Success lessons, cautionary tales for women from female entrepreneurs who should know

By Meg Fry
Montclair | Oct 22, 2018 at 11:34 am

Susan Cole said women continue to underestimate their abilities and capacities.

“Even in this post-feminist world, girls are still growing up unsure,” Cole, president of Montclair State University, said to the hundreds of business owners, would-be entrepreneurs and students who attended the fifth annual Women Entrepreneurship Week conference last week at the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship. “But events like this can help young, emerging women leaders believe that, yes, they can.

“Part of what I hope happens during Women Entrepreneurship Week is that women begin to feel in their bones all that they can do in this world.”

Montclair State University invited eight local entrepreneurs and successful leaders to the conference to demonstrate that exact fact.

Here are their stories.

Michelle Bajwa, co-founder of Domain Computer Services in Cranbury

To the dismay of her parents, Bajwa first shunned pursuing science to begin working as an administrative assistant for a local law firm in 1996.

“I realized then that 95 percent of everyone’s job was document production,” she said.

As a person who had a knack for software development and desktop publishing, Bajwa said, she was horrified to learn she would be using a typewriter and whiteout to create case information files.

Bajwa said she therefore approached her boss with an idea to reduce the costs of office supplies and triple the production of the staff.

“I would take those preprinted forms and change them into Word and Wordperfect templates,” she said. “It was the early stages of modern-day document automation.”

It was then that her friend (and now husband), Rashaad Bajwa, approached her firm for bartered legal representation regarding a speeding ticket.

“Rashaad was going to set up a proxy server for our law firm,” Bajwa said. “And, soon, word sped like wildfire that these whiz kids from Rutgers University were going around putting those pre-printed forms inside computers and then networking them, so everyone could share them and collaborate instantaneously.”

By the time she and Rashaad graduated, Bajwa said, they had three employees, nearly a dozen clients and had secured an office space in which to continue outsourcing information technology support to small and medium-sized businesses.

“Rashaad and I now have three kids together under the age of 12 and just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary,” Bajwa said. “But Domain Computer Services just celebrated its 21st.”

Elizabeth Vilchis, CEO of latinoTech

Elizabeth Vilchis said she had no idea what was about to happen.

“For an immigrant, and the first in my family to go to college, entrepreneurship is not what would lead me to success,” she said.

As a Latina immigrant from Mexico attending the City College of New York, graduating and getting a job in her field of study — mechanical engineering — would make the most sense.

But Vilchis said she instead felt passionate about taking a chance on an opportunity in a field in which she had no expertise whatsoever: food delivery.

“In 2013, two things were taking off in New York City: online ordering, and venture capital for entrepreneurs,” she said. “But, after you would place an order, someone had to get the food from the restaurant and bring it to you — which, in a city like New York, the only way to quickly navigate the streets would be on a bicycle, which wasn’t safe.”

In an effort to reduce accidents and increase transparency and efficiency, she and her co-founders went door-to-door in an area they had identified as having the highest density of restaurants in need of this service.

“I got through it by telling them I was doing a college project and needed a grade, so they would share with me how they handled delivery, the biggest challenges they were facing and what could make it better,” Vilchis said.

Vilchis said she now realizes this process is called customer validation, she said.

“In every step of developing the idea, because we were not confident, we tested each of our assumptions and hypotheses about the value we actually were creating for potential clients,” she said.

The team collected more than 75 surveys and reached out to the technologists behind Amazon’s automation systems, who signed on as board advisers.

“We then went back to Midtown and got four restaurants to sign up and hand over their orders,” Vilchis said. “Nine months after, with additional funding from investors, we were able to convert those pilots into paying customers.”

The software and logistics startup, Homer Logistics, has since raised more than $15 million and has employed more than 900 part-time workers.

Today, Vilchis said she runs latinoTech to help promote the development of other Latinx entrepreneurs and innovators by facilitating access to experts, talent and venture capital.

