Self Made Women: Heidi DeCoux Of Illuminated Ventures On How She Started With Nothing and Created A Million Dollar Business
An Interview With Sara Connell
Take care of your health. It’s so easy to work around the clock and let your health go. I did that for years and it’s the biggest regret I have. I would regularly skip workouts and meals in order to get a little more work done. It doesn’t pay off. Make exercise a priority and create a healthy food system that supports you — get meals delivered, batch cook, or get your mom, dad, or bestie to cook for you. Do whatever it takes to eat well.
Some people were born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouth. Even then, becoming a millionaire is still quite an accomplishment. But people who start from nothing, and especially women who start from nothing, who make it to the top to become millionaires, despite the pay inequalities based on gender, the confidence gap, with nothing but grit, hustle, resilience, and “stick-to-itness”, are on a whole new level. We want to share those stories and inspire other women. In this interview series, we’re talking to “Self-Made” women leaders who started with nothing (i.e. started without investors or trust fund or capital or even people believing in them) and went on to create a million dollar business.
As a part of our series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heidi DeCoux.
Heidi DeCoux is a serial entrepreneur that has built four businesses to high-six figure status with 50%+ profit margins, sold three of them, one of which was a 7-figure exit. She’s appeared in magazines and websites like Forbes, and is the author of an Amazon best-selling book on marketing. She’s a marketing maven and an investor, but her real passion, the thing that keeps her up at night, is her commitment to revolutionize the K-12 school system through the non-profit organization that she founded in 2020, Illuminated Life School.
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” and how you grew up?
I grew up in rural Minnesota in a family of blue-collar union workers. My mom worked for the state as an aid at the Braille and Deaf School, and my dad was a lineman for the power company. I saw them work hard and care deeply about their jobs. As full-time employees, they weren’t really able to provide me any role modeling in entrepreneurship, but I always had the entrepreneur bug in me and felt naturally drawn to doing my own thing.
Growing up, what were your early experiences and perspectives about money? Or we could say, what was the “money consciousness” in which you were raised? Can you please give an example of what you mean?
Growing up in the rural Midwest, almost everyone around me was either middle class or lower income. The only rich people I saw were on T.V. and in magazines. I remember watching the show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” with Robin Leach and being in awe. I assumed those people were special in some way or came from money. Their lifestyle didn’t seem accessible to me in any way.
The modeling I had around money consciousness was to get a decent job with a pension, work hard at it for 40+ years, live a middle-class life on your paychecks, max your 401K every year, and eventually enjoy a modest retirement.
Anything beyond that seemed like a fairytale.
Awesome! Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s talk about what you are doing now, and how you achieved the success that you currently enjoy. Can you tell our readers about the business you’ve created?
I’ve spent the last 15 years being a serial entrepreneur, building four successful businesses to high-six figure status with 50%+ profit margins. I sold three of them, one of which was a 7-figure exit.
Currently I’m doing consulting and looking at starting a mini-private equity firm with some partners. Our goal would be to acquire specific types of businesses and use our experiences and meld our superpowers to grow and scale them.
I also run a non-profit that I started in 2020 with the mission to revolutionize K-12 education. #smallgoals
My nonprofit, Illuminated Life School, has become a passion project for me. In the last decade or more, I’ve seen how our education system is woefully out of date for what we desperately need going into the 22nd Century. We’re still running on a factory model: that is, kids in rows facing the front of the room, sitting practically all day, memorizing facts, barely getting any breaks, always operating in a top-down hierarchy of learning, and then taking tests to “prove” what they’ve learned.
That kind of environment prepares kids to simply plug into the working world, take orders, and regurgitate ideas or products. And it was perfect for early Industrial economies. But it’s totally inadequate to meet the challenges we face today, like our climate crisis, threats to democracy, and the broken systems that are supposed to deliver essential things like the food we eat, the quality healthcare we seek, and the equality and justice we require to thrive.
We need kids who aren’t taught what to think but how to think. Kids who are creative, inventive, collaborative, and courageous. Kids who understand systems thinking and the non-negotiable fact of our interdependence, and who can approach learning in a complex way. Kids who know that the “product” of a good education is not a job, but a whole, well-rounded person who can respond to a calling to serve and make the world a better place.
