To kick things off, can you tell us a little about yourself and your business journey?
Lucie: For the past 6 years, I have lived in San Francisco and worked for various startups. I tend to think of myself as a sponge, who has been experiencing the startup world and absorbing what it takes to start and grow a company. After a few years in marketing, I made a career pivot and decided to become a UX designer. This helped me gain experience in creating products that solve a person’s problems or fulfill their needs. When I dove into my entrepreneurial journey 3 years ago, I was treating it just like any other design sprint. I always wanted to start a business, but like many others, I didn’t know what to focus on. As a first-time founder, I wanted to be solving problems that I personally had, because that way I felt more connected to the company’s purpose. I wanted to devote my time to something I truly believe in. One of the issues I have faced in the US, and back in the Czech Republic, is not having a diverse network of people, with whom I could have inspiring conversations about professional topics. And that’s how the idea for a networking platform for women was born. Over time, feedback from our early adopters helped us shape the Femme Palette product into what it is now: 1:1 professional career support from a mentor.
It hasn't been that long since you returned to the Czech Republic from San Francisco after a few years. It is a well-known fact that women's rights in the United States is a highly addressed issue. What is your view on the current situation of women in the Czech business scene compared to the USA?
Lucie: I think in the US, companies are more aware of the issue of the lack of diversity in leadership positions and are trying to do something about it. It’s very expensive to retain and attract talent in Silicon Valley since there are so many top tech companies, so every company needs to do something about diversity and inclusion. I think in the Czech Republic we’re slowly starting to move on this, but it’s still not a priority for many companies. It’s great that people have started talking about gender equality here, and there are other organizations like ours that are trying to make this a standard conversation in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, in the business arena, there aren’t that many female startup founders here – but it’s not much better in the US where only 3% of overall venture capital in 2019 went towards companies with female-only founders.
Together with Klára Holíková, you founded a platform that helps women in business. How did you come up with the name Femme Palette and what activities do you focus on?
Lucie: When I first decided to work on this side project (because that’s what it was at the time!), I was thinking about different ways to symbolize what we were trying to achieve, which at the time was bringing women together. Our belief is that if women come together, support each other, and motivate each other, something beautiful can happen. And that’s where the symbol of the palette came in. The palette is a place where an artist mixes different colors to create a beautiful painting. Similarly, we were hoping to have women connect and mix to result in something wonderful. As I mentioned before, our original idea was to create a networking platform for women. Over time, we continued to listen to what our members were struggling with and improved our offering based on this input. Now we’re focusing more on professional development through a 1:1 approach – in our case mentoring, and now coaching too. We want to help women grow in their careers by connecting them with people who were once in their shoes and are eager to share their experience and help others. When more experienced people help those who are treating the same path, we believe that it really spurs industry and innovation even faster. Currently, our main focus is to get companies to invest in development of their talent and offer mentoring as a company benefit. Mentoring has a tremendous impact not only on the individual being mentored, but also on the company at large due to ripple effects. The better and more productive people a company has, the better the company’s results. And investing in employees is a sign that a company truly cares about the well-being and development of their employees. So it’s really a win-win situation.
What was the biggest challenge when starting out?
Lucie: This one is tough. There were so many challenges at the beginning – from learning how to work remotely in a team spread throughout different time zones, to not being present at the events that were the result of our hard work. I had FOMO (fear of missing out) many times! Since I was still employed in San Francisco, another challenge for me was to learn how to draw a line between my full-time job and Femme Palette. When you are passionate about your project, you want to work on it all the time, so it was hard to turn-off between the two jobs. However, as time passed, I started incorporating what I learned from running a business and creating a community into my day job, and vice versa, so everything started to feel more connected, and I was also more productive on both sides.
In the podcast for CzechCrunch, you mentioned that you were planning an expansion to London, but because of the pandemic your plans didn't work out. What are your goals for the future?
Lucie: We actually did expand to London, but we changed our approach. Our business is set up in such a way that anyone in the world can apply to our programs. Currently, mentoring is done only remotely, and everything we do is in English to increase accessibility and ideally reduce the language barrier for the rest of the world. This year, we’re planning to keep growing the London mentee and mentor base, and for the countries that were next on our international expansion list, we’ll hold off until the Covid situation gets better. Instead, we’ll be exploring how we can help companies in the Czech Republic with their talent development, and diversity and inclusion efforts.
Doing business is challenging and sometimes takes a lot of time. How do you manage to balance between work and personal life?
Lucie: Not well! I am a bit of a workaholic, and many times my zen time is with my computer in my hands. I am still learning how to unplug and focus on myself. My dream is to be able to add exercising and meditation more regularly into my daily routine, but for now, I have been prioritizing work over myself a bit more than I’d like to ideally. Luckily, I have a french bulldog, Spike, who I love and who keeps me on my toes, so I get to spend time outdoors on a regular basis.
Finally, what advice would you give to women who are at the beginning of their career journey or want to start their own business?
Lucie: I have so many thoughts! Mostly based on my personal experience. I wish it didn’t take me so long to figure these out on my own. For women who are in the early stages of their career, I have the following advice:
- Learn how to play the workplace game. Every company has some rules, and strategies that people follow. Stop thinking that the workplace is not a game. Hard work alone won’t get you places, so you have to be more strategic. Build relationships with people around you, like your manager, or find a sponsor (someone who is invested in ensuring you develop and grow, and will advocate for you). You will need someone to lobby for you behind closed doors.
- Set your professional growth plan with your manager. Make sure you have a clear career trajectory, ensure you know what will get you to the next level in your role, and constantly check in with your manager regarding how you are developing. This way, you are taking charge of your career as your responsibility: you know what you have to demonstrate and achieve, and you’re constantly growing in your role. Don’t wait for someone to just automatically recognize your hard work, but instead work strategically.
- Ask for what you want. Whether it’s a promotion or a raise, just ask for what you think you deserve or want. Many women avoid having these conversations because they don’t want to be perceived as ungrateful, or greedy, or needy by management, and therefore many times women tend to wait to be rewarded. Learn how to negotiate and have difficult conversations sooner rather than later. It’s harder to negotiate more money when you are already hired, so do it at the time of your initial offer. And one last thing -- always ask for 20% more than what you think you are worth, because women tend to undervalue themselves.
For women who want to start their own business, I’d say “Find what you are passionate about and just do it”. Your business will become a big part of your life, so you should be solving something that you truly believe in, and really enjoy the process of building things. You can start step by step, create an MVP (minimum viable product), test it out, iterate. If it doesn’t work out, find out why and fix it. Don’t give up if you don’t succeed right away. Entrepreneurship is a long journey and you have to be resilient.