Sometimes, the shortest distance between any two points is a circle.
For Leila Banijamali, it took nearly flunking out of Law School to reveal her passion for giving that ultimately led her to start her own law firm. But that's not all. This intrepid intellectual property lawyer / singer/ surfer / volunteer / web designer / baker / entrepreneur / speed skater / former semipro tennis player has discovered the key to happiness and success.
When Leila first stepped onto a local tennis court, the surface was uneven and cracked. The ball would bounce unpredictably as she trained with her father. She was 7 years old. Those early days of chasing the ball around, bonding with her father, eventually turned into something more serious; at the age of 23 this driven young woman went semi-pro.
The swoosh of the racket has since been replaced by the static of monitor speakers (she is the lead singer of Curse the Controls): and now sales pitch competitions have taken the place of tennis tournaments; but Banijamali's 15 years of training have left an undeniable mark on her work ethic. In fact, when Banijamali was struggling though law school, it was tennis that set her on her feet again.
Womenalia recently sat down with Leila Banijamali, the San Francisco-based serial entrepreneur and Principal Attorney at Bedrock legal services firm to discuss her unique journey and strategy for having it all.
Because at a very young age, when most girls are concerned about being viewed favorably in the eyes of their friends, I was just figuring out how to fail less.
W: What have you learned from tennis?
LB: The odds in professional tournaments are brutal. Only 1 in 128 competitors can win. So, there are 127 losers every week in many cities across the world. It's a very high competition sport, so you become accustomed to failing a lot. It's very rare that you win. I never won a tournament, but I did very well to get to where I was. That being said, I have a very different relationship with failure than most people, I think. Because at a very young age, when most girls are concerned about being viewed favorably in the eyes of their friends I was just figuring out how to fail less. So, I think my relationship with failure is very different. I embrace it because I know that the reward is very high. If you can be OK with taking a risk and failing, the reward is very, very high.
W: When was the moment you decided to stop competing?
LB: Probably around the time I decided to do my masters in intellectual property law in San Francisco. I was still training, but a little bit less every day. I discovered other things that were new and exciting, like music production and learning how to design websites - they became my new passions and, like everything else, I took them very seriously.
W: You are now working on your 5th company/organization. Entrepreneurship seems to come naturally to you.
LB: I actually started my first company in High School! I had noticed all the different bumper stickers around and I thought it would be cool to be able to sell custom bumper stickers via mail order catalogs. So, I started a bumper sticker business. I would place the ads in the last pages of a popular magazine and then wait for orders... I didn't actually receive more than one order but I loved it! I love the idea of building value in something that started as just an idea with nothing more.
W: If you enjoyed starting companies so much, why study law? Why not study business?
LB: To be honest, I wanted to use my law degree for business purposes and didn't have any intention of ever practicing law or working as an associate for a partner in a big firm (which I successfully avoided). I thought I could leverage my legal knowledge in negotiations and starting companies. I was right but didn't realize how right I was until I graduated and launched my first venture, a royalty-free audio download site called Musiclick.
I love the idea of building value in something that started as just an idea with nothing more.
W: You mentioned you were struggling to finish law school. How did tennis help you get through it?
LB: Many people who were at law school were doing it because it was useful but were unclear about the direction to take. I lost motivation because I just didn't see the point. I took the initiative and created my own volunteer position at some local tennis courts. I suppose I didn't see the need to look for an organization. I just showed up and started volunteering tennis lessons to kids whose parents couldn't otherwise afford it. I remembered what it was like to be passionate about something. I realized that I had to do something I loved and soon after, I realized that I actually like helping other people too. So, I worked as a legal intern in a tech company, then left and started Bedrock a year later. Now I practice my favorite areas of the law and have helped entrepreneurs launch hundreds of companies.
W: Looks like you ended up enjoying law school – you even went on to study Intellectual Property (IP) Law.
LB: If planned in advance, a company's IP could be one of the most valuable components of the business. The other area of great value is the experience that a product or company provides to its customers, which is inextricably tied to its brand and trademark. I love teaching the value of brands to our clients and the simple steps they can take to both avoid problems later on as well as build brand value.
W: Giving back to the community has really been at the core of your professional career, but what has been your support network? Are you a part of any professional groups?
LB: I'm not sure that an organized group is necessarily something that would work better than just getting together with the team and friends and colleagues. I'm not really involved in professional groups other than the State Bar of California, of course. I really like the unprofessional ones a lot more because there's a lot more creativity. It's more people who are like me; they're interested in launching ideas, in sharing ideas. They're interested in taking risks and building new things and not going down this path that everyone else is going. So as far as professional groups I've tried a few of them, [but] I just find that the entrepreneurship group that I started on Meet Up called From Idea to Launch, is far more exciting for me than any professional group that I've been involved in and it's something that is really inspiring to me.
I really try and just have people get to know me and that's the best sales you can do is just to really do something that you love and be yourself and people will gravitate towards you.
I try not to push my own law firm or my own businesses in it. Except I would co-sponsor the events, but I don't try and sell people things when we have events. I really try and just have people get to know me and that's the best sales you can do is just to really do something that you love and be yourself and people will gravitate towards you. Actually, I have a breakfast meeting this morning with a group of entrepreneurs that I just met, so that will definitely feed my soul and my belly!
W: If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice what would it be?
LB: Build something that you love, forget about what everyone else is doing. And just be patient with that. If you're always looking in the rear view mirror to see who's behind you, it's really distracting. But if you just keep your face forward towards the road ahead you can get there much quicker and you'll be far more gratified, satisfied than if you're worried about something that you feel you should be doing but don't necessarily love. So, build something you love and forget about what everyone else is doing.
Build something that you love, forget about what everyone else is doing.
W: What's next?
LB: In the future I have something that's kind of secret that I can't talk about but I will tell you in a few months. Otherwise, continuing to build applications that help entrepreneurs help themselves – that's a really important goal of mine. There's no reason why the barrier for entrepreneurship should be very high. I want to really lower that and do the opposite of what law firms typically do; which is really high hourly rates and you know, be accessible only to companies that can afford to pay it. So that's the first thing: building applications that help entrepreneurs help themselves.
And I'm actually launching a food start-up called Inja Inja (it's rice pudding). So, that's really interesting and it's different, because it's not tech, it's a different industry. It's really eye opening.
I'm always interested in trying new things on various levels, as the inspiration can come from different angles. I recently started surfing and speed skating. Those are my main focuses for now, and of course staying active in the entrepreneurial communities, to help other people whenever is possible.
W: So, do you still play tennis?
LB: Sometimes when a friend comes into town they'll force me to go out on the court with them. So I play a couple times a year – I should probably play a bit more but I've been so captivated by other activities. I've been speed skating for a while and trying different sports. I've been keeping myself busy with other things. I started surfing – I really love that!
W: With so much going on, you don't seem to ever sit still. Do you get enough sleep?
LB: Haha! Interestingly enough, I get plenty of sleep (approx 7 hours, sometimes more, sometimes less).
Arianna Huffington would be very proud.