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Elizabeth Hulings of Counterpoise: “BROADER, MORE DIVERSE INCUBATORS AND ACCELERATORS”

BROADER, MORE DIVERSE INCUBATORS AND ACCELERATORS: We need support across the board for women-founded ventures, and we need ramp-up and deep dive programs that are driven by women. This will require investment that focuses on social ROI and B-Corp, as well as typical LLC and S-corp entities, but that’s not as hard as it may sound […]

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BROADER, MORE DIVERSE INCUBATORS AND ACCELERATORS: We need support across the board for women-founded ventures, and we need ramp-up and deep dive programs that are driven by women.

This will require investment that focuses on social ROI and B-Corp, as well as typical LLC and S-corp entities, but that’s not as hard as it may sound to traditionalists in the industry. If I can run an art-business accelerator that results in 75% of participants increasing their income and a full third becoming job creators within 12 months of graduating the program, then certainly we can build incubators and accelerators in other verticals that will produce successful ventures founded by women. I welcome that, and would love to be involved in developing programs that will be exciting to women — that lean toward collaboration and culture.


As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Hulings. She is a principal of the business-strategy firm Counterpoise, which she founded in 2002, and Executive Director of the Clark Hulings Fund for Visual Artists, which she co-founded with her mother, Mary Hulings, in 2011, to assist artists with business. Elizabeth’s expertise lies in alignment, blueprinting and agile management at pivotal moments. Born in New York and raised in New Mexico, Elizabeth holds an M.A. in Latin American Studies from Stanford University, a B.A. in International Relations and History from Tufts University, and the Alliançe Française I.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up in the backseat of rent-a-cars parked in barnyards and by the sides of roads all over Europe and Mexico, while my father gathered subject matter for his paintings. This was great training for serial entrepreneurship — there was no box to think my way out of. It made me resourceful, good at amusing myself, and cognizant of the fact that there are infinite ways of saying and doing things. My mother is a terrific researcher and travel planner, but she is not known for her sense of direction. My father, of course, simply followed his intuition in search of things to paint, but not places to sleep or things to eat. So I became the navigator at a very young age, and I learned to think strategically. We would travel for up to three months at a time, and I could only bring what I could carry myself (including all the English language paperbacks). I also learned how to fit ten pieces of luggage into a trunk designed for four, because I’d share the backseat with the overflow, in addition to contending with ​plein aire​ oils drying in the back window.

I have spent my entire career in strategy and development, working at various times in every functional area of a business, from HR to marketing to product development. I worked on five Fortune-500 mergers at the predecessors of Citigroup, Cendant, and Verizon Communications, and did stints at nonprofits, including the International Development Exchange, The Management Center/Opportunity Knocks, and Human Rights Watch. I founded Counterpoise in 2002 because I realized I wanted to apply my skills and experience to helping people engaged directly in their own ventures, be they start-ups, small to medium-sized businesses, or social profit organizations. As the daughter of a middle class artist, it was only natural that I would end up helping artist-entrepreneurs to follow in his footsteps. My motto for all the work I do is Dream, Build, Deliver. It applies no matter what you are pursuing.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Many years ago I worked in international HR for GTE Telops in Dallas, Texas. We worked on expat employee deployment and support all over the world. My co-worker was a great guy named Jim Rosales. Jim was well along in his career, and he really took me under his wing. That is until one Monday morning, when I arrived at my desk to discover it completely covered with piles of files and a hand-written note from Jim that said: “Gone to China, hope you can handle this.” We had been gearing up for a big cellular push into Guangzhou, and the top brass had pulled the trigger on Friday evening so Jim had flown out over the weekend. I didn’t even get to speak to him for ten days, so I just did my best without any guidance at all.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I remember having a series of interviews at a management consulting firm. I had multiple interactions with about four different partners and a few other people as well. Two of them were remarkably similar-looking, and I got them confused! One took me out for dinner after about three hours of structured interviews with their HR people (so I was out of energy and brain cells), and I somehow thought it was the OTHER partner. After about 20 minutes of strained conversation in which I saw him repeatedly look at me strangely, we finally figured it out. I have never been so embarrassed. He was great, though, and we just laughed our head off over it. Needless to say, I was not offered a position, although that partner and I remained in touch for quite a while. Lost a job and gained a friend.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am blessed to have a life partner who not only splits home and child care equally, but who is focused on the intersection of art and business, and dedicated to helping others collaborate clearly and effectively. My husband is a stage director who works mostly in new opera. This is high wire management of multiple groups and moving parts under tight deadlines. So we have the benefit of completely understanding what the other is working on, while also being able to learn from each other and commiserate. I once came home and complained all about my day. FInally I asked him about his and he said “ well the soprano and the conductor disagreed. He yelled at her, she spit on him and stormed into her dressing room and locked the door. The entire orchestra of 90 musicians was nearing triple overtime status, so I had to coax her out and get them back to work.” Talk about giving me perspective! I would not be doing what I’m doing today without the partnership I have with my husband.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Peter Lynch, ​Beating the Street​.

