— Interview by Emily Santos
Emily is a social producer and brand strategist. Since graduating from Columbia College Chicago in 2018 she has been sharpening her craft in the digital space.
Renata Merino is all about empowering herself and the women around her. She is the definition of girl boss and is looking to add other amazing women into her tribe with Blazin Babes, a women’s professional networking organization where women come together in a social setting to network with one another to elicit business connections. Hear from Renata as she shares her passion for guiding women to achieve their professional dreams and aspirations and the importance of multi-generational wealth for the Latinx community.
Emily: What does the value of multi-generational wealth mean to the Latino community and why is it so important?
Renata: Anyone who was raised by immigrant parents or experienced a childhood where opportunity did not exist, it creates a sense of drive and powerful work ethic within yourself to succeed. Growing up in the United States, my parents worked hard and made many sacrifices along the way to ensure my sisters and I grew up in a community, which offered us support and superior education. The sacrifices my parents made allowed my sisters and I the opportunity to have a positive impact on the next generation. So, when it comes to “multi-generational” wealth, I strongly believe it is through a series of choices made by the past generation that impacts future generations. Life is tough and everyone is dealt a deck of cards. It’s what you do with those cards that have a direct impact on what happens next. It is an investment in the future. An investment in future generations to come.
Emily: What are the benefits and challenges of being a Latinx entrepreneur?
Renata: First, I think being a female LatinX entrepreneur is a “double whammy” I am a female and a minority. This is not a complaint. This is not a means to get funding, sympathy nor support. This is simply a fact. As a female entrepreneur, I have found it challenging in approaching the process of raising capital in the mecca of a very male-dominated white venture capital industry.
I come from a background of investment banking where I was one of 2 women out of a team of 30 men in addition to having had a career in the corporate Fortune 500 sports and fitness manufacturing industries where 90% of the sales, engineering and executive teams were all-male, I have no problem pitching, managing and navigating my way in and around (or maybe sometimes even through) a sea of testosterone. (Bring on the Old Spice). But when you are an entrepreneur, female and Latina and are dependent upon the funding to invest in, scale, grow and support your business and staff, you need to be ready for the “no’s”. First, because most VC’s and angels are Baby Boomers and Gen X all-white men and they tend to fund founders who look like them. However as more Millennials are forming VC’s, they see the value of diversity, diverse teams, and diverse founders. Alexis O’Hanian (Mr. Serena Williams and my hero), is a full supporter of female founders with his VC, Initialized Capital after having funded The Mom Project among other start-ups founded by women and for women. Baron Davis, NBA All-Star supports diversity and funding in the entrepreneurial space, and finally, I am overjoyed to see the expansive growth of many female-founded VC’s such as Invest Her, Backstage Capital, and Pear VC, all VC’s who are investing in diversity.
Emily: Why does your company have high growth potential?
Renata: With the recent #TimesUp movement and women taking charge of their future, career, and independence, there is a strong need for women to support other women both personally and professionally. I wholeheartedly believe in the power of the masses. When people come together and support one another, we see change happen. Blazin’ Babes is all about the power of the masses. The power of women coming together to stand by and support one another through networking and community. This trend of community building and networking is not new. The Stiletto Network, a book written by Pamela Ryckman in 2013 identified a surge in the United States that has been brewing over several years where groups of women come together, either formally or informally over dinner, cocktails or in social settings to create personal connections and foster business opportunities which have a direct impact on economic growth and business development for our country and globally overall. This grassroots uprising needs a platform to support sustainable growth. Blazin Babes provides such a platform. Mirroring the Weight Watch business model which is comprised of chapters nationwide supported by tech, Blazin’ Babes is the future of women, career and economic growth.
Emily: What is the company’s 5-year vision?
Renata: We seek to scale and launch multiple chapters nationwide in addition to investing in more tech-based networking. We are currently focused on building strategic partnerships in addition to recruiting chapter leads as well as building a staff for our corporate needs including a director of national events, director of national programming as well as a few very cool and dynamic social media-marketing interns. (I am on a mission to stand outside of Northwestern’s Kellogg and Chicago Booth campus’ with a sign recruiting some badass MBA interns). Our intention is to serve and help more women nationwide achieve their career goals through networking events, career development resources and programming and utilize tech as a means for communication, accessing career development resources, partnership and making connections.
