Life After Corporate: Kelly Hoey, Co-Founder, Women Innovate Mobile

KellyHoeyBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

To Kelly Hoey, business strategist and Co-Founder and Managing Director of Women Innovate Mobile, leaving her corporate job was a surprise. “I call myself an accidental entrepreneur,” she said.

But, she firmly believes striking out on her own was the right choice. “I tell people this all the time – my life was easier when I practiced law. But I can’t imagine doing anything else now. Do I have moments of doubt? Yes. But I need to pursue this and see where it goes.”

Now, her role at WIM, an accelerator for mobile-focused start-ups founded by women, helps bring her true passion – mentoring – to the fore, as she works to inspire and ignite the next generation of women in the technology space.

“When I started practicing law, I was in Toronto, Ontario. And I had an extraordinary mentor. He was a mentor to all of his younger staff and he would say, ‘I’m training my assassins.’ He wanted the people he trained to be better than him,” Hoey recalled.

The experience had a profound impact on her own career development and goals. “I think for me generally, being seen as and being a great mentor is my greatest professional achievement.”

She continued, “Last August, for my birthday, someone who is a friend and mentee to me handed me a logo in a frame, and said, ‘Kelly, you’ve inspired me to start my own company.’ To be an inspiration to someone – that to me was just jaw-dropping.”

Career Path

Hoey practiced law for about eleven years, focusing mainly on banking and finance, until 2002. At that point, she decided she was ready for a change. “It wasn’t the quite the right fit for me,” she explained. “I switched into law firm management.”

She took a role as Manager of Professional Development for the Americas at White & Case and then became Global Manager of Alumni Relations at the firm. “So the first career change, I really thought I was in the right box of someone who had been a lawyer. It was not particularly adventurous,” she said. “But I think I was always in entrepreneurial roles in my career up to that point. All three lines of responsibility were roles where there was nothing there before, there were limited resources, high expectations, and I had to make something happen.”

While Hoey was working in the alumni function at White & Case, she got a call. “It was Janet Hanson from [the networking group] 85 Broads. This was 2009, and the economy was just really bad. And she said ‘would you ever think about coming and advising me on what I should do with 85 Broads?’ And it hit me right out of the blue. I thought ‘I could do that.’”

She had a really terrific job at White & Case, with creative freedom and a boss she admired, but something just wasn’t clicking. “It was funny,” she recalled. “Even when I was still at the firm, people would suggest I apply for similar alumni roles at other law firms, and thinking about it, I was just boring myself.”

“I think Janet just asked the right question at the right time – she likely saw something in me that I hadn’t seen yet.”

Hoey consulted to 85 Broads for a year, and began consulting with other groups. In the meantime, she began to build and develop her network in the technology and start-up space, spending time with female founders and angel investors and learning more about the industry.

“When I began working on my own,” Hoey said, “I kept thinking of something a friend from White & Case said to me. She said, ‘Kelly, what’s the worst thing that could happen? You could come back here and do your old job.’ And I reflect on that – I mean, if that’s the worst that could happen, I can try this.”

In September of 2011, she met with Deborah Jackson and Veronika Sonsev for dinner one evening and the three decided to found a start-up accelerator for women. “It was just that simple,” she said.

Women Innovate Mobile (WIM) is an early stage seed investment vehicle that looks for promising technology start-ups that are founded or co-founded by women with a mobile focus. “It’s really hands-on and mentor-focused,” she explained. Participants go through a 90-day intensive learning experience. “A lot of doors and networks are open to them.”

“What we saw was that model – the accelerator model – for helping start-ups was very effective, but for some reason there weren’t many women engaged in it. So, we looked at the landscape and said this model works and a lot of other accelerators do not have a lot of women participating. But rather than spending the time researching why not, we decided it would be a heck of a lot more positive and proactive to start doing something about it.”

Hoey is enthusiastic about how WIM’s opportunities and partnerships have grown rapidly since its founding. “In a short time, we’ve had a big footprint. It’s exciting and humbling.”

Women in Technology

Hoey says she has recognized some of the same issues for women in the technology space that she did in her corporate career. “It’s funny – sometimes I do see patterns of behavior that remind me of the patterns of behavior I saw in the boys’ club that is Wall Street. At this point in my life, it’s really boring. They’re the same challenges that are on Wall Street, in the corporate space, at not for profits.”

She continued, “I think there are barriers at least when you’re getting to the upper levels – there aren’t many women at the top. But for all of us out there, for women, we just need to persevere. And for those of us who are climbing higher, we need to be sure we are reaching down and pulling a hand up.”

“I also think there’s a responsibility on all of us to look and find people who aren’t like us to reach down and pull them up – to train our assassins.”

Hoey says she echoes the advice given by Sheryl Sandberg to young women beginning their careers. “Don’t leave before you leave. As soon as you start to set restrictions and barriers on yourself, other people will help resurrect higher ones.”

She continued, “For younger women, I would also add that if you’re not getting the projects or assignments you want from your manager, be vocal about it. What’s the worst that could happen?”

If you’re unhappy because you’re not getting the work you want and you bring that up with your boss, the worst that could happen is that they won’t make a change, Hoey reasoned. “You might still be unhappy, but you’ll know you should start looking for a new job.”

“Be selfish. Be greedy about what you want in your career. No one cares about your career as much as you do. You have to look after it in order to achieve what you want.”

Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs

Hoey was recently named on a Forbes list as an “up and comer.” That made her laugh, she said. “I’m 47 years old! It’s never too late to change what you’re doing. You can be an up-and-comer at 47.”

If you’re considering striking out on your own, she says, one of the first things you should do is start talking with people who are doing what you’re interested in. “I had to build an entire, new network, and that process took 18 months. Start doing informational interviews and start making those contacts.”

Next, she continued, make sure you have some money in the bank. “More than you think you’ll need,” she advised. “One thing you forget is the power of the paycheck in getting a line of credit. If you’re thinking about refinancing your house or getting a new credit card, do it before you leave your job.”

You may have money in the bank, she explained, but if you aren’t able to show a steady income it can be difficult to convince a bank to work with you. “There are things you don’t think about until you’re faced with it. You’ll think ‘if I had only done this three weeks ago!’”

“If you do these two things, you’ll be jumping off with a circle of people and resources to call upon,” Hoey explained.

It might also be useful to look into groups like Incubate NYC, Startup America, Founder Labs, or General Assembly and talk to folks who have launched their own businesses. “That way you can figure out if this is more of a hobby or really something you can run with. See if you have the appetite for it. And make sure it’s not just an idea that looks really great just because you don’t love your current job. Talk to people to understand what it really means. It’s not easy.”

She added, “I really love what I do, and I joke and say to people that work is my golf. Right now, what I’m really trying to do – mentoring and helping other people – means a lot to me.”