Interview with Trish Tonaj, Author, Coach and Speaker

Starting a business for the first time presents a host of challenges, from securing capital to figuring out the marketing strategies that will best reach customers and prospective clients. For entrepreneurs, there are often the added hurdles of self-doubt and discouragement. Those hurdles can seem even higher when the entrepreneur is a woman.

A strong support system can make a significant difference in overcoming the obstacles female entrepreneurs face, especially in the early stages of their business. Family and friends who provide encouragement through setbacks play a vital role. Others who have shared similar experiences offer invaluable insight, while a business coach can truly inspire and provide the type of guidance that leads to success.

Trish Tonaj is a coach, author and passionate believer in the power of mentorship. With over 25 years of entrepreneurial experience and through her books A Diary of Change: 12 Personal Tools and Breaking Barriers, she has helped business owners and enterprise leaders to reach their full potential while creating a culture of success along the way. 

Ramia El Agamy had a chance to sit down with Trish Tonaj to discuss the unique issues that women entrepreneurs face today and how mentoring and storytelling can help them expand their horizons.

Mentorship and the Power of Storytelling
Image courtesy of Trish Tonaj.

What brought you to this field and how did you become passionate about it?

I started my first company in 1993 – after ten years in corporate life, that was my initial segue into entrepreneurship. It was in 2008 that I decided to make a career change and move into consulting – helping companies break barriers and supporting small enterprise organisations in overcoming those hurdles that usually stop people from moving towards success.

During one of those contracts, the brand manager said to me, ‘Trish, you should consider being a coach because this has been a wonderful experience.’ I was surprised – that was not something I had thought about. I went on a quest to find out what was involved in the ‘business’ of coaching and became certified through the Certified Coaches Federation, an international organisation that supports coaches all over the world.

I have completed certification as a Master Coach Practitioner. As part of that process, defending my thesis was a great roadmap for my own strategic plan. Certification demonstrates my personal commitment not only to lifelong learning but also to a ‘walk the walk and talk the talk’ philosophy.

How did you end up specialising in entrepreneurs as a segment?

When I first started my company in 1993, there were no mentors for women by women. It was all blue suits and red ties. In 2008, when I decided to close my marketing and communications company and move into brand strategy and consulting, I was aiming to help entrepreneurs overcome barriers and avoid some of the mistakes that I had made along the way.

I didn’t have a formal mentor as an entrepreneur, but I did have someone in mind who created an energy of success – an inspirational mentor. She was someone I read about and seen her work in fashion magazines: Coco Chanel. I never met her personally, but I feel she was the first feminist who broke a lot of barriers for other women. Her story fuelled my passion for entrepreneurship and business innovation.

What are the things that male guidance was not able to prepare you for throughout your career?

There are some challenges that women face in terms of being heard as a thought leader or an industry leader in a particular segment. For instance, when looking for financing to expand their businesses, the banking system treats women differently than men. Times are changing, but, I still think that there’s a number of unique hurdles we have to overcome when we’re trying to get financing. It might have been helpful for me at the time to have had the guidance of a female entrepreneur who had already been through that process. Instead, I ended up self-financing my company.

For the first three years that I was in business, I didn’t take a salary. My family provided seed money to get started, and I poured everything back into the business. I realised that I would have to do it on my own. Throughout my years in business, I have never had a bank loan – I was completely self-financed – and I think, at times, I may have missed out on some opportunities.

I always had to pull in the reins a little on the things that I wanted to do because of limited financing. I think there are still unique barriers, but with the increase of women in leadership roles, I look forward to the changes that will encourage collaboration.

Mentorship and the Power of Storytelling
Image courtesy of Trish Tonaj.

What other hurdles do women mention when it comes to their entrepreneurial journey and how do you help them overcome those challenges?

The most prevalent is finding the right balance between wealth and well-being. We’re also mothers and caregivers, and we still have a lot of focus in the home. Some female entrepreneurs decide not to have families because they don’t feel that they can bridge that gap. Others try to have it all and rely on a support system but still experience a sense of guilt. When they think about their children at home while they are pursuing the next phase of their business career, they struggle with finding balance.

Together, we devise strategies to assist not only with time management but also delegating tasks instead of trying to do everything themselves. We find ways to expand their network, making connections with other entrepreneurs that provide services in specific areas, such as bookkeeping or social media, so they can free up time and create a referral network.

Your book Breaking Barriers has reached thousands of readers, and a new edition is coming out this year. What was the inspiration behind it?

I wrote Breaking Barriers after attending a Certificate in Mediation and Dispute Resolution at Harvard Law School Negotiation Institute. During a networking session, I asked people why they had come to Harvard and what excited them about their career. Every single person mentioned a mentor – someone who had a profound impact on their own journey. I thought it was amazing that, in every case, a mentor had boosted their self-confidence and helped them break a barrier

I started to do research on the idea of mentorship. Within a few months, I began to write a book sharing stories on female entrepreneurs – just ordinary women doing ‘extra’ ordinary things. We published the book in 2016. Since then, I’ve been on a quest to share entrepreneurial stories because research shows that when we hear or share a story, we inspire someone to move outside their comfort zone and maybe try something new.

This year, I am in the process of writing an international version of Breaking Barriers because I think that women all over the world share similar experiences. I have also launched a guest blog series sharing stories from entrepreneurs and enterprise leaders. Some of them have been in business for many years; others are incubator businesses. One thing they all have in common is the desire to share their story in the hopes of inspiring someone else.

Was there anything about the experience that really surprised you?

I was surprised by how many women didn’t want to share their story. I always preface the project by saying it’s all about mentorship and trying to inspire someone else who may be thinking about their own entrepreneurial journey. I think I spoke to almost ten women before I got the first yes, but then, the first lady connected me with others, and it just snowballed from there.

Mentorship and the Power of Storytelling
Image courtesy of Trish Tonaj.

When the book came out, did you get reactions from other segments that might not have been your primary audience, such as men?

For sure. When we launched the book, the audience was probably a 50/50 split. It was interesting to hear how many men came up to me and said, ‘This is a fascinating idea. I know somebody that you might like to talk to.’ It was very encouraging to see that the book broke the gender gap. The stories weren’t just about women for women; they were stories about success and entrepreneurship. It’s been wonderful to discover that both men and women find the stories equally interesting.

Women have made real strides in business and the workplace, especially over the past few years. What do you think will impact future successes the most?

I think we have to find our passion and be authentic. Authenticity becomes a foundational element when we’re coaching. Business is business – it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. We all struggle with similar challenges. What changes the landscape a little is who we are as women and how we perceive ourselves in the world. Walking the walk and talking the talk is crucial. There’s no longer an ivory tower.

We also need to give each other a break. It’s okay to fail and make mistakes. Entrepreneurship gives us the opportunity to be more fluid in the things we do and allows us to make course corrections along the way. That’s where sharing our stories may help each other the most because it’s not all a bed of roses – there are also a few thorns. I often use a quote now that seems to start a new conversation: ‘May your legacy create a footprint of success for the next person who steps into your shoes.’ Mentorship truly is all about sharing stories to inspire and support great ideas!