In this column, we discuss topics on every Women’s Business Enterprise’s mind—and what may be on deck tomorrow. This month, we asked three successful WBEs who are active members on the Women’s Enterprise Forum to talk about how they’ve made time in their hectic schedules to give back to WBENC in addition to causes like youth empowerment, immigration rights, and disabled veterans.
Moderated by Laura Berry, Founder and CEO, of Cogberry Creative, LLC, this month’s Let’s Chat conversation includes Fran Dichner, President and CEO, Aries Group; Rona Lum, Principal, Law Offices of Rona M. Lum; and Lisa Hanlon, Chairman, CEO, and Co-Founder, Teltech Communications.
Here is an excerpt from the conversation:
All of you have said that this is a topic is close to your heart. Tell me a little of why it is so important to you as successful entrepreneurs:
Fran: Making time to give back is imperative to me. I decided to make time for community service and to give back and make this a priority when I read a book called The Purpose Driven Life, which states we were made for a mission. This book impacted me so much I decided that I do not just want to run a business--I want to make a difference. That, along with my early life experiences, is what inspired me and put me on the path to committing my time to giving back and incorporating giving back into the DNA and culture of my company.
Rona: The book that has resonated with me over the years, so much so I keep it right by my bedside when I need encouragement and inspiration is The Four Agreements.
I don't think any of us (no matter how successful we are) got to the places that we are in life without help, assistance, and kindness from a lot of people. I call these moments my little gems. I feel very fortunate that so far in life I've been able to collect many gems. I feel very strongly that I'm part of a greater picture and I need to give back. I have to give back.
Lisa: Exactly. In fact, our company would not be where it is today without the support from friends and mentors. Through their kindness and support it compelled me to want to pay it forward by sharing my experiences, and lessons learned in hopes to make a difference in someone else’s life.
Do you feel like your background—your story—contributes to that drive to give back to your community?
Rona: I'm third generation Japanese American. My grandparents were the first generation to come over, and I've been very fortunate. So I am very active in the local Asian community, both with other Asian Americans and recent immigrants. Immigration law is the area in which I practice.
It's good to know you have helped even though it's a very minor part of their journey. I feel very good that what I'm doing helps someone to better their life. I do a lot of pro bono work, too. People will call me and ask me for help and I assist them. I don't charge a legal fee. I just do it.
There's a reason why I'm in this area of law. I feel it allows me the opportunity to give back to people in a meaningful way on a daily basis. People have to navigate the very complicated immigration process of coming to the U.S. legally, including getting a green card and then becoming a U.S. citizen. My greatest reward is the majority of my clients, even after becoming U.S. citizens, continue to keep in touch with me. I receive cards every year around the holidays with pictures of their children. They tell me what they are doing. They tell me that they have started businesses.
Fran: Yes, it is my journey and my background that drives me to give back.
I grew up in an orphanage in Greece where I had nothing and came here when I was four years old. When I became an established business owner and CEO, I wanted to help underprivileged people, and especially children, because I knew at an early age what it was like to do without and be deprived of what many take for granted.
That is why I make giving back a priority and make that giving personal. I have been involved in Girls Inc., a program for high-risk girls for many years. When I came here from Greece, I struggled to adjust to school and to learn social skills. I felt isolated and it was a huge adjustment for me. Girls Inc. helped me with that. As a result, I will always support Girls Inc.
Lisa: I definitely struggled as child, and I watched my parents struggle to give my siblings and me the best life they could. I knew one day I would own my own business that would allow me to give back to my family.
It has been a journey and I am always willing to help someone who is willing to better himself or herself. Charitable giving is one thing, but it is not necessary to think about the monetary contribution. I also think you need to think about where you spend your time; what are you passionate about? For me, it is veterans, specifically women veterans and disabled veterans. They've given so much for our country.
