How Your Day Job Helps You Reach Your Dream

“Keep your paying job as long as you can because that steady income can fund your dream.”

Melissa Heisey, founder of Angel’s Retreat

As long as I have known Melissa Heisey, she has been passionate about animals. Melissa and I worked together at Chase Card Services where she served as the finance lead for my card programs. She then joined Synchrony Financial where she took on increasing levels of responsibility.

But even while she was excelling in her career and earning a good income, Melissa was immersing herself in the business of caring for homeless dogs. “I always felt the need to do something meaningful in the world,” says Melissa. “I didn’t want people to remember me as just someone who was good at numbers.”

Melissa Heisey

It wasn’t long before Melissa began preparing to realize her dream of opening her own animal shelter. That dream came true last year, and today Melissa is the founder and Executive Director of Angel’s Retreat, a shelter focusing on older, hard to adopt dogs based in West Chester, Pa.

How did Melissa get from finance to her dream job? “I basically worked two jobs,” says Melissa. “While I was earning an income at Chase and Synchrony, I was spending my free hours as a volunteer with a local animal shelter.”

During this time as a volunteer, she learned every aspect of running a shelter, volunteering for every type of role from shelter management to fundraising and media outreach. Melissa’s years of volunteering also gave her the critical relationships she needed with partner shelters, veterinarians and volunteers to ensure her own shelter’s success.

“Working at Animal Haven was a wonderful learning experience for me. The Executive Director of Animal Haven became a real mentor, patiently answering all my questions as I learned the business. And she continues to be an important advisor to me today as I establish my own shelter.”

Melissa also took advantage of having a steady paycheck to cover the upfront expenses of setting up the shelter. “It’s a lot easier to pay for all the startup expenses like legal fees to become a 501(c)(3) non-profit, purchasing the necessary real estate and other costs when you have the income to pay the bills,” notes Melissa. By investing in her future business while continuing to work at her finance job, Melissa was able to hit the ground running when she finally took the leap and opened Angel’s Retreat. “Doing all the upfront work while I was still employed not only made paying the bills easier, it also meant that I didn’t lose time setting up my business once my income stopped.”

It doesn’t matter whether you are launching a for-profit or non-profit business, it takes knowledge, money and planning to make your vision a reality. “Going out on my own was tough, but I took the time to prepare,” says Melissa. “It’s hard to work on your long-term goal while holding a challenging job, but it’s worth it because you can hit the ground running once you decide to leave your job to launch your business. I have no regrets.” To learn more about Angel’s Retreat, go to

Copyright© 2020 Emelie Smith Calbick and Betty Wong

Does Experience Make You Smarter?

Knowing an industry through years of experience gives founders an added advantage.

Every founder can benefit from industry experience, but some industries require more experience than others to achieve success. Richard Russo’s biotechnology company, Endomedix, has created a “biomaterial technology platform” that has the potential to impact the lives of millions of people. While this revolutionary technology platform, which is based on sugars, seems like science fiction, there are already 9 issued patents using this platform for a broad array of uses, including neurosurgery and ocular battlefield trauma.  It’s truly science-fiction moving into “real life.”

Richard Russo

Success though was not a given. Richard was recruited to Endomedix by the co-founders to help turnaround the struggling company. His long experience in the med-tech space (working for major companies, such as CR Bard and American Sterilizer, as well as startup firms) along with his years working with Food and Drug Administration regulators positioned him well to meet the challenge. But Richard freely admits that mistakes were made, and Endomedix needed to pivot several times to develop a new game changer product for large, underserved markets.

Ultimately, Richard shifted Endomedix from a licensing technology model to a product development model.  Richard notes,“This strategy offers a much greater return but requires a certain risk and time tolerance that not everyone has. Most new products in the life sciences/med-tech field are incremental improvements to existing products, with quicker entry to market and lower capital requirements. We decided to go after a significant disruptive change, addressing change that has not been done in over 75 years.” 

