Join Gail Kraft and her guest, Stephany Burns Robertozzi, Contributor to Forbes, Entrepreneur & TODAY, Founder of The Wyld Agency and Chic CEO as they discuss building and losing a business, bouncing back, and pondering the masculine and feminine business perspective.
Listen as Stephanie talks about building Chic CEO, a resource for female entrepreneurs, and how she managed holding on to her integrity and the promise of a safe environment to her customers in the face of an intentional take-down.
Gail: Hey everybody, Gail Kraft here from The Empowering Process Podcast. And with me today is a dear friend of mine, Stephanie Burns Robertozzi. I don’t say your name properly, because I know you as Stephanie Burns. And Stephanie is the founder of an organization called Chic CEO. She’s also part of the Wyld Agency, and she is a contributor to Forbes, quite a prolific contributor to Forbes. If you have Forbes, go out and just read her articles, they’re always spot on and fantastic. So, we’re going to just chat today and talk about how we know each other and what has happened through the years, particularly to Stephanie and where she is right now. So welcome, Stephanie. It’s great to have you here.
Stephanie: Thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited.
Gail: This is going to be so much fun. So, Stephanie and I met, probably around 2012, 2013. I was a brand-new entrepreneur, I was so excited about what I was doing but I had no clue, no clue about how to run a business. I knew what I knew but I absolutely didn’t know anything about what it meant to own your own business. And so, I joined an organization called Hera Hub, which was a co-working place, and met amazing people. And one of them was my dear friend, Stephanie. And Stephanie had a company then called Chic CEO, and that was for women who were new in business.
And I joined, I got great communication about what to do, and she ran events. Since that time, there have been quite a few changes with Chic CEO. And so what I’d like to do is kind of talk about that right now, Stephanie, about what it was, at its peak. What happened, and how you have transitioned through that, to be still successful today, regardless of that experience. If you don’t mind, I’ll ask a few questions.
Stephanie: Sure. So, I guess I’ll just start at the beginning.
So, the idea for Chic CEO came about exactly kind of what you were talking about. You knew what you knew, you had your core competency, but you had no idea what it meant to be in business. Well, that is where a lot of women are starting. And at the time that I had come up with the idea I was in grad school, I was getting my MBA, and it was 2008, 2009. So, if you remember that time, everybody was getting laid off in their jobs. Everybody was losing their jobs around me. Everyone was losing their jobs. And at the time, I was still working full time, and I was working for an innovation consultancy in San Diego.
And at the time, all of my girlfriends kept coming to me and saying, “How do I get a business started? How do I start a business? How do I start a business? How do I start a business?” And I kept asking them, “Why are you asking me this? I have no idea how to start a business,” and they would say, “Well, are you getting your MBA? Aren’t you learning how to start a business?” “No, no, that’s not what you learn when you’re getting an MBA.” You’re learning how to run a business. You’re learning accounting and statistics and strategic management, and global marketing and all those things.
You’re not learning the ABCs or the 123s, this is how you set up your legal entity. This is how you save for your taxes. This is how you create an EIN or write a press release. All the little things that you need to know when you’re starting up was nowhere to be found. And my friends that were asking me these questions, they weren’t dumb people, they were very smart, very resourceful women, and they could not find the answers to these questions. I thought that was insane. I simply could not reconcile that in my head.
So finally, one day, I got all of my girlfriends together, I put them in my living room. I gave them a bunch of wine and I started asking them a ton of questions. “Where are you getting your information from? What’s missing? What questions do you have?” And what came out of it was a lot of questions that they had for sure, but then a lot of it was they were getting their answers simply by trying to Google things or their dad. That was their two sources of information, was like trying to Google things and not finding anything or asking their dad, is what they said.
I thought, “There just has to be one place on the internet that has all of this information aggregated somewhere. This is not rocket science. People start businesses every day. There has to be a checklist somewhere.” There’s not! There wasn’t. So that’s what Chic CEO was; that was the genesis of the idea. So I turned it into my business plan for grad school. I had to present it to the board. The dean loved it. My professor loved it. Like, everybody loved it. It was great but I was still working full time, so I put it back on the shelf, went back to work.
