My entrepreneurial journey started in 2009 when I was unexpectedly presented with the opportunity to become president of a global networking group for women. I initially was hesitant to leap on the opportunity, choosing to when convinced I could “always go back” to a regular job. Perhaps based on this personal experience, three stats in the 2018 State of Women-Owned Business Report, commissioned by American Express really stand out for me:
- Women started an average of 1,821 new businesses per day in the U.S. between 2017 and 2018
- Over the period 2007-2018, the number of women-owned businesses surged 58%, while all businesses increased only 12%.
- Nearly half of women business owners are between the ages of 45 and 65 (48%) and two thirds (67%) are 45 or older.
From my own networking circles, I know numerous women are taking their years of hard-earned work experience out of corporate American and into entrepreneurship. A former colleague (from back in the day when I had a job), Joanna Ritcey-Donohue recently made the leap from the comforts of a coveted corner-office to launching her own firm. She’s one of those 1,821 women and upon learning of her career move, I wanted to go behind the report and learn why this mother of two chose to take a risk at this point in her well-established career.
Kelly Hoey: You’ve worked at elite global firms for 20 years, why go out on your own at this particular time?
Joanna Ritcey-Donohue: I have long had entrepreneurial designs, however, as the saying goes, timing is everything. A confluence of professional and personal factors converged to convince me that the time was right to launch my own business. Client feedback in recent years convinced me that there was a real opportunity to serve their needs from a smaller, more nimble legal services platform. With my own firm, I can control quality and cost, plus tailor my efforts to clients with whom I choose to work, in order to offer each of them consistent, concierge-style legal advice.
Ritcey-Donohue: The financial upside of elite global firms is tremendous. The quality of lawyering at these firms is unsurpassed, and the intellectual and professional challenges in helping super smart clients are unparalleled. When someone knew that I was a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, for instance, there was instant cache and no need for explanation of my bona fides. It was difficult to take a leap away from all the benefits.
Hoey: Did you face naysayers or doubters on your decision? How did you overcome that?
Ritcey-Donohue: I don’t remember any. Maybe I chose to block them out, but really I remember being surrounded by a vast sea of encouragement and support. Prior to launching my firm, I talked with family members, friends and colleagues. I had innumerable lunches, drinks, dinners, coffees and phone calls. I admit there were some who said “wow, you are really brave, I could never go out on my own like that” with that look on their face that you knew sort of meant “wow, are you sure you know what you are doing??!!” When I would have moments of panic, I would go back to the touchstones of what was driving my decision and why it made so much, before plunging on.
Hoey: Starting is often the biggest obstacle . Where did you start once you’d made the decision to strike out on your own?
Ritcey-Donohue: Once I had a clear mission and vision of my business model, I plotted out all the how-to’s of setting up a small legal practice. I bent the ear of friends who had started firms. They generously shared their experiences to get me further and faster up the learning. I set up appointments to interview service providers, such as web masters, office leasing companies, accountants and IT companies, using referrals from law school friends. One by one, the pieces started to move into place, which increased my confidence to continue forward.
Hoey: What are some of the unexpected things you needed to navigate?
Ritcey-Donohue: I had worked in not just large, but huge enterprises for my entire professional life (the US Congress, the United Nations, a top global public relations firm, and elite global law firms). I had to figure out how to make “me, myself and I,” my own business.
Hoey: Do you have any tips for others who may be on the fence as to whether to leave the security of employment for entrepreneurship?
Ritcey-Donohue: It sounds so cliché, but in order to make that shift you absolutely have to listen to your heart and believe what it is saying. The intellectual part is easier, it’s about applying your accumulated knowledge and skills that have made you a successful employee, in order to become a successful entrepreneur . But the heart’s promptings are where your guts come from to keep you going in the face of fear and setbacks.
Hoey: What were the ways you positioned yourself for starting your own firm, while you were still working?
Ritcey-Donohue: I made a concerted effort to carve time out to focus on individual clients with whom I had a valued relationship. Global elite law firm practice inherently involves many “pulls” on your time, only some of which relate to client service. Once I had decided to make the leap, I made sure my priorities were oriented toward providing the best client service and quality legal advice possible. I hoped (and believed) that I could continue at least some of those relationships once I established my own firm. I also finally jumped on social media by creating my profile LinkedIn (and began actually using the platform).
Hoey: How did you go about communicating the move to your colleagues, clients and extended networks?
Ritcey-Donohue: The last day at Kirkland & Ellis, I sent a heartfelt message to my colleagues – and included my website link! I took a self-styled sabbatical for July and August, and in September, once in my new office, I started reaching out to clients and colleagues to let them know I was back in business. I made phone calls, reached out by e-mail and substantive client alert newsletters. I used LinkedIn to communicate with my network. I also reached out to media contacts who had published my articles when I was at big law firms, to let them know of my change in status and to send them new articles.
Hoey: With all that is involved in running your own firm, how are you growing the business and not just getting bogged down in the day-to-day?
Ritcey-Donohue: What seems to have paid off so far are the relentlessly focused hours of admin, ahead of setting up my own firm (including setting aside two weeks for administrative set-up once I was in my new office space without pressuring myself to be doing “real work”). Toward the end of those two weeks, I began reaching out to people to let them know I was opening my doors. Since that set-up period, I have been able to focus on staying up with relevant legal developments and connecting with people, and that’s really my business in a nutshell – relationships and helping people that I care about, solving their problems.