Most people don't go from one sector to another without at least easing their way into a new venture. But when Helen Mills, owner of the Helen Mills Event Space and Theater in New York City, saw an opportunity, she went for it.
Mills launched the company several years ago after a long career in real estate and only moderate experience running fundraisers at her children’s schools. Switching careers and opening up a brand new business in a new industry meant she had to teach herself everything along the way.
"I've always been in more than one thing at a time," says Mills, who started out working for the IRS, then worked as an auditor at Ernst & Young before switching to real estate.
In 2000, she was looking for something new. She found a building on 26th Street in Manhattan with 4,000 square feet, including a basement and a store operating on the ground level. She hired an intern to do a feasibility study about running a theater in a basement space. Buoyed by the results of that study, she decided to go for it and also bought out the ground level so she could include a separate event space that could be rented with the theater. Since its opening, the space has hosted everything from bar mitzvahs to fundraisers and events for universities, media companies and universities.
Mills says her biggest challenge was marketing a business that had never existed before and competing with the myriad hotels and restaurants in Manhattan that also host events—and have wide name recognition.
"There's no formula for venues as to what venue is good or bad," says Mills. "Since I had been in real estate I knew how to run buildings, but I didn't know how to market in such a competitive field."
Despite the steep learning curve, Mills was optimistic.
"Marketing and keeping the product fresh and competitive price-wise is always a challenge [for any business] and it keeps the business interesting,” she says.
While the move to a completely different field may have appeared bold to others, Mills says she didn’t have much of a choice.
"You must go into things you don't know because the world demands it,” she says. “The activity around us demands that we move toward things we don't know in order for us to keep evolving."
Still, Mills says she is extremely realistic about her abilities and that every decision is strategic. "I tend to be interested in things that I know somehow I have the expertise or can learn or can get the resources to do.”
Her attitude toward her career is just part of her overall outlook on her life.
“I always operate my life from a vision,” she says. “I have a vision for how we should live and I love accomplishing things. I have a personal vision and I try to get everything to answer to that."
Photo credit: Courtesy Helen Mills Event Space