As a part of the Morning Lazziness series about strong women leaders who attained success with their incredible ideas, I had the pleasure of interviewing Salma El-Yassir & Marijana Novakovic.
“Nothing can dim the light that shines from within” –Maya Angelou
Salma El-Yassir is a management professional with over 30 years of experience in both the private and development sectors, in addition to a passionate traveler, writer, and coach.
In search of an adventurous path in life, in her mid-fifties, she went back to learn and earned her second graduate degree from the Harvard Kennedy School with a Master’s in Public Administration, where she encountered countless life lessons and decided to help others as well. Salma has spent many years in health care management, which inspired her to pivot towards the non-profit realm.
She is the co-founder of ‘Womaneze’, an startup that helps women navigate menopause and regain control naturally. The rationale behind Womeneze was to assist women who are going through a significant transition so they can benefit from joining together to explore how lives can be full and exciting even in their third chapter of life’s journey.
Salma contributed ferociously to women’s well-being and has become an inspiration to people throughout her life; indeed, a magnificent woman and a glorious mother.
Many thanks for doing this for us, please let our users know about yourself and Womaneze?
I am the CEO of Womaneze. My work experience has been in both the private and development sectors and I have been a management professional for most of my career. My academic background spans economics, public health, and more recently a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard which I earned at the age of 58! I am also a mother of two. My passions are cooking, movies and books. I am also quite sociable and love connecting people together.
My co-founder, Marijana, is a lawyer and an HR specialist. She was a Hubert H. Humphrey fellow at the University of Washington and holds a Master’s in HR and EU Law. She was the COO of a bank and held several executive management positions in her career. She is the mother of four and an avid reader and health buff.
Womaneze is a startup that was created to help women navigate menopause and regain control naturally. Fun fact: We actually started the company in the middle of the COVID crisis!
How is your journey as a successful entrepreneur and what inspires you to launch Womaneze?
My co-founder, Marijana, and I started Womaneze after hundreds of hours of conversation about the difficulties of having gone through menopause and how it affected us, both personally and professionally. When we were going through it, we both felt that there was very little information available. This is an issue that can still be a bit of a taboo subject and women often do not even know that what they are feeling and experiencing is due to perimenopause. It can get really confusing and frustrating.
On another note, menopause is often approached as an illness or a medical issue rather than the natural transition it is. Many of the menopause symptoms are treated separately rather than holistically and medical professionals are often not adequately trained in the different aspects of menopause.
Menopause is difficult for around 80% of the women going through it. Only a lucky few sail through perimenopause and menopause without too many issues. It is a sort of teenage in reverse: hormones are all over the place.
Menopause is not only a list of physical symptoms. Going through it brings up issues related to self-image and desirability. Society, in general, values women for their fertility and youth, as evidenced by the portrayal of women in magazines, ads, and the media. When you start to age, eyes turn away from you, not at you. You can feel unattractive and rather invisible.
This is why we decided to start Womaneze. We wanted to help women recognize that what they are experiencing is normal, but also to bring women together in a community where they can support each other and demand better services for their needs during this transition in life.
There are over one billion women in menopause in the world today, and they are being ignored. Think of this: They say that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. Well, we say, for women, it is death, taxes, and menopause. All women will go through it, so we have to educate ourselves and others and demand recognition.
How Womaneze can bring a change in a woman’s daily life?
Womaneze is a community of women who are experiencing similar issues as they go through perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause. A woman is in menopause on the day after she had not had a period for 12 consecutive months; before that, she is in perimenopause, after that, she is in postmenopause.
Many women do not know that. They were either too young when their mothers went through the menopausal transition, and their mothers did not talk to them about it. Often, mothers forget the exact sequence of events of their own experience by the time their daughters reach menopause or are embarrassed to speak about the subject. Many cultures still consider this topic to be something that a woman has to deal with alone and as inappropriate to discuss publicly.
Womaneze is a community where women can go for credible and clear information which is rooted in science. It helps women understand what is going on with their bodies and emotions, how to deal with the physical and emotional symptoms and how to communicate about it with others. It is a place that normalizes menopause and deals with it as a natural transition.
No woman should feel ashamed or worried about what she is experiencing, and no woman should go through this alone.
Why should women be informed about perimenopause, menopause and postmenopause?
Menopause usually starts in the early forties and can last for anything from two to 15 years or even more. In rarer cases, menopause can start much earlier than that for a number of reasons such as a genetic history, cancer treatment, hysterectomy, and so on. Menopause has up to 47 possible associated symptoms. However, not every woman will experience all symptoms. Each woman is different and will experience menopause differently. There is no one-size-fits-all here. When menopause starts, how it will proceed and when it will end can’t be predicted.
