Expert Entrepreneurial Advice From 6 Fearless Female Founders
A few weeks ago, I went to my first Women Who Startup Event. Lizelle van Vuuren, founder of Women Who Startup, chatted with Lee Mayer, co-founder and CEO of Havenly, in an uncensored, entertaining, and enlightening fireside panel. Their dialogue ran the gamut, from raising venture capital as a woman, to building a team of trusted advisors, to how to give yourself more credit than you think you deserve early on in your start-up journey. I, along with many other women, left the event inspired by the thriving community of women in tech.
In honor of Women’s History Month, and in hopes of spreading the support for women in tech, we’ve profiled six incredible female founders. We got the lowdown on their entrepreneurial philosophy, like what drives them to Keep Climbing (which is Women Who Startup’s motto), and what advice they have for aspiring female entrepreneurs. Here’s what they had to say.
1. How do you define success? Success to me means achieving my goals without going insane. I kid, but although my goals for myself and my life change a bit with the circumstances, the one thing that doesn’t is my propensity to burn myself (and those close to me) out in pursuit of my ambitions. I have to remember to try for balance.
2. What inspires you to Keep Climbing? I think I have a generally Type A personality, which means I’m always looking for the ‘next step’. I beat myself up when I don’t achieve what I want, and then I find that once I have accomplished something, I’m anxious to get going on the next thing. I don’t know that there’s anything external that motivates me, per se, it’s sort of a constant intrinsic desire to do more, bigger, and faster. I once heard an old boss say he hired me because I was an insecure achiever — I never feel like I’ve done enough, and thus am constantly trying to do more.
3. One thing you wish you knew when you were founding your company? Know what you’re getting yourself into: it doesn’t end. You can’t quit, and you can’t take a real break. You are your job — and are going to be constantly identified with your company. There are times that I wish I could just be Lee, the quirky Doritos aficionado that really loves an eclectic range of music, instead of Lee, the CEO of Havenly. And, there are other times that I want to take a job somewhere else, anywhere else. But overall, I can’t really complain. I’ve said before that it’s the coolest job in the world, and I mean it.
4. What has been your biggest challenge as a female entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it? My toughest challenge as an entrepreneur was getting from ‘zero to one’, so to speak. That doesn’t have anything specifically to do with me being a woman, although I bet some of my biggest challenges arose in no small part because I had traits that were correlated with being a woman. Either way, it’s tough in any situation to come up with an idea, believe it can actually work in the face of tremendous headwinds, and then actually build a company that doesn’t exist yet. Tough is an understatement: it’s hard, confusing, frustrating, and incredibly delightful at the same time. To add onto it, I think as a woman, I’m more inclined to doubt myself, to find fewer mentors and advisors that look or react like me, and face a slightly higher level of skepticism from the marketplace. I’d hate to just blame it on being a woman, though — I really hate to speak for such a diverse gender — but a lot of women I know seem to relate to that experience.
5. Any advice for aspiring female entrepreneurs, or for women in tech in general? First, acknowledge that it may be harder for you to start a company, versus the men that you know, in some ways. However, the second you start to feel sorry for yourself, remember that it’s far easier for you to start and build a company than many other people — you presumably have access to clean water, reliable internet, the best coding schools in the west. Then, just do it. So often, we as human beings get caught in the trap of trying to be perfect — “Oh, I need the perfect idea/the perfect co-founder/ the perfect seed investor/the perfect teal for my logo.” You absolutely do not (and if you doubt me, find the original Havenly site on Wayback Machine). The hardest part is to start, so get that part behind you as quickly as possible — and things will be a lot easier.
Katrina Padron, Founder and CEO of Padron Marketing
How do you define success? Every entrepreneur’s definition of success is different. For me, freedom and flexibility are two of my biggest values. Creating something that supports those values feels like success.
What inspires you to Keep Climbing? Entrepreneurship 100% has ups and downs. Ups and downs sometimes happen within the day or even the hour but knowing that we are creating something bigger than ourselves keeps me going. Our vision is something that transforms brands, changes the modern communication landscape and leaves a legacy.
