How do you start your day?
I try to get up an hour before anyone else in my household so I can meditate, drink some lemon in hot water followed by fresh ground coffee with the NY Times. Having time for a ritual first thing in the morning just puts me in the right frame of mind.
Who inspires you?
My husband, who is one of the hardest-working men in biomedical engineering.
What do you need to get you through each day?
Running, a bike ride or a yoga class.
What are you reading?
I love fiction, but if I manage to get through the New Yorker before the next issue arrives, it’s a bit of a miracle.
Briefly describe your business and inspiration for it.
HYPOTHEkids is a K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering, Art+Design and Mathematics (STEAM) program, with a mission to provide underserved students with hands-on science and engineering educational and mentorship experiences so they can thrive in the high tech economy of tomorrow. At the elementary school level we provide in-school, afterschool and a full-day summer program. At the high school level, we have created a bioengineering design and entrepreneurship program where we select 24 high-achieving, low-income students to attend Columbia University’s School of Engineering for six weeks in the summer to learn bioengineering design and entrepreneurship. The students then go on to internships in the biotech industry or at university biomedical research labs. The business was inspired by the opening of Harlem Biospace by my husband and myself, a biotech incubator for early stage life science companies locating in an economically challenged part of West Harlem with chronic achievement gap in the local schools. We started thinking about how we could create a biotech talent pipeline for what will be a thriving biotech economy in NYC.
How has your passion fueled your business?
I am passionate about NYC. I feel like I am working on something that could be really important to shape the future of the city’s economy.
What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I spent 20 years in the corporate world and I always harbored a desire to do my own thing. I never quite fit in no matter where I went. I got as close as I could to entrepreneurs in my last role in my corporate job at MasterCard where I was responsible for nurturing relationship with FinTech (financial technology) start-ups.
What was the tipping point for realizing you had a good business?
Honestly, the tipping point probably came in the last month. We finally got significant funding to keep our high school program going. We also got another round of funding to help close the math achievement gap in Harlem elementary schools. Things seem to becoming easier and I feel like 2016 will be our break-out year.
What has been the key to your success?
I am not afraid to ask for advice. There are many non-profits in the STEM education space and I made a point to meet and talk to the Executive Directors and learn from them.
What lessons have you learned along the way that you wish you would have known at the beginning of your start-up career?
I thought I liked working on my own, but I soon discovered that I really liked having colleagues that I could bounce ideas off of. There was such a steep learning curve that I wish I had an experience colleague who could have helped me in those early days. I either should have leaned on my board members or found a mentor who could have helped navigate the not-for-profit world. The second lesson, which is really part of the first, is if you are co-founding a business you need to determine compatibility with your co-founder on a very basic level. It is not enough to just both be interested in the same idea.
What challenges did you face in the early days of being the Founder of your own business?
I think we spun our wheels for the first year trying to figure out what made sense to do.
What is the biggest mistake you have made in your business to date and how have you moved past it?
I think I wasted a lot of time writing grants that we were never going to get. For the significant grants we needed, we would need introductions to grant making organizations. Grant writing takes a lot of time and energy and while there was value in nailing down what we planned to do, I think, in retrospect, I should have used my time focusing on our earned revenue model. We could be expanding more rapidly if, six months ago, I did what I am doing now in terms of structuring the business.
What would you have done differently?
I would have written one or two grant proposals instead of several like I did. Ultimately, we just needed one yes, and we eventually got it, so perhaps the effort was well spent. Hard to tell.
What is the biggest challenge you have had in your business to date and how did you pull through it?
One thing I learned from other, more established non-profits, is to not rely on grants. We decided early on that we needed an earned revenue model, which is our summer program for K-5 students. Things did not go so well that first summer and we barely broke even. We had issues with securing space and we lost a lot of time. It was a painful time and I seriously thought, “I need to be doing something else.” We decided to keep going and made it through the following half-year, where we barely paid ourselves.
What is your biggest fear as an entrepreneur?
As the Executive Director, I am ultimately responsible for the health of the business. The fear is always there as we start to grow that I will make one bad decision or a series of fateful decisions, which impacts our ability to serve our mission.
What aspects of being a start-up entrepreneur do you love and/or hate?
I love the freedom to decide what I want to do and when I want to do. I love being my own boss. I love being able to go to my kids’ school and sit in during Parent as Learning Partner. I love that if I need to recharge, I can do what I need to do.
Are there any go-to resources that you have found useful to run your business?
I am part of network called TheLi.st, which is filled with female start-up founders. They are a virtual resource to me. I also have friends who are doing for-profit start-ups—we are very honest with each other about our triumphs and our sorrows.
What do you do outside the office to help you stay creative/productive?
I go to the MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum, bike downtown, work in an inspiring space, and just be with other creative people. I go regularly to yoga.
What would you say to another woman who asked you if they should take the leap and start their own business?
Now that I know how hard it is, my reflexive answer would not just be “go for it.” You have to know what your revenue model is going to be, and expect that it will take you twice or thrice as long to get to your first real sales.