INTERVIEWS by STEPHEN IBARAKI
Nicole Washington, Renowned Serial Entrepreneur, Innovator, Executive, Management Consultants
This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Nicole Washington.
Nicole Washington, owner of Micro Biz Coach® and Nicole's Naturals®, is an entrepreneur in the technology and food & beverage industries. Micro Biz Coach® works with micro and small business owners to identify strategies that ensure a successful business start-up or boost a veteran business's bottom line. Micro Biz Coach® also focuses on educating the micro and small business owner to leverage internet technology in order to compete with larger businesses. Nicole has a wealth of experience from her previous career with Ernst & Young, Whittman Hart and MarchFirst consulting firms. As a management consultant, she worked with several Fortune 500 clients including Sprint and Nationwide Insurance. Micro Biz Coach®'s clients have been featured on CNBC, Fox Business News, TheStreet.com and a host of Clear Channel radio stations.
Nicole is a member of the Ohio TechAngel Fund, the 2nd largest Angel Investor Network in the United States. After years of investing in high growth companies, she finally decided to build one of her own. In 2002, Nicole was diagnosed as gluten-intolerant. Back then, gluten intolerance was not well known in the United States. In fact, there wasn't even a medical test in the US to confirm her diagnosis. With this diagnosis and her engineering degree, Nicole embarked on a mission to find a solution to her newfound dilemma of making bread products with no wheat. After much trial and error, she developed a gluten-free flour that would eventually be used in a recipe that would become her new trademark. In 2014, Nicole's Naturals® was born. Nicole's Naturals® debuted its gluten-free waffle & pancake mix at the Celiac Disease Foundation Expo in Pasadena California where it was heralded by the LA Times as a "waffle you'll want to eat."
Nicole is also active in giving back to the community, serving as a Trustee on the Board of The Academy, a STEM high school that services a large population of underserved youth. She also serves as Chair of their Business Advisory Council. Nicole enjoys the outdoors and has a passion for increasing the number of Women and Girls in the STEM disciplines.
To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link
PARTIAL EXTRACTS AND QUOTES FROM THE EXTENSIVE DISCUSSION:
Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
|:00:26:|| ||Nicole, you have a fascinating STEM journey yourself. Can you share your compelling story from an early age up to graduation from college and why you made each choice in your path? |
"....When I was a young kid in elementary school in the US we used to have five dollar watches. They would break so I would collect them, take a part from one and put it into another and figure out how to make it work again. So from that early age (with all of the career assessment tools that the schools would use to help you figure out what you wanted to become), I knew I wanted to be a mechanical engineer but I had no idea how that would happen....I was recognized as one of the kids who would get an awesome opportunity to go to a State-supported boarding school. What they wanted to do was to get all of the kids that great aptitude in the areas of science and math and have them go to this special school....When I started applying for colleges I knew I wanted to be an engineer. I applied for many fellowships and scholarships but I ended up getting a fellowship for teaching so I went to undergraduate school to become a math teacher. I graduated and started teaching math which I really loved, but I still had this underlying passion to become an engineer....I went back to school for engineering at Ohio State University. When I graduated with my Master's degree in Industrial Engineering it was in vogue to work for one of the Big 6 accounting firms who had a side called management consulting, so I started working for one of them. They had a lot of systems work which was very intriguing to me, and I ended up working on the mainframe computer. After a while we started to do a lot of travelling and I didn't want to do that anymore so I worked for some smaller firms and then I decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I took my love for systems work and solving problems and I saw this passion of the internet and what I thought I knew about business and I took a turn to become a business entrepreneur and started my company Micro Biz Coach®...."
|:05:57:|| ||Can you describe any roadblocks you may have encountered along the way?|
"....From the time I wanted to become an engineer there were a couple of roadblocks. One was that I didn't know how I was going to pay for my education and then I got the teaching fellowship....The other was when I actually decided that I wanted to go back to school for engineering. The people who were on the selection committee for graduate school in engineering at Ohio State at the time had some doubts about whether I could handle it, because I had come up through a quite different system in my undergraduate career. So that was another roadblock to convince them, but I did have some high scores that helped....I had to use a lot of persistence and some other elements of endurance to get through those times..."
