Recently, our CEO Terri Alpert was a part of artist, J.G. Boccella’s Fierce Women’s Project. This blog post shares her awesome entry and empowering answers to questions many young women have!
Terri has always swum upstream. In college she concentrated in physics at a time when there were no other female physics majors. Others couldn’t quite understand what Terri was doing there as she insisted she had no intention of going for a graduate degree in science as she always saw herself in the business world, but Terri saw physics as having a role to play in the liberal arts, and as great training of the mind. Like life and business, all of physics is an open book. “Here’s a problem unlike any you’ve seen before, now take all your tools and see what you can do.”
From college she went to Wall Street for a few years. Forgoing the dollars of trading or investment banking, Terri sought project management and people management skills and joined Morgan Stanley’s IT training program. Within a few years she was leading the teams which developed all of the software which ran the firm’s worldwide currency trading. But she was unfulfilled and some would say, jaded.
So in 1993, under the cover of maternity leave (as leaving the corporate world to create one’s own startup was decidedly not cool back then), she started her first company, Professional Cutlery Direct with $8000. (She credits motherhood with providing her with all kinds of advantages in this venture.) In six years, she grew PCD from nothing to over $9 million in revenue and 35 employees – all from internally generated cash flow. Though the company was on the INC 500 list of fastest growing companies three times, Terri knew it was too easy and in the age of the internet and box stores, she had built nothing protectable.
Starting with a clean sheet of paper and her existing infrastructure, she constructed the attributes of a new brand. In 2003, Uno Alla Volta was born, a direct marketer (catalog and online) of handcrafted treasures, created lovingly one at a time. (Uno AllaVolta means one at a time in Italian.)
Today, UAV develops unique collectibles, home décor, jewelry and fashion accessories with its network of artisans around the country and around the world. Its vision is to bring the human connection into every interaction, enriching the lives of all involved. All functions from statistical analysis to merchandising, digital marketing to circulation planning, customer relations, distribution, IT, finance, photography and creative are performed in house by a great many fierce women, and a handful of fierce men.
Terri delights in mentoring other entrepreneurs in the for-profit and non-profit segments.
1) What was one of your biggest professional challenges? How did you meet that challenge?
On two separate occasions, my entire company and all the jobs I have created almost went down the tubes. The first time was with PCD that had nothing protectable. I had to develop a new model quickly and build UNO while shrinking PCD.
The second time was in trying to make the transition from entrepreneur to CEO. The first time I did it, I did it all wrong. I brought in too many outside hires at once, who built silos, didn’t get the vision, cost too much and I happened to do this simultaneously with giant structural changes in our industry and a recession. Suddenly I hated coming to work every day. I had completely the wrong team. I even had the wrong customers and the wrong products.
I had to almost start over and the first thing I had to work on was ME ! I had to learn how to become the CEO my company needed me to be. And, I had to do so in a way that fit naturally with who I am at the core.
We now have a team that lives and breathes our brand, that understands how to build and fine tune our engine, and we are truly rowing in sync towards our goal. It feels great!
2) What do you love most about your work and life?
I love that I am able to create opportunities for so many others to fulfill their dreams – whether young women who joined my team out of college and are now leading a multi-million dollar segment of our business, or the many artisans who are now able to make a living by bringing beauty to the world. I love that my work and my life are not at odds with each other – that I’ve been able to shape my enterprise around my values and my vision, but having done so, I have to recognize that it isn’t purely mine any longer – as they now belong to all who contribute. I love that I am learning and teaching every day and that nearly every member of my team can say the same.
3) How did you overcome doubts and fears that you may have had early on in your career/life journey?
The Nike slogan says it best. “Just do it.” This is what I’d say to myself in self talk and remind myself that in time, those things which are really uncomfortable become less so. Doubts and fears though, never fully go away. At least not for me. I just acknowledge them with my inner voice and tell them to go sit in the corner for a bit while I do what has to be done.
4) What advice do you have for young women and girls who are exploring possibilities for their future?
Surround yourself with people you can learn from.
Most of us feel “different” on the inside for one reason or another. Often we don’t pursue things or allow ourselves to be vulnerable due to insecurities.
Never be afraid to ask. You’d be amazed how many people will say yes. And those who say no, usually are just too busy. Trust me, almost no one is laughing at you for asking! And, if they are, that’s their problem.
5) What are the best ways men can demonstrate to young women and girls that we believe in an unlimited future for them, and that we believe in, and value women’s leadership?
From the youngest age, my grandfather made me believe I could do anything. He didn’t do this to build my confidence. He did it because he himself believed. I was the first of his three grandchildren (all girls) and I think he viewed me as his own link to the future. His confidence in me may have been wrapped up in his own hubris, but it didn’t matter. It had a huge impact.
My father and my husband have also always believed in me. In the case of my dad, he expressed it less, and probably just took it for granted more. My husband, has not just been there in moments of self-doubt, but he has in every way imaginable allowed me to live my entrepreneurial dream by taking on so much of the childcare and home care when our kids were young, all while pursuing his own intense business career. Every day, I’ve watched my husband demonstrate that unwavering belief in each of our daughters. He does so unconsciously – as it is part of who he is.
6) What have mentors (formal or informal) meant to you?
Ever since I started my company in 1993, I searched for other entrepreneurs and CEOs to serve as mentors and I failed to find any. I think this is why I’ve been especially committed to mentoring others.
I am happy to say that now, 22 years into this venture, I have two amazing board members, former CEOs (both male) who have built tremendous direct marketing brands. At long last I have those mentors I always desired.
7) What is your definition of a Fierce Woman?
For me this term evokes something primal, such as a lioness protecting her cubs. A fierce woman fights for the people and the principles in which she believes.
To learn more about this incredible project, please visit www.fiercewomenproject.com.