Click. The lights flashed on. Although seemingly ordinary, the constant darkness of the women’s restroom served as a reminder for Felicia Jadczak that she was only one of two women on her entire floor. In fact, in the whole office of 180+ people, there were twenty to thirty women total.
Wanting to provide a sense of solidarity for the female engineers in the company, her boss, Julia Austin, asked her to start and run an employee resource group. Felicia was perfect for the job. She had worked in tech for five years before starting at VMWare, graduated with an MBA two years prior, and wanted to do something more with her life, so it was perfect that she had the chance to run a group that she would learn to have a lot in common with.
Looking for a partner to work with, Felicia connected with Rachel Murray who was also in the tech industry and ran a group called Boston Girl Geek Dinners. They combined their knowledge and decided to host a sponsored event for women in tech in the Boston area where there would be female panel speakers and networking opportunities.
Despite logistical challenges with hosting similar events in the past, Rachel and Felicia pulled it off. Eighty women attended, mingled together, and shared stories of their lives. Felicia had discovered her community. They were laid-back and talked about everything from hobbies to exciting things they were doing. “From that first event, many women kept on coming up to us and saying ‘this is so great, when is the next one?’” Felicia said, “and it was really clear that there was a need and a desire to have a more formalized community.”
As demand increased, Felicia and Rachel formalized their partnership and began doing more events, and within a year, completely rebranded. They changed the group’s name to She Geeks Out to represent the various career women who attended each get-together and opened a bank account. She Geeks Out had exploded onto the scene, but for Felicia, taking the big step to quit her job hadn’t entered the picture yet. She “hadn’t given [herself] permission to think about doing it,” with the “it” meaning taking a turn into the uncertainty of entrepreneurship.
Soon enough, she had a chance. Two career paths opened up at Felicia’s job. Tasked with making a difficult decision, Felicia called up her previous boss and now mentor, Julia Austin, for advice. Surprisingly, Julia pointed out a third option: quitting and focusing on She Geeks Out, her true passion, full-time. Felicia was taken aback, having never considered leaving the land of stable income and predictability for running a startup, but the idea wasn’t foreign.
As a child, she had been exposed to the benefits of entrepreneurship. Her parents had run several small businesses, and her dad had always remarked that it was “better to be your own boss than to work for anyone else.” Having an entrepreneurial family’s backing and a strong support system made the move much easier.
The process of quitting wasn’t perfect though; she had a well paying job and enjoyed the work. In contrast, pursuing her own company would probably mean less pay, more uncertainty, and significantly harder work. But when she finally did the deed, the transition wasn’t as bad as she had expected.
However, dramatic changes often bring new difficulties. Originally, she had planned on taking a part time job at the gym to get health insurance and a steady income, but things began to pick up fast. “I still remember saying to myself, ‘This week’s pretty busy but next week will be a little calmer'” she said while laughing, but each week was harder than the one before. In the beginning, Rachel had also been splitting attention between She Geeks Out and another startup but joined full time after duties began to pile up. Having both founders at the wheel with a single-minded focus was crucial to driving the company into the future.
She Geeks Out initially focused on expanding the breadth of their community events, staying true to their roots. To be sustainable though, they realized a more consistent income stream would be necessary, so shortly after going full time, they piloted their first diversity and inclusion (D&I) training program. Nevertheless, when they started these training programs, some confusion arose because they were known more for being community/event based rather than corporate.
They used the initial confusion as an opportunity to show why their business model was so unique. She Geeks Out covered all sides of the diversity and inclusion sphere, doing both community work and corporate training. The corporate training aspect didn’t only look at women, but diversity in a broad sense from socioeconomic status to disabilities and veterans. By having a foothold on the two important sides of the industry, She Geeks Out could gain insights into how companies thought about issues and how communities were viewing those efforts. With a voice in both these groups, the company could improve communication and gaining a competitive advantage against competitors.
Advocating for corporate training proved to be harder than they initially thought. People questioned their credibility as they didn’t have a background in the field, and many businesses weren’t initially interested in topics like diversity training and community building. But once they got their first customer, they started building momentum. By working with connections in the community, running popular sessions, and maintaining long term relationships with businesses, She Geeks Out developed one of the most sought after business tools: word of mouth. They would develop relationships with someone at Amazon, and when that person changed companies to somewhere like Facebook, they would bring She Geeks Out there too.
