Building Strong Corporate Cultures at Start-Ups

Varsha Rao

When building a company, most CEOs have a few main areas that consume their attention: raising financing, hiring the team, setting company strategy and beating the competition. It is interesting that company culture and the strategy to develop one rarely tops the list of CEOs concerns or areas of focus.

Why is company culture the “black sheep” of entrepreneurial start-ups? I have asked myself this question often, especially given how challenging the process of recruiting and retaining talented people can be. Numerous examples exist, however, of companies that have created successful corporate cultures in start-up environments: Microsoft, eBay and Goldman Sachs, to name a few. I believe the general lack of attention devoted to corporate culture is due to lack of time and perceived importance. Too often, there is a belief that corporate cultures develop spontaneously, without guidance or resources. In a start-up environment, the concept of developing and nurturing company culture may be viewed as an ancillary concern in the midst of the 12 to 15 hour work days that are necessary to launch and sustain a new company. My recommendation is that CEOs make the time to clearly articulate their vision for an effective corporate culture and take the necessary steps to strengthen and develop it. This small investment upfront and over time could be one of a new company’s most sustainable competitive advantages.

Why is culture so important for start-ups? After spending the last decade at companies with very strong corporate cultures, including McKinsey & Co., Wasserstein Perella and most recently,, it is clear that company culture is most critical when: 1) the pace of change is fast, 2) the company is facing difficult challenges in uncharted territory and 3) there is a great need for cohesion in the team to handle these ups and downs. Given the rapid changes and uncertainty experienced by most entrepreneurial companies, start-ups are in the greatest need for the cohesiveness and alignment that comes with having a strong company culture.

What is “culture”? Many people, especially those who have worked primarily in start-up environments, believe culture is the same as camaraderie-the kind of bonding that comes from working alongside each other in close quarters, and burning the midnight oil together; the type of closeness that develops among a team that has grown a business from nothing to something. While I do believe that camaraderie in the workplace is valuable, there is a big difference between camaraderie and company culture. Company culture is based on shared values and workplace norms (e.g., innovation, risk-taking) not necessarily personality likenesses. Company cultures pervade the entire organization, not just certain departments or levels of employees. And last, a strong culture can be developed at a company even if employees do not spend their evenings after work together socializing.

How does one create and implement an effective company “culture”? Creating a strong corporate culture is not an easy endeavor. Once a company is up and running, the CEO needs to ask: What is the company culture today? It is important to be able to articulate the key principles succinctly. At Eve, we built a strong corporate culture, the foundation of which was twofold: Hiring talented, team-oriented people and emphasizing a high standard of excellence in our customer service and website experience.

The key to developing a strong culture is to make it relevant to the company’s business and to assure that it reinforces the factors necessary for the company to succeed. This is what leading companies like McKinsey & Goldman Sachs have done. Their success depends on the talent of their staffs (since they are professional service firms) and thus they have made recruiting, professional development, and teamwork the focus of their cultures. The first step, then, is to define the desirable company culture, making sure to link that definition to the key success factors of the company.

Next, the key to building a strong corporate culture is to integrate the principles into everyday work. This is especially important for a start-up where there are limited resources, including time and money, to devote to off-site, team-building events. One way we overcame this obstacle at Eve was by encouraging people to create cross-functional task forces to solve complex problems. In this way, we were able to integrate team culture into the workplace effectively. We also reinforced our principle for excellent customer service by creating service level standards for each area of the company (e.g, stock levels for merchandising, maximum response times for customer service, no downtime policy for tech, etc.). We shared these results company-wide. My belief is that the only way a company builds a strong corporate culture is by weaving it into the fibers of the company. It cannot be something that resides on the surface and brought out every once in a while by the CEO at a company meeting.

Third, building a strong company culture takes a broad range of advocates and the right people; it cannot be an initiative exclusive to the CEO. In reality, a company culture only begins to take shape when people beyond the inner circle of the founders begin to articulate its principles and reflect it in their actions. As a CEO, you can take actions to help create a company culture that will hopefully spread virally within the organization. This begins by developing the shared values for the company with your team, (not simply issuing them top-down) and gaining consensus and agreement on what these core principles should be.

