Advice

Published on February 12th, 2011 | by thevyne

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So You Want to Be an Entrepreneur? Make Sure You Meet “Access”

By Charisse Conanan

I have always been told that if I want to start a business, northern California is the place to go. My recent 3-day trip out West made these words resonate with me like never before. My business partner and I got off the plane wide-eyed in search of money to grow our business. Staring back at me was something big. Something homogenous.  And then I said hello to “Access.” Yes, I got up-close and personal with “Access” to people, money, technology talent, and innovation. I knew it existed but didn’t quite understand the power it held in the Valley, and quite frankly, the world. I, a Chicago-based black female entrepreneur, felt like an outsider peering into a world with its own set of rules, networks, and language. And at the same time, I was even more inspired to push onward to make my dream happen.

I organized a drink meet-up with business school classmates. The chatter amongst them centered around who’s who in deal making, how M.C. Hammer has become a popular investor in the Valley (who knew?), and what new gadgets we could expect to see next year. They talked about the chefs who made them lunch and dinner, how they negotiated for stock options, the ongoing tension between the male-dominant engineers and the business people. They spoke about the lack of females – Period. I began to piece together how this bubble-like community worked. After we left, it hit me that 9 of the 10 people worked at start-ups. While I could point to self-selection bias as a major factor at play here, I think a more plausible explanation is appropriate; if you’re young, smart, and live in the Bay area, there’s a high chance you’ll work at a start-up. Entrepreneurship is not a pie-in-the-sky dream – It’s a reality.

We then sought the advice of a venture capitalist on how to effectively raise money and asked him to connect us with any of his friends interested in investing in us. In 20 minutes, he developed an opinion on our business and sized us up as individuals. After passing this first test, he checked his mental rolodex to see if he knew anyone who could help us. He said, “Ask Matty [we changed the name to protect the integrity of the source]. We did a bunch of deals back in the day. If he writes a $50,000 check, then all you have to do is just get a round [of other investors] together to fill in the rest.” His statement rolled off his tongue with a familiarity akin to “just fix me up something to eat.”  His tone was confident and natural, as if money grew on trees. In his world, it really did. I couldn’t help by steal a look at my partner and our non-verbal communication said it all – “is this for real.”  There it was staring us in the face again – “Access.”

One of the best parts of my trip was the bonding time with my partner. If you’ve ever considered starting a business, find someone who will share the journey with you. You’ll learn about sacrifice, commitment, and patience. Sound familiar? Oh yes, it has major elements of marriage – legally bonded and financially tied. But the difference is that I actually spend more than 8 hours per day with my partner. On this trip, my partner learned more about one of my quirks; I can sometimes be forgetful. When we got to L.A., I realized I left my shoes in San Francisco. The blessing came when she gave me hers! And while she laughed hysterically at first, her act of kindness speaks volumes to her character. Find someone you can have fun with AND still get things done. Find someone who gives you “Access” to dream together.

The trip ended with a visit to eHarmony and their COO, who was part of the original 6 who started the company back in 2000. He told us to make good critical decisions, be flexible, hire great people, and embrace trial and error. It was so inspiring to hear about how he grew the company and the lessons learned. But what really left an impression on me was that this company created jobs and opportunities for so many people, many of whom smiled so big at me when I toured the floor. When I left, I realized that I too had “Access.”

My trip taught helped me understand the inner workings and power of “Access”.  She operates like a machine, churning out people and businesses that are built from a blueprint of success. The blueprint lies in the hands of very few people who have the money and network to fund ideas that they deem worthy. These people are typically middle-aged white, males. For all those aspiring entrepreneurs, keep your eyes on the forces working around you, around all of us, and navigate around them. If you’re lucky enough to gain access, continue to share the stories so we can learn from your experiences. If not, find ways to create your own access points and stay encouraged along the journey.

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