July 2022 | 

Making the Move from Founder to Executive

Making the Move from Founder to Executive

It’s a statistic that most small business owners know well — and fear: about one in five start-ups fail in their first two years. And while there is plenty of advice about how to avoid that fate, really understanding and applying it is another story. A good start is accepting that having what it takes to start your business doesn’t mean you have what it takes to grow it. Scaling requires different processes, people, and leadership skills. And, Valencia Belle would add, it also requires learning a new language.

The founder and CEO of VB Ideas LLC, with its companion test-prep and critical-thinking ed-tech strategy programs, SCHOOLS for scholars and CLEARED for scholar-athletes, says the goal of becoming conversant in the language of business was one reason she chose to attend Wharton’s Business Essentials for Executives program. “I have several degrees, but none of them are in business. And although my company was successful, I knew that if I wanted to scale it, I had to be able to understand and speak the language. There were so many great takeaways from Business Essentials, but learning how to communicate with investors, explaining my growth in a way that they could fund, has fundamentally changed the trajectory of my company — and my life.”

Belle was a recipient of Wharton’s Knowledge for Impact award, which gives entrepreneurs and small-business owners operating in low-income areas the opportunity to attend an Executive Education program. “My company started as a mission, working to eradicate intergenerational poverty by affording diverse, equitable, and inclusive access to high-quality, cost-effective test prep,” Belle says. “Students would achieve the college admissions test scores they needed to get accepted, but the scores weren’t high enough to get full-ride scholarships. That meant to get a degree, parents, grandparents, and students themselves were taking on serious debt to pay for it. I wanted to end that.”

“I knew we had a disruptive model,” Belle continues. “The scores our students were getting were 10 points higher than the national average [the highest ACT score is 36]. We had already moved online in 2017, well before COVID-19 forced our competitors to do it. And we have very little overhead. I had never calculated our operating costs or had a strategic plan for managing our profits before taking the Wharton program. If we were to accept venture capital, our burn rate would be very low and our financial runway very long. We’re virtual, so operating costs are minimal. We never asked for money, were never in pitch competitions, and never did any marketing. We were just serving.”

Pitching in the Language of Investors

Belle says attending the Wharton program “validated that we were taking up market share from the major players. I had never tracked that before; I was happy to help a few hundred students a month. Professor Gad Allon explained that my company was a ‘demand economies of scale about to experience network effects.’ He broke it down for me and gave me the words to describe it. Once I knew that, and learned more about the language of investors, I was able to start the conversation and begin to get funding. Gad helped me to realize that my initial mission could become a multi-million-dollar company.”

When the program ended, Belle started to seek funding. “Before Wharton, if you put me in room of business professionals, it would have been like sending me to Paris without a French translator. I would have been in the room, but could not have fully engaged in the meaningful discourse occurring because I didn’t know yet how to critically disaggregate my own business analytics. To pitch at a high level, you have to know what you are talking about, really commanding the information. My pitches contain all of the information I learned at Wharton, plus a new-found level of confidence. The program empowered me to hold my own. I am taking my seat at the table. We were selected and participated in an international accelerator [USC EdVentures-Cohort IV], and I pitched at ASU+GSV, earning multiple national and international contracts, which will result in 10X growth this year.”

Accelerating Your Learning

Belle says every business executive who wants to take their game to the next level should consider attending Business Essentials. “You don’t know what you don’t know. So many women start businesses but fail in the first few years because they are trying to learn all of the fundamentals experientially. You might find out that your price point is too low only after giving thousands of customers something for close to nothing, for example. Intuition is important, but you also need knowledge and tactics.”

“It would have taken me an additional 10 years of sweat equity to realize I should be marketing my business and pitching to investors,” continues Belle. “Attending the Wharton program can get you there in a week. If you want to grow, that is time you can’t afford to lose. I was blessed with the award, but the experience is absolutely worth the pricetag. Make it a part of your business plan and a line item in your budget. Until then, it is just talk.”

Knowledge for Impact

When asked about how she gained so much in just one week (“it was life-changing,” she stresses), Belle shared advice for getting the greatest benefits from an executive education program.

Be fully committed. “It’s a cliché, but you get out what you put in. My advice is to commit 100 percent of your time during the program. Block out the week and make sure your staff is empowered to lead without you. Don’t try to keep up with email or attend meetings. Don’t make any life-changing decisions. The amount of information you will get is like drinking from a fire hose. You need to be there fully to fully take advantage.”

Brainstorm during downtime. “Give yourself time every day out of the classroom to sit down with what you’ve learned and figure out how to apply it. Gad asked us this at the end of every day, but that should just be a starting point. Create a working document or plan that you add to every day. It will help you see an immediate impact after the program.”

Keep a journal. “You will have so many ‘a-ha’ moments in the classroom and when you are thinking through how to apply what you learn. This should be separate from the notes you take during class. You will learn so much about yourself and have so many ideas about what you can start doing that is new or different. Make commitments to yourself about what you want to accomplish in three months, six months, a year.”

Share what you learn. “I came back to work to a team that didn’t know about Wharton or the program I’d completed. I have shared key ideas and insights with my team, and over the next year, I will be sending my chief financial, experience, logistics, and operations officers to the Business Essentials program. In the months since the program ended, I realized that for the business as a whole to scale with the same mission and vision, my team and I have to have common ground, a safe space to create, pilot, and innovate while working with the same language. I need my entire team engaged there with me, empowered in the same ways that I am.”