New employees should also be trained in the company culture. All too often orientations are carelessly dismissed at start-ups; however, spending a few hours upfront with new hires on explaining the company background and defining the company culture communicates from day one what the shared values of the company are. Also, decisions on hiring need to be made carefully since people in an organization are the key reason cultures either are strengthened and reinforced, or, alternatively, weakened and diminished. Taking the time to hire the right people who fit into the established culture is critical.

Finally, company culture needs to be reinforced throughout the company with consistent and clear actions. As mentioned above, principles need to be integrated into everyday work, but also generally in review processes and compensation plans. As CEO of a new company, fostering an environment of innovation and risk-taking requires rewarding rather than penalizing employees for such actions. Strong cultures are built when there is true alignment between actions that are desired and actions that are rewarded.

Varsha Rao recently founded Zoelle jewelry, a lifestyle jewelry brand. Prior to founding Zoelle, Varsha was Founder and Co-President of, a beauty e-commerce company which was sold in May 2000. Prior to founding Eve, she worked on consumer and technology projects at McKinsey & Co. and at Wasserstein Perella, an M&A investment bank in New York. She has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA/BS from the University of Pennsylvania.

Having It All But Not All At Once: Enjoy the Journey

Catherine Post Sullivan, M.S.W.

I felt as if I had stepped out of a page of British Homes & Gardens magazine. I knew Sophie was a gardener, but I had no idea her thumb was so green. After walking through her greenhouse, in which old plants were being given a second chance, and new ones cultivated, our friend gave us a tour of her gardens around her home in the Cotswolds. The gardens were quintessentially English. We were in England after all, but still, these gardens had me sufficiently awed. Sophie was excited to show us what she believed to be her best garden yet: the “millennium garden.” On our way to the far side of her property, she explained the concept: two trees of the same type, planted opposite each other, every ten yards another pair, each pair symbolic of a century.

After a leisurely stroll, we found ourselves standing on the edge of a simple field with a few pitifully small trees. This was the millennium garden? Trees, no more than two or three feet high, had been planted in a two hundred yard long row. With such a green thumb, I wondered why she had chosen such straggly, twig-like trees. I stood there imagining a large forklift carrying in more mature, fifteen footers. While I could picture how in another 40 years this would be a spectacular sight, it certainly seemed unsatisfying now.

At dinner that same evening, Sophie told a story of a young American couple-with loads of money-who had bought a small estate a few miles away. The wife wanted the typical English garden. She hired an army of garden specialists who transplanted mature plants into a dozen freshly prepared garden beds. Presto! She had her gardens. I chose that moment to carefully inquire about why Sophie herself had not thought about planting more mature trees in her millennium garden. “Oh,” she chuckled, “the real fun is in watching the trees grow.” She thought it sad that the young couple was missing the best part: the process.

Enjoying the process is always easier said than done. Many of us are so focused on the future that it is difficult for us to appreciate the present. We all seem to be so busy. It is as if we are on treadmills, set on high speed, and we can not get off. Phrases like “time management,” “setting limits,” and “establishing priorities” are so much a part of our daily discourse that their meanings have become trite. We are eager participants in a fast food culture: we want it hot, perfect and now. We want the nicer car, the bigger home, the perfect physique, the promotion at work-the list goes on. We convince ourselves that after we finish the final item on our “to do” list we will be happy. But “to do” lists never end. I am reminded of chasing an elusive butterfly in Sophie’s garden; we run faster convinced that satisfaction is just around the corner.

Busy lives are common. Unavoidable pressures and responsibilities often require it. However, there is a difference between a busy life and a frenzied busy life. Leading a frenzied busy life precludes us from enjoying the process. Choosing to lead a frenzied busy life can serve a purpose psychologically. It can protect us from feeling. Each person has her own history, and with that history comes a multitude of experiences, some good and some not so good. By staying frantically busy, we avoid facing painful feelings. We become so invested in the future as a means of avoiding the past that we miss the here and now altogether.

