Encouragement — I wish that women who are inclined to start their own companies received more encouragement from their peers. Unfortunately the story I hear more often is that these women get questions about how they will handle their childbearing years and the cash salary they will forgo. While these questions need to be addressed, it should go hand in hand with encouragement and from peers.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rose Punkunus.
Rose Punkunus is the Founder and CEO of Sudozi, a software platform to help finance teams collaborate with business partners and keep track of vendors and budgets. Previously Rose was CFO at ScaleFactor, VP Finance at Fundbox, and Regional CFO for the US & Canada business at Uber. Rose has an undergraduate degree in Economics from MIT and MBA from UCLA Anderson.
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?
From my earliest days, I’ve always been very analytical and interested in technology. After getting my economics degree from MIT, I started my career as a research fellow at Stanford, thinking that I would pursue a Ph.D. I quickly learned that I’m very operational and working in a business setting was much more natural and comfortable for me compared to a life in academia. This realization led me to pursue an MBA from UCLA Anderson.
After my MBA, I was the strategy & analytics lead for iTunes TV and Movies. In this role, I helped build strategies for studios using the data we had on the iTunes platform. I spent a lot of time helping studios optimize pricing to maximize revenue and other objectives. This global pricing expertise helped me land the lead role at Uber heading up global pricing. That role happened to be in the finance team, and I’ve held various executive finance roles since then until I started Sudozi late in 2020. At Sudozi, I am the Founder & CEO, and we are building software to help finance teams manage vendors and budgets.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When I first joined Uber in 2013, the company had just launched uberX, and it was growing like crazy in the US and internationally. Within two weeks of joining, and before I even had an opportunity to go to new employee orientation, I oversaw a major initiative to update pricing for every city in the US market. Within a matter of a few days, my colleagues and I ran a ton of analyses and deployed the new pricing. By the time I went to new employee orientation, I had already made decisions that impacted millions of Uber driver and riders in the US & Canada market.
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?
One of the funniest mistakes happened when I was sorority president at MIT. I was replying all to an email and included a funny remark that was snarky to some of the people on the email chain. My response didn’t reflect the sorority’s values, and I was genuinely embarrassed and regretted sending the email. I learned a couple of things from this experience. Of course, from that day on, I’ve been careful when replying all especially with a large group. But more importantly, I recognize that what I say often represents an entire group and this underscored the need to be more thoughtful, especially in a written forum.
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?
The people I’m most grateful towards are my parents. I was born in Shanghai and came to the US with them when I was 3. Both my parents changed careers when they moved to the US, but my mother did a more drastic change. She was a chemistry teacher in China and went back to college in the US (with English as a second language) and got a degree in nursing to become a registered nurse. Their determination and ability to thrive in new environments has given me the confidence to persevere through hard times.
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?
Since my experience has mainly been in tech and the corporate world, Samantha Power’s The Education of an Idealist gave me a perspective of government and policy leadership that I didn’t have before. At one point in the book, Samantha Power is nursing her daughter while on the phone with John Kerry. She also shares her personal experiences traveling to dangerous locations while having young children. While her challenges were very different from mine, her stories of what she had to do when her children were young resonate a lot with me right now.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Everything happens for a reason” — It’s a simple quote that I really believe. When things don’t go the way you expect, there’s likely a reason you’re going to go down a different path. There are so many examples of how this has been relevant in my life, but the most prominent one is not getting my dream job out of business school. I wound up still getting a great opportunity that led me to many leadership roles. Plus, I met my husband along the way! If I had gotten that dream job out of business school, who knows where I would be now!
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I played varsity volleyball in college and found it difficult to find a consistent group to play with afterwards, so I turned to coaching. I’ve coached girls in middle school and high school. Beyond technical volleyball skills, I share insights about being a student athlete that I would have benefited from at that age. I’m a mentor to these girls as they navigate middle school, high school, college, and career decisions. Some of the first girls I coached have gone on to play in college and start their careers, and it’s very rewarding to see them succeed.
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?
Women are completely capable of creating and running companies, but I believe there are some large friction points holding many back. First is the realization that starting a company is even a viable option. There are many women (myself included earlier in my career) where starting a company doesn’t even cross their minds. Second is the confidence that they have the skills and experiences to do it. There’s the need to overcome the imposter syndrome and believe that women can start and run companies just as well, if not better, than many men. Finally, it’s accepting the time and energy commitment that’s required to start a company. On average, women still do most of the family and household work (both physically and managing the coordination of homecare), and it’s tough to outsource that or accept it being done in a way you wouldn’t do it yourself.
Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?
The biggest thing I’m doing is leading by example. Although I am just one person, to the thousands of people in my network (particularly girls and women), I’m someone they personally know who has started a company, and that can make a difference in someone’s decisions. Beyond that, for women who are considering being founders, I help them think deeply about their business plans and be a sounding board for other areas my experience can be useful.
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?
For me, there are two main reasons why we need more women founders. The first is that the types of problem getting solved are going to be different than ones solved by companies founded by men. The second is that the way women solve problems are different — likely much more collaborative and holistic. By having more women founders, there are more opportunities for capital to be deployed into companies that are solving a different type of problem or solving problems in a more holistic way.
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.
- Exposure — More programming can be done at the high school and college levels to expose women to the idea that they can found their own companies and organizations. While a path of entrepreneurship is not for everyone, students should be aware that it is an option.
- Encouragement — I wish that women who are inclined to start their own companies received more encouragement from their peers. Unfortunately the story I hear more often is that these women get questions about how they will handle their childbearing years and the cash salary they will forgo. While these questions need to be addressed, it should go hand in hand with encouragement and from peers.
- Capital — Every new company needs resources to get started. Knowing what type of capital to raise and from whom to raise it from is not obvious, particularly to first time founders. Supporting programs that educate entrepreneurs, especially women entrepreneurs, about the different ways to fund their companies is critical to empower more women to become founders.
- Coaching — Most entrepreneurs, especially women, enter the role of a founder having had only one type of job. Whether the founder was previously an engineer, operator, sales manager, etc, she will benefit from coaching for the areas where she has not had first hand experience. Having a team of coaches readily accessible to women founders can make the experience less daunting.
- Networking — From fundraising to sales to recruiting, networking unlocks companies to new potentials and is required to be a successful founder. Unfortunately women can sometimes view networking as a negative. Not only should we debunk this stigma, but we should actively encourage women founders to attend events and put themselves in positions where they can enrich their networks.
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.
At the moment — it would have to be about the COVID-19 vaccines. I think it is extremely important for all of us that a higher percentage of people get vaccinated so that there are fewer new variants that arise. While I want to be respectful of people who have chosen to not get the vaccine to date, there is significant evidence that the vaccines are safe and help prevent or reduce symptoms of COVID-19.
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.
There are so many people I could list here. I guess I’ll have to go with Sheryl Sandberg. Her personal and professional journey is fascinating, and there’s so much I could learn from her.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow me and Sudozi on LinkedIn and Twitter
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.