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Therese Allison: “Business is not a one size fits all proposition”

Business is not a one size fits all proposition. The marketplace is diverse and needs a diverse response. Women are 50% of that equation. As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Self-Made Businesswoman, Author and Mom Therese Allison. She is a self-made success […]

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Business is not a one size fits all proposition. The marketplace is diverse and needs a diverse response. Women are 50% of that equation.


As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Self-Made Businesswoman, Author and Mom Therese Allison.

She is a self-made success story, mom and author of “Playing for Keeps — How a 21st-century businesswoman beat the boys” (self-help memoir) from Southern California. To help others succeed, Allison openly shares how she became financially independent at age 38 and retired early at 43 to spend quality time with her children. Today, Allison is busy mentoring her three children and others to succeed in business and life. http://playingforkeeps21.org


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 was born in Hollywood and grew up in La Canada, CA (a wealthy area nearby) in a family with humble means. I had to learn quickly how to fend for myself, got a job as a teen, and played competitive sports that taught me how to win — which was the inspiration for my new book title: “PLAYING FOR KEEPS.” Entering into a corporate “man’s world” after college in the 1980s and 1990s, I had to quickly learn how to build allies, find solutions and master negotiating. Using these self-taught skills, I broke the glass ceiling as the first female producing Partner in an insurance brokerage company tied to Lloyd’s of London where for 300 years, women weren’t allowed on the underwriting floor. After becoming financially independent and retiring in 2004, I stayed home to raise my three children. Now, I am writing books and mentoring others to succeed in business and life.

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

One of my “Pearls of Wisdom” in “PLAYING FOR KEEPS” is “I Can”. If I am passionate about something, my mantra simply becomes “I Can” and then, I make it happen. My son asked me to write my business story for him. I did. In the end, I wrote a “lessons learned” section that later became my “16 Pearls of Wisdom.” When I went to visit him in college at UCLA, he had that list pinned above his desk. I proceeded to mentor him until he became one of the youngest Principals in a multi-billion corporation headquartered in New York. It was at that point that I realized that my “Pearls of Wisdom” not only worked for me, but also for others. I knew it was time to write the book.

As I was inquiring about working with a publisher, I was told that I would not be picked up because I didn’t have a following. In order to get my message out there to mentor women and help them succeed, I had to invest in myself. That’s why I became my own Publisher under TA Books.

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?

Whether it was starting TA Books or building my book of business in my previous career, it is always best to be authentic. The more authentic you are, the more apt people are to give you their business. My book is full of what I call my “Lucy Moments” in business. My head was always in the cloud trying to figure out my next deal. As a result, stuff just happened. For example, I ordered a salad with ranch at an executive luncheon. As I went in to stab the crouton, it flung onto the executive next to me. He smiled as he wiped ranch off of his Italian suit.Moral of the story: when sitting with people you want to impress, scoop, do not stab your crouton!

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?

While it sounds cliché, I’m grateful for family members who bravely took chances and drove change. While doing research on my heritage, I learned that my ancestors include a long line of pioneer entrepreneurs. My great, great grandparents crossed the plains to California in 1851 to sell supplies during the California Gold Rush. They were related to, and business partners with CA Governor Robert Waterman. Waterman stood next to his friend and fellow delegate Abraham Lincoln at the first Republican National Convention in 1856. Four years later, Waterman delivered Illinois to help put Lincoln in The White House. When Waterman returned to California, he ran the state while my great, great grandfather ran their cattle ranching business.

My grandfather J.C. Allison raced against William Mulholland to bring an International Aqueduct into Los Angeles in 1932. He also negotiated foreign trade with Mexico and Japan. His mother was Mary Churchill of the Devonshire Churchill’s (common ancestor with Winston Churchill and Princess Diana). I did not know the extent of my heritage until I started writing “PLAYING FOR KEEPS.” The light bulbs finally went on, and I suddenly realized where I got my drive to succeed.

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?

What is currently holding back women from founding companies is probably a lack of confidence in themselves and lack of funding, which often go hand in hand. Not only do you have to believe in yourself, but you also have to convey your idea with passion and conviction so others view you as the only person who can make your idea a reality.

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?

Those that have been successful in founding companies should mentor other women to get there as well. There should be more support groups for women who want to start companies. The speakers can include leaders from banks, vendors and female leaders who can share their personal stories about how they became successful.

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?

Business is not a one size fits all proposition. The marketplace is diverse and needs a diverse response. Women are 50% of that equation.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?