Illuminated Life School addresses each of these critical-function areas in concrete, evidence-based ways.
What was your vision when you started this business? What’s the WHY behind the work that you do? (Please share a story about this if you can.)
When I started my first successful business (I had a couple failed businesses before my first success), I simply wanted to have a flexible schedule, be in control of my days, and make a decent income doing something I enjoyed. That’s it. My goals were really small when I first started out.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
So many interesting things have happened over the years. I find that when leading companies, you rarely have a boring week.
On March 15th, 2020, I was in a rainforest near my home here in Puerto Rico with about 15 close friends. We had an incredibly fun day hiking, swimming, going down natural rockslides and jumping from rope swings. At the end of the day, we all went to dinner at a restaurant on the ocean. Halfway through dinner all of our phones went off saying that every business was ordered to shut down, and that we were to head home because there was a lockdown starting at 10pm.
None of us had even heard the word “Covid” or had any idea what was happening.
The primary company that I was leading at the time was in the travel industry. It’s a community of 35,000+ travel agents — one of the largest on the globe. My team and I help them identify their specialty and get more clients.
As you know, the next two years were the two worst years in the history of the travel industry. The majority of my community started struggling both professionally and personally. Many started experiencing depression and financial problems.
I needed to do significant fast pivots that included supporting the community mentally and emotionally and coming up with unique strategies that they could use to keep their business alive and their bills paid during what ended up being an incredibly long and difficult global pandemic.
2020 ended up being just 12% down YOY for us from 2019, which is an accomplishment I’m really proud of. But even more so, I’m proud of how my team and I showed up and served our community during the hardest years of their careers, and for many of them, the hardest years of their personal lives as well.
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?
In the early days of my first successful business, I landed a speaking gig to a group of librarians — or so I thought. I wrote my talk using examples that librarians would be able to relate to. When I got to the event, the audience was about 40 black women. I was surprised that literally every single librarian was a black woman. When I was about to get on stage, the woman who introduced me thanked everyone for coming to the monthly Women’s Liberian Network Meeting.
I of course realized my mistake and was mortified and panicked because my talk was designed around an audience of librarians, not an audience of women from Liberia.
Lesson: Ask more questions and get everything in writing. Get crystal clear on who you’re talking to, why and the desired outcome so that you’re properly prepared.
We’d love to explore the traits that help you achieve your success. What were the mindset obstacles that you had to overcome in order to reach the place of earning a million dollars? Can you tell us what you did to overcome them?
The biggest one was believing in myself, believing that I could do it. It felt like everyone that had “made it” in business was older, smarter, richer, and more special than me.
I intentionally searched for examples of young women who came from modest backgrounds and who didn’t have fancy educations who were also experiencing the level of success that I dreamed of for myself. In the early 2000s, they were hard to find. We didn’t have social media influencers, and the Internet wasn’t being used like it is today.
Whenever I did come across examples of young women who had stories like mine and who were rocking their businesses, I would pay close attention to them and use their success as a way to convince myself that I could do it, too.
What were the external obstacles that you had to overcome in reaching these milestones? And how specifically did you overcome them?
The biggest external obstacle for me was early on when I didn’t have any entrepreneurial role models. I had a hard time finding examples of people in my world doing and having what I envisioned for my life and taking the level of risks I was taking.
As the old adage goes, “It’s hard to be what you cannot see.”
I started going to conferences to meet new people and learn from speakers, and I started reading books from authors that created the type of life I wanted for myself. I’m now surrounded with friends and mentors who are living into their full potential and who are pushing their limits and traversing boundaries.
Was there ever a point where you wanted to give up on your journey to creating a million dollar business? How did you work through that panic point? Please share a story.
Giving up is not in my DNA but being in the travel industry during a long and brutal global pandemic gave me a lot of opportunities to panic. I worked through panic points by focusing on how I could be of greater service to my community during their time of immense need. I knew that they were in pain, so I laser focused my energy and time on being of the greatest service to them possible.
When you hit a panic point, think about the bigger picture as opposed to focusing on the specific problem in front of you at that moment. Why are you doing what you’re doing, who are you serving, and how does showing up fully help the people you serve? When you focus on the people you’re in business to serve, it’s easier to get out of your own way, find solutions, and keep moving forward.