Gaining a better understanding of our own experience requires a willingness to self-explore and reflect. We must ask ourselves what, if anything, we are trying to avoid by moving so fast? Yes, we might experience discomfort. After all, facing difficult feelings is not easy. But do not despair, there are long-term benefits. We become more aware of what, and who, has compelled us to run so fast.

How many times have we heard “what is done is done, move on with life”? We often believe that we will be perceived as being unappreciative of our blessings, or as being ungrateful children if we look back and connect past feelings with present feelings. Gaining self-awareness is not the same as blaming. Is it not ironic that we that we recognize the societal value of understanding history as a tool for charting our future, and yet we do not slow down long enough to understand ourselves? Weeding through our past and gaining self-awareness can allow us clearer vision as we chart a meaningful, not frenzied, future. Working through painful feelings affords us clearer vision. Learning to tolerate our feelings may help us slow down and plant our garden for the next millennium-and take pleasure in the process.

Catherine Post Sullivan, M.S.W., L.I.S.W. is a licensed independent clinical social worker. Currently, she is engaged in full-time private practice in Cleveland, Ohio, specializing in the treatment of women on issues related to life transitions, low self-esteem and relationship difficulties. She treats clients who present with a variety of diagnosis, including depression, anxiety and adjustment related disorders.

Business Plan Sample Guide



A business plan is one of the best tools you can create to help you reach your long term goals, not to mention a great exercise to help you determine whether your idea has viable revenue opportunities. As part of your business plan exercise, you should also consider creating a list of action steps. Underneath each category of the plan, create a list of short term, medium term and long term action steps and make sure to review them weekly and monthly for checks, changes and updates. This will keep you organized and on target.

The following are crucial components of any business plan along with questions that you should answer within each component. Depending on the product or service you are offering, certain questions may be more relevant than others. Use your best judgment.

The Executive Summary appears first but is usually written last, after you have done all your research and developed the other components of the plan. In your Executive Summary, be sure to address the following issues, which you will further detail and evolve throughout the plan:

Company Description: Include company name, type of business, location and legal entity.

Mission Statement: Concisely state the company’s purpose.

Stage of Development: Include whether your company is a start up or existing business, when it was founded and how far along the product or service is in its development.

Products and Services: Describe the products and / or services you are selling.

Marketing Information: Include information about your target market and marketing and sales strategy.

Competition: Concisely describe the nature of your competition.

Competitive Advantage: Distinguish your product and / or service from the competition.

Management: Describe the experience and background of your management team.

Financials: Chart your company’s expected revenues and expenses for years 1 through 3.

Long-term goals: List your long term goals, including sales, number of employees, locations and market share.

Funds Sought and Exit Strategy: Indicate how much money you want to raise and how you perceive your investors getting their money out.


Entity, Location, Offerings: State the type of entity, location of your company and the services or products offered.

Mission Statement: Include a mission statement showing how the company distinguishes itself from the competition.

Financial Data: Provide information on specific financial data, how the company has grown to date if applicable, as well as a clear picture of ownership, equity available and any legal issues that exist.


Describe your industry: Use statistics to validate your assumptions and confirm your research.

Outline industry trends: Use statistics to validate.

State strategic opportunities that exist in your industry: This shows market opportunity. Also, here you will want to discuss “barriers to entry” or any limits that would dissuade the competition from doing what you are doing.


Describer the size of the market: How many potential buyers of your product or service exist? How many of those potential buyers are you aiming to capture?

Describe your market demographic: What characteristics define your potential buyers? Include information about age category, income level, geographic location and lifestyle trends.

Trends and strategic opportunities: Evaluate trends that may affect your market now and in the future. Include any relevant regulatory information, as well as changes in buying habits and shifting sentiments. Identify strategic opportunities that exist as a result of such trends.


List categories of competitors: Include information on direct and indirect competitors. Competition includes not only other specific companies, but also other actions that potential customers are likely to take replacing the need for your product or service.

Site specific competition: Narrow down who specifically is your competition. Include a detailed analysis to set yourself up for how you will distinguish your company.

Describer tangential or other competition: Briefly mention other competition to show your knowledge of the industry but also address why this competition is not a viable threat.

