Bisnow Entrepreneurship Series

This morning, I woke up grumpy. Might have to do with the fact that I got home at 2:30 am, after three exhausting tradeshow days in Las Vegas and a flight that involved a very large man seated next to me (whose bulk kept overflowing in my seat) and a 2-year old across the aisle from me who had a 4 hour temper tantrum (equivalent of a lifetime dose of birth control). Oh, and the fact that I woke up at 6 am for a crazy day. When I am grumpy, only three things tend to be foolproof in helping my mood: red lipstick (check); a cute dress (check; and white in honor of the first day of summer); and inspiration from other entrepreneurs (check). I came so close to not attending the Bisnow Entrepreneur Series event this morning, for which I had a couple of weeks ago re-arranged some client meetings (which I never do), in order to sleep one additional hour. But I did go, and am so happy I did. Not only did I run into some of my favorite people in the DC entrepreneurship community, including Kate Palmer of Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship and Jeff Reid of Georgetown University, but I finally had the opportunity to hear and to meet a hero among us DC entrepreneurs (in particular among us Georgetown McDonough School of Business graduates), Michael Chasen of Blackboard. His presentation was more effective than an extra hour of sleep or four extra cups of coffee in terms of waking me up, and changing my mood.

For those of you who have met him, it will come as no surprise that I would describe him as handsome (he actually asked me put that in my blog, although I would have even if he hadn’t), charismatic, confident, funny, smart. He gave us the short story about how he started Blackboard (which today is a public company, has over $500M in revenues and over $100M in EBIDTA), and then shared some key lessons learned along the way.

Lesson #1: “Focus on the business, not on the office.” Work on the business model and forget about everything else, including a fancy corporate suite and expensive office chairs.

Lesson #2: “Networking is essential.” It’s all about who you know, who you know that knows someone who is the neighbor of the best friend of the wife of someone you really need to meet.

Lesson #3: “Constantly share your vision” (in a memorable and confident way). He told of introducing himself at a networking event (see lesson #2) as “Hi, I’m Michael, co-founder of Blackboard, an e-learning company, and we are very excited about our first deal with Microsoft.” (Their first deal being the purchase of Microsoft Office).

Lesson #4: “While you need to seek advice, you also need to recognize that you are the expert in your business.” Supplement your vision with what you learn from others. The operative word being “supplement” (ie not “replace”).

Lesson #5: “You should have a business model that makes money.” When Michael started, the trendy thing for software companies was to give their software away for free. He admitted to adding up zeros in all the columns of an Excel workbook, and concluding that it still amounted to zero.

During the Q&A session, a few additional lessons, or pieces of advice, emerged. Michael, as most successful entrepreneurs I have heard say, spoke about the need for passion for what you are doing. As entrepreneurs, we work harder and (for a long time although hopefully not forever) for less money than we would if working for someone else. Only true passion can get us through that. His is passion for education. He also talked about making mistakes everyday, and about the importance of not dwelling on these as negative experiences, but on learning from them, and most importantly, on incorporating them in your business strategy. He talked about his love of being a business based in downtown DC (I so relate to that). He talked about people who ask him “What do you do for fun” and him responding “My job is fun, my work is my hobby” (I so relate to that too).

The last audience question was something I had been wondering about since he started his presentation. How is it that he, Michael Chasen, the co-founder of Blackboard, is still the CEO? How has he been able to go from ideating the business to launching a startup to growing a small company to going through an IPO and to running a multi-hundred-million dollar business? Such a rare occurrence… With the matter-of-fact attitude he showed through the entire discussion “I’ve been successful by hitting our sales numbers every quarter.”

On that note, let me head back to the office and work on my own quarterly sales numbers. Eagerly,  effectively,  with a renewed sense of inspiration, and with no recollection whatsoever of the fat man, the screaming toddler, or my short night. Thank you Michael.

Lessons From a High School Graduation

Two nights ago, I attended my husband’s son’s high school graduation in New Orleans. I guess I should say I attended my step-son’s graduation… It was a warm Louisiana evening, filled with proud parents, happy siblings, and excited graduates. I couldn’t help as I watched the ceremony, listened to the speeches, and enjoyed the music, thinking back to my own high school graduation.

