Angie Raja: “Make mistakes early”

Outsource your workload — During the early years of our business, I refused to give up certain tasks and projects because I thought only I could do them the right way. But, I failed to realize that I was becoming a bottleneck in my own business. In order for us to scale, I needed to let go […]

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Outsource your workload — During the early years of our business, I refused to give up certain tasks and projects because I thought only I could do them the right way. But, I failed to realize that I was becoming a bottleneck in my own business. In order for us to scale, I needed to let go and focus on the jobs that only an executive could get done.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Angie Raja.

Anjie is COO, and Cofounder of RIMSports a brand of colorful fitness gear with a New York attitude. Born in the Caribbean but raised in Queens, New York, Angie didn’t necessarily come from an entrepreneurial family but seeing her mother’s resourcefulness in providing for a family of three girls instilled in her a “no-limit” mentality that was the driving force behind her career. Taking the stable and traditional career path, after teaching at St. John’s University for two years she worked as an Editorial Manager on Wall Street and then left corporate America in 2015 to become a full-time entrepreneur along with her business partner and husband, Colin Raja. The couple built their side-hustle into a multimillion-dollar business and have been featured in Forbes and Crain’s New York.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Thank you for having me! Well, I always say that there are born entrepreneurs and there are made entrepreneurs — I am most definitely the latter! The idea for our first business, RIMSports, came about when my husband, Colin Raja, and I wanted to get into shape for our wedding. Crossfit was just taking off in Queens and so we joined a box and needed some fitness gear. I especially wanted to get a pink pair of workout gloves to match my outfit and my Nikes (because who doesn’t) and I kept seeing blacks, grays, and neutrals. So, my husband — then-fiancée — said “why don’t you design one yourself”? Thinking nothing of it, I scribbled some designs down, since art is a passion of mine, and he actually took the idea and with his limited manufacturing background had them made for me. When I took the gloves with me to the box, everyone was admiring them and wanted a pair for themselves. This is where the first product and idea for RIMSports was born.

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

It was interesting to me how well I fit into the role of COO as if I had been preparing for this position my entire life and I say that with the utmost humility. Prior to becoming a COO of our company, I worked as an editorial manager on Wall Street and managed a small team of editors and before that, I taught freshmen English Comp at St. John’s University. It seemed to me that in every career choice I made, I was leading a small team or group of individuals to accomplish a greater goal. As I began to get more comfortable in the role of COO, I realized how natural it was to execute the day-to-day functions and manage the various aspects of the business. That’s not to say there weren’t any tough obstacles or additional effort I needed to employ in order to be successful, but as I leaned into this alignment, I could see how the seemingly coincidental occurrences that transpired in my life prepared me for this undertaking. This is why I would advise anyone who is considering moving into a C-Suite position to be honest and introspective with regard to their strengths and weaknesses to see if their goals, skillset, and abilities line up with the role.

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?

I mean, it wasn’t funny then but I remember designing some packaging for a new product that we were launching and I wanted to include a customer service number so customers would be able to reach out to us with their comments or concerns. So, I signed up for one of those online phone services and printed the number on approximately one thousand packages. After the packages were sent to the warehouse, we decided to check the phone number to ensure everything was working correctly. When it was time to login, I completely forgot the password! The funny thing was the site allowed for a 2-step authentication to reset the password but it was sending the code to a phone I no longer had access to; so, we were in a catch-22. The packages had already left the warehouse and here we were with a customer service number that wasn’t working. Eventually, we were able to get the matter sorted but I learned a great lesson from this comedy of errors; you should always keep passwords in a secured software, such as Lastpass, and have multiple recovery options available.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

It wasn’t so much that I was attracted to the role of COO but it was what was needed in our company at that time. Our business started to take off and we began developing additional brands, so after hiring an amazing team to handle the day-to-day tasks and a Project Manager to organize and direct internal projects, I had to put myself in a position where I could oversee these administrative and operational functions and ensure the larger goals and strategies of the company were being met. Nonetheless, I would say, in terms of the appeal of the role, I had the opportunity to step into a position that I knew I could execute well, as mentioned before, this was a role that suited my skill set and interests. Also, seeing the outcomes of various plans and strategies that only someone at an executive level could implement, is really rewarding experience.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what an executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

So, speaking from my own experience, a COO’s focus is really on the business’ operations. S/he is responsible for ensuring that administrative and operational tasks are executed effectively. Essentially, COOs are tasked with making sure all parts of the ship continue to run smoothly, while the CEO takes the helm. There are many types of COOs such as an executive brought on to bring about change within an organization, or one who is selected to work alongside the CEO. However, I believe the most important skill set of a COO is execution, as this is what separates this role from the responsibilities of other leaders. They must know about the entire business at each and every organizational level, be resourceful and possess strong leadership skills. While most leaders control only a small section or function of an organization, COOs and executives must be multifaceted individuals that concentrate on the higher-level and wide-reaching scope of the business.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I enjoy unrestricted power! Just kidding. I believe the most rewarding part about being a COO is seeing the cumulative success of strategies, processes, or policies you’ve implemented. You truly get to appreciate all components of the business because you’ve played a key role in strategizing, developing, producing, marketing, and executing at every level. I think the other most enjoyable aspect of being in an executive position is having a team of individuals that trust you to problem-solve and help them get their jobs done more effectively. Most people, I think, believe that the higher you get in an organization the less work and responsibility you have. However, as many executives might attest, it’s actually quite the opposite; while most employees of a company think about their individual roles or the productivity of a team, executives have been entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring every section of the organization is well taken care of and functioning at its highest capacity.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

