Life is an interesting journey — some of the craziest and most random things happen and you can’t help but wonder why. My co-worker’s three-year-old died in a car accident minutes from his house. A close friend went backpacking in Peru and went completely missing never to be found. Luckily, for me, it was not a matter of life or death, but often times it was so suffocating that it felt like I was dying, and I always wondered why it was happening to me. Although I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone, I can now see why it happened to me and on some level am thankful it did.
For the first 21 years of my life, I felt like I was cooped up in a jail cell or what some of you might call school. I would attend class pretending I knew what was happening, skip parties and school outings to catch up with homework, and often call my friends asking them to piece together what was taught because I simply could not keep up with what the teacher was saying. This situation only worsened as I entered high school, especially at a school where I had to balance nine classes (I attended a religious school where we had both secular and religious classes). The situation got so bad that I was missing school to keep up with my studies — pretty counterintuitive in retrospect. I was trying to escape the quicksand, but the faster I ran, the more I got sucked in.
Nobody knew what was going on until I was tested for a learning disability as a junior in high school. Although I wasn’t exactly happy with the diagnosis, I was relieved that we at least identified the issue and could work towards finding a solution. For many years later (and for many years leading up to that), I told myself and was told that I was stupid. I remember telling someone in high school that I was good friends with Jenny. He looked at me and said, “What do the two of you have in common? She’s smart….[and you’re not].” Although he didn’t finish the sentence, it was obvious what he meant. There were so many instances like this one, that I started to believe that I was stupid. I mean after all, how could I not be? I was struggling so much, and I was “learning disabled”.
Although this happened nearly 10 years ago, it still stings to recall those memories. In fact, tears are coming to my eyes as I write this. Things that happen during your most formative years have the most impact on you, and if you let it, they can negatively impact you for many years.
I took many steps to make sure these experiences didn’t negatively define me, but it was not easy. I made sure to surround myself with a good group of friends and work my hardest to prove them wrong. After high school, I went to Oberlin for a year and then transferred to Emory and then ultimately accepted a job at Google. After working at the tech giant for three and a half years, I left to start my own company — Petite Ave — the Amazon for petite clothing. It’s a one-stop shopping destination for women under 5’5’’ which is a large, underserved market.
As I reflect back on my experience in school and my struggles with a learning disability, I always wonder why I went through that, and I now believe it was because I was meant to be an entrepreneur. So what did I learn and how does it relate to running my own business?
Empathy & Patience
Perhaps most importantly, my learning disability helped me develop a sense of empathy and patience that I bring to all my relationships. I never make someone feel stupid for asking a question, always apply a collaborative approach to my management style, and do my best to listen to what others have to say, because after all, I wish these were things people had done for me when I was struggling.
Extraordinary Tenacity & Resourcefulness
If there’s one thing you must have to make it as an entrepreneur, it’s a sheer determination to keep going and figure it out. Despite being completely lost at school, I somehow figured it out. I called friends for help, stayed after school to ask questions, turned to the internet for resources, and repeatedly, night after night stayed up well past midnight to figure it out. And that’s exactly what I had to do (and still do) with my business – but it’s a lot more enjoyable this time around.
Strong Believe In Yourself
Entrepreneurship can often be chalk full of rejection on a lonely path to ‘making it’. The most important thing during this process is to believe in yourself because if you don’t have that, then you don’t have much else at the beginning. If nothing else, this is what I had in school. I believed that with enough hard work I would figure it out, and I did.
Willingness to Ask for Help
Even though I’m the CEO and Founder of my own company, I don’t know everything and never will. It’s important to admit that and be comfortable with reaching out for help when needed. That’s something I relied on heavily in school and something I still rely on today in running my business. I have an incredible team of employees, advisors, and other female founders who I rely on to fill in my weaknesses, and I never hesitate for a minute to get the help I need.
Not Caring Too Much About What Others Think
When I was in school, I always felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb and didn’t fit in. Whether it was because I asked a lot of questions or because I stayed behind to finish my tests. Although it was very hard for me to handle this at the time, I eventually learned not to be too self-conscious about it because otherwise I wouldn’t get what I needed. Now that I’m an entrepreneur, I couldn’t be more excited to have developed this trait. As a founder, you have to take action quickly and make hard decisions without caring too much about what others think of you. If you do, it will hinder your company’s progress.
I could go on a for a while as to why my learning disability has helped me become the entrepreneur I am today, but in short, being an entrepreneur takes extraordinary persistence, resourcefulness, people’s skills, and an ability to believe in yourself even when others don’t, and those are the exact skills I developed as I struggled through school with a learning disability. I don’t think any book, course, or job could’ve ever given me the skills that my learning disability has, and for that, I am thankful.
Vanessa Youshaei is the founder and CEO of Petite Ave, a one-stop shopping destination for women under 5’5’’. Petite Ave currently has partnerships with 20+ brands including Express, Bloomingdales, and Reformation to name a few. Vanessa created Petite Ave because as someone who stands at 5’0’’, she always struggled to find fashionable clothing that fit and wanted to expand the available options for shorter women. Vanessa’s vision is to create a brand that’s a champion for petite women and create an empowering community for this underrepresented demographic. Prior to starting Petite Ave, Vanessa spent 3.5 years at Google working in sales, marketing, and program management. She’s a graduate of Emory University with majors in marketing and finance.