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Female Founders: Michele Bailey of The Blazing Group and My Big Idea On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

To be a founder you need passion, commitment, perseverance and tenacity. Founders are risk-takers. We need a thick skin to weather the good and the bad.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michele Bailey.

Michele Bailey (www.michelebailey.com) is the ForbesBooks author of The Currency Of Gratitude: Turning Small Gestures Into Powerful Business Results and founder/CEO of The Blazing Group, a brand and culture agency born of her strategy-first approach to business and desire to enhance employee wellness in pursuit of business goals. She is also the founder of My Big Idea™, a mentoring program designed to propel individuals toward their personal and professional goals. Bailey has been recognized for contributions to women and entrepreneurship with honors such as the Bank of Montreal Expansion & Growth in Small Business Award and the Women’s Business Enterprise Leader Award in 2020. Bailey is a popular speaker and is also the author of a previous book, It’s NOT All About You, It’s About the Company You Keep.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I started my career in a sales role with a small ad agency where I rose to the rank of Executive Vice President before leaving the company to start my entrepreneurial journey. My experiences with the agency taught me that I didn’t want to work in a company where matters pertaining to employee work-life blend and company culture were regularly brushed aside in favor of maximizing profit.

In 1994 I left the security of my salaried position and founded my own ad agency, Blazing, to pursue my dream of running my own business, my way. My strategy-first approach to business and desire to enhance employee wellness while pursuing business goals led to the expansion of Blazing as a full-service brand and culture agency now operating as The Blazing Group.

My passion for finding business success while taking care of my team is what drove development of my latest venture and member of The Blazing Group — My Big Idea®. Blazing is turning branding inside out with the My Big Idea® program, an employee mentoring and wellness program designed to propel individuals forward in their quest for personal and professional success. In short, my team have found the formula for creating awesome business cultures that drive exceptional marketing. Countless companies have discovered both greater team cohesion and happier employees all the while boosting their bottom-line results as a direct result of our proprietary process.

Today though, I want to share a valuable lesson from my entrepreneurial journey with my clients and others by driving home the message to make true gratitude, and the regular and meaningful expression of it, integral to the way their business is done.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

After twelve years as an entrepreneur, I found myself the victim of employee fraud, forgery, and embezzlement.

This incident almost bankrupted my company and nearly broke me both mentally and emotionally.

It was only through the help, guidance and advice of my incredible support network and dedicated team of employees who chose to stay with me that I was able to overcome this most challenging time in business and focus on not only surviving, but thriving.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Very early on in my career, I had the opportunity to pitch a major credit card provider and was short-listed to be one of the three agencies to present in person.

In that massive boardroom, filled with business executives, I was presenting three different concepts and rationales and the strategy to go with each.

Unbeknownst to me, the slip I was wearing under my dress that day had come loose. As I was presenting, the slip slid down my legs. I noticed that everyone’s eyes were now focused below the glass table where my undergarment lay on the floor.

What could I do? I calmly stepped out of my slip, kicked it under the table, and continued on with my presentation. No one said a word, but the smiles around the table were big and wide.

I won that account. I was told it was in no small way because I demonstrated how well I work under pressure.

It pays to remain calm and professional no matter what unexpected challenges come your way.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

During my first year of business ownership, I had the privilege attending a conference and listening to a presentation by Marg Hachey, an established and successful woman entrepreneur. She exuded everything I wanted to be as a businesswoman. After the conference, I mustered up the courage to reach out to her to ask if she would mentor me as I grew my business.

Not only has she helped guide me over the years as I grew my business, she was a great support to me as I was dealing with employee fraud, forgery and embezzlement. During this very difficult time, Marg connected with me each and every day to make sure I was okay and moving forward.

It’s been 24 years since we first met, and I am very grateful for her mentorship and the way she has enriched my life both personally and professionally.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

I can name a few reasons:

  1. Access to capital. Many banks don’t seem to lend as easily to women as they do to men.
  2. Women usually don’t have access to the equivalent of the ‘old boys network’ to help them out. Although this is changing, women need to continue to support and encourage one another through the building of support networks.
  3. No work-life blend. We are often pulled in many directions. While trying to run a business, we often have many other competing priorities such as running a household, caring for children or aging parents, with little time to care for ourselves. The number of women leaving the workforce due to the additional pressure brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is astonishing.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

  1. Like I said before, women leaders, as individuals, need to come together to truly support and encourage one another for professional success. We all need to put in the effort to build that incredible support network for each other.
  2. As individuals, women need to invest the time cultivating and maintaining an incredible support network.
  3. Establishment of mentoring relationships — mentor to mentee and peer to peer such as is done by organizations like the Women Business Collaborative.
  4. As a government and a society, we should further encourage the establishment of diversity and inclusion targets for corporations and government organizations.
  5. Establish enhanced employee insurance benefits for maternity and caregiver leaves of absence as well as childcare support programs.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

I think of it like this: why should anyone become a founder?

