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Cheryl Grise: “Pay-it-forward”

I often think of this Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote: “women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” Research continues to show the positive impact of women in leadership roles. EY research underscores the economic benefit of having more women in leadership roles — with increases to margin, return on equity, return on assets and return […]

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I often think of this Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote: “women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” Research continues to show the positive impact of women in leadership roles. EY research underscores the economic benefit of having more women in leadership roles — with increases to margin, return on equity, return on assets and return on investment, and better overarching risk management. Furthermore, when women own a business, they tend to hire more diverse talent and invest more back into their communities. Our EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program highlights this with our entrepreneurial cohort groups, devoting twice as much time and investment into their communities as their male counterparts.

The gender gap has been exacerbated by the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women, with millions leaving the workforce. In the US alone, 2.5 million women have left the workforce since the pandemic struck — compared with 1.8 million men. Empowering more women founders would help to gain back some of the momentum that has been lost over the last year. More women-led businesses will ultimately lead to more diverse teams with more women in leadership roles.


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

Cheryl serves as EY Americas Solutions Leader. She is an energetic and forward-thinking transformational leader who is passionate about helping clients navigate significant changes and grow their business in a connected, fast-paced and complex world.

Cheryl also serves as the North America Executive Sponsor of the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women™ program, a nationally recognized executive education program. In her role, Cheryl supports second-stage women entrepreneurs in scaling their companies to full potential by providing guidance, resources and access.


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 father was a submarine captain in the Navy. Growing up, he taught me about command,establishing authority and how to lead. I learned from him the importance of being clear and quickly gathering information in order to make informed decisions. Over time, I’ve developed my own style, but these principles have stayed with me.

I also learned at a young age that being different is positive. As a consultant, I help organizations determine how to tell their unique story. One of my passions that has been a driving force in my career is helping companies define and execute their purpose in a way that strategically differentiates them.

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

I think transitioning from a career in aerospace and defense into consulting was the most interesting and eye-opening experience for me. This was more than 25 years ago as we were just starting to uncover some of the possibilities with technology and artificial intelligence (AI). As we looked to embed AI into strategy, we found that some employees were sabotaging our efforts. We thought we were taking humans out of harm’s way, but they thought they were being replaced. I came to realize they had spent their whole careers putting themselves in harm’s way in the name of protecting our nation. They believed deeply in the value of their work. Transformation isn’t truly sustainable or effective without support and buy-in of others. It was then that I decided to transition into consulting, to focus on the human side of technology-driven change.

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?

When I was first starting out in my career, I had a habit of not leaving myself enough time to get from one meeting to the next. At the time, I was working in a nuclear weapons facility that regularly changed configurations for security purposes. I would race from one meeting to the next, in a skirt and heels. As I zipped around a corner one day, I suddenly realized the configuration had changed as I slammed into a new wall and hit the floor. I quickly composed myself, looked around to make sure no one saw and limped off to the security room where my next meeting was taking place. Upon arrival, I saw the team replaying the security footage of my fall. The lesson? People are always watching.

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?

Yes, for me that person is Audrey Finci, who is the current CFO at John Hardy. When I was a senior manager at another professional services firm, she was with Walt Disney Company and my client at the time. Audrey was very influential in getting me to the next level of my career. We talk a lot about the importance of mentors and sponsors, and this is such a key example of that. She believed in me, and was a huge supporter of my development and growth. She even wrote the partnership on my behalf to advocate for me. When I found out I made partner, I called Audrey before I called my family!

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?

Yes, Dr. John Kotter’s The 8-Step Process for Leading Change made a huge impact on me. He is an amazing thought leader who teaches that building a sense of urgency is key for successfully leading change in an organization. In the early part of my career, I thought you needed a crisis in order to have that sense of urgency. Over time, I’ve learned that it’s much easier to galvanize people and build urgency through inspiration. Crisis mode is not sustainable, but how you connect yourself as a human to the company to drive transformation is.

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

It’s tough to choose one. I have always resonated with this proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” As a leader, I believe you have to bring people along. Even though you may know the right answer or decision, the backing and support of others on the journey will take you much further. If you can have conversations with people to articulate a shared goal, you’ll be able to influence more change with a larger sphere of influence.

I also love Wayne Gretzky’s “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” which does seem fitting for a discussion on the importance of women in leadership positions.

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

I like to think of myself as a connector. In all aspects of my life, I like to connect people who don’t know each other and may benefit from meeting. I live by the philosophy that my network is my peers’ and colleagues’ network. I make the connection and let them do the rest. I strongly believe that a solid network is one of the most critical assets a person can have, both personally and professionally, so I share mine with others.

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?

Access to capital is certainly a roadblock. In fact, a recent study shows that women-owned startups pay higher interest rates and take on more collateral than similar male-owned businesses. But I would say fear and waiting for the right time are holding women back the most. I have spoken to so many women who have delayed starting their businesses because they were worried about failing or concerned about all their other commitments and how it might impact their ability to be everything to everyone in their lives. The right time is now.

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

In my role as the Executive Sponsor of the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program, Iwork with current founders to mentor prospective or up-and-coming women founders. It’s so important for women to hear and learn from others who have successfully founded and scaled their businesses. Through the program, we also showcase the successes of the women entrepreneurs in the program in order to inspire others.

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?

I often think of this Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote: “women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” Research continues to show the positive impact of women in leadership roles. EY research underscores the economic benefit of having more women in leadership roles — with increases to margin, return on equity, return on assets and return on investment, and better overarching risk management. Furthermore, when women own a business, they tend to hire more diverse talent and invest more back into their communities. Our EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program highlights this with our entrepreneurial cohort groups, devoting twice as much time and investment into their communities as their male counterparts.

The gender gap has been exacerbated by the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women, with millions leaving the workforce. In the US alone, 2.5 million women have left the workforce since the pandemic struck — compared with 1.8 million men. Empowering more women founders would help to gain back some of the momentum that has been lost over the last year. More women-led businesses will ultimately lead to more diverse teams with more women in leadership roles.

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.

Yes. One, two and three are education, education, education. We need to educate women earlier on the importance of entrepreneurship and creating businesses — and teach them how to do it. The next is better access, both to funding and to networks of other women entrepreneurs. Last, I think it’s so important that we promote women founders’ success stories and that leaders amplify the voices of the women in 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.

I would inspire a “pay-it-forward” movement for entrepreneurs. If we could take every successful founder and instill in them a sense of accountability for creating more founders, I think it would create real change. Discovering and fostering new entrepreneurs is an essential responsibility of every founder. It should be their duty. This also connects to the need for change in our education systems that I talked about earlier. Education must evolve with the times, and we need to teach all students basic business acumen and how to successfully start or lead businesses.

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 many. I’d love to meet Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand. I am drawn to her empathy, intelligence and style. I find her to be so inspiring as a woman, mother, social activist and leader.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Some of my latest insights can be found here, and please check out a recent blog I published on LinkedIn, My top 10 tips for women in leadership.

We are accepting nominations and applications for the North America EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women 2021 program. The application deadline is April 16, 2021. Learn more about the program, apply or nominate a woman founder! Be sure to check out: Entrepreneurial Winning Women North America | EY — US

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

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