When I founded Counterpoise in 2001, I bought an iMac that had the dual 9 and 10 operating system. Apple was struggling at that moment, but I really thought that the Unix-based OS10 made sense, and the whole product was plug and play, sleek and fun. I liked it so much that I started laddering in to Apple stock with my small percentage of “mad money” . Boy did that ever turn out to be a smart move — it ended up dwarfing the rest of my portfolio! I am a firm

believer in common sense, trusting your instincts, and those of the people around you. A good idea is a good idea, no matter where it comes from.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I grew up in a family with many mottos, which continue to resonate for me today: Always take a book (or nowadays a tablet or a phone….); always make the reversible decision (maximize your options); goodness is its own reward. I still live by these, and teach them to my son.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I have spent the past ten years bootstrapping and building a nonprofit organization that equips artists to be self-sustaining entrepreneurs. When you give artists the same tools and training that MBAs get, they outperform them. We have proven this in a landmark study we published in 2019: ​Report on the Working Artist​. In 2020 we reached 30,000 artists. In 2021, we will double that.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to ​this ​EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

My supervisor at one of the Fortune 500 companies I worked at once chided me at different moments on the same day that I was “not aggressive enough” and “too assertive”. He was one of the best bosses I’ve had, and was at a loss when I pointed this out to him. It’s almost impossible to be effective as a woman in business without struggling with this, and when you found something (unless you are lucky enough to be able to self-fund it), you are beholden to exactly the kind of people who hold you to impossible, contradictory standards. This is as true for funders as it is for team members and vendors you will need to recruit. We have also seen so clearly during this pandemic that whenever something unexpected happens at home, or with children, it is the mother who stops what she is doing to handle it. This is hard enough when that mother is working for somebody else, but the risk she takes on when she is the founder of the enterprise is even greater. If she steps away, it might fail. Women are taught more often than men that they must not fail. I believe this really holds women back as much as actual discrimination.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

90% of my team is women, and the majority of the CHF board is as well. I know that by leadership and mentorship and actual training, we build in people the capability to accomplish whatever their purpose and goal is. I deliberately have pursued an independent path in my career specifically in order to help individuals, and especially other women, found and manage their own ventures, whatever they may be. 65% of the artists we support are women. One of our 2018 art-business accelerator Fellows, Manuelita Brown, is a well-recognized sculptor. At the age of 79 she launched a social enterprise called A Place for Grace, to develop community gardens with resources for the homeless. It grew out of the pivotal project she took on as a CHF Fellow. That is but one example of a female artist-entrepreneur who not only runs her own business successfully, but has now established another organization that would not exist without her.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

When my son was really little I would watch him and his friends play. The boys were always wanting to build things and organize them. The girls were always organizing the children — leading the group. And of course since they were four years old there were fighting over who got to be in charge! It made me wonder why we switch this natural organization as adults, and make so many men and women believe they must go against what they’re naturally good at. Point is, women are focused on how things intersect and interact — on how the whole is greater than the sum of its

parts. Men work on progress, and women on civilization. That makes us terrific, not only at having ideas, but at bringing them to fruition when that requires a team effort. Women are 50+% of us, we should be at least that percentage of everything, and that certainly includes inventors, innovators and CEOs. We are at a pivotal moment as a species and on this planet. We will not long survive unless we focus on collaboration and effective team leadership. Lone wolf egotism and toxic competition will not take us where we need to go. Women build civilizations and sustaining ecosystems, and those are essential now.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share ​5 things​ that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? ​If you can, please share an example or story for each.