And then in November of 2009, I was laid off just like everybody else. So I went home, grabbed it, and I got to work. And I took all of 2010 to write research, create plan, launch it. During that time, my little brother and I were contestants on the Wheel of Fortune and won some money on the game show. And so I used my half of my winnings to get the website built because back then, there was nothing like Wix or Squarespace, or Strikingly, these are the things to easily create it myself. So I had to spend a very huge chunk of change on getting this website created.
So I did that and then I launched it in December of 2010 and then in about February, a few months later, I brought on my business partner, Jodi, and within six months of Chic CEO’s launch, we were named as one of the Top 10 Entrepreneurial Websites for Women by Forbes and that kind of catapulted Chic CEO to another stratosphere. Both of us quit our full time jobs at that point and got another job, and worked on Chic CEO full time. We held events called San Diego Savvy. We also held them in Portland, LA, in New York, and as well as San Diego, and put out all this information, as much information as we could ever find on how to run a business. So that women like you who didn’t get their MBA but have like an amazing gift or something to share, something marketable, that they didn’t have to worry about the backend business part of it. You could come to Chic CEO and you can get all of that information for free. So that’s what it was. That’s where it started and how we put it out into the world.
Gail: That is pretty amazing, it’s pretty amazing. And I’m pretty sure I went to the LA event. I went to very few events in San Diego. I thought if it was out of town, it was an opportunity to go meet different people. Just to grow your network. And then around 2014’ish, something happened at one of your events and you followed your heart, and it backfired. So let’s talk about why Chic CEO is a different thing right now.
Stephanie: So in San Diego there are a group of men’s rights activists who are part of the National Coalition for Men that find these women only groups and sue them essentially. So these men who were not invited to my event bought a ticket, came to the event, and I turned them away. And so they sued me for discrimination. They sued Chic CEO and me personally, as well as the restaurant, and a couple of our strategic partners. And it was devastating for me, it was absolutely devastating because on the one hand, no, I wasn’t supposed to turn them away.
At the time I didn’t know that. I had consulted an attorney before we started the events, to see if we could have women only events, and she said yes. It turns out that’s not true.
So by turning them away, yes, I could be sued but at the same time, I owed it to the women that I had invited into my safe space, to have a safe space to network. There’s plenty of networking events that happen in San Diego and surrounding areas for everyone. There’s very few places for women to gather and feel that they can actually connect and network without being hit on. There’s so many women that would come to my event that would say, “I thought I was going to a business lunch with this person, and it turned out that person thought it was a date, or kind of tricked me into having lunch so that they could hit on me.” These are the kinds of stories that you hear over and over and over again.
And so my goal was not to necessarily exclude men, but to provide women a place where they can actually network with each other and connect. Even if all they were doing was connecting over somebody’s really amazing shoes. I don’t care. That’s a connection and it led to more. And so you could walk the room and hear women talking about, “Oh, my gosh, I love your shoes. What are you doing for your marketing strategy or how are you getting clients?” I mean, it could dovetail from the most superficial thing to something super meaningful, it didn’t matter. It all meant something.
So for me, I had to protect that for these women. I had to. That was my duty. I had brought them here to gather. So I struggled for a really long time in how I felt about it. While I did something illegal, I don’t think that I did anything wrong. And so that’s been a hard thing for me to navigate because on the one hand, I don’t want anybody to be excluded by any means but I definitely want the people that I invite to gather to feel safe in their space.
Gail: I have to tell you, so I have connected with a lot of female networking groups since I moved from San Diego to New Hampshire. And the first thing I did was network, network. “I know zero people, so just put yourself out there.” And there was one in particular where a gentleman came in, and there was a little bit of a ruckus. And so after, there were a lot of private messages going back and forth about, “Should we have men in there? I thought this was for women only.” And I referred to you, I said, “We cannot say no.” Yes, it changes the energy, it changes your feeling of security, it changes the conversation but we can’t say no.
Stephanie: No, you can’t. And I think that there needs to be safe places for everyone. And I also think that there needs to be safe places for men too. They need their camaraderie and they need the places that they can be themselves and connect with each other too. I would not want to take those moments from them either but at the same time, women have not had an equal… there’s just no… our economic status isn’t equal or equitable. I mean, there’s a lot, we still have more rising to do to get to that equal status. So it’s been an interesting road.