“You just continue to keep building value, because you just don’t know for who it will provide the most bang for their buck,” she said.

Nicki Radzely, co-founder and CEO of Doddle & Co. in Montclair

Nicki Radzely said she was introduced to The Pop in 2015.

“I knew that the beauty of this design deserved a brand and a company around it, and that I was going to be the one to do it despite not having gone to a fancy college, not knowing anyone, and having no business in industrial design,” she said. “I just had a vision.”

Radzely said she and her team also went beyond what one normally would to make it happen.

“Every time we got one prototype to pass safety, it wasn’t functional, and vice versa,” she said.

That is when everyone in their lives kept telling them to stop, she added.

“We were running out of money, time, and our levels of sacrifice were too high, with many of us having newborns and toddlers at the time,” Radzely said.

Still, they persisted.

“That is the magic of entrepreneurship,” Radzely said. “Something in your gut tells you this is going to work if you just try a bit more.”

Nearly two years later, the company launched The Pop — a pacifier enclosed in a bubble designed to close, protect and keep clean the nipple if and when it falls — 17 months ago, and Doddle & Co. is now a favorite brand of innovative baby products at more than 900 national retailers, including Nordstrom, Pottery Barn Kids, Anthropologie and BuyBuy Baby.

It has been a wild ride for the seven women in the company, who live in places across the country from Brooklyn to San Diego, Radzely said.

“We’ve had some high-highs,” she added, such as recently reaching the $1 million mark in revenue and striking a deal on ABC’s “Shark Tank” for $250,000.

“We’ve also had some low-lows,” Radzely said, referring to when JPMorgan Chase shut down the company’s bank accounts in May when it mistook Doddle & Co. for a company that was in business with North Korea.

A native of Flint, Michigan, it was not enough for Radzely to be told “the bank was simply ending its relationship with us,” she said.

“I have lived a rough and tough life,” Radzely said. “So, Nicki Radzely went up to her office, put on the Foo Fighters and emailed everyone in the world to resolve this: the FBI; the U.S. Department of Treasury; every lawyer and media outlet under the sun; all within the span of about four hours.”

An article in Bloomberg News encouraged JPMorgan Chase to relook at the closure of the company’s account, which ended up being a sanctions issue in which Doddle & Co. was somehow mistakenly caught in the crossfire.

“That is part of entrepreneurship,” Radzely said. “You’re not going to go down easy, even if you are terrified.”

Hakika DuBose, founder and CEO of Kika Stretch Studios and the KIKA Method in Montclair

When Hakika DuBose graduated from Montclair State University, she worked professionally as an actor and dancer.

“But I wanted to have more control of my schedule in order to better raise my son,” she said. “So, I started a business with only $500.”

DuBose said she created her assisted stretching studio concept over seven years ago based on the things she had learned about anatomy and physical fitness as a dancer at Montclair State.

“Imagine lying on a mat and having someone gently stretch out your entire body for you,” she said. “Our coaches help take away the tension that has been trapped inside your body for years.”

To begin, DuBose rented a small shared space with a real estate agent for $345 in 2011, printed brochures from her home computer listing all of the benefits of stretching and hired college students to wear Gumby costumes around town, hand out the brochures, and stretch.

“I mastered the art of guerilla marketing because I had no money,” she said.

It worked. The real estate agent ended up asking her to leave the space because she was using it too frequently for her work with clients.

She then found space in the basement of a Turkish restaurant for $600 per month.

“In the summer, you would smell curry and onions through the vents, but my clients still came,” DuBose said. “That is when I knew our services outweighed the circumstances.”

DuBose’s business earned six figures while located in that basement — until it flooded, and she finally decided to move into a storefront that would help her further her concept and brand with prospective clients.

“However, when I took my first vacation with my son to Hawaii, I came back, and my brother said, ‘Follow me.’”

Her storefront was on fire.

“But everything was OK in the end,” DuBose said. “We never missed payroll and we continued to build clientele as we moved into the basement of a church for nine months as our space was rebuilt.”

