In our Women in Business series, female CEOs and business leaders share their stories and weigh in on the challenges they face as women in their industries. In this installment, Felena Hanson talks about reinvention and how she started her business. Hanson is the founder of Hera Hub, a company that provides flexible, shared work spaces for female entrepreneurs, fostering a supportive community to help women launch and grow their own businesses and hold meetings and events.
Business News Daily: Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
Felena Hanson: My background is in marketing. I spent the first nine years of my career working in, initially, sales, but mostly marketing for smaller companies, mostly startups. And that led to a bit of a tumultuous career path early on. I got laid off three times by the age of 30. Two companies sold, and one basically ran out of money, so my career didn't get off to the best start, but that's kind of par for the course when you're working in the startup world. Especially in marketing, you know, a company sells, and they only take the engineers and not the marketing team.
Right after college, I got hit by a fire truck and broke 27 bones in my arms, legs and face, so that coupled with three layoffs in my 20s and a pretty bad divorce at age 30 was what I kind of define as my reinvention, so to speak. And I think that resonates with a lot of women, in particular, whether you're in business or not — there's a lot that goes on in one's life that requires you to reinvent yourself on some level. I've been an entrepreneur since I was 30, and I feel like, to some extent, all of that built the resilience I needed to be an entrepreneur. Part of being an entrepreneur is being able to pick yourself back up after you've fallen down.
BND: When did you start Hera Hub?
Hanson: It'll be five years this fall in August at our first location.
BND: You went through a lot of changes before you started your business, but was starting a business something you always had in mind as a goal down the road, or was it something that just sort of happened?
Hanson: It was definitely something that was always on my radar. My parents were entrepreneurs. In all truth, my junior year of high school, my dad said, "I've got some money saved. You can either start a business, you can go to college, or you can put a down payment on a house. It's totally up to you." So it definitely was instilled in me at a young age that being an entrepreneur was probably going to be part of my path at some point. But I was also smart enough at that time to know that I needed a little bit of experience and education to go start my business. There are certainly a number of people that get out of school and start a business right away, which is great. I just probably wasn't as confident as some of those people. And I think, for me, it was also good to go and learn on someone else's dime, so to speak, about business.
My first entrepreneurial path was probably like [it is for] a lot of women — I started a service-based business. I took my experience in marketing and collaboration and building partnerships, and turned it into a business, which was cheap and easy and something I could do out of my home without much capital investment. I did that for eight years. The company was called Perspective Marketing. It was that business, and also getting pretty involved in the female entrepreneurial community in San Diego, that actually led me to launch Hera Hub. I saw the need in the market — not only my need, but the needs of hundreds of other women that I was working with — to have a very flexible space that would give them a professional presence for their business, but more importantly, a sense of community and support.
It's hard to build a successful business, and you need as much support and community around you as possible to do that. I think a lot of women feel like they should know everything, like they shouldn't have to ask for help, and that's totally the opposite of the truth. We need to be surrounding ourselves with people that can support and help us, and build that community together. And most co-working spaces, even still today, are pretty male-dominated, to be blunt. Maybe "dominated" isn't the right word, but co-working has really grown out of the tech sector, and tech is predominantly male. I'm sure you've been to co-working spaces where you walk in and there are just a bunch of dudes in hooded sweatshirts and headphones, and there are two ends of the spectrum: It's either quiet enough to hear a pin drop and everyone's just got their heads down coding, or it's like a frat house with so much noise and so much going on that you can't even concentrate.
I was also running a couple of professional women's organizations at the time, and I really struggled to find space for events and workshops and things that I was doing. I saw the movement in the co-working shared-workspace model, but not targeted to who I was or who my community was, so I went and built it.
BND: So, your business is all about supporting entrepreneurial women. Why do you think it's so important to support women specifically?
Hanson: It's not that we don't support men — what we say is, we're female-focused. We do have several male members, and we have men in the space on a daily basis. But it's about creating an environment that is attractive to women, and that's where the spa-inspired workspace really came from. It's not only about the physical space. It extends far beyond that into the program and the curriculum and the events that we have here that allow people to be very open about their business and the challenges they're having in their business, to be very transparent and ask the tough questions that they may not ask in environments where they don't feel 100 percent safe or supported. Not that there's a concern about safety per se, but safe from the perspective a lot of women have that, again, they have to know everything and shouldn't have to ask, feeling like they should've learned everything in their MBA class. But you're not always going to learn everything, and it's OK to not know everything in business. You're never going to. You're always going to be pivoting.
