The time of “if I can get with” economy is over, Indiana Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann told students from the Ron Rubin School of the Entrepreneur at Culver Academies recently. For years, people have gone to college and graduated, hoping to “get on with” Eli Lilly, General Electric, or another of Indiana’s larger employers.
But today’s economy is focused on companies of 500 people or less, she said during her short talk Tuesday morning. Small companies and small businesses “really are the job-producing” engine for the state. Companies with less than 500 employees have created 4.3 million jobs in the state, she said.
Ellspermann is an example of the small business mentality. She grew up in her father’s Main Street jewelry store in Ferdinand, Ind. That meant she spent “every vacation, every break, and every snow day” working in the store.
After graduating from Purdue University with a degree in industrial engineering, she established a career in engineering and management at Michelin and Frito-Lay. Then, while working on her master’s degree and doctorate in industrial engineering from the University of Louisville, she established Ellspermann and Associates. That started a 20-year career of running her own consulting business.
She later became the founding director of the University of Southern Indiana’s Center for Applied Research and Economic Development.
Be bold. Ask people to be your mentor.
It was what she learned running her own business that helps guide her in overseeing the state’s economic development efforts, including the Office of Small Business and Entrepreneurship. She outlined some of those suggestions for the students:
- Don’t be afraid to fail. In this risk-averse world, people are afraid to take chances. With all business school students writing business plans, almost none of them will ever test the waters. But most major entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley failed twice before becoming the “next Google.” The Office of Small Business and Entrepreneurship even has an annual “Fail Fest,” so people can learn from each other. Failure is not a bad thing “when you learn from it,” she said.
- At the minimum, an entrepreneur must have a “viable product,” whether that be a piece of machinery or valuable information. When she started her business at age 26, Ellspermann had no misgivings talking to business owners twice her age because “I believed in what I was doing.”
- Find a mentor. Ellspermann has had mentors for her educational, business and her political careers. “Be bold. Ask people to be your mentor,” she said. Her political mentor is former Sen. Richard G. Lugar.
- Ellspermann was involved in a local networking group that had one rule: “We couldn’t sell to each other.” Ten years later, many of them ended up working together on different projects and only one business failed. The national failure rate is 90 percent. She has also been involved in a statewide women’s entrepreneurial group called Launch Ladies, which provides support to women starting new businesses.
- For women, “ask for what you’re worth,” she said. “Sometimes, (women) are too polite.” Women will often settle for what they are offered rather than negotiate a better deal. “Be kind and be thoughtful when you do it,” Ellspermann said of negotiating, “but be assertive.”
- Build a consensus. The majority may rule but it isn’t an effective way to operate. Ellspermann said her husband constantly reminds her that 48 percent of the people in Indiana did not vote for her and Gov. Mike Pence. It is always easier to operate when there is consensus. The biggest successes come when you can reach a consensus of opinion.
Ellspermann also encouraged students to perform some type of public service work. Women are especially needed in the political arena, she said. Less than 20 percent of the state and federal elected officials are female. Consider running for the school board, city council, mayor, state representative or state senator seats.