How 3 Entrepreneurs' Passion Projects Transformed Their Day Jobs

These three women were already successful founders, but when they committed themselves to selfless work their businesses really took off.

Sue Chen was one of those rare twenty-something entrepreneurs who launched a business just barely out of college. It took a young eye to start Nova Medical Products an entire collection of stylish home medical equipment that ditched the Medicare model and sold directly to retailers.

Over the course of 20 years at the helm, Chen has built Nova Medical Products into a big player in the industry. But it wasn’t until 2009, that Nova started experience significant growth. For this she credits her first experiences with diving.

A different kind of shark tank

Ten years ago after getting certified and completing about 25 dives, Chen was off to the Galapagos Islands. There, Chen says she had "encounters" with dolphins, sea lions, and red lipped bat fish. "The ones that somehow entered into my heart were with sharks," says Chen.

"I quickly realized how misunderstood and mislabeled these beautiful, complex, incredible, intelligent, and thoughtful animals," she says. Fear turned to care in moments when she realized that sharks were being slaughtered by the millions and on the brink of extinction. Not in the least because their prized fins are used for soup, which for Chen as a Chinese-American, was a dish she’d consumed several times. "I also learned how critical sharks are to the health of our oceans and our planet," she says, "I felt this overwhelming and unshakable calling to do something, but I had no idea what."

Sue Chen

Even as a CEO, the medical equipment industry didn’t have parallels with saving marine animals. Without a clue about strategy or execution, Chen signed up to with the then-new NGO called Shark Savers (now Wild Aid). As an active board member, Chen was already well-versed in the issues when a bill was introduced to ban the possession, sale, trade, and distribution of shark fins within California's borders. 

Chen would eventually work with a coalition of advocacy and environmental groups to get the bill passed, but she was thrust into the forefront by Senator Ted Lieu to combat the fin traders. "I remember feeling sick to my stomach and at the same time completely focused," she recalls, "But, as I started to take on my role and started feeling the global significance of what I and so many others were doing, I gained a dimension of strength, courage, and conviction that I had never known or experienced." Chen says she learned how to communicate to media, politicians, support groups, and opposition alike.

The bill passed into law in 2011 and Chen says the Chinese papers report that consumption of shark fin soup is down by as much as 70%. Building on that in 2012, Chen started Operation Blue Pride, an organization taking wounded veterans shark diving as a way to heal and give them a new purpose to fight.

"My mission to save sharks immersed me in a new dimension of passion, purpose, perspective, and power," she says. "I became a mightier version of me with renewed courage and confidence to disrupt and implode my industry."

Over the last three years, Chen says Nova has found its voice, position, and mission in the world. "Doing work far removed from your day job provides incredible insight and unique connections," says Chen, "You gain better knowledge and understanding of human nature, and therefore better and renewed perspective into your customers, co-workers and vision."

Scratching the Entrepreneurial Itch to do Good

Grassroots efforts like Chen’s provided the spark for Shelly Kapoor Collins, the founder of Enscient Corporation, a tech company that makes human resources and customer service software. Collins had worked in fundraising on various political campaigns, including President Obama's and realized that the grassroots was not getting recognized even though these donors and supporters are the most critical part of any campaign.

So she set out to make a difference by automating the fundraising process for political campaigns and nonprofits so that it is more strategic versus tactical and to reach, reward and recognize the grassroots for their support and activism by connecting them with prizes like lunch with the President that they would not otherwise have access to.

Shelly Kapoor Collins

To take it from idea to actual impact, Collins says she was "obsessive over innovation and lived and breathed the design, development, and implementation." Weekends went out the window and she refused to take no for an answer from anyone. "If someone said it couldn't be done or something was difficult to accomplish, I found a way," she says.

