When we started planning the “Founded By” series, we were all suddenly working-schooling-cooking-panicking-from-home in the early days of the COVID-19 quarantine. UBS’s Project Entrepreneur and The Riveter had an ambitious vision for this series to help female entrepreneurs continue to build their businesses, see traction, and get investment ready — even in the face of unexpected turmoil.
Project Entrepreneur’s core mission is to accelerate the growth of female founded companies by increasing their investment readiness, building bridges to capital, and investing in ecosystems that empower our most innovative entrepreneurs: “We know that the playing field isn’t level and so a lot of the work that we do is about inclusive entrepreneurship and lowering barriers for women and founders of color who are working to launch and build their company,” says Jamie Spears, UBS’s Head of Community Affairs & Corporate Responsibility, UBS Americas.
During our May 7 kickoff, The Riveter’s founder and CEO Amy Nelson discussed the difficult decisions she had recently made for her company, to accelerate its pivot to a digital community. “You have to make short-term decisions for long-term preservation. And I think that’s really hard as a founder, it’s really hard for our company, it’s hard for everyone,” she said. “The biggest thing is don’t give up, be realistic, and act quickly. You don’t have a lot of time now to contemplate big decisions, because things are changing quickly. Lean into the expertise around you. Asking for help is your greatest resource right now.”
As the COVID-19 quarantine stretched into three months and counting, we’ve watched the economy grind to a near halt, and a powerful social justice movement sweep across the nation, upending businesses as they rethink their company cultures.
While it was not the series we planned — it was even more powerful. What emerged at the end of the eight weeks was a community of women who helped each other navigate the monumental business and social complexities of our moment. And together, we created a road map for a new dynamic of power that’s collaborative, transparent, meaningful, and diverse at its core.
Each conversation was a masterclass, taught by the smartest women with boots on the ground as entrepreneurs, investors and activists. Each session filled with inspiration and actionable advice, and I encourage you to dip in to listen to them all.
Here are just a few of the big takeaways to light your entrepreneurial path ahead.
When you’re questioning your commitment …
“Close your eyes and imagine that the thing that you want so badly does not exist in the world. Can you live with that?” — Arlan Hamilton, founder and managing partner, Backstage Capital.
The world can feel small and impossible to navigate when you’re trying to build a business while quarantining during a pandemic. But Arlan offered some perspective to keep us all motivated. And when she asked herself this question as she was considering whether she had the long-term drive to build Backstage Capital, she thought to herself, “Not only does it have to exist, because I can’t stand how this feels that it doesn’t exist, but it can exist even if it’s not me who creates it.” That feeling is how you know you’re on the right path.
And yet, we all know that even passion doesn’t mean that success is guaranteed. UBS Managing Director Alli McCartney offered this advice: “Now more than ever, we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That means with being told no, with being told not now, with being told, I don’t see that … You have to be committed to hearing No. You have to be able to push through it. Turn no into fuel.”
To keep your business afloat through the economic turmoil ahead …
“Whatever business plan you had needs to be thrown in the trash.” — Elizabeth Gore, president of Hello Alice
Do not hold on to old ideas of how your business will run, warned Elizabeth. “You need to absolutely relook at where the world is today, what are your customers doing, what the economy is doing, how do we purchase things, what is in everyone’s psyche, how much cash do you have? No sacred cows right now,” says Elizabeth.
But out of chaos comes opportunity, explained Jeeho Lee, a partner at law firm O’Melveny & Myers, whose practice is focused on female entrepreneurs. “I would do anything I could to take the pandemic back, but I cannot, and so if we have that moment, then let’s do something with it,” Jeeho says. “We’re going to have a role in what that new normal looks like within our own companies and how we fashion that within the boardrooms of those companies and communities that we’re in. There’s no other community that we’re trusting with that.”
When you’re worried about the investment landscape …
“At this moment, it’s about surviving so that you can thrive on the other side.” — Ita Ekpoudom, partner at GingerBread Capital
Early on in the pandemic, Ita had a series of tough conversations with her portfolio companies about the impact they had seen from the economic turmoil of the early pandemic. She asked them: “How are you going to maximize your runway, knowing that getting new capital is going to become very, very difficult while people get their minds around what’s going on?”
She didn’t sugar coat the rough terrain entrepreneurs are facing. “The bar has raised on what it would take for us to write a new check.”
But angel investor Angela Lee, founder of 37 Angels, painted a more optimistic picture. “A great company six months ago is a great company today, is a great company six years from now. And I think the great thing about entrepreneurship is that those gritty, hustling, data-loving, empathetic founders, they’re going to find a way to get to the folks who are going to write them checks.”
When you feel that you’re being slotted into a narrow box …
“We have to broaden our understanding of how race, gender, sexual orientation, class, combine to not only oppress people, but what I love to talk about is also how they combine to unlock people.” — Chana Ewing, CEO of Geenie and author of An ABC of Equality.
Chana and Kori Hale, CEO of CultureBanx, who are disrupting retail and media, had a powerful conversation about identifying and finding your audience, and convincing investors, who are often white and male, that just because they don’t personally know the numbers of a market, doesn’t mean the market doesn’t exist.