One thing you wish you knew when you were founding your company? It might not be knowledge, it’s more of a feeling. I wish I had more confidence when I started. About 3 years into this company I was still looking for permission. Permission to strike out on my own. Permission to rapidly grow. Permission to hold such a lofty vision. Now that we are 5 years into this company I realize that no one could have given me permission. It had to come from confidence in myself.
What has been your biggest challenge as a female entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it? Juggling all of the balls is my biggest challenge. I’m a female entrepreneur and a mother. There are timeframes during the day that I’m unavailable for networking events or phone calls because I’m at LaCrosse, gymnastics, or dinner with my family. For a while I tried to pack it all in — take a phone call while my children were in their lesson, or made dinner but checked emails while the kids were eating. It just wasn’t sustainable. To overcome this, I’m clear with boundaries. Of course, I do my best to accommodate as much as I can but I need to be realistic that a call or email might have to wait until morning. On the flip side, I’m happy to start working at 6am or work on weekends to off-set some of the things I have a harder time accommodating during the evenings.
Any advice for aspiring female entrepreneurs, or for women in tech in general? Go for it. Too often we get in our own heads and make a list of reasons why we can’t do this. You are the reason you can do this. You have everything you need to make it happen.
Jami Morton, Co-Founder and COO of SnowShoe
1. How do you define success? I don’t define success. It’s too easy to put unrealistic pressure on ourselves when success is an ever moving “target” and continually evolves. Instead, I try to form 6-month to 1-year goals, both in my professional and personal life. Both my co-founder and my husband have involvement in the goal-making process in some fashion. However, the goals themselves can change or pivot depending on external circumstances. It’s very important for me to have a retrospective on the goals and progress every 3-6 months so I can see the progress or assess the current situation.
2. What inspires you to Keep Climbing? The team. I have a very close-knit team who continue to stick by us thick and thin. When things get hard, I have to remember that there are others around the table. I also have great people who are supportive of my decisions and who give me pep talks when I need them the most.
3. One thing you wish you knew when you were founding your company? There are a lot of highs and an LOT of lows, but every entrepreneur goes through them. You are not alone, even if it feels like it at the moment. Fundraising is always hard, don’t take rejection personally. The first no doesn’t mean that it won’t become a yes later. Always be transparent or it will bite you in the ass later on.
4. What has been your biggest challenge as a female entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it? For me, it’s confidence and not letting me slip into or call out gender biases. For the first two years of SnowShoe, I didn’t have the confidence to voice my opinion or stand up when I needed to. It’s still a struggle at times, but it’s something that I’m getting better at over time.
5. Any advice for aspiring female entrepreneurs, or for women in tech in general? Find people or mentors you can talk to, and send frequent updates about how things are going. It goes back to being transparent. If people don’t know you are struggling, you won’t get help. Lastly, find something outside of your company that makes you happy. Find a hobby or a workout that you do on a regular basis. It’s good to clear your head and it’ll help with burnout.
Sunny Bonnell & Ashleigh Hansberger, Co-founders of Motto
1. How do you define success? For us, success is a feeling and we experience a series of both big and small successes each day. Success is defined by that which we deem successful. Ashleigh and I are furiously driven and so the sweetness of success doesn’t stay long because we’re off chasing the next rabbit after we’ve caught the first one.
2. What inspires you to Keep Climbing? The thought that we haven’t reached our fullest potential. We’re in constant pursuit of chasing our dreams and fulfilling our purpose. We’re inspired to Keep Climbing because if we become satisfied it can lead to complacency. We’d prefer to keep achieving multiple successes rather than thinking there’s only one mountain we can climb and only one way we can reach the top.
3. One thing you wish you knew when you were founding your company? There are so many things we would’ve liked to have known just starting out, but the biggest lesson was realizing it is okay to ask for help. It’s surprising how many other entrepreneurs are willing to guide you.
