Cathy Horst Forsyth of Strongbow Consulting Group: “Perhaps building on that point, another thing we can do for female founders is to help them access external sources of help”

Why should more women become founders? Well, first and foremost, because they can. Absolutely, women can and should be founders because there is no reason we can’t, despite the aforementioned statistics. Becoming a founder is incredibly gratifying, as you see your vision become reality. It’s been incredibly gratifying for me to see my vision for […]

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Why should more women become founders? Well, first and foremost, because they can. Absolutely, women can and should be founders because there is no reason we can’t, despite the aforementioned statistics. Becoming a founder is incredibly gratifying, as you see your vision become reality. It’s been incredibly gratifying for me to see my vision for Strongbow become reality. But there were things that I could have never imagined that are even more gratifying. Like creating meaningful jobs and helping our employees support and provide for their families. And building a management team that shares a common purpose which will carry on long after I have left the firm. And creating ways we can add value to the community around us — that’s something we’re actively working on as we continue to think about our future.

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

With more than 25 years of consulting experience in the IT industry, Cathy has worked with business leaders at many Fortune 500 corporations, helping to drive large-scale cost optimization and modernization programs yielding eight-digit cost savings that can be re-invested to fuel further technology and business innovation. Under Cathy’s leadership, Strongbow has become a leading advocate for enterprise interests in the network technology sector, helping suppliers rethink their approach to build creative solutions that maximize benefit for the enterprise. Cathy holds an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a BS in Marketing from Boston College.

Cathy 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?

Sure. Well, looking back on it now, it seems like a bit more like a happy accident than a well-executed career plan. At university, I studied in business school, and my undergraduate degree was in marketing. I wanted to go into product marketing: launching new products, building brand loyalty and all that good stuff. But it was a tough job market when I graduated in the early 90s, and I never found my way into a consumer products company. Instead, my first job after school was working at AT&T, and while I was on the sales side of the business and knew very little about technology, that job was my entryway into the tech market. After almost 10 years at AT&T, I left to join a very small consulting firm — I was employee number 12, as I recall. That’s where I found my entrepreneurial roots. Eventually, I had the opportunity to start my own consulting firm, and that’s how I got to where I am today, running an IT consulting firm that advises some of the world’s largest companies regarding the strategic decisions they make on IT infrastructure. And yet, I have no formal technical background. That said, we’ve built an amazing team, and I am surrounded by brilliant technical minds who make up for any deficiency in my technical training.

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

I suppose there are many to choose from, but people may find it interesting to learn how I came to launch Strongbow. As I mentioned, I got my start in consulting many years ago, when I left AT&T to become one of the first few employees to help build that firm. Over the course of the next 13 years, I continued to grow with the business and ultimately became part of the management team that took the business through not just one but two different transactions. That is to say, we sold to private equity once, then reshaped the business a bit, and then sold the firm for a second time.

During that second transaction, I found myself in an interesting position, where my point of view on IT consulting and my client-first philosophy did not align with the new leadership team that had acquired my old company. Even though I stood alone, I felt compelled to speak my truth and share my point of view, and I did it fairly loudly. Ultimately, I guess you could say we agreed to disagree, as I was summarily dismissed from my job duties over one long holiday weekend. Actually, it was July 4, so now I have a new perspective on Independence Day.

At that time, however, it was brutal. I was a single mom with three teenage boys, and I had a lot of responsibilities to juggle. I had to make a choice. The safe bet was to return back to corporate America and take a job working at another Fortune 100 firm, as I was fortunate to have a couple of job offers from former clients. But what I really wanted was to start my own consulting firm. I wanted to launch a business fashioned by my point of view, my philosophy of customer services and also the lessons I had learned about being treated unfairly by management. As you can guess, that’s how Strongbow was born.

Who knows, maybe if I hadn’t been forced to make that choice I never would have found the courage to follow through with my dream. It’s really true what they say — when one door closes, there’s another one that opens.

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, I have made many mistakes, that’s for sure — although I am not sure if any of them were very funny. However, a recent example of mistaken identity comes to mind. I was being briefed by my team on a meeting with a potential new customer, and I quickly cut them off when they started to explain his background. I was confident that I knew this person (let’s call him John Smith), and although we hadn’t been in touch for some time, I just knew that he would remember me, too, as we had worked closely together at one point. And of course, when John Smith joined the Zoom, it was a completely different person, so I had a little backpedaling to do when we started to talk through introductions on that call.

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?

That’s a great question. I tell my kids all the time one of my best pieces of advice: do not think you can or need to achieve anything alone — do not be afraid to ask for help. Unfortunately, asking for help is not something many of us are comfortable with, so I’m happy to talk about those who have helped me along the way.

When I think of those who helped me specifically as a founding entrepreneur, two things come to mind. When we first launched the business in 2014, no one knew who Strongbow was. A lot of people knew me, and the work I had done in the past, but since Strongbow was a brand-new venture, we only had a couple of employees and very little revenue on the top line. So, I would credit our first two clients for really making a fundamental impact on Strongbow, although I won’t name them by name without their permission. These clients knew me from my past work experience, they knew what I stood for, and they trusted that I would deliver results for their organizations. But these were Fortune 250 firms, so looking back on Strongbow’s first two or three client sponsors, they really went out on a limb and took a chance by bringing an unknown name into their supplier ranks. Thankfully, we delivered great results, and have been growing ever since. But I can’t tell you enough how those first two customers really made a huge difference.

Second, and although not a person per se, the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program is another one to call out and recognize for really having helped me and Strongbow over the years. Although I had worked with EY teams for years on the consulting side, I didn’t understand their commitment to entrepreneurs and, more specifically, female entrepreneurs until I joined the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program in 2017. The program is the most concerted effort I’ve seen to provide resources, guidance, and frankly just encouragement to female founders, challenging program participants to think big, and then helping us access the resources required to execute on those business plans. The program has been around for over a decade, having helped hundreds of women founders realize their dreams — so that definitely comes to mind as well.

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?

Although there are many books that have been helpful to me, the one that continues to resonate with me the most is The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho. It’s an allegorical novel that follows a young man’s journey to fulfill his destiny. And while there are many ways to interpret the novel’s message, what I am constantly reminded of are the many setbacks that seem to set the young man off the path toward his destination, many times painfully so. His seemingly clear and simple plan to get where he wants to go simply doesn’t unfold that way at all, and that resonates with me. I can have the most clear and logical, well-thought-out business plan, but it’s simply impossible to plan for curve balls and tidal waves that no one can see coming. But those waves do come, and they set us off course. What I have learned over time, however, is that often the course we didn’t consciously choose is actually a better one than the one we planned in the first place.

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

Oh yes, definitely, although unfortunately, my quote is exceedingly long, so I won’t repeat it entirely here, but it is from Theodore Roosevelt and known as “the Man in the Arena”. In essence, the quote says it’s not the critic that counts, not the one pointing fingers at others; the credit belongs to the one who actually stands in the arena, marred with sweat and blood, for although that person might fail and fail yet again, that’s far better than “those cold and timid souls that know neither victory nor defeat.” I love that last part so much — it’s a core philosophy of mine. I have this quote hanging on my office wall as a reminder that I won’t stay on the sidelines simply because I’m afraid of failing. In fact, I thought of this very quote way back when I made the decision to launch Strongbow. I decided that I would give myself permission to fail, but I wouldn’t ever be able to forgive myself If I didn’t try.

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

Right now, I continue to spend most of my time on helping to grow and expand our business, and I primarily work inside the four walls of Strongbow (metaphorically speaking). So, I try to make the world a better place by starting with our employees, helping to make their lives better by being the best employer we can be. We still have some work to do, but we’re consciously working to make Strongbow an employee-first organization.

When I founded Strongbow, I was very clear that it was going to be client-first, client-focused, client-driven business — and I still very much believe in those principles. But what I have learned along the way, especially running a business powered by knowledge workers, is that when we take care of our employees and make sure they are treated fairly and respectfully, and when we provide them with resources and create a strong support system both inside and outside the workplace, then our team members are happy, healthy (mentally and physically), dedicated and loyal, and we provide excellent service to our clients.

So, while I certainly have broader aspirations to leverage my success to make the world a better place, most of my efforts to make the world a better place are currently about making Strongbow a better workplace, which has actually been a pretty important for all of us over the past 12 months.

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?

Statistically speaking, the number one reason is lack of capital — female founders simply don’t have the access to investment capital that their male counterparts have. As you say, the fact that 20% of founders are now women is a great improvement, but the amount of venture capital funding allocated to those founders is far less — closer to 2%, I believe. So that’s something that needs to change.

From my own personal experience, I can share one of the concerns I had when deciding whether to launch Strongbow, and that was the impact being a business owner would have on my family. As I mentioned earlier, at that time, I was a single mother with three boys who were not so far from college, so I knew I had lot of responsibilities and financial obligations that could be placed at risk if my business failed. Even though I gave myself permission to fail, I was super concerned about not being able to provide for my family.So, for me personally, I was concerned about taking time, energy, and financial resources away from my family, and that’s probably the one thing that could have potentially held me back. I’m probably not the only person to experience that tug of war between family responsibility and the personal desire to launch a business, so it’s probably something worth talking more about.

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

It’s one thing to know that you want to launch a business, but you must have a clear vision for the business (followed by a solid business plan). Hopefully, this vision is something that’s important to you, something you are passionate about, something you enjoy doing, and something with purpose that creates value, both to clients, business stakeholders, and ultimately the community at large. I believe one of the reasons Strongbow has become a successful company is that I had a very clear vision of what we would do, how it was different from the competition and why that difference mattered to our clients.

So, one thing we’re doing to help empower potential female founders is to help them “see” their vision. And the way we’re doing that is by sharing and teaching the practice of vision boarding. It is a simple practice, but very effective in helping people become clear about their vision. When they cut out inspirational quotes and glue them to their poster boards, it is amazing to see the excitement that building a visual depiction of their personal vision brings to one another and to an entire room.

We have worked with groups such as NYC STEM Goes Red and NPower to run vision board workshops like the one I described. At the end of each workshop, participants share with the group what they have created, and before you even know it, they are enthusiastically declaring their vision to a room filled with hundreds of other people, making a personal declaration of intent. It’s really wonderful to watch the process unfold, and then see all those young women leave the room excited to go make their dreams come true.

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?

Why should more women become founders? Well, first and foremost, because they can. Absolutely, women can and should be founders because there is no reason we can’t, despite the aforementioned statistics. Becoming a founder is incredibly gratifying, as you see your vision become reality. It’s been incredibly gratifying for me to see my vision for Strongbow become reality. But there were things that I could have never imagined that are even more gratifying. Like creating meaningful jobs and helping our employees support and provide for their families. And building a management team that shares a common purpose which will carry on long after I have left the firm. And creating ways we can add value to the community around us — that’s something we’re actively working on as we continue to think about our future.

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.

Sure, one thing that has been incredibly helpful to me as a founder is that I have had access to an external advisor. As it turns out, my external advisor is a former executive in her own right. She managed a large practice within a private equity firm for over 20 years; she’s an investor; she is an author. Having access to an external advisor has provided both advice and counsel, but at times has also given me the confidence I needed to make difficult decisions and weather difficult circumstances. By definition, as “founder,” you are alone on that first day. Having access to external advice and support is critical. This can be accomplished in many different ways, but whether it’s paid or free advice, it’s really important to access external points of view as you manage your business.

I have already spoken about capital. It is important for women to find access to the investment they need in order to grow and scale their business. But what I would further add is that it’s also important to identify and understand multiple financing options. There are many different ways to access capital. The cost of capital (or the opportunity cost of capital) in particular, and the potential dilution of ownership and decision-making authority, is an important nuance that sometimes gets missed, although this can have devastating consequences when founders who put their heart and soul into their businesses are overtaken by outside investors given the equity structure of a deal.

A third thing to focus on is cash flow management. I haven’t read the most recent statistics, but at one point 95% of new businesses failed within the first five years of operations, and most of those failures were due to lack of cash flow. So, access to capital is important, but helping founders build business plans that are incredibly mindful of the cash flow and teaching them how to maintain healthy cash flow — these are equally important areas to focus on.

Perhaps building on that point, another thing we can do for female founders is to help them access external sources of help. As I have said before, asking for help isn’t always easy, but knowing where to look is often difficult. There are many resources out there, but most of them go unknown, especially for those who aren’t lucky enough to have the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program at their fingertips or who don’t have colleagues, friends, or advisors to help them. It would be helpful to compile these resources and make them readily available. Financing, advice on cash flow, access to hiring techniques, and any number of topics would also be incredibly useful. Yet, founders don’t know where to access those answers, so if we could bridge that information gap, it would be incredibly helpful.

And last, I would call on the government (local, state and federal) to make it easier for female-owned companies to become suppliers to the US government. The US government is one of the largest buyers of good and services in the world. And while I believe Strongbow could drive tremendous value for federal agencies, to date, we have not done any business with any level of government, because the cost of entry is prohibitive, from both a time and a money perspective. If we could reduce the friction in this marketplace, it would certainly help boost female-owned businesses.

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.

Well, the first thing that comes to mind is finding a way to feed the world’s hungry, but when I think about that for more than a minute, I do believe teaching female founders how to build companies, grow companies, and buy and sell companies — and, more broadly, teaching women how to become financially independent — is something that would tangentially feed a lot of people. So perhaps one of the things that could bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of people would be teaching women how to become financially independent. This involves a combination of understanding how to monetize skill sets in a practical way and taking advantage of resources that may or may not be known, encouraging women to believe that they can do great things and achieve goals that at one time seemed impossible.

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 like to have breakfast with Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase (JPMC) and Director for the Business Roundtable, and I hope he does see your tag! There’s a lot I would like to talk about. First, I would like to learn more about how JPMC and others are working to eradicate food, health and banking deserts here in America. I’ve heard some about their efforts in Detroit, and would love to learn more and also understand how those efforts can be expanded elsewhere. Also, I have some direct experience as a WBE supplier to several of the Business Roundtable companies, and would appreciate the chance to provide some feedback on where things are working well, and where some of America’s largest corporations can do more to support female founders in our economy.

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

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