|:08:31:|| ||Are there some lessons you can share from your work in management consulting?|
"....You have to be prepared for change....You have to be a good problem solver and a quick problem solver....You have to have compassion for the people who are there, the people who have been there for years and who really know more than you do about their subject matter and the inner workings of what they do from day to day....You have to create good relationships....You have to have a passion for learning because you have to go in there and learn things that you didn't necessarily know..... "
|:11:10:|| ||Can you talk about your work with The Academy?|
"....We are creating a generation of students, future workers, future CEOs that have an underlying understanding of technology and its impact on our society now and even the future impact on our society. We are not just taking what people would call the 'best and the brightest' traditionally, but we are taking kids that are traditionally what I would call underserved....A lot of times children in underserved communities don't get to experience those things where they can be around dialog that talks about these careers. This gives them insight into those types of careers and gives them a vision of what they could become and what opportunities are available...."
|:16:36:|| ||Is this information public about who is supporting this program?|
"....The Academy is a project of the Orangewood Children's Foundation, and that Foundation has been around to support the foster youth community for a long time in Orange County and is very productive in what they do for the foster youth community....I'm really proud of the school and the great job that the Board does; we have some tremendous people and the Headmaster of our school just does a tremendous job creating this culture that the students are able to thrive in...."
|:19:41:|| ||Nicole, as a member of the Ohio TechAngel Fund (the 2nd largest Angel Investor Network in the United States), you have a lot of experience investing in high growth companies. Can you describe some of the areas you look at when investing?|
"....When I'm investing as an individual I usually look at something that I'm passionate about or something that I know quite a bit about, but when you're in a group like the Ohio TechAngel Fund (a diverse group), you are generally looking for very specific things. For the Ohio TechAngel Fund we are looking for technology companies in particular that bring value in terms of jobs and economic growth to the State of Ohio....The things that you look at in a company are the things that would help you evaluate whether or not you are likely to get a return on your investment. The business model is a very important component of whether or not the return is going to be possible. You want to look at the management team, whether or not they are a cohesive team and how they work together. We like to look at whether or not the company has a handle on the competition....Usually when I'm doing due diligence my role is the technology role. I love to investigate the technology to see if it's a good technology, if it's sound and based on sound technology principles and things like that...."
|:23:40:|| ||There is some research that indicates Angels typically invest in 1 out of 40 projects or proposals. Venture Capitalists will invest in maybe 1 out of every 400. Are your experiences similar to that? Do you find that your numbers are sort of aligned with that or do you find they are different?|
"....Out of probably the ten companies that we invest in, if we can get one to hit really big it makes it all worth it for us in terms of investment and the hard work that we put into it. But you have to remember if you choose a really good Angel investing organization or VC organization you are going to get so much more than money from the perspective of the entrepreneur....A lot of entrepreneurs that become successful turn into investors. You are pouring into the next generation of entrepreneurs because if you notice, successful entrepreneurs are often not successful on their first round. It's same thing with investors, it really is about so much more and that's what keeps us coming back to the table after investing in ten and reaping rewards from one...."
|:26:30:|| ||Are there any recommended tools or resources that startups can look at based on your experience?|
"....One of the things that I think is good for startups is to understand the technology landscape and all that is available to them probably free of charge as they start up. We have some of those things in what we call a Micro Biz Kit® that we offer to startups and it's basically a database full of online resources where you can find things in terms of accounting resources that you can use online....Also the Angel Capital Association is a good place to go when you are looking for funding when you start up...."
|:28:48:|| ||Can you talk more about Micro Biz Coach® and what prompted you to start it?|
"....We started with a very keen focus on helping smaller micro businesses develop through the use of internet technology. What I found was that internet technology could make a small company look big and could also help a small company achieve so many things that they couldn't do on their own. Internet technology is like one of your really good partners. I thought I could take my experience in management consulting, my love for technology and my sense of curiosity about what the internet could do, package all of those things and help the little guy develop something that they could be proud of and could take to other people and show that they had some credibility, and that's how we started. What I found out was a there's not a lot of money in doing that and more importantly, you have to find a way to sustain your company when you are helping those types of businesses. I was very fortunate that I was able to supplement through high-level consulting that I can do on my own, but I was so intrigued by what business ownership means in the US in terms of economic opportunity, that I started my entire company by seeking good partners who would be willing to form their own small businesses in order to partner with me. Instead of doing it traditionally by hiring people as employees, I basically coached people and taught them how to own a business and use their skill set to help me with my business. I was able to find some great talent particularly in stay-at-home moms; for example, one of my greatest partners had a Masters in Computer Science. These women were so smart and had so many abilities so I found another way to use their talents, and Micro Biz Coach® was born from that...."
