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Female entrepreneurs share secrets to success

Three years ago, Yana Khashper and her partner, Sean Smith, started to feel their sobriety slipping.

Both Khashper and Smith are in recovery from addiction, and they were becoming more and more isolated, Khashper says.

Yana Khashper

Yana Khashper

“We were really heading down to relapse,” Khashper says. “We had both experienced it before. We knew what was happening.”

Smith had introduced Khashper to adventure fitness, and they decided to organize a winter hike on an unseasonably cold day in the winter of 2015. They posted news of the hike on social media, and they were surprised that about 10 people in recovery came out.

“We weren’t thinking about how isolated we had been or how cold it was,” Khaspher says. “We were just laughing and connecting and engaging.”

That winter hike was the start of ROCovery Fitness, an organization dedicated to bringing people interested in fitness and sober living together. Within six months of that hike, Khashper quit her job as a social worker to try to make the organization a reality.

ROCovery now has four employees and has received funding from the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services to expand peer recovery-based fitness to other parts of the state. They also now serve 1,000 people a year and had an angel investor who had lost her son to an overdose purchase a firehouse for ROCovery to establish a community center.

Khashper says one of the takeaways of her story is the importance of making sure the risk of launching your own business or nonprofit is truly what you want.

“You want to find a purpose of life and you want to be happy,” Khashper says. “You want to make sure it’s not something that you resent.”

When Lindsey McCutchen founded Career Start, a recruitment and staffing agency, she says she had nothing to lose.

Lindsay McCutchen

Lindsay McCutchen

After graduating in 2006 with a degree in communications and minor in sociology, McCutchen got a contract position with the Monroe County Department of Social Services working with people receiving public assistance to enter the workforce.

When the 10-month position ended, McCutchen founded her own business working as a contractor with social service departments and nonprofits to help people with barriers to employability.

“One of the things that helped me was that I was fearless,” McCutchen says. “I really had nothing to lose by starting my business.”

When Donna Shultz founded Mirror Show Management, a company specializing in putting together trade shows, in 1993, she was inspired to do so because the president of the company she was working for at the time said that if only she was a man, she would be really successful in the industry.

“At the time, it was a male-dominated industry, so while I’m sure he meant well by that statement, that moment was a catalyst for me to make a change,” Shultz says.

While the industry was male-dominated, Shultz points out that she went from not being taken seriously as a woman in the industry to becoming the current president of the trade association of the industry, the Experiential Designers and Producers Association.

MSM has grown to have 85 full-time employees and four full-time contractors.

Shultz advises female entrepreneurs to have faith that they can succeed in business because of how far women in business have come in her lifetime.

Donna Shultz

Donna Shultz

While women are going to face additional obstacles in business due to their gender, “all of them can be overcome and doing so will only make you stronger,” Shultz says. “A sizeable number of successful firms are now headed by women and the list grows every day. So don’t let anything hold you back.”

McCutchen says that another important thing for female business leaders is to have good intuition when a change in their business model is necessary.

For McCutchen, she realized that funding for grants for employment assistance was cyclical and that she needed to change direction. A few years into the life of Career Start, she converted the business into a staffing agency.

She notes that anything can happen in business, and smaller businesses are able to navigate faster.

“In order to move fast, in order to be agile, you have to have good intuition and you have to drop the fear and you just have to proceed forward,” McCutchen says.

Now Career Star can do large-volume placements for local manufacturers who need an entire workforce to ebb and flow with the production cycle, McCutchen says. Career Start also does staffing for the health care industry.

“We do highs and lows for businesses,” McCutchen says. “We are able to flex up and down with them.”

Her organization now has 35 internal employees. The company places over 5,000 W2 employees, and supports over $120 million in earned income, McCutchen says.

McCutchen also advises business owners who have achieved an initial level of success to be prepared to make changes in who works for the organization.

In the beginning of a startup, everyone has to wear multiple hats, but the people you start with might not be the people who stay with you, McCutchen says.

“Not everyone wants the pressure and wants to reach for the stars like you do,” McCutchen says. “As you grow, you might not have same people at the top with you. You have to have self-awareness and organizational awareness. It’s ok to have to hire new blood and have new perspectives instead of pulling people through the ranks with you.”

Khashper says self-care is essential in the process of founding and building our own organization, especially for her in maintaining her sobriety. “Being active in recovery isn’t the same as being active in your own recovery,” she says.

Shultz says business founders and leaders should be givers, not takers. If customers are receiving the best service and product you can provide, then “everything else will take care of itself,” she says.

Part of being a giver is ensuring that employees have equal opportunities, especially around pay. She notes that MSM now has employees as part owners through its employee stock ownership plan and that MSM is known for its inclusiveness.

“When you treat everyone as equals, women naturally rise,” Shultz says. “In fact, a sizable majority of our leadership team is female.”

Amaris Elliott-Engel is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

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