Indicate your advantages over the competition: Most important, why will customers desire to buy your product or service, given the other competition out there.

Outline barriers to entry: See Executive Summary for explanation.

Discuss strategic opportunities: See Executive Summary for explanation.


Describe how you will make customers aware of your product or service: Include information on how you will appeal to their financial, emotional and convenience-oriented needs.

Define your company’s brand message: Include information on the product or service itself, cost factors, location factors and promotional activities. (Often these are referred to as the 4 Ps of marketing: Product, Price, Place, Promotion.

Outline methods you will use to reinforce and deliver your company’s message:

Think about design, packaging, presentation, employee dress, logo and any other
ways that you can add value to your product or service that will reinforce and enhance your message.

Map out how you will secure actual sales: Include information on the tactics you will use to sell your product or service. Think about unique, cost-effective methods of achieving these goals.


Describe your team players: People are everything in a successful business. Outline who your key employees are, their backgrounds, experience, education and strengths, as well as why you think they will be instrumental in making this business succeed.

Describe other players involved in your company: Include information on consultants, advisors, directors and anyone to whom you outsource business that plays a key role in your company.

Describe management compensation: Address the following: salary, bonuses, commissions, profit sharing, equity and stock options.


Introduction: Describe the basic premise behind how your company will make money and why you believe there is significant revenue opportunity. Use your competition to show that similar revenue models exist. Then you will want to include the following three statements, at a minimum, to validate your statements.

Income statement: This shows whether your company is making a profit.

Cash-Flow Projection: This shows whether the company has sufficient cash to pay bills.

Balance Sheet: This shows how the company is worth a certain snapshot in time.

Research forms to include: Financial forms can be complicated and lengthy. Depending on your business, you may or may not need to include everything and the level of depth you pursue is also variable. Typically, you want to analyze from 1 to 3 years and provide potential investors and yourself with a light at the end of the tunnel—in other words, the hope of significant revenue potential.

Start with the basics and consider: What are my revenues and what are my costs associated with these revenues. Then begin to analyze what your other costs are, how much money you will need to make your business grow and the various ways you might want to structure your funds.

Facts about women-owned businesses


Did You Know?

  • As of 2004, there are an estimated 6.7 million majority-owned, privately-held women-owned firms in the U.S., employing 9.8 million people and generating $1.2 trillion in sales.
  • Between 1997 and 2002, the Center estimates that the number of women-owned firms increased by 14% nationwide twice the rate of all firms, employment increased by 30% — twice the U.S. rate, and sales grew by 40% — the same rate as all firms in the U.S.
  • Women-owned firms continue to diversify into all industries. Construction, transportation, communication and public utilities, and agricultural services have seen the largest recent increases in the number of women-owned firms, although services and retail still make up the largest share of women-owned firms.
  • As of 2004, there are an estimated 1.2 million firms owned by a woman or women of color – amounting to 1 in 5 women-owned firms (20%) in the U.S. Overall, the number of minority women-owned firms increased by 32% between 1997 and 2002 – four times faster than all U.S. firms and over twice the rate of all women-owned firms.
  • Although most women are attracted to entrepreneurship for positive reasons, the past 20 years have seen a rise in such motives as frustration with work environments, the desire for greater challenges and more flexibility.
  • A new generation of women has emerged – women who have started their businesses within the past 10 years have more managerial experience, education, and have the same overall business revenue and employment profiles as women who have been in business 20 years or more. They are more similar to their male cohorts in these respects, and are also more growth-oriented than women who have been in business longer.

As evidenced by the above facts, the trend of women starting and growing businesses continues to remain strong. But not only is this trend evidenced by the speed and volume at which women are pursuing their own ventures, but also by the extent to which they are launching new business ideas within their existing organizations. Women continue to find creative ways to channel their entrepreneurial energy!