If you assume the responsibility of an executive role, I think you’ve positioned yourself to take up any challenge that may arise. With that said, there are indeed some drawbacks that the right type of executive may find to be a worthwhile challenge. There’s a saying, the higher you climb the harder you fall, and this is most true for those in the C-Suite because one inadvertent move can have a ripple effect throughout the entire organization. This means that you need to be hyper-focused and well-informed in all decision making; you must play out the various scenarios and devise suitable responses before taking any action. The stakes are much higher at the executive level and so much responsibility needs to be managed in a precise and calculated manner. Another downside is that as a result of this responsibility, many executives experience immense stress and burnout. So, managing your stress levels and making sure to detach at least once a week from your duties is a must.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

There are so many, goodness. I think the most propagated myth is that all executives are privileged. This is definitely a misconception. There may be some executives that had a head start in life, which may or may not have had some small contribution to their career path but, there are also many American executives and successful entrepreneurs that came from very humble beginnings such as Oprah, Sundar Pichai, and Howard Schultz. Even my own narrative is quite unassuming; however, I very much believe that the harder you have to work towards a goal, the greater its value becomes. Another myth about executives, especially CEOs, is that they come from top-tier business schools. I think this myth debunks itself as many well-known entrepreneurs and executives didn’t even finish college. While I’m not devaluing the significance of a college education, it should be known that an executive’s success in his or her role is not solely dependent on their alma mater. You become what you intend to be.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

In my opinion, although I’m quite lucky enough to be working alongside my business partner and husband, I would say one challenge faced by female executives is that the demands and expectations placed on them are greater than their male counterparts. According to a recent Forbes article, in fortune 500 C-suite positions, women serve in fewer than 20% of these roles. The article also states that the appointment of women to these roles are often during a time of crisis within the company. They are generally called in to restructure, revamp and resuscitate a failing organization with the odds already stacked against them in somewhat of a glass cliff effect. As Margaret Thatcher so matter-of-factly called it, “if you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” While positing that all men mansplain and all women are doers might be a gross generalization, I would encourage you to look around your own organization and see who is consistently getting the tough jobs done and who are you consistently leaning on to do it.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I think the greatest difference is that I believed the role of COO would be very detached from the actual routine activities within the company. However, you are actually much more involved at the micro, as well as macro, level. I believe the previously mentioned myth relating to executives being privileged fed into this idea that they operated on a higher, unassailable level and only made the big decisions within the company. While this is partly true, as I am involved in the more overarching decision-making within the organization, such as adding new product lines for our various brands or deciding whether or not a department was needed, the foundation of such executive-level execution is built on solid knowledge of the company’s inner workings. In this role, you are completely hands-on and should know how every division within the business functions and operates.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

In my experience, after meeting with many other female founders and executives, I don’t think there is an archetype per se but, there are certainly some characteristics that one should have in order to be successful in an executive role. The first is that you should be an executioner. This is especially true for a COO because being able to successfully implement strategy and procedures across the organization is an integral part of this position. Additionally, being multifaceted is also a requirement. A COO or executive should be able to adapt to various responsibilities and handle a range of issues. I also believe resourcefulness is an imperative skillset as you will be required to problem-solve at times, with little to no reserves. In fact, anyone who does not entirely enjoy taking on consistent challenges, engaging in problem-solving, or adopting extensive responsibility should think twice about joining the C-Suite.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

I think the best advice I could give to other female leaders who want to see their team grow, is to focus on helping them achieve their own personal or career goals. I’ve spent a lot of time speaking with my own employees and inquiring as to what is their life goals. After they come to the realization on their own, of what they truly want to achieve in life, I deliberately find ways to help remove any obstacles that might hinder them from achieving these aspirations. As an executive, it is important that we take every opportunity to increase the awareness, knowledge, skill set and mindset of the people on our team. We have an opportunity to impact the very people that tirelessly support the vision and mission of our company, so it is imperative that we lead by example. I would also say that giving your team the freedom to explore, make mistakes, and recover is also important to the company’s success. Essentially, when your team is encouraged to be accountable for their own decisions, actions, and quality of work, the performance of the company will automatically improve.

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

Over the past six years, I have been, and still am, very grateful for my husband’s unwavering support and fortitude during our entrepreneurship journey. As mentioned before, I believe there are born entrepreneurs and made entrepreneurs — my husband is the former and I am the latter. Coming from a traditional 9–5 mindset, it was quite difficult for me to make the shift from false job security to the unknown abyss of entrepreneurship, and so my husband, Colin Raja, helped to bridge that gap and help me come to the realization that it’s either I work hard for someone else or I work hard for myself; either way, I will have to work hard. The journey itself was tough and we made many sacrifices early on to get our business off the ground, but his unyielding belief that something good must come from all the effort, sleepless nights, failed launches and early struggles we experienced, helped to keep me grounded, focused, and driven to achieve success.