This drive meant Root Square, the fundraising platform with a gaming component, was born amid Collins leading the charge at Enscient, raising two children under the age of five, and being wife to a C-level husband in Silicon Valley. Of this Collins says, "It's a juggling act and balance is virtually impossible. You just pick the priorities which are important to you and focus on them throughout the day, the week, and the month until one reaches completion."

Root Square is now used at the local, state, and federal levels in political campaigns, by celebrities and athletes raising money for their foundations. Experiencing the launch and subsequent growth was so empowering that Collins says she now feels nothing is impossible. And it also scratched the itch to create her own product. "I will never forget calling a winner to let her know that through her activism she won lunch with actor Rainn Wilson of The Office. She screamed in my ear," says Collins.

Though the next time she plans to do things differently. "It is hard to build something alone and ultimately, individuals don't scale, but teams do," she says.

Strength in Numbers

Tracey Wellson-Rossman had spent a big part of her career in retail, ad sales and on her own. So when she switched to software development, she experienced "a bit of a jolt—suddenly I was almost always the only woman in the room."

It’s a familiar refrain from the small, but growing, ranks of women in technology careers and piqued Wellson-Rossman’s curiosity. "Why, since software developers made a great living and were doing some very exciting work, were women not participating?" she asks.

It took a while to put that curiosity into action, as Wellson-Rossman continued her work as CMO of Chariot Solutions, a Philadelphia-based tech company.

Tracey Wellson-Rossman

In a few years, frustrated by the lack of change, Wellson-Rossman discovered the trend of fewer women signing up to take computer science programs in college. "Further research showed that girls were self selecting out of tech careers at about ninth grade," she says. Targeting middle school, Wellson-Rossman built an early advisory board who helped confirm that this was an idea worth pursuing.

Over the past four years TechGirlz, a nonprofit dedicated to give young girls hands-on tech experience has now given 400 girls the chance to take 40 workshops and meet women currently working in the field.

Building a service company from the ground up while involved In the local tech community helped Wellson-Rossman treat the nonprofit like a startup. "We have followed many of the lessons from Guy Kawaski, Steve Blank, and other business leaders," she says, doing market research to confirm some of their theories.

"The goal was to give the girls the information that was really happening in tech, not how the media and society were portraying it," she says. Hands-on, not lecture or coding-centric along with in-person events creates a community for the girls, she explains.

"Like any startup, we have been iterating and testing," says Wellson-Rossman. Feedback, branding, and focus on the mission has helped the organization grow. Now TechGirlz is ready to move from an early stage bootstrapping to one that has a little more funding to expand.

"Our first impact survey shows that 92% of the girls find our programs valuable and 70% have changed their minds positively about a career in technology," says Wellson-Rossman.

Building TechGirlz and her work at Chariot blend a lot, she says. "I am also fortunate that Chariot’s company culture supports our employees’ interests that may be a bit tangential to our regular work," she points out. That latitude to take TechGirlz meetings during her work day has also helped Wellson-Rossman’s day job at Chariot.

For example, having limited resources to develop content at TechGirlz has Wellson-Rossman taking a more focused approach on the editorial calendar. It’s also informed content creation at Chariot. "Lately, as our consultants are all very busy, getting the content done has been challenging. This new way of viewing a solution has helped us through this roadblock and is allowing us to get back on track."

While parents, friends, and colleagues have all provided vocal support, fundraising still challenges Wellson-Rossman. However, she’s learned to work with less. "We have adjusted our plan to allow for a reduced amount of funding," she says. "Our next step is to allow others to use our workshops so more girls can be taught. We have been beta testing this approach since last year and plan to go full steam starting in September."

[Image: Flickr user Derek Keats]

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  • Sue Chen

    Thank you Lydia Dishman and Fast Company for this great feature! I just wanted to clarify that Senator Ted Lieu was on the side of the fin traders and led the opposition on the bill to ban shark fin in California. His position to oppose the bill fueled my fire to take him on and fight this fight for sharks.
    Sue Chen - NOVA Medical Products and Shark Savers