not being able to do the wine part, and meanwhile they’re busy doing that. And it just worked out very well.

“So I think you take your angles, and you work out exactly how it goes, and you do your best.”

While an angel investor had provided cash for Bennett’s startup, if it was going to grow, it had to attract venture capital. At this point, Bennett got another wake up call —the world of funding was also male-dominated.

“That was a challenge,” she says. “If you are a woman running a business, especially if it offers a product that women buy, it can be dismissed as frivolous and not worthy.

“So I was lucky in that I am an actuary; I have a mathematics degree. I’ve got my professional credentials and reputation which precedes me, and that helped; no doubt about it.”

Don’t celebrate early

Fortunately, Embrace was able to secure venture capital funding — at the beginning of the recent recession. But even then the going was tough for an insurance in which only 1 to 3 percent of Americans enroll their pets.

“It took a few more years before I didn’t wake up in a cold sweat wondering how we were going to find the money to pay for things,” Bennett says. “Since then, we finally worked out what works — that’s one of your big lessons when you are an entrepreneur. Also, we finally got some real momentum and successes going.”

Bennett credits the company’s reputation for a large part of those successes.

“People feel like they have a really amazing relationship with us; that’s important because insurance is all about trust. You have to prove yourselves, and you can’t just say to people, ‘Trust us.’ You have to actually be trustworthy.

“We were able to make our product sound a little more technical, and we focused on the Internet aspect of it. In the end, what’s valuable about our business is our relationship with the customer.”

How to reach: Embrace Pet Insurance,  (800) 511-9172 or www.embracepetinsurance.com

To help Easter Seals connect, Sheila Dunn puts the focus on mentors and business relationships  

Sheila Dunn has found that one of the major keys to successful leadership — for men or women — is having a mentor who you can work with. The president and CEO of Easter Seals of Northern Ohio, Dunn highly recommends finding someone you can shadow and learn from. 

“There are a lot of folks out there who would be very, very pleased and excited to take you under their wing and show you the ropes, and I was very lucky to have a couple of them,” she says. 

“A very good friend of mine owned his own company. We would often talk about the challenges of hiring folks and training them and what your expectations were for employees and things, and it didn’t make a difference what his company manufactured; for what we did, working with people directly, you still go through the exact same scenarios and the same challenges.” 

 

Nonprofits are businesses 

Dunn insists there is no difference between running a not-for-profit organization such as Easter Seals and operating a business in the private sector. 

“We’ve learned that being a nonprofit organization doesn’t mean you shouldn’t operate like a business, because that is really what you are doing,” she says. “You are a business; you just don’t pay out any dividends or shares or anything like that.

“I think perhaps there is a mistaken idea by the private sector that folks in nonprofits don’t operate that way. In the long run, we still operate very much on a shoestring budget so it is important to operate like a business.” 

Creating a network 

For a leader of a nonprofit organization, it’s as important to build a network of business contacts as it is for business leaders to develop their not-for-profit network.

“The more people get involved in the community, whether it’s a civic group or whatever, it’s a plus,” she says. “I’ve been a Rotarian for 26 years, from the time they let women in, and within Rotary, you find folks who do similar things. Being in Rotary has helped me a lot because there are a lot of representatives of business. 

“The whole purpose of doing events is to bring people to the organization and to see if we can get a higher level of commitment from them to eventually become board members, donors and things like that.” 

Dunn’s experience with volunteering goes back to when she was a young girl. 

“My family was that way — we got involved,” she says. “Statistics show that the younger you are, and the more involved you are from a volunteer standpoint, you will probably do it your whole life. It’s a great lesson to learn for children. I think a lot of the rewards come back far more than what you put out. It’s knowing that you made a difference in someone’s life with whatever you did to help.”

How to reach: Easter Seals of Northern Ohio, (440) 324-6600 or noh.easterseals.com 

Finding her identity helped Kristen Morris’ career more than any mentor could 

It took Kristen Morris a good 10 years, she says, to realize she could be effective just by being herself. 

“That doesn’t sound that impressive, but it was a huge sort of epiphany for me to realize that the key to being a successful individual — male, female, multicultural or whatever — is to just be yourself, and be honest, outwardly and inwardly,” says Morris, the chief government and community relations officer for The Cleveland Clinic. 

“Obviously you work very, very hard all the time, and you are ethical and right. But style is a very important component in terms of advancing one’s career. That was probably the biggest thing I struggled with for a long time.” 

Blazing the trail 

Morris changed her career path during college after an internship in Washington, D.C., opened her eyes to the operation of government. 

