Editor’s Note: This post is part of a project on LGBT women business owners. Read more here.
Earlier this summer, entrepreneur Carla McKay finished an Ironman triathlon — a grueling undertaking, to be sure.
But McKay has started and grown a successful business, so she’s no stranger to hard work. Her social wine app and website Crushed.com, which she launched in 2012, allows users to catalog their favorite bottles on their phones and share wine preferences with their friends.
On her business’ blog, McKay wrote about the big race. There, she revealed that her workouts often concluded with a glass of the good stuff (of course), and shared her feeling that crossing that finish line was emblematic of her ability to surprise herself professionally.
“Years ago, if you had asked me if I had ever thought about training and completing an Ironman, I would have said no,” she wrote. “I felt the same way when people asked me about my career aspirations — to start a company was never an answer.”
Business was, however, always on her mind. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur and wine connoisseur, McKay earned her Bachelor’s degree in English at University of Maryland in 1989, and her Master’s degree in industrial and labor relations from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1994. She then spent more than two decades working in business development and sales at human resources firms like ADP, Ceridian and Vault.com.
For McKay, who is a lesbian, corporate America wasn’t an entirely comfortable world to inhabit. Though she is now very open about discussing her sexual orientation in all settings — as she has always been with close friends and family — she wasn’t always at ease disclosing that part of her life to colleagues. Over time, McKay grew frustrated, both with hiding a key part of who she is and the trajectory of her career.
Becoming a business owner changed everything. “Once I made the leap to being an entrepreneur, there’s no one I didn’t tell,” she says. She left corporate life behind for good in 2010, and attended the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone School of Wine. She also married her partner, Martha, that same year.
A strong and loving personal network provided her with support, while her studies gave her increased knowledge of and a more refined taste for wine. Yet she found herself in need of help to start and grow a business. “The hardest part of being an entrepreneur is that you just don’t know what you don’t know,” she says.
So McKay enrolled in StartOut‘s Lesbian Entrepreneur Mentoring Program in 2012, becoming one of 12 protégés to be paired with 12 experienced, out-and-proud women business owners. The experience was a game-changer. “There’s nothing that prepares you for dealing with the ins and outs of taking an idea and bringing it to the marketplace,” she says. “I can honestly say I would not have been successful if I didn’t have this program.”
McKay, now 48, has indeed found success. Today, the Crushed.com app is available through the biggest stores in the marketplace, boasting thousands of downloads and high ratings from over 200,000 users. And last year, she added a content and ad space to her website, allowing her additional revenue options, and began selling wine through the site as well.
In fact, things are going so well, McKay has begun work on starting a second business — a cycling-related venture that’s presently in early testing phases — with Martha as her cofounder. She says of her motivation, “The coolest thing about the entrepreneurial journey is that, once you make the leap and decide to start your own company, you start viewing the marketplace differently.”
She has also assumed a role on StartOut’s board, helping the organization to develop additional programs for LGBT business owners. To her, economics are a significant issue for members of the LGBT community — women especially. “We have marriage rights, yes. But so much of business is still an old boys’ network.”
Reflecting on her journey thus far, McKay is elated with the choices she has made and energized about what’s still to come for her. “The last few years have been the favorites of my life,” she says. “I look better. I have more figured out. And combined with being older and wiser, I’ve just loved every second.”