What is important is that women are armed with the information necessary to understand what is happening to their bodies. They should take responsibility for their own well-being. Often, when a woman begins to feel more impatient and snappy, she attributes it to stress or work rather than the hormonal changes that are beginning to happen in her body. She may start sleeping badly and suffer from bouts of insomnia, and so on. If she does not expect any of this, it becomes confusing and sometimes scary. Some women even suspect the onset of dementia because of their forgetfulness, when this is most likely attributable to hormonal changes in menopause.
Information is power against fear and confusion.
What makes your brand Womaneze different from others? How do you make it productive?
Womaneze is a startup by two sixty-year-old women who have been through it and understand what it is like. We are our community.
Menopause is not only a collection of symptoms but a whole transition affecting our minds and our bodies. Both of us understand this and bring this understanding to the table.
I will give you a simple example: We made sure that the text in the app we developed for hot flashes is larger because women in their forties begin to have trouble with eyesight. Our app, ‘Hot Flash Help’, is simple and puts the control in the woman’s hands. She decides on which of the suggested strategies she will use and for how long. We personalize supportive messages to help her stay on track. She is able to discover what works for her hot flashes.
This is only the first step in the sort of help we will be providing. We will continue to build functionalities that will address other menopause symptoms and help women in this demographic to communicate and support each other.
Our blog is a resource on everything concerning menopause. From symptoms and how to deal with them, to how to deal with hot flashes at work, to how to speak to your partner about what you are going through, and even how to speak to yourself.
Top 3 skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur.
- A level of comfort with uncertainty and risk. This is essential in entrepreneurship because, particularly at the beginning, you only have a hypothesis about the problem and the possible solution. You do not have definitive answers. This is not the path for those who crave security.
- Communication skills. This is particularly true when you are working with a team. You have to be able to have difficult conversations with openness and to handle the inevitable differences with grace. You also have to be able to connect with others about your business clearly and effectively.
- Resilience. You will come up against all manner of problems and obstacles. There will be days when you wonder what on earth you are doing. The ability to plow through and get the work done is key.
There is no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
Well, Marijana, and I are businesswomen. We each held senior management positions and have over 35 years of experience. We built and managed teams and complex projects. So, it is possibly less of an issue for us than for a younger and less experienced team.
However, I will say that starting your own business from scratch is different from managing within an established structure. Marijana and I have complementary skills and draw on each other’s strengths. If we don’t know something, we have the skill to find the right people who do.
The main thing about translating an idea into an actual business is to be realistic about the financial requirements of starting a business, and the other thing is to: Just start!
What were the top three mistakes you made starting your business, and what did you learn from them?
The top mistakes were:
- That we did not bring on board a technical founder with us from the very beginning. We did have a great outsourced team working with us, but development would have been much faster and more flexible if we had our tech in-house.
- We did not track all metrics right from the start. It is important to track your metrics as you move along your trajectory, but more important is that you are measuring the correct thing.
- We did not pay attention to the necessary SEO work when building our website. We created great content but we were not seeing much organic traffic to our site. But, now we are in the process of restructuring our website with that in mind. Any company that has community at its heart should dedicate funds and time to this aspect.
Do you practice yoga & meditation to keep your mind, body healthy, and calm?
I started meditating on, a daily basis, two years ago. It has been a life-changer for me. I was one of those skeptics who thought that meditation is not for me, but I am now a total convert. I don’t do hours of it, I practice it for 10-15 minutes a day, but I do it every day, first thing in the morning. It helps me to calm my thoughts and clear my head. Whenever I feel overburdened or worried, I meditate or do breathing exercises.
I do not practice yoga regularly, but I walk every day for an hour. It helps me keep in shape and is a great antidote to stress.
What are your plans for the future, how do you plan to grow this company?
We are focusing on growing our community and improving engagement with it. We grew the community to over 41,000 women in 6 months with a 14.7% week-on-week growth.
Our community is our strength and our compass, and we aim to grow it to 250,000 women by the end of 2021. Our ‘Hot Flash Help’ app is currently in beta but is available on both the Apple and Google Play stores. We will be launching it in May this year.
What have been your biggest challenges? How do you personally overcome this fear?
Starting a company in the middle of the COVID pandemic has been our greatest challenge. Marijana and I are in different time zones and we have to discuss and solve issues remotely. Dealing with Zoom fatigue and the weird distancing from your team and co-workers is a big challenge, but we are making the best of this situation.
