The Game Changer – Kim Kovacs fosters women entrepreneurship
Entering the Solium office in Mission Viejo was a daunting experience. Not only was my publisher telling me we needed more stories about women entrepreneurs, I needed to prioritize this assignment above everything else. The interview with Kovacs was supposed to add a wider perspective to the entrepreneurial community we already try to feature in the publication. The past issues of the magazine have always been great at promoting women business owners, but the next issue started to look like it was lacking in gender diversity. That’s why Kovacs was so important to us. We intended on sticking to our roots of inspiring innovation and entrepreneurship through a diverse set of stories, and Kovacs didn’t disappoint.
Kim Kovacs slid her card over as I sat across from her in the Mission Viejo office. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. At first glance, it’s natural for anyone to assume who Kim Kovacs is. A tall, blond haired mother of two from Orange County would usually bring up the image of the stereotypical soccer mom. After talking to her, however, we knew she was far from any stereotype. Dressed in casual business attire, she had a direct yet affable manner about her. When she spoke, she was an authority, a business leader and an entrepreneur. When she listened, you would think of her as a confidant and friend. Kovacs fit too many personas to fit a stereotype.
She’s been part of six start-up companies including the business she founded, OptionEase. Now working for Solium, she still continues to engage in the entrepreneurial community. She’s never lost her spirit as an entrepreneur. It’s part of what makes her story so inspiring.
It is impossible to gauge the type of interview to have with a person like Kovacs. It’s not a matter of asking the right questions; it’s a matter of understanding her perspective as a woman entrepreneur. There’s a particular question she never answers. We asked her about balancing her work and personal life, and she responded by saying “I hate talking about that. It’s beaten to death with women.” In the past, she would simply say “no” to a question like that. For us, she simply addressed it by saying “it’s bullshit. Everyone has balance in their lives and it’s just the choices that you make. With being a woman and being a man, there’s no difference.”
Imagine a woman having an idea for a start-up company. Let’s say she is sitting with her friends and mentions that she has “this great idea for a new start-up venture,” and is later met with silence from her female companions.
Kovacs understands those kinds of stories from the work she’s done with the Woman’s President’s Organization. She mentors other women business owners in the hopes of “getting them to invest in women run-companies.” From her experience, Kovacs understands that “women don’t invest.” She makes it her mission to help them invest. In her free time, she researches hedge funds in hopes of supporting the growth of more women-run companies. Since her passion centered on women entrepreneurship, it wouldn’t be surprising that she embodied the very qualities of it.
Many entrepreneurs pride themselves on rags to riches stories. The biography sections of bookstores are littered with them, and the most famous business owners we know appear to share the same legacy of pulling themselves up from their bootstraps. If you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. What we never hear is the other side of the story. What happens when entrepreneurship is in your blood, as if you were a natural at it from the beginning? From a young age, Kovacs has always been part of the start-up culture. She worked in her father’s restaurants and inherited his entrepreneurial drive. By the time she graduated college, she was already building herself up as a future business leader. Eventually she found a part-time bookkeeper job for Ingrid Croce’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar. She offered Ingrid a proposition: “I’ll work for free for three months,” Kovacs told Ingrid. “I’m going to put together a list of objectives and your main objective is to stop paying for the restaurant’s survival,” she continued. Then she hit Ingrid with a final request: “If things are going right, I want to be your chief financial officer.”
The rest of Kovacs’ friends were in entry-level positions after college. Like her, they all started from the bottom, and they continued to work their way up from the bottom. Kovacs became the CFO of Ingrid Croce’s restaurant after the business started to become profitable. Within the next fifteen years, she helped develop six other start-ups as the CFO. For someone who doesn’t appear to have the typical rags to riches story, her experiences do not fail to create a lasting impact that affected many others.
It is important to note how Kovacs views her most well known company, OptionEase. While she’s currently running the company under Solium Capital, she still has a peculiar take about her attachment to it: “OptionEase is not my baby,” stated Kovacs.
In order to understand Kovacs’ statement, we need to look at the growth of OptionEase and its eventual merger with Solium.
OptionEase is a software-for-service company that manages equity and stock options for corporations.
Founded in 2006, the company reached prominence in just five years. Besides being featured on Inc Magazine’s 5000 list of the fastest-growing companies, OptionEase has also received two rounds of outside funding totaling 3.9 million by 2011.
The rapid growth and success of her business eventually caught the attention of Solium Capital, which acquired OptionEase in November of 2012. OptionEase eventually grew its client base to 700 by 2013.
Kovacs’ stance with her company becomes more understandable when it’s related to the rapid expansion of OptionEase. It is not uncommon for a business owner to feel attached with the company he or she started, but Kovacs warns against always sticking to the entrepreneurial mentality of wanting to build things yourself.
Before she merged with Solium, she was working on raising 20 million dollars to expand OptionEase on her own. When Solium came into the picture, however, Kovacs was faced with two options that concerned the future of her business. Should she stick to her entrepreneurial roots and build the company herself? Or should she merge with a company that already has everything she needs for expansion?
Kovacs’ decision-making process made her choice easy. “I had to sit down as an investor,” she stated. “Of the ten things that I was going to buy with that 20 million dollars, they already had, so why am I not joining forces with them?”
Solium allowed her to expand her company as efficiently and rapidly as possible. It made the most sense. After all, OptionEase was never her baby.
Kovacs’ ability to detach emotionally from her business is not a typical trait among entrepreneurs. She believes that most entrepreneurs “don’t think of themselves as investors.” When mentoring other aspiring business owners, she asks the question: “If somebody came to you with what you’re doing, would you put money into it?” If the answer is yes, then she wants others to consider, “how much and how far are you willing to go, and what milestones are you going to be looking at?”
Kovacs has always set milestones throughout her career. From her proposition to Ingrid, to her funding of the OptionEase expansion, she has a knack for setting goals and getting them done.
Working for Solium has not hindered Kovacs’ passion and entrepreneurial drive. Besides her involvement in the Women’s President’s Organization, she’s also involved with Golden Seeds and other investing networks associated with women business owners. She wants her legacy to be about getting women to invest in women-run companies. In a way, her story here will further contribute to her legacy.
As I was walking away from the Mission Viejo office, I realized why Kim Kovacs was needed for the next issue. She was not just another business owner. She was a mom, a mentor, an investor, a teacher and an entrepreneur. At the same time, I don’t think you can accurately describe her fully. The one thing I understood is that she’s a game changer. •