Nicole Vasquez: Entrepreneur & Community Connector
Nicole Vasquez is a Chicago-based entrepreneur with a knack and passion for bringing people together to share ideas, exchange information and establish mixed-industry collaborations. She facilitates this process every day at The Shift, the co-working and community space she founded, by connecting fellow entrepreneurs to opportunities and resources. She frequently hosts and leads events, panels and workshops to discuss entrepreneurship, building collaborative communities, and managing co-working spaces. In 2015, Nicole was named one of the “35 Under 35 Making an Impact in Chicago,” and won the Community Award at the RedEye Chicago Big Idea Awards.
Tell me about your path into entrepreneurship.
I come from a business & operations background. While in college I was working for an event production company so I managed and coordinated conferences for the life science industry. Although I loved the planning and coordination process, the topic of life science is pretty dry. It really wasn’t that intriguing to me. So I went off and worked for a hospital in administration then I also worked for the Cook County Treasurer’s Office. I thought I wanted to go in the public sector and so I worked in operations for a few years and while doing so I was working towards my MBA at night. This was a pretty intense time in my life but it really helped me to get my claws into the business side of things because while I was managing a small team in the operations department, I was getting my MBA at night and it really helped to digest the topics that I was learning in my grad program. I hit the point, after a few years, of getting sick of the clock-in clock-out mentality, the gray walls, the cubicles, etc. The office environment was very draining so I took a leap of faith and went into sales and marketing for Sysco Food Services. I loved the flexibility of it in the beginning but over time it was lonesome, as I had to work from home or from my car. At the same time, I started my events company BLEND. I was doing events at nights and weekends and I was going to a lot of co-working spaces. That’s when it hit me that there is a happy medium between the office environment and working from home. This was the path that led me to owning a shared working space, The Shift.
What made you decide to go from working with Sysco to venturing off on your own? What were the motivations?
I really enjoyed the people I worked with, the company and the management. I originally saw myself working there for a long time. But I got to the point where I realized that my unique skill set was not being utilized completely. My last role was only utilizing a certain portion of my brain and the role before that was utilizing a different part. I wanted something that really took advantage of all the skills I had accumulated over the years. Everything from business operations & management, to event production, marketing, writing, and collaborating with other people. I also hit the point where I was sick of working for anybody else but myself. I got sick of taking orders from people and having to be the problem fixer for someone else’s problems. And so I knew I was ready because I had the knowledge and ability to actually do it.
"Starting your own business is always going to come with stress. There is stress every day. There are fears that keep you up in the middle of the night while you wonder what the hell did I do? But these are a given and they will happen so the best is to focus on the positives. Every day I come into work and I love what I do. I love meeting all the people that I have been blessed to meet and creating the relationships I have in this space [The Shift]. And of course being your own boss."
What are some of the must-have skills to make it as an entrepreneur?
The first is a mix of belief and passion. I heard someone say the other day on a podcast, that you should only start a business after someone has asked you to start that business in terms of making sure there is a market for it. But, I am not 100% sold on this because you have to believe so strongly about the path you’re going down that you are willing to quit your job, self-leverage everything you own, and so on. You have to believe so strong that if you needed to do these things, you would. If you are 1% short of that belief, do it as a side hustle. Don’t do it as a full time job. The number one is 100% belief in what you are about to do.
Other skills would be doing it. If you are not someone who gets stuff done, you are probably not going to be a great entrepreneur because you have to take care of everything until you can afford to hire people. Which brings me to number two: humility to get stuff done. To buckle down and get work done. If you’re a lazy person or somebody that only wants to work a few hours a day, this is not the path for you. Now, once you’re successful, by all means, enjoy what you’ve earned. But you have to earn it first.
