Q&A With Debra Arbit, Athena Strategy

Partner Spotlight Q&A with Debra Arbit: This year, our team will be shining a light on incredible business partners who have helped us thrive. For our first spotlight, we sit down with Debra Arbit, Founder & CEO of Athena Strategy. After working for a Fortune 500 company and then running her own first business successfully, Debra started Athena to help empower and elevate female entrepreneurs and the businesses they run. Please take our word on this – if you are a woman who owns a business or you are seriously considering starting one, you need to know Debra!      

Q: Can you tell us a little about your professional background and journey?

Debra: I’m a born-and-raised-in-Minnesota girl who left here only briefly to attend college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Go Badgers! After coming back home, I took an internship at a tiny startup company, BridgeWorks, which was dedicated to bridging generational gaps in the workplace and marketplace. Shortly after, I joined the ranks of corporate America and headed to General Mills where I picked the toys that went into the cereal boxes. I’m not kidding, who could make that up?

After my four-year stint at General Mills and travelling abroad for a year, BridgeWorks approached me to buy the company. Long story short, I spent the next decade of my life buying that business, growing it and successfully selling it while getting married and having three kids in rapid succession. It all seems so simple in hindsight, doesn’t it? Spoiler alert - it wasn’t.  

Throughout my time owning and running my company, I became incredibly passionate about helping fellow female business owners utilize their innate mindsets instead of censoring them. I started Athena Strategy to do just that and make it a little less lonely at the top for women entrepreneurs.

Q: Best and worst career decisions you ever made? What did you learn from those experiences?

Debra: The best - I feel really lucky to have realized early on that big corporate life wasn’t for me. It’s not that I didn’t like my first few years in corporate America. Quite the opposite actually...I loved it! But after only four years on the corporate ladder, I knew that it was time to hop off and forge my own path as a business owner.

The worst - It’s honestly so hard to choose a worst career decision. That is not to say I haven’t made a million mistakes! It’s more because in hindsight, I can always see what those terrible decisions taught me and how I’d not be the same person I am today without these missteps. That said, I’d say my biggest career regrets are the risks that I didn’t take.

Q: What made you want to start Athena Strategy?

Debra: After running my own business for nearly a decade, I realized that they weren’t kidding when they said it’s lonely at the top. Personally, I think it can be even more true for women. I often longed for a co-owner as I grew my business but didn’t want to give up any ownership. Enter: Athena Strategy. I started Athena to give entrepreneurs the “co-owner” I never had while being able to keep the whole kit and caboodle.

Q: What are the pros and cons of running your own business?

Debra: Pros - I always quote Warren Buffett here and say that the best part of my job is getting to pick who I work with. Whether that is choosing my clients or growing my team, there is nothing better than being able to hand select who you surround yourself with every single day.

Cons - Sometimes, it would be great if someone would just tell me what to do for a change!  It’s hard to constantly be the driver. Also, I’m a huge sucker for positive feedback. When you don’t have a boss to give it to you, it can be harder to know when to feel good about the work you are doing.

Q: Absolute favorite thing about your job?

Debra: Hands down my favorite thing is to feel like I changed the course for people. Of course, they do the actual work but knowing that on some level that their path is different because I was on it with them is what fuels me. I’m also a huge sucker for hiring for potential. I love to be the one to give people their big break.

Q: What are two tips you would give to a woman thinking of starting her own business?

Debra: There is no such thing as being ready. If you are waiting for a sign, or a certificate, or a degree, or just a day when you feel prepared, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you that it isn’t coming. No one is going to push you off that ledge. You are going to need to jump under your own power! Of course it’s scary, but the scary is what makes it great.

Also, balance is a myth. I’ve seen so many people (women especially) chase balance as though it is something you can achieve as a permanent state of being. It’s not possible. Balance is something you float in and out of day-by-day and sometimes hour-by-hour. Of course, it is important to have boundaries, but we need to dispel the myth that balance is the end goal because we will be chasing that mirage for all of time.

Q: We find that successful entrepreneurs are often amazing managers of their time - do you have a daily ritual or a time management strategy that has served you well?

Debra: Sadly, I may be an exception to this rule! I would not say I’m a master of managing my time, and any rituals that I’ve tried have quickly disappeared. I guess my best piece of advice when it comes to time management is that, as a general rule, we greatly overestimate what is possible in a short period of time and underestimate what’s possible in a long period of time. Knowing this, I try not to set myself up for failure by saying I’ll get 27 things done on a Friday afternoon or sell myself short when it comes to long term business goals.

Q: What inspires you?  What’s kept you going through quarantine?

Debra: Food is my hobby. Eating it, cooking it, and reading about it. My all-time favorite thing is feeding other people to the point of bursting. I have been known to complete cookbooks cover to cover without skipping a single recipe. This is only made possible by my husband who is our resident dishwasher.

Q: If I talked to your friends, family and work colleagues, what are three words they would use to describe you?

Debra: Optimistic, strategic, funny (at least I like to think I am!).

Q: If you could choose any other profession (regardless of talent or ability), what would it be?

Debra: Hands down I’d be a midwife. I’ve always been fascinated by birth and I think that would be the most magical job.

Thanks for visiting us here at Inside Talent.  To learn more about Debra and her team’s services, visit the Athena Strategy site or connect with her on LinkedIn!

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