“Don’t feel you must know it all” with Jason Hartman & Dr. Cecilia Lenk

Being a successful executive requires being able to work well with others — like people, be interested in people. Don’t feel you must know it all. You certainly should say what you think, but you must be fully open to really listen to others. As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I […]

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Being a successful executive requires being able to work well with others — like people, be interested in people. Don’t feel you must know it all. You certainly should say what you think, but you must be fully open to really listen to others.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cecilia Lenk.

Cecilia Lenk, PhD, is CEO of ValueSetters, Inc., a boutique advisory firm, based in Boston, Massachusetts, that helps entrepreneurs fund and grow their companies. ValueSetters also takes equity stakes in promising technology start-ups including: Deuce Drone, Holler, KingsCrowd and Zelgor.

Cecilia has a twenty year track record as a successful senior executive, entrepreneur, angel investor, and a 3-term city councilor. Combining expertise in technology and biopharma, Cecilia received her Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University and B.A. in Engineering from Johns Hopkins University.

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?

I started out in engineering and biology, but knew I didn’t want to be an academic researcher. I had a strong computing background and used that to find a job heading up a large technology development project. That was really the beginning of my career. Not only was I instrumental in shaping the outcome, I was managing teams in several locations, handling budgets, and communicating our work both internally and to the public. I really loved the experience and wanted to keep doing it.

I’ve also been an entrepreneur. When a firm I worked for was sold, I took my modest share of the proceeds and started my own tech company. We built a patented platform for online research. It was exciting to innovate with new technologies and systems and see your ideas come to life.

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

I think the most interesting story is actually how and why we founded ValueSetters just a few short years ago. At that time, I was an angel investor, and very interested in investing in companies that were innovative and solving real-world problems. But, I was finding the framework and process somewhat antiquated and unfulfilling. I was aware that the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act — signed into law in 2012 by then President Obama — allowed investor exemptions and the development of online funding portals. This had the potential to have a meaningful impact on entrepreneurs and investors. I was introduced to Jason Frishman, CEO of Netcapital, a private market platform ValueSetters partners with. I realized many of the start-ups and small businesses leveraging these private markets had an unmet need for strategic advice and assistance with the fundraising process. I knew we could put together a team that could fulfill that need. I reconnected with our CFO, Coreen Kraysler, who had been an institutional investor for three decades and together we started building ValueSetters.

We believe we’re in the early stages of developing an ecosystem around private investing and it’s very exciting to help up-and-coming companies be successful: many of which are tackling critical issues. For example, we’ve worked with companies like Phoenix PharmaLabs, which is developing non-addictive pain treatments. The CEO was inspired to start the company because of a family member’s struggle with addiction. It’s very gratifying.

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 ValueSetters’ first clients was ready to pay us for our services by credit card. We suddenly realized we hadn’t set up a way to process a credit card payment! That’s the idiosyncratic nature of running a start-up — no task is too big or too small and you have to figure it all out as you go along.

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?

My husband and kids have been incredibly supportive, although I know my extensive travel has been difficult on them at times. I’ve been lucky to have received mentorship and support from so many people throughout my career. Sarah Fuller, President of Decision Resources, stands out. She was not only a mentor but a close friend. At the time, Decision Resources was acquiring a number of smaller companies, necessitating us to travel frequently throughout the US, Canada, UK, and EU. Our days were incredibly hectic, filled with too many meetings, and frequently quite stressful as we attempted to integrate the employees of the new company into our larger one. But throughout she was always exceptionally generous, kind, and respectful of people’s concerns. She always wanted things to be better for people. I learned so much from her.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I take time to be quiet and carefully think through the meeting discussion, or decision. Usually, I walk or row on my rowing machine.

As far as talks, I love giving talks so they are never stressful for me, no matter how large the audience or important the venue. Once I’m on stage or in front of a camera, all nervousness is gone and I feel very relaxed. I like to find humor in situations, and I’ve been told several times that I should consider a career as a stand-up comedian.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

ValueSetters has an all-women senior management team. It’s the first time I’ve ever been part of an all-women executive team. I’m really enjoying working together.

I strongly believe in building leadership teams made up of people who are typically very underrepresented in those roles.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

There are no easy answers to the challenges we face in creating a more inclusive and equitable society. The changes required are complex and need multifaceted approaches. On the positive side, recognizing the need for meaningful change seems to be gaining momentum.