|:33:39:|| ||From your experiences, can you share some tips for driving success for businesses?|
"....There are so many ebbs and flows in the world of business and the quality of persistence is very important to staying the course and figuring out how to navigate through the issues that are going to arise -so persistence and problem-solving.....Assemble yourself with a good team of people even if that team of people are not directly related to your company....Have people around you who are very savvy in those important areas so that you have help getting through some of the issues that you are going to face....Embrace technology. Technology is so key in everything we do in the business world....Have a stream of income or revenue when you are in business so use some foresight into how to get to that stream of revenue and make sure that it's sustainable. Having an understanding of those things is very important in the world of business even if you are a successful business and you are a small business, because sometime you want to move to the next level so just understanding those avenues is good....Have a good mentor. Just to get the knowledge, wisdom and experience without having to go through all of that yourself is invaluable...."
|:38:21:|| ||What are your goals for Nicole's Naturals®? Can you talk more about this?|
"....A little known fact that I found as I was investing in things is that the food and beverage companies have a higher return on your investment dollars and a higher exit (meaning when you sell your company you get more money) than technology companies right now. I was intrigued by that and it was one of the reasons I decided to forge ahead with Nicole's Naturals®, a company that focuses on gluten-free products that do not taste gluten-free. Right now we have one signature product, a Waffle and Pancake mix....I started Nicole's Naturals® because of my growing knowledge of food and beverage companies, but also because of my diagnosis with gluten intolerance at least a decade ago. The good thing about our company is that we are coming around at a time when being gluten-free is very popular, not only for people who need it medically but it's becoming a trend in the diet industry. We are hoping to become noticed by some big companies (Kellogg and such) that have products now that are not gluten-free, and would like to enter into the gluten-free line but keep their same taste and quality of products and we'll see what happens...."
|:42:25:|| ||You have these two programs, Micro Biz Coach® and Nicole's Naturals®, do you have some plans from a global expansion standpoint and how you will execute them?|
"....I did some travel in China this past summer; I had been there before a few years ago, but as you know China changes so fast and so often. They are very interested in getting food imported from countries such as the United States and other countries. I went to investigate if waffles were indeed a part of their menu and I found that they are.....I think with the growing international community that they have, they are just getting things into their diet and on their menus that maybe wouldn't traditionally be there. I know that they have a very influential expat community that is interested in gluten-free products.....The US used to brag about being a melting pot, but the melting pot has expanded and when you go to other countries you see that there are lots of different nationalities in those countries as well....I find global expansion, particularly for Nicole's Naturals® very intriguing and very possible for us so that is part of our strategy at this time...."
|:44:56:|| ||Can you describe your most significant and influential achievements and the practical outcomes seen today and forecasted into the future?|
"....One of the significant achievements is the computer-aided instruction tutorial that I did so long ago. I see several citations of the work that we did back then....Another growing impact which I hope will be is what we are doing at Nicole's Naturals® because one of the things that we do (that not a lot of people are doing with gluten-free products), is we have a proprietary flour that we use which makes our product so successful....Hopefully we'll get to the point where some of these pieces and elements that people have become accustomed to (if they have food allergies) will be vacated because there will be inexpensive ways to distribute good food that take these allergies into account...."
|:49:22:|| ||What are your top leadership lessons that can be used by executives?|
"....Have a sense of compassion....Have a sense of teamwork....Assemble a great team, people with different skill sets than your own and people with valuable experience in key areas (dependent on the project you are leading)....Empower the team....It is important not to stifle energy or ideas so people feel free to present their ideas....Have a passion for learning....One of the biggest things is patience...."
|:54:04:|| ||Do you feel computing should be a recognized profession on par with accounting, medicine and law with demonstrated professional development, adherence to a code of ethics, personal responsibility, public accountability, quality assurance and recognized credentials? [See http://www.ipthree.org and the Global Industry Council, http://www.ipthree.org/about-ip3/global-advisory-council]|
"....Whether or not we want to make it that officially, it is unofficially. The fact of life is computing is a very important part of our world right now. We have so many things in the world of computing (the relationship to and the technology of sensors, where we have them in our phones, we have things that can monitor our vitals) and it affects so many different aspects of our lives and that can come with a whole host of issues. You mentioned ethics - it's very important that we have some ethics around what we do, particularly related to computing (just as we do to engineering, medicine or with law), because computing is a part of our lives in so many different ways and can affect a lot of different dimensions of our lives...."
|:58:21:|| ||Do you have any closing comments before we close the interview?|
"....With all the things that I'm passionate about and that I just love to do, every time I visit my doctor she says, 'I think you need a little more sleep.' I'm starting to agree with her, but I'm not sure how to get that and to get it all done...."
|:59:15:|| ||Nicole, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your substantial wisdom with our audience.|