4. What has been your biggest challenge as a female entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it? When we started Motto, no one had ever heard of us. We had never worked for another agency, and only had $250 in our bank account. So many people told us we would fail, but we believed so deeply in our work and our unique point of view on branding, that it served to fuel us. We hustled harder, worked longer hours, and refused to give up. There’s too many people eager to tell you that you’re not good enough — they win, if you let them.
5. Any advice for aspiring female entrepreneurs, or for women in tech in general? There’s a great quote that we do not dream ourselves into a character, we must hammer and forge one ourselves. I think the same is true of women entrepreneurs and women in tech. Be committed. Stay focused. Build your character and make yourself unforgettable.
Lizelle van Vuuren, Founder of Women Who Startup
1. How do you define success? I define success by my own happiness. I feel like a failure when I’m not accomplishing something. Although many people connect success with money, I define success by how connected I am to my work, how many people I’m able to empower, and by the happiness of my family, who has to deal with my crazy, entrepreneurial rodeo, day-in and day-out.
2. What inspires you to Keep Climbing? For me, Keep Climbing means to never quit. I have a lot of tough days as an entrepreneur — days where I question my worth, days where I question if I’m contributing enough to the world, days where I feel like I just want to stop it all and go work at a tiki bar on some island just to get away from it all.
But, I believe that entrepreneurship chooses you. It chose me too — or maybe I choose it, it’s in my blood to innovate, and I’m fortunate enough to have half a decent brain on my shoulders that allows me to solve problems and see the world differently. In that sense, Keep Climbing means to never quit. It’s different than changing course, which is human and oftentimes necessary. Keep Climbing is my life motto because I believe that life is about movement and business is about action.
Lastly, something that has inspired me to Keep Climbing since I was much younger was to make my mom proud of me. She’s always held me in a high regard, and believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. So out of sheer love and respect for my mom, I Keep Climbing to make her proud.
3. One thing you wish you knew when you were founding your company? Every time you start-up, you start from a different place. The most valuable lesson after my first, second, and third start-up is that you can not go it alone. No matter how hard you work, at some point, you have to scale and find people you can trust to help you build your vision.
For me, that was very difficult. I put so much of my heart and soul into my work that it takes me a bit longer to build trust with others who can help my company grow. I work on this every day. Trusting others to give their best to help you start and grow a company can be an awesome experience when you open up, let them in, allow them to contribute and own it.
4. What has been your biggest challenge as a female entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it? My toughest experience has always been just how tough I come across. I lead in a very specific way, and I stand strongly in most of my decisions and convictions. I speak my mind, I’m loud, I’m assertive. Being a masculine leader has hurt some parts of my career and startup journey. But, I’m also hypersensitive, emotional and sometimes really quiet— I’ll literally cry to a good radio commercial. People want to put you in a box: You’re a woman so you must behave in a certain way. That kind of thinking is ridiculous, and serves no one.
With that said, it’s important to understand that entrepreneurship is hard, by design, Otherwise, everyone would be doing it. Some women experience serious sexism on their journey, while others can say that their experiences as female founders have been rewarding and supported by many. We need to break down and rewrite these stereotypical beliefs. Women can be strong, articulate, cure cancer, travel to space, build a car, have a baby, be a CEO, run a country, fly a plane, write code, build a house, give open heart surgery, fight a fire, be a chef — put pretty much anything in here and yes, women can do that. The future belongs to those who help us change the narrative of and for women.
5. Any advice for aspiring female entrepreneurs, or for women in tech in general? Less thinking, more doing. It’s been a New Year’s Resolution of mine for several years now. It’s about action. Take a step, try something new, crave learning and be okay with making mistakes, because that’s how we learn. Stop worrying about the outcome and don’t give into analysis paralysis when you are just starting out. Start doing and you’ll figure it out along the way.
That might mean that you figure out you didn’t like whatever you set out to do — great, then try something else. Just don’t spend your life dreaming about the view from the summit and never taking a single step up the mountain. Finally, do not be afraid of not being the norm. Don’t aspire to fit in. Leaders rarely “fit in.”
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