Emily: What inspired you to start your company?
Renata: My story is multi-faceted beginning with being raised by parents who taught my sisters and I that girls can do anything, regardless. Having been given the opportunity to attend an all-girls middle and high school with a robust global network, I was educated on the basis of 5 core values of the Sacred Heart instilling in me a sense of confidence, drive for excellence, grit and giving back. As one who always loved making connections with people, unknowingly I built a strong network throughout high school, college, business school and into my corporate and entrepreneurial career. Always seeking out networking opportunities with a love for making personal and professional connections, I was living in Chicago attending networking events at the time. Moving to the suburbs to raise my family, there were limited opportunities to attend formal networking events in the burbs. I found myself driving into the city on a Wednesday night after a long day of working, carting kids to and from activities, feeding them and getting them to bed and albeit late to the networking event, I would finally make it there, exhausted and frustrated, to say the least. When I got to the event, I was bored out of my mind because the event was either all about pushing business cards in a stoic environment or it felt forced and disingenuous. At the time, the book The Stiletto Network came out which was written by a friend of mine, Pamela Ryckman. Pamela spoke of an explosion of women groups popping up in and around the United States where women across different industries were getting together over cocktails or dinner to connect. These gatherings started out as personal connections and then transformed into professional opportunities. From moms launching businesses in their basement to high power CEO’s making huge financial business transactions, it was all about women supporting women regardless of title, level, education or industry.
And while this explosion was happening, my preconceived notions of women in the burbs was blown away. I met dynamic women who were doing it all. From driving their children to and from their after-school activities to hopping on a business call in their car during their kids’ soccer practice, I would have these one-off conversations with these women who were just like me, trying to manage it all while aspiring to achieve their career goals and aspirations. I thought to myself, there most certainly is an unmet need for women brewing in the burbs across America and I am going to solve this problem by creating opportunities for women. Hence in 2014 in the burbs of Chi-town, Blazin’ Babes was born and is now a certified B Corporation and a Public Benefit Corporation.
Emily: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs looking to take their startup to the next level?
Renata: Oh! I love this question. Here is my top 10 list that I created during the start of my entrepreneurial journey several years ago that’s entitled, “Words on My Wall”. This bit of advice is scribbled on my dry erase wall in my home office…….
Words on My Wall
- by Renata Merino, founder & CEO, Blazin’ Babes, PBC
1. Don’t Panic. It will get done.
2. Yes. It needs to be perfect, but maybe not now.
3. Go with your gut & trust your instincts.
4. Find champions & welcome their advice.
5. You cannot please everyone but try anyway.
6. Being a perfectionist is a good thing. Use it to your advantage.
7. Be competitive & win even if you have to keep trying. (In other words, if one door closes, there are other doors).
8. Never give up.
9. Weed out the B.S.
10. Always keep striving. Don’t accept anything less.
Emily: How does Blazin Babes connect to you personally?
Renata: Blazin’ Babes is the 3rd child I never had. I treat Blazin’ Babes the same way that I treat and take care of my two children (ages 12 and 10)…ppexcept Blazin’ Babes is only 4 years old and thank God, potty trained.
On a more serious note, I think you get to a certain point in your life where you see the bigger picture. You determine why you were placed on this earth. You think beyond money, power, fame and you think about your legacy. How do you want others to remember you by? What can you do to help others? How can you utilize the cards that have been dealt with you in such a way to give back to those around you? How do you take the lessons learned in your life and help those who might be going through similar challenges? How can I impact the future generation in a positive light? Can I help give my daughter and my son a more viable future full of opportunities? This is how I connect personally to Blazin’ Babes.
I am also a big proponent of giving back. I wrestled with registering Blazin’ Babes as a non-profit but my Chicago Booth and investment banking side of me was like Jiminy Cricket sitting on one of my shoulders shaking his head saying, “No way. Your blood sweat and tears (and no salary for several years) does not justify making this gig a non-profit.” I am all about giving back but also about the bottom line. This is a business that creates value for women, for businesses, for communities, for partners, and for the economy. You can still be a mission-driven business and meet shareholder value. Hence why Blazin’ Babes became a certified B Corporation 3 years ago. We not only help women, but we also partner and donate with non-profits and support disadvantaged groups because our network has the means to do so. So, the core values of taking action to support community that was instilled in me at a young age both within my family and childhood upbringing and as a Sacred Heart alum still hold true in everything I do, including Blazin’ Babes.
