Strong work ethic — I just don’t know how anyone could be a founder without this. I’m probably what most people would consider a workaholic because of my farm background. I like to work long and hard and then I feel good about relaxing, but that is not really what I mean here. What I mean is you just can’t be lazy or unfocused. There are times when the hours will be very long for a long time. On the other hand, we have to take care of ourselves. This is something I need to work on even more than I do. We do have to rest. It’s a marathon, not a sprint so we can’t run it like a sprint.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing.
Bonnie Hagemann is a Visionary leadership expert and the CEO of EDA, Inc., a well-known and respected human capital firm specializing in custom blue-chip executive development tied to business strategy. She founded her first business in 2001, acquired a leading brand in executive development in 2007, started building technology platforms in 2012 and has been building and running businesses successfully for 20 years. In addition, she is a gender equality advocate who co-founded WomenExecs on Boards (www.weob.org), a global network of women prepared for Board Service at Harvard business school and is a member of the business council for Exponent (www.Exponent.org), where she is deeply committed to advancing the state of gender equality on boards and in senior leadership positions.
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?
A twist of fate. I started my career as a high school English teacher with a plan to teach literature at a university, but it didn’t take long to realize that I was not well-suited for my planned career path. You see, I grew up on a large farm. We had cattle, alfalfa, wheat and cotton and we worked sunup to sundown. We were focused on producing and if we weren’t producing, we weren’t successful. When I found myself in public education, I could work hard, but struggled to feel that I was producing. I stayed only long enough to pursue a master’s degree and move to another position in a corporate environment, and with a sigh of relief, I knew I had found a better fit. But that was not the twist of fate. After finding my best environment in the business world, I moved to Dallas, Texas to get married and started looking for a job. I found one selling mortgages and was excited to get started, but the day before my start date, their corporate office put a freeze on hiring. I was devastated, but if I had taken that job, I would have had an entirely different career and life and I’m so thankful for how things turned out. Soon, I moved into corporate education and that is where I’ve been ever since, first as an employee, and since as an entrepreneur leading human capital firms. I love what I do, both leading a team of great people, and as a team helping many companies create a compelling vision and culture to develop their talent. There are layers and layers of reward in this work.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Hmmm. first let me say, my life and work are rarely boring so choosing the MOST interesting is a bit of a challenge, but here is a good pick. I founded my first human capital firm on June 15th, 2001, acquired a few clients, started building partnerships and had the ball rolling in the right direction. Then one morning standing in front of my television watching the news while putting my earrings in, I watched a plane fly into the one of the twin towers and, as you know, the world changed for everyone. It was one of the most surreal days I’ve ever experienced because I didn’t know what to do. I had meetings. “Should I go to the meeting?” I finally decided I should go to the meeting which was with two other entrepreneurs who I was planning to collaborate with on a project. They showed up and we just sat down and watched events unfold on TV. I was worried about my new business, but also t petrified at a higher level at first. I had a daughter who was 3. I was afraid to leave her, afraid for her life, for my own, for friends and family, and for our country. It was just a terrible time.
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?
Well, it wasn’t funny at the time, but I hired a family member who at some point apparently decided the job was not the right one but didn’t tell me and just sort of stopped doing the job to any significant level. I was frustrated but also, I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t want to fire her and yet I needed someone to do the job and couldn’t pay anyone else as long as she was still getting paid. Perplexed for several weeks, I finally went to her and simply said, “do you have any recommendations for someone to be my admin?” which was the role she was in. Now this is the funny part, she said “yes” and made a recommendation who ended being my admin for seven years. She was apparently having as hard of a time telling me as I was telling her. I vowed after that to never hire someone I can’t fire, but I have since hired a family member. However, I think I can handle it now. I’ve hired, fired, downsized, upsized and am now much better at saying what needs to be said in a kind and supportive way, but I still hope I never have to move off another family member.
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?
Absolutely. I would have done very little purely on my own. I don’t want to and probably can’t function without a good team, so I’m thankful every day for the team I work with, but there are also two people who stand out. One is Jim Bolt, the founder of EDA which I acquired in 2007. Jim stayed with the company to help with the transition and to mentor me for 1 ½ years and he was the toughest professor I ever had. I never worked so much and tried so hard to perform, but I constantly felt that I didn’t reach the mark. It was one of the hardest times of my life because I was also a young mother and felt that I was either letting my child and family, my business, or Jim down. But in hindsight, I can tell you that the time with Jim catapulted my career, my knowledge, and capabilities. He practiced tough love and I would not be where I am today without him.
