Christine Janssen-Selvadurai enrolled in a doctoral business program in 2003 to explore technology, culture and the way people learn.
In April 2007, halfway through earning her doctorate, she was laid off from Citibank in a huge round of downsizing due to the weakening economy. This was the third time she had been a victim of downsizing since 9/11. Frustrated, yet determined, Janssen-Selvadurai came up with a plan.
“That same day, I decided I was starting my own business,” she said. “Before then, I never even entertained the thought. But when your back is up against the wall and jobs are scarce, starting your own business sounds like a pretty good option.”
She parlayed 20 years of experience in marketing, market research, new product development and business development into Denken Research and Consulting, a boutique firm providing research, writing, educational and consulting services for small businesses, particularly startups.
Inside Fordham sat down with Janssen-Selvadurai, Ph.D., lecturer in the management systems area, who spoke about starting her own business and how entrepreneurship naturally became the topic of her dissertation.
With your vast experience, venturing out on your own must have been easy, right?
“Not really. I had a lot to learn and was flying by the seat of my pants. I had an M.B.A.—from Fordham as a matter of fact—so I had taken a few relevant courses, but never had the chance to apply it.”
How did you come up with your dissertation topic?
“I have always been interested in how people learn, and I considered many avenues for my research, but when I launched my own business, it was a no-brainer for me to study how female entrepreneurs learn.
“I focused solely on women because there’s been a big surge of female entrepreneurs over the last decade or so. Many of the women I interviewed for my study didn’t necessarily have a business degree or background. They were just women who knew their craft really well and had the desire to branch out on their own. It was, therefore, not a big surprise when I found that their entrepreneurial learning experiences could be summed up as, ‘I don’t know how to start a business, but I’ll figure it out on the fly.’
“So I wanted to know how they became entrepreneurs and how they learned. I also wanted to find out where the gaps were and how I could help them become better, more successful entrepreneurs.”
What were some of your findings?
“Interestingly enough, most of these women didn’t see themselves as ‘real’ entrepreneurs. They would say things like, ‘Well, I haven’t made a million dollars,’ or ‘I haven’t turned a profit,’ or ‘I’m just a small operation.’ Yet when I asked them how they defined an entrepreneur, they all mentioned characteristics that they themselves possessed. Strange disconnect.
“Overall, these women were very motivated, dedicated risk-takers who liked to be in control. I had found those same characteristics in previous studies involving men. But unlike men, these women were driven by the desire to have a specific lifestyle—one that gave them a voice, freedom, perhaps flexibility to raise a family. They said, ‘I really don’t care if I make a million dollars. I want to do something fulfilling and rewarding.’”
Keeping in mind that you didn’t compare men to women in your study, what are some of the unique traits of female entrepreneurs?
“Men typically build businesses to grow them and sell them. They have dollar signs in their eyes. Women are different. For them, their business is their baby. They want to build it and keep it—not necessarily grow it into a behemoth. What they are really looking for is a fulfilling and rewarding career that enables them to do what they really enjoy, have a flexible schedule that works with their family obligations, and somehow give back to their communities or a cause they support.”