Find quality investors. It matters. We are fortunate to have investors who share our mission and can offer a wealth of business and investment experience. But they also trust us and have patience.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Patricia Kavanagh.
Dr. Patricia Kavanagh is the co-founder and CEO of Foray Design. She combined decades of hands-on business and clinical medical experience to launch the entrepreneurial venture she considers the capstone of her career. In the late 1970s, with an MBA from Columbia Business School, Kavanagh joined Lehman Brothers, where she rose to senior vice president. From there — wishing to be of greater service — she changed course. She earned her MD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, trained at the Neurological Institute of Columbia University and became a practicing neurologist. She founded Foray Design to create and sell a superior upright rolling walker for the growing population of active people with mobility problems.
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?
In my medical practice, I am troubled by the reluctance of patients to use a walker. Yet they will readily follow most other medical advice. I came to understand that the problem was probably the device, not the people. Most available devices are poorly designed and lack the practical features needed for an active lifestyle. (And frankly, most of them are ugly.) I wanted to offer my patients a device that met their needs and that they would be happy to use. I explained this to a friend, Colin Touhey, who is an emerging, young engineer and designer, and he came up with an elegant solution. It has turned out to be a rewarding, cross-generational experience.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I visited our factory in China in 2018, I saw that our manufacturing partners had a strong grasp of our needs and were truly committed to finding solutions. Foreign business travel is enlightening, because you have to solve problems across cultural divides — and you don’t always have enough 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?
We were in a product design meeting — six product designers and engineers, and me — and there was a problem with our prototype. Two parts weren’t sliding as smoothly as was needed. I asked, “Can’t you just put some WD-40 on it?” They were all horrified, as the parts were made from a material that would be ruined by WD-40. My “solution” would have damaged what was, at the time, our one and only prototype. During that process I learned how complicated it is to design and make a physical object. Now, when I see a beautiful cup or toaster, I have a much greater appreciation for how much time and thought went into it.
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, Jim Grant, who also happens to be Foray’s lead investor, started the financial publication Grant’s Interest Rate Observer 38 years ago. The business has been quite successful, but it took a long time to get off the ground. He has offered endless encouragement, practical advice and a wonderful example.
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?
If you expand your definition a bit beyond a funded company, there are likely many more women founders not considered in this report. Is an Etsy store not a business? Eighty-sixty percent of Etsy stores were founded by women. Women are clearly successful founders! The issue seems to be that, probably unconsciously, many of us lack the confidence to imagine ourselves beyond traditional kitchen-table businesses or in businesses that have much more substantial funding requirements. Historically, especially for a woman of my generation, there have been only a few representations of strong female business leaders. As for me, when I was founding Foray, I was not aware of a single female household name in product design and manufacturing that I could look to.
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?
Individual women who are considering founding a business must be fearless. Ghandi had it right when he said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” As women, we’ve done enough waiting. We shouldn’t hold back or act any differently from our male counterparts. Having confidence, in your own abilities and in the team you build around you, so that you can better solve problems and think expansively, is key to overcoming the obstacles of being a founder, regardless of gender.
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?
Founding a business changes the way a woman thinks about her career and her contribution to the world. Even for a woman who eventually returns to more conventional employment, the experience of creating something new requires an agency that endures.
And there is more support out there than one might think, from funding sources to institutional and government supports. Software is cheap, and there is an app or service for just about every need a startup might have.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
Probably the biggest myth is that it’s all fun. Of course, I have found deep satisfaction, and yes, a lot of fun, in this venture, but as with any challenge, a lot of it is getting up every morning and powering through both the big problems and the minutiae.
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?
Not everyone is cut out to be a founder. Nor is everyone is cut out to drive an 18-wheeler. Being a founder requires a number of contradictory qualities. A founder must be steadfast — and constantly adapt. She must be simultaneously near- and far-sighted, able to see the forest and the trees and balance her long-term and short-term priorities. She must be the CEO and the intern, willing to tackle often menial tasks that would be delegated in a more established company. She must be stubborn and persuasive in defending and selling her own vision, but she must also find ways to accommodate others who will lend her the support she needs to achieve success. After all, “having vision” tends to mean other people don’t yet see what you see.
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.)
- Stay focused. While we were developing our upright rolling walker, Spring, Colin, Hal Ebbott and I had another idea. It was for a speech recognition system that could be used by Parkinson’s disease patients. We got a provisional patent on it but realized we couldn’t develop it at the same time we were bringing Spring to market.
- Stay REALLY focused. The business needs to be top of mind at all times during the early years. There will be little room for much else.
- Find quality investors. It matters. We are fortunate to have investors who share our mission and can offer a wealth of business and investment experience. But they also trust us and have patience.
- Embrace cognitive dissonance. A founder has to be realistic about the potential for her company’s failure (45% within five years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) while still believing in her ability to succeed.
- Be humble. A founder needs to acknowledge what she doesn’t know and likely never could know. She has to figure out where and how to get those resources.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Spring, in and of itself, is making the world a better place. We’re bringing mobility and freedom to people who are unable or hesitant to go out into the world.
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.
The fact that physical activity improves not only physical but also mental health is a movement that is well under way. But this movement is tending to leave disabled people and those with challenges to their mobility behind. During the pandemic, such people have been even more isolated and physically inactive, and we are starting to see the consequences (poorer physical and mental health) emerge. We need to overcome the practical and psychological barriers to mobility. It’s a complex problem, and having the right mobility device is only part of the solution. We need to empower people to find their own level of activity and commit to it.
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’d like to have breakfast with Alexandra Lebenthal. She has a mission-driven career of helping women in business and finance. As CEO of Lebenthal & Company she focused on empowering women to manage their money well, and now as senior adviser to Houlihan Lokey she is bringing better access to capital markets to successful women-owned firms. I’d like to understand how she does it.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.