A nervous energy flooded through Brittney Holton’s body as she entered the Toronto seamstress studio. It was an unfamiliar scene: walls lined with neatly rolled bolts of cotton, cashmere and every fabric imaginable, and a cacophony of sewing machines ringing in her ears. Five elderly women sat focused, hands and eyes steady on their needles and half sewn shirts and blouses. As a seasoned insurance broker for the past five years, Holton was completely out of her element and a wave of insecurity swept over her. She was determined to bring her vision of a fashion line for new mums to life, but the transition was a lot more intimidating than she had imagined.

Brittney Holton
Brittney Holton, the founder of Lark & Lux, said she felt like an imposter while starting a maternity fashion line coming from an insurance background (Photo by Kate Benfey).

Holton, 32, went to this Toronto seamstress shop in June 2017 during the development phase of getting a design manufactured for her startup maternity fashion line called Lark & Lux. As a new mom, she said one of the greatest unexpected challenges she faced was the lack of breastfeeding-friendly dresses. So she was searching for a stretchy, bamboo fabric to create a dress with a supportive built-in bra with zipper access to make breastfeeding on-the-go stylish and discrete.

Although Holton knew the exact material she wanted, she had no idea what questions to ask the seamstress or where to begin. She said she felt like an imposter starting her own fashion line as a person without any background in the industry. She was consumed in her fears of the seamstress laughing at her and thinking her idea was stupid.

“I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed because it was so unfamiliar to me,” said Holton, the founder of Lark & Lux. “I was standing there with the seamstress and she was looking at me like I was a valley girl and she was a professor of astrophysics, for example. That’s how different I felt. That’s how divided we were.”

Since the launch of her company in November 2017, Holton has sold 100 dresses which have helped several mothers to breastfeed easily. Despite the success Holton has experienced, she says she is one of several millennial entrepreneurs who experience the feeling of being an imposter.

The imposter syndrome, a term that was coined in the 1970s, occurs in people who don’t believe that what they’ve achieved is based on merit. People who suffer from impostor syndrome fear that they’re tricking others into believing they’re capable, thus acting like impostors, and attribute their success to luck as opposed to ability, according to the American Psychological Association. Although it’s not considered a mental disorder, it is viewed as a specific form of self-doubt.

“Despite evidence of their abilities, those who experience the imposter syndrome have a persistent belief that they’re really not as bright and capable as people think they are,” said Valerie Young, an expert on impostor syndrome and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. It affects such a wide range of people and situations, whether it’s getting into a good university, good grades, a degree, a promotion, starting a business or getting a piece of art into a gallery.”

Young, who began to study the imposter syndrome in the 1980s, said 70 per cent of professionals will experience the imposter syndrome at some point.

For PJ Mercanti, 38, that point occurred earlier in his career as the CEO of Carmen’s Group in Hamilton because of his young age.

PJ Mercanti
PJ Mercanti, the CEO of Carmen’s Group, said he felt like an imposter because many of his employees and suppliers did not take him seriously due to his young age (Photo Courtesy Carmen’s Group).

Mercanti’s father, who is the founder of Carmen’s Group, experienced serious health issues which prompted him to sell the family business. Mercanti then became the CEO of Carmen’s Group at age 35 after he and his brother bought the family share of the company.

He questioned whether or not he was capable of being the CEO after a handful of the executive team members, who were loyal to his father, did not show the respect Mercanti deserved as the CEO. Many were not following through on instructions that Mercanti gave them. This planted seeds of doubt in Mercanti and caused him to undermine his own abilities even though he had been apart of the family company for over 10 years and had a business degree.

“Even though I’m the CEO,” Mercanti said, “they still looked at me as though I was that young kid in the family business.”

Mercanti and his brother also worked with suppliers who attempted to take advantage of them. Thinking that they were young and naive, the suppliers tried to raise the prices of their products. Mercanti recalled a time when one supplier said: “Oh wow, you guys are too young to run the family business. You need the old sharks like your father and uncle to succeed in this industry.”

Jess Avolio, the creative director of a graphic design agency called J. Avolio, said it’s common for her to have negative self-talk while experiencing the imposter syndrome.

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Jess Avolio, the creative director of a graphic design agency called J. Avolio, said she often has a cycle of irrational fears and negative self-talk when experiencing the imposter syndrome (Photo by Rae Connell).

Avolio, 30, said her hard work and creativity has led to many prestige opportunities such as branding and a site design for Desiree Hartsock who is a former Bachelorette contestant; an element of Cameron Diaz’s “The Body Book” website; and branding and design for large companies such as Magna.

While she worked with these well-established companies, however, Avolio said she often wondered how she stumbled into them or if she has the skill set to produce quality work that would be expected from that client.

“I sometimes get a little voice in my head second guessing myself saying, ‘Do you actually know what you’re talking about?’ or ‘Should these people actually be listening to you?’” Avolio said. “Sometimes I just feel ‘lucky’ to be given those opportunities instead of realizing that my talent and passion helped get me there.”

How to overcome imposter syndrome

Young says the first step in combating the impostor syndrome as an entrepreneur is to acknowledge your natural limitations. By normalizing feelings of self-doubt, entrepreneurs grow to realize that most people also experience these thoughts.

Entrepreneurs should then reframe their thinking. They must become aware of the impostor conversation in their head and reframe it in a way that a non-impostor would.

“The imposter may start their business and say, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing,’” Young said. “Whereas the non-imposter thinks, ‘Wow, I’m going to learn a lot.’”

Entrepreneurs must learn to separate shame from disappointment, Young said. It’s OK to be upset when something doesn’t go as planned, but impostors will often take that personally instead of using it as a learning opportunity.

“If you do fail or you blow the big client meeting,” Young said for an example, “you can be crushingly disappointed but not ashamed. The only time you should feel ashamed is if you really didn’t try.”

Avolio said she has learned to overcome the imposter syndrome by confronting her self-doubt and sharing her struggles with supportive people.

“I find talking about it with others is important because I think there is a lot of strength and value in vulnerability,” Avolio said. “I find reassurance from my clients, friends and loved-ones is really helpful.”

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