Patience is so important in founding anything. Our minds set goals and we create a vision and expectations that might be greater than the outcome initially. Be patient with the process and recognize every win!
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jodi O’Donnell-Ames. Jodi is an empowerment and wellness coach, national and international speaker, author, and the founder of a unique nonprofit, Hope Loves Company (HLC). HLC provides free educational and emotional support to children and young adults who have had or have a loved one battling ALS in their lives. She is also the creator and host of the podcast, Gratitude to Latitude, Stories of Resilience and Hope and the President of JoaSpeaks On, LLC.
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 May 1995, my late husband Kevin was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) a terminal, neuromuscular disease that affects 30,000 Americans. Every ninety minutes someone is diagnosed with ALS and in that same amount of time, someone also loses his or her battle. When Kevin received his diagnosis, he was thirty years old, I was twenty-nine and we were the proud parents of a two-year-old daughter. Prior to Kevin’s diagnosis, I was a teacher of Language Arts and an advocate for children’s welfare. Neither one of us knew much about the disease except that it took the life of legendary baseball player Lou Gehrig. Kevin fought hard but sadly passed in 2001 after a six-year heroic battle. He was paralyzed, speechless, feeding tube, and ventilator-dependent at the time of his passing. Becoming a widow at age 35 put me into a downward spiral. I battled depression. Eventually, I knew that my pain would either catalyze or immobilize my journey, so I made a conscious decision to be vulnerable and to share the journey of my work as a caregiver, coach, speaker, nonprofit founder and entrepreneur. I am glad that I had the foresight to take action.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Being a founder and creating something is a very personal experience.
Founding a nonprofit is a journey that requires hard work, dedication, vision, flexibility and patience. It’s worth every early morning and late night. I have far too many powerful stories to share, but will begin with the story of Mackenzie Anderson. Mackenzie reached out to my cell (in 2016, all Hope Loves Company calls came to me!) and shared that her mom was diagnosed with ALS and that she needed support. I was floored by this sixteen-year-old’s ability to not only recognize that she needed help, but to take action as well. She immediately attended one of Hope Loves Company’s programs, Camp HLC and we have been close ever since. Mackenzie now serves on the HLC BOD and she and I just did a StoryCorp together! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGXGHBqFsiU
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?
As a founder, I had to learn everything, and I mean EVERYTHING that must happen in order to create and run a nonprofit. I had to learn about sending group emails, writing social media posts, completing registrations, building a website, seeking funding, and more. When I sent my first group email, I neglected to use the BCC option. I received an email from a woman who makes it clear that sharing emails should be avoided at all costs. I apologized profusely and learned what NOT to do.
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?
Nothing worth doing is easy but it can be made easier with the right people and resources. When I made the decision to start a nonprofit, my friends and family supported me. My husband, children, and extended families all pitched in. My sister-in-law Keiren created the logo and I am forever grateful for her vision. The HLC logo is perfect and her talent is appreciated. It’s fun seeing her art on hats, shirts, towels, brochures, and even marshmallows!
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?
That’s a challenging question and I will do my best to share my perspective. Founding a company requires resources: time, money, connections, vision, and skills. I think that for many women time is the biggest issue when it comes to founding a company or nonprofit. Although there has been progressing, I believe it’s still a challenge for women to balance a career and a family. Personally, I started a nonprofit at the age of 47 when my children were in college and I no longer faced that hurdle.
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?
This question has lasted decades and there’s a reason for that truth. For much of history, men have been the decision-makers, the founders and the leaders. Men have held the highest roles and positions and that is changing, which makes me proud. I believe that we, as a society, must recognize the importance of encouraging and supporting female founders and leadership. Providing opportunities for women to raise their children without being penalized is important not only to female founders but to the company that invests in their growth. While both men and women can bring equal skills to the table, I believe that women are more likely to bring additional positive characteristics to an organization, including, ingenuity, intuition, and empathy. I am grateful for the free resources made available to women founders and was the lucky recipient of a Bank of America program which provided a free online Women’s Entrepreneurial class and certificate from Cornell University. The experience was invaluable and I had the chance to connect with so many talented visionaries who also benefitted from the grant. Making free educational programs available to women would encourage more success.
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? We need more women founders for a number of reasons.
We need more women founders for so many reasons. The first reason that comes to mind is that women are compassionate, empathetic, and resourceful and can bring a very different method and approach to the typical business model. When we talk about CEOs and Founders, we typically