After a 30-year career in corporate, Maureen Ross Gemme launched Emerge Leadership Academy in 2013 with the mission of providing training classes for leaders in all types of industries. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price connected with Maureen through a women’s mastermind group several years ago and recently reconnected when Maureen invited Nan to speak on her podcast, Emerge, Evolve, Lead. But first, Nan needed to share Maureen’s entrepreneurial journey.
NAN PRICE: You worked in corporate for many years. Did you always have an entrepreneurial spirit?
MAUREEN ROSS GEMME: Actually, no. I never had the entrepreneurial spirit because I love my free time on the nights and weekends. And I loved having six weeks of paid vacation every year. In fact, I took a few quizzes while I was working my corporate job to see if I’d be a good entrepreneur—and the answer was always no!
NAN: So, what changed?
MAUREEN: What changed was I got an opportunity to “retire” by taking advantage of the rule of 80 at my company, where you’re eligible to retire once your age and years of service total 80. That gave me an opportunity to still receive one paycheck a month, which paid my mortgage and some of my bills so I could start my own business.
Also, I had hit the glass ceiling at the manager level at my company and I couldn’t get any higher. I knew I wanted to do more training, which wasn’t really a part of my job. So, it was just a matter of function. I wanted to train leaders and I wanted to speak more. I also wanted to choose the people I wanted to work with and I needed a break from corporate.
NAN: How did you build your company around all those goals?
MAUREEN: Basically, I wrote a course. I have my master’s in education with a focus on training and performance improvement. I also have a lot of coaching and mentoring experience in the community, so I decided to write a life empowerment action program course called Take the Leap.
I spent two years doing life coaching. I brought about 100 people through my program and I saw many transformations. It was fun, but I wasn’t making a lot of money because I didn’t know how to ask for it! But I got a ton of experience. And what I realized was that I was leaving a lot on the table and it was time to get back to corporate. I didn’t want to work in corporate anymore, but I wanted to help people in leadership positions become better leaders.
So, I began offering training across New England and I worked my way up to training about 70 classes a year. A lot was through partnerships, meaning I was a consultant for other training companies, so I was training their clients.
During that whole phase, I learned how to do leadership training and I developed a lot of content as I ran my classes. Most importantly, I learned that it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, leadership is leadership and people are people. And they all say the same things. There’s a certain set of characteristics people look for in leaders. It’s all about caring, empathy, compassion, listening skills, mentoring, coaching, providing opportunities, and helping people grow.
NAN: You mentioned the challenge of asking for money. What other business challenges have you encountered?
MAUREEN: I was raised in a corporate. I know how to get a paycheck every other week. So, to suddenly have to market myself and make sales calls and ask for business was definitely challenging.
But what I’m learning is that it’s all about relationships. I just have to keep building relationships and more and more opportunities are falling into my lap. People think of me top of mind because I build relationships with those who engage with me, whether it’s through my social media posts or listening to the podcast.
NAN: In what ways has COVID-19 affected your business? Any silver linings?
MAUREEN: It was devastating, financially speaking, because I had about 50 classes booked for 2020 and they were all canceled after February. I also had a five-day course I was planning to launch on March 16, 2020, which was the day many businesses shut down, and nobody enrolled.
I had booked out about 10 speaking engagements for the year and they were canceled. So, from that perspective, it was challenging. But, it allowed me to start marketing and doing the things I needed to do, including training online and learning that whole skillset.
I also started doing virtual speaking for groups like the Better Business Bureau’s leadership program and I spoke at Connecticut’s State Managers Day about how to lower the stress of their managers who had to continue to work despite having to take care of families at home.
Those kinds of opportunities broadened me. If I had kept training for other people’s clients, I wouldn’t have developed the programs I have now, which led to a wonderful base of clients, because I wouldn’t have had time to develop new programming. I would have been out there doing trainings. So, the pandemic gave me that time, which was a blessing.
NAN: You embraced the pivot.
MAUREEN: That’s exactly right. And, with that time, I developed the Recovery@Work program and my Emerge, Evolve, Lead podcast.
NAN: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned on your entrepreneurial journey?
MAUREEN: The most important thing I tell all the people I work with is you have to dig deep and develop yourself first before you can try to help other people. If you haven’t done your own work, cleaned up your past, and gotten rid of some resentments, you can’t really be there for other people.
You have to do that inner work if you’re ever going to be an effective leader. And, when downtimes like COVID-19 come, that’s the time to reinvent or have that transformation. That means looking deeply at what it is that you really want. Because until you find your true purpose, you’re not going to be able to serve others in a way that makes you feel good.