The success of this higher risk/return strategy depends on Richard’s extensive knowledge and experience in the life sciences. Richard guides his team to work on solutions that will be both fundable and marketable and that will pass regulatory scrutiny. His years of working with doctors and attending conferences has paid off both in his promotion strategy (finding surgeon-collaborators willing to work with his product) as well as identifying the right milestones and getting into the right places to pitch funders and clients.

Reflecting back as an entrepreneur, Richard acknowledges that understanding the industry and how it works is the key to success for startup leaders in healthcare and especially medtech. “Bio-medtech requires more than just understanding technology.  Your product will impact people’s lives – mistakes matter so you have to know the product is right before you go to market. You can’t launch and improve the product on the fly. Lean startup is not an option here. That’s why entrepreneurs have to have experience to launch a company in the life sciences.”

While the bio-medtech industry is highly regulated with specific requirements, every industry has its own quirks, requirements and even language. Knowing an industry through years of experience gives the “older” founder a decided advantage when launching their business – just one reason why startups founded by older entrepreneurs who have been tested by experience have a significantly higher success rate. 

To learn more about Richard and Endomedix, go to

When Success Isn’t A Straight Line

“I learned the business you are in isn’t always obvious when you start out”

Adam Greene, Founder of Klaatch

Inspiration for a new business can come from anywhere.  For Adam Greene, co-founder of Klaatch, it came because of his father.  After Adam’s mother died, Adam watched his father’s health deteriorate; he was sure loneliness was a major factor. This belief was validated when Adam’s research confirmed that loneliness has an enormous impact on a person’s physical and mental health. That got Adam thinking. “Since loneliness can change people’s behavior, I wondered whether solving loneliness could change them back,” says Adam. “I wanted to learn more and find solutions.”

Adam Greene

Adam had been an investment banker for 25 years and while he had experience as an entrepreneur, tackling loneliness was out of Adam’s area of expertise. Adam continued to do research and think about solutions, but it wasn’t until his father’s aide encouraged him to tackle this growing problem that he decided to act. That’s when Klaatch was born.

But deciding what Klaatch would ultimately be turned out not be so straight-forward. “What our initial vision was versus where we are today evolved over time,” says Adam.”We originally wanted to build a better program than what was currently available in the market.” So Klaatch initially created its own programming  focused on making it easier for older adults to keep their social circle vibrant and expanding by providing creative incentives for older people to stay social.  “As a mission-driven company, we wanted to provide a soup-to-nuts solution. But we learned that there is seldom one answer. Every organization we talked to required a different approach. It made it hard to explain our solution and scalability was impossible.”

So the team shifted its focus to measurement – how could Klaatch prove its program made a difference? They designed their own “Social Quotient” dashboard to quantify the impact of their programs on changes in loneliness and participants’ behaviors.

This led to a new business opportunity since, like Klaatch, everyone was struggling to develop a methodology to measure success. Klaatch found that while many of the organizations they talked to didn’t want new programs, they did want to measure the impact of their current programs. By building on their platform, Klaatch could meet this need.

“I originally thought we could be an integrated solution but soon found out that it wasn’t scalable or easy to deploy. By leveraging the platform and unique data sets we built for ourselves, we are now able to build custom dashboards for other organizations. This is not only scalable, it puts us in a stronger position to raise money,” notes Adam. Today, Klaatch offers both programming and analytics to healthcare organizations.

The path to a successful business is not always a straight one. As Adam notes, it isn’t always obvious what your business is when you start out.  But with persistence, flexibility and the willingness to listen to what the market is telling you, you can find your business opportunity.

To learn more about Klaatch and the great work Adam and his team are doing, go to

Copyright© 2020 Emelie Smith Calbick and Betty Wong

What Makes Me a Successful Entrepreneur

“To succeed, you need more than just a good idea.”

Rachel Roth, Serial Entrepreneur and founder of OperaNuts

Rachel Roth, founder and CEO of OperaNuts, is a true entrepreneur. Even as she was pursuing a successful career as a fashion marketing executive and journalist, she was always spotting market opportunities and creating products to meet consumer needs. “I had a great career at major fashion companies including Liz Claiborne and Ellen Tracy, but always hungered to do something on my own,” says Rachel. “I am a doer.”

Rachel Roth

Rachel’s love of good food and opera led to her first business at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. When she discovered that attendees were offered a limited menu of hot dogs and beans, she spotted an opportunity, and A Moveable Feast Picnics was born. Rachel ran her gourmet business for 8 years on the weekends while keeping her full-time job.  Then, after Rachel was diagnosed with high cholesterol, she created Rachel’s Guiltless Cakebreads, made with no butter, eggs, and sugar.  Today, Rachel is the founder and of OperaNuts, a delicious mix of dark chocolate and almonds coated in her own secret sea salt sauce.

We asked Rachel what she thinks has led to her success as an entrepreneur. Here are her thoughts:

While experience and enthusiasm remain important attributes for any entrepreneur, in today’s world founders must also be tech savvy. “I knew marketing and merchandising, and I had experience in the food business, but today’s technology is different,” says Rachel. “I knew I needed help if I was going to make OperaNuts a success.” So Rachel went to New York Cares, where she was paired with a volunteer tutor who helped her become adept at using technology to promote her business. Today, Rachel leverages her website, email communications and social media presence to promote and sell her product.  

It’s not enough to have a good idea. Success requires patience and a lot of legwork. Rachel started small, testing her product with a few people at a time as she worked to find the best ingredients and the perfect recipe. She brought her nuts to dinners with friends and gave samples to people she knew. For example, she asked her hairdresser to try her nuts. He liked them so much he agreed to sell them in his shop for the Christmas season. Another friend who worked at Williams Sonoma asked her to participate in their Artisan’s Market held in January. “I spent 2 months scrambling to promote the event and sold out. Now, I sell OperaNuts at pop-up shops in Williams Sonoma, West Elm and Kiehl’s. We also ship to 44 states and the UK, Denmark, France, Spain, and Australia.”

Starting a business is like having a baby. It takes time and you have to be willing to sacrifice other things. “People don’t always understand what it takes to make a business successful. It took 2 years for me to perfect my product and get people to buy it,” says Rachel. Rachel also notes that you need to understand your customer and to keep an eye at all times on the competition.  “I was always thinking about my business – how to improve my product, how to increase my orders.  And I gave up other activities like going to movies or reading books because I wanted to work on ensuring my business succeeded. I am lucky I have a great customer base. People wait for my nuts.  But it took a lot of hard work to get here.”

To learn more about Rachel’s story and to place your order for OperaNuts, go to

Copyright© 2020 Emelie Smith Calbick and Betty Wong

How to Pitch Your Company Better

“As someone who has pitched and both “embarrassed myself” as well as successfully convinced investors to invest in 2 of my companies, here are my observations from our January 16 Pitch Day.”

Betty Wong, serial entrepreneur and founder of Stage2 Startups

Sometimes you just have to “share your two cents!” At the January 16 pitch event hosted by Stage2Startups and Founders Live NYC, we had a standing-room only crowd practice their pitches. The  founders of the following companies presented – Wordy Toys (who “won” the audience selection), Inkondo, Skip the Layover, Chase & Pappi and Ad Salience. Precious Williams, the #killerpitchmaster, who supported herself through winning 13 pitch competitions and is currently a “pitch coach” and author, was also available with her insights. Here are my key takeaways:

