This is an interview with Carol Bramson, Founder & CEO at Side by Side.
Where were you at 22, and how did you get to where you are today?
At the age of 22 I was working at Shearson Lehman Hutton in the Chicago Board of Trade Building and attending DePaul University at night in pursuit of my undergraduate degree. I put myself through both undergrad and business school by working full time in the financial services industry. I feel strongly that the work experience helped greatly in the classroom and in my future career opportunities. It took a little over 5 years to finish my degree as I took classes over the summer each year as well. When I graduated, my prior work experience at Shearson helped to open the door to a healthcare focused venture capital firm that was raising a second fund. I accepted a position as an Associate with Essex Venture Partners, which was a wonderful opportunity at this early stage of my career. I helped the fund establish its portfolio management and reporting requirements, supported the due diligence on new investments, and interacted with the limited partners who invested in the Fund. I also decided to apply to business school and started at The University of Chicago just 8 months after completing my undergrad degree. I had a good momentum going and knew an MBA would help, so I wanted to start right away. One of our limited partner investors was the First National Bank of Chicago, and this organization had a reputation for being one of the best places to learn private equity investing. When I graduated from UChicago I was recruited to First Chicago and shortly thereafter I was offered a position in the private equity group and a few years later became a partner in that group. I’m grateful for the business colleagues and mentors that I met at Essex and First Chicago, they gave me a chance at a time and in an industry where there were very very few women leaders. This was a wonderful starting point to a future devoted to building businesses and supporting entrepreneurship as I do today.
When did you really decide to “take ownership” of your career? What inspired you to pursue your passion?
I believe I really took ownership of my career when I started working full-time in Chicago and was going to school at night. It was far from the typical college experience as there was little opportunity or time for social activities or even studying. I knew if I focused on my studies, always participated in class, stayed current on all homework and assignments, that I would do well. My performance in undergrad helped me get accepted to one of the top business schools and I just kept the same routine going. I’ve always been a math minded person so majoring in finance felt natural. I was fortunate to have my first job out of college be in venture capital and in the healthcare field. It was hugely rewarding to work with new companies that were touching peoples lives in a positive way. I have always been a health and wellness minded person and having the chance to include this as a key part of my career was a dream come true. Along the way I learned a number of important skills in mergers & acquisitions, leadership, strategic planning, manufacturing and operations, and the law. Not all of the companies I worked with were in health and wellness, many were industrial businesses, but there were learning opportunities every step of the way. I’m grateful for these experiences and they’ve served me well every step of the way. All these experiences and the wonderful mentors and colleagues I’ve had along the way has enabled me to do what I love which involves bringing products to market that touch peoples lives in a positive way, and this includes their pets. In my current company, Side by Side, a pet nutrition company focused on whole food ingredients and the science of Eastern Food Therapy. Through our proprietary pet assessment process we match the right food to each individual pet. Touching lives in a way that brings happier days to the pet and their pet parents.
All good career stories include some aspect of “risk.” Was there a moment in your career where you felt that you were risking something, but looking back on it now, that move made all the difference?
Private equity is a very risky business and the rewards are challenging and hard to come by. Venture Capital and Entrepreneurship is even harder and riskier so it feels like I’ve been walking a balance beam for most my career. Building a business has so many elements of risk from the obvious financial and time exposure to the challenges associated with finding and recruiting the right team. In the end, it always come down to the people and I am particularly proud and grateful for the experience I shared with a highly talented team of executives who came into a company to help me turnaround an underperforming business. In just 8 months, through a great deal of strategic analysis, challenging negotiations, and new innovation, we were able to take this company from a loss position to one where it was making money, growing and becoming the new favorite of the key retailers in our category. We quickly won awards for new innovative products and set the stage for future leadership through innovation and technology partnerships. Many of the individuals responsible for that success have joined me in future companies. It’s truly rewarding to see a vision become reality through collaboration and teamwork.
Where do you find significance in your work? What gives you the most satisfaction?
There are so many rewarding areas of working as an investor and leader of high growth companies. Every company, every team, is new, providing opportunities for learning and inspiration. With any new opportunity, the first phase includes strategic planning, an area I really enjoy and where I can make a significant impact. Strategic thinking, innovation and building strong teams to execute, are ways to really bring the vision to life. I love the energy that comes from this process and the collaboration that’s generated as a result. Wherever possible, I look for opportunities to make a meaningful and sometimes disruptive change to an industry. The inspiration and rewards that come from these types of experiences, make it more of an adventure than work.
How do you measure success in your role? How do you know you’re succeeding?
Working in the private equity industry has some predictable measurements of success in the form of return on investment. And being entrusted with others capital, carries a very real responsibility to do all that is possible to return to them more than that which they gave you at the start. In addition to the financial rewards and measurements, success comes in a number of other ways, the ability to take an idea or vision and make it into a company, the ability to bring together a team of talented individuals who share your vision and work hard to make sure it comes true. In my mind, the financial rewards will come if the initial strategic vision is clear and attainable and team comes together to make it happen. That’s success.
If you could offer your 22-year old self one piece of advice, what would you say?
I would tell her to lift her head and try to quiet her mind. To be open to change and allowing things to happen as they will happen vs. always diving too deep into the plan. There is one constant and that is change, so be open to it, be flexible, allow yourself time to breath and think. Everything happens with people, so surround yourself with others, and appreciate the value of diversity in thought and actions. There’s so many wonderful experiences in life, be open to participate and learn from these gifts.