Alisha Pennington of ATvantage: “Women have so much to offer and so many solutions to common problems”

Women have so much to offer and so many solutions to common problems. There is a perception that business has to be expensive or overly complex, but I want to tell them, “no, it doesn’t have to be.” More importantly, women have intuitiveness that is valuable in business, both when to press harder and when […]

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Women have so much to offer and so many solutions to common problems. There is a perception that business has to be expensive or overly complex, but I want to tell them, “no, it doesn’t have to be.” More importantly, women have intuitiveness that is valuable in business, both when to press harder and when to step back. We are perceptive about the needs of others and can leverage that to our benefit.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alisha M Pennington.

Sports medicine professional turned staffing company owner; this serial entrepreneur created a million-dollar business from a need of her own. Nearly 10 years later, Alisha is a speaker, published author, recognized best practices advocate, and has turned her passion into a lifestyle. She’s on a mission to start a business in every household so others can experience the freedom and flexibility that her unexpected business idea has afforded her.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Growing up, I was exposed to medicine and the healthcare field by my mother, a cardiovascular tech. I always knew I wanted to help people when I grew up, but I wasn’t attracted to working in a hospital. It was a bit too sterile for my liking. Going into college, I was a social work major; it checked all the boxes for what I wanted to do with my life: help others, not have a 9–5, and a flexible work environment. While sitting in my freshman orientation at Florida State University, I watched the presentation before Social Work, Sports Medicine. I sat there listening to the speaker say, “work on the sidelines of sporting events delivering care to athletes,” and immediately knew this could be my future. I changed my major before ever enrolling. I was accepted into the Athletic Training program in 2006, graduated 3 years later with my BS, and then earned a Masters in Sports Psychology to round out my education.

When I graduated in 2011, the economy had not yet rebounded from the Great Recession, and there were few full-time work opportunities available to new grads. So I pursued freelance work as a way to make ends meet. In the world of healthcare and sports medicine, freelance work was not (and still isn’t) a common or well-traversed career path. I solicited myself to clients for one-off gigs and used my friends’ email addresses to get access to various list-serves. Over the course of 2011, I built a name for myself as “the girl to know” if you needed athletic training gig work. I saw and seized an opportunity to insert myself as a broker of work opportunities to clients needing sports medicine professionals and to athletic trainers open to represent themselves in freelance transactions.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

About 2 years into the business, I was still working full time. I had an opportunity to interview for one of the biggest name universities in our profession. On paper, it was a dream job. It had every element that would have been an aspirational high point for someone on a traditional career trajectory. During the interview and after, I visualized what having that position on my resume would do for my career and the doors it would open for me. Yet, when I got the call offering me the job, my stomach was in knots, and I began to sweat. It was as if my body knew what my mind could not rationalize. Why am I not saying yes immediately?! How could I pass on the opportunity that could make my career?! Who did I think I was?! I had a sinking feeling that I knew this wasn’t the right direction for me. So, I turned it down. It was a simple decision, but it was tough to make. I knew that if I didn’t accept that position, there was no position but my own that would work for me.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started my business, I called it ATC Agency. I loved it! It was a perfect combination of the profession I was in and the role we would serve. ATC is the credential for certified athletic trainers, and the agency is often used when referring to employment service providers. We went all in and bought business cards, flyers, and a huge banner that we’d use at events! Eight months after starting, I received a letter in the mail from the governing body’s lawyers for athletic training certification. It was a Cease & Desist notice. It firmly explained that ATC was a registered symbol, and I was to stop doing business or face legal action. At that moment, I knew it was the end of me; I was exposed to the fraud I knew I was. I didn’t belong, and this made it crystal clear. At the time, it wasn’t funny at all. Fortunately, I’ve gotten to space to focus on the lessons and laugh at my error. We were able to pivot by changing our name and pushing forward, but these three lessons will always stick with me:

1. Hard things are unavoidable, and the only way around is through.

2. Our scariest moments can be used to make us better.

3. Being open to change means giving up does not have to be an option.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

It’s 2009, and I had just graduated with a BS degree from Florida State University. I’m now walking into Cal State Fullerton’s athletic training facility– the institution I’ll spend the next 2 years of my career with. Mind you, I accepted this graduate assistantship position site unseen. So, I walk in, and I see an approximately 2,000 square foot facility with dated flooring, tired machinery, and an aesthetic from the 90s. I had just come from the Florida State University, a state-of-the-art 16,000 square foot facility with built-in drink dispensers and a Nike budget that kept us in the latest clothes and the freshest kicks! I was shocked to my core. I was, no doubt, experiencing the first four stages of grief all at once. The moment I returned to my hotel room, I broke down crying. “What have I done?” I thought, “Surely, I’ve made the wrong decision.”

