Originally published August 17, 2020
“Success” is a word that has countless meanings and exerts an individualized emotive. More often than not, success in the business world is part of the machismo culture. However, when a woman steps into that world, she defies expectation, overcomes obstacles, and shatters the patriarchy.
For a woman, the struggles of creating her own business may seem amplified and tiresome, inducing a sense of hopelessness. ink.mdc created this blog series, “Diary of a Startup Goddess”, because just one story can uplift any woman from such disillusionment. We’ve invited businesswomen, who have redefined entrepreneurship, to tell their story because we want to encourage other women to pursue their passions. Join us each month for one of these incredible stories!
Kelley Ashby shares her inspiring journey of how she became the founder and president of Kelley Ashby Consulting, LLC.
Aanchal Bhattacharya (AB): What led you to start your consulting business, Kelley Ashby Consulting?
Kelley Ashby (KA): I have worked primarily in higher education. I work in leadership development, developing programs, courses, and experiences that help college students develop their leadership as well as their career-readiness skills. I had always thought about starting my own business in consulting and training. I want to assist others who may not be familiar with the environment, with the set knowledge and experiences needed. My primary goal was to help people develop those skills and qualities that employers want. About three and a half years ago, my spouse looked at taking a job outside of where we were both working. That was when I realized this was my opportunity to take that risk and leave the traditional Monday through Friday job and start my own business.
AB: Did you experience fear or anxiety when you realized you wanted to start a business?
KA: I feared failing, wondering what I would do if nobody was interested in hearing or paying for the services that I have to offer. I also wondered if I would be able to contribute to our household income as I did before when I was working Monday through Friday.
AB: Did you have any support when you began this business venture?
KA: First and foremost is my partner. We were taking that risk of me leaving my consistent paycheck job and entering a situation where we asked ourselves if we could afford to take that risk. At that time, we were moving to Youngstown, Ohio, and the cost of living allowed us to take that risk. The financial circumstances were aligned.
The Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI) has a great set of resources to help minorities and women business owners start their own businesses and provide that support, encouragement, and also the know-how to take that leap. It is the combination of these three pieces: the emotional support, inspirational support, but also the financial conditions with which I could take the risk. The YBI provided the educational support I needed to start my own business. All three of those were in place at the right time.
AB: What did the first three years look like when you were starting Kelley Ashby Consulting?
KA: My situation is unique. Three to four years ago, we moved away from Iowa city. I was working at the University of Iowa, having been in the area for about 10 years, where I had developed a network. Fast forward to transplanting to Northeastern Ohio where I have no network, no connections, and I have to reestablish myself in that location. A year ago, we transplanted back to the Midwest in the South Dakota area.
Transplanting my roots happened three times in five years. While I moved most recently to my hometown (where maybe there's more name recognition) I still had to start over again from not having a strong network and not having strong connections. That was a common piece in my three-year experience and a common challenge. Most recently, COVID-19 was added into the mix. I ended up starting memberships with the chambers both here in the small town that I live in, but then also in my hometown, which is an hour away.
Within two months of me joining those chambers, I wasn’t able to meet with people face to face. Learning how to establish relationships with people without that face-to-face connection is a challenge. Not only reestablishing myself in a new environment, but then adding to it the component of having to develop relationships in a virtual environment rather than face to face.
AB: What is the best way for budding entrepreneurs to network? Has networking transformed virtually?
KA: With some of the chamber members that I've developed relationships with, I have asked if I could meet with them face to face, so I can learn more about their business, learn more about them, and develop a relationship. With networking, you don't want to approach it as how can I make a buck off this relationship? It's more about developing an authentic relationship and appreciation for the other person, just like you were going to try to make friends with somebody else.
It's that relationship-building piece that is critical. If somebody perceives that you're only manipulating them to either talk them into buying what you have to sell or get you connected to their boss or somebody else in their network, people are going to see through that. Develop authentic, genuine relationships that are built upon wanting to get to know the other person. What makes them tick? What do they find passionate about the work that they do? What interests do they have? Just getting to know them as a person and building that strong connection is the critical foundation to whatever else might come because people only refer to other people when they trust them and when they have a solid relationship with them. If it's built upon a fake or manipulated foundation, it's not going to get you anywhere. It needs to be authentic.
AB: Is there anything you would change or do differently during your first three years?
KA: It's important to understand that I was probably a rookie to almost every part of starting a business, other than the content knowledge and the services that I deliver and how I deliver them. Everything from marketing to website design to social media and even pricing was new to me. How do you price something that's a service compared to pricing a tangible product? I'm fortunate that I had the YBI to assist me in working through those things to figure out a pricing structure.
It connected me with people that could help me figure out how to market my services and reframe how I thought about what I had to offer. If I would've known that when I started, that would have helped those first three years go more smoothly. We're put in a place and time and with the people that surround us for a reason. Our relocating to the Youngstown area and my being able to access the YBI resources where I met people and networked all happened for a reason.