El Angel

Victoria Hadden

Stefanie Hartge is sitting bent over in the midst of a dusty courtyard and tears of frustration and anger are running down her cheeks. The little boy who had just thrown a rock that had hit her hard, was back amongst his peers, a rowdy group of 5 year olds dressed in shabby tunics and old T-shirts, playing in a makeshift sandbox. Moments later, a nun steps out of one of the run down buildings that surround the courtyard and rings a bell that sets the kids of running and screaming towards her. Time for lunch.

It is 1996 and Stefanie, 24 at the time, is in Bolivia, the least developed country in South America. What had brought her here was a Bolivian aunt, the urge to go back to the basics and to make a change. The German banker had forsaken her usual assignments in order to work in an orphanage of a slum that belongs to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. The city of 800,000, in the tropical plains of central Bolivia on the Piray River, lies east of the Andes Mountains and the average population in this region is poor. They work in either agriculture producing cattle, cotton, tobacco and sugarcane, or are employed in the local industries of oil refining, sugar and textile milling. For three months she would live among people with a literacy rate of 20% and an average income of $2,500 per year. The room she rents from an old woman in Santa Cruz is sparse. The roaches and vermin that seem to live as much in the small house as everywhere else, make her shudder and prevent her from sleeping at first. Being tall and blonde is a handicap too. When she leaves her house in the impoverished neighborhood to go to the bus stop, people stand still and blatantly stare. Kids come running and continue begging for money and food while she waits in agony until the bus arrives, and the screeching doors close behind her. Engulfed by heat and the overpowering stench of sweating animals and fellow passengers, the vehicle rambles along dirt roads until it reaches it’s final destination two hours later: The slum at the “via miseria”, the road of misery.

The slum is isolated and situated in the midst of a small desert. And the people who inhabit its shacks live like captives, since there is no transportation except for the bus she travels on. No one here can afford it. El Angel, the orphanage is situated in the midst of the slum. A school and a hospital are a few blocks further down the unpaved road, and nuns of the Spanish Catholic Church run all of the facilities. For the fortunate 400 children that can attend the school and the 100 that find refuge in the orphanage, it is the only hope to break the destructive cycle that they are born into. It is the education that the children receive that gives them a chance to escape a life of drug abuse, alcoholism, and prostitution. Days spent in school or kindergarten also mean time away from the shacks were poverty, violence and depression rule.

Stefanie’s assignment at the orphanage was loosely defined to helping 8 nuns that are headed by Sara Romero. They take care of 100 infants from babies up to six-year olds seven days a week, and Stefanie’s work evolves around doing everything that they do. When the children arrive in the morning, the first step is trying to wash and clothe them. Since the one available shower consists of one hose outside in the courtyard this becomes a monumental task. It makes getting rid skin fungus, which is highly contagious, and is the norm among most of the children more than difficult. To make matters worse, the only water supply comes from the well in the slum. When that is interrupted, which happens frequently, not only washing but feeding everyone is impossible. One of Stefanie’s specific tasks is feeding little Maria, at the time 2 years old, who had literally been thrown over the fence by her prostitute mother. She never returned to see her daughter again. When Maria was found lying in the dust the next morning, the nuns did not have much hope. The little girl was suffering from a cleft palate and her life expectancy was maybe another two years, because she could not swallow enough food. Stefanie tries as best as she can every day, but she feels helpless and discouraged. The little girl always goes away hungry since most of the food drips back out of her nose. “I was shocked when I learned that the simple operation that could save Maria’s life cost only $75. Of course it was out of reach for the nuns. I ended up paying for the operation, and today Maria is a healthy child living a normal life with her adopted family in Spain. It made me feel so incredibly good that I was able to change Maria’s otherwise bleak fate,” Stefanie says. A large portion of the day she is in charge of 25 four to six year olds. It is not what you would call constructive or organized play sessions. The most basic toys do not exist. The staff is consistently overwhelmed. The few priceless children’s books and pencils cause more fights than good, since there is never enough for everybody. “The kids also would not touch nor trust anything they did not know. Out of fear they would throw tantrums if you were trying to show them anything new. And because of their backgrounds, even the youngest children were often highly aggressive,” remembers Stefanie. Take Pablo, a 5-year-old boy that arrived in the mornings with black and blue marks all over his body. “He was consistently beaten by his alcoholic father, and that turned him into a terror,” she recalls. “He in return would beat any child that came too close and it was impossible to even talk to him. His skin fungus was horrendous since no one could touch him. After our first encounter, he threw a heavy rock that hit my back. I still have a scar from it.” It took time, but he and Stefanie started to form a bond, and in the end she was the first one who was able to take care of him. “Both of us were very sad when I had to leave, and it was the only time I ever saw him cry.” Taking care of 25 kids at once was difficult. Stefanie felt she could not be constructive and focus because she was scurrying between interrupting fights, drying tears, trying to play, feeding and of course constant trips to the bathroom. “Imagine the existence of only two toilets for over 100 kids and the staff. Every trip there with any of the infants or by myself became an ordeal. We could not keep the facilities clean, no matter how much we tried”, says she. “All of that was hard”, Stefanie remembers, “and in between, all I wanted to do was go home and live my normal life again. But the most difficult aspect of my stay was the constant feeling of isolation. My Spanish was broken and I was dying to talk normally to someone for just a moment,” she remembers.

