Meg Columbia-Walsh believes that ignoring the word "no" whenever she’s heard it has paid off handsomely in her long and illustrious career as a technology entrepreneur and digital marketing pioneer.
Columbia-Walsh is cofounder and CEO of Wylei, a Jersey City-based startup that uses artificial intelligence and machine-learning technology for marketing campaigns.
"There is not a 'no' in my life," Columbia-Walsh told a group of New Jersey high-school students who were participating in the 15th New Jersey Business Idea Competition, on April 20 at Farleigh Dickinson University’s Lenfell Hall, in Madison. The event was hosted by FDU’s Silberman College of Business and the College’s Rothman Institute of Innovation & Entrepreneurship.
She gave that piece of advice, as well as other words of wisdom, when delivering FDU’s 2018 New Jersey Female Entrepreneur Lecture to an audience of budding young entrepreneurs who will undoubtedly encounter rejection and other challenges as they pursue their passion.
Columbia-Walsh, a Rider University graduate who went to the school on a basketball scholarship, told the students that she worked hard in college, and that this work ethic later paved her way to success. If the student entrepreneurs follow the same route, she noted, one day they also “could be standing here” giving inspiring speeches to future entrepreneurs.
Her resolve to become successful in the business world led her to start five technology companies, four of which have been sold to big brands, such as online healthcare information publisher WebMD (New York), accounting and business management consulting firm EY (New York), drug manufacturer Pharmacia & Upjohn (Kalamazoo, Mich.) and ad giant Interpublic (New York).
There were, of course, times when she questioned her abilities. For instance, she had threatened to quit her job years ago when faced with the daunting task of building a website for a healthcare service. There weren’t a lot of commercial websites back then, and even fewer people, including Columbia-Walsh, who had any idea of how to build them.
However, she eventually got the website built because it wasn’t in her nature to shy away from a challenge, and this was only one of many during her career as an entrepreneur in a demanding industry.
Columbia-Walsh told the crowd that she hoped that the teenage girls in the audience and their peers will have greater opportunities to attain the role of CEO and other senior-level positions, particularly in the tech industry, where men still significantly outnumber women in corporate boardrooms. She recalled that, earlier in her career, it was unusual for a woman to run a company. “I was a CEO at a time that I would not have been hired as a CEO.”
The journey to the top required Columbia-Walsh to work every day of the week, flying from coast to coast for business meetings, and having very little time to think about starting a family. But by the time she reached her late ’30s, she decided it was time to get married and have children.
Looking back on her decision to simultaneously run companies and raise a family, Columbia-Walsh has no regrets. In fact, “it’s possible to do it without working yourself to death.”
Columbia-Walsh said that it takes a combination of hard and soft skills to become successful in business. Students who achieve good grades in school will have mastered the hard skills. “The better grades you have, the more choices you have,” she noted.
On the other hand, the ability to have empathy, compassion, humility and other soft skills are just as important when it comes to working with others. “If you’re not humble or admit to mistakes, you won’t be successful on a team. You won’t get far ahead if you don’t have these skills.”
She urged young entrepreneurs to make it a practice to focus on their ideas and strive to continually improve on them. “Whatever is your talent, be sure to maximize it every single day.”
The students attending the awards ceremony were among the 35 New Jersey high-school students selected for the annual competition. Their business ideas were chosen from among the hundreds that had been submitted by more than 500 high-school students from all over New Jersey.
In the pitch competition at the event, Marlboro High School (Marlboro) students Matthew Goodman, Ryan Perrette and Hailey Steinberg won a $300 cash prize for the winning idea, which uses recycled plastic and 3D manufacturing to produce eco-friendly and less expensive prosthetic equipment.
The runner-up winners in the pitch competition were:
- Bergen County Academies (Hackensack) students Nidhi Mandalapu and Jiwon Son, for their idea of using kinetic energy to help reduce the global carbon footprint and allow companies to lower their electricity bills.
- West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North (Plainsboro) students Arjun Bhat, Jackson Daab and Sam Parris, for an idea that would help senior citizens who experience difficulty in using the current technology to communicate with relatives.