When starting a business, most entrepreneurs expect to encounter obstacles. They also would say it requires a leap of faith. Serial entrepreneur Valaurie Lee takes the “leap of faith” concept seriously. As part of the Doctor of Business Administration degree she earned from Robinson this past spring, she published a dissertation focusing on the role of spirituality in female business owners’ success.
As a woman of color, Lee is no stranger to adversity. She transitioned from stable marketing and sales roles at stalwart companies like IBM and Oracle to launch her own IT consulting firm in 2002. From there, she built enough capital to invest in additional businesses such as the Wellness Spot, a fitness and day spa in the historic district of College Park, located just south of Atlanta as well as across from the entrance to Woodward Academy. (Lee not only graduated from the private Pk-12 school but also became its first Black homecoming queen.)
Around the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lee purchased four buildings along the city’s main drag. But the world was shutting down, and consumers weren’t setting foot anywhere near gyms or spas. Plus, her lender of 22 years dropped her as a client, when her newly acquired properties were in dire need of renovations. Based on conversations with executives from the bank, she concluded the decision to stop securing her loan was racially driven.
How did Lee scale back-to-back-to-back hurdles? She claims the only explanation is faith.
“My faith was tested during this entire process, and still is,” Lee says. “Entrepreneurship is navigating ambiguity. Some uncertainty might occur with a nine-to-five, but you still get a regular paycheck. As an entrepreneur, you’re responsible for families’ livelihoods and people’s career growth. That’s an enormous amount of pressure.”
Lee’s dissertation topic is pretty groundbreaking. The majority of research on business ownership examines the experience of men, and any studies including women are limited to their companies’ performance in the early stages. Driven by a curiosity of what motivates established women entrepreneurs to stay in the game, Lee surveyed female proprietors who either have run their own business for three-plus years or produce at least $1 million in annual revenue.
In her paper, Lee makes a couple of important distinctions. The first is the difference between spirituality and religion. Lee recruited 40 interviewees from diverse racial backgrounds, and while most of them identify as spiritual, many of them do not consider themselves religious.
“Religion carries a stigma,” Lee said. “Spirituality is personal, and can be practiced when meditating, centering oneself, practicing yoga, or even drinking coffee.”
Lee also went the extra mile to encapsulate participants’ definition of success.
“Success isn’t about revenue, especially to African American women,” she said. “It’s more about helping others with career development and giving back to the community.”
Females face discrimination and sexism, and non-white women deal with racism on top of that. Perhaps not surprisingly, a Harvard Business Review article states that “women-led businesses are less likely to survive.” Lee’s dissertation not only adds to the scarce body of knowledge on female entrepreneurs but also suggests spirituality could contribute to their longevity.
“By raising awareness of how established women entrepreneurs persist, women can empower themselves and make more mindful decisions,” Lee said. “The anchor is faith.”