1. POINT OF VIEW: I saw David Letterman interview Tina Fey a couple of years ago. She recounted her first days in the writing room of SNL. They would go around the table, each writer pitching jokes and skits to the others. The only other woman in the room pitched a fake ad having to do with maxi pads in a swimming pool. Tina Fey guffawed and laughed until she cried. All the other male writers just stared at her. It wasn’t funny to them. The female writer had pitched it repeatedly, but it only made the cut when there was another woman in the room to show that it was extremely funny to her. The more women in top positions, the more women there will be in top positions.

2. EARLY STAGE AND SEED FUNDING: Several years ago I worked as CSO for a tech start-up in LA. The founder and I pitched a women-run VC firm whose entire brand was early stage, female-owned ventures. Their collateral very clearly stated that they were interested in getting involved at the product development stage. Unfortunately, the only question we got after our pitch was “where’s your trailing revenue”. This VC talked a good game, but in the end was conservative to the point of undercutting its own purported mission and brand.

3. LENDING FOR SMALL START-UPS: When I lived in San Francisco I worked at IDEX, vetting proposals for economic development loans. I remember one from a women’s collective in Kerala, India that was expanding its poultry farm. It was hand-written, and the budget items included tens of dollars for wheelbarrows and seeds. We gave them the few hundred dollars they requested. They paid it back on time and then asked for more. They continued to grow into an anchor business for their entire community, and the greater impact was astounding. The women increased their status as they succeeded, and treatment of them improved. Their children — boys and girls — were able to be educated. I know from more recent experience that artists and creative professionals are also very good at paying off debt on schedule. LIttle bits of support can pay gigantic dividends, and loans to women are low risk. The more women-owned businesses of every size, the more palatable women founders become to VCs and private equity funders, and the more small ventures will grow into big ones.

4. STEAM, NOT STEM, AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP IN SCHOOLS: I have been an advisor for several years of the nonprofit Economic Ventures, Inc., which created and runs EntrePrep℠ Summer Institute, an experiential entrepreneurship program for youth that offers intensive one-week summer sessions on economic and financial literacy. The range of businesses that participating teens come up with and make work is just incredible. We really hold ourselves back by focusing too narrowly on our definition of a new venture worth investing in. The more we encourage creativity and resourcefulness throughout life, and especially in school, the more founders we will have, and the more we recognize that, just because we personally don’t see the potential, doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea that can find the right audience, investors and customers. Teaching entrepreneurship to kids of all ages empowers them — and especially the girls — to believe in their ideas and imagine themselves implementing them. Let all the ideas come forward, applaud them, and then the good ones will make it to market. Many of them never even get voiced right now, especially the ones in the minds of girls.

5. BROADER, MORE DIVERSE INCUBATORS AND ACCELERATORS: We need support across the board for women-founded ventures, and we need ramp-up and deep dive programs that are driven by women.

This will require investment that focuses on social ROI and B-Corp, as well as typical LLC and S-corp entities, but that’s not as hard as it may sound to traditionalists in the industry. If I can run an art-business accelerator that results in 75% of participants increasing their income and a full third becoming job creators within 12 months of graduating the program, then certainly we can build incubators and accelerators in other verticals that will produce successful ventures founded by women. I welcome that, and would love to be involved in developing programs that will be exciting to women — that lean toward collaboration and culture.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Well, I’m already dedicating my life to celebrating our creativity and innovation as the driving force and ultimate purpose of our existence! I run the Clark Hulings Fund for Visual Artists, which is a start-up social equity organization that turns working artists into thriving artists by instilling confidence, delivering business training and tools, and fostering peer networking across the arts ecosystem. Just as women founders beget women founders, so creativity fosters MORE creativity. The history of life on Earth, and especially of humans, is one of perpetual innovation and creation. I am leading a movement that empowers the innovators and creators among us to lead, and in turn, spark those forces in all of us.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Catherine H. Clark or Dennis Whittle

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Clarkhulingsfund.org​, ​clarkhulings.com​, ​dreambuilddeliver.com

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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