January 16 Pitch Day Participants
  1. Have a clear “ask or call to action” along with how people can contact you at the end of your pitch. Regular Stage2Startups attendees may have noticed that I always announce the next event and send a follow-up “thank-you” email with a survey and contact information. This is the same idea – make sure you figure out a way for people to get in touch with you and give them something to do.
  2. Be as concise and to the point as you can…this is hard for founders because they are so invested in their idea and want to share everything about their concept. That’s why the 60 second (or in the case of Founders Live – 99 second) elevator pitch is magical – it really makes you focus. Note that in a recent Stage2Startups event, we had investors share their “brand” and the focus of their investments, and they had problems too, which is why …“practice does make perfect!”
  3. Have some statistics to support your opportunity or your proof of concept. Whether it’s explaining how much money you are saving or the size of your market (give those investors $ to dream of!), the mention of money helps potential investors and staffers to understand the opportunity. Basically, they want to know the market is big enough and your tests have not been limited to your friends and family.
  4. Play up your first to market differentiation or establish why you are unique among the competition. People like to know there is competition because it means there’s a market. But if you are first to market, you need to demonstrate what makes you different – and better. For example, before the Apple iPod there were lots of ways to record and create mixes of music, but the iPod was the first music recorder that was small, easy to use and visually attractive. 
  5. Make sure how you make money is obvious, otherwise it just takes away from the Q&A session. Sometimes founders get so focused on the product or the end results, they don’t think about the money. For most pitch competitions and investors, it’s all about the money!
  6. “Pitch as if your life depends on it” – this is definitely a “Precious Williams” concept, but I think the enthusiasm she is talking about really does come out if you focus your effort. Personally, I like to pitch when I’m hungry, as I know the reward will be available when I’m done. But enthusiasm is the key, because people like to feel you have the energy of your convictions. 
  7. Be yourself. I find that if I pitch in front of a crowd, I always freeze, but if I am in a conversation with others, I always get the time I need (hours of VC time), if not always the money. I think being personal counts, although some people are naturally out-going and they tend to benefit more when taking the stage. While I would love to be or have the energy of my friend, Precious Williams, I am actually just me, Betty Wong, and on my good days, I think I can get across my point as well as anybody.

Bottom line, being a founder requires a lot of different skills, but being able to clearly pitch “why you” to potential investors or customers is among the most important. 

For more information about Stage2Startups events, visit

For more information about Precious Williams, visit

For more information about Founders Live, visit

Copyright© 2020 Emelie Smith Calbick and Betty Wong

When You Have To Build It Yourself

“When I couldn’t gain entry into the coworking world as an employee, I decided to build my own space”

Felicia Rubinstein, founder, HAYVN

When you walk around HAYVN, you see Felicia Rubinstein’s vision in action. “I know how difficult it is to work out of your home,” says Felicia. “So I wanted to design a space where people can be highly productive on their own but also have the opportunity to interact and collaborate with others in a warm welcoming space.”  

Felicia Rubenstein

The space is open and inviting with a mix of private offices and collaboration spaces. And unlike most coworking spaces we’ve been to, this one offers a range of cultural, physical and business options to draw people in. 

HAYVN hosts many events and has strategic partnerships to provide programming in the fitness center downstairs. While we were at HAYVN, there was a workshop on SEO (search engine optimization marketing) and we overheard women excitedly discussing options to become a member of HAYVN. And Felicia is dreaming of someday offering after-school programs, babysitting and dog-sitting services as well as a host of other amenities.

Her inspiration came as she walked the streets of New York, thinking about what to do next, after her job ended at a SaaS company in NYC.  She thought the coworking industry would be interesting, and reached out to multiple companies. When she didn’t get any responses, she decided to do it herself. “I come from a long line of entrepreneurs so the idea of starting my own business was exciting,” says Felicia. “ You’ll find photographs on the conference room wall of my grandfather at aged 16, newly immigrated from Poland, with his tie business and later in his factory on the Lower East Side of New York for inspiration.” 

Her determination grew after she visited a variety of coworking spaces in the New York City and learned about the industry in FROM THE GWA  “Global Workspace Association ” Conference. She explored franchises but ultimately decided to pave her own road, getting an SBA loan to supplement her investment for startup capital. She then found a developer landlord who shared her vision, and in Spring 2019, HAYVN opened. 

Felicia is a woman who clearly thinks of everything, reflecting on what she would like and delivering it to the public, with plenty of marketing experience to make her space distinctive. Small wonder that when HAYVN opened on a rainy day in spring, 400 people attended. “It’s challenging to start your own business but it’s exciting to see your vision become reality.  When I looked at the market, I didn’t see anything that fully met my needs. By building it myself, I knew I could reach consumers who, like me, wanted a different coworking experience.”

