A spreadsheet malfunction that prompted a moment of clarity. An entrepreneur’s brush with anthropology. The challenges of being women in male-dominated industries.
These are just some of the many moments, observations and reflections shared by top female executives during “Honest Stories from Women Leaders,” a conversation at Babson College’s Boston Campus sponsored by the Women Innovating Now (WIN) Lab®. In celebration of women’s history month, the WIN Lab® gathered top female leaders to discuss their journeys to success with an audience of aspiring female entrepreneurs.
“We highlight relatable women leaders and near peer role models because we see the impact and inspiration it brings to our founders,” said Ashley Lucas, director of the WIN Lab Boston. “We believe this is paramount in increasing the number of women in top leadership positions and successful women entrepreneurs.”
The panel—Janet Kraus, CEO of peach; Nicole Sahin, CEO and founder of Globalization Partners; and Jody Rose, executive director of the New England Venture Capital Association—shared candid reflections of their paths to entrepreneurship, the obstacles they faced along the way, lessons in leadership, and advice for fellow entrepreneurs.
“Jody Rose, Janet Kraus, and Nicole Sahin are three leaders who have accomplished a great deal in their careers but took different paths to get there,” said Ashley Lucas, director of WIN Lab Boston. “Those varying journeys meant they would bring unique experiences to the microphone, demonstrating that no matter what your path to date, there’s room to pivot into a role that you aspire to.”
Below are highlights from the stories and advice shared by Rose, Kraus and Sahin during the event.
Some quotes have been edited for length and clarity.
On Their Path to Entrepreneurship
JK: “As a consultant at a big firm, I was working on a spreadsheet late one night. I had been banging on this thing for an hour then pressed a button, and every single cell showed an error. My first emotions were panic, dismay, and despair. My second reaction was ‘What are you going to do? This is not it.’ I gave myself the chance, in that moment, to let images arrive. And all I could see was me at eight years old, dragging a little red wagon through my neighborhood to sell vegetables from my garden. Or me, making headbands and keychains and selling them to everyone in class. I love to sell and I love to create. So I thought ‘I’m going to have to start my own company.’ That was the moment.”
NS: “I’m an internationalist and I love people. I started traveling in college; while studying abroad, I had the chance to work with people from all over the world. So I thought I wanted to be an anthropologist. After a few months on the job, I realized I wasn’t an anthropologist. It was a failure, but an entrepreneurial way of finding that out. The first time you have that crushing failure in life, listen to that and push through it. Eventually I moved to the Caribbean to teach yoga, and started a business bringing yoga teachers in from the United States to teach at resorts. I thought I was a beach bum but didn’t want to drop out of life. So I went to business school, then started working at a company that aided companies with international operations. After getting burned out, I traveled for a year then started my own company.”
NS: “One thing we say at Globalization Partners is the obstacle is the path. When a challenge is thrown our way, we say: ‘That’s hard. We better do it.’ If we don’t our competitors will. Leadership is about inspiring people to do the best they can and go further than they thought possible. The best people on our team do that every single day.”
JK: “We’re a culture of feedback, but I like to call it feedforward. As a leader, my job is to make it possible for you to get out of your own way. I want to offer you the opportunity to see what’s getting in your own way. Once you see it, you can remove it and be more successful. I’m telling you because I want you to succeed. That’s important.”
On Gender Dynamics
JR: “I’ve worked at early stage companies where I’ve been the only woman. Sometimes it’s hard advocating for yourself. But you have to be bold. I had a boss who gave feedback so directly that it sometimes felt insulting. I got to the end of my rope because I wasn’t advocating for myself. When I handed him my resignation, I told him why, and he asked why we were having that conversation then (rather than earlier). The lesson was to put on my big-girl pants earlier and have more transparent conversations consistently along the way.”
NS: “Our partner companies are all-male. There’s always a gender dynamic that’s difficult to navigate. But just by being women in a male-dominated industry, we’re showing them how it can be done without having to do anything specific. I’m proud of that.”
On Building a Network of Support
JR: “I’m an advocate of what I call having a board. Not a corporate board, but a professional board of women. There are four of us on my board; we meet quarterly over dinner. They’re a great sounding board and help me look at things with a fresh perspective. They’re there to push me.”
JK: “One of the most valuable things I’ve done is joined a CEO forum. In my first forum, I worked with CEOs from HubSpot, iRobot—some really good companies. We met five times a year for two and a half days each time. Half of each meeting was about helping each other solve member challenges, and the other half was just asking ‘How are you and what do you want?’ When you’re the CEO of your own company, that question is what it comes down to.”
On Advice for Entrepreneurs
NS: “Follow your gut. Uncomfortable feelings you might have about a job, a boss—those sit with you. Use that discomfort and move through it toward something else. That’s the best thing you can do.”
JK: “When things go well, give credit. When things go wrong, look inside. Look at what you’ve done and ask what responsibilities you need to take. That’s an element of being a good leader.”
Entrepreneurs from the WIN Lab: Boston are pictured in this story’s featured photo.