The 8th annual Women Entrepreneurship Week (WEW) at Montclair State was kicked off by cosmetics giant Bobbi Brown in conversation with friend and award-winning WNBC-TV reporter Tracie Strahan on Wednesday.
Brown was one of a dozen speakers who shared their stories of pivoting, as well as of failures and successes along their entrepreneurial journeys with the in-person and virtual audience. WEW is a global event, as students and attendees from 250 universities in 40 countries and 48 states participated this year, said Mimi Feliciano, a Montclair State University Advisory Board Member for The Mimi & Edwin Feliciano School of Business and board member of the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation (FCE&I), which hosted the event.
“Women Entrepreneurship Week 2021 was our biggest year ever!” said Liz Rich, FCE&I Acting Director. “Our event was exceptional and brought together really inspirational, creative and powerful female founders from all walks of life and backgrounds, in a shared sense of celebration and community.”
WEW was created in 2014 by FCE&I as a way to nurture, inspire and energize female founders around the world. This year’s theme centered on the pivots many women entrepreneurs had to make during the COVID pandemic.
“Over the last 19 months, we have all been yearning for a sense of connection, and I think that for a few hours on Wednesday we all really felt that we were part of something bigger that was really special,” Rich said. “I cannot say enough about how amazing the speakers were, not only in sharing their stories, but also showing some true vulnerability. It was really heartwarming to see how everyone showed up to help one another, share their insights and wisdom, and to ultimately propel us all forward — together as a community.”
A former makeup artist who founded a cosmetics empire, Brown told the audience she’s known for her success in the cosmetics world but that she’s also had failures. She noted that she launched other brands that didn’t work out.
“I had an eyeglass line that was amazing that I had to walk away from,” she said. “When things go bad, and they do, it’s up to you what you do.”
Brown, who holds an honorary doctorate from Montclair State and whose latest cosmetics venture Jones Road opens soon in Montclair, said “It’s all in your attitude. Be positive.”
Rebekah Borucki, founder of Row House Publishing an “authors first” book publisher focusing on authors from diverse ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds, orientations, and identifications, urged would-be entrepreneurs to lead with their values.
“I knew that combining my values…with something new, that it would change the [publishing] industry forever,” she said. “Know your values and write them down.”
She also encouraged entrepreneurs to consider their hires and allow employees to be who they are.
“Think about not only who you’re hiring but how you’re allowing them to show up for the world — with their ideas, with their personalities, with their accents, with their culture, with their way of dress,” Borucki said. “To me professionalism is showing up and doing the job and that’s all that counts.”
Alexandra Bernard-Simmons, author and founder of Think Like a Boss, a women’s empowerment organization that also includes a TV show on YouTube and a podcast, and whose latest venture is Seneca Markets, a grocery store chain in the tri-state area, challenged audience members to pivot “into authenticity.”
“Are you pivoting into your true authentic self?” she asked, adding that many entrepreneurs struggle with branding until they do.
“When it comes to business, what is your why?” Bernard-Simmons said. “When you figure out what matters, when you figure out your why, then you can focus on your branding.”
In closing, she reminded the audience that the pandemic has shown that “It’s not always about money. Fulfillment is the new success, not money,” she said.
Other speakers included:
Melissa Gorga of the Real Housewives of NJ and founder of Envy by Melissa Gorga and the online retail store EnvybyMG.com, who urged students to “stay away from slackers” and to take chances even if they are scared. Gorga is doing just that, she said, in announcing a new deal for a podcast.
“I may fail but I’m trying it. I’m insecure and out of my comfort zone, but I’m doing it,” Gorga said. “Go and try. Listen to yourself, listen to your heart and you will be good at whatever you do.”
Monica Martinez Milan, co-owner of two real estate development companies and franchise owner of Stumpy’s Hatchet House of Green Brook, Brooklyn, shared her personal struggle of trying to find herself.
“Just keep moving,” she said, “I’m extremely grateful for the pain of the journey as there’s always a lesson to be learned from it.”
Martinez Milan appealed to people to “Take a crisis and change it into an opportunity.”
She encouraged aspiring entrepreneurs to ground themselves and also challenged them to think about how they can serve others.
“How do you give back? Even if you can’t give financially? What can you do?” Martinez Milan said. She urged students and entrepreneurs to “discover your tribe” and to network. “We have to have our tribe of people who encourage and support us as we encourage and support them,” she said. “If there are those who cannot support you, that’s okay, just move them out of your circle of trust.”
Rachael Grochowski, founder and principal of RHG Architecture+Design, as well as an artist and artisan, spoke about the art of intentional living and the importance of keeping physical and mental well-being in mind when creating spaces. “During the pandemic, we thought a lot about how we want to live our lives, what our values are …coming back to who we are,” she said. “Living and designing with intention is the future and the past. We can design spaces that take care of our mind, our and our relationship, making our design spiritual.”
Rachel Maeng Brown, co-founder and CEO of Loot Agency, a talent management firm for digital creators, was named “NYC Top 20 in their 20’s” (2021) by Crain’s New York Business. She shared her personal mantra of having “crazy faith.”
She said women founders and entrepreneurs can expect to experience hardships, which makes crazy faith that much more important.
“What is crazy faith? It’s trusting fully in what you believe and what you can explicitly prove. It’s unwavering. It’s unbreakable. And, in my opinion, it lacks understanding,” she said, adding, “What if the only thing you needed today to change the trajectory of your legacy was crazy faith? My call to action is: The best time to walk in crazy faith was yesterday but the second-best time is today.”
The event wrapped up with a panel discussion about the challenges, victories and passions of women entrepreneurs, including Moderator Jessica Gonzalez, founder and CEO of InCharged, VendX and LuxDisinfect; Melissa Walker, founder and president of Jazz House Kids; S. Nadia Hussain, cofounder of the Bangladeshi-American Women’s Development Initiative; Elisa Charters, co-founder of Latina Surge National, a women’s empowerment organization; and Diamonique Lundy ’20 founder of SoLo’s Food, which reclaims ancestral foods and recipes, making them healthier and available in communities where healthy foods are not as easily accessible.
The Feliciano Center’s Rich also thanked University staff who helped put on WEW. “It was a true campus collaboration,” she said.
WEW sponsors included: Lightbridge Academy, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, The Co-Co, NJEDA, PNC Financial Services Group and Gearhart Law.
For those who missed the event or livestream, it is available on the Center’s YouTube channel.
Story by staff writer Sylvia A. Martinez
Photos by University photographer Mike Peters.