As Just Works spreads its insurance plans into more small companies on a daily business I have been talking to the new head of sales to see where I can help. I have made a few introductions and then he returned the favor by introducing me to Nicole Yeary. He figured I would enjoy talking to Nicole about her business supporting women entrepreneurs. I love that he sent me someone that I would should be talking to. He was absolutely right. Nicole has built an organization to help women start and scale their businesses in Chicago called MSTech.
Nicole grew up in Ohio, east of Cleveland. Her father is an entrepreneur. He owned a boat/auto/tire shop. Her mother is a systems engineer who would change systems in server rooms. She worked for Reed Denison that became Progressive.com. Growing up Nicole spent a lot of time with her Grandmother. The biggest traveling they did was often was back and forth to Florida.
Nicole wanted to go away for college but her parents convinced her not to. She started out at Cleveland State but after one year transferred to Purdue School of Engineering in Indianapolis. When she was in Ohio she had worked part time for Progressive Insurance and wanted to find something else near Purdue while she was going to school. She landed a job with Golden Rule which is now United Healthcare. Nicole worked there all through college. It ended up becoming a full time job. Her original intent was to go on to business school but she wasn’t able to finish because although young she was in the midst of a divorce. She had met him when she was 19.
Nicole was at a point where she was reflecting on her life. She stayed in Ohio for her parents, she went to Indiana for her husband so by the time the divorce was over which was not pretty considering they had property to divide. She always wanted to travel and it was time for her to do her own thing. Nicole had been working inside United Healthcare in a small division that was like working in a start-up. They were moving a part of the sales process on line. She saw the opportunities. In six years she had 5 promotions. They would take the online applications and turn them into sales leads. She made a lot of commission. She worked in a mostly male division except for one woman who had been doing it for years who she gives the total nod to. At one point Nicole became her team leader taking a team of 7 to 150 people reporting to her. Nicole developed their entire training team.
During this time Nicole had come up to Chicago to give a pitch to the Illinois Consumer Advisory Group. It is a requirement for health insurance companies that have a residence license in Illinois to present and share products to a group of consumers that would report back to the commissioner. She fell in love with Chicago and told her boss that she wanted to move there. She began to commute back and forth for work and then the company decided to lay off a bunch of people. Her boss suggested she take the package and start a new in Chicago and so she did.
Nicole decided to start exploring the start-up world. She wanted to take the knowledge she had about why people bought insurance on line and why a broker could keep that information for an entire year but a company could only keep it for one month. She knew brokers were making money online and wanted to figure that out. In the meantime she began teaching financial service classes to insurance people to help them get their CE credits. Nicole also began to explore how to market financial services to women. Through this she wanted to take all the problems with the industry combined with her knowledge and put it on line and make it seamless. She became Hipaa certified and was ready to go.
Nicole had $50K of her own money to put into her business. Although she had this desire to flip the industry on its head and intellectually knew what to do she did not know how to go about executing on it or getting funding. She could either use this money and hire someone to build out a website or should could first teach herself how to code. She opted for the latter and took a Stanford program through iTunes and taught herself about building a website.
She now was able to write her own website. The only VC she knew was at Lightbank. She figured she should first get into one of the start-up companies and understand how they work before pitching or building. She took a job with Spotsocial. It was young, new, local and small and had just raised $3m. During this time she also went to as many pitch events as possible. She realized it was more social than anything else. Nicole decided to launch a Facebook site called MSTech figuring she could use that to at least get people to post small jobs to build their websites for them that were more like brochures. She enjoyed SEO work and figured that her site could be a place where people would trade for jobs. She ended up getting a great group of people on her page where they would ghost for each other by trading jobs. She learned a lot.
That website is what evolved into what MSTech is today. Now it is an actual company with memberships. Every time Nicole turned around she felt like she was reinventing the wheel. She wondered why the people on her site were not sharing resources and talking to each other. She decided to put structure to the site by creating curriculums in bootcamp style for people starting companies. She essentially built a virtual accelerator focused on women. How do you get from point A to point B when you are building a company? Where can women find a place to develop entrepreneurial thinking even in mid-career?
While she started to figure out what MS Tech would look like she came to NYC to spread her wings. She looked at the pre-series A’s in NYC vs Chicago. She also looked at how many females were part of the teams in NYC and Chicago. She saw more females as part of companies in Chicago and decided she would stay there and build something local before doing anything else.
She officially launched this past March. MSTech now has 1300 members in their forum. They write a profile called Monday Makers focusing on women entrepreneurs. They are structured as a social impact organization considering only 4% of women get funded from VC’s. The curriculum spreads the gamut from how much do I give my head of marketing to how much of my company do I sell to investors. Many women never even think about raising funds for their company. She is trying to bring a different group of investors into her company to look at some women led companies to invest in where they would be happy getting an annual return on their investment vs one large one. She is going with the mentality that she is helping others who are exactly where she found herself when she decided to live and stay in Chicago. She is making an impact and that feels good. Nicole no longer has to take photography or SEO gigs on the side to make the rent. As her mentor told her, making it through the first six months is pivotal. You have to make sacrifices and building a business is always hard but it will be well worth it.
I really like what Nicole is doing. I have found that a lot of the advice that I give to entrepreneurs about their businesses are the questions that most people just pretend that they know the answers to, particularly men as they go with the fake it until you make it much easier than women do. People do not know from the onset how much of your company you give away, what is the amount of stock a CTO should get, how much is the norm for a PR agency at this time and does it make sense to bring one on now, how should I run a board meeting, how should I talk to my advisors, how should I talk to the investors that I never hear from, should I hire senior people when I can’t afford them. I could go on and on but those fundamental questions are the ones that help build the foundation of a company. Without someone to answer them or being part of a group where you feel comfortable asking them can make a huge difference. I hope that MSTech continues to grow and evolve and we see Nicole branch into other cities and figure out how to make this a bigger arena for women after she figures Chicago out. You can launch your own collective through their site but my guess is there is an opportunity to here to create a global collective in a very unique way.