“I grew up working in the ’80s and ’90s, and it was sort of the impressionable era for me at a time when I was mentored by women who really blazed the trail in business, especially in a very male-dominated world like Washington,” Morris says. 

A lot of them succeeded, so to speak, being tougher and more aggressive. 

“I struggled with trying to follow that model because I am not like that at all,” Morris says. “I am not an aggressive, outspoken manager or individual. I am the mother of six; I am very nurturing; and I really struggled with how to be effective but yet comfortable with myself. 

“How could I follow the advice of my mentors when at the same time I wasn’t ultimately going to be like them and how they operated?” 

Morris learned that while her objectives changed and were modified over time, as long as she was building her resume in the same direction, progress was being made. 

“I found that it will serve your career well,” she says. “The hard work and strategic experience-building is just critical.”

 

Finding your style 

But overarching that advice are two fundamentals for success: finding a style that you are comfortable with and developing that style of management. 

“I guarantee that you as an individual will be far more successful if you follow those two basic principles. It is something that you can’t necessarily be mentored into. It’s your own journey,” Morris says. 

Be aware, however, of the outside influences that could derail your progress. 

“I would be lying if I didn’t say, like everything in life, you doubt yourself on occasion,” she says. “‘Am I being too nice? Am I being too feminine? Am I being too decisive? Am I being too indecisive?’ Those are questions that I will have all the time, and I’m sure my peers and counterparts do as well. 

“But as you grow and develop, that becomes less and less of an occurrence and you do find that you will have more confidence. 

“You have to prove it, time and time again, repetitively,” Morris says. “That’s the stride that you hit. It really takes time. And I think that’s why people call it a career — it just builds and eventually you may have an amazing opportunity to represent the world’s most pre-eminent health care institution! It’s all earned.”

How to reach: The Cleveland Clinic Community Relations Office, (216) 444-7506 or my.clevelandclinic.org/about-cleveland-clinic/overview/community/default.aspx

 

Lindsay Sims launched Renter’s Boom to fill property managers’ needs to post  

As she stepped into the technology business, Lindsay Sims knew it was a male-dominated field. 

“It’s technology, so it’s a heavily male-dominated industry — I mean a very heavily male-dominated industry,” she says. “I was fortunate to know that going in, and the good thing is that I haven’t had any of my clients behave any differently toward me because I’m a woman.” 

Sims founded Renter’s Boom, a social media consulting firm for property managers, in 2011, after seeing the communication problems property managers were experiencing. 

“I am a problem solver, and I kept seeing the challenges that they were having,” she says. “I mean everything in me was screaming, ‘Help them fix this!’” 

Go with your gut

So putting aside the fact that the tech industry was male-dominated, she went with her gut feeling that she could find ways to leverage technology and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to bring positive results for clients. 

Not only is the tech field dominated by men, Sims discovered that the majority of property management companies are owned by men too. There was, however, a saving grace — the majority of people who run the properties are women. 

“So they are used to it; they are totally used to women coming in and doing stuff,” she says. “That was not the problem.” 

The challenge for Sims, as it turns out, was her enthusiasm for social media. It was something most property managers were not excited about. They didn’t like change and wanted to stick with traditional tools. 

“This was an industry where people were still using the newspaper as the main form of communication,” she says. “So I understood that and realized, ‘Wait a second, Lindsay, you have to work with them.’” 

Sims stepped back, secured a few clients and did their social media for about two years. 

Switching gears 

“But there is only so far you can go,” she says. “There is not enough time in the day for you to have a whole lot of clients if you alone are doing services for them. 

“I realized it didn’t quite matter, even with all the automation I was offering; if they weren’t doing it for themselves, I was never going to actually make any money — I was just making revenue.” 

At this point, Renter’s Boom switched from being a service firm to a consulting firm. Sims built a platform that allows clients to log in and script out their campaign and social media activity in advance. 

“My goal is to get everybody to the point where they are social media experts … where they are doing it themselves; where they are learning all the latest techniques,” she says. 

In addition to her yen to solve problems, Sims gives credit for her success to her mantra: It is very important to not limit yourself. 

“Whenever I am thinking about a choice, I wait a second: ‘Am I choosing based on today, or am I choosing based on some future comfort?’ If it is fine now, let it be fine now, and when they get to that point where I will need to make a decision or change it, let’s change it. But I’m not going to limit myself based on what may or may not happen in the future.”

How to reach: Renter’s Boom, (216) 245-1841 or www.rentersboom.com