Women in Business Q&A: Dawn Fotopulos, Founder of Best Small Biz Help

Dawn Fotopulos is the associate professor of business at The King’s College, the founder of BestSmallBizHelp.com and author of Accounting for the Numberphobic: A Survival Guide for Small Business Owners (AMACOM, Sept. 3, 2014). As an experienced entrepreneur and small-business turnaround expert she has rescued hundreds of small business from financial disaster. Dawn has led an accomplished 20-year career in business, working as a serial entrepreneur, vice-president at Citigroup and Wall Street trader. Fotopulos is a certified facilitator in the Kauffman FastTrac Program, and is a CEO leader for the Job Creators Network. An expert in her field, she has been featured on MSNBC’s “Your Business,” at the New York Times Small Business Summit and in Forbes.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
One of the most important qualities in true leadership is perseverance through adversity. That’s when your mettle is tested. My first business, Bedazzled, Inc. our copyrighted designs were stolen by three companies! I was 23 years old and my business partner and I fought in Federal Supreme Court for three years and won the case.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure as a businesswoman?
I’ve been a serial entrepreneur since I graduated Cornell University. First, as the owner of an active wear company that sold to Lands End Yacht Stores, next as a real estate investor, hedge fund partner, banker, wall street trader, and now, small business expert. Every experience was a building block for helping me to understand how the world works to be able to teach others and to shorten their profitability curves.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure as a businesswoman?
A major, global bank hired me mid-career as a vice president and line manager. In that job, I turned around a 130 million dollar business that was collapsing. Morale hit rock bottom, the facility was crumbling and customers were leaving daily. In six months, we turned around the entire business, including the productivity and attitudes of the staff around. It made my reputation at the bank and I now teach that as a case study in my management classes. It taught me how to get laser focused on key priorities. It’s also very freeing when you inherit a filing enterprise. Anything you do has to be an improvement!

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
You shouldn’t be playing a game unless you know how to keep score. Women need to learn how to read three simple financial reports before they put any money at risk. These are the Net Income Statement, Cash Flow Statement and Balance Sheet. They are your GPS for running any company regardless of size. Women also need to know how to be savvy when dealing with their bank or with investors. Chapter Eight of my book, Accounting for the Numberphobic, is called, “How to Win Friends and Influence Bankers”. I interviewed an SVP (a woman) of a major, global bank and got the most unbelievable inside scoop on how to do this effectively.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned by starting your own business?
Learn on someone else’s dime first. If you want to own a bakery, work in a bakery. Learn what goes on. Do your homework. See what works and what doesn’t. Manage the bakery. Save up as much money as you can before you go into your own business because it’s an expensive learning curve, but first, get paid to learn. Help that business owner be successful. It will come back to you. Filotimo does work. Arianna is right. Pay attention.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
If I don’t work out three days a week, I don’t have the energy to do everything I need to do. That’s first priority. I have a musician friend with whom I go to the symphony three times a year so no matter how busy I am, it drags me away from the daily grind and feeds my soul. I also have a wonderful church where I have community and where my heart can find rest from all the pressures of the week.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The worst bosses I’ve ever had were female and that was a huge disappointment. Jealousy was rampant and it’s toxic. We really do survive and thrive together. Life is not a zero sum game. As a female, I always had to work harder, work on projects and clients no one else cared about if I was going to make strides in a large corporation. As an entrepreneur, the customer decides if you’re worth their time and they care far less if you are male, female or hermaphroditic. It’s a much more level playing field. I also love the idea that a customer base is a diversified income stream. If one customer fires you, you’re not out on the street because of yet another management reorganization.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
It has saved my sanity and given me perspective. I’ve had only one mentor in my life, but it made all the difference while I was in banking. It also provided accountability so when I start to migrate away from the central focus, this person brings me back. They’ve also been an amazing reality check. Women tend to downplay their accomplishments and focus on the failures. A mentor says “pay attention, you’ve accomplished a lot. Let’s take stock.” A mentor helps you remember you’re on the right path.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Anne Mulcahy, CEO of Xerox, succeeded against all the odds. She’s a woman of great integrity and a real model of wise leadership under fire. Lourine Clark was head of succession planning for the top 100 executive positions worldwide for Citigroup. It was the most politically charged position on planet earth and she navigated it with a profound level of truth and professionalism.

What do you want to professionally accomplish in the next year?
I want to get a speaking career off the ground, finish my next book (the publisher is waiting) and visit Africa to help the Mango Fund coach their dozens of entrepreneurs with great ideas.