By Sarah Tourville, Founder & CEO
It’s 3,400 miles from London to Dubai, 7,800 miles onward to Atlanta. But the cultural distance a woman entrepreneur travels between these booming urban centers is far greater. In the end, persistence and vision pay off.
I’ve always been fascinated by international marketing. In fact, I chose Bournemouth University in England because it offered a new degree program with precisely this focus. And I received a superb introduction to the field, including study in France.
In retrospect, it was the wrong choice. As the first in my immediate family to attend University, I considered all higher education to be equally valuable. But what I encountered when I moved to London was a nearly impenetrable network based on where one attended school. Below the Oxbridge tier and the second rank of Durham, Edinburgh, and a few others, degrees were next to useless, at least for making career connections.
What could “pedigree” possibly have to do with fresh thinking? As banking went global, as Moore’s Law upended the technology playing field, an eager young woman from Bournemouth knew as much as—or more than—someone with a degree in Classics. In fact, dated assumptions about global dynamics, economic value-add, and communications blinkered the elites.
I didn’t have all the answers, of course. I simply wanted what those from the “right” schools took for granted: Opportunities to learn from others, gain a hearing, win allies and even mentors. I needed only an unlocked door to step through, a stage on which to demonstrate what I could do.
Lesson #1: Think long-term about school choice. Your fellow students will be your peers for years to come, and they can open doors for you.
When I had the opportunity to decamp to Dubai, UAE, I jumped at the chance. I’d always relished exploring new cultures, and the lifestyle was a draw for this sun-loving Brit. Dubai was an ambitious city-state, purpose-built for the new century. Surely new marketing ideas and personal energy would thrive in a place of ultra-architecture and luxury brands.
But Dubai presented a different sort of closed door, one made of rigid boxes for both men and women. Here the inescapable pecking order was male Emiratis, male foreign enterprises sponsored by the male Emiratis, and female worker-bees. Expatriate women? I needed my husband’s permission to obtain a driver’s license! As a woman working in the technology space, I was accustomed to being outnumbered by men, but I wasn’t prepared to trigger palpable tension in every business meeting.
If the English door was difficult to open without the right connections, in Dubai it was locked shut, and the key was impossible to find.
Lesson #2: A culture fundamentally opposed to women’s full participation is a dead end for an entrepreneur, no matter how motivated.
By now, I had my own firm—and two young children. My American husband got a terrific job offer based in Atlanta. Atlanta? For me, the American South was as exotic, in some ways, as the UAE. Would I encounter another unspoken, tradition-bound system?
Instead, what a night-and-day difference! Everyone I met, both men and women, seemed genuinely excited for me and eager to help. Introductions weren’t just courtesies; they were honest efforts to learn about what my firm did, how I might help area businesses reach their customers and grow their companies. I’m regularly invited to speak at events, join panels and podcasts, and author guest blogs—frankly unimaginable in London or Dubai. Not only is the opportunity door unlocked here, people push it open wide for me. And of course I return the favor by facilitating introductions of my own. I don’t see limits here, as long as I work hard, stay focused, and continue to deliver client value.
In 2015, GoodCall rated my location in Alpharetta the top city for women entrepreneurs in America. This year alone, National Women’s Business Enterprise officially accredited Media Frenzy Global as a diversity supplier, opening doors to the world’s largest technology companies that support female diversity.
Lesson #3: Look for an urban location that welcomes your contribution, attitude, and energy—and cares less about your gender, family, or educational background.
Is Atlanta the only place I could have accomplished all this? Of course not, but location still matters. A thriving, big-city address not only offers access to the best partners, associations, and deals, it also demonstrates to larger clients that you’re serious about your business and confident enough about the future to afford a city lease. Although I don’t have personal experience in other major American cities, I do notice that “immigrants” from New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles seem to shake off their arrogance in Atlanta, making them more approachable and less cutthroat.
Lesson #4: In the right environment, persistence, performance, and reciprocation do pay off for a woman entrepreneur who believes in herself and in her business vision.