Women in Business: Elissa Unton on Starting Your Own Company and Working Hard to Show Results

Elissa Kuykendall Unton is one impressive individual. She started her career in finance almost 20 years ago, working for companies like Booz Allen Hamilton, Thomson Reuters, and DaVita, in strategy and finance roles. After 15 years in finance, in January 2017, she co-founded, ArcVida, a company that leverages technology to guide individuals as they land their next job or make a career move.

ArcVida’s service includes tools and templates, expert guides and mentors, a private peer community in an efficient structure so that you can tactfully, strategically and successfully make your next career move. ArcVida is an amazing resource if you’ve had educational or professional success but need to pivot, or you are considering advanced education, or are on an entrepreneurial path.

This week, I had the privilege of asking Elissa her thoughts on not only her experiences as a woman in business—in finance and entrepreneurship—but how women should approach pursuing their careers. She gives sound and thorough advice on what to keep in mind if you want to start your own company, how to truly level up in the workplace, and how men can be allies in creating equality in the workplace.

What would you say to other women wanting to start their own business/company?

Think about revenue first.

Is there consulting by the hour, or a manual service you can market right away, while building your brand and product? If you are selling a product can you start by selling the first product on a Facebook page or to people you know?

How can you test selling your product or service on a landing page to your target audience before you build or create anything?

A solid legal and financial foundation

A solid legal and financial foundation will stabilize your business and allow you to function well and grow steadily. Spend more time on these than you want to and look for good DIY functionality before you pay for services. Atlas by Stripe is an example of a DIY low-cost option for this.

Be aware of those selling shovels to gold-miners.

Selling services or coaching or products to entrepreneurs is HUGE business. You may need these services, but every single dollar you spend must immediately enable more revenue. Look for the DIY or free option first.

What do you feel the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a woman in business?

Gender stereotypes are everywhere. Trying to conform was exhausting and counterproductive. Now, I try to avoid those who indicate with word or deed that they are misogynist or anti-feminists or conservative. All genders can be feminists (and vice versa)! In my life, my husband is a staunch feminist, as are many male friends, relatives, colleagues, and classmates. I’ve learned that supporters are everywhere – avoiding saboteurs creates space for champions.

What advice would you give a young woman professional looking to advance her career, who feels like her ideas & contributions aren’t taken seriously because she is a woman?

Don’t conflate lack of experience with misogyny. Ideas and energy and potential are wonderful additions to a team, but in a decision-making setting your lack of experience or results will be considered first, before your gender. If you want to be taken seriously, show results. Make sales, lead volunteer projects, save your organization money, mitigate against identified risks, and uplift the daily culture. Don’t expect to be taken seriously or to be asked to make decisions before you show results.

What do you think male allies can do to help create equality in the workplace?

Encourage your female spouse to work. Encourage your sisters to work. Encourage your mother to work. Encourage your daughters to work. Think of fulfilling work as a wonderful part of everyone’s life.

Take vacations. Talk about your children. Ask for and advocate for flexible schedules. Support salary transparency and annual market-compensation reviews with an explicit focus on equitable salaries. Champion asynchronous, remote, and results-oriented work. Amplify a woman’s good ideas in a meeting. Give credit to everyone on the team. Announce everyone on a conference call – even the junior female who is listening, not leading. (I hope the silent woman in the room disappears with video meetings!)

Focus on talent, not gender or ethnicity or age. A diverse team where everyone belongs is flexible, strong and productive, which is terrific for your business.

What would you go back in time and tell your younger self in the context of being a woman in business?

If someone is not actively supporting or championing your career, they are probably subtly or overtly sabotaging you. Expect it. Avoid if you can, leave if you can’t.

Work with diverse teams that have female leaders at every level. You wouldn’t work for an organization that had slaves. Why would you work for an organization where women don’t thrive? If the senior women are not hired or get pushed out, the culture will stall you too. If you can’t find a permanent role with the right team and culture, work in temporary roles while you keep looking for a place where your values and needs align, so you can belong and thrive.

Has being a woman given you any advantages in the workplace? If so, how? If not, why don’t you think so?

No, being a woman hasn’t given me advantages. I worked in male-dominated industries where gender felt like a visible, uncomfortable liability. I took off my wedding rings before job interviews and avoided mentioning my family in interviews or at networking events. Also, working in supporting functions (communication, strategy and finance) roles rather than operations, or sales functions where results make or break a business slowed my career. I advise jobseekers of all genders to target growing businesses in growing industries or sectors, doing work that directly generates revenue for the organization. For example, if you’re excited about marketing (a support function), work for an agency where marketing work generates revenue. Or start your own business, if you’re ready!

Check out more blogs like this one here, and don’t forget to listen to ExecuTalks podcast for inspirational stories from today’s top executives!

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