There’s another group called Ladies Get Paid, who were sued by the same men that I was sued by and they’re actually working with the state of California to revise the act that these guys are using to sue. Because the act is called the Unruh Act, and it was actually designed to help and protect minority groups in California, like women, like LGBTQ, black people, brown people, white people. It’s designed to protect the minority and it’s been used to attack us instead. So, it was a very difficult time for Chic CEO. And it was a very difficult time for me, because that was my baby.
That was the thing that I put out into the world and I felt very betrayed by my business. I felt heartbroken by it. When you work tirelessly to put something out into the world that helps people and then it turns around and just strangles you, it’s just heartbreaking. And it took me years to get over, years, I finally settled with them in 2015. And I would just say like, last year, I probably started to feel better about it.
Gail: And this is, anything that you create, and I suspect it’s particularly strong for women because women are natural creators, we give birth, and so creating comes from a different part of your soul for women than for men. And it’s a piece of your soul that’s been attacked, it’s a piece of your identity, and it’s a piece of your heart.
Stephanie: Oh yeah, it was devastating. And the thing about it is, is that I wish, instead of just slapping me with a lawsuit, that they just would have called me and talked to me. That’s what really hurts the most is that it didn’t feel like they were out for genuine change.
Gail: No, they were out for the lawsuit.
Stephanie: And so, the change aspect of it is what really hurt, like, I would have just loved to have a frank conversation with them because we have held many events that did include men. We had a conference that included men, we held a few other networking events that included men, so it wasn’t like, “We hate men!” Absolutely no. I love men, I married one, I have a son, like, I have a brother who I adore, and a dad who I adore. Like, I don’t hate men, as women, we just need safe spaces, we need different information, stuff like that.
So I just really wish that we could have had a better conversation around the whole thing and made actual change. And that’s what bothers me the most and bothered me for a very long time, is simply that. But one of the things that hurt too, was the thought that I would be somebody who was discriminatory and that really, really cut me pretty deep.
Gail: It questioned your integrity.
Stephanie: Yeah, yeah. When all you’re doing is, “I’m out to help women, not hurt men.” So that was never on my radar. And I’m out to help a subset of people that I care about, rise in their entrepreneurial journeys, that’s it. But I remember one day sitting in my car, thinking, “They don’t know my heart. I know my heart, I know me; they don’t know me, I know me,” and this like, peace just washed over me. When I just gave myself permission to remember that I know my heart and my intentions and that kind of thing. So that’s what happened with Chic CEO.
And Chic CEO is still in the universe, it’s a very different animal than it was back then. I don’t feel that there is a lack of information on how to get a business started anymore. Which I’m very happy about. When I started Chic CEO, female entrepreneurship was very much a niche; that is not the case anymore. I’m very happy about that, too. I would have to say that Chic CEO was one of the first resources, simply for female entrepreneurs to get a business started. Not the like, “You can do a cheerleading aspect,” but, “Here’s actually how you do it.” So, how to set up your EIN, how to get your LLC set up, those kinds of things.
And so that’s simply just not the case anymore. And I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that. You never think to yourself, like, “I hope somebody comes into the market and just like obliterates my business.” But I really am, I really am grateful that women now have more resources to make their entrepreneurial dreams come true, because that’s how we create new business cultures and work cultures, and family cultures and things like that.
And that really, really does make me happy because at the end of the day, my purpose is to help women define, create and like, act on the legacy that they want to live. And I started it with female entrepreneurship. And so my mission is still to help women with their legacies, and that’s taking shape in different forms now, but Chic CEO was the beginning of that and I have so much love for it. I do.
Gail: I know. I still see things under the heading of Chic CEO. So, what’s the Wyld Academy? That’s something that you said is in development?
Stephanie: Yeah, the Wyld Agency. So, I am just starting a new agency, which I’m very excited about around personal branding, amplification, visibility, and legacy building, essentially. So, taking founders who have built up successful companies, and now putting them in the spotlight, amplifying the message that they have, and then getting them out there so that their companies have the ancillary benefit of this person becoming known.
