Susan Walvius of SHEEX: “Owning your own company is an opportunity to express your creativity”

Leadership is a wonderful thing, and nurturing skills are extremely useful. More now than ever before, women have the opportunity to build a team, impact others, and establish a culture while providing a much-needed service or product. Owning your own company is an opportunity to express your creativity, have flexibility and can be extremely rewarding […]

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Leadership is a wonderful thing, and nurturing skills are extremely useful. More now than ever before, women have the opportunity to build a team, impact others, and establish a culture while providing a much-needed service or product. Owning your own company is an opportunity to express your creativity, have flexibility and can be extremely rewarding financially.

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

Susan, co-founder and co-CEO of SHEEX, grew up in Northern Virginia, was an All-American high school athlete, attended Virginia Tech on a full scholarship, and later became the youngest Division I women’s basketball head coach in the country at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). After five years at VCU, she then went on to coach for two years at West Virginia University. After finishing her coaching career at The University of South Carolina, where she was named Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year, she started her business.

Susan 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?

After coaching Division I college basketball for 21 years and seeing firsthand the evolution of fabrics in athletic wear, I teamed up with former pro athlete Michelle Marciniak to develop bedding and sleepwear using athletic performance fabrics to optimize sleep quality, in the same way athletic apparel keeps you cool, dry and more comfortable.

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

There have been many interesting and crazy stories, but this one always makes me smile. After I spent the first two years of my career renting out my house, sleeping on couches and traveling the country for meetings, my father asked me, “when are you going to get back into coaching?” Soon after that, he gave me an old black Lincoln Town Car that Michelle and I called Abe. Abe had a very large trunk, so we thought it would be a good idea to store samples and meeting materials in the trunk and park it at LAX so we would have a car and everything we needed when flying in to attend frequent Southern California meetings. It was only 50.00 dollars a month to keep the car at LAX, and although it was a little embarrassing to drive, Abe saved us on car rental fees. The only problem was that the parking permit needed to be renewed — in person, every month. Parking at LAX was a successful plan for two years, until one month l realized that we had not traveled to LAX for a while. I called a friend of mine, who was in LA for business, and asked her to check on the car and renew the tag. When she did, we discovered Abe had been towed and we owed some hefty impound charges. We immediately donated Abe to charity.

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?

We’ve made many mistakes, but one early on was to take way too many meetings with attorneys. My business partner and I have very different personalities. I call her Bam Bam. She was adamant that these regular meetings with one particular attorney were necessary for our growth. The meetings would get longer and longer until we finally received a steep invoice for all the billable hours. Quickly thereafter, I learned to keep meetings with outside counsel and consultants as brief and focused as possible.

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?

Bob Damon, the former president of Korn Ferry North America, was and still is impactful at SHEEX. Michelle (Bam Bam) and I had no background in business and knew nothing about how to start one. I read everything I could get my hands on. I ran across an article in Businessweek covering the best headhunters in the country. Bob was recognized for many of his hires at Under Armour, and I thought it would be a good idea to fly to Los Angeles to meet Bob. We decided on one ask of Bob — could he help us find talent, specifically a CFO? After many calls to Bob’s assistant, he finally agreed to a 20-minute meeting. We flew to LA and met Bob in his large Beverly Hills corner office. Bob is a very personable guy. He asked about our families, upbringing, sports and several other topics, and then he asked why we were there. We explained that we had read about him in Businessweek and that we needed a CFO. Bob then went on to ask how much money we had raised. When we told him, he laughed out loud in our faces. He said, “you don’t need a CFO!” Then, he quizzically asked, “do you realize it costs at least 75,000 dollars for a candidate search?” Our 20-minute meeting stretched into several hours that day. Bob ended up investing a significant amount in our company, introduced us to many other investors, and has been the chairman of our Board for many years.

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?

Traction, by Gino Wickman, is a fantastic book outlining an entrepreneurial operating system. This book does a great job of communicating the many mistakes that founders make and how to keep a company focused on achieving short- and long-term goals. I wish I would have found this book earlier in my journey. When I initially read it, I thought it was written about us.

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

“You’re either growing or you’re dying.” In coaching, my job was to help our team as a group — and individually — to get better each day and to learn from mistakes. The same is true with my team at SHEEX. I approach each day with a daily practice plan for improvement with the end goal always top of mind.

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

I hope, in some small way, I have contributed to making the world a better place. We have a wonderful group of awesome, caring and hardworking people at SHEEX. We have provided jobs for them and are supportive of them personally and professionally. As a company, we donate product to a local mission, support a nonprofit, ROCK [Reaching Our Community Kids], which provides meals on weekends for underprivileged kids. Personally, I give my time to another female-owned startup, UGO.

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?

When you look out on the business landscape, there are very few female founder role models. If you are contemplating starting your own business, it is scary to jump out of your comfort zone and venture into something new, especially when you do not see many other women doing it. Historically, I believe women have been lower risk takers, but women are caretakers by nature. Women are accustomed to seeing men in leadership roles, which may be intimidating. Funding women-owned businesses is also challenging and to bootstrap a company and provide for your family, all the while maintaining your family responsibilities, can be overwhelming.

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

I serve as an advisor to new female founders.

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?

Leadership is a wonderful thing, and nurturing skills are extremely useful. More now than ever before, women have the opportunity to build a team, impact others, and establish a culture while providing a much-needed service or product. Owning your own company is an opportunity to express your creativity, have flexibility and can be extremely rewarding financially.

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.

I believe there should be more specific content and resources readily available regarding how to get started in specific businesses, perhaps online seminars. All of the female founders I’ve met through EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women are brilliant, collaborative and generous with their time. I believe that more publicity around female founders and their stories could be inspiring to other women and encourage them to make the leap. We need to learn how to network better in the same way men have done in business for centuries. Female founders need better access to capital to thrive, or female founded businesses may fail.

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 would revamp our educational system to provide more practical hands-on learning. I would implement a plan to identify young women with an aptitude for business, leadership, finance and entrepreneurship and then guide them to be business owners. If more women could get the experience of starting and building a business in school, they would be more confident in doing it.

From my experience, women who participate in sports tend to be more prepared to compete, lead and learn from failures, but don’t necessarily know how to relate and apply these skills to business in their post-athletic careers. I would do more to provide a path through education for former female athletes to bridge the gap into starting a business.

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 a sit-down with Mark Cuban. Mark is intriguing because he had nothing but was able to start and exit several businesses successfully. He has a deep and broad understanding of many types of business, including professional basketball.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

We have a blog BETWEENtheSHEEX on They can also follow us on LinkedIn.

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

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