In my work with women veterans and disabled veterans, there is this stereotype that everybody has PTSD from being in the military. It’s tough. But what I have seen and learned is that the actual difficult thing is for them is the transition period and the lack of education within the community. My goal has been to help veterans navigate the various tools that are available to them and work with other business owners to match our veterans to sustainable job opportunities.
As entrepreneurs, we're so busy. How do you build that drive to give back to your community—or your passion project—into your business plan? Do you build that into your personal time?
Rona: You have to set your priorities. You cannot be all things to all people. You have to realize that and be comfortable with that. I did what most entrepreneurs do when they first venture off on their own: I joined too many organizations. It was crazy.
I always do an end of the year review where I allow myself quiet time to reflect, and I started focusing in on all my memberships. I thought to myself, "Is this bringing you value? Not only business value, but also personal value?"
You can't just be a member in name only and expect to get value out of anything. Once I got my priorities straight in my mind, in my heart, everything else was easy. I've basically pared it down to WBENC, which includes my national involvement as well as involvement in my local RPO, the Great Lakes Women’s Business Council. In addition, I belong to an Asian American business chamber because that encompasses an important part of who I am. I also teach in a paralegal program, because I'm a lawyer so that's near and dear to my heart. And that is it.
I recognize, and I'm very realistic about it, at this point in my life, I cannot give time to anything other than what I'm doing right now. That doesn't mean it will not change in the future.
Fran: I agree with Rona. It definitely takes analysis of your priorities and time management skills to balance and get everything accomplished.
As Lisa said, if you're going to support a charity, make it one that's near and dear to your heart instead of trying to support every charity out there. You have to find out what your priorities are, what means the most to you, what you are passionate about that you can give your commitment to. Everyone will solicit you and you will have to balance that with your time and the resources you have available.
The very first thing I did when I wanted to step into the CEO role was hired an executive coach who is also a life coach. We worked on my values, my time commitments, and my priorities; we looked all of the different opportunities out there, what to leave in, what to leave out, what organizations to join and what charities to support. At the end of the week, she coached me to ask yourself, “Does this serve me—and how?
We did an exercise I call The Pie of Life. You draw a circle and divide it into sections and you put in where you spend all your time, on a personal level and on a professional level. Then you can see, "Oh my goodness, I spend 40% of my day on emails."
You start tracking your time for a month, and then you fill in more pieces. I make sure to include charitable commitments in this exercise and include them in the "pie." You can see where you have a lot of things you can eliminate just by doing the pie. Believe me, by doing the pie I got rid of the dead wood in my life, which included letting go of some people in my life as well.
Lisa: I agree. It's really about setting priorities and determining where to give your time. The toughest thing is saying no, right? It’s one of the hardest things to figure out. It's definitely more difficult to say no than yes.
And that’s where WBENC has helped me. I can honestly say some of my best friends today are all the women I've met from WBENC. We're all from different industries, but we all have the same goals, so it makes it easier. I doesn’t matter what industry you're in. It's having that group of women that you can validate your decisions and get advice about your business. It’s irreplaceable.
When we talk about mentorship, I think of my first WBENC conference in Houston where I met [then WBENC Director] Heather Herndon-Wright. She's been an inspiration to me. Before I knew it she got me involved in committees, had me going to events and becoming a part of the Women's Enterprise Forum. She has been a life changer.
Fran: And with WBENC, you can start out small. You start up by joining a local committee, attending a local workshop, and attending a local conference. That’s what I did with my RPO, CWE in Boston (Center for Women’s Enterprise). If your business allows it and supports it and you have the resources, you can springboard to the larger national WBENC community. You have to be ready for that step because it's not only a financial commitment, but also it is time and a lot of work. You have to really know when it's the right time to make a national commitment.
I never really had a strong national female network support system like WBENC as a CEO. It is lonely at the top and I find WBENC to be my informal Board of Advisors. I am so involved in the running of my business, the strategy and business development, I make sure to make WBENC a priority in my business strategy—and my commitment to giving back.