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April 19, 2017

Highlights from Our Female Founders Panel Event

female founders panel

Four Diverse and Dynamic Entrepreneurs

Our most recent Norwest Founders Series event featured four entrepreneurial women founders who are deeply focused on meeting customer needs while running and scaling their businesses. Our moderator was Fortune Magazine senior writer, Michal Lev-Ram.

The companies and their founders represent a range of industries, approaches and wildly diverse concepts. They included:

  • Shanna Tellerman of Modsy, a 3D-based home design solution that allows shoppers to visualize design ideas in the context of their own home.
  • Katerina Schneider of Ritual, which has set out to make nothing less than the perfect daily vitamin for women.
  • Shan-Lyn Ma of Zola, reinventing the $300 billion wedding registry industry through an elegant, function-rich web portal and integration with hundreds of stores, brands, services and vendors.
  • Leigh Rawdon of Tea Collection, which designs, manufactures and sells original children’s clothing inspired by global cultures and styles and supports global children’s organizations with each purchase.

Comparing Sparks

We get ideas in the oddest places. Behind the wheel. In the shower. Half asleep. So the first question posed was: What was the spark that led to the idea for your company? What’s your story?

Kat Schneider of Ritual was four months pregnant and went on a frantic cleaning spree. She realized she didn’t like all of the chemicals in her cleaning supplies. She even threw out her husband’s deodorant. She asked herself, “What am I putting in my body?” When she took a close look at the ingredients in her vitamins, a new venture idea was sparked.

Tea Collection CEO and co-founder, Leigh Rawdon, was a Harvard Business School graduate who was working in the enterprise software industry. She and her business partner Emily Meyer―then a fashion designer at Esprit―bonded over a shared love of travel. “The kind of travel that gets inside you and changes you,” said Leigh. They talked about how travel connects people from different cultures and makes us realize that we’re not really that different from one another. This shared awareness led to what Rawdon described as their “globally inspired children’s clothing company,” with clothing designs influenced by different countries and cultures.

Shanna Tellerman (Modsy) and Shan-Lyn Ma (Zola) saw specific problems and opportunities to solve them. Shanna had trouble visualizing the furniture on her Pinterest board to the rooms in her new home. Bingo! The idea for virtual staging with 3D graphics was born. Shan-Lyn watched her friends from business school go through the wedding registry process and realized that it was incredibly time-consuming and outdated. She imagined redesigning the modern day wedding registry to include a larger selection of products and experiences that reflect the couple’s lifestyle and personalities.

Gender and Ethnic Diversity is Constantly Top of Mind

Most of the entrepreneurs agreed that hiring a diverse staff was constantly top of mind.

Shanna of Modsy has made an effort to look for people beyond the regular channels, going to different types of job boards and geographies to find a developer who is either a woman or a minority. Having a diverse group early on helped the company maintain a very diverse mix.

“We’re trying to be more intentional about hiring a diverse staff,” said Leigh Rawdon. “Diversity is so important and so complicated because you have your own Rolodex, your own networks. And they tend to look like you.”

“The most important thing for us is to call out things that are not okay when they happen,” says Shan-Lyn. “So comments that suggest unconscious bias in interview debriefing sessions might come up. The people making them might not even realize they’re showing bias. So, we might say ‘Hey, you’re judging someone that you felt wasn’t analytical. What is your proof of that? How did you come to that conclusion?’ That’s helped us to build not only a really diverse team but also an A+ team.”

Mentors are Treasured

All of the panelists mentioned mentors who played important roles in their professional lives, either by offering guidance directly or by example. For Shanna, it’s the late Randy Pausch, her computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University whose lecture, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” in 2007 was turned into a best-selling book called The Last Lecture. Pausch knew he was about to die of cancer and spoke eloquently about how to live to life with integrity, lessons he’d learned, achieving your childhood dreams and enabling the dreams of others.

For Shan-Lyn, it’s a CEO she worked with who went to AOL to lead branding and then ran Martha Stewart Media.

Kat’s mentor is her mom, who moved to the United States when she was five years old, earned an MBA and became an investment banker ― “She nailed work-life balance. Made dinner for us every night.”

The Hardest Part

“There’s always a new challenge,” said Shanna. “First it was recruiting. Then product. Operations. Marketing. It never ends.”

“You never know how you’re doing compared to the competition,” said Shan-Lyn. “Even when things are going well, you wonder: Could I be doing better? Is there something lurking around the corner? It’s relentless. Every day you go to work and wonder, what is the best thing I should be directing my team to do today?”

“You have so many people tell you ‘No, you can’t do that. You can’t get rid of that ingredient,’” said Kat. “There’s been so much pushback.”

And for Leigh, “I always wanted to be the best because I knew what I wanted. In school. In jobs. Now, the scorecard is: How much money have you raised? How do we compete? We bought out our investors. We’re profitable and we call our own shots. But that’s challenging because with freedom comes responsibility. What do we want?”

On Seeking Venture Funding

Inevitably the question of fundraising came up. What approaches have these young businesses taken to funding? The stories varied.

Tea Collection initially raised a small amount of funding from angel investors and found ways to creatively stretch the capital, such as working with vendors to get longer payment terms. Once they became big enough and were making a profit, they were able to buy out their original investors.

Both Modsy and Ritual raised venture capital in an effort to accelerate innovation and make sure they were the first to market with their ideas. Shanna said, “There’s a whole thing you get into when you accept capital. It forces you to move at a fast pace and take risks.”

Shan-Lyn also went the venture capital route because she was committed to changing the wedding registry industry and it was going to be a long process. She encourages startup CEOs to ask themselves: Are you ready and committed for the next 10 years to build a really big business? If you are, you need VC funding.”

Dreamers and Optimists

With different types of businesses, goals and experiences, all of the founders share a few fundamental qualities. They are dreamers and unabashed optimists. They thrive in dynamic, challenging environments. And they are life-long learners, aware that change is constant and that to grow and compete successfully they must always understand and embrace best practices.

Their enthusiasm is contagious and they inspire us all.

A video highlight reel from the event may be viewed below.