Women's Activist Nell Merlino

Who she is: A trailblazer for women entrepreneurs

What she does: The creator of “Take Our Daughters to Work Day,” who founded a national organization in 2000 called Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence. Today she is the CEO and chief advocate of “Make Mine a Million $ Business”

Why she does it: Because only 243,000 of the 10.5 million women business owners in America make $1 million in revenue, Nell Merlino is trying to get more women to join the million-dollar club. “I don’t have anything against men or boys,” says the author of Stepping Out of Line. “I just am here fighting for women.”

MAKE MINE A MILLION $ BUSINESS

By Hope Katz Gibbs

Even before Nell Merlino founded Take Our Daughters to Work Day for the Ms. Foundation in 1992, she was considered “a professional rabble-rouser with a very active imagination.”

In 1990, she helped produce the 20th Century Anniversary Earth Day Concert in Central Park (www.earthday.net). That year, she also did advance work on Nelson Mandela’s first trip to New York after he was released from prison.

Nell helped organize the distribution of 100,000 condoms around New York City through the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization (www.gmhc.org), was the communications director for the NGO Forum on Women in Beijing (www.ngocsw.org), and with her brother, Joe, helped organized the YWCA Week Without Violence (www.weekwithoutviolence), which ran for more than five years around the U.S.

She credits her ability to see the big picture to her parents — Joe Merlino, a lawyer and powerful figure in New Jersey politics, who served two terms as State Senate President and died in 1998 at the age of 76; and her mom Molly Merlino, a painter and prominent community activist.

In fact, Nell’s hometown newspaper, The Trenton Times, once wrote of her: “No one was surprised when, at 21, Nell Merlino took a job as a union organizer.”

WHAT SHE DOES: Encourages Women to “Step Out of Line”

In the introduction to her book, Stepping Out Of Line: Lessons for Women Who Want It Their Way … In Life, In Love, And At Work, Nell writes: “Chubby and bossy and the daughter of political activists who took me along to voter registration drives, I figured out pretty early on that I wasn’t going to grow up to be Doris Day.”

Indeed. That book, published by Broadway Books, came to her the day she and her husband were on a road trip and stopped for a bathroom break. After spending an inordinately long time in the line for the Ladies’ Room, she decided enough was enough.

“This book is my way of marshalling all of the experience I’ve gained, and the lessons I’ve learned myself and from the people I’ve met, to help women like you to step out of line, stand out, and make your life fit your wildest dreams,” she says.

How to Step Out of Line

The 222-page book is a page-turner packed with great ideas, exercises and charts to help you organize your goals. It includes examples of women who have successfully taken their lives into their own hands.

After spending just an hour engulfed in the “anything is possible” world of Nell Merlino, it is clear that by putting her approach to work, millions of women will indeed be able to shrug off the conformities that keep them excluded, ignored, inauthentic, or invisible.

“[Stepping Out of Line] means using your imagination to determine the exact life you want, even if that looks nothing like the life of anyone else,” Nell says. “It means changing the systems that can feel so immovable — such as family, work, power, politics, and success — to fit your personal definitions of those terms. Finally, stepping out of line means being for you: knowing that you are fully responsible for yourself — your safety, your happiness, and your success.”

How do more women entrepreneurs go about making a million dollars or more? Nell offers some advice:

Hope Gibbs: Do you think more women are stepping out of line?

Nell Merlino: I think they want to. It’s just that they don’t have a lot of experience with it. It’s not a big surprise because, historically speaking, women are still new to this entrepreneurial game.

It has only been since 1974 that women have had the right to get credit in their own name. Back then, we owned 5% of businesses. Now, we own 35-40% of all businesses. Slowly but surely, we’re getting there.

Hope Gibbs: The statistics are staggering when it comes to how many women own businesses, but aren’t making a lot of money with them. Why do you think that is?

Nell Merlino: So many women are narrowly focused on creating the purpose of building their businesses versus actually digging in their heels and building it so they make a lot of money. That is a challenge for all entrepreneurs, but especially for women who sometimes feel they are dabbling in their businesses.

I say in the video that you mentioned, that if you are making $50,000 — go get a job, unless you really don’t mind making that amount of money. If you want to make more, then do something about it.

Hope Gibbs: There’s a lot of discussion about whether women can have it all — a business, a family, sanity. What do you think?

Nell Merlino: Absolutely, women can have it all — as long as they don’t do it all. We think our paw prints need to be on everything, and that can be a fatal flaw. Instead, work to have a lot of other paws working for you.

Entrepreneurs need help. They need other people’s ideas, energy, and different experiences to grow their enterprise. It’s a mistake to think you can do it all alone. Not only is it impossible, it’s no fun.

Hope Gibbs: Did you learn this lesson when you were planning “Take Our Daughters to Work Day”?

Nell Merlino: I learned how important having a team was before then, but putting that knowledge to work helped us be effective. It took tons of people to pull it off, and I talk about that in the book [starting on page 26].

The point is that when you are the boss, you don’t have to do everything yourself. You just need to be the boss of your own business, the boss of your own life.

Hope Gibbs: What’s the secret recipe?

Nell Merlino: You start by mapping it out. If you want to earn $1 million, do a simple exercise and work backward. Figure out how many chunks of whatever you make or service you provide you’ll need to sell to reach that level of income.

Then, factor in how many people it is going to take to help you do that, and determine over what period of time you’ll be able to accomplish it. Once you break it up into chunks of “how many, how much, how long,” it becomes less daunting. You just have to see that it’s doable — and then go for it.

Hope Gibbs: Is it that simple?

Nell Merlino: Yes. But here’s the other secret. When something stops you, dig deep and find out what that is. What are you trying to avoid? Are you afraid others will take your business away from you? Are you afraid you’ll fail if you try to grow, and the status quo is good enough? Whatever it is, get to the bottom of it, and push through the blocks.

Learn more:
• Apply here to Make Mine a Million $ Business.
• Don’t miss Nell Merlino’s Tips for Entrepreneurs


The Women