Knowledge is Power: Lessons from a Successful Serial Entrepreneur and Businesswoman
NYC Commissioner on Women’s Issues Appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg
Co-Chairman & Vice Chairman | Northside Center for Child Development
NYC Commissioner on Gender Equity Appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio
Vice Chair of the Board of Directors | The National Constitution Center
Chairman of America’s Promise, Appointed by General Colin Powell
Owner and Vice Chairman | Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Co.
Founding Member and Vice Chairman | Jazz at Lincoln Center
Co-Founder & Member of Executive Board | Platform.org
Presidential Appointment | President Jimmy Carter
President | S. Ahmad-Llewellyn Family Foundation
Presidential Appointment | President Bill Clinton
Founder | Homecare
Widow, Mother of One, Grandmother of One
Shahara Ahmad-Llewellyn is a serial entrepreneur having started, owned, operated and sold six different companies between 1972-2012. She’s seen the advent of the fax machine that disrupted traditional modes of communication, to it becoming obsolete as newer, faster tools have been introduced in the last 50 years. Having started working with computers like the IBM 360, she continues to be amazed at the speed by which technology is introduced but stays up-to-date with ‘handheld computers’, aka smartphones. Our Program Manager, Sharon Mwale, chatted with this formidable and intelligent woman to gain her insights about the extensive lessons she’s gained over the years and her prediction for what the future holds.
Looking back at your early career choices and academic pursuits – was becoming an entrepreneur part of your plan?
My first job in corporate America was at The National Sugar Co. where I was put in charge of the data processing department managing, at age 21, 7 older white women. During that period, being a woman of color and young put me at a disadvantage and I quickly decided that I wanted to be my own boss. I wasn’t interested in fighting with people who felt I wasn’t qualified. It was not worth the energy to gain respect and get them to listen to my instructions so I could get the job done. I was quick, driven by completed tasks and functioned in a systematic manner. I didn’t want to waste valuable time to prove that to anyone and I moved on quickly after that position.
What makes a good leader? Is a leader born or can he/she be shaped?
I was forced to become a leader when my mother died at age 15 and being the eldest girl put me in charge of the household including of my 4 siblings. At the time, the only thing that mattered was getting things done. Homework, shopping, meals, getting everyone to school etc. It was rudimentary but a microcosm of running a business. By the time I was 19 and in school, I had been handling a business (my entire household) for 5 years. I learned how to look at things from a systematic perspective and with that understanding it simplified everything I took on thereafter. If you figure out the best process and identify an end goal, the pieces will come together. So, for me, becoming a leader fit the circumstances I was in and afterward it happened very naturally with that foundation. In my life I’ve had several successful businesses, and EmmyCo is my only ‘failure’ so to speak, but really just a lesson learned.
Pulling from your early professional experience, what lessons did you learn that have influenced you most in your career?
In the early-70s, I set up the first homecare companies in NYC. There was a nursing home crisis in the City. There were no beds available and patients were backed up in hospitals. The Commissioner of The Community Development Agency (CDA) asked me to look into a potential solution. I wrote a proposal to do research and develop a plan that would determine how to address gaps in the care system and how to close them. The plan called for engaging temp agency personal to pick up patients from the hospital and stay with them in the patient’s home. The City of NYC received funding from the Federal, State and City governments for at home senior care with our solution. Homecare became the solution of choice for stable patients. The most important part of the plan was the reduction in overall cost. Homecare cost 1/3 as much as nursing home care and nursing homes were full anyway. Determining, and proving, the cost savings of homecare versus nursing home care created the value proposition that sold the idea to the Commissioner and became widely adopted across the US. I left working for the City and started my own homecare company which I eventually sold.
Pulling from your early professional public in city government experience, what lessons did you learn that have influenced you most in your career?
Right after Homecare, I left the city and started another homecare company with two partners – that was my first mistake. Do not pick the wrong business partners and do not fight over things that will not make a difference. My relationship with these partners was not fruitful so I gave them my shares and gladly walked away without the money I had invested. I turned that experience around, started a new company that survived 22years – whereas the one I left lasted 2 years after I left. Two key lessons from the experience, 1) don’t fight to get back something you lost unless it’s really worth it and 2) the importance of learning how to evaluate human beings. One of the partners I mentioned was an ex-boyfriend and the other his cousin, so they were not strangers. However, I quickly learned neither of them had the same sense of business, an understanding of how to operate systematically or move in a process driven way. Most alarming, they didn't have the same work ethic as I did. I walked away knowing that any future business partners needed to have the same value system and vision as me if we were going to be successful. It’s a marriage and you need to be very clear about who you are walking down the aisle with. If you don’t have the same ideas about ethics and character or believe in them as strongly as one another it will critically affect the success of the business.
You define EmmyCo as your first failure and describe it more accurately as a lesson learned. Can you provide more detail about the decision that lead to closing down operations?
