Pamela Slim, Consultant & Author on Decisionmaking for Entrepreneurs & Second Careerists
After a successful career ranging from the public to private sector, in organizational development and training, Pam left the corporate world to become an entrepreneur and small business coach and consultant. Her book and blog: Escape from Cubicle Nation and her years of experience consulting and coaching, lled her to open her own business incubator in Mesa, AZ, where she lives. Pam shared some of her insights regarding important considerations for entrepreneurs as they embark on starting a business and her thoughts about sustainability for small businesses.
Pam, can you tell me a bit about your background?
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in a little town called San Anselmo. I lived there in the same house for the first 16 years of my life and decided to become an exchange student in my last year of high school. I went to Switzerland — that was really significant in terms of giving me exposure to people from different countries around the world – from Africa, South America, all over Europe — it really opened my eyes, giving me a global perspective. From there, I ended up going to a really small college where there was an international focus.
I spent my sophomore year in Mexico and my senior year in Bogota, Colombia. That really became a huge thread of what has been a continual fascination with people from around the world, with diversity inclusion, otherness, difference, privilege… and with how we are raised in social constructs and how it is that we interact together in community. My passionate interest was in Economic Development in Latin America and, when I got in country, I found philosophically and, from a values perspective, that I admired grassroots development. I didn’t like the model of expats coming in country and telling people what to do. It seemed that It was just repeating a lot of the same problems that were there in the first place.
What did you decide to do?
I decided that I really didn’t want to be an expatriate aid worker and I started a career path in nonprofit development, working for a foundation. I worked for the Exploratorium, an art and science museum, and then began to get connected more with the world of training and development and found that there were interesting cross-sections between looking at how communities develop and how people were in organizations. It was this whole exploration of the field of understanding how organizations grow and how people interact in work environments. So that led me to finally leave corporate life in order to start a consulting business about 21 years ago. People assume that I hated corporate life, I didn’t. I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve done in different work modes. I’ve always had a really deep understanding and connection with the experience that people had working in corporations.
And, yet you left corporate life.
Yes, I’d been working as the Director at Barclays Global Investors in San Francisco and really enjoyed it. It’s very challenging to be in the corporate environment, especially for people who might have interesting new ideas, who want more flexibility in their work lives, who want to see more impact from their efforts. So, in 2005 I started the Escape from Cubicle Nation blog and I started working with people who were leaving the corporate life to start businesses. I did that intensively for about 12 years, working with many thousands of people indirectly, and with hundreds of people one on one. That really connected me with this amazing small business and entrepreneur environment. I just kept writing and creating workshops and content around that. Then a year ago, I opened up a small business incubator in downtown Mesa, Arizona. So I extended that interaction and community building here in my own hometown.
Pam, what is your advice to those embarking on the journey to figure out what business to start?
It first takes some analysis – of who you really are, your skills and strengths, what kind of interests you have, what areas that you are really passionate about. You should have a clear understanding of the market you are passionate about serving. Sometimes it’s hard to manufacture a really brilliant business idea – a world-changing idea that comes in the shower and then all of a sudden, you want to make it happen. That’s where you often need to make sure that you really have a market.
For some people, when they have an idea that’s searching for a market, they sometimes stumble because they get so passionate about what they want to create that they get blinded and forget that there has to be a market for what they’re creating. They have to address the question, “Is anyone going to pay for that thing?”
I see many people struggle with trying to think about the big idea, that big capital “I”, where it seems like a one-time thing. It’s really a matter of iteration. Business ideas go through a lot of different revisions. Some things are going to be really great and some things you’re going to scrap, but you need to start somewhere with small iterative steps.
For other people, they don’t have the blinding insight of a big idea; for them, it’s more backing into an understanding of what they want to do. What is a community that you are passionate about serving? Then you have to figure out what specific challenges is your community facing that you could help solve and that you can get passionate about. That can sometimes give you an idea. That’s one side of it.
Still another approach for people is to look at what the particular skills and strengths are that they have. For example, you think – you’ve always been a really good presenter and are also really interested in writing. So you could be interested in writing a book or having a speaking business. If that’s the case, where would you like to do that? Who would you like to work for, or would you like to be a freelancer?
Do you see value of embedding sustainability into the planning of a new business?
I do, based upon who the business owners are and what personal values that they hold. So for me, I was raised by an exceptionally community-minded pair of parents. My dad started the first curbside recycling program in California in 1971. So that’s always been a part of who I am and how I was raised. Those are values that I hold. Plus, my husband is Navajo, and has strong feelings, culturally and personally, about the importance of being a good steward of the earth – being kind to people and to the plants and animals here.
But because I’ve worked with so many different people, I see that everyone has different primary values. So if we’re talking about triple bottom line, to whom and according to what? I’ve had a lot of conversations with friends here from Local First, an organization that focuses a lot on supporting local businesses. They have a sustainability arm in which they are helping business of all kinds conduct sustainability assessments.
When you think about business structure and certification and deciding to become, for example, a B-corps – to be officially certified as a social enterprise – that can be a decision based on the interests and resources of the owner. Interestingly to me, it hits on an element of sustainability that has more to do with economic class or racial background and the opportunities people may have. It can be expensive to set up a business that needs to put in place the steps to meet some of the rigorous requirements to get officially certified. I don’t mean just for the process and the paperwork that people go through, but also for producing the kind of information that needs to be reviewed by the certification body. But it’s been interesting to me, working with so many people from different backgrounds, to realize that sometimes it’s a privilege to have the resources to be going through a particular type of sustainability certification.
Yes, I agree that certifications can be expensive. Although, businesses don’t need to achieve a particular certification to become more sustainable, even though the certification itself is often what is the signal to customers and markets that a business is sustainable.
Another choice that may be more cost-effective and equally valuable is to just embed sustainability into the business, which sometimes saves money. Or, a business can develop truly sustainable products and services without certification and then clearly and authentically communicate that to the company’s stakeholders – customers, investors, employees, the public – and that can also be a winning business strategy.
It’s a fascinating part of how we understand how businesses can be more ethical and sustainable and cause no harm, which is why I think it’s fantastic that there are resources like those that you’re providing at Scale it Up! Sustainability and like Local First here in Arizona is providing.
Pamela Slim’s website is filled with great resources for entrepreneurs and her books and requests for consulting services can be found here as well. Here’s the link: