Lara Hodgson of NOWaccount: “Much of what is holding women back is conditioning and the myths of entrepreneurship”

While I don’t believe that every woman should be a founder, just as every man should not be a founder, I do find that women make great founders — especially mothers. Mothers have no problem prioritizing because we know what is most important, and we know we have limited time to get things done. We are empathetic […]

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While I don’t believe that every woman should be a founder, just as every man should not be a founder, I do find that women make great founders — especially mothers. Mothers have no problem prioritizing because we know what is most important, and we know we have limited time to get things done. We are empathetic even while tough and focused on results. They say you learn everything you need to know in kindergarten, but in reality, you learn the really important lessons the day you become a mother. For years, I put off having children because I was focused on my career. But once I became a mother, I became a way better founder and CEO.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lara Hodgson.

Lara Hodgson is the cofounder, president and CEO of NOWaccount, a business-to-business (B2B) FinTech company created to enable small businesses to get paid immediately in a way that feels like accepting a credit card for payment when no card is offered. Lara, a serial entrepreneur, experienced the pain of having to wait to get paid, essentially being a free bank to her business and government customers, and decided to create a better alternative to loans and factoring. Lara is a true rocket scientist with a bachelor’s degree (highest honors) in Aerospace Engineering from Georgia Tech and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

Lara is an alumna of the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women™ program, which identifies ambitious women entrepreneurs and provides them with the guidance, resources and access they need to unlock their full potential.

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 have always loved impossible problems, and I was never given a box to think inside of, so I live outside the proverbial box. I started my first company in third grade when a new type of hair barrette came out, and I decided I could make them better and cheaper. The business grew, and I was selling them through a craft store where I’d bought the ribbon for the barrettes. Eventually, the orders got so large that I was employing my family and friends until my mother shut the company down because I had homework.

As a high school valedictorian who was also captain of the cheerleading team, president of the class and a three-sport athlete, I never fit a mold. I love being different and thinking different. I decided to attend Georgia Tech on a track scholarship and to study aerospace engineering (because it was rumored to be the most difficult major). While there, I was told that I had an engineering mind and a liberal arts personality, and I wondered if that required medication. It turns out it is a gift!

I was selected by the U.S. Defense Department to be one of 30 engineering students to study in Japan, and I was named one of the top 20 students in the US by USA Today. I realized I loved the problem-solving side of engineering, but I wanted to work more closely with people in business, so I attended the Harvard Business School. The only pattern in my career is that I have never had a job that another person had before me. I have started new groups within large companies, divisions of startups and finally my own companies. What led me to this crazy career path? An insatiable curiosity and a passion to help others and make the world a better place by solving impossible problems has led me from starting my career in consulting to launching a division of a technology services company to leading a real estate development company to inventing a consumer product to my current project, founding and leading an innovative B2B FinTech company. Each adventure emerged because of a problem or pain point that I experienced in my last company.

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

When I think of an interesting “experience,” I think of the interesting people with whom I’ve been blessed to work. When I was running the retail and consumer products practice at iXL, my team was hired by a startup called, created by Shaquille O’Neal and a few of Nike’s early employees who wanted to start a footwear company based on the Dell model of manufacturing. I helped launch that company and left iXL to join Dunk as its executive vice president. Equally as interesting is the fact that I was selected to serve as the ambassador to Lebanon for the 1996 Olympic Games. I trained for two years on conflict resolution and experienced with awe the joy of living in the Olympic Village and marching in the Opening Ceremonies. The Olympic Village is the only time when the entire world lives together in a five-mile radius, proving that we are more alike than different when politicians are not around.

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 have started three of my companies with my business partner, Stacey Abrams. When Stacey and I started Nourish, patented spill-proof bottles water for children, we brought together every vendor who would touch the product to an all-day meeting so we could ensure that there were no “gotchas” in the design before we wrote our big check to have the molds made. We uncovered many things that would have been issues, including a design element that would have proved problematic for the filler’s assembly line and an element of the bottle that would have caused problems with the case packs. At the end of the meeting, each of the men commented that in their 40+ years in the industry, they had never attended a meeting like this, which brought together seemingly unrelated vendors. (Our product, Nourish, was a spill-proof bottle for babies and toddlers, so they also said they had never been in a meeting where the word “nipple” was used so much since we discussed the bottle nipple.).

After completing molds and starting to manufacture on the high-speed line, we discovered that the label material was not performing well with high-speed application. We needed to get a big order out, so Stacey and I pulled together all of our friends to hand apply labels to thousands of bottles. Our fingers were covered with adhesive and our hands were so cramped. We laughed and said we just knew that there would be a day when we would say, “remember when?” The best part is that we started cutting the labels with scissors so we had less to stick — and in doing so, we realized we could make smaller labels to save costs! Innovation always comes from problems!

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 most grateful to my husband, Casey. No founder can be successful without the unwavering support of a life partner. The company you found is like a child. It is personal and it is emotional, and knowing my husband was behind me in the good days and the bad made it all possible. I am also grateful for my personal board of directors. I was always frustrated by the old model of mentors. I didn’t need people to pat me on the back (my family can do that). Instead, I needed people who would honestly tell me when I was off track. So, I created a personal board of directors who give me feedback from time to time.

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?

The Captain Class: The Hidden Force that Creates the World’s Greatest Teams by Sam Walker is a book that spoke deeply to me. As a competitive athlete, I was always intrigued by the elusive magic ingredient that enabled one team to dominate over a period of time while other teams with more talent could not deliver consistent excellence. As I moved into the business world, this topic continued to intrigue me. Sam Walker’s book has found the answer — and it is not what you think! The book explains the reasoning behind the data analysis that the author undertook to define the top 16 most dominant teams (across all global sports) of all time and to then study what made them so great. The book then tells the story of each team. In every case, it was not a star player/talent who made the difference. It was not the coach who made the difference. Rather, it was the formal or informal captain who drove a culture of grit and determination that elevated the whole team. This is such an important lesson to apply to every aspect of our lives. I have gifted this book to every coach and every teacher that my child has had and also to business leaders I meet.

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 love this quote from Stephen R. Covey: “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are.” As parents, as leaders, as CEOs and as people, it is important to remind ourselves of this daily. It is the failure to take this reality to heart that drives us to judge others, to lack empathy and to falsely assume that we are unbiased. Everyone sees the world through a lens, and that lens is crafted from each of our unique experiences. One person’s lens is not more right or wrong than another’s. This quote also drives home why we need to build diverse teams and spend more time listening to customers than talking to them.

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

We all strive to make the world a “better place” as defined by the way we see the world. Ultimately, the success of this endeavor will be decided by those around us and those who come after us. I focus less on leaving the world a better place and more on helping anyone that I can today. Because if I help one person who makes their corner of the world better, then my impact is far greater than my efforts to change the world myself.

When I was at Harvard Business School, I served as a student host for the first ever convening of the Women World Leaders (current and former female heads of state). At dinner, I sat next to Vigdis Finnbogadottir, then president of Iceland. She explained that a mirror is exponentially more powerful the closer it is to you. In Iceland, little boys would ask if a boy could be president because in their lifetime, they had only seen a female president of Iceland. Our personal impact is far greater to those sitting next to us. As a result of this learning, I have focused on my local community.

I am the founding president of the board of Atlanta Heights Charter School, an innovative school we started that serves over 700 disadvantaged scholars in kindergarten through eighth grade. I have also served as an Entrepreneur in Residence at Harvard for the last four years, and I enjoy helping young people challenge assumptions and pursue their passions. My greatest gift to the world is my son. I pray daily that I inspire and prepare him to help those around him. Growing up, my goal was always to be a success, but I have since realized that if your goal in life is success, then you are not thinking big enough. Success is finite. The bigger goal in life is significance. Significance is infinite.

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?

Much of what is holding women back is conditioning and the myths of entrepreneurship.

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

I coach many female students and young professionals. I have encouraged our NOWaccount employees to start their own businesses and celebrated their success.

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?

While I don’t believe that every woman should be a founder, just as every man should not be a founder, I do find that women make great founders — especially mothers. Mothers have no problem prioritizing because we know what is most important, and we know we have limited time to get things done. We are empathetic even while tough and focused on results. They say you learn everything you need to know in kindergarten, but in reality, you learn the really important lessons the day you become a mother. For years, I put off having children because I was focused on my career. But once I became a mother, I became a way better founder and CEO.

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?

1. Girls are conditioned at a young age to collect and care for things but not to transact. While boys trade baseball cards, girls collect stickers. And the language we use in kindergarten is “what do you want to be when you grow up?” instead of “what do you want to do when you grow up?” Most women are not defined by what they do in their career — it is just one piece of who they are. Men tend to take on work as their identity.

2. We have created the false impression that STEM is synonymous with entrepreneurship. We push girls toward STEM and downplay other industries as less impressive when, in fact, every industry can be a path to successful entrepreneurship.

3. We have created a false image of entrepreneurship as embodying “Shark Tank” sexy on one extreme and requiring that you give up your life for your business on the other. Both are false. Entrepreneurship is hard work, but you should not mortgage your family and your life for your company. That is not impressive, and it actually shows poor judgment, but this urban myth is proliferated by former founders and investors who made these bad choices and want company. If you are willing to prioritize the company over your family, I would not invest in you.

4. Women often have a less developed network to access capital and connections

5. Women need to realize that sometimes the glass ceiling is really a sticky floor. I am often asked by women, “How did you overcome the challenge of being one of only two women in aerospace engineering?” This is the wrong question because being one of only two women was not my challenge; it was my superpower. How you frame your own mind can turn a “challenge” into a “superpower.”

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.

I fear that the greatest epidemic we will face is that of the victim mentality. Whenever something happens that makes us uncomfortable, our first reaction is to blame someone else for our situation. Sadly, we have forgotten that most of us are successful because of the challenges we overcame in our life, not despite them. I would love to start a movement to give people the tools and the desire to take personal responsibility for achieving their dreams. My current focus is on empowering small business owners to grow fearlessly. So many resources are thrown at small businesses to educate them, but none of it makes a difference without commerce. The only way to get a small business to execute is to buy stuff from them. I am currently creating a network to facilitate commerce for business owners so they can be in a position to realize their potential

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.

I would love to have lunch with Melinda Gates and with Oprah Winfrey because I have a big idea on leveling the playing field for women founders and also on a new educational model. My greatest gift is my ability to see radically simple ideas in big problems, and I would love to help both of these powerful ladies accomplish their big goals because they have the power to drive scalable change.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

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

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