Even without a global pandemic, the going gets really tough sometimes, especially in the early days when you have no idea what you’re doing, very few good systems that support you, a very small network of supporters, and no money.
The reality is … it’s all going to take longer than you realize and cost you more, but every problem and setback is figure-out-able. I learned to not get overly emotional about failed launches, setbacks, and problems. There’s always a way through.
It’s essential to cultivate a great group of business besties as soon as you can (joining a mastermind is the easiest and fastest way to do this). Hire the best coach/consultant you can afford. Get a therapist and go to therapy regularly. And get good systems set up in both your personal life and your business.
In the early days, you’ll be panicking regularly, so you need to have a great support system both personally and professionally.
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?
So many people have helped me along the way, and I’m grateful for all of them. One person that’s been incredibly helpful through my entire entrepreneurial journey and still helps me today is my dad. I’m fortunate to have an amazing dad who’s always been my biggest cheerleader. Even though he spent his entire career as a union worker, tried to get me to join the military after high school, and has a very different appetite for risk than I do, he has always supported me.
And despite his lack of business experience, he’s helped me come up with some smart business pivots and solutions over the years. He’s a smart guy with a huge heart and wants nothing but the best for his kids. These days most of my hopes and dreams seem big and crazy to him, but he continues to support them and to support me, and for that I am eternally grateful.
What were the most important resources, tools, affirmations, mindset strategies or practices that you used to build your business to where it is today?
I am continually doing mindset work and personal development. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, you can’t solve bigger problems, take bigger risks, or come up with new creative solutions from the same thinking and way of being that created the problems in the first place. To make it in business you have to continually up-level yourself.
I love to read and am generally reading 2 to 3 books at a time, and one of them is usually a mindset book.
In a few hours with a $20 book you can glean 10–40 years of someone’s wisdom, tactics, strategies, and insights. Reading is one the highest ROI activities, and it’s accessible to everyone on every budget.
What do you think is the greatest challenge for women and creating wealth/abundance? What advice would you have for someone that is feeling blocked by that obstacle?
The greatest challenge for women in our society right now is the amount of free labor they do every week.
A 2020 analysis from Oxfam found that the economic value of unpaid labor is a staggering $10.9 trillion. That’s more than the combined revenue of the 50 largest companies on 2019’s Fortune Global 500 list, including Walmart, Apple and Amazon.
Worldwide, more than 75% of that labor is done by women and girls and even in so-called “developed” economies like the US, women still report spending more than 4 hours a day on unpaid labor, compared to just over 2 for men. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the mental and emotional labor women provide behind the scenes that is both expected and totally unnoticed: dealing with family conflict, nurturing children, managing care structures, remembering special dates, etc.
And during the pandemic, the gap grew even wider, especially for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women: four times as many women dropped out of the labor force by September 2020, and a quarter of those reported that they left because they had no access to childcare.
I was in a marriage for nearly 6 years where I did an obscene amount of physical and emotional labor caring for our BIG crazy life and his family. It wasn’t until I was out of it that I truly understood how much it cost me in terms of time, energy, creativity, and bandwidth, and how much it held me back in business.
My biggest advice is to set boundaries, and come up with a fair and equitable household plan. If your partner is male, he should be doing at least 60% of the household management and child-rearing if you have children. Women tend to do most of the emotional labor, so they should be doing less than 50% of the physical household management to help compensate. And if you’re starting a new business, your partner should take on the majority of household management so that you can focus on your business, even if you are making zero dollars in the beginning. If that seems strange to hear, consider how women do this for men who are starting businesses all the time.
For most women, this concept is revolutionary and seems impossible. It’s what’s required and needs to be the new normal. Make it your normal.
Great! Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
1 . Insight requires action. When I was 25, I quit my good-paying 9–5 job and took a flexible lower-paying sales job. That meant: commission, more control over my time, and room to build my business on the side. That scrappiness has served me well.
I’m a learn-by-doing person, and that’s the North Star that’s always guided me: insight requires action. That means launching before you’re ready. You can’t figure it all out in your head, and you need to just try things and then be brave enough to course correct as you go. Think: minimum viable product. Test your idea with as little money as possible by getting a minimum viable version of your product or service to the market as fast as possible. What is the leanest simplest version you can launch right now? If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product or service, you launched too late. Birth a lean version as quickly as possible, test it, rework it and then keep improving and course-correcting.