Now, having launched HAYVN, Felicia is considering the possibility of  expanding HAYVN’s footprint, with more HAYVNs offering more women and men a space to work away from home that feels like “home.”

To learn more about the Hayvn, which is currently located in Darien, CT., visit

Copyright© 2020 Emelie Smith Calbick and Betty Wong

When Your Friends Think You Are Crazy

“Being an entrepreneur was not sexy in the mid-’90s.”

Jeff Wright, CEO, Urban Ministries, Inc.

Jeff Wright’s friends thought he was crazy. One friend even flew to Chicago to try to talk him out of it. Jeff decided, at age 39, that the only downside about becoming the president of a publishing company serving the black religious community, located in a storefront in Chicago, was that if it didn’t work out, he could always go back to Corporate America and everything would be “back to life as it was before.”

He was wrong. The move ended in a divorce and Jeff became a single dad entrepreneur with three children, balancing his time with his kids with time allocated to the company. The kids got 100 hours of the week and the company got the rest. He worked when the kids were asleep, but met the school bus every day after school. It helped that the company founder stayed around for the transition. Today, he credits that experience with his children as some of the most important times of his life.

Growing up in DC, Jeff had been surrounded by people who worked for the government but he decided he wanted to work for a business. Jeff became a senior Mergers & Acquisitions specialist, a vice president at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), who worked on one of the biggest mergers of the healthcare industry. He had a lot of valuable experience, having worked also at Johnson & Johnson before BMS. Prior to the healthcare experience, Jeff had worked in marketing and finance at TWA and had graduated from Georgetown Law and Columbia Business School, so he had a very good resume to fall back on. Jeff had accomplished his goal by becoming a senior executive in Corporate America, one of the few who was a person of color. But he was always unsure of when he would hit the glass ceiling, as those destined for higher office were usually white men.

Jeff didn’t have many friends who were entrepreneurs when he considered leaving the corporate world; Betty was one of the exceptions. They had graduated Columbia together, and she was one of the few friends who congratulated him on his jump into entrepreneurship. He had listened to Betty talk about the challenges of entrepreneurship, juggling clients like  Colgate-Palmolive, Allied-Signal and the New York Times Company.  She too told him he could go back to Corporate America if things didn’t work out.

But Jeff didn’t look back, even when many others thought he was going in the wrong direction and tried to talk him out of it. Today, Jeff has lots of friends who are entrepreneurs and he is a successful media company president, operating both online and on-ground tutorials and workshops to expand the African-American ministry throughout the country.

The moral of Jeff’s story/life? Have the conviction to carry out your plan but always have a fallback plan (go back to Corporate America?). And be prepared for unexpected circumstances because they always happen. 

Copyright© 2020 Emelie Smith Calbick and Betty Wong

You won’t know everything even if you try…

“When I first started my entrepreneurial journey, I thought I had to know everything but I was wrong.”

Betty Wong, serial entrepreneur and founder of Stage2 Startups

Today, I assist several startups in a variety of ways, including as an advisory board member, coach and vendor – marketing specialist. In those roles, I help entrepreneurs in a variety of ways so they can concentrate on what they want to do and what they want to know. After all, most large companies have people specializing in different areas. It really is difficult to know and do everything so entrepreneurs usually have to learn what they know and don’t know.

Betty Wong on a Spring day

When I first started my entrepreneurial journey, I thought I had to know everything so I could explain my startup to others, but today’s startups are not yesterday’s startups and we find that many businesses are not exactly the way founders originally meant them to be. They pivot or change as the company gets to know how to best serve its market(s) and as the entrepreneur grows and becomes aware of what he or she does and doesn’t know.  Pinterest, for example, was famously a catalog app called “Tote” before pivoting and becoming a social network where almost 300 million users share their interests on visual bulletin boards.

Since entrepreneurs no longer write those 100 page business plans, trading them off for 7 page outlines or org charts and process diagrams in the current “lean startup” environment, knowing what you do and don’t know is important, because it means you have to bring in a team to help you. I learned long ago I didn’t like to work alone so I try to have at least one partner to work with me. When I found out that Emelie was available after selling her company, I invited her to join me on our blogging adventure.