That’s when the New York Times covered her business and people began reaching out regarding global locations.

“I soon became the youngest female franchisor in the entire country,” DuBose said. “Now we have five locations, three franchisees, and we are rapidly growing.”

Sejal Lakhani, CEO of TechWerxe in Livingston

All it took, Sejal Lakhani said, was a 7 a.m. mandatory meeting in 2012 — in which the team discussed football for 42 minutes — for her to quit her nearly 12-year career in banking.

“I then called my husband to have a quick conversation about why I was on the train home in the middle of the day,” she said. “I had no plans, no strategy and no goal when I quit. And I was 35 years old.”

Lakhani said she spent the next three months spending time with her two sons, learning to play tennis and picking up yoga while her husband, Tejas, continued to work at the information technology company he had founded in 2008.

“My husband is an absolutely brilliant man, but when you start a business, you can’t just have an expertise in the industry you are working in,” Lakhani said. “You have to understand sales, marketing, operations, communications, how to talk to employees and clients, set up processes and set standards.

“It wasn’t his thing, but I knew it was mine.”

Lakhani became CEO and president of TechWerxe in 2014 after taking the company from $1 million in revenue to $4 million and from five clients to more than 40.

“We had many challenges and a lot of risks, some of which were rewarded greatly, and some, not at all,” she said. “But communication has at least enabled us to move forward because without it, our business and our marriage would have folded.”

Especially in times of adversity, such as losing a $1 million client in December.

“We actually continued to thrive and succeed because of my network,” Lakhani said. “I had spent the last several years surrounding myself with people way smarter than I, after realizing that when I needed to ask for help and constructive criticism, I could supplement my weaknesses with the strength of those around me.

“A friend had told me to dig a well before I was thirsty and that is what I did.”

Ozi Okaro, founder of Ikuzi Dolls in Montclair

As an African-American mother of four, Ozi Okaro said she never could find books, dolls, television shows or magazines that featured women characters of color.

“I grew frustrated with the lack of options,” she said.

It reminded her of her childhood, Okaro said, one in which she had one black doll and several white ones.

“I come from Nigerian immigrants who instilled in me a sense of pride in my culture and heritage,” she said. “But, growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood and not being exposed to characters who looked like me affected me and my idea of beauty.

“I often would look at myself in the mirror and imagine what I would look like if I were white.”

So, Okaro said, she decided to write and illustrate three children’s books to make available on Amazon.

“Now, people are purchasing them, so, other people need what I needed, too,” she said.

It was the same story with the dolls in 2015, Okaro said.

“My girls love dolls, too, but lo and behold, we could not find dolls even today that they could relate to or identify with,” she said. “Even if we found one doll in a shade of brown, my girls are actually two different shades of brown, and that would create a lot of frustration.”

Okaro said she therefore created the dolls of color to celebrate diverse beauty.

“Ikuzi means to teach,” she said. “I want to teach girls to love who they are and what they look like.”

It was a lot of work to learn how to design and manufacture a product, but it also was a labor of love, Okaro said.

“I worked on the dolls with my girls to pick out their skin tones and hair textures,” she said.

That is why, when Ikuzi Dolls launched its first two dolls via an e-commerce platform, their skin complexions matched those of her daughters’.

“We now sell and ship 11 dolls worldwide based on customer input,” Okaro said.

Ikuzi Dolls have since been featured in Oprah, Essence and Ebony magazines.

“I believe exposing children of all races to dolls of color to help build better understanding, respect, and appreciation for our differences,” Okaro said.

Kristine-Ellis Petrik, co-owner and head roaster of Java Love Coffee Roasting Co. in Upper Montclair

Kristine-Ellis Petrik said she and her co-founder, Jodie Dawson, are the biggest imposters in the coffee industry today.

“We are not coffee roasters,” Petrik said. “I am a recovering journalist of 24 years, and Jodie is a child psychologist.

“So, of course, we said, let’s open a coffee roasting company in the Catskills of New York, eighty miles from where we live.”

