Many women have strong beliefs in what they want to do and are good at working towards accomplishing their goals for the greater good. This combination helps drive success.
Women are good at recognizing when there is a need for a better mousetrap or if there is a void in the marketplace. Women are very in-tune and being able to pinpoint a need, whether it is in the service business or product-based, is very important to building a successful business.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gayle Martz, creator of the SHERPA Bag and founder of the multi-million dollar Sherpa Pet Trading Company. She is a tireless pet advocate who made pet travel commonplace. Gayle is the author of IT’S IN THE BAG, which debuted this year, and NO PET LEFT BEHIND.
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?
I always wanted a dog but was never able to have one due to my schedule as a flight attendant. When I was laid off by TWA, I jumped at the opportunity to get SHERPA, a Lhasa Apso who won over my heart and became my loving companion, best friend, and inspiration for my business endeavor. Wherever I went, SHERPA came with me. It was a no-brainer that when I left New York in 1988 to live with my mother in California, SHERPA was going to come along. However, due to airline policy at that time, traveling with pets in the passenger cabin was not allowed, leaving me with a cross-country drive as my only option. I searched for a carrier to transport SHERPA in to make her travels more comfortable in the car, but all I could find was a hard carrier. I ended up using one of my totes as a make-shift dog carrier, and while it wasn’t perfect, it was all I had. It was during that long road trip that allowed me to brainstorm with my mother (who was traveling with me…. there were no cell phones at the time!) about better ways to transport a dog or cat while traveling. When we arrived in California, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my future. Given my experience as a flight attendant along with my passion for fashion and photography, I knew that I could create a product for pet owners that would allow them to travel comfortably and fashionably with their pet. I was on a mission!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In the early days of SHERPA, I still needed to do other work to support myself. I was a photographer and one of my jobs led me to cover an event at The Waldorf Astoria Hotel for The Small Business Administration’s (SBA) award ceremony for “Women of Enterprise.” As I took portraits of the incredible women who were being honored, I had the opportunity to speak with each one who would share with me their stories about obstacles they overcame to be successful. Those conversations were pivotal moments in my career. I remember saying to myself: “I can’t let my problems stand in the way of my purpose.” I was truly motivated by these women.
One day in 1996 my phone rang and it was a representative of SBA letting me know I was selected to receive a “Women of Enterprise” award. It made me reflect on the time I was working the event six years prior and in such awe of the amazing women, and now I was being honored. I was tremendously excited to accept the award and hopefully inspire other women to achieve their business dreams!
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?
While it is not a funny mistake, I want to share with you the biggest business mistake I made because I hope it will prevent others from the heartache, headache, and nightmare it put me through. Never, ever sign anything without an attorney present, or without being able to go over the documents before they are signed. I was working a pet products show when two of my trusted, or so I thought, executives of SHERPA showed up asking me to sign some documents that would help grow SHERPA. I declined but was told they were non-binding and my attorney could go over the documents at a later time. This was not the case. The documents I signed basically gave them complete control of every aspect of operations. Please, I repeat, please never sign anything without an attorney present, or without being able to go over the documents before they are signed.
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?
My mother, Connie. She was everything to me and played many roles in my life. She was my best friend, business partner, and financial guru. She encouraged me to pursue my dreams of creating a pet carrier and did whatever she could do to help. Her constant love, support, and encouragement aided in the success of turning SHERPA into a multi-million-dollar business. She would say to me, “Don’t say that you work hard. Everybody works hard.” Advice like that kept me grounded. She gave me five thousand dollars to help start the business. I would have never been able to begin without that investment and her belief in me.
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?
The FEAR of failure, lack of money, and uncertainty holds many women back from pursuing their dream and vision for their own company.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
It is so important for women to come together as a community to help each other out. The SBA, which I discussed earlier, and many other organizations are now available to help women start their own businesses.
In 1999 I joined the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO) which proved to be a wonderful learning experience for myself. It was inspiring to see that we, as women, could make our own way in what was largely a man’s world at the time. The women I met at the WPO and at other female-centric organizations encouraged each other to break through limitations and not let anything or anyone stop us. We wanted to stake out our own place in the world, and by helping each other realize our individual dreams, we felt that we were making the world a better place overall. Being a part of these women’s organizations not only connected me to a terrific network of women, but it also instilled in me the importance of paying it forward. As a society, let’s build each other up and support each other. And if we are successful, we need to give back and help other inspiring entrepreneurs. When I was working at a pet show I met a woman who had a small business. She fit all the requirements for a successful founder and had a great idea, so I wanted to help her. I shared with her my contacts that I had made over the years and helped her to grow her own business.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Two reasons come to my mind. 1) Many women have strong beliefs in what they want to do and are good at working towards accomplishing their goals for the greater good. This combination helps drive success. 2) Women are good at recognizing when there is a need for a better mousetrap or if there is a void in the marketplace. Women are very in-tune and being able to pinpoint a need, whether it is in the service business or product-based, is very important to building a successful business.
Financialindependence is a feeling of empowerment and one I knew I wanted to achieve. There was a point in my life when I had no home, no money and no job. But I did have a choice to make: Do I wallow around on the pity pot or rise and shine and do the very best that I could do? I chose the latter and it paid off.
Do not be afraid to ask other people for help or advice. Seek out groups, clubs, books and online tools to help in your new-found choice to do something that you believe in with all of your heart and soul. Emotional intelligence was always ruling my decisions — if it did not feel right, it wasn’t going to be right. Listen to your gut and seek help as there are many tools and resources in your reach. Research the marketplace to make sure you are not doing what already has been done.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?
