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From Corporate America to Start-up America.
by: Saba Sebhat

I don't quite know how it all started, but as long as I can remember I always dreamed of starting my own business.

I left Ethiopia when I was 11 to head to boarding school in England. Four years later, I was at the American High School in Vienna. While there, I had this burning desire to start my own business—a "Konditorei". A Konditorei is an Austrian coffee shop. The Konditoreis in Vienna were always jam-packed with people and they served the best pastries and melange- the famous Viennese cappuccino. My favorite pastry was the Apfelstrudel. I simply had to open one in America and serve the exact same pastries and melange.

On the plane to the States, on my way to Trinity University, I remember drawing a sketch of the front of my "Konditorei" on a pad of paper and writing my first business plan at the age of eighteen.

But soon, common sense would prevail and I would focus my energy towards getting an education, first and foremost, as well as to learning my new culture.

Life in the US started taking its course. I began my college career with the aspirations of pursuing a career in foreign languages and business. I was majoring in French, German, and business. But unexpected circumstances would interrupt this path. I ended up transferring from my small college in San Antonio to a large university in Houston. My double major program fell apart because it was not offered at this new university. I reluctantly settled for a major in Business and a minor in German. Nonetheless, I completed my college education and received a Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing.

Even before coming to America, I knew the opportunities here were going to be endless. If you were focused and had a goal, you would be successful. Following graduation, I was determined and driven to achieve the ideal career.

Along the way though, I was faced with some unexpected barriers. I was an Ethiopian woman, age 23, with huge aspirations to get to the top. But it was hard to be taken seriously. Applying for my first management job was a struggle. Once I got the job, I was a fast track employee but even at the top of my performance, I was almost fired for being too tough on my employees. (This was the counseling session during which my area manager used the "b" word to describe my behavior!)

Breaking the glass ceiling to reach upper management status was also a struggle despite my performance level. And to add insult to injury, I discovered that my compensation was significantly lower than that of my male peers. Double standards were one thing, but having to deal with that and corporate politics was another. Not only did I have to elevate my level of performance to exceed that of my male and non-minority counterparts, but I also had to make a decision whether to change my behavior and characteristics to fall within the guidelines of the "Corporate game" mentality.

I made a conscious decision to keep striving at performance levels that were significantly above the expected standards, while adhering to Corporate policies and guidelines but not to Corporate politics. Despite it all, the results were good. During my first career, I was promoted through the ranks to General Manager of a restaurant operation. I was one of four female GMs out of 50 or so and the only minority female at the time.

I was extremely passionate about this business. It offered me autonomy, creativity and, what I cherished most, the countless interactions with my guests and employees. It felt like it was my own business.

My next career took me from Houston to Denver. I was rapidly promoted to Operations Manager of a large production center, overlooking a staff of 70 employees and managers at multiple locations (we had offices in over 60 markets at the time). Again, I was one of five females in such a position throughout the country. But I took that as a challenge: it was yet another opportunity where I was able to be somewhat of an entrepreneur with a lot of autonomy.

Despite it all, I always ended up thinking, "How do I become a total entrepreneur?" Business ideas were never far from my mind. A little over ten years had now passed since I wrote my first business plan on the plane from Vienna to San Antonio. I was becoming anxious and began writing my second business plan. This one was for a cantina, "Kuda's Kantina", named after one of my best friends, Chris. This time, I was more equipped to put a plan together. I had created my own recipes and tested them on friends. The response had been positive. I had a unique theme; a low overhead cost configuration, a great recipe and a market that at that time sorely needed fun places to eat. I gave copies of my plan to a couple of potential investors, but nothing panned out. I put it aside for a later, more opportune day.

