Lauren Bigelow is living proof that, if you haven’t figured out your career path yet, you’re doing just fine.
Bigelow started her career working in the wine industry for nearly a decade, then decided to get her Ph.D. in prehistoric archeology. Toward the end of her dissertation, she got a part-time job at an organization focused on growing the IT industry in Michigan. She was earning less per hour than she paid her student research assistants, but the job gave some structure to her schedule. Bigelow hadn’t anticipated that within a year, she’d climb to the ranks of director of the place and shift her career path yet again.
Today Bigelow is connected to thousands of investors around the world, making her Rolodex the envy of most finance-hungry startups. And she’s doing her part to bring the money to them. As founder and CEO of the Growth Capital Network, which creates educational programs for entrepreneurs and links them to mentors and financiers, she’s also the mastermind behind an accelerator program that helps draw entrepreneurs and tech startups to Michigan with the lure of funding and support. The companies she’s helped have gone on to raise $70 million in funding and create 800 jobs.
Bigelow’s work requires just the right balance of networking, outreach, and hard work. Call her at midnight, and you’ll likely find her in the office, working late into the night. She’s recruiting, meeting investors, managing projects, and flying coast to coast for meetings. “It’s considerably easier working 18 hour days when you enjoy what you do,” she says.
Throughout her career, Bigelow has mastered the art of creating opportunities for not just herself, but many others. Here are five lessons she’s learned along the way:
Four years ago, when Bigelow was approached to create a competition in Michigan, she had free reign to tackle the task as she pleased. She called up her contacts from foundations, corporations, economic development organizations, universities, and incubators all around the state. She got all of them together to talk.
“I’m Italian,” she says. “I tend to work with whoever shows up at the table.” Bringing all these separate groups together in one room helped create the basis for the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition. “We couldn’t have done it without these folks at the table,” she says. “It just wouldn’t have worked.”
Over the years working for different places, Bigelow has seen how harmful not acknowledging employees’ hard work can be to a company’s culture. She’s surprised how often a company that’s doing well doesn’t trickle that reward down to its employees. “Everything that contributes to your success should also be rewarded for the success,” she says. That means finding small ways to reward people for their hard work even during tough economic times.
Small gestures can go a long way. At Growth Capital Network, Bigelow has covered employees’ phone bills and given gas allowances when times where tight for bonuses. She likes to have a stack of gift certificates around as small tokens of thanks for people who’ve put in long hours.
She doesn’t also care when people work, so long as the work gets done. “My employees have pretty considerable flexibility,” she says. “There’s a lot of work from home.”
In 2010, before launching her own firm, Bigelow took five months to finish her dissertation in archeology. She’d been working in clean technology and investing space for sometime, but she knew for peace of mind she needed to one day finish her degree.
While archeology seems a far cry from investing, she found herself using the skills she developed during her Ph.D. program throughout her career. When Bigelow first started working in clean tech 10 years ago, she knew very little about the industry. She scoured industry journals and went to events and conferences to learn everything she could.
Today she’s teaching a class on the topic at the University of Michigan’s business school. “One of the reasons I love academia is there’s always something new to learn,” she says. “Having your own firm–being an entrepreneur, it’s similar. There’s always more to do.”
Bigelow is a night owl. She’s been known to have phone meetings at 2 a.m. and stay late at the office. But for her, it works.
Bigelow uses this same approach for her employees. If someone wants to work from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., spend time with their kid, and get back to work in the afternoon, she doesn’t care, so long as the work get done. “Work in a way that makes you personally really productive,” she says. “It plays to your strengths.”
Keeping track of thousands of connections can be a full-time job. For Bigelow, staying up to speed on where people go when they switch jobs or positions is important. Every few months, she will sift through her LinkedIn contacts to see what people are up to.
She also looks for ways to connect people in her network. For example, she’s reached out to contacts at energy companies to guest lecture at her class at the business school. “For me, it’s like extended family,” she says. “It’s about giving people opportunities to engage.”