Another aspect of how Blazin’ Babes impacts me personally is my past experience navigating the injustices of being a woman in business. Having worked in a male-dominated investment banking environment, I experience sexual discrimination firsthand at age 25. In this same environment, I also experienced unequal pay, discovering that my male counterpart with less experience was making more money than I was at the time. I also experienced a female executive (the most senior woman on our team) make derogative comments to me about how I dressed and the color of my nail polish. Later in my career when I pitched to the all-male executive team that I wanted flexibility as a first-time mother, my proposal was shot down. That was in 2007.
So at the end of the day, I am driven by a higher force that goes beyond me. I am compelled to help other women. Be it my upbringing, my all-girls high school education, my experience working in male-dominated fields and feeling firsthand the effects of discrimination or maybe it’s in my DNA. Regardless, Blazin’ Babes is part of my soul. It is a sisterhood. It is a tribe of badass women who have had my back and who have had each other’s backs. It is a feeling. It is a bond. The bond that we all have because we all have faced the same injustices, the same challenges and we are here for each other and can help one another just by listening and by connecting. This is what life is all about. Helping one another overcome adversity and doing the best we can do in a world that is not perfect.
Emily: Tell us about the unique challenges that you’ve faced when starting Blazin Babes.
Renata: Oooh. This is a great question. I will organize my response in a series of topics or themes that I really wrestled with throughout my entrepreneurial journey with Blazin’ Babes…...
1.) Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen
At first, when launching Blazin’ Babes, I recognized early on that you can’t have too many cooks in the kitchen. When there are too many players who are responsible for making the big decisions, nothing gets done or you move at a snails’ pace or perhaps animosity brews…especially with big personalities. In addition, I think if you are going to have a co-founder, a team or a partner, you need to vet them before bringing them onboard. One way that I have found that works best is to “date” them. Give them a 6-month “trial” or “internship”. We all know the first 3 months of dating is pure bliss. It’s the next 3 months where the real shit happens and the true working styles and personalities come out. The first 3 months are usually the honeymoon phase when everything is wonderful and everything is new and exciting. Then months 3-6 happen. That's when you figure out if you are compatible. Dating a prospective co-founder, staff or team member before giving them equity or a secure position in your company is the best move you can make as an entrepreneur.
2.) Pick from your top tier “Bucket”
I’ve got this thing called “buckets”. My close friends, business colleagues, past teammates and fellow entrepreneurs who have spent a significant amount of time with me know exactly what I am talking about. They constantly ask me what bucket they fall into. It’s a running joke that we have….(Ha! Ha! Love you guys!)
Over the years, I have subconsciously created these so-called, “networking buckets”. Through meeting new people, networking and experiencing various situations between and among my peeps, I have discovered that people fall into “buckets”. Bottom line, I’ve learned through mistakes in hiring, working with or partnering with team members, staff, angel investors, VC’s and advisory board members that you need to selectively pick from your buckets and until you have spent enough time with these people, wait and see how they should be involved in your business. Be smart. Be selective. And be Honest…with yourself and your team when deciding who to bring onboard.
3). Stay in Your Lane
We can’t be all things to all people. This is in life and in business. When you have a start-up, you have your mission, you have your vision, you have your brand and you have your goals. I call this the brand bible. It should be a one-page document and it should also include your target audience. I created this before I wrote my business plan and to this day after a few minor tweaks, I reference this often to ensure I am staying on track and not shifting into a different lane because let me tell you, I started to shift and it was bad.