Besides trying to provide for the most basic of necessities, the nuns try to teach the kids about normal values and relating to each other through friendship, sharing and religion. The orphanage itself serves as the stepping stone for those that are lucky or persistent enough to continue in the school next door. Only a few ever go on to public university in Santa Cruz, but it is the nun’s dream to increase that number. They know that they can only offer the children a chance of a life in dignity through education, which enables them to find proper work afterwards. Handicapped children though, and a few were in Stefanie’s care, hardly ever succeed or survive. An exception is Marcelo, a child crippled by polio, who thanks to Stefanie’s charity was given an education to repair “type writers”. He is now able to support himself and live a dignified life in Santa Cruz, which without her would have been impossible to imagine.

Stefanie’s experiences in El Angel changed her life forever. Not only did she realize how little it took to sometimes dramatically improve someone’s life, but she also found the new motivation and focus she had been looking for. Upon returning to Germany, Stefanie went through all the complicated and time-consuming bureaucratical steps to found a charitable organization that would support El Angel. After 5 months of tireless efforts and with the help of friends and family “El Angel E.V.” came into existence in the fall of 1996. “I recruited three of my friends and we sent out leaflets and self made brochures to everyone we knew in order to educate them about the cause. We were lucky enough to be able to assemble a circle of regulars that now give a certain amount each year. New people are often attracted because they hear about El Angel from our existing charitable givers or from us of course.” The organization now provides above 50% of the orphanage’s yearly support and Stefanie’s timing could not have been better. Due to a lack of funds, the Catholic Church stopped supporting the cause in Santa Cruz entirely in the spring of 1997. Without Stefanie the nuns would have been forced to close El Angel. And due to her tireless effort back home, the facilities were not only kept open, but improved in a major way. “Now the orphanage has its own well supplying a consistent amount of clean water to feed the new sanitary facilities that we were able to build. They include enough toilets and real showers for the children. There is no more skin fungus amongst any of them”, says Stefanie. What is even more impressive is that the nuns were enabled to nearly double the amount of kids that can now attend El Angel. Repairs could be made to the buildings and there are learning tools and toys in the kindergarten. Stefanie herself oversees new and ongoing projects via phone, letters and yearly visits, and thanks to Sara Romero donations are wisely spent.

The nuns and especially Sara Romero still don’t know how to thank what they call “this angel” out of nowhere. The nuns went as far as to creating an annual Saints Day in Stefanie’s honor on the 10th of June. It was the date when she first set foot into El Angel. And Stefanie did not only change the lives of so many in Santa Cruz, but she also changed her own. She switched gears and started to work as a freelance journalist. “It is a career that lets me hone in on issues that I deem important and that I can then share with people,” she says. It also gives her the freedom for her yearly visits to the orphanage. She shares: “Each time I go there and I am received with this overwhelming gratitude and warmth, I know that in a small way I have changed one thing in this world for the better.” Sara Romero speaks of Stefanie as a miracle that was god sent. “And I know” says Stefanie, “that it is not me, but them who perform the miracles every day!”