Thursday, April 10, 2014

How the Boston Marathon Bombing Inspired a New Life Path

An alumna of Stanford Graduate School of Business finds lessons in life and business after last year's tragedy.

Sometimes it can take a traumatic event to spur a major change in life. That was the case for Amanda North, who, after graduating from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1982, went into a career in corporate marketing. She was until recently a marketing executive at a technology firm in Campbell, Calif. But her life changed in an instant at 2:49 p.m. on April 15, 2013, while she was cheering on her 21-year-old daughter, who was running in the Boston Marathon.

When her daughter was about 100 yards from the finish, two bombs exploded, and North "thought it was the end," she says.

The elder North was suffering from a 9-inch gash on her right leg, second- and third-degree burns on her left leg, and a partially perforated eardrum, but she saw someone more injured than herself — a woman named Erika Brannock — and went to her aid. She gave her belt to a nearby stranger (who wrapped it around Brannock's leg as a tourniquet), held Brannock's hand, wrapped her coat around her, looked into her eyes and said, "Stay with me. I'm not leaving you," North recalls.

Brannock eventually lost part of her leg but credited North for helping her make it through. North was taken to Carney Hospital in Dorchester. North’s daughter, who was thrown to the ground by the explosions, found her mom at the hospital. “My daughter told me, ‘We were spared by a miracle. We have to think about our passions and purpose.’ I told her, ‘You’re so right.’" North says.

“It was a wake-up call.” About two months later, she decided to leave her career as vice president of marketing and communications at AOptix Technologies. North was determined to find work that inspired her and would help improve the world.

After doing much soul-searching, she decided to start her own company, choosing to partner with nonprofit organizations in developing countries that work with artisans but lack the access to a wider market. Her online-only venture, called Artisan Connect, will officially launch in April. Her site focuses on upscale handcrafted home décor items from artisans in the developing world (woven baskets from Swaziland, alpaca blankets from Bolivia and wooden carvings from Bali). Her goal is to help communities of artisans from remote locations survive and thrive by giving the artisans not only a broader marketplace but also a fair return on the profits. Through her travels around the world, she had noticed that many artisan communities were struggling and shrinking. The site includes stories about who made each product and where it was made. “It’s like going to a farmer’s market, where you support small farmers. I want people to feel like they’re part of a community,” says North.

To stand out from competitors, North was deliberate when choosing particular artisanal products. "You see a lot of artisanal fashion and jewelry and a lot of small, kitschy souvenirs. Artisan Connect is unique in that it focuses on high-quality home decor items. Our lowest price point is $50," says North. "Another difference is that many companies sell through retail stores or catalogs, but we sell purely online."

Starting a company, and surviving the bombings has taught North plenty:

Networking is key.

"If you have served people well in the past, those people are likely to help you in the future when you need them.” She received critical seed funding from investors she has known for decades. One person is a professional acquaintance who has served as a frequent reference for her in the past. Another was a fellow Stanford GSB classmate who is chairman of a social impact incubator.

Know your weaknesses.

There were several parts of starting a business that were new to North. "I'd never worked for a supply chain company before, so I wasn't sure how to get a product from, say, Cambodia to the U.S.," says North. Being scrappy and resourceful, she tracked down people who had experience in those areas. She now manages a team of roughly 10 people who help with supply chain management, as well as creative direction, social media, website development, office management, merchandising and more.

Be courageous.

The marathon experience made her fearless. "People might have thought that I was fearless before, but I wasn't. I carefully concealed my fears.”

Stay flexible.

"When a river hits a rock, it doesn't stop. It finds a way to flow around it. I have that mentality," says North.

Think about structure.

North likes to draw upon a bowling pin analogy from management consultant and author Geoffrey Moore to make big business decisions. "Define the alley that you're in and then look at how you set up the pins. If you knock over one, do the next ones fall? Figure out the most important things first and everything else flows from there."

Know your audience.

Before North has a conversation with anyone about her company, she thinks about where they are coming from and what they might want. "I weave what I'm doing into their interests and tell my story in a way that resonates with them," says North. "You're telling each person things that are all true, but you're playing up different aspects of the business."

Inspire others.

"One of my skill sets is capturing an idea and articulating it in a way that excites people and gets them on board. There's an infectious energy and enthusiasm when I talk that people pick up on," says North. "But I have to be authentic. I can only do well at things I feel sincerely passionate about."

Carve out "me" time.

Finding balance is a challenge for anyone starting a business and North admits that it's hard not to feel overwhelmed all the time. But she has two tricks that help. "My dog Wolfie needs a walk twice a day, so that's a good excuse to take a mental and physical break from work," says North. "After the marathon, I also took up knitting. It's grounding and tactile — it allows me to relax but feel productive at the same time."

Don't boss people around — collaborate.

North learned about the power of teamwork through John Warnock, a co-founder of Adobe, which is a company she worked with early in her career when she was an employee at Apple. "He created a fantastic company culture and made a huge impression on me. He was humble and always let his employees shine," says North.

You're never too old to start.

North has discovered that you can be an entrepreneur at any age, and says there are some advantages to beginning a company later in life. She is 57. "I think now is actually a great time. My kids are in college and are launched, so I can focus on my own interests."

Amanda North is a 1982 graduate of Stanford Graduate School of Business. She lives in Woodside, Calif.