First, I know that Blazin’ Babes has competitors. There will always be competitors. Watch them. Learn from them. Maybe even be better than them. But don’t let them freak you out. Stay in your lane. Trust who you are. Let them do their thing. You do your thing. There is enough to go around for everyone and at the end of the day, from a Blazin’ Babes’ perspective and supporting women, we are all on the same team. Be savvy. Be smart. Make good financial and strategic decisions. You can even decide to pivot, but make sure you stay true to your brand, your vision, your mission, and your goals. I learned this the hard way when trying to please all my members, all my partners, all my “naysayers” and I’ve erroneously reacted to my competitors because I panicked and was worried I would fail if I didn't make a move. I also did this when I received hardcore advice and feedback from big players in the entrepreneurial industrY…which brings me to the next big thing I learned when launching Blazin’ Babes…
3.) Advisory. Get it now, get if often. But remember…they are not GOD.
One thing that I have learned over the past several years as an entrepreneur and a leader is to get out of my “bubble”, get out of my home office and get out of my head. I am one person with one opinion, with one set of experiences and one set of ideas. I may be smart with a 20-year career under my belt, on my second start-up, but I sure as hell don’t know everything. I think as leaders and as entrepreneurs, we need to do two things. First, get as much advice as possible… and from the right people. Network. Go to events, meetings, and coffees. I would say for every 10 people that I have met, 2 of them have led to a strategic connection, some great advice, a lead or a win. You need to get out of your own space and network for advice. This is critical. If not, you will fail. Sorry, it is what it is. It’s R.E.A.L.I.T.Y.
You will fail if you don't ask for advice and feedback on your business. And let me make a statement about “whom” you should get advice from. Get advice from entrepreneurs, VC’s, angel investors, business professionals and even outside people not within your industry. Ask them questions. Don’t ask for connections or money. Ask them questions about their business and get advice. This is what I have done and it’s has made a world of a difference for myself and for my business. And CAUTION!!! Do not take their advice like they are GOD!!! I am telling you…..they are not GOD. Just because they made it big doesn’t mean that they are right. Just because they got funding, doesn’t mean that they are right. Just because they are well connected, doesn’t mean that they are right. Listen, access their feedback and say “thank you”. Take in what they say. Think about it. And then decide what you are going to do with their feedback and advice. Maybe they will help you make a new connection or offer another lead for you? That’s great. And most importantly, foster the relationships from individuals that you feel have helped you because they can become your champions. And we all need champions when we are this solo journey as an entrepreneur.
In addition to networking and gaining advice from individuals, apply to incubators (like WISTEM or LATINX of 1871 Chicago, Tech Stars, and Y Combinator). When I applied to 1871 Chicago and was part of the Latinx program in 2017, my entire world changed…and in more ways than one. Not only did I receive valuable feedback on how to grow and scale my business, but also was able to learn from my fellow entrepreneurs who were generous enough to share their experiences. More importantly, through this program, I was introduced to an entrepreneurial network, which not only inspired me but also led me to new opportunities and valuable connections.
But let’s be real here and talk about one big mistake I made after leaving my incubator program. I became depressed. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough or my business wasn’t good enough. Whether I was comparing myself to everyone or had preconceived notions of not being where I wanted to be on my own timeline, I became depressed. As someone with a type A personality who is all about driving towards and exceeding goals, it took me a while to realize that I am on my own timeline and to not compare myself to others. We are all on our own journey and there will be a time and place for us to hit some home runs. Yes, it is important to have a timeline and set goals, but be willing to be flexible and not too hard on yourself. We all have personal situations which may or may not impact our progress and success. Don’t compare yourself to others because you just don’t know what they have been through, how they got to where they are now and what their personal situation might be. And the final take away from all of this, make sure you have a backup plan. Yes, we are risk takers as entrepreneurs, but mitigate your bigger risks with a back-up plan…and start early. Don’t wait to the last minute. This is what I learned early on in both of my start-up businesses.
Emily: What does success look like to Blazin Babes?
Success for Blazin’ Babes means helping more and more women achieve their career goals and aspirations through the power of networking. And we will do this through scaling. Whether it’s via our continued organic growth or via a strategic investor or seed round from a powerhouse VC that shares our mission and vision, we are aggressively looking to scale both in tech and chapters nationwide. Success for us means hiring staff, finding a really good chapter leads, creating additional strategic partnerships, bringing in new members and ultimately having a much larger impact on making sweeping changes for women and career nationally. We are looking to build our advisory team with great people (men and women) who share our vision and business goals. And we know that with the powerful movement for women taking place today, we are on a strong path toward success for ourselves and for women everywhere.