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How I turned a college savings plan into a collaboration hub for women

After five unsuccessful rounds of IVF, Cate Luzio took the money she’d saved for the future children she wouldn’t have and turned it into a thriving business.

How I turned a college savings plan into a collaboration hub for women
[Photo: Jp Valery/Unsplash]

“What’s the worst that can happen? You can always go back.”

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That’s what my mentor told me before I made the big leap from banking to become an entrepreneur.

I decided to leave my role as a top banker and all of the stability that comes with that to launch a mission-driven and inclusive startup, called Luminary to support, connect, and advance all women. The decision to start this was truly the culmination of so many things.

After five rounds of IVF, I realized that I couldn’t have children although I had already saved extensively for their potential college tuitions. I later went through a painful divorce. At this turning point, I made the decision to invest those nonexistent children’s college savings another way. I wanted to build a physical space and community for women to solve so many of the pain points that I had experienced in my career and I know so many other women are struggling with right now.

It wasn’t easy, but here’s a look at how it all started.

Laying the foundation

I had meetings with executives across industries and realized that the lack of women at the top was pervasive and didn’t just plague the banking sector. I began having conversations with as many women as possible across all sectors and levels, both in the corporate workforce but also entrepreneurs, small business owners, and the freelance community.

I realized that women were not only being siloed at work or within their industries. They didn’t feel heard. Not all of them wanted to be the next CEO but wanted to further develop their careers and weren’t being equally represented in the talent pipeline. With media headlines calling for more women in the C-suite and on boards, I knew that to achieve this, we needed a more effective way to support and invest in talented women by giving them a space in which to learn, collaborate, and grow.

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I flew around the country visiting other women’s collaboration spaces to understand their offerings and audiences. I met with several companies to discuss how they would honestly like to work with and within spaces and held numerous focus groups with professional women.

Writing a purpose-filled business plan

My research told me there was a gap for professional women in the workforce, and I wanted to help bridge it. Of course, there are hundreds of events geared toward women each day—mentoring, coaching circles, co-working spaces, and women’s social clubs and networking groups—but there was still something missing.

I believe that we needed a physical space to house an inclusive community where you didn’t need an application or approval to be a member. We needed programming focused on women’s development and advancement that didn’t silo you based on skills or other factors. We needed access to new opportunities and ideas to advance women personally and professionally. We needed one that could bring both women and men together. We needed a diversity of thought, background, and level. It’s this opportunity that fueled the mission and values of Luminary’s business plan.

A business plan–not a slide deck–is essential for a first-time entrepreneur. What I’ve learned from building new businesses and fixing broken ones throughout my career is to prepare extensively, arming myself with facts, and then going with my gut to make decisions including having the right team around me. So I wrote a 55-page plan complete with a P&L and a detailed market analysis.

Staying undeterred by naysayers

When I started talking about the concept of Luminary, many people (especially women) were incredibly supportive. But there were, and still, are, many naysayers.

I heard comments about how other clubs and women’s groups already existed almost immediately. People were also baffled by the idea of a women’s collaboration space that’s so much more than a co-working destination.

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I had spent years mentoring and developing talent for over 22 years. Working and living around the world, I had a vast network of professionals that I could call on whose support I leaned into when I was surrounded by the noise of negativity. I was creating a new category. I understood the opportunity even if others didn’t get it, and I didn’t let their negativity sidetrack my mission.

Making the decision to bootstrap

I made the unconventional choice to self-fund Luminary by investing the savings I had for the college funds of the children I never would. This choice to not raise outside funding brought even more naysayers. Most men thought I was crazy to take on the risk, especially with other women’s clubs opening up. And there’s a focus and fascination with raising capital and the press that surrounds it.

Many women, on the other hand, were very supportive and amazed. My mom still says “you go girl” every day.

To scale, you might need funding. Or you might be able to grow a profitable business sustainably and reinvest into the business and scale in different ways. Growth can mean different things when you are building a company. It doesn’t always have to equate to numbers. There is never only one way. Also, why would I take on investors (give away equity, control, building what I wanted) if I could do it myself?

I’ve worked hard in my decades’ long career in order to be able to self-fund. I am proud of that career and the fact that I could do this financially on my own. Plus, I wanted to maximize the return for my members, not for investors. There are many other female founders bootstrapping who unfortunately go unnoticed. This part of the story we continue to preach. Women can be self-reliant and have more financial confidence, wealth, power, and success and Luminary is helping to fuel this. We are putting our money where our mouth is and have built a platform to propel women forward.

There will always be competition and other great ideas, but that shouldn’t stop you from doing your own thing. And hopefully, there will be an abundance of female-founded businesses who succeed.

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It’s a major life change to leave the security and paycheck of a full-time job, and nothing could have prepared me for the roller-coaster ride of entrepreneurship. The move to leave what I always did to start this business has been the best investment of my life. Now it’s all come full circle. Luminary has an Illumination Grants program to give memberships to women in need, so I ended up funding education after all.

Cate Luzio is the founder of the New York City-based women’s collaboration space Luminary.

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