That timeframe also led to the second person I have to mention, my business partner Annette Klososky. After the acquisition in 2007, again my poor timing surfaced as the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis hit the world and I found myself in a 2nd major downturn. This time around though, I had debt from the acquisition, and we lost 70% of our business as did most human capital firms during that time. We were upside down and deeply in debt, but I didn’t want to file for bankruptcy. My solution was to work 3 years of 80 to 90-hour weeks without a paycheck and only 3 days off. I would stop and spend time with my daughter from 5:30 or 6 to 9pm and then go back to work, many times late into the night. I did this for so long that I found I was in a cycle and couldn’t pull myself out of it, but my body decided it could and just after the Christmas holidays one year, I became very ill. I don’t remember what it was or even if we knew, but I remember that I couldn’t even watch TV or have the light on. I was living in Kansas City and Annette came from Oklahoma City to help. She stayed with me for a few days, and I remember she sat beside the bed with a pen and paper and said tell me everything on your plate. I told her and she wrote. It was a long list. She said “Okay, I’m taking everything off your plate. Don’t give it another thought; I have it. You have one job. Get better. We need you.” And that’s what she did! She took care of everything until I was better. Twice she’s been there when I’ve worked myself into a place that I had to have help and both times, she was a rock and a friend.
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?
- Twenty percent is better than I expected. In 2019, one study (https://techcrunch.com/2019/12/09/us-vc-investment-in-female-founders-hits-all-time-high/) shows that female founders received only 2.8% of the VC funding, but even at 20%, it’s not enough. I believe this is because there is still implicit bias toward funding men, especially in the world of tech.
- I also think that we need more women in the decision-making seats for investments. As of July 2020, women made up only 12.4% of the VC decision-makers. (https://www.axios.com/women-venture-capital-gender-equality-3811e58d-6d89-48ea-bd13-6dc3e03a8911.html)
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?
- Well, related to the implicit bias that I mentioned earlier and giving the benefit of the doubt here, I don’t think many men (or women for that matter) are aware they are biased, but like diversity bias, it’s there. I have experienced this myself. I have raised capital and am currently raising capital for our new technology platform. I have proven I can lead and run a business. I can build a team of high performers. I have a compelling vision and we have a great culture of empowered employees and gig workers. I can sell and deliver results. We can produce great products. I have an investor/advisor team that consists of investment bankers, entrepreneurs with huge successful exits and corporate executives. My team is trusted by our customers to work at the top-of-the house on highly confidential and sometimes very complex and contentious issues and yet, I still have trouble raising capital for our tech platform which will become our primary revenue driver going forward. Investors want me to show that I’ve done it — that is to show that I’ve built a company to 20 million dollars or more in a short period of time, but I don’t have that specific track-record to point to yet. I need capital to build out the sales and marketing needed to complete our transformation to a tech company and then to scale. So, someone needs to place a bet that my history of leadership is a transferrable skill to building a tech company. That person or group, however, is hard to find, and I have to fight getting frustrated or beaten down. Having to pitch over and over feels like I’m giving up a little bit of my soul and raising money is very difficult. Personally, I think we need more government grants for women entrepreneurs and more corporations helping women get funded through grants, investments, or client capital where the company will work with an entrepreneur to buy their product (at a discount) before it is ready, or other mechanisms that end up being a good deal for the company and for the entrepreneur. We also need more investor activism that insists that a larger percentage of their investments go to female founders.
- Referring to needing more women in the decision-making seats at VCs and other such investment groups, we need more and more women in the power seats. I am seeing that in many ways and women have had an awakening. I think we are beginning to understand that we, as a collective, have been held back and discriminated against and that if the game is going to change, we will have to unite and lead the changing ourselves. That is not to say that men are not helping. In fact, we have a new book coming out called The Courage To Advance: Real life resilience from the world’s most successful women in business (www.thecouragetoadvance.com) and while every woman in the book faced discrimination by men, almost all of them also shared that they had at least one champion who was a man, so I want to acknowledge and thank the men like Paul Polman on a global level and many on an individual. That said, major change is needed and we have to unite and push this change forward.
You know, if we think about it, women already know how to do this. If our neighbor is sick, we take food, help drive the kids to school or whatever we can do to help, but for some reason, we haven’t fully leveraged this natural support system into our work and careers, but now, I think we are starting to. This is a big part of the culture of the WomenExecs on Boards network that I co-chair with Maria Garcia Nielsen and that is led by two amazing women Rosie Bichard and Patricia Christian. This is a global, non-profit network of hundreds of women executives who have completed board governance education at Harvard Business School. The members reside in more than 25 countries, and we come together to support each other and help secure our members on the Boards of public and private organizations. When we get there, we will leave the ladder down and start pulling other women up into leadership positions as well. We know that if we unite, help each other get into powerful seats, roll out our rolodexes and reach across party lines, ethnic lines, religious lines, etc. we can, at some level, change the world for the better in our lifetime. We can make a difference for our daughters and nieces and friends and for their children and their children. We can do something that will matter long after we are no longer here to see it.
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?
Women bring the soul to an organization. The business landscape is changing, and the younger generations don’t want to work for a company that doesn’t have a broader purpose, tangible culture, and a soul. I think women bring those elements, driven by empathy and emotional intelligence. In fact, I think women usually start with those elements and then figure out the business model. It’s the perfect environment for women to become founders. It’s hard, so let me just throw that in there, but if a woman wants to be a founder, now is the time.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
That your time is your own and that you don’t have a boss. When you are a business owner, your life is often dictated by the business. I may be tired and want to take a weekend off and then something happens with a customer, or a product and I have to give up some time to take care of it. Plus, you have to stay in front of the cash flow which can be a challenge even in good times because fast growth takes a lot of cash as well. These are things that keep me working when I would rather play. And the customers and shareholders become the boss. It’s not that you can’t make decisions on your own, you can and do but when customers want something you have to respond, at least that is how we approach it.