Two years later, my journey finally took me to a company that hired me strictly for outside sales and not for my management background. I was able to achieve consistent sales growth during my tenure. During this same time period, I rewrote and re-solicited my cantina business plan. One of the individuals who reviewed my plan was a successful Ethiopian entrepreneur called Dosho. Before he read my plan, I had met him in Washington D.C, while I was visiting my sister. We talked at length and due to my inquisitive approach, he ended up sharing with me some details about all of his business ventures. I remember being so engrossed listening to all his accomplishments and successes. I totally connected with his entrepreneur spirit and ambition. He made me want to break out of the corporate world more than ever. Then I returned to Denver, but our paths would cross again.

New Business ideas would always surface. I have a dear friend, Marlene, who also read my cantina plan. Ever since then, she would constantly bounce business ideas off me. For a while, we talked about starting a cart business together and setting it up on the Sixteen Street Mall in Denver, but it never came to fruition. Nonetheless, it never stopped us from constantly dreaming of exiting the corporate world.

Coming back to reality, after two years in my sales career, I was still restless and moved to the Bay Area in search of "something". I was now slotted for a significant promotion at my job. I should have been very pleased, but instead there was this nagging feeling of dissatisfaction. Looking back through my entire career, I realized that despite receiving rapid promotions, my career and the promotions would slow down at a certain point primarily because I chose not to advance further up the corporate ladder for one reason or another. The Corporate ladder meant getting further away from fulfilling my dream of being the entrepreneur I had always dreamed of becoming.

For me, Corporate Politics translated into the following: a lot of structure that limited individual creativity, growth, entrepreneurship and freedom. Most of all, it eliminated all elements of risk, which can typically result in the huge rewards most of us chase throughout our lives.

Suddenly things started to change. The "something" I was seeking started to become clear. My path crossed with Dosho again. My friends were always telling me that "timing is everything". This famous phrase was finally going to apply to my life.

Dosho was in the process of making changes with his business and he offered me the incredible opportunity of becoming an entrepreneur! I was excited but very nervous. As much as I had always wanted this, when it came down to it, I still spent many sleepless nights wondering if I should go for it, risk it all or stay in my comfortable job that guaranteed me a paycheck. I sought advice from many friends and family members, but there was one deciding factor that gave me the courage to make the right decision. I recalled what my sister, the person dearest to my heart and the one who knows me best, said: "You have always wanted to run your own business, ever since we were kids. This is perfect for you. You would be great at it…." I knew in my heart I was going to go for it, I just needed one more push.

A month later, I quit my job and enjoyed a week of skiing and vacationing. My managers were pretty shocked I would give up my promising future with an established company to risk it all for an unknown start-up business.

My life changed overnight. Suddenly, I found myself as an owner and a COO of a company called Earthy Foods and in charge of it all! It was pretty nerve racking, especially my first day. No clear future, not much money and not many customers. I had to quickly learn to change my mind set. I was no longer working for a billion-dollar company, where spending thousands of dollars was an every day occurrence. My life now gives new meaning to "penny pinching"! As a sales person, I get very impatient when sales aren't flowing in, but as a business owner I have learned that everything I do on a day to day basis is crucial to achieving the long term results.

It's been two and half months since my first day on my entrepreneurial journey, I am still as excited as ever and still glad I made this decision. These last two months have been more rewarding than my entire career in Corporate America. No matter what the future holds, I am happy where I am right at this moment.

Earthy Foods is a Bay Area start-up company whose mission is to provide, primarily via the Internet, unique products which focus on the well-being of our communities and give each of our customers a healthy and nourishing lifestyle. I am proud to be a part of an Ethiopian owned company providing incredibly nourishing and tasty products made from Flaxseed and Teff .

I finally left Corporate America, the only life I had known, to pursue the long time dream I always had: "to run my own business". My life long desire has brought me here today, thanks to my education and my valuable "Corporate America" and daily life experiences. I have paid my dues by taking on and accepting that challenge. Now, it's time to see if I can stand on my own.

To those of you who are contemplating or are already partaking in a risky, entrepreneurial venture, I wish you success and congratulations! If I can take the plunge, you can too!


Saba Sebhat is Chief Operating Officer of Earthy Foods. (www.earthyfoods.com)

Past My Story

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