Now, fast forward to me in South Dakota. How do I move forward? How do I advance my business? I've got some of those things figured out, and now I'm able to advance to the next challenge of re-establishing connections in this location so that some of the pieces are taken care of and only need a little bit of my attention. Now I can focus the majority of my attention on other things. My advice is take advantage of the moment, stay in the present, and be able to learn what you can from the present moment and then take that with you moving forward.
AB: Based on your hands-on experience in building this venture from square one, it seems you’ve transcended your skillset. Do you feel through this journey, you’ve “re-discovered” yourself?
KA: Yes,a lot of that comes from the discussions that I have with my spouse and my family members. They talk about the courage that I had to take this leap and what it takes to run the course and to ride the roller coaster. I'm a certified emotional intelligence coach, so when I do my training, I talk about the emotional roller coaster of starting your own business. It takes resilience to bounce back when you hit those downward parts. Sticking it out and trusting that it's going to be okay is part of the process. Mostly it comes from hearing other people's perceptions of my tenacity, my strength, and my resilience to stick it out.
When you're in the middle of living it, you’re just trying to make sure you can get to the next day.
AB: Is there a need for work-life balance? If so, what does that look like for you?
KA: Look at the situation with COVID-19 and the impact that has on the way we do business. Everyone has to pivot and still leverage the circumstances to be able to accommodate what you have to offer. I've never been all that great at work-life balance, whether I was working in a traditional Monday through Friday job or doing what I'm doing. But when you own a business, it encroaches even more on the life part of that work-life balance. When a client calls or emails, you have to be able to reply in a timely manner to demonstrate what your values are. My values are that my clients are important and the work that I'm doing is important. Whatever behaviors I exhibit need to align with those values.
Work-life balance is a challenge, probably more so than it was when I was working a traditional job. Also, being able to put the computer away to do those things that bring you personal satisfaction is important. It's a matter of pushing pause, pushing stop, and turning the power off.
AB: What words of wisdom do you have for anyone who's trying to create something new but has been systematically marginalized by society? What advice do you have for those who want to take that leap toward starting a new business venture?
KA: I’m a member of a marginalized community. I always worry whether somebody will do business with me if they know that I'm a member of the LGBTQ community, or will that present a barrier to us doing business together? My advice to people would be regardless of the circumstances, whether it's a racial marginalization, gender marginalization, or a sexual identity marginalization, check yourself to see how important being authentic and being your genuine self is as far as your values are concerned.
As I've aged, being my true self has become more important to me. If they have a problem with doing business with me because I'm a lesbian, then that's their position and they have their right to their position, but I need to be true to myself. That’s my advice to help empower people to think through what their values are and what they need to be authentic in their interactions with other people.
AB: After achieving all these great heights, are there any more dreams that you want fulfilled?
KA: My hope is to make a difference, whether that be serving as a role model to other people taking the risk to start their own business or to taking a leap of faith in doing what they want to do as far as their passion is concerned. A lot of my work has to do with creating positive workplace cultures, helping people develop the skills that allow them to contribute as much as possible to their work. This encompasses workplace skills but also those skills that allow them to be a top performer.
It’s also important to embrace the idea that difference is actually a strength and can help us either be more innovative, come up with new ideas, or tackle problems that have existed for years in new ways. I want people to see the possibilities, to see the glass as half full rather than half empty. That's my ultimate next goal.
Kelley Ashby has 23 years of experience in an array of higher education administrative positions. She is the founder and president of Kelley Ashby Consulting, LLC. Kelley’s expertise consists of creating and administering academic courses and co-curricular programs that assist with employee development, education, career building, and leadership. She also has 16 years of experience as an adjunct faculty member with the proficiency of developing leadership, career guidance, and competency development-related curriculum. Some of her other accomplishments include co-authoring a chapter called, “Building a Competency-Based Leadership Program with Campus-Wide Implementation” and being the co-chair of an executive committee that engaged faculty and staff members in implementing campus-wide leadership. Kelley continues to consult colleges and universities, businesses, and organizations with their leadership and career building techniques and professional skills development.
You can learn more about Kelley Ashby Consulting and Ashby herself by visiting https://www.kelleyashbyconsulting.com/.
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Aanchal Bhattacharya is ink.’s content contributor and staff writer. Aanchal holds a first-class joint honors degree in history and religious studies from McGill University. She is also a Wasserman Scholar and has a master’s degree in cinema studies from Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. From indulging in creative writing to directing short films, Aanchal’s passion has driven her to artistically express herself in this ever-changing world. She has inspiration flowing through her veins.
No matter how busy life gets, Aanchal always makes time for watching movies/television shows, listening to awesome music, and engaging in inspiring “food for thought” discussions with family and friends.