And know that until you exit, you’ll never stop course-correcting. Successful businesses are continually reiterating.
2. Value persistence and progress over perfection. It’s so easy to get caught up in perfectionism, but in business, it will kill you. Of course you should launch great and useful products and deliver excellent service. But for so many things in your business you should live by the motto Good is good enough — and focus your time, energy and money on the RIGHT things, things that will actually move the needle for you. Here’s an example…
In the very first business I started, I spent a ridiculous amount of money on graphic design so that I could have the perfect business cards and website. It didn’t occur to me to focus my time on testing my idea by simply hitting the streets and finding customers. I wanted to “look the part” and thought that was the most important thing, so I spent all of the money I had on a designer. That business never got off the ground.
Instead, I could’ve printed “good is good enough” $30 business cards, skipped the website, and gone out and found customers to test my idea on. Either I would have gotten the business off the ground or I would’ve figured out that my idea wasn’t going to work and saved my money and found a new idea.
3. Hire an excellent coach and get into a mastermind. I wish I had invested in support MUCH earlier in my entrepreneurial journey. It would’ve propelled me to success a lot faster. You need smart, passionate people around you who are working on similar goals to mastermind with, learn alongside, prop you up on the tough days, cheer for you on the good days, and most importantly to share ideas, strategies, resources, and contacts with.
After I started investing in high-quality coaches, consultants, and masterminds, that’s when I started to experience real success. Before that, it was a grind. In the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey, it may seem like a huge unnecessary investment, but having the right coaches and business besties is a game-changer.
4. Take care of your health. It’s so easy to work around the clock and let your health go. I did that for years and it’s the biggest regret I have. I would regularly skip workouts and meals in order to get a little more work done. It doesn’t pay off. Make exercise a priority and create a healthy food system that supports you — get meals delivered, batch cook, or get your mom, dad, or bestie to cook for you. Do whatever it takes to eat well.
5. Nurture resilience. If you were to interview 1,000 people that viewed themselves as happy and successful, you’d find that resilience is one thing almost all of them have in common. I think resilience is possibly the #1 factor in your overall success and happiness. Our world is ever-changing and there’s an infinite number of things that can be thrown at you at any given time. How you react and how you rise up plays a bigger role than anything else. More than your level of intelligence, your skills, your connections — I would say more than anything.
We are sure that you are not done. What comes next? What’s your next big goal and why? What plan have you put in place to achieve it? Why is it a stretch for you? What will achieving it represent for you and for others?
I’m nowhere close to done. I’m just getting started! My short-term goal is to diversify my income and investments through a couple different angles.
My long-term goal, and what I believe will ultimately be my life’s work, is to revolutionize K-12 education worldwide. As I mentioned above, I’m starting with launching a virtual school that uses an entirely new model of education. Eventually I plan on launching non-profit physical schools.
This is a huge stretch, because to date I’ve only built and sold small businesses. But I believe this virtual school has the opportunity to be a billion-dollar company with a global impact.
In terms of what it will represent for me and others, I think all the time about the importance of uplifting our youth and giving them everything they need to be a happy, thriving person. When we get at the root of what all humans need, we find an innate longing to use our unique gifts and strengths to be a contributing member of society. We need purpose. So, when you start with young people and show them how to think well, how to deal with adversity, how to heal, how to truly care for themselves (physically, mentally & emotionally), how to grow, how to create — that seriously changes the world for all of us.
And for me, Illuminated Life School is just part of the change. If it’s genuinely a success, my greatest hope is that I touch, move, and inspire others to use parts of this model to create revolutionary models of education of their own.
This is the analogy I often use: Uber didn’t revolutionize taxis. They created an entirely new model which made taxis virtually obsolete. And then Lyft and Grab and others followed suit, addressing the gaps in Uber’s initial model that needed to be filled or fixed. And there’s still plenty of room for improvement within that industry. That’s what I want for education. To truly revolutionize education worldwide, it’s going to take MANY innovators to step up and create new models. I welcome them all.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us and our readers. We know that it will make a tremendous difference and impact thousands of lives. We are excited to connect further and we wish you so much joy in your next success.