Petrik, co-owner and head roaster of Java Love Coffee Roasting Co. in Upper Montclair, said she and Dawson began by purchasing an existing coffee roasting company in Bethel, New York, and making a commitment to the community to hire and train the long-term unemployed.

“And every community we have been lucky to be a part of since, it’s still been about giving back,” Petrik said.

Using coffee as a vehicle for change worked — Java Love Coffee Roasting Co. now has two locations in Montclair and two in New York state.

It is important for the small-batch, women-owned, artisan coffee roaster to grow, Petrik said, to be able to stake out its corner of what is currently a male-dominated industry of coffee growers, farmers, processors, importers, roasters and baristas.

“Nearly 70 percent of the people in specialty coffee are men, and, therefore, nearly 75 percent of the people who win barista or coffee-brewing competitions are men,” she said.

It was two years ago, Petrik said, that she wanted to participate in a roaster competition.

“I did not make it in — but 40 men did,” she said. “It was as if they were to say, ‘Clearly, little lady, you don’t know how to work this piece of machinery.’”

Petrik said that it was alright. In fact, she’s eager to embrace her imposter syndrome on a daily basis.

“If I am going to be an imposter, by God, I am going to be the best imposter I possibly can be today,” she said. “I am owning it, walking it, talking it and overcoming my fear by stepping forward.

“People think, ‘Oh, but Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts’ — and I think, ‘Eh, no, not really.’ My biggest competitor is me.”

Sarah Hill, founder of Sarah Hill Consulting and former co-founder and CEO of Bookstr.com

“How far are you willing to go?” Sarah Hill said. “How comfortable are you with failure?

“Would you be homeless for your business? Have your cell phone or lights turned off? Go without health insurance?

“All of which happened to me less than six months ago when I sold a company and still had to deal with the fallout of owning a business.”

According to Hill, her company, Bookstr.com, was sold earlier this year after Hill organically grew its audience to 3.5 million through content and product strategy.

“It was my true passion,” she said. “It was bringing millennials and books into one place, featuring videos and articles and everything you’d ever want in a media site that focused on books.”

It was what she needed after moving to New York City just a few years earlier.

Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, Hill said she found herself at a crossroads just five years ago.

“When you are 25 years old and single in Texas, you either get married or go do something else,” she said. “So, I decided to move to New York City.”

Hill quickly fell into the startup culture, she said, where she spent time dabbling with titles ranging from director of product to editor-in-chief.

But then she found herself at a startup called The Reading Room.

“No one really cared what I did, and I was therefore able to create an audience by using graphics and articles centered around books for the company,” Hill said.

It was not long before she was met with all too familiar news.

“The Reading Room was going to be no more,” Hill said. “That is, until an investor decided to purchase the assets of the company and asked me to start it up again together.

“I was 28 years old and just dumb enough to say yes.”

Hill ran Bookstr for two years until that same investor said Hill would be required to sell the company, due to not being able to meet payroll.

“Bookstr received four offers to buy — one from one of the largest book retailers in the country; another two from the largest publishing houses in New York City; and another from an investment group,” Hill said.

The investor, Hill said, chose the last offer for the mere price of $1.

“Deals were tied to the back of it, but I never saw any of it,” Hill said.

After selling the business, the investor closed the entity and started a new one so that, if and when the business sold, he would get a large percentage of that sale.

“It was a technically shifty and very sketchy way to make money,” Hill said. “But I hadn’t fact-checked any of his previous investments and didn’t quite know who I was dealing with.”

Her tale, however, ends happily, Hill said.

“I have a new consultancy now in which I am more profitable than Bookstr ever was the entire time I was there,” Hill said.

“Word to the wise, always protect yourself — and, even if you think it is the ending to your story, and it might be, it may also be a fantastic beginning, too.”

Read more from ROI-NJ on Women Entrepreneurship Week:

Meg Fry | mfry@roi-nj.com | megfry3