  1. You create your own opportunities.
  2. You have more freedom to design your work schedule.
  3. Founding your own business allows for innovation, collaboration and creativity.
  4. You are the master of your own work-life plan.
  5. It’s an opportunity to bring your own unique perspective to business.

Ideally there should be no barriers for women to achieve all of these things.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

Myth 1: “Starting a business will bring you freedom”

In fact, you will work twice as hard as you expect, initially and perhaps for many years, before you truly reap the benefits of your hard work.

Myth 2: “Starting a business will quickly lead to wealth.”

More often than not, you will have to invest heavily to get your business going. In addition you may have to put your personal assets at risk in order to get the level of investment you need to succeed. It may be a very long time before you see a return on your investment. And, there are no guarantees of success.

Myth 3: “Entrepreneurs are always filled with great ideas.”

Just like anyone else, there will be times where the well runs dry. This is why you need to surround yourself with other thought leaders and people who challenge you to think in different and better ways.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

To be a founder you need passion, commitment, perseverance and tenacity. Founders are risk-takers. We need a thick skin to weather the good and the bad.

People who want reliability, stability, and a regular paycheck should consider employment versus entrepreneurship.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need to Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Clear and focused goals both personally and professionally. I have always believed that one performs best when they have clear and focused goals. Over the years, I have invested countless hours reflecting upon my experiences and my personal and professional goals. I created the My Big Idea® program to share my learning with other leaders. When you have documented SMART goals supported by shorter-term objectives and milestone dates, and hold yourself accountable to those goals, your likelihood of achieving them is greatly increased. It requires commitment and regular measurement. You are actually 42% more likely to stay accountable to your goals when you write them down. My tools of choice are the My Big Idea Workbook and Daily Planner.
  2. Value your strategic relationships in business. When you experience tough times while growing your business, your key professional relationships (i.e. your lawyers, accountants, bankers and other strategic partners) will help guide, mentor, and advise you through it.
  3. An incredible support network. In my experience, when you have a strong support network, both personally and professionally, it allows you the safety net to create a big life. In the support network exercise I teach in My Big Idea®, I encourage individuals to identify the people that they can most trust and want the best for them in all aspects of their lives — personal and professional. These are your most important relationships and you need to focus on nurturing them.
  4. Branding from within. Many leaders forget to include internal branding on their marketing radar. Yet, establishing and working on your company’s internal brand is one of the most important first steps you can take as it drives your outward-facing or consumer brand. Creating a truly great culture means you are branding from within, creating a group of internal brand ambassadors who live and breathe your brand. Your brand values impact the way they work — from the way they answer their phones or respond to emails to the way they talk about your company at Aunt Doris’ birthday party. Happier, productive employees make a positive impact on your brand and your business growth.
  5. Know yourself. A strong sense of what your own strengths and weaknesses are will guide your hiring to fill in the gaps for the skills you need in your organization to succeed. While my Managing Partner Eric Marshall and the rest of my management team share the same values, our skillsets and strengths are all quite different. Learn to value people with differing opinions and experience, because they will bring a new perspective to the table which can prove very valuable.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

In 2021, I launched a Forbes book, The Currency of Gratitude, to show leaders that small gestures can create big results in both personal and professional life. I want to share the message that showing appreciation helps build relationships and those relationships are in the end what makes your business a success.

I am heavily involved in empowering business women through peer-to-peer mentoring such as the Women Presidents’ Organization and the Women’s Business Collaborative. I also actively participate in diversity and inclusion networks through Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, and WeConnect International.

And last but not least, through the creation of the My Big Idea® program, my team and I have created simple yet effective tools to help corporations attract, retain, engage, and appreciate their employees.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would create a gratitude movement.

I want to show how simple and impactful gestures of gratitude can enhance all relationships, both personal and professional.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would connect with Oprah Winfrey and Melinda Gates.

These women have the power, the network, and the influence needed to help launch a gratitude movement that would get the reach and exposure the world deserves. Especially right now.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Thank you!

Social media handles:

My Big Idea Instagram

My Big Idea LinkedIn

My Big Idea Facebook

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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