Kori called for a new model of support for Black female entrepreneurs: “We need more than allyship,” she said. “Stand in the trenches to help us climb out. Don’t stand in the trenches just to say that I was in the trenches. We don’t need another march with you walking right beside us, we need you helping to draft bills and legislation. … We need to not always have to feel the burden of the problem and the solution.”
When you want to see corporate businesses lead a change for diversity and anti-racism …
“Get Your House in Order” — Dee Poku, founder and CEO of WIE Network
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the wave of protests it sparked, we pivoted a conversation about community to talk about accountability — personal and corporate — for creating an anti-racist society and, in turn, more-authentic communities. Dee brilliantly led the way: “I think it is very disingenuous for companies to post about being supportive of Black lives when their corporate boards are not diverse, when their senior management is not diverse, when they’re not providing the necessary benefits to their employees,” said Dee. “Get your house in order. It’s the number one thing that we need to see every company do and think about, is how am I supporting my employees first, my constituents first? That very much is about having a fully-diverse workforce. Diverse does not just mean white women, diverse means people from the LGBTQ+ community, it means diversity in all forms, diversity of thought, diversity of age, as well as having people of color. Think about having a fully-inclusive community that really serves your purpose and really reflects the world around us.”
And then she gave a call to action for corporate leaders: “The work can be done by supporting Black women founders, both with investment dollars, but also from an enterprise standpoint. Look at your vendor list, and who are you doing business with, and how diverse is that list?”
Bea Arthur, founder and CEO of The Difference, said she hoped that the social justice movement would spark a broader sea change: “I hope that my white friends who’ve been reaching out will understand and agree that [we are seeing that] clearly Black people aren’t treated fairly by the police. Perhaps there are other institutions where they’re also not treated fairly. It’s really good and encouraging this time to see VCs say, maybe we should give a sharper look at Black founders.”
When you want your business to reflect your values …
“What are you there for? What’s calling you to this work, as a founder, as a team? What’s bringing you all together? What’s core to that work? And what are you all striving for? What’s the big problem we’re trying to solve?” — Chanel Cathey, founder and CEO of CJC Insights
As a communications strategist, Chanel is often called to help businesses tell their stories — even more crucial during a time of reexamination. “I encourage people to try to do a mission statement for themselves. Why are you here? What is the core to the work you’re doing? What are you aiming to do?,” she explained. Then ask “Can you be accountable to it? Too often, I see people try to save the world in their mission statement. I always say, be authentic and call out the small wins that you as a business are doing every day. So that when people see it, they can relate and they can say, ‘Wow, they really deliver on what they say they’re going to do.’”
Sarika Doshi, founder of Rank & Style, wants accountability, not just to your external mission but to your employees too. “Accountability is as important as ROI,” she said. “It’s accountability beyond this moment. And how do we build leadership, incentive structures, compensation, everything that’s rooted in accountability. … I’d love for bonus structures, I’d love for equity structures, I’d love for all of that to be connected back to the moment we’re in right now and have a really strong connection to accountability around the wrongs we’re trying to right.”
When you want to change the whole system …
“The idea of play by the rules until you can change the rules — that’s gone. This is not the time to just sit quietly and continue to play by the old rules and live in the old system until we can change the system. It’s time for a tear down, it’s time for a rebuild. — Courtney Leimkuhler, founding partner, Springbank Collective In our final week of conversations, we brought together two visionaries who are leveraging financial might and grassroots organizing to overhaul systems that are blocking equality. Courtney Leimkuhler, founding partner of Springbank Collective, is focused on investing in solutions for women and working families, and Nnena Ukuku, founder of 5/3 Solution, is increasing African American participation in local government.
The change we need is bigger than just who gets investment, Courtney explained. “When we think about Springbank, it’s not just about funding the businesses that are building the infrastructure for women and working families, it is also rethinking everything about how those companies are built and supported, what those teams look like, what is the funding model? We are not a typical venture fund, so how do we rethink sources of capital? It’s really from end to end. Then who are we partnered with? How do we recognize that a for-profit model and venture investing is not the answer to all of these problems? Who on the advocacy side are we partnering with? What are we thinking about from a legislative perspective? One of the main things that we can all do is unshackle ourselves from this idea that we’re going to work in the system and then make change. I think that time is over.”
For Nnena, the system change starts with getting uncomfortable. “For the longest time as women, and also as people of color, we’ve been trained and told, ‘Sit in this box,’ and the whole goal of us sitting in this box is to make sure that other people were not uncomfortable. My goal and the goal, that I would hope for all of the people that are listening in right now, is that we force some of the people that we have been spending all this time making comfortable, we make them uncomfortable, and have them have more conversations with us be public-facing so that they can grow and also open additional doors for our communities.”
Nnena left us with one thing we all must do: VOTE.
“The reason why it’s so important for people to vote locally is that the issues that impact you, from education, like what’s happening in the school district, when we start looking at what’s happening with police violence. All of these things are areas that you actually have control over, if you take the time and research and find out who’s running for office. We’re not powerless,” Nnena said. “I know that the powers that be make you feel that you are powerless. I know that the powers that be make you feel that you do not belong and your voice does not have space in this room. I am here to tell you that we need your voice, we need your energy, and you are very powerful.”
Ann Shoket is the author of The Big Life and is the former editor-in-chief of Seventeen.