Embrace rest. This means rejecting toxic productivity and recognizing that our worth is not based on how much we get done each day. As a mom, I’m constantly reminding myself that my worth isn’t tied up in getting laundry done or getting things done for my kids. Similarly, I must allow myself to relax and read a book, be with friends, and do this guilt-free.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aiko Bethea, founder of RARE Coaching & Consulting, is a leader, builder, and connector. Through her work, she coaches leaders and organizations to remove the internal and external barriers to inclusion, allowing them to understand each other as people, colleagues, and teams in more connective ways.
During her childhood and throughout her career, Aiko has been in places where people who looked like her were underrepresented. She believes that when you anchor into your values and discover your voice, you can begin to live the life you want to live and be exactly who you want to be.
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?
My backstory has so much to do with where I’m from. I’m from Spartanburg, SC, and was raised by my Japanese mom in a Japanese-speaking household. We had very little. I’m also a Southern Black girl who loves stories. I love reading them and learning about the stories of others. My two values: justice and loyalty.
I became an attorney to obtain justice for communities like mine- poor and Black. However, my decisions have all been dictated by finances. So, I became a big firm attorney to pay bills, including student loans. I went into philanthropy to influence directing support to communities like mine. My education and career paths often left me in spaces as “the only”, in classrooms, sectors (philanthropy, law, biotech), and on all teams except the ones that I led.
A large influence on my career — executive coaches. The support of amazing executive coaches helped me to elevate my leadership and become more confident leaning into my voice and style. I also had a terrible experience with an executive coach, which could’ve left me second-guessing myself. The coach questioned my experience with sexism and racism. This experience highlighted to me the value of having more executive coaches who looked like me. I wanted to influence others who found themselves as “the only” to lean more into leadership that elevated their voices and talent, as opposed to covering, code-switching, and assimilating.
RARE Coaching & Consulting centers the leadership story, experiences, and skills of those who are underrepresented in executive leadership- first-generation folx, people of color, and LGBT+ community members. We also focus on elevating emotional intelligence in all leaders. Unlocking emotional intelligence is the key to inclusive leadership that results in connection, innovation, and impact.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Most of my work has been about compliance, rules, laws, and regulations. Working for myself has allowed me to move away from the box and work outside of it. This freedom has unlocked my creativity. I’ve been able to see more possibilities and lean into my creativity. I have discovered new approaches with clients and identified new opportunities for my organization. I’m more open.
The biggest, possibly most interesting pivot- I’m writing a cozy comfort series with the main character who looks like me. For those who haven’t heard of this genre, there’s a female lead who is an amateur sleuth, solving mysteries. These easy-going books got me through the pandemics of COVID and racial upheaval. I would go on daily walks plugging in an audible book and unplugging from everything else. My only complaint: I wanted a series with a lead who looks like me. So stay tuned!
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 was invited to attend a chapter meeting for a leadership development organization for women. I thought the topic was amazing and exactly what I was interested in, the intersection of emotional intelligence and leadership. During this virtual meeting, the questions the group was most interested in were presented on the slide for the guest speaker. They called on me and I responded: I agree with these questions. They’re great and I wonder if the speaker can also share specific examples? There was silence and some laughter.
One of the leaders of the meeting had to ask me if I knew that I was the speaker. I was embarrassed and certainly surprised, but we all had a good laugh over this. I’m not quite sure how I missed this. One lesson was that it was time for me to hire support staff so that I could be more prepared while juggling so much. But as I laughed at my mistake with over 75 other strangers, it hit me that once upon a time I would have chastised myself to no end. I would have been mortified at my error and allowed a relentless inner critic to take over. In the freedom of laughing, we all connected. During the closing, a participant remarked that she marveled at my ability to laugh at myself in front of strangers as opposed to being mortified. I shared that once upon a time I wouldn’t have seen the humor in my error. I considered how much emotional labor and pressure we put on ourselves so that we don’t appear to be fallible. We strive for perfection. How foolish of us, and what a waste of our energy.
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 list of those who supported me throughout this journey is endless. There is always family and faith. Then there are friends who show up for you first in line. As a First Gen, nisei, Black girl, when you’re beginning your endeavor, it’s like jumping off a cliff. There is no safety net. As a mom, you understand that your success is your kid’s success and your failure may also be to their detriment. When friends show up for you first and always, it’s absolutely invaluable.
When I first allowed myself to say out loud that I would take a bet on myself and begin my own business, I was uncertain about everything- except the weight of the risk I was taking. The first friend I shared this with basically said: Hell, yeah! Of course, you are and you should! Then she hired me. Having another Black woman bring you into her white organization to lead leadership work says a lot. My performance reflects on her. And as Black people, we don’t have many chances to shine handed to us in full faith and belief. Also, as a Black person, the risk of betting on other Black folx and bringing them into your organization is compounded. My failure reflects on her judgment and can make the presumed shortcomings of our Blackness hypervisible.
Having CC’s unconditional support has been invaluable. Her belief in me and willingness to constantly bet on my ability and my success has countered self-doubt and the sense of isolation that founders can often encounter.
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?