Up to this point, anything I ever started was successful. I’d never had a failure and you can say it was about time I experienced one. With that said, it was a great experience and I’m glad I did it, even after shutting down, I still believe in the EmmyCo mission. A major issue that impacted EmmyCo was that I didn’t start with the right Co-founder and mindset. First, in the middle of a re-launch, with EmmyCo, I had to find a new Co-founder and re-configure the team. Also, I came from a bricks and mortar business approach: develop a product, define your market and start selling, I didn’t have a lot of experience with social media or the platform/gig economy. I was funding the company myself and chose not to spend another 8-months to reach a stage where outside funding would be possible but not promised. Three key deciding factors come to mind:
- I couldn’t put together a new team fast enough. My first Co-Founder left in February 2018 and life circumstances (jury duty) snatched 1/3 of the new team away from being fully committed.
- I made discoveries I didn’t realize were there. Providers we were partnering with didn’t have the patient’s best interest at the forefront. For EmmyCo, patient care was at the top of the agenda. Providers were interested in, a) booking procedures and b) getting paid for them. And in the middle of all that was the patient. They became incidental to their process while patients were our focus; and,
- The pricing we originally set was off and we had to adjust it mid-way through our launch year.
The reality is that sometimes the timing isn’t right. So, I don’t count EmmyCo so much as a failure, but a recognition of several factors working against the success in the short term. I asked myself “is this working,” “have I made specific judgements,” “can I overcome,” and too many nos came back. I recognized that perseverance, in this case, was not a smart way of doing business, but I hope someone picks it up and is successful at it.
What has been the impact of technology on the healthcare industry and/or how our society innovates to improve process to make healthcare work better, faster, smarter, more efficient, and/or less expensive?
The speed by which technology is causing major change cannot help but be shocking to many systems. When I was growing up, phones were big, black, sat on the table and you turned a dial to call people. Now we have handheld computers – smartphones. Every segment of our lives is getting faster and faster. We have something on our wrists that tells us we have atrial fibrillation. It’s astounding to me! I started out working with an IBM 360 that took up 5,000 square feet of space and needed to be air conditioned. Now we have hundreds of thousands of square feet of data storage around the world, cloud farms, and more are being built every day. Fax machines didn’t exist when I started working and now, they’re obsolete. When email came you had to type fast enough to make sure the computer didn’t lock you out. Now you can write an email for 2 hours if you please. We have face recognition, self-driving cars, and we say “I remember when…” within 5 years of something being replaced.
That being said, I believe that most people in business do not 1) read enough and 2) have enough general knowledge of things not related to the business they are in. For me, I want to know what is going on in the world. I try to read about AI, bitcoin or HR internet-based companies that give me insight on what might be affecting how businesses are operating. For example, in healthcare there is a huge consolidation and alliance formation in the stand-alone surgical provider industry. In NYC we used to have 20-30 different hospitals and now we have 3-4 major systems in the City. What does that mean for patients? What does it mean for how business employee health plans function? What does it mean that Amazon is partnering with insurance companies? Or Medicare becoming a universal system? People aren’t curious enough about our country and the world and so they lock themselves into a limited view of life where they only know what is happening in their space. If you only know what you do, you disable your ability to be creative and innovative.
From your experience, what has changed the least, yet still has major impact regarding gender parity within entrepreneurship, technology and healthcare?
I don’t believe that I will see gender parity in my life time and honestly, it is pie in the sky that has been cyclical over the past few decades. The concept or notion of gender parity comes and goes. It is something women dream about and wish for, but I truly believe that we [genders] are different. We are born different, at the most basic level, we are biologically different, and because of this, we are acculturated differently. There are cultures in the world where women are dominant and there is no need for gender parity – not here in the US but in others, this is a reality. Here in the US, men are dominant and that is the culture and what has been true since the beginning of our history. Minor things will change, but true parity will never exist. Not as long as women believe we are better at doing what our culture and nature has assigned to us, i.e. having and raising children – and there are women who believe that. What women believe about themselves needs to change before impactful change really takes effect in male-dominant societies. As long as women are threatened by other women change won’t take hold. It’s not about men, they are generally not threatened by one another or put limits on themselves. A lot of women judge one another more harshly than any man. What you are wearing, your physical beauty, your weight etc. are constantly in play for women. So, I think until women change, gender parity is just a dream and this type of “woman think” is so engrained in our culture that it works against the change women crave.
Lecky’s Final ThoughtsFearless and focused determination, the use of knowledge and practical application of life’s experiences are the ingredients for success. Our featured entrepreneur represents the epitome of this recipe and reflects the fact that how those ingredients interplay is based on the individual. We encourage women entrepreneurs to take a step back, call upon experiences and create their own recipe. Baking those ingredients into your psyche allows you to tap into that power to energize you when times seem challenging.
If you would like to recommend a female entrepreneur in healthcare technology to be featured, we encourage you to contact us.
Sharon Mwale Program Manager [email protected]