I am naturally a risk-taker, but that does not mean that fears and doubts do not creep in. The way both Marijana and I handle this is to approach this startup as an adventure. We agreed from the start that wherever we end up on this journey, we will have enjoyed the ride which makes it all worthwhile no matter the outcome. Neither of us wanted to regret not having done this at the end of our lives. So, we are creating what we hope will be a great success.
We are also very lucky because we are good friends as well as co-founders. Each knows how the other’s brain works. So, we are able to cheer and lift each other up when the inevitable fears and doubts creep in.
If you start your business again, what things would you do differently?
The one thing that I think we would do differently would be to create a web app before we started developing the full app. It would have probably been better and less expensive to test out which functionalities resonated with our audience most. Still, we were very disciplined in keeping the MVP app simple with a view to expanding functionalities at a later stage, so we are not too far off.
One of the good things we did right from the start is to create and grow our community. Initially, we did this to support the app, Now, our focus is the community itself and how technology can help and support that community in the way women need it.
What helps you stay driven and motivated to keep going in your business?
Creating something from nothing is fascinating. One can look back and think: We made this happen. Also, I have to say that we are both tenacious women with loads of drive and ambition. We want to create a business with a purpose and to make a difference in women’s lives. When we receive messages from women in our community thanking us for the work we do, it keeps us motivated to keep moving forward and to build something that women in menopause want and need.
What’s a productivity tip you swear by?
We have a simple shared Excel google doc in which we keep all appointments, things to be done (by type), and their deadlines. We check in with this at the beginning of every meeting, check off what we accomplished, and assign ourselves the relevant tasks. This helps us to stay on track and to have things slip through the cracks. We have a particular day every week when we collect and review the important weekly metrics., and do the same at the end of each month.
Also, we also take time off at the end of the week to recharge. At least one day is a no-work day. We find that we are far more productive if we take a break and set time aside for self-care.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
We inject a bit of humor into the work. In fact, although the subject we tackle is difficult, we help women laugh at what is happening. How crazy we can feel during perimenopause, the way we feel like tearing everything off when a hot flash hits, and so on.
Right from the beginning, we created two avatars of us who tell stories and are featured in a comic strip that we produce. Bringing creativity and fun into what we are doing and trying to think of new ways of engaging women is our way of staying the course.
What valuable advice would you give new entrepreneurs starting out?
Be perfect at being imperfect!
Don’t be afraid of being wrong or of sounding silly. Don’t be afraid of asking; the worst that can happen is that someone says no, in which case, you will be no worse off. Don’t wait until everything is in place. Start and learn as you go along. Look fear in the eye and do it anyway. Throw yourself in and learn to swim.
Managing yourself is the one most important aspect of entrepreneurship. Managing your fears, doubts, and lack of certainty is crucial, and you have to learn to put things in place for the inevitable difficult days. Entrepreneurship is an emotional journey as well as a business and technical one. You have to learn to manage your emotions.
Also, you have to show up and do the work. Every day. Sometimes, it will be exciting, but most of the time, it will be frustrating and difficult. You need to have staying power and grit. The ‘fun’ part of entrepreneurship is only the tip of the iceberg that people see, the bulk of it is what is under the waterline.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
A hobby is not the same as a business. If you are going to do something as a business, you should learn the business side of things. You have to have an idea about finances, cash flow management, and how to keep accounts. If you don’t know these things or hate doing them, find someone you trust who does. You should have enough savings to enable you to live reasonably for at least a year without income as you build the business.
Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. If a person is uncomfortable with risk or is unable to take risks at that point in their lives, then they should think carefully about whether they should be starting their own business.
On the other hand, if you are willing to take a risk, work hard and learn quickly in order to spend your life doing what you love, I say, go for it. You need to want to do it and you need to believe in your ability to do it as well.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so, how did you overcome it?
I had a ‘real’ job, so did Marijana. I don’t think either of us would ever think of going back to our previous lives. This, what we are doing now with Womaneze is our biggest, most exciting adventure. Yes, it can be a roller coaster, but it gets the heart pumping. Of course, there are days when you feel overwhelmed and stressed, but we are lucky that we help each other to stay on an even keel most of the time.
What is your definition of success?
Attaining the life you aspire to. Living fully and with purpose.
Reaching the end of life having lived a full and exciting life with few major regrets!
Neither of us wants to regret not having tried to achieve the life-long dream of building a business. So, we are doing it now.