The myth that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Guess what? There might not always be light in that tunnel. I have been in a lot of tunnels that had darkness at the end of them. But I learned from that darkness and made my own light. Failure is going to happen. How you handle failure is what sets you apart from everyone else. You have to learn from it. Tackle every tunnel with dedication, persistence and commitment, and if the light is at the end of it, it is because you made that light happen. It wasn’t just there. Don’t give up and keep on shining bright even when there is darkness.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
To be a founder of a company means you first have to have an idea that you are passionate about and want to pursue. But an idea is nothing without action. First, you need to ask yourself if you are willing to commit to endless long days and nights, challenge after challenge, setbacks, heartbreak, all this to maybe, only maybe, reap the rewards of success? Answering “yes” to this question helps if the idea you are passionate about pursuing is something you love and believe in. I know it sounds cliché, but something you are passionate about will drive you to keep going when the going gets tough. And let me tell you, things will most definitely get tough! If you are not willing to put in the time, and if throughout the process it will likely be time that you are not getting paid for, then maybe it is best to seek a “regular job.” Being a founder of a company is not for everyone and it is a good idea to do some soul searching to determine if it is a good fit for you!
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Always consult a reputable attorney before you sign anything!
I will never forget the day when my attorney read over the document I signed without him. He was very disturbed, shook his head, and said “You should have never signed.” Looking back, I was rushed into signing papers and any business matter should never be rushed. Not taking the crucial time to consult my attorney cost me my company and created grave despair. A good attorney is a necessity and an investment that will help you along the way and save you money down the road. It may even save your business. Learn from my mistake!
2. Failure helps drive success.
Losing my job with TWA was the first step down a long, bumpy road that led to me discovering that my true calling in life was to be the founder of SHERPA. Having that void in my professional life forced me to look inward and think about what I really wanted to do with the rest of my life. It also allowed me to get a dog, SHERPA, who inspired me to create the first SHERPA bag and revolutionize pet travel. If I didn’t lose my job, I would have never gotten a dog and made the trip to California, where the idea came to me and wouldn’t get out of my head!
3. Take care of yourself.
When you are a founder, you think you have to spend every second working on your business. However, good quality work can only be achieved when you are in a healthy state of mind. There was a time in my career when I needed to take care of the turmoil inside of me. Five things were instrumental in helping me: prayer, meditation, yoga, exercise and therapy. Know that it is okay to reach out for professional help. Starting a business and successfully running it is VERY mentally and emotionally draining. The professional help I got from a therapist and psychiatrist helped me deal with difficult situations I was facing when running my business. You owe it to yourself and your business to implement whatever tools are needed to move forward in a healthy way. Prayer, therapy, meditation, exercise and yoga helped me greatly to take care of the pain and turmoil in my mind, body, and spirit.
4. Not everyone has the best interest in YOU. Protect yourself.
When starting a business, you absolutely must take every precaution. Some specifics: safeguard your intellectual property, your business’s details, your contracts with employees and partners, and all the other important aspects that starting a company entails. Many people will try to take advantage of you. Know that. Accept that. Thankfully, if you protect yourself properly, you can stand up to them and keep what is rightfully yours. You must be very strong and defend yourself on your path to reach your goals.
5. Every stage of your life is an important one.
When I reflect on being a flight attendant, one short stage of my life’s long journey, I think about what an important one it was. I was at a conference when SHERPA was just getting started and one woman came up to me and said, “I remember when we were flying on the Lockheed 1011. We were on the jump seat in the galley and while the passengers were sleeping you were sketching the SHERPA bag. You didn’t know that was what you were going to call it then. All you said was “I’m going to make these.” Then I think about my time as a photographer. My airline career also meant frequent travel to Europe where, for years, I had been working as a freelance fashion photographer for high-end brands in the handbag and fashion industry. This stage in my life allowed me to make contacts in the fashion industry that helped propel SHERPA to the next level. The skills I learned as a photographer were used when I had to market the SHERPA bag myself. Each stage of your life is an important one. Embrace where you are in your journey and keep focused on your goal.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
SHERPA has allowed me to become a recognized global advocate and spokesperson for improved pet travel so people can safely take their pets wherever they go. I advocate on many pet-related issues ranging from ensuring true emotional support animals are protected to ending puppy mills. Most recently, I donated 11,000 pet carriers and other pet-related travel products to help transport dogs from Puerto Rico following natural disasters and to people evacuating with their pets during the California wildfires. I teamed up with Greater Good Charities, a charitable organization devoted to improving the health and well-being of people, pets, and the planet, and The SATO Project, a non-profit dedicated to rescuing abused and abandoned dogs in Puerto Rico.
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.
What is the one thing you really want to do and what is stopping you? There is no other day like today and as I have always said, “You will never be this young again!” Follow your heart and your soul and seek the guidance and tools from all of the many assets available now to learn how to find information. On my worst days, I would go into a humane society and help the people and the animals. The service that is needed is more love and caring for so many. Find your way as it is waiting inside of you to do something that will help to make a difference in the world. Working together everyone achieves more. Remotely or afar, we have communication tools that help us bridge the gap and share the love. Remember, you must love what you do so just do it. Now!
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.
I would love to have lunch with Richard Branson. He has achieved and done so many fabulous things in this world for people, pets and the planet. As a pet activist, I truly admire and appreciate his great love for animals. As a businesswoman, I truly admire all of his accomplishments and endeavors. Remember, the sky is not the limit and he is even on that venture into space with Virgin Galactic! I would be so blessed and grateful to have that experience with someone who can help to make a difference in a much larger trajectory. I have always wanted the Sherpa Skyline, an airline for people and their pets, and who would be better to work with than Richard Branson.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.