Gail: So tell me a little bit more about that. That’s fascinating. How did this come about and where are you on your journey?
Stephanie: So it’s just basically, working on the things that I’ve been working on over these past few years. I do contribute to Forbes. So I’ve made lots of contacts in lots of different media outlets. And so just having these contacts and these people that I know, having a background in brand building, and working with a few clients, and just getting their name out there. Getting press for them, getting speaking opportunities for them, helping them launch books, and just essentially elevating their personal brand, and then seeing the benefit that their business gets because of that.
I actually saw in my own business, with Chic CEO for a long time, you didn’t even know that I existed behind it until we started doing events. And then I started actually meeting people, and then I started speaking, and I started actually putting my picture up on the website. Jodi and I would go out and do speaking panels and things like that, but for a long time, I just wanted Chic CEO to be its own thing. And I noticed a huge difference, a huge shift when I actually showed up and showed my face and showed my opinions, and the things that I was learning. And so I saw the benefit for myself. And so I’m very excited to start doing that for company founders who are just getting started.
Gail: I will say, so I also took a training course that Stephanie had online, and met some amazing people through that. I mean, never face to face, I have yet to meet any of them face to face, but we support each other still today. I think part of that was around branding. And I will say that the biggest lesson that I took away, and it’s something that has been said to me over and over again, but when you’re not ready to hear it, you’re not ready to hear it, is to be yourself, because people are going to gravitate to who you are.
And honestly, although I thought I was being myself, last year was when I was. Thank you, COVID, because I had to put myself out there. I could no longer do face to face network. So I started with Facebook Live. And I would do exactly what we’re doing today. Guys, we do not prepare for this. I’m like, “Stephanie, what do you want to talk about?” She says, “Whatever you want to talk about is alright.” “And we’re gonna hit Chic CEO and just like take a journey,” and she’s like, “Cool.” That’s how I do everything. I might have bullets where I want to touch this and this, but for the most part, this is how I talk. If you coach with me, this is how we’re going to have a conversation. And it’s your input that influenced how I do things.
Gail: So let’s talk a little bit about the female power, which is a little bit different than the masculine power. I’ll give you a quick story and then I want to put this back to you, Stephanie. So, long before I was an entrepreneur, I worked with this woman who was very, very creative, strong, sure of herself, knew where she was going. And we were both like climbing the corporate ladder. And she said to me, “Gail, I am so happy that my mother decided to send me to an all-female college because it was only there that I could explore and discover who I am without the trappings of boys around. It cleared the way for me to express myself in a safe cocoon and grow, and become the person that I am today.”
Gail: Right? That was so powerful to hear that. And the sisterhood, I have a course I’m doing about healing sisterhood wounds. Sisterhood is so powerful.
Stephanie: Oh yeah.
Gail: Oh yeah. So let’s talk a little bit about that kind of power, Stephanie, because you’ve really got that nailed.
Stephanie: Oh, it’s essential to my being. I mean, truthfully. So when I went to college, I rushed and joined a sorority. And I had a boyfriend, and so I hung out with him all the time and I barely hung out with like, my sorority sisters or anything. I was kind of like, “Oh yeah, I’m part of it,” but I’m not really part of it. So I finally ended things with that guy and was sitting in my sorority house a lot. And so finally, my sorority sisters were like, “Do you want to hang out?” and I was like, “Yeah.” And so finally, I got involved with this sisterhood.
And I tell you now, in my entire life, I’ve never felt more accepted for who I am, than I was in those few years with those women. And that experience was wonderful. My girlfriends from college, and I, still to this day, we Marco Polo every day, 20 years later, we still Marco Polo every day, and I see their beautiful faces, and we’re all over the country. And I get to talk to these women who love me and have loved me for decades, from the time I was 18, to now, and there is a lot of growth that happens between those years. I mean, thank goodness, they still love me, because I mean, who does that?
