In her decade-old stint as an entrepreneur, Jennifer Iannolo with her startup, Culinary Media Network, has interacted with many chefs and hoteliers across the globe, accompanied by a business partner who was a man. Every time they had to receive a cheque, hoteliers would simply place it in front of the man, even though they knew Jennifer was the firm’s CEO. Jennifer made it a point that being a woman shouldn’t affect her reputation as an entrepreneur. In her attempt to create a woman-friendly world, she went onto create The Concordia Project, an all-woman network to nurture entrepreneurs between 18 and 25 years across the globe. Jennifer who was in the city for a session and to speak at the forthcoming Global Leadership Summit, says taking risks comes to her naturally.
A lot of incidents made her conceptualise an all-woman network. She was very happy with her career, working with chefs across the world but she felt burnt out as an entrepreneur. “I got sick, developed food allergies and couldn’t have the food I made. I then decided that as I’m going to enter the second half of my life, I’ll make it matter. I wanted to make a difference on how we look at a woman, the project was born then.”
Her childhood fed her with strong ideals. “My parents were immigrants to America, they didn’t have a context to feminism. Nothing changed in my life specifically because I was a girl, all they wanted me was to dream and build my career.” Many have gone on to ask her if she works for ‘women empowerment’, she’s tired of telling them that she works for ‘human empowerment’. “When one is an entrepreneur, he/she has challenges, why tag a gender alongside it? It makes it complicated. These terminologies create a problem where problems don’t exist.”
On her decision to pick entrepreneurs from a particular age group, she says the larger issue is totally different. “When I talk to young people and nurture them with their entrepreneurial skills, it’s not about the business alone, it’s about solving the problems of the world. We know the age of 18-25 is when big decisions happen across the world with regard to marriage, life path. I felt if we rope in women who’re just past their university level and get their first job, we can guide them better.”
In her tours across the world, she found it fascinating to realise that women are much more alike than they are different. “During our very first think-tank session, we had women from seven countries, all extraordinary. One of them said, ‘I want to be the president of Mexico’, even a girl from Nepal wanted to lead her country, for she knows what ails their setup.” She adds that the discussions they had to do with their father, mother and the brother were the same. “All had the same struggles and we plan to create a support system with this network. There’s so much diversity in the professions of women in Hyderabad that enables us to have rich conversations and talk universal issues.”
She feels the fact that the Global Entrepreneurship Summit is coming to Hyderabad says a lot about the scene here. “It’s a mark of validation that entrepreneurship is happening here. I loved the food, the music and Bollywood of course, I knew I would like the place and my experience has lived up to my expectations. T-Hub has been a fantastic place, I feel it’s five floors of awesomeness and would like to reserve a seat there for my next visit.”
As an advise to young entrepreneurs, she only has one thing to say, “If you’re young, don’t give up, you have arrogance but temper that with wisdom. For that, it’s important to surround yourself with experienced people.”
“Looking back, the opportunities and access to it, there were misses because of the gender. For people who have gotten to know me after initial concerns of whether I would be able to deliver, most have been accepting of the quality of work I do. There is an expectation of ‘she should be content with what she did’ being a woman, while for men, ‘the sky is the limit’. In terms of similarities between US and India, technology has been a great leveller of opportunities. Even in the US, in venture financing for example, women-led enterprises account only for 2% among investors, the same applies for India too. Change isn’t going to happen overnight and needs to come from every individual. It begins with parents teaching their sons and daughters about gender parity. Employee policies should be women-friendly especially after marriage and children. Financial independence gives women a sense of self-esteem, purpose, you needn’t be at the mercy of anyone. Taking on a challenge, recognising your inner strength is the best part I enjoy about being an entrepreneur.” – Seema Chaturvedi, Founder and Managing Director of Accelerator Group, LLC an investment banking and strategic advisory services firm. (She delivered a talk at the American Corner, Hyderabad on ‘Selling: How to be effective’ recently)