A common myth when you have your own business is that “you are your own boss.” In reality, your investors, board and customers are your ultimate boss. You have to make sure that you deliver the bottom line for both your investors and your board. Your ultimate boss is your customers who can “vote with their feet.” If you are not satisfying them, they will go to your competition.

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?

A founder is going to be someone who is fearless and has a deep conviction about their idea. They also need to be able to stomach the ebb and flow of owning their own business. Women that are risk-averse should probably remain as an employee.

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.)

Be True to You— When I first started out, I was insecure because I was a young woman in a largely male industry. I actually wore glasses to look smart. I found that the more I just became myself in business, the more success came to my doorstep. If people trust you more, you will receive more referrals. Don’t change yourself to “fit in.” Being authentically you is your personal brand and will set the tone for the business that you are starting.

Treat Others the Way You Want to Be Treated— If you are founding a company, you are most likely going to hire employees and work with vendors. I have learned that if you treat your employees like a revenue source (aka, treat them like gold), then they will be loyal to you and have your back. In my career, the employees on my team worked with me, not for me. In my 18-year career, my right-hand associate was with me for 11 years.

If you work with vendors/third parties, use the same premise. Treat them with respect. If they like you, they can make your life easier. I had a large client that had a renewal from an insurance carrier. They were initially given an increase. I told my representative to go back and ask for a “wash” in rates, so there would be no change. They agreed. Later the representative shared with me how horrible other brokers were (in general) to the underwriters. Because they liked me, they gave me what I wanted. When founding your own company, treat everyone the way you want to be treated. You will have loyal employees and vendors, as well as good karma.

People Do Business with People They Like — This is probably the most important (and yet so simply over-looked) take-away of these five tips. In most circumstances, business is about relationships. All else equal, decision-makers will pick who they like the most when awarding business. If you can, set yourself apart from the competition. The more they get to know you, the more they will trust you and do business with you. Find time to get together with them. Don’t talk about business. Do try to find common ground. In my earlier career, I purposely bought a property that was conducive for entertaining clients. As I write in “PLAYING FOR KEEPS”; “If you have a competitive product, winning the game becomes all about relationships.”

The Velvet Glove for Women — As a woman in business, I found that using a Velvet Glove was the key to my success. We are women in business, not men in business. Employing opposite traits in business help a woman navigate in business. Be funny, but smart. Be feminine, but firm. Be graceful, but strong.

As a woman in a largely male business world, I always felt that it was best to get the egos out of the room in any given situation (including mine.) For me, I used humor. Everyone knew that when it came time for business, I had already earned respect.

The most recent example of a woman in power is Vice President Kamala Harris — she has empathy but also exudes executive presence. When I watched her debate against former Vice President Pence, I could see right away that the Velvet Glove was her style. She was articulate and confident, but you could also see that she laughed as she made a personal comment. Use the Velvet Glove approach in your own business, and you won’t go wrong.

I Can — If you are going to start a company, you must employ a can-do approach because you will face challenges. I have always had an “I Can” attitude. Taking it a step further, if I was passionate about something, I never thought I couldn’t. Visualize your endgame by asking how big do you want your company to get, how many employees, revenues, and products. This “I Can” attitude started for me in high school. The night before the tennis State Championship, I visualized the placement of my various shots. I did that until I started the match the next day. We won. I used the same strategy in business. Flying to a meeting, I would visualize the prospect signing the letter to award us the business. We ended up acquiring the account, and it was a career maker. You just have to believe you can, and you will.

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

When I retired in 2004, my sole goal was to focus on raising my kids. Now, my focus is to mentor women to be successful in business and life. My story provides concrete examples as a blueprint for success. I believe that when women feel empowered, it makes the world a better place for not only them but those around them.

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.

Women in business historically have competed with each other. I would love to start a movement where more women genuinely help other women in business succeed. When one woman in business wins, we all win.

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’d love to have a private breakfast or lunch with actor, entrepreneur and producer Reese Witherspoon. I love how she has taken her celebrity status to help women and encourages them to talk about money. As an example of a successful woman, I used the court scene from “Legally Blonde” where she plays Elle Woods, a confident Harvard Law Student who wins her first case and the heart of her fellow students, in the beginning of my book.

We all need to help other women find this level of passion in business and life, and that is one of the top reasons why I published my new book: “PLAYING FOR KEEPS — How a 21st-century businesswoman beat the boys” https://www.amazon.com/dp/1735088609

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

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