As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Carolyn Rodz.
Carolyn Rodz serves as co-founder and CEO of Alice (helloalice.com), which helps businesses launch and grow. A free multi-channel platform powered by AI technology, Alice guides business owners by providing access to funding, networks and services. Through a network of more than 100,000 companies in all 50 states and across the globe, Alice is building the largest community of business owners in the country while tracking data and trends to increase owner success rate. Alice believes in business for all by providing access to all owners, especially women, people of color, veterans, and persons with disabilities. Alice exists to serve every American with an entrepreneurial spirit. At Alice, Carolyn oversees the machine learning and product growth of the company.
Carolyn is a three-time Latina entrepreneur honoree and was recognized by Inc. as one of its “17 Women to Watch in 2017,” as well as by Entrepreneur as a 2016 “Woman to Watch.” She was also selected to participate in the United Nations Foundation Global Accelerator.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Hello Alice is the answer to what I wish I had when I was starting my first company fifteen years ago. I jumped into entrepreneurship head-first after a career in investment banking and learned every lesson the hard way. I went from a career with a clear path — investment banking — to one with no path, and it was so hard and confusing to know how to grow as an entrepreneur and a leader without a road map. There were a lot of questions I struggled with in terms of where to spend money, when I needed to make decisions about hiring, how to allocate my time — it was all so confusing, and there wasn’t a source of truth for what the next step for my business needed to be. Ultimately, that business failed, with a ton of lessons gathered along the way. I closed after two years and started a second company, in a totally different space — partly because I realized retail wasn’t my jam and partly because I really wanted to prove to myself that I could make it as an entrepreneur. That second company I sold to one of my clients.
It wasn’t until that happened that all these opportunities started opening up to me. I kind of got in this network — I was starting to meet people, being asked to speak — I felt like this whole world was opening up to me at a time when frankly, I didn’t need it, because I had just sold my business. I realized that this would have been so helpful to me on day That was the necessity that I felt to start Hello Alice — how do we open up every single entrepreneur on day 1 to the networks and opportunities they need to grow?
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Where to begin?!? I’ve made so many mistakes, though they didn’t feel so funny at the time. In hindsight, I wish I would have been more transparent about being small and asking for help. With my first business, I always tried to act like a much bigger company than I was, and I’m convinced people could see right through me. If I had just sold the upside of working with a small, nimble company, I probably would have gotten so much further, and received much more support along the way.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
The Messy Middle by Scott Belsky is my entrepreneurial bible. It captures the reality of the confusing in-between but breaks it down into bite size nuggets of wisdom from real entrepreneurial experiences. My copy is highlighted and has writing all over the margins, and I refer back to it often.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our vision has always been to give every entrepreneur access to the resources they need to forge their own path, regardless of who they know or where they come from. I think the fact that it’s so personal to me, and to all on our team for a variety of reasons, helps us keep the small business owners we serve front and center. It also keeps our team aligned and helps us act quickly — if we’re helping owners, we know we’re on the right path.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Follow your instincts. People will give you their opinions at every turn — some are worth listening to, and some are worth ignoring. The value you add as a leader is figuring out which are which. At the end of the day, you have to feel comfortable with the decisions you made for your business, and if you did what you thought was best at every turn, working in the input and feedback and all of the opinions of the smartest and most equipped people you can find, then at least you know you tried your best. My first business failed, but I’m confident it failed because of me, and that I can live with, because I learned a ton and did better the next time.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Both my husband and I run our own businesses, so there’s never an opportunity to step back and slow down at work. We were fortunate in that both of our businesses were able to remain open and grow during the pandemic, but it certainly impacted the way we operate. For one, we have two young children (6 and 8) who were out of school starting in March. I’m grateful to have a husband who plays as much as a role in the home as I do, so we divided and conquered — he led the 6-year-old through Zoom classes and I led the 8 year old.