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

I firmly believe that once you’ve attained success, you need to make some time to give back. As they say, empty hands receive blessings. I’m not particularly vocal about my passion projects but one mission of mine is to provide employment opportunities to disadvantaged South Asian women. 80% of our current workforce is women and the majority of our full-time staff are South Indian women who have families and work from home. We actually didn’t plan this happenstance but as we started to hire more employees during our second year in business, we realized that there were many Indian women, especially in South Asia, that were well-educated but after starting a family, were unsure of how to re-enter the workforce and were essentially sitting at home with nothing to do. So, we started hiring these women, first from the same community where my husband grew up, and then from other states in India. We then spent about 3–4 months training them and teaching specific skill sets. Coming from a different perspective, it was difficult for me to understand why these women were not motivated to continue their careers after marriage, however, as I spent more time with my female employees, I realized that there were many structures — cultural, patriarchal, religious, etc. — that are still deeply rooted in Indian society. So, instead of trying to fight against it, we decided to work within these structures to give women an opportunity and a safe environment where they could excel in their careers and feel like valued members of their community. Building on the success of these endeavors, we recently opened a VA agency called Outtsource to help more women find work-from-home job opportunities.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

The top 5 things that I wish someone told me are:

  1. Start sooner—This is one of the best pieces of advice I can give anyone, especially if they are thinking of becoming an entrepreneur or starting a business. I spent way too much time wondering about the “what ifs” when I should have just built up the confidence within myself and started our business sooner.
  2. Make mistakes early—When we started our business, we made many mistakes during its infancy stages, which helped us to learn from these experiences and quickly move on. This is an absolute must because once you begin to scale your business, the stakes become higher — you need to fail hard and fail fast.
  3. Follow the path most traveled. There is nothing wrong with following a path where the foundation is already laid, especially if you want to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. There are so many resources already available so don’t try to reinvent the wheel, as they say, find a way to pimp it out.
  4. Outsource your workload—During the early years of our business, I refused to give up certain tasks and projects because I thought only I could do them the right way. But, I failed to realize that I was becoming a bottleneck in my own business. In order for us to scale, I needed to let go and focus on the jobs that only an executive could get done.
  5. Take big risks—I believe the saying “the greater the risk the greater the reward” to be absolutely true. If you have already committed to starting a business, you need to invest one hundred and fifty percent of your time, energy, money, and skillset to ensure it is successful at any cost and by any means; there’s no point in being mediocre.

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.

I definitely would like to see more entrepreneurs and businesses hire female employees and work-from-home virtual assistants. There are so many underprivileged women, in the US and abroad, that are in need of opportunities to provide for themselves and their family; many of whom may have been laid off or furloughed due to Covid-19. According to a recent article by Business Insider, the total jobless claims in the US rose to 44 million, and out of the 44 million, 31 million are women. So, rather than seeking out traditional candidates and agencies that may match the required skill set, consider hiring work-from-home moms and women who have the professional and educational experience that will undoubtedly be an asset to the company. I personally think it’s time we start rethinking conventional hiring methods and rewrite the traditional playbook on employment; this is what we have been trying to implement in our own businesses.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are many quotes and life lessons that I use to help get me through the various stages of my personal, professional, and business growth. The one that has resonated the most with me in recent years is Oprah’s “where there is no struggle, there is no strength”. This mantra has and still is, getting me through the rollercoaster ride that is entrepreneurship. Many people are misguided in their beliefs about starting a business and don’t know that struggle is an inherent and necessary part of the journey. I personally welcome all struggles because I know that on the other side of these obstacles, there will be a valuable lesson that I would not have been able to learn otherwise. The struggle also gives birth to strength, and such strength can only come into existence if you have labored hard for what you want. Moreover, I tend to value the achievement more if I had to go through great pains to accomplish it — nothing comes easy in life but if you accept struggle as part of the process, you will become stronger.

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

Oprah! Definitely. If there is one person in the entire galaxy that I could spend a few minutes with, it would be Oprah. She has been one of the biggest inspirations in my life since watching her talk show in the early 90s on our 4-channel television set in the Caribbean. She is someone who knows about struggle and used that struggle as fuel to shape her destiny. Molested, raped, and pregnant at 14, she is the embodiment of strength in the struggle. These early difficulties that she had to overcome resonate deeply with me and demonstrate that it’s not about your starting point but your end goal. She is also a big believer in alignment and suggests that we need to be in the flow of life, which is in direct proportion to your centered self where God abides. I believe this is applicable to all areas of life, including business. We need to be in the flow of growth and know deep inside ourselves that we are fulfilling that which we were called to do. So, if you’re reading this Oprah, thanks for your words of encouragement and clarity and if you’re ever in New York, I’d love it if you’d join me for a bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll!

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

It was such a pleasure to revisit my journey and thanks so much for having me.

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