Heidi Ganahl is no stranger to adversity. Beginning with the loss of her first husband at the age of 27, to losing a million-dollar insurance settlement, Heidi’s strength and passion helped her pick herself up and build a $100 million brand in the pet and franchise industry, Camp Bow Wow. One consistent thread runs through her life, the power of giving back. In her inspiring TEDx talk, The Art of the Comeback, Heidi shares how the key to coming back is giving back. Not only is Heidi the CEO of Camp Bow Wow, she also founded the Fight Back Foundation, a startup incubator supporting social entrepreneurs, and most recently launched SheFactor, a bold new movement (consisting of a book, an app and so much more) to help guide women towards the life they’re dreaming of.
Caroline Castrillon: Going back to the beginning, what were the circumstances that led you to launch Camp Bow Wow, and how did you come up with the concept?
Heidi Ganahl: My first husband and I traveled a lot, had two dogs that we adored, and couldn’t find any place we felt was good enough to leave them. At the same time, one of the first doggy daycares in the Western U.S. opened up in our area. We’d take our dogs there and thought it was the coolest thing. So, we wrote a business plan but realized that we didn’t have a lot of money or resources to start it. Then my first husband passed away in a small plane crash, and that changed my life dramatically. About five years later, my little brother finally came to me and said, “You know, we need to help you find your passion again. Why don’t we take the business plan out for Camp Bow Wow and see if we can’t get it started?” It was in late 2000 when we started the very first camp.
Castrillon: When did you know that franchising was the logical next step?
Ganahl: One of my clients started talking to me about the benefits of franchising and why he thought that it would be a good fit for me. So, I went to the International Franchise Association conference, met some great people, and fell in love with the idea. Within a couple of weeks, we put together the Uniform Franchise Offering Circular, and we pulled in our first franchise within about a month. Then America Online (AOL) featured us as one of the next great franchises—that’s when AOL was pretty big—and things just took off after that. We got thousands of leads from that one day alone on AOL.
Castrillon: In your opinion, what are some of the qualities a person should have to be a successful entrepreneur?
Ganahl: I certainly think you have to be willing to take risks. It’s not for the faint of heart. You have to be self-reliant, self-motivated, and be able to manage your time well or you’re not going to get the job done. And then being tenacious, I mean, you just have to feel the fear and do it anyway.
Castrillon: As an entrepreneur, there are lots of ups and downs. What keeps you going through those times?
Ganahl: For me, it’s really a commitment to my vision. Whether it’s Camp Bow Wow, education reform, creating jobs, or building my new business, SheFactor, I have this vision in my mind, and I don’t get distracted from it very easily. I’ve gotten a lot more disciplined over the years about staying true to my vision and not letting people knock me off track. It’s about trusting your gut and staying true to that. I think about all the consultants I hired over the years, and at the end of the day, when I look back, usually my own intuition was the right one. Even today, I still trust that little voice. I trust it far more now than ever.
Castrillon: How do you define success for yourself?
Ganahl: It’s doing something that I’m really passionate about but then also for me, giving back is very important. Making a difference in the world and making the world a better place for my kids, our community, our state, our country, and the world. I’m a very big thinker, and I really like working on complex problems in society from an entrepreneurial perspective. That’s why I started my charity, the Fight Back Foundation, that’s an incubator for social entrepreneurs. I think entrepreneurs have a different way of looking at problems, and we need more of that right now.
Castrillon: Tell me about SheFactor. What was the inspiration behind creating that?
Ganahl: When my daughter graduated from college a couple of years ago, she was ready to go out and conquer the world, and she just looked at me like, okay, now what do I do? I realized that we work so hard to get young women across the finish line with a good degree, and then we think our job is done. That’s not the case. It’s a really complicated world. At the same time, I got asked to write a book about how I built Camp Bow Wow, and I thought, well I don’t really want to write that book, but I’d like to write a book to my 20-year-old self about how I would do things differently. So, I wrote the book, SheFactor, and then I thought it’d be really cool if we had an app to go with it. Then the more we met with young women and did focus groups, the more we heard they wanted live chapters and events where they could get together and talk. So, we created the book, the app, the website, and the live chapters. It’s a complete platform.
Castrillon: What’s the mission of SheFactor?
Ganahl: The mission is to help women find their passion and build a life that’s full of joy and connectedness. Not necessarily the life that was prescribed for them. Many of us do what our parents say, or society says we should do. There are too many cool things to do in the world right now to live life that way.
Castrillon: Kaitlyn Bristowe (best known for starring on the 11th season of The Bachelorette) wrote the forward to the book. How did that come about?
Ganahl: Kaitlyn is really fun and has what I would call a happy warrior attitude. She hasn’t gotten knocked down with the negative things that have happened in her life and is such a lovely person. She’s so upbeat and has a significant following of young women who adore her. Kaitlyn is very playful, positive and is an excellent representative for what we’re trying to do with SheFactor.
Castrillon: How would you describe the ideal target audience for SheFactor?
Ganahl: It’s a woman who has a growth mindset, wants to push the envelope, do big things, and create a more joyful and authentic life. It’s also someone who cares about real connection with real people. That’s going to be a big part of SheFactor—taking the book and the app and then bringing it to conversations with your peers and mentors and having people hold you accountable. It’s about building a community and having a lot of fun. It’s not a dry networking group. It’s about engaging authentically and then having a community where you can get positive reinforcement, feel great about taking risks and go after a life that you really love.
Castrillon: What advice do you have for female entrepreneurs out there who are struggling those first few years to get their businesses off the ground?
Ganahl: One step at a time. Celebrate the hell out of every little success. We, as women, have to be better about celebrating outwardly and publicly about our accomplishments. Think about how guys do it. If a guy gets a big deal closed, he’s not quiet about it—he’s out there having a celebration and yelling from the rooftops about how great he is. We don’t do that necessarily. So it’s about being more vocal about our successes and supporting other women. That’s one of the things we’re trying to address with SheFactor. Women have to rally around each other.
Castrillon: What would you say is the legacy that you want to leave behind?
Ganahl: I want to shout from the rooftops how blessed I am to have lived the American Dream and to have the opportunity to do what I love and build a business around it. I’ve been able to live the life I really want to live, and I feel so lucky. I want to pay that forward. I want every woman to have the same opportunities that I did—protecting that is what’s truly important to me.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.