Here's How Alissa Self-Funded her Dream Company

Alissa Lentz photo 3.jpg

We interviewed Alissa Lentz, a female entrepreneur, 2018 Forbes 30 Under 30 Retail/E-commerce recipient, and founder at HERO, an apparel & accessories line that stands up for equality by sharing inclusive and empowering heroic stories. She shared her story of entrepreneurship and how it’s affected her relationship with money.

What inspired you to start your business?

I moved to the United States from Russia when I was four. When I started school, I didn’t speak a word of English. I was too young to understand that it was just a language barrier, but old enough to know there was something “different” about me. I was treated like an outsider and was bullied. Due to this, I carried insecurity with me for most of my life. I explored the concept for HERO in a social enterprise class at Chapman University, where we were tasked to solve a problem we personally experienced through a business plan. I talked to my peers, and discovered that everyone had some sort of insecurity they carried with them, often from childhood experiences. I designed HERO to inspire people to carry courage instead.

After five years of holding onto the idea, I finally launched HERO in 2016 in response to the hateful and dehumanizing rhetoric on the rise in our country. As a child, I felt like I had no voice. As an adult, I felt compelled to speak up for the voices that are too often silenced. Each HERO design shares the story of a heroic woman, person of color, or immigrant, and 10% of profits support human rights and education programs that create pathways to equality.

Tell me about your journey to launching your company.

I tried to launch HERO right after I graduated, but ran into roadblocks, the primary one being that I wanted to start an apparel company without any knowledge of design or the fashion industry. I moved to New York, the epicenter of fashion, as a way to learn more about design and meet people in the industry. I worked at a tech startup for two years, but I dreamt about HERO. I loved working for the startup, but then it was acquired by a global corporation, and overnight everything changed. I decided to leave the company and pursue HERO.

I set out to raise funds to build the business, but still being pretty fresh-out-of-college, I didn’t have anyone in my network that I could’ve reached out to as a potential angel investor. After a few failed attempts, I decided I’d be my own angel and invest in myself. While I was searching for a job at another tech startup, I met a woman who worked as a flight attendant in private aviation. After talking for some time, she shared her annual salary with me, which was twice as much as my previous entry-level role and twice as much as the jobs I was applying for at the time. The day after we spoke, I signed up for a program to get aircraft safety and medical response certified. After eight months of sending resumes, I finally got a three-month trial period working at a private jet management company as one of their flight attendants. That job lasted three years, and then I went on to work for a company that manufactures and sells jets; where I traveled to global aircraft conventions and sales events as a company representative.

During that time, I lived in a walk-in coat closet in a friend’s apartment. I slept on an air mattress underneath my clothes. It was so small, I couldn’t even point my toes while I slept. But the rent was cheap, and I saved everything. After two years, I was slowly able to start hiring (freelancers) to design HERO’s first products and invest in making samples.  And now I’m almost two years into running a growing company.

Did that experience affect how you think about money?

It was a difficult period because I could see a vision that no one else believed in; a possibility I knew could be a reality. But the people I was close to in my life were questioning my decisions, asking “you’re a flight attendant? This has nothing to do with your career”. Or, “perhaps it’s time to find a real job.” Hearing these things was hurtful, alienating and demoralizing. But deeper than that, when you’re not feeling stable and everyone is saying these things, it bleeds into your personal perception and your self-worth can be destroyed. Everyone has their own relationship with money. Yet when you hear so many different questions with these ingrained values, you start questioning your own.

How has your relationship with money changed?

Tim Ferriss has a philosophy on overcoming fear, which he calls “fear setting.” He encourages people to imagine literally the worst thing that can happen if you go for it; and usually when you do this, you realize the fears that are holding you back are either completely imagined or if they’re real, they actually have concrete solutions that you can take should they materialize. For me, I’ve already lived through some of those absolute-worst-case situations. After being so budgeted for so long, I know that even if I lose everything, I can adopt the practices that had gotten me through in the past, and I will be okay.  

But now I realize I also have a hesitancy to spend money to make money. Back then, I had nothing to lose and I wanted this so badly, I would spend anything I had to make it a reality. I literally invested almost every penny I made. Now, I do want my company to grow, but I have a hesitancy to spend money on things that don’t have a proven ROI, such as new marketing initiatives that I haven’t yet tried. But growing a business takes calculated risk, so in many ways, I try to channel the “do anything it takes” attitude of my younger self to stay innovative in my business today. I’ve created this into a policy: I allocate 80% of my budget on activities that I know have a proven ROI, but I also ensure I save 20% for “throw-caution-to-the-wind” crazy new ideas that might not end up working.

What are your goals for money in 2018?

This year I’m going back to the theme that my self worth isn’t attached to what I earn or make. It’s admittedly hard to separate where I end and my company begins, and entrepreneurship is definitely a roller coaster. This year, my goal is to I not associate my self-worth on either the high notes or the low notes of my business.  

One thing I learned from Jen Sincero’s book “You Are A Badass” is that you can only build your business as big as you build yourself. So my efforts in making money start with me. I’m excited to embrace this side of me and knock it out of the park.

Money at Work is a recurring series on how women navigate money and their careers. If you’d like to share your story, contact us.

Nicole Cardozainterview