Written by MJ Ryan, SheEO Development Guide
I’ve been working with startup founders for the past 20 years. So, when Vicki Saunders invited me to help create the SheEO ventures community seven years ago, I knew it needed to be different than the traditional accelerator program that focuses solely on the business elements of success, with choosing the right co-founder and first employees thrown in. Which is not to knock making sure you have the proper business elements in place. That’s crucial, but not sufficient. It tends to leave out the human dynamics side of running a business that, in my experience, needs at least as much support as business mechanics. We bring—or should be able to—our whole messy, complicated selves to work and bump up against equally complex others and try to make magic happen on behalf of having a positive impact in the world…Not a small order.
That’s why my fellow venture development guide Loren Walsh and I made sure from the start that everything we do—from the design of the venture retreats to the Zoom calls we have every other week for a year (at least) with our ventures—includes three elements: I, We, It.
“I” is the founder, her/their strengths and challenges, her/their context (for instance, we currently have several pregnant founders as well as founders in their 70s. We also have several founders pursuing graduate degrees while raising kids and running their company). We’re here for all ages and stages. I’ve read far too many books/blogs/articles on leadership theories and models and assessments and have concluded that the greatest leaders are those who are authentic, who bring their whole selves to work. They know where they are great and where they need support. I see my job as helping the founder really understand and owning their unique gifts and then find the others to round out their talents versus trying to be good at everything. To trust themselves to create a business on their own terms and be able to receive advice without losing track of their own wisdom.
“We” is the team, whether that is one or one hundred. I try to make sure team members know their strengths and challenges and know how to work well together. That together they foster a growth mindset, create psychological safety, and inclusion, and use appreciation as fuel, as well as have the right structures and processes in place to support one another to do great work.
“It’ is the venture itself, with the need to figure out product/market fit and customer acquisition and raising money and delivering a quality product or service and all of the infrastructure that requires. Not to mention the thousands of challenges you haven’t anticipated that emerge along the way. Just when I think I’ve heard it all, a founder presents me with a conundrum I’ve never encountered before.
With all three of these elements in mind, a session can go almost anywhere—from a crisis of self-confidence because of a need to pivot the business model to dealing with tensions between employees to how to structure a board of directors. I’ve supported founders through addiction, serious illness, deaths of loved ones, co-founder breakups, lawsuits, patent infringements, daycare problems, divorce, raising multi-millions, dealing with competition, hiring and firing, sexism and racism, fitness, stress and anger management. I’ve helped with pitch decks, job descriptions, product/market fit, marketing strategies, rebranding, board meeting agendas, offsite design, having to shut down (fortunately rare) ….
I’m not an expert in any of these topics, which is one of the things that’s great about the SheEO model—we have a whole community of radically generous people who are knowledgeable in all these fields that are willing to roll up their sleeves and help—therapists and digital strategists and financial experts and HR folks and lawyers. My job is to listen, to help founders surface what they need and where to find it, to provide tools and techniques that might be useful, to offer reassurance that others have been in a similar spot and gotten through it.
One of the most exciting things about doing this work is supporting ventures that are truly changing the world. Not just in the social impact purposes of their organizations, which are exciting innovations in themselves, but in rethinking business itself—modelling non extractive manufacturing practices, paying living wages, offering flex work, creating nonhierarchical business structures. I learn from these visionaries every day about new models and mindsets for a sustainable world for people and nature. That’s why I’m in.