Then I met Julie Max. Julie was the Head Athletic Trainer at Cal State Fullerton. She is a legend in the profession, who was elected the first female president of the National Athletic Trainers Association, and the reason I chose Fullerton. She is a spunky blonde that has a force of ferocity in every inch of her five feet. She quickly showed me that nifty gadgets and unlimited budgets weren’t worth much without managed expectations and work-life balance. What she built at Cal State Fullerton with less than others was nothing short of magical. She fought tirelessly, every day, for all who worked under her. Julie became my mentor, and I’ve used her example to make decisions in running my business, protecting others who work with me, and fighting to make the profession better for all.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Admittedly, I do not remember how I came across this book or author, but Jim Collins, Good to Great, was instrumental in my growth. I found it early in my entrepreneurial journey, and one of the lessons that have stuck with me from the beginning is “get the right person on the bus, regardless of where the bus is going.” I have taken that with me. Whenever I find people I resonate with and who I believe can add value to our work, I keep them in my circle.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I can distinctly remember a conversation where we had to dismiss someone from a contract. It was one of the first times I would “fire” someone. I had knots in my stomach just thinking about it. I took a few deep breaths and whispered to myself repeatedly, “I can do hard things.” Then, I picked my phone up and made the call. I remained focused on the points; limit my emotion, and communicate clearly, which, ultimately, made the situation better for all parties. ‘We Can Do Hard Things’ is my go-to mantra to get through uncomfortable, difficult, or challenging situations.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I believe we all strive to have a truly global impact, but I’ve learned that change does not occur until you make yourself better. Only then can you make your community better, and only then can you impact the world. I start with me and how I show up and advocate for myself and my profession. As a result, clients, other athletic trainers, and aspiring entrepreneurs take notice and gravitate towards the growth I’ve championed. By being the change I wish to see, I empower others to do the same.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Mindset. Women face unique challenges (children/family, often uninvolved in finances, image standards, imposter syndrome, etc.). We must do a great deal of unlearning to permit ourselves.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

I started a third company, Pennington Perspective, with my husband, and we want to help get a business in every household. We aim to empower people, but women specifically to believe in their ideas and what is possible, and we want to support them every step of the way. We know, first hand, what founding a business can do for individuals, their friends and families, and the communities they serve.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Women have so much to offer and so many solutions to common problems. There is a perception that business has to be expensive or overly complex, but I want to tell them, “no, it doesn’t have to be.” More importantly, women have intuitiveness that is valuable in business, both when to press harder and when to step back. We are perceptive about the needs of others and can leverage that to our benefit.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders?

If you can, please share an example or story for each.

1. Rewrite the narrative on what women “should” do or “can” do. This is everything from the ranks we can climb to the burdens we must carry. Having a society that values women in the workplace, takes their opinions seriously, and doesn’t limit their abilities based on their sex is paramount.

2. Trust that a woman can handle difficulties. With gendered stereotypes, we often treat women gently, as though they do not also bear this world’s offspring. We are stronger than most realize and capable of tremendous feats. Do not handle us gently, we are powerful.

3. Encourage her to work independently of a man. Whether in the workplace or at home, women are often stuck in situations where a man is responsible for a key aspect of their work or the decision-making. To fully harness a woman’s power as a founder, she must be released from the confines of those limitations.

4. Find partners who support their vision. When starting something of our own, having a supportive and encouraging partner goes a long way in allowing us to shed limiting beliefs and breakthrough societal norms.

5. Start young. Breeding entrepreneurship and encouraging pathways promoting female founders help shape young brains, so they are less inclined to subscribe to societally imposed limitations. To truly upend the patriarchal framework, we must teach young women that being a founder is available to them as any other career opportunity.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

A business in every household. I have experienced how business ownership has changed my career trajectory, what it has afforded my family, and how I’ve been able to live a life I could only dream of. I want others to have the opportunity to experience the freedom and flexibility I have so that they can enjoy life.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Gary Vuynerchuck: I appreciate how practical his advice is and how relevant he stays with current business practices despite having as much success as he has had.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

IG: @itsalishamp

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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