BND: You said that your experiences shaped how you started your business. Do you feel like you've faced challenges such as sexism or other similar issues just by being a woman in the business world?
Hanson: Not per se. I've talked to hundreds of women who have. I hear it a lot, especially from women in tech sectors and women who are pitching for angel or venture capital. Personally, beyond the normal — you know, what probably every woman goes through in their 20s, like getting hit on by a superior or joking around in situations — no, I've never had that. I didn't build the business because I faced sexism. It's not even about sexism. It's about creating an environment that's attractive to women. And we do have men who come into the community who are supportive of women and are champions for women, and we want them to be a part of the conversation, too.
BND: Can you tell me more about the challenges you faced when you were starting your business?
Hanson: A couple of key things — the biggest one was commercial real estate. It was a new business and a relatively new concept at the time, since this was five or six years ago, when co-working wasn't quite as popular, and it's certainly gained popularity since then. I got patted on the head more than a few times by older gentlemen in the commercial real-estate industry. They just didn't want to take a risk — again, it was a new business, a new model, and I think some of them just didn't understand, wondering, "Why would you create a work space for women?" They just didn't understand what I was trying to do, and it was a huge issue. I went through two failed lease negotiations that I spent months and months and months on, only to have them fall apart in the 11th hour. I really thought I wasn't even going to be able to get one location open. It was really, really tough.
The only other thing came on as we grew. It was just knowing what model to use to expand the business. We initially went down the path of franchising, and it just didn't end up being a good fit for us, because it's so cookie-cutter. It didn't attract the market that we're talking to, and it's more of a hands-off model for a lot of people looking to invest in a franchise, so we really had to pivot and learn what it would take to replicate our model in other cities.
BND: Who would you say are your biggest female role models?
Hanson: One woman who comes to mind who has been a big champion and taught me so, so much is Linda Lattimore. I have a book that's being published on Amazon in the next few weeks — "Flight Club – Rebel, Reinvent & Thrive: How to Launch Your Dream Business" — and I talk about Linda quite a bit in it. I met her pretty much right after I started my first business, and she taught me so much. No. 1 — I always attribute this to her — the idea of "fake it until you make it." Not that she faked it, but I did, in just a simple game of golf. She asked me if I golfed, and I said yes, and I didn't, but it made me show up and allowed me to meet amazing women through an organization she put together called Women's Global Network that was focused on helping women in developing nations start a business with microcredit loans.
Linda really taught me what it meant to lead and what it meant to collaborate and bring people together, and I ended up running that organization in San Diego for several years and went on to run another organization, called Ladies Who Launch. That first initial meeting with Linda really inspired so much for me, to learn to be a leader and lead this organization of women when I didn't feel like I was ready. To be honest, when she asked me [to lead the group], I was like, "Uh, me? Really?" But that taught me so much, and that opportunity is one of the main reasons I launched Hera Hub.
BND: Do you have any advice for other aspiring female CEOs and entrepreneurs?
Hanson: Lots! I'd say the first thing is not being so hard on yourself if something doesn't go exactly the way you want. Even growing up in an entrepreneurial family and getting a business degree and even an MBA, it either isn't taught or it's not taught well enough that you're going to be constantly reinventing. I think a lot of what's taught is that you build a business plan and you go execute, but there are micro pivots and micro failures that are happening, sometimes it feels like, 10 times a day. And it's easy to get discouraged, especially if you don't have a good team, or in the early days when it's just you. So find a community — whatever that is, however that is — if you're an entrepreneur.
It's different if you step into the role of CEO at a company that's already functioning. It's very different to start something from scratch at your dining room table with an idea and to bring that to market and make it successful. It's hard, and I think women, especially, we just do not give ourselves enough credit. We're too hard on ourselves, and we don't take credit even when credit is due, and we're balancing so much in life—some men are too, but especially women — we're saying yes to everything and balancing a lot and still not giving ourselves credit.