Likewise, I asked Tony to join me on my Stage2Startups mission because I wanted to have someone with a strong accounting and finance background to balance my interest in marketing, customers, sales and research. Its not that we both don’t have CEO management experience but its about concentrating on what we do best. Along the way, I met some other friends who specialize in other skills, like Lesley for website development and Daniela for social media deployment, Rajiv for online visibility and Mike for human resource recruitment. And then there were the numerous other volunteers, hosts, advisors and friends, too many to name here… Finding these fellow entrepreneurs and specialists have been a joy as it makes entrepreneurship  almost as easy an option as walking down that corporate corridor…

What I realized in the last decade is that we can all help each other, that the collaborative spirit can make for a stronger organization, a better product, a closer connection to the customer. As we enter the next decade, I’m asking us all to work together, to create a stronger Stage2Startups organization together, to share more about entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial stories, to make new friends and reconnect with old ones, so we can make a more significant social impact – to teach society that entrepreneurs start at all ages and can be very successful!

PS. If you would like to be featured in a future Startups By Grownups blog or know someone who should be, please use the following link and nominate yourself or your friend…here.

PSS. If you prefer to announce your company in person, join me at this month’s Stage2Startups pitch event on January 16. Sign up here.

Copyright© 2020 Emelie Smith Calbick and Betty Wong

Happy Holidays from Startups by Grownups!

May your holidays sparkle with moments of love, laughter and goodwill

Startups by Grownups is going offline for December to enjoy the holidays and celebrate friends, family and our startup community. We will be back in January with new stories about grownup founders who are making an impact.

We wish everyone a joyous and festive holiday season!  See you in the new year!

When You Have To Do Something

Alice listened and decided to change society. Will you do the same?

When Alice Fisher received her MSW from Hunter College at 59 years of age, she knew she wanted to be involved with legislation. After graduating with a degree focused on community organizing, she joined the staff of New York State Senator Liz Krueger as Director of Community Outreach. One of the hats Alice wore in the Senator’s office was as government liaison to the older adults in the district,  where she became exposed to stories about the difficulties of living as an older person.

Alice Fisher

She met constituents in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond who were struggling to have any semblance of quality-of-life. She heard stories about children looking after parents who were concerned for their medical bills, and people, primarily women, who were living in poverty.  

In addition, Alice and her husband had their own elderly parents to attend to. All these stories hit home when her dad asked her one day what would have happened to him if she did not have the connections she had to the senior world of NYC.   It was those connections that helped her secure a place for her parents in a first-rate nursing facility, although she knew that the rest of their savings would go to their care.  This required her and her sister to dig into their own pockets to assure that their parents would receive the best of care.    

Wondering how her parents could have survived without the family’s assistance, the Radical Age Movement was born.

The Radical Age Movement is a non-profit organization focused on fighting ageism in our society. “Ageism is the primary factor that marginalizes older people,” says Alice. “I realized I was guilty of ageism myself every time I thought I couldn’t do something because I was too old.” 

Through a three-pronged strategy including education, consciousness raising and social action, Alice’s organization seeks to change the conversation around age. “Ageism prevents people from continuing to be independent, contributing members to society.  Yet countless studies around the world show that older people can make a significant, positive impact on a country’s economy.” 

Because Alice knew that family is especially important to the care of the elderly, she has developed an intergenerational following for her movement. She leverages her intergenerational friends and contacts to build awareness of the issues facing older people and the Radical Age movement. She has also reached out to students studying social work to get them involved in her activities from handling social networking online to logistics of her outreach programs. Even her own family is involved. Her husband, Jon, serves on Alice’s advisory board as well as handles publicity while her granddaughter is helping manage the Radical Age website.

Alice’s work and life experiences gave her the inspiration to start the Radical Age Movement while her friends, family and colleagues have helped her build it into an important catalyst for change. What will be your inspiration for taking action and starting a movement?

For more information, see

Copyright© 2019 Emelie Smith Calbick and Betty Wong