Self-proclaimed “serial entrepreneur”, angel investor, mentor, radio personality and philanthropist, Liz Hamburg is one busy woman you should know. Founder and President of Upstart Ventures, Liz has consulted with and incubated many start-ups including her latest venture, ApplyWise, an online college admissions counseling company. She is also the co-host of “Launchpad” a weekly radio segment on WOR radio, focusing on entrepreneurs and small businesses. Recently, some of our WYSK team members had the opportunity to meet Liz at a fundraising event for her latest project, Women’s Initiative for Self Employment, which provides high-potential, low-income women with training, funding and support to start their own businesses and become financially self sufficient.
Earlier in her career Liz was Chairman and Founder of Hypnotic, a broadband content and branded entertainment company and was one of the founding managers and Director of the Board of Vimpel Communications (NYSE:VIP), the leading cellular company in Russia. Highlights of her international experience include launching new products for Reuters Tokyo and Fujisankei Communications, one of Japan’s largest media conglomerates, where she worked on the first international television home shopping show and played a leading role in the introduction of some of Fuji’s Nintendo game software into the U.S.
Recently, we had the opportunity to sit with Liz to talk about her passion for business and for giving back.
10 Questions With Liz Hamburg
WYSK: You refer to yourself as a “serial entrepreneur”, what’s the allure, as opposed to sticking with one field/business and running with it?
LH: I love the early stage of a business. It’s like a big puzzle to me – you have to put all the pieces in place and figure out how everything is going to work together. Maybe it’s because I get bored easily – I love new challenges!
WYSK:What is the first business that you founded? Is it still running today?
LH: The first business that I helped to start was a division of a large Japanese media company that became one of the first licensees for Nintendo in the US. That is still up and running. After business school, I co-founded a market entry strategy consulting firm called Maestro where we helped U.S. companies get into foreign markets and international companies enter the U.S. market. We brought the first Japanese made Merlot wine into the U.S.! We closed the consulting firm when one of the partners and I went on to work on the cellular telecom business.
WYSK:With all of the businesses that you have started, is there one that stands out to you as the most rewarding and/or exciting?
LH: Definitely my experience as part of the founding management team of VimpelCom is one of the highlights of my career. We were a small team of people that built what is today one of the largest cellular phone operators in Russia (and they’ve since expanded to other countries as well). We raised some of the first private equity money in Russia and became the first Russian company listed on the NYSE. I was so proud to help create one of the most recognized brand names in Russia (Beeline) and help train an amazing group of former military defense guys how to do everything from marketing, business planning to customer service.
WYSK:Ok, so you were a founding manager and Director of the Board of a leading cellular company in Russia, worked on the first international television home shopping show and played a leading role in the introduction of some of Nintendo’s games in the U.S….Business and tech… two very male dominated industries, did you experience any sexism in the workplace, if so, how did you handle it?
LH: I had two strikes against me – I was young and a woman working in Russia and Japan, two cultures that some would call sexist and in male dominated industries. In both cases though, I was treated with a tremendous amount of respect. I think it was because I made a big effort to try and fit in and be sensitive to their culture. I spoke Japanese well enough to do business and go out socially and I think they thought I was such a strange character – this tall, Japanese speaking American — they kind of forgot I was a woman and just put me in this “other” category! In Russia, my colleagues were extremely welcoming because I was able to share my expertise with them and they were so hungry to learn Western business practices that it was irrelevant that I was a woman. There were definitely times that I had to be “one of the guys” and go out drinking and joking around, which is something that I probably would not have put up with as much in an American company.
WYSK:How did you come to develop the radio show, “Launchpad”… did you ever think you would be on the radio, or as the daughter of renowned radio personality, Joan Hamburg, was it fait accompli?
LH: It started very organically. My mother Joan has been on WOR radio for many years. When I was living abroad, I would call in with reports about what was going on in Russia. It was a time of the coups, new elections and lots of excitement. When I moved back to New York, I was young and single and rediscovering the city through new eyes since I’d lived away for 7 years. I started doing a segment called “NY Uncovered”. But, the listeners knew that I was an entrepreneur. So, they would call in with questions. We started doing a segment about entrepreneurs and small business and got an amazing response, so we kept going. It’s been about ten years now.
WYSK:Tell us about your newest charitable project, Women’s Initiative for Self Employment.
LH: I’m so excited to be involved with the Women’s Initiative for Self Employment. They are one of the largest domestic micro-enterprise training organizations. They’ve been operating in San Francisco for 25 years, and now they are expanding nationally to New York. They provide a winning combination of training, access to capital through micro-loans and on-going support through mentoring and networking to help low income women start and grow their businesses. Their results are remarkable.
70% of their graduates are in business 5 years out and they each create 2.5 jobs on average. Last year in CA alone, they created and retained over 5,500 jobs! I’m chairing their New York board and it’s like running a startup. I’ve been involved in all aspects of getting them up and running here from building a board, finding partners, raising money and helping to launch classes. I’m proud to say we have put over 170 women through our workshop already and launched our first two 11 week classes, which are like mini-MBAs. We believe that the Women’s Initiative can have a significant impact in New York, creating businesses that will support women and their families and communities and help create jobs in New York.
WYSK:What are some lessons you have learned throughout your career? Would you do anything differently?
LH: I think there’s a new culture now of “fast failure” which is great. I think I tend to not want to give up on things that aren’t working and hold on to them for too long. It’s a balancing act for an entrepreneur to know when to persevere and when to “pivot”- either tweak the business model or fold up the tent and try something new. The good news is that now it’s a lot less expensive to build technology to try things out.
WYSK:What are the top three tips that you would you give to a woman who is interested in starting a business?
Don’t be afraid to ask
Know your numbers
Don’t take failure personally
WYSK:Over the course of your career, is there a woman who has inspired you?
LH: There have been so many people along the way, but I would have to say my mother. She always had a career and made the “balancing act” look effortless. My mom has made a career out of helping people – everyone from strangers to family and friends. Even when she is facing a challenge – whether personal or professional, she always taught us to use “two positives and then a negative” with people to get what you want!
WYSK:What’s next for you?
That’s a great question. As an entrepreneur, I’m always thinking about the next new opportunity. I’m starting to do more and more work with social entrepreneurs. Many of the businesses that I’ve been involved with have had a “social impact” including the cellular phone company in Russia and my current educational software company, ApplyWise, which is bringing affordable education online. I think that there is a big opportunity to solve social problems and make an impact using a combination of for profit and non-profit business. I’ve been thinking a lot about that and we’ll see where that takes me.
Learn more about Women’s Initiative for Self Employment:
More about Liz
Liz received an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management and a B.A. from Brown University. In addition to being the Chairman of the NY Advisory Board of the Women’s Initiative, Liz is also the President of the Advisory Board of the Brown University Entrepreneurs Program, a member of the New York advisory board of Astia and a member of the Advisory Panel of the Columbia Business School’s Eugene Lang Entrepreneur Initiative Fund. Until July, 2010, she was a director of SafeSpace NYC where she was the longest standing board member, serving for over 12 years. She is a frequent lecturer on topics concerning entrepreneurs and women-owned businesses and also blogs about small business for the Huffington Post. She is New York’s 2009 SBA Small Business Journalist of the Year.