For those who still questioned the company’s credibility, Felicia completed a strategic diversity and inclusion management certification with Georgetown University to strengthen her knowledge. “It’s been very helpful in the sense of giving people that sense of trust,” she said, “and it’s not just that we have experience in this, but we’ve also got some educational work on the topic.”
All of these strategies tie back into the core idea that pushed SGO forward: long-term viability. She explained, “We’re not looking to grow really quickly and make an exit. We’re really looking to grow a solid company that we can be with for a long time and that can do meaningful things.” That’s why developing strong relationships with corporate partners has been crucial; these connections help extend their influence over time and provide continuous value. As they’ve grown, the line between the community and corporate pillars have blurred. Some corporate clients start out as sponsors for events but move to the training side while others start with the training but shift to helping out for sponsorships. Rachel and Felicia had found their prime spot.
Sponsor money from events and training has been important because since the beginning, She Geeks Out has never obtained any outside investor/VC funding. On the other hand, Felicia points out that they’ve never needed it; they’ve been profitable from the start. Because of this, one of their biggest challenges has been to figure out how to support that sustainable growth and make sure events are funded while growing revenue at the same time.
Things like building credibility, running a startup without venture capital, and figuring out how to expand your business can quickly add up to a large list of problems on your plate. “Running a startup is not easy…It’s the work and feeling burnt out and overwhelmed, fearing failure or that people won’t like what we’re doing. When we first launched our training, we weren’t sure how we were going to go and there was a real fear there that it would fail,” Felicia said. It’s stressful.
Juggling all these different tasks has taught Felicia what to focus on. After going full time, Felicia and Rachel realized that scaling on the community side wouldn’t be as feasible or impactful as building the business on their corporate training. If they built revenue there, they would be able to get brand recognition and expand into other areas, all without losing the essence of their original vision.
Felicia’s not in a rush. She sees She Geeks Out as a long term project of hers. She knows that in five or ten years, the problems in the industry may be different. Diversity may well be redefined by then and the political climate may change. Felicia’s not fazed, putting it simply: “it’s really about creating a solid company with good values and delivering a good service.”
“Go for it because I know that was something that I really struggled with where I was really afraid of failure. It wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it was. Especially for female entrepreneurs and founders, a lot of the times we get really scared of this failure, or we think that we have to have everything set up to go before we quit that job or take that leap, but sometimes it’s just about doing it, trying, and seeing what happens. And if this doesn’t work out for some reason, it will be an amazing experience that [you] can leverage for a million different things elsewhere. So my advice is just go for it. And I touched on this really briefly but I didn’t really believe in self-care before becoming an entrepreneur, but now I’m a huge believer and proponent of it because it is so important to have that balance. So carving out that time to give you some time off to destress is OK.”
Marketing the Company
She Geeks Out made it their goal to become well known everywhere. In fact, the way I met Felicia was through a D&I panel at Hubspot where she talked about her experiences in the industry and the need for more accepting work cultures. Besides speaking on panels though, Felicia focuses on showcasing her brand’s unique voice through blog posts, podcasts, and traditional social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
Bootstrapping and Expansion
Considering the fact that they don’t receive large cash infusions, there is little room for error. For example, limited resources made expanding to New York difficult. SGO is based in Boston, so when the two founders first looked outwards for strategic growth, they focused on tier 2 cities which weren’t saturated with competition. At the time though, Felicia’s mentor, Julia Austin, had wanted the team to host an event in New York. It went great, but after that, it didn’t pick up. Analyzing the situation, they realized there were some key hurdles. 1. They didn’t have a physical presence in the region to help them run their community events 2. They didn’t have enough connections in New York to build momentum. So although they had a small group of eager supporters, it wasn’t nearly as large as Boston. Fortunately, like most small startups, they hadn’t tied up all their resources in one place and decided to pivot out of the region temporarily while they figured out a solution. After looking around, they found a city organizer who was willing to help them build up the events and grow their base.
Out of everything, one of the biggest lessons Felicia has been able to pick up has been self-care. At her previous job, there was a clear delineation in her work-life balance, but when she moved to running a startup, that division wasn’t as clear as before. Knowing how to balance intense workloads with relaxation was crucial to making life more bearable.