So I think once I had that sisterhood of those women, I had a grounding. And then with Chic CEO in our network there, again, that was a grounding for me, I need to be surrounded by big groups of women. I need it like air. Right now, I’m in Bentonville, Arkansas. And when I got here, again, the first thing I did is I went and found a female networking group, there’s about a hundred women that meet for lunch once a month. And I notice that I go in there feeling 500 pounds, and I leave feeling like a feather. Like, it just fills me up, my energy just is up, and I just feel like I need to be around those women. I need that.
And so I didn’t realize I was creating something to fulfill that need in me too, when I was creating Chic CEO. Women, we just do, we need to be around each other, and we need to support each other. I hate it when other women say things like, “Well, I don’t like to work with other women, they’re so catty,” or big groups, “I never had girlfriends because they’re so mean and stuff.” I’m like, “Where? Where are those people?” Like I’ve maybe run across a woman like that maybe twice in my life. If you’re saying that then it’s you.
Gail: It’s where you’re focused on. So I call it a stunt in growing and it happens to men too. So the men that hang around with the gang and go to the bars to be around men, not to drink but to be around men, are still hanging on the corner from when they were 14. And the girls that are being catty are still being sophomoric. I call it sophomoric. They haven’t grown out of that phase. And it’s not every woman or every man, it’s who you’re focusing on. I’m sorry, but I know some men who grow faster than me. I mean, we’re like, “Boop, boop, bopp,” but differently. As you said, they’re like hunt, kill, “You can do it!” I did the 75 Hard in a group and they’re like, “Go for it! Go for it!” and I’m like, “Oh, and this is the approach that I took today.” And they’re like, “Yeah!” and I’m like, “And I sat down and had a conversation with myself.”
Stephanie: This is so funny that you say this. I’m going to go off on a tangent real quick about something because it replies to this. But I don’t know if you’ve ever watched the show, Alone?
Stephanie: It’s fascinating. But these people dropped off in the Arctic. And they just did an episode where if you stayed a hundred days in the Arctic, you won a million dollars. Well, it came down to like this one guy and this one girl and my husband and I were watching them and we’re like, “This is incredible.” They had to pull the woman out because she got too thin. The whole time she’s there, she’s like, “I just want to feel like I’m one with nature,” and every time she kills a bunny to eat, she thanks it. She just really feels connected.
And then this man is like, “I just stabbed musk ox,” and he just like is eating the heart with the blood. And my husband and I were sitting there and I was like, “They literally achieved the same goal, two vastly different ways. This is so fascinating.” And that’s exactly what you’re talking about. It’s like, doing 75 Hard because I just started 75 Hard but you don’t have to go at it like, “Blood, kill! Argh!” You can go at it, like, “I am one with nature and myself,” and still meet the same goal. And so we have different approaches, men and women.
And that’s another thing, is I hate when people say, “Act like a man,” or, “Think like a man, act like a woman.” No, no, I can think like a woman and act like a woman, and still achieve goals. And so that’s another thing about this camaraderie of sisterhood, is there’s a place for you to be among women, to be a woman and to think like a woman, and to achieve your goals and accomplish like a woman. And it’s okay.
Gail: Right, from a feminine perspective. And it’s all about balance. So as a coach, one of the things I talk about is the law of polarity. Where are you on the law of polarity? And if you are, “I want love in my life but all I get is anger and frustration,” well, you’re on the polarity love scale. You’re just at this polarity and not that polarity. So you are loving because you can’t love unless you know the lack of love. And so how do you shift from that? And that’s all the male and the female, and I don’t want to say men, women, but the male energy and the female energy, because gender sometimes has nothing to do with it. They’re both needed.
Stephanie: Oh yes. Yes. Yes, absolutely. And I say this all the time; that I think the next evolution of female entrepreneurship is men. I really do. I truly believe we are at a moment now in our journey of owning businesses, running businesses, where men are more important now than they ever have been. We need their support, we need their vote of confidence. We need their strategy. We need so much from them in order for us to get to that next level. Back in the 80s, when the women were just killing it for our generation so that they could climb that… I mean, they went through hell.
Gail: I was one of them.
Stephanie: Thank you.
Gail: I was on the board of directors and I hated every second of it.
