How One Female Entrepreneur Found the Courage to Set Out on Her Own
The timing was right for Rachel Wixson. Ten years into a career with a large corporation, she was at a crossroads. Her company was tapping her to lead an expansion into the Middle East, but at the same time she wanted to spend more time with her husband and create the ability to have more control over her schedule.
She and some friends had recently started talking about starting their own business. “We came together in a bar in Seattle and started dreaming and talking, and it grew from there. Some of it was all being in the right place at right time, and some of it was recognizing a business opportunity and doing something about it.”
She decided to leave the large and established IT software provider where she had built her career and join two friends in launching an IT consulting firm, Cipe. It was a calculated risk.
Wixson, a Northwestern Mutual client, had been working with her advisor for years, planning finances and always saving diligently. That gave her the confidence to take the financial risk of setting out on her own.
“I’ve always been fiscally conservative, and I had built up a strong foundation. I felt I had the backbone and the nest egg to make a little bit of a leap. We started the company with a nominal personal cash investment and leveraged the skills sets of family and friends. My husband was our first website administrator, a friend created our logo, and we carefully added resources as we could.”
Taking that first leap took a lot of courage, but she was confident that she could offer health care providers and consultants a higher level of service than they were getting elsewhere.
“It was ‘right time, right place.’ I didn’t necessarily know where it was going from day one, but there was a need and I really wanted to do (this company) differently.”
Building and growing a business took a lot of sweat equity. She was the business’s first consultant, doing billable work 40-50 hours per week while developing proposals, handling staff issues and conducting interviews with potential new hires for her company on nights and weekends. She relied on one of her favorite quotes: “Just be kind and be brave; that’s all you ever need to be.” Being a self-described type A personality, her biggest struggle came in learning how to scale.
“The first time we had an employee out there representing my brand and it wasn’t me doing the work, it was scary. But in order for my company to grow, we needed to scale and build trust and solidify culture. It’s not just teaching someone to go through the motions, it’s teaching somebody to think and act like an extension of you and what you represent.”
The company went debt free in a short amount of time, and just three years later they were approached by a buyer. Wixson wasn’t building the company to sell it, so she was hesitant at first. But it wound up being a perfect fit. “We immediately felt aligned with the buyers, their core values and the opportunity that it represented for our consulting team. The quality and the brand protection was there, and we decided to go for it.”
She began working on the transition just one week after her first child was born and closed the sale at the age of 34 in the company’s fourth year of business.
Wixson learned many valuable lessons spending most of her formative years growing up on her family’s dairy farm in Wisconsin.
“Work ethic. Also, it forced us to be creative and imaginative. We made up games and played in the hay bales.”
A career in business was never on her radar. Majoring in German at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, she initially planned on teaching. After a stint as a German translator, an advertisement on a job website caught her eye and led her to the IT company.
Wixson is thrilled to see more women in business, especially a younger generation that is working to tip the scales even further toward equality in leadership.
“I’m excited for my daughter to grow up in a time where this is possible.”
Her advice to anyone in business is to start with a strong financial plan: “We line item every single expense in the company, from a trade show to a software license. Understanding your business is so important, and if you don’t know finance and accounting, get the right people in place. You don’t have to know it all, but look to learn every day.”
She also counsels women to stay grounded and identify their passions.
As for being in a man’s world? “Be yourself. From the beginning of my career I had great female role models who weren’t afraid, and I’m just not programmed to let it be a barrier.”
After the sale, she joined the leadership team of the new firm, Cumberland, helping to drive strategic vision and growth. At the same time, she continues to forge her own self-made path, continually diversifying her portfolio by examining side ventures, including a seed investment in Closetbox, an innovative concierge storage service with a free pickup at your door and on-demand return delivery. She also has an interest in expanding one of her passions, yoga, to more working women; assisting companies in including yoga in their wellness programs; and making prenatal classes more accessible to working women.
“I want to make it possible for working moms to be working moms yet have that ‘me’ time.”
It’s been an unexpected journey for Wixson, but strong roots and work ethic have carried her through, and she is a true success story.
“There are many ways to measure success, but at the end of the day I’m proud to put my name on anything I’ve done.”
Life is busy for her, having two young children and a thriving career. But the future is filled with tantalizing options.
“I’m in an exciting place where the possibilities are endless and I’m really excited about what’s next. I’m still finding myself as an individual, finding myself as a mother, finding myself as a professional and figuring out what will be the next me. It’s exciting to be in my mid-30s and have gone through a lot, but I feel like I have barely tapped what’s possible.”
Photo credit: Tim Klein/Northwestern Mutual