March 28, 2011

How to Succeed at Business

When we recognize our sister’s successes, we rarely ask “how exactly did you do that? I mean, step by step.” We congratulate them and walk away thinking sure, they could do it.

What we don’t see is the persistent dogged and optimistic determination success requires. Belief in ourselves and our service or product. And perhaps most importantly, our willingness to fail.

Today I’m using as an example of those characteristics, two sisters I’ve written about before sisters who not only managed to convince Neiman Marcus to launch their book, but who changed the way financial literacy is taught in the Texas private and public school systems.

Finding Our “Natural” Market

When we last left Mandy Williams and Tina Pennington, the Red and Black sisters who launched their book on financial literacy with the support of Neiman Marcus, they were poised to find their “natural” market.

Marketing gurus tell us that our “natural market” is a group of people or industry or collection of businesses that share one of more of the unique personal characteristics that define us. Had Mandy written a memoir about her work life in the oil and gas industry, her natural market might include petroleum giants like Exxon, Texaco and Shell.

Still, Mandy and Tina thought their natural market was women at least women living in the United States all 155 million of them.

The sisters did what any smart entrepreneurs would do, they started connecting with their market by, among other things, speaking about financial literacy at women’s groups. At the same time, they began reaching out to women’s publications, which is what eventually brought them to my attention.

The Work

No one is an over night success and no one knows that better than residents of my town, Los Angeles, where PR machines continue to sell the dream of instantaneous celebrity and wealth to American and foreign markets.
This is work ladies. And here’s how Mandy and Tina did it.

In September of 2009, Brad Segal, the founding music teacher at KIPP’s Houston High School, brought Red and Black’s book to the attention of KIPP’s Executive director, Bryan Contreras. Though initially apprehensive that his students might not relate to a the sisters’ experience, he agreed to meet with the duo. As Mandy explained, Contreras was completely up front with the women about what he believed their real market to be cookie baking stay at home suburban moms and bored rich women who raced cars.

Mandy and Tina were not deterred. They explained to Contreras why they believed the book’s “real life” approach would appeal to KIPP students. They stressed that KIPP’s low income pupils in particular needed to be financially literate to make hay with the first rate education they were receiving.
The Beauty of the Charter

Though Texas exercises a greater degree of control over what school books our children read than any other state in the union, Tina and Mandy learned that Charter Schools can use any text they want. There’s no need for School Board approval because School Boards do not control Charter Schools.

At the end of their first 12 week high school financial literacy course, the two sisters had accomplished their primary goal. Their students reported that finances no longer frightened them and their exit survey showed that their students understood how their values and priorities drive their financial decisions.

Getting Financial Literacy into the Public Schools

Mandy then met with the Texas Education Agency and with representatives of the Lieutenant Governor’s office as they were curious how in less than a year Mandy and Tina had turned an unedited manuscript into a published book, launched by Neiman Marcus and used as a textbook for personal financial literacy program..

“At first, the bureaucracy was just too much of an effort,” said Mandy. “The system set up more roadblocks than it opened paths to completion. I finally said to a TEA representative that if I was ever asked why our book was not in the Texas public school system, I’d just refer those people to her.”

In doing so, Mandy was using one of the oldest negotiation power tools in the book promising to hold people publicly accountable for their decisions. It worked. Two months later they emailed her to advise that the State had posted a call for Personal Financial Literacy materials. What she initially thought would be 12-15 page submission, ultimately topped 125 pages. Less than thirty days later, without any further effort by Mandy, the proposal was approved.

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