Stories and Articles

Do Special Challenges Keep Women Out of Entrepreneurship Roles?

Karen Castles GrayThe U.S. Census for 2010 showed that females make up just slightly over half of the population in the nation (50.8 percent), the Census Bureau also determined in 2012 that females made up only 36 percent of U.S. business owners.

In order to better focus on the challenges that face American women entrepreneurs, the Fowler College of Business has launched a lecture series that explores these issues as well as offers observations and advice from successful female business owners. The series was launched due to a $250,000 endowment from Karen Castles Gray, the founder, president and creative director of Authentic Lifestyle Products. Gray’s son, Alexander, is currently a junior majoring in management/entrepreneurship at SDSU.

The first lecturer in the series kicked off on Thursday, February 9, 2017 to a near-capacity crowd as successful female entrepreneurs Castles Gray, Lonnie Ali, Anne Marie Griffith and Marjy Stameier discussed their roads to success and some of the lessons they learned along the way.

A Southern Belle in a Man’s World
North Carolina native, Castles Gray, who is the founding partner, president and creative director of Authentic Lifestyle Products, opened the event by discussing how she felt like “a southern belle in a man’s world” upon moving to New York.

She noted that after she had been “cut out of deals, seeing her ideas stolen, and being shut out” she became frustrated with “hitting the glass ceiling” and, in 1998, she founded her own company, Castles Sport, a company that designed and distributed collegiate apparel to retails outlets. After a chance meeting with the CEO of adidas, she was offered a position in the company’s Champions division, which designs uniforms and gear for professional athletes.

While she suffered many setbacks on her way to founding a successful company, Castles Gray said she was undeterred by failure and rejection. “Take rejection and use it as a challenge,” she advised.

Partnership with G.O.A.T
In 2002, she met and formed a partnership with G.O.A.T. Enterprises which was owned by Muhammed and Lonnie Ali. G.O.A.T. (which stands for Greatest of All Time) was formed to control Ali’s name, image and brand, and – in conjunction with adidas - Castles Gray served as ambassador of the brand, designing Ali-inspired sportswear. Her affiliation with G.O.A.T. initiated a strong friendship with Lonnie Ali, which exists to this day.

Ali, who called into the event from her home in Arizona, said that even though she earned an MBA, she never saw herself as an entrepreneur until she married the late boxing great, Muhammed Ali. The Alis sold 80 percent of their interest in G.O.A.T. in 2006 to entertainment and licensing firm CKX for $50 million. They later formed the non-profit Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.

“if you start a business, it had better be your dream job,” Ali advised. “It had better be your passion and what gets you up in the morning.”

Ali also offered some tips to establishing a successful business:

  • Find good people to employ.
  • Have a reliable advisory board.
  • Be good to your employees.
  • Take what you learn and use it to build your business.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  • Trust your instincts and walk away if something doesn’t feel right.
  • Stand by your product.
  • Remember – your word is your bond

What Did You Know and When Did You Know It? The last 15 minutes of the event saw Castles Gray, and Ali (via Skype), along with Griffith (managing director of APG Investments) and Stagmeier (managing partner in Atlanta-based TriStar Real Estate Investment and president of TI Asset Management) form a panel session for questions and answers. The panel session was moderated by SDSU marketing lecturer and entrepreneur, Steve Osinski.

During the panel session, Stagmeier replied to the question “when did you know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?” by revealing that she knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur since she became the Monopoly champion of her 6th grade class. She learned the real estate business by being an employee for the first 10 years of her career, then, at 29, she found a partner, raised $8 million and bought her first apartment complex. She also experienced some foreclosures after the real estate bubble burst in 2008, but learned lessons from that experience and continued to persevere. “Don’t be afraid to fail,” she told the audience.

Griffith responded to the same question by saying that she didn’t really see herself as an entrepreneur, especially when she was in law school, however, she was offered a job in the financial services sector in spite of having no experience in the industry. Though a corporate buy-out, a job change and having her boss retire, she eventually took over the firm she was working at as the managing partner where she is responsible for 20 employees and millions in investments. Her advice to the audience was:

  • Risks are opportunities. Seize them.
  • Make sure you nurture your network.
  • Believe in yourself.

All members of the panel session discussed their biggest mistakes (Castles Gray discussed how she didn’t keep track of the entire business and Ali talked about being too trusting), but all agreed that to be a truly successful entrepreneur, one has to learn from mistakes. Castles Gray added that getting a good mentor and making important connections are another critical factor in entrepreneurial success.

Now That You’ve Got It, Give It Back
In closing, the panel agreed that while there are some challenges with being a female entrepreneur, giving back to the community is one of the most rewarding things they’ve done. In addition to providing the funds to launch SDSU’s Women in Entrepreneurship Lecture Series, Castles Gray has also donated over $200,000 to SDSU’s Guardian Scholars program and has set up an organization to help feed 50,000 each year. Stagmeier, a board member of the Atlanta Food Bank added that while asking others to donate was hard for her at first, she soon realized that people wanted to give. She would strongly advise others to get involved in the community and give back.