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Controlling their destiny – women entrepreneurs tell how they did it

Posted in: Events, Women Entrepreneurs

Women entrepreneur panelists

They left the corporate life to become entrepreneurs, and never looked back, building successful startups in a variety of industries.

“I feel a sense of control of my destiny,” said Tracy Doyle, president and CEO of Phoenix Marketing Solutions, one of four panelists at a March 28 event, “From Idea to Success: Navigating the Entrepreneurial Journey,” held at Montclair State. The event drew 150 attendees, and was sponsored by the university’s Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship, which has a special mission to nurture women entrepreneurs, and Residence Life.

Also on the panel were Cheryl Biron, president and CEO of One Horn Transportation; Melissa Fensterstock, founder of Aromaflage; and Kristen Jones (KJ) Miller, co-founder of Harlem-based Mented Cosmetics. The moderator was Claire Cowart, president of OOBinker and an ENTR 201 adjunct professor.

The panelists had a few theories why women are under-represented as entrepreneurs.

Miller noted since there are fewer women entrepreneurs, there are fewer women to serve as role models for aspiring female founders. Miller said her time at Harvard Business School gave her role models who are HBS graduates and started businesses, including Birchbox, Gilt Groupe, Rent the Runway and Aromaflage.

Doyle said when she considered starting her own company, she felt she didn’t have enough experience. As a Montclair State graduate with a Psychology degree, she felt she didn’t know enough about business. Doyle said women can feel like they have to check every box of what’s required, while men are less inclined to feel that way. “I think we hold ourselves back,” she said. When asked later by an attendee how she learned the numbers side of the business, Doyle said she hires someone to handle that.

Photo of Tracy Doyle
Tracy Doyle

Raising funds was another focus of the event. Miller said it can be “a good lesson in stamina,” noting she was trying to secure capital before she had sales or even a website. “Most people will say no, male and female,” she said. Miller mined her network of any and all contacts who might be able to lend money to her. Miller said she also interpreted “no” as “not yet.” Miller described herself as a penny-pincher, because she said she had to work so hard to get every dollar. Doyle noted women can be risk-averse from a financial perspective, and reluctant to take on debt. She said that while starting out she looked at every expense, including personal expenses, to decide if it was necessary, and cut cable, as one example, because she could live without it.

Event speakers in chairs
From left: moderator Claire Cowart, Cheryl Biron and KJ Miller

Biron and her husband, Louis Biron, bootstrapped Wayne-based One Horn Transportation, using their house and loans as financing. She said the duo was able to get financing because of their company’s receivables, their credibility, Louis Biron’s background in trucking, their MBA degrees, and they had a good story to tell. Later, the Birons did a “mini road show to banks” to raise more money, and their preference was always loans so they didn’t have to give up equity in the business. Biron recently started a second company, LexaGen Freedom Accelerator.

Melissa Festerstock holding microphone
Melissa Fensterstock

The panelists made the leap into entrepreneurship in different ways. Fensterstock said she worked on her business as a second job, while still working full time. She was an advocate of working on a startup as a side business until you can generate enough revenue to pay yourself a salary and cover your health insurance costs. Miller said she didn’t leave her full-time job until she had a term sheet, or document outlining conditions to receive financing. Doyle’s eventual co-founder, Angela Fiordilino, had floated the idea of the pair starting a company, but Doyle was hesitant. Then Doyle was laid off from her job, and within a few days agreed to start Phoenix Marketing, based in New Providence, with Fiordilino.

Doyle and Fiordilino have been friends since they met as Psychology majors at Montclair State. Doyle said they could sometimes fight like sisters, while working together on the startup, until they divided up tasks based on each person’s strengths. Miller said she and co-founder Amanda E. Johnson share many skills and experience, and that some would advise selecting a partner who has opposite skills. But Miller recommended choosing someone with whom you can have difficult conversations. Fensterstock co-founded her company with her husband, Michael Fensterstock. Fensterstock noted that even if your co-founder is not a spouse, you will be “work-married” to your partner. Doyle and Fensterstock emphasized that trust is the most important factor in choosing a co-founder.

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As final advice, Biron advised making sure there is actual demand for what you want to sell, and also recommended two books: “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries, and “The Inside Advantage” by Robert H. Bloom.

Miller’s advice was to try doing some version of your business idea before you talk yourself out of it—just get started.

Fensterstock counseled attendees to be persistent and resilient. She also said that if you are not an expert on something related to your planned business, that’s not a deal-breaker because you can learn what you need to know.

Doyle talked about Jane Fonda’s advice to know your product and then you can sell it and succeed. Doyle also recommended joining mentor groups or getting a coach.

Mark your calendar! The Feliciano Center will host a daylong conference for women entrepreneurs on Wed. Oct. 18 as part of Women Entrepreneurship Week. The WEW conference is free and open to the public.

To find out about other events presented by the Feliciano Center, join Montclair Entrepreneurs Meetup.