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?
Definitely not. In fact, I gave a talk at the University of Missouri to an entrepreneur group and the first thing I told them is what I tell my own children. “Being a founder is very hard and if you can help yourself don’t do it. Go get in a company and climb the ladder, but if you’re like me and you just can’t help yourself then I’ll be happy to share what I’ve learned along the way.” I think it’s easier to say what traits won’t work well. I wouldn’t encourage someone to be a founder who wants a strong work/life balance because you won’t have it. Or if you need certainty or security, you won’t have that either. If you need good benefits, you certainly won’t have that in the beginning and maybe for a long time. You may not even always have an income. If you blame others when something goes wrong, that doesn’t work well because if you’re a founder, you’re the ‘buck stops here’ person. If you don’t like to sell. In some ways every founder has to sell. You have to sell your company to investors and potential employees and your product to customers and your partnership abilities to potential supply chain. Sales is just an ongoing part of the role.
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.)
I think they are these:
- Visionary leadership — being able to envision what the company needs to become and then the ability to paint that picture for others in a way that they can see and get excited about it, to engage them around that vision in a way that they feel it is their vision too, because if it isn’t their vision too, you won’t have their heart. I cannot do anything without our team. Every member plays a crucial role and while I can’t paint the high-level picture, each person on the team fills in part of that picture. Understanding the importance and vision of the team is crucial. This also helps all stay focused. We have a vision for EDA to transform from primarily a premium executive development service business to a premium technology business with services. We want to become the place where even our current competitors come for technology and research. We want to be great resource for our industry. So, our COO Kelli Adams came up with an idea to help with this bridge by using our core historic expertise to create a Coach the Coach certification for internal leaders who want to become coaches and for executives who are leaving their corporate job and want to become coaches and to teach them how to apply our technology as part of the certification. This was a brilliant idea as our brand equity leads to a strong desire for our EDA Coach the Coach certification and is a great way for our clients to get enmeshed with our technology and for us to get valuable face time with them. Kelli filled in a part of our vision. This type of thing happens regularly with each team member.
- Strong work ethic — I just don’t know how anyone could be a founder without this. I’m probably what most people would consider a workaholic because of my farm background. I like to work long and hard and then I feel good about relaxing, but that is not really what I mean here. What I mean is you just can’t be lazy or unfocused. There are times when the hours will be very long for a long time. On the other hand, we have to take care of ourselves. This is something I need to work on even more than I do. We do have to rest. It’s a marathon, not a sprint so we can’t run it like a sprint.
- Courage to step out and make hard choices. I’ve had to make many hard choices through the years. Usually, they are about people. I’ve had to fire people that I love. One person worked for me many years but when we did the acquisition, they just couldn’t make the curve to the new thing we were doing, couldn’t let go of the smaller company mentality and move to the to the greater brand and company that we were becoming. When I let her go, I couldn’t stop crying for at least a week. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
- Teachable/a learning stance to continuously try to understand what they don’t know that they need to know and then investing in themselves to get the appropriate training, development, or education. I have personally spent at least 50,000 dollars over 20 years on business/entrepreneur coaches who were good at finance, acquisitions, and things that I didn’t learn in my education in psychology. I didn’t go to business school and didn’t have time to do it once I founded a business, so I hired coaches who had done it and they taught me in real time. I also went to the Protocol School of Washington for protocol and to Harvard Business School for board governance education. I’ve spent a lot of money trying to learn what I needed to know and now (at 52) I feel prepared. I’m ready for what we are doing. It was worth every penny!
- Extreme resilience — my favorite quote is Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena”. As a founder there will be many “man in the arena” days where your “face is marred by dust and sweat and blood” and you get back up and wipe the dust off and pull all your inner strength and keep going. It isn’t for the faint of heart. When the 2008 downturn hit, I had a business partner. We were working so hard to keep the business going and she decided it was too hard and wanted to get out of the partnership and just do contract work for the company. I was in shock and devasted as that doubled the work on me which already felt crushing; and I just couldn’t believe she would quit in the middle of our battle for the company. I was supposed to fly to another city with her, but I couldn’t do it. I dropped her off at the airport and drove to the city alone, a five-hour drive. I needed to clear my head. When I arrived, I met with a team of employees and advisors’, and we figured out how to move forward and they cheered me up. Yet again our team was crucial to surviving but I still had to get my attitude fixed and get back up the next day ready for another round in the arena.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Only history will be able to tell us that probably long after I’m gone, but I am giving it everything I have inside of me. The areas where I hope to leave the world a better place is:
- Gender equality on corporate boards and in senior executive positions
- Helping leaders provide great leadership
- Helping companies create compelling cultures that last.
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.
- Gender equality on corporate boards and in senior executive positions.
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.
Yes, Melinda Gates and MacKenzie Scott as they have recently teamed up to help fund and support women. I would love to understand their passion areas in this initiative and to share what we’re doing to advance the state of women on boards and in senior executive positions.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.