Historically, the well-being and the minds of women and girls have received little to no investment. Investment in and belief in our intellectual ability and capital would shift how we are educated, included, and encouraged. Just as white men are expected to create, innovate, and take risks- this would be expected of us as well. This would shift so much.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Modeling is critical. Here, I’m not only referring to other women who take risks and who are in seats of leadership. I’m also referring to men who opt to stay home to raise children. This invites new expectations and possibilities for all of us. The more limiting norms are disrupted, the more freedom there is for everyone. Organizations that have embraced parental leave as opposed to only maternity leave are supporting new models.
We all need to counter our scarcity mindsets. Scarcity will have us believing that there can only be a few women or a few people of color in leadership. It will make us believe that someone is trying to take “our seat” or “our place” at the table. We must recognize that the more we go about with closed fists trying to hold on to the “little we have” or “the little we believe exists.”, the less we can receive and the less we can give. Scarcity mindsets create unwarranted competition and territorialism, resulting in toxic productivity and perfectionism.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
It’s simple. Women care for the world. We are the largest investors in the well-being of society.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
There’s a myth that founders are uniquely “qualified.” There are so many creatives, hard workers, people with phenomenal ideas, passions, and dreams who will never be founders. However, this is because of circumstance, and not qualifications. Although Black women are rapidly leading the way as entrepreneurs, the amount of resources invested in us is ridiculously low. We also have weak or nonexistent safety nets. This limits the margin of error we can afford. There are plenty of folx to tell us no, but few to take a financial risk on us.
Dispelling the myth that founders are uniquely “qualified” would allow more to envision themselves as founders, and it would expand the mind of investors when they consider which founders are a worthwhile investment.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
I don’t think being a founder is for everyone. For one, there must be an idea or opportunity that we believe in enough or are passionate enough about to lean fully into. There’s a degree of resilience and humility that’s also required of founders. I also believe that life circumstances need to allow us to have the space to take a chance on ourselves.
Having a Learner mindset is a critical component for success. When you’re a Learner, you aren’t afraid to fail. In fact, you expect to miss the mark because you embrace that you don’t know it all. You continue to refine your approach and increase your insight because you believe innovation is a constant. There is persistent humility in knowing that you simply do not know it all. Being a Learner is also freeing because you release yourself from having all the answers, and from chasing perfection. So many of us expend an excessive amount of emotional labor trying to prove we know it all, essentially running from vulnerability. Running from vulnerability leaves us hiding, covering, armoring up. How can you take on the risks of being a founder if you can’t lean into your ideas, voice, and values — and even risk showing you don’t have all the answers?
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Recognize and understand the systems and spaces you’re navigating. This allows us to resist internalizing false narratives about our abilities and potential. I regularly remind myself that when I show up in front of a room, it’s counter-culture for most people to see me in front of the room, much less as the expert. Recognizing the story behind this (inequitable system) reminds me of the importance of my voice and repels the imposter phenomenon. It also allows me to show more patience and grace to those in the room who intuitively reject my presence.
- You need to know your values. I don’t mean a list of 10, but more like your top values. Your values will keep you anchored in who you are- your north star. They will ensure that your First Voice and honest voice continuously rise to the top. My values are justice and loyalty. When I feel unsettled, I go directly to my values. Eight out of 10 times, I quickly realize that somehow one of these values is being breached. When I’m in the flow, my values are being honored and elevated.
- Boundaries. Boundaries are anchored into our values. Values support us in drawing boundaries. They ensure we say no to those things that infringe upon our values. We know that those with strict boundaries are also the most generous- and lean into believing that we’re all doing the best we can.
- Embrace rest. This means rejecting toxic productivity and recognizing that our worth is not based on how much we get done each day. As a mom, I’m constantly reminding myself that my worth isn’t tied up in getting laundry done or getting things done for my kids. Similarly, I must allow myself to relax and read a book, be with friends, and do this guilt-free.
- Maintain community. My community reminds me of my values and my purpose. When the world is telling me no, or telling me I’m less than, my community tells me otherwise. They are also the source of rest, laughter, and joy. When I’m feeling overwhelmed and second-guessing myself, I lean into my community. It is reassuring to know how many people are willing to bet on you and support you.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place? I think the core nature of my work makes the world better. I support leaders, especially underrepresented leaders, to see themselves, recognize their value, and develop their voices. I create spaces for us to hear our voices. I also curate spaces where white leaders are invited to be in a new space that will elevate their emotional intelligence. They are coached by leaders of color and participate in learning spaces where they are not in the majority. Believe it or not, this is rare. The result is heightened emotional intelligence and insight.
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 believe a movement that centers rest would be worthwhile. Hustle culture and the glory of the grind are the antitheses of innovation, creativity, and also self-compassion. Self-compassion leads to connection and compassion for others. We need more of this. We need all of this for a better society.
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.
Serena Williams. Her resilience, courage, tremendous focus, all wrapped in her never-ending ability to rise. She has been the first and the only one under the most extreme scrutiny. Yet, she still rises, with grace. Her investment in women in leadership and women founders exemplifies her belief in equity.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!