We both failed in so many ways, but we made it through and put a plan in place for the fall. We realized the uncertainty was the hardest part for us, so we made the hard decision to pull our children out of school and hire a teacher part time to support them at home. It isn’t ideal, as we love their school and the community it provides, but it allowed us to make a plan and not worry about everything beyond our control right now, so that we can focus on our family and our businesses and just make it through. On a personal note, I realized how active I was during the day, going from one meeting to another, but also how frantic I was traveling all of the time and in a constant rush. The Zoom life has forced me to slow down, but I do miss the physical aspects of trying to be everywhere at once, so I have been playing more tennis and started riding my bike with the kids, and even doing calls over walks around the neighborhood. I feel like we continue to pivot when things aren’t working, talking it over among the family and, as in business, making quick decisions to change and try something new.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our community of small business owners has been hit so hard during the pandemic. They’ve been forced to close, then open often only to have to close again. It’s heartbreaking to hear their stories, so our biggest challenge has been getting money and resources to them as quickly as possible to help them through this time. We launched a COVID-19 Emergency Grant program, a COVID-19 Small Business Resource Center, a series of industry centers, Black and Latino business centers, and more. We’ve partnered with corporations to deploy grant funds, loans, and worked with the U.S. Chamber and SBA to share new developments as quickly as possible. It just always feels like we can’t do enough, fast enough, which motivates us to work harder and bring in stronger partners. At the same time, we’ve had to make hard decisions at our own company, not knowing what the future may bring. We’ve cut costs, restructured our team, and changed our entire marketing strategy — previously based largely on in-person events. I’m in a unique position of supporting small business owners, while being one, so often we’re just working to share the solutions we’re discovering along the way.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
As a family, we stayed so busy that I don’t think we ever had time for loneliness or fear, but we have taken steps to ensure extended family members who are living alone have the support they need. It’s such a different experience for everyone, so we’ve tried to teach the kids that our experience isn’t necessarily “normal”. The uncertainty, as I mentioned, has been tough. We all experienced mood swings and stress with all of us in the house together, but our go-to solution for most things is humor, so we try hard to turn those moments quickly into laughter. It works…some of the time! As a business, we’ve put guides together to help our owners through, and shared a bunch of resources around health and wellness. We started a company-wide Peloton group and incorporated virtual happy hours and learning sessions to keep things fun, and to build our new virtual culture.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
There are a few changes I’m grateful for. The blending of work and life has been accelerated. It started with women in the workplace, and now men are having to address it, too. The importance of formal education, but also the weaknesses of our education system, are already bringing lots of new technology to the forefront. The inequities of our banking and healthcare systems are being addressed by mainstream organizations, and we have whole communities standing up for the equal rights they’ve long deserved. The bigger themes center around quality of life — it’s ultimately what we all seek and deserve — and I think we’re seeing that tackled from all perspectives, which is incredibly exciting to me.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I anticipate less importance on a lot of luxury items, and lot more importance on experiences and lifestyle. I think we’ll see more scrutiny on inequities, and we’re starting to have the data to prove where it exists quickly. The pandemic highlighted how humans place a lot more value on their close relationships, and a lot less on the superficial social media lives that seemed like they were starting to rule society. We are demanding real, authentic change, instead of social posturing. I also see more flexible work situations, where there is time for family, friends, and personal lives in addition to hard work.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
At Hello Alice, we are very committed to ensuring access to capital changes for small business owners. We’re certainly working to educate small business owners, but also to educate banks, financial institutions, corporations and governments about the changes they can make to build a more equitable small business ecosystem. We had those conversations long before COVID, but now people get it in a whole new way. We can skip over the “why this is important” part of the equation and dig right into the solutions.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Focus on what matters to your customers. They are your guiding light, and if you’re serving their needs at every opportunity, you’re going to come out on top. Every successful business has to find that win-win scenario.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love Mae West’s quote: “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” I look at life as a journey to be lived fully. It takes the fear of failure away, and life becomes more about taking risks, trying new things, meeting interesting people, and the experiences that we create for ourselves and those around us. It pushes me to go bigger in everything I do, and to live in the moment. We’re a tiny spec in the game of life, but we each have the potential to do something meaningful.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Join me at helloalice.com — I’m there every day, active in the community. Or on Instagram or Twitter @carolynrodz.