Stephanie: And I want to say thank you, to you, for going into that battle for my generation, and the generations to come because they will never know the shit that you went through. They will never know. They won’t. And so there was that. And then after that, is that, “You can do it. You can do it.” “Okay, great, great, great.” And then when I decided to create Chic CEO is because I didn’t want to hear, “You can do it, you can do it,” anymore. I want to hear, “How do I do it? How do I do it? How do I do it?”
And so now, I think we have the how, how, how, and now what we need from men is the, “Okay, here’s the spaces you need to be put into. Here’s the people you need to be talking to. Here’s how I can pull you up the ladder with me. You need to be sitting right next to me at this table,” or, “I need to be sitting right next to you at this table.” Like the equality of it, we need to be doing this together now. And so that, to me, the integration of the feminine and the masculine in business is where I think we’re just going to see an explosion of girls.
Gail: Oh, yes. I think the confusion is lessening. So back in the 80s when women were literally, and I’ll be crass, putting on the jockstrap in order to be there with the men and stand toe to toe, and actually be heard, women lost themselves. I know I lost myself. That’s why I hated it. I had to get out of it. I needed to be who I was. But as the woman’s movement became stronger, men didn’t know their role anymore. They didn’t understand. And now men are safe in touching their feminine side, and women are learning that you can touch your masculine side without putting on the jockstrap.
I mean, as harsh as I am, because I am raw and real but I’m not mean, I’m not aggressive, just, we need to have the hard conversation.
Stephanie: And I think it has to happen.
Gail: And it’s so important. Corporate America was never designed for women. So we have a hard time fitting in it. I hated it too when I was in it. I cried all the way to work. I cried the whole way home. I’m like, “Why do I hate this so much?” and it’s because I didn’t fit into it. There are things that are different about men and women, men cannot have children. We cannot change that. There’s zero way that we could ever change that. That is biology. So when we have families, we have to pull back because corporate America is not designed for women who have children. It’s not.
So what do we need to do? Women need to create their own corporate cultures that account for that. Instead of trying to change the cultures that we’re in, we have to create our own cultures that fit people who want families. That’s just life. I had the amazing fortune, after I left… I didn’t leave corporate, but I left the boardroom, was like, “I’m not going to go any higher than this,” because I had to figure out what that meant. I worked for a company that was matriarchal. 80% of senior leadership was women. And at first, I didn’t know how to navigate that.
I was very fortunate to have a woman, also named Stephanie, that her and I clashed, and I was able to go into her office and say, “We need to fix this,” and she like, closes the door and she says, “You’re right.” You could not do that with a man. It would be like, “You’re fired!” And we talked about, “This is my perception of what you’re doing,” and she’s like, “This is my perception of what you’re doing.” And we were so off in some places, and so spot on in other places. And I’m like, “You’re climbing the ladder. I’ve been there. I don’t want to be there. I am not in your way, first of all,” and she’s like, “You’re not?” It’s like, “Hell, no, you can have it, but I can help you get there.” I mean, to this day, we’re still like on LinkedIn, still friends. But she helped me understand how to get things done in a matriarchal organization.
Stephanie: And that’s what’s needed. That’s what’s needed. And I think it’s a very interesting time for company cultures and yeah, men are very important to that. They’re very important to that.
Gail: It’ll be interesting to see how it all evolves. So, Stephanie, thank you so much for your time. I could talk to you forever. So, if people wanted to know more about Chic CEO and more about the Wyld Agency, that is very, very interesting, how would they get in touch with you?
Stephanie: Well, you can go to my personal website which is stephanie-burns.com or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect with me on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter, or Instagram, wherever. I’m everywhere. Chic CEO is chic-ceo.com. Check it out.
Gail: And we’ll have all that information down below when we’re done. This has been awesome. And I’ll probably call you for some other conversations a little bit later.
Stephanie: Sounds lovely. That was fun.
Gail: When you get the Wyld Agency going, I want to know more about it.
Stephanie: I will, absolutely.
Gail: So, thank you everybody for joining Stephanie and me today. And this is Gail Kraft from The Empowering Process podcast. If this really was interesting to you, by all means, like it, share it, comment. If something came up that you would like to talk more about, do comment so that I can create another showing for you. And as always, Gail Kraft, The Empowering Process. Love you. Take care. Bye-bye.