Five Female Business Leaders On Making It

I have been fortunate to interview hundreds of America’s top leaders and have learned an incredible amount about business, leadership and life through the conversations and insights shared. While I have interviewed many prominent and highly successful female leaders who serve as inspirations to women and men alike, I wanted to share excerpts from recent interviews with female women I have included in my Lessons in Leadership series in Thrive Global: Debi Lane, founder and CEO of LunchboxWax, Dawn Russell, co-founder and CEO of 8Greens, Theresa Armour, co-founder of Burke Williams, Amy Hoopes, president of Wente Family Estates and Vanessa Yakobson, CEO of Blo Blow Dry Bar, specifically around how they made it:

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth? 

Debi: I have been an entrepreneur my whole life, so failure is a big part of my life journey. You can’t be a serial entrepreneur without having a lot of failures – it is part of the process. It is how you view and work with those failures that defines us. Challenges and setbacks are a part of everyone’s life, not just in business, so that’s where we are all similar. But our relationship with failure – that is what separates the pack. You must cultivate a positive relationship with fear and use it as a tool. We can learn more from our failures than our successes, if we are fearless. Fear of failure is what holds so many people back from reaching their potential. I see failure as one of my biggest gifts. I have so many instances where I can look back and see that I imagined failure to be so much worse than it actually was. We often are more worried about what we think others will think if we fail than failure itself. And, in so many cases, people aren’t as focused on us as we think. I’m just a gal with a big dream who decided to swing for the fences. I knew if I didn’t make it, I would just do something else. We can’t worry about what others are thinking. Just pretend no one is watching and go for it! 

Dawn: I only started a company because I found myself having to survive stage III cancer in my 20s. I never saw it coming and nothing else can get your attention or make you focus on what really matters more than having a life-threatening illness. It not only gives you perspective, but if you were lucky like I was to recover from it, nothing else ever looks quite as dramatic. You are left with a daily sense of gratitude for just being here. The product that is now 8Greens came from my experience, and the nutritional lessons I learned during my journey to recovery have been incredibly useful as I became an accidental entrepreneur.

Theresa: The inspiration behind Burke Williams was as a mother of three young children; I often felt overbooked and overlooked. I had neither the time nor finances to take a much-needed vacation. Having been to destination spas, I searched for something similar in the city. Not finding it, the idea of creating a luxury spa experience accessible to busy, overstressed people who didn’t have the time for a traditional escape, was both intriguing and exciting. Bringing that experience to the city, so that people like me could escape for an hour or two and feel rejuvenated and appreciated, turned out to be even more needed than I had imagined. The concept was immediately well received and the “Day Spa” industry was born. I developed my leadership skills on the fly. Unaware of the importance of developing trust through accountability, openness and inclusion, and a staff that was growing rapidly, I lost several key people early on. I sought both advice and mentors and though that time-honored method of trial and error shaped the leadership skills I use today. This is a process, and I’m still a willing participant.

Amy: I was recruited directly out of college to the wine industry by the E&J Gallo Winery. I was fortunate to graduate in a great market and have several options for starting my career. The job just seemed to really fit. I liked the people I had met along the recruiting process, the fact that it was a family-run company with a strong ethos and everyone seemed to genuinely enjoyed their work. I started out at the bottom as a sales rep. It was a humbling experience, selling wine to buyers – some who were not even old enough to drink, and others who had given up alcohol altogether. I had a college degree and was dusting bottles, cutting boxes and building displays. It was character building and humbling all at the same time. As my career progressed, I continued to work hard, raise my hand often for new and interesting opportunities, and ultimately learned by doing. As I grew and worked my way up, one of the most important lessons learned was to look for and value the support and guidance of great leaders and mentors around me.

Vanessa: When I decided to pursue a career in business, I knew I needed to find a niche that fit my skill set. I am not a quantitative person, so I entered the marketing field and got my start with a private label packaged goods company, which sparked my love for retail and allowed me to hone my marketing skills. Shortly after business school and a job at Proctor & Gamble, I found myself in the non-profit sector. For 11 years, I worked as Director of Development for the Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario, which was a meaningful and rewarding entrepreneurial experience. Sure, it was a bit of a detour, but my work with developing the fundraising side of the non-profit helped me grow business-building skills that would later come in handy when I assumed the help at Blo Blow Dry Bar. My expanded knowledge in management and business building was instrumental in growing Blo and ensuring we had a strong corporate infrastructure and robust system to support each franchise partner as we expanded. Blo had three locations in Vancouver when we launched franchising and today, we have more than 130 locations across the U.S. and Canada.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you received along the way? 

Debi: Surround yourself with people who TRULY believe in your vision and cut those loose who don’t. This may sound harsh, but you must remember that you are building out your vision, and if you are the visionary, you must also be an effective leader. If you are honest about what you want and need, most of the time you will attract like-minded people to share your journey, and that is beautiful. But there are times when people don’t collaborate well with others or can’t hang with the evolution. Don’t force relationships.

Dawn: Trust your gut. Starting a company, and launching a product brought me into a whole new world full of jargon, acronyms and people trying to sell you their opinions. I started 8Greens because I knew something was missing and there was a solution. Everything since then has been deciding where to take our product, and who to partner with. There are no ‘right’ answers to that, and as an entrepreneur if I stay true to what feels right to me. Whatever happens next, I know I made my own choices, not someone else’s.

Theresa: That truth is empowering, seek it.

Amy: My dad once advised me: “you need to be independent and self-sufficient”. Looking back, he may have said it in part for his own survival: as the father of five girls, he needed to know that we would eventually move out of the house. His words and advice had a tremendous impact on me. They gave me a boost of confidence in myself and my own ability to realize opportunities – to reach for what I wanted and have some impact over the direction of my life and successes. Of course, this doesn’t mean that relying on and needing other people isn’t important. A lifetime of experiences on team sports, working on inspiring teams and in partnerships has taught me the value – and enjoyment – of relying on and collaborating with others.

Vanessa: Fake it till you make it! The idea that if you exude confidence and trust in your ability to perform, you’ll learn quickly and will figure out how to achieve your goals. At one point or another, all executives have been in a position where they were unsure of how to handle something, but pushing through these situations ultimately leads to new experiences and growth as a leader. 

For the full interviews, visit,,, and

Adam Mendler