Three would be open for communication with other people. I think a dangerous thing is if you’re an entrepreneur and don’t talk to other entrepreneurs because you can lose out on resources and advice from them. You also run the risk of digging yourself into a hole and not noticing warning signs when they arise. If you build a network of other entrepreneurs and often talk about where you’re at in the journey, you can avoid any pitfalls but you can also get advice before you even are at a tough situation. So I would say creating a strong support network of entrepreneurs at all stages to get a wide scope of perspectives. I’d also say include people that aren’t entrepreneurs in this network that really love you, like friends and family. You need to have that there because there will be moments when these people will be able to help you out in a non-business sense. If at the end of the day the business succeeds or fails, and of course you never want it to fail, there is always a constant in your life and that is your family, the people that love you the most. They are not going to love you any less if your business flops.
What are some of the biggest struggles you’ve faced while running your own business?
I’ve said this many times: finances. Running your very own business that you start from scratch requires that you self-leverage and bootstrap. I don’t have partners or investors yet so until that time comes, I have to finance it myself through personal savings and loans. As we grow and need to make more purchases, I don’t have a big well to draw from, so every purchase and decision I make has to be analyzed and cost out, see if it’s even feasible to afford in the first place. A lot of times when you have a business that’s growing, you can benefit from making an investment but there has been times where I haven’t had funds to make an investment fuel growth, so the hard part is feeling stunted sometimes. Like you’re growing so fast but you can’t accommodate. And so it sucks because I have all the ideas but I don’t always have the funds. That’s what is tough for me right now. But any entrepreneur will go through this stage first. Obviously as I grow and open additional locations and find partners/investors, my problems will be much different.
"Every day I see people coming into The Shift that are working on their own business or working for a company and come here to work on their passion projects for a few hours before they go home. All of these people show me that there is no one perfect professional path to go down. That you should go down the one that brings you the most joy. Seeing everybody else’s experiences has taught me that we are all trying as hard as we can and there is no one definition of success so you should keep choosing exactly what makes you happy."
What is your favorite aspect of being your own boss?
Before I mention my favorite, I have to be realistic and mention the negatives that make the positives that much better. Starting your own business is always going to come with stress. And if you can’t handle that… There is stress every day. There are fears that keep you up in the middle of the night while you wonder what the hell did I do? But these are a given and they will happen so the best is to focus on the positives. Every day I come into work and I love what I do. I joke around that my work is my hobby because before The Shift, I’d go to work then return home and do the things I love like writing, reading, etc. Now, I come home from work and cook dinner and maybe do a little more work then go to bed early so I can wake up and go back to work early. I love what I do. I love meeting all the people that I have been blessed to meet and creating the relationships I have in this space. And of course being your own boss.
What have been some of your failures, and what have you learned from them?
I think I’m much better at it now but like I said, talking with people. When I first opened I ignored some warning signs about the way that our membership structures, design and layout were set up. I should have talked to more co-working space owners before I opened instead of talking to them afterwards. Now I’m much better at that. If I’m even going to embark on a small or any sized project, I talk to at least a few people about it to get their opinion. At the end of the day, it’s still your decision but make sure to keep people in the loop of what you’re doing. That way they will also be able to send you opportunities your way. For me a huge mistake was not talking to people and it cost me members and money in the beginning, it stunted our growth a little bit because I ignored certain details I shouldn’t have and that was a big problem.
Another thing is don’t do anything for anybody else unless you have a proposal in place and a contract signed. I know that sounds so formal but I had an issue very recently where I was working side by side with somebody and thought everything was going well until one day I woke up and realized, I’ve done a lot of work for this person and yet he’s put in no contribution. So what I mean is don’t sell yourself short.
"If at the end of the day the business succeeds or fails, and of course you never want it to fail, there is always a constant in your life and that is your family, the people that love you the most. They are not going to love you any less if your business flops."
Do you have any regrets or wish you would have done something differently?
I would have saved up more of my own personal money before I started my own business because when you’re not making money, the money you do have is hemorrhaging out of your wallet. Even if you reduce your expenses to a minimum, when there is no money coming in, the money you do have spills out very quickly.
Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Why and how did this person impact your life?
There are a few people I can attribute this to. On a daily basis I work with 20 to 30 people that are all from different backgrounds, different experience levels and industries. I have learned so much from so many people that work out of here. And I’ve created a few very very strong connections. Obviously there a few people that I converse with a lot more than others. The combinations of all these different members that work out of The Shift make up my mentorship because every day I see people coming in that are working on their own business or working for a company and come here to work on their passion projects for a few hours before they go home. All of these people show me that there is no one perfect professional path to go down. That you should go down the one that brings you the most joy. Seeing everybody else’s experiences has taught me that we are all trying as hard as we can and there is no one definition of success so you should keep choosing exactly what makes you happy.
"I think success is finding contentment in whatever it is that you’re doing and being able to be an inspiration to other people regardless of money or status."
What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
This is recently on my mind: don’t do any work for anybody else unless you agree on a contract and compensation. It’s huge for me right now because I was almost really taken advantage of and it’s mind boggling to think how close I was to allowing somebody to take me for granted in terms of work.
Other advice: don’t be afraid to share with people your wins and your struggles. You should always be able to share both your strengths and your weaknesses to that network of friends and supporters, Don’t just call your friends when you are upset, call them too when you have something good going on. Make sure you always ask other people what they are doing and how you can help them.
What makes you happy?
The feeling that what I am doing benefits many other people and that I am doing that well. Doing what I love to do every day which is what I am doing now. Being a good person. Staying close to the people I love most in my life and a little bit of traveling and adventuring here and there to keep me from feeling boring. A healthy mix of personal and professional satisfactions combined with some gallivanting around the world.
What does success mean to you?
Success to me does not mean financial success. To me, success is achieving something that you wanted to achieve. Success is taking an idea and turning it into something and making it a real life thing. Success is helping other people find their own individual success. Success is also achieving balance between work and your personal life. You can work 80 hours a week but if you are miserable on the inside and you’re awful to people around you, then what’s the point? So personally I think success is finding contentment in whatever it is that you’re doing and being able to be an inspiration to other people regardless of money or status.
What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?
During my non-working time, I like to practice Pilates, cook and write. Traveling is my number one favorite thing to do in the whole world. So for me, taking 5 days off and going to a remote location and setting up on a beach to surf for days on end is my ultimate zen. I love learning new things. I love finding ways to be good to the people around me – family and friends. I also like to be out and about in nature, being active.
"Don’t be afraid to share with people your wins and your struggles […] Don’t just call your friends [and supporters] when you are upset, call them too when you have something good going on. Make sure you always ask what they are doing and how you can help them."
Can you mention any movies or books you’d recommend?
I am currently reading the 4-Hour Workweek and I’m glad to be reading it now. If I read it when I was 21, I would have thought no, I want to work myself to the bone and as hard as I can! but I now realize I wasn’t as effective with that mentality as I could have been. I love the book because it really changed my thinking about busy work. I am somebody who works 70 hours a week. I am not afraid of working long hours and I don’t plan to simply work four hours a week and that is not the premise of the book. It talks about how to work more efficiently and do what actually is effective and not just busy work. I love reading that book because it rings so true to me now that I am seeing the dangers of busy work and creating things for you to do rather than doing the minimum of what is effective.
This book turned me on to the Tim Ferriss podcast. One episode I really enjoyed is the one featuring Naval Ravikant where he talks about happiness hacks. He shared some really big and incredible ideas about success, life, happiness and death. He is very successful and wealthy and I’ve noticed a common theme amongst people that are uber successful and rich like him. After a few years, they all end up starting to say the same thing: that money means nothing but the people you love mean everything. And that inner happiness and peace are what matters most. And it’s so funny because I’m sure when they hit the success and wealth jackpot, there must have been periods of utter indulgence then they all seem to arrive at the conclusion that money is fleeting and whether you have it or not doesn’t determine who you can be. And this is really inspiring for me.