What I remember most from my graduation (back in 1995… yikes!) is the overall theme of “yes you can.” Our speakers (whether students or guests) spoke of ambition, of endless possibilities, of dreams coming true, and of changing the world. That day, there was nothing I couldn’t do. No goal was too far out of reach. No plan was too ambitious. If I wanted to do it, I could, and I would. Watch me. While I still believe in that feeling, it has been informed by almost 20 years of life, which in my case has meant entrepreneurial highs and lows, personal love and loss. Today, I still know I can do anything I set my mind to, but I also know it will probably be hard.

I was surprised that that was indeed the theme of Parker’s graduation Commencement speaker. Anh “Joseph” Cao, former U.S. Representative for Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District (the first Vientamese-American elected to Congress, he served from 2009 to 2011) and a candidate for Attorney General of Louisiana, spoke of his life, of the lessons he learned along the way. He spoke of being born in Vietnam and leaving his home country at the early age of 8. He spoke of wanting to be a physicist, but then becoming a Catholic Priest. He spoke of realizing it was not his vocation and of becoming a lawyer. He spoke of losing everything during Hurricane Katrina, of having to rebuild everything. He spoke about life being filled with hope, but also filled with hardship. His three pieces of advice to the graduating class were:

–          Be prudent

–          Be disciplined

–          Be persistent

I listened, and nodded in agreement. This theme re-emerged at the very end of the evening, when the Principal granted the graduates their diplomas, and ended the night by quoting Winston Churchill: “Never, never, never give up.”

While I couldn’t agree more with either the former Congressman, or the Principal (these are lessons and words I live by every day), I still somehow missed the innocent naiveté of the messages I heard at my own graduation. Then again, I thought to myself, we aren’t exactly in 1995… the messages I heard Tuesday night were a stark reminder of the “different reality” we live in today.

Self care advice from my Mom

In the US, there’s an inherent fascination with European women. How can they be so thin despite eating so much cheese? How can they be so healthy despite drinking wine, often at lunch? How do they achieve their quintessential elegant look? How come they seem to age more gracefully?

While I don’t pretend to have answers to the first two questions, I do believe that the European woman’s approach to skin care has much to do with the answers to the third and fourth questions. While speaking about European women is obviously a gross generalization, here are some tips on skin care habits that my Swiss mother engrained in me from my early teens:

  1. Skin care is a part of self care, part of health care. Facials are not luxuries, and a good moisturizer is not a frivolous expense. Indeed, I was taught that going to the spa should be considered as necessary as going to the dentist on a regular basis.
  2. Prevention is more important than correction. Don’t wait until you start seeing wrinkles, brown spots, and sagging skin to incorporate anti-aging products into your routine. If you are old enough to drink (and remember, in Geneva, this is 16), you are old enough for an eye cream.
  3. Spend time in your bathroom; it is your sanctuary. Growing up, I watched my mom take long baths, apply lotions and potions, and  spend a lot of time in her bathroom. That was her special time each morning–her way to get physically and mentally prepared for the day, and in the evening, it helped her remove the effects of the day.
  4. For every year you grow older, spend an extra 30 seconds in your bathroom. When you are 20 years old, you can jump out of bed, tie your hair in a ponytail, and leave the house in 5 minutes looking fresh and beautiful. As we age, getting to that look takes more time and more effort. Don’t fight against it, embrace it, and spend more time in your bathroom.
  5. Look at yourself in the mirror. Really look–don’t just glance. This will enable you to see every wrinkle starting to form, to see the appearance of very light brown spots and watch them turn darker with the passage of time. The process of looking, observing, and assessing will give you a feeling of control over the changes happening on your face and body and will ensure that you don’t just wake up one morning and think, “I have just aged 20 years overnight.”
  6. Taking care of your body is as important as taking care of your face. Treat your neck and décolleté with specific products. Nourish the skin of your body. Take particular care of your hands and feet. Not just once a week, but every day, twice a day.
  7. Makeup is meant for highlighting and color, not to treat skin. If your skin looks good, you don’t need to cover it with foundation. Show your skin. Use makeup to brighten and color.
  8. The worse you feel, the brighter your lipstick should be. Red is the color of power, wearing it will not only have people commenting on how great you look, but will make you feel powerful and in control, hence better. Find the shade of red that suits you, and use it.
  9. Keep your nails real, short, and oval. Did Princess Grace of Monaco have long fake nails? I don’t think so. Short is elegant. Nude is the best neutral, but bright red works on short nails too.
  10. Smile. You will look better, feel happier, and everyone around you will too.

A milestone to adulthood

Today, I feel like a real adult. I have been able to vote for 15 years. I have gotten married. And divorced. And re-married. I have bought my own new car. I have bought my own real jewelry. I run my own business. Yet today, I feel like a crossed a serious adulthood milestone. Today, for the first time, a housekeeper cleaned my house. Not just “a” housekeeper, “my” housekeeper, who calls me “Miss Ada”… I still can’t quite believe it.

This all happened very quickly over the last 10 days. The last two weeks have been so incredibly busy that two week-ends ago I welcomed my husband into a less than pristine apartment. I just didn’t have time to do my usual pre-husband-visit cleanup. Not wanting to have that happen again this past week-end, I spent Thursday night cleaning, until about half past midnight. All I wanted to do was go to sleep, but I was determined to clean. I cleaned so late that the next morning I decided that 2 extra minutes of sleep was more important than making my bed. I think this was only the fourth time in my entire life that I have left my house without making my bed…

I crave a clean house, and I love to clean my house. Dusting, scrubbing, even cleaning the floors is incredibly satisfying and relaxing to me – that is my go-to self-therapy when I need to de-stress. Still, I have never been attracted to the idea of a housekeeper. What if she doesn’t clean as well as I do? What if she doesn’t put everything back exactly in its place? And then, of course, I hate the idea that I have to give her keys to my house. And that I have a stranger in my house. And somehow a housekeeper has always seemed like such a luxury, something for people with multiple kids and large mansions…

Then, as often happens, a sign from the Universe. I subscribe to an amazing Georgetown neighborhood online forum. It is filled with the most amazing community feel and useful information. Last week, there were two posts about this amazing housekeeper who had some extra time. I read on… Given my hesitations and concerns (above), this housekeeper sounded like a true gem. She works only in Georgetown. Has a very specific list of cleaning products she requests her customers keep in her house. She fixes things. She sews. She charges more if no ironing is involved, because she loves ironing so much. And she worked for Richard Holbrooke (which is why all of a sudden she has a free afternoon… only in Georgetown!).

I called her, met her last Friday, but in my mind had hired her before the meeting. Somehow it was meant to be, and I began fantasizing about polished silver (has been on my list of things to do for about 6 months now), ironed sheets (one of the reasons I love staying at my parents’ house), and clean windows… Today, she started. I am on the road (as I am so often), and I cannot wait to go home tomorrow and see the results of her magic. And appreciate adulthood for one reason more.


So many reasons why I love Georgetown

Over the last two weeks or so, two of my favorite Georgetown institutions have closed or announced they are closing. Erwin Gomez Salon & Spa closed after some well publicized drama on Facebook, and my eyebrows have suffered ever since (if you have a good recommendation for an eyebrow master, I am all ears). Earlier this week, The Griffin Market announced that its last day will be February 20th. I live a block from The Griffin Market, and love love love their egg salad sandwich, and often go there for other food emergencies (fresh mozzarella emergency, cornichon emergency, good Italian wine emergency… my kind of emergencies).  Having these two places close gave me cause for pause, and made me think about all of the other Georgetown places and boutiques I so love, and why I could never imagine living anywhere other than here. These favorites are listed in the order that they come into my life on a typical day I spend in Georgetown.

Switzerland, more than chocolate and skin care

Today (yesterday by the time you read this) was both a great day and a sad day. Any day that involves a luncheon at the Swiss Ambassador’s Residence, hosted by the Ambassador’s fashionista wife Ronit is a delightful day. Today was particularly magical, as she was able not only to bring together the crème de la crème of Washington women, new designs by Isabel Toledo, narrated and explained by the designer (and her number one fan, her husband Ruben) herself, but the sun was sparkling and the sky was turquoise – important when the lunch is taking place on the beautiful terrace of the Residence, and when ether-real cloud-like textile decorations seem to hang from the sky.