If anyone knows about silver linings, it’s Michelle King Robson. The vivacious entrepreneur is founder, chairperson and CEO of EmpowHER, a health media company for women. But it was less than a decade ago that this dynamo was physically ill enough to have moments so dark that she considered taking her own life. Still, she wouldn’t change the past.
“I am so happy now that I got sick,” says Robson, 51, “I’m so glad this happened to me because I would not be where I am today without it. Out of something bad always comes something good.”
Indeed, EmpowHER has certainly been something good. The Scottsdale-based firm boasts 18 full-time employees, five full-time contractors, 35 writers who create most of the content presented on the website, six guides who respond to online inquiries from visitors who range in age from 20s to 70s, and both a medical and business advisory board. Robson’s passion has even inspired her daughter to become involved as an intern. The company’s website was launched in November 2008 and reaches 187 countries. In 2009, nearly 3 million visitors accessed the site, and 2010 is nearing four times that number.
As for the “something bad,” that started when Robson was in her late 30s. She had trouble sleeping and her hormone levels were declining, which often occurs at that stage of life, but she says no doctor picked up on that. Eventually, the Phoenix resident and philanthropist was advised to undergo a complete hysterectomy. She did, and soon began experiencing new incapacitating ailments. She suffered alone — as women tend to do, she says — and no one knew anything was wrong. More than once, she contemplated taking her own life. Although she continued to seek help from doctors and did her own research, she came up empty. Finding answers on the Internet also proved fruitless.
“All I wanted was someone to validate what I was feeling,” she recalls of her online searches. “There’s no humanness on the Web. What I found was that I was giving information; I just wasn’t getting anything back.”
Robson finally found the solution to her problems — which were hormone related — in a book written by a medical doctor. She sought treatment from that same doctor, who Robson says had her on the road to recovery in a matter of days.
Once she was well, Robson says, she knew she had to help other women who might be experiencing the same challenges she had. Like any astute entrepreneur, she had found a need and felt the call to fulfill it. And she knew her customer: someone like her. So she focused on the idea of empowering women, of giving them information about health options and choices as well as people with whom they could discuss that information. Even though she had no background in computers or online media, she zeroed in on the Internet because she recognized its ability to connect people.
She also picked mentors, including an accomplished businessperson she admired — and to whom she never imagined she would have access. She was wrong. “Shoot for the stars!” urges Robson, whose husband, Ed, is founder and chairman of Robson Communities. “People are more than willing to help you if you ask for it.”
One of her next moves was to hire guides, who respond to the online requests. This was a component lacking from so many websites she had searched when sick. EmpowHER’s site’s guides have backgrounds in the journalism and healthcare industries, or have been or are currently active bloggers, health-and-wellness practitioners and have a background in healthcare education. Not only are the guides intelligent and caring, Robson notes they are also empathetic — many of them, who work from home around the country, have health concerns that prohibit them from working in a traditional workplace. “Women trust each other, more than we trust a doctor,” she notes. “And it’s cathartic to be able to share, and that’s what I didn’t know.”
Perhaps the best part of all, though, is the “24 Hour Promise” that EmpowHER makes to users. Robson insists on all health-related inquiries getting a response from someone at the website within a full day. She knows, after all, what it’s like to e-mail a website in the middle of the night when you’re feeling sick and scared.
“We give women what I call ‘a virtual hug,’” Robson says. “It’s a commitment we’ve made to women, and I think it has helped lead us to where we are today.”
Michelle King Robson’s prescription for entrepreneurial success:
- Find a mentor … and aim high. “I never thought we could have an attorney like Thomas Curzon [of Osborn Maledon in Phoenix] — we’re a small company. But the worst-case scenario is, he (or she) says ‘no.’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ ”
- The customer is Queen … or King. “You have to be all about your customer. In our company, it’s ‘HER.’ What’s in it for HER? It’s all about HER … She’s at top-of-mind in our company.”
- It’s cliché, but do what you love and you’ll love what you do. “[EmpowHER] was my dream, and it is my passion. It shouldn’t feel like work to you. If it feels like work to you, you’re in the wrong business.”