My career has been influenced by technology and science; I believe we can leverage our innovation in these areas to address inequities and make things like education and healthcare accessible to everyone. Each of us has the power to affect change and many of today’s entrepreneurs are mission driven. That’s one of the reasons I’m excited about the work we’re doing at ValueSetters. Our mission is to empower innovators and entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds to be successful in their own endeavours to provide solutions. We want to help facilitate this by leveling the playing field for access to capital and strategic resources — to create a more inclusive capitalism. That is something our team can impact every day.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

ValueSetters works with a lot of CEOs; they are all unique and play varying roles. At any start-up or small business, the CEO and the entire team wear a lot of hats: roles often aren’t strictly defined. On any given day, my job can range from helping clients shape their business strategies or value their companies to editing a presentation.

I see part of my role as CEO as setting the tone for the firm and ensuring everyone is engaged in our mission. As a manager, my style is very flat and inclusive. Creating a positive environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing ideas and collaborating is really important to me. I think the culture we create at the firm radiates more broadly to our clients and stakeholders.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

If you asked someone to describe a CEO, they would probably describe either an older white male or alternatively a young tech guy. Those are our models unfortunately. We need to dispel the myth that these are the only people who can aspire to be CEOs or executives.

Also, people tend to think of the CEO as all-knowing and visionary. In my experience, it’s really all about the team.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Lingering sexism and misogyny. Women are still unexpected in this role.

When we think about funding for entrepreneurs and start-ups, we know that women have a significantly more difficult time raising capital through traditional channels like venture capital. In the first quarter of 2020, just 4.3% of VC funding deals went to women founders. This number was impacted by COVID-19 this year but was just 7.1% in the first quarter of 2019, according to PitchBook.

Women are also under-represented. A recent analysis by Axios showed that just 12.4% of venture capital firm decision makers are women. That compares to less than 6% just a few years ago in 2016.

This underscores the need for private company funding alternatives like equity crowdfunding that democratize the process. It’s also a good example of why we’re so passionate about it.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

When you are starting a company, you create the job. I’ve been involved with many start-ups so had a good sense of what I was getting myself into when we started ValueSetters. Being an entrepreneur requires figuring it all out as you go along — I really enjoy that.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

Being a successful executive requires being able to work well with others — like people, be interested in people. Don’t feel you must know it all. You certainly should say what you think, but you must be fully open to really listen to others.

I’d like more people to aspire to be executives.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be yourself and be confident. Build a strong network of women you can rely on; none of us succeed alone. Listen, listen for what people are not saying. Be attentive to issues when they are small.

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

I have tried to make my community a better place by being very engaged both as an elected official and a volunteer. I served three terms as city councilor for a town just outside of Boston. I was on the technology and public works committees and we spearheaded the redevelopment of the area. When our community became very divisive, I founded a small, non-profit organization (Watertown Community Conversations) to help foster respectful and productive discussions about the issues that were causing so much division.

I also was on the Board of Cultural Survival for many years working for the rights of indigenous people worldwide.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

I was lucky to have people who were interested in me and my career. They provided support and mentorship; I try to give back. Drawing on my background as an angel investor and entrepreneur, here are some insights I share with CEO’s and leaders we work with at ValueSetters as well as aspiring founders and entrepreneurs.

Most importantly, when considering starting a company, make sure there is a viable market for your product or service. That sounds obvious but it’s often overshadowed by a “great idea”. Know your industry and the competitive and regulatory landscapes and how they affect your company. Long-term vision is crucial, but you also need to have a detailed, shorter term plan for how your company will get from where it is today to its next stage a year from now. Assemble your team strategically; I like to see someone on the team with vision but also someone — it could even be a board member- who has experience taking that vision and building a company that can grow successfully.

If you’re raising capital from institutional investors or looking for a strategic partner, seek out investors who have expertise in your industry. I’ve never invested in a start-up where I didn’t have some knowledge I could leverage.

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.

My team and I at ValueSetters are building a movement around how private companies can access capital they need to grow. Regulatory changes in the JOBS Act have made it easier for entrepreneurs and small businesses to raise money from everyday investors — not just venture capital funds and banks. The new rules are especially important for women and minority entrepreneurs who face greater challenges raising capital through traditional channels. Many people still don’t know about these opportunities or how to navigate the regulatory requirements. Our mission at ValueSetters, is to raise awareness and empower entrepreneurs and business owners from diverse backgrounds to take advantage of the new private market framework. We are growing the entire ecosystem around private company funding. This movement is in its infancy and we’re really excited to be part of it and to make a difference.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’m very open minded and I’ve been influenced by diverse experiences and interests including technology, biology, investing and even public service. I don’t live by any particular quote or mantra.

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’ve been very lucky to have met a number of prominent people in business, government and sports. But, I would love to speak with Bill and Melinda Gates. I happened to have met Bill a couple of times several years ago but not in a setting that enabled in-depth conversation. I have tremendous respect for the work Bill and Melinda have done with their foundation. I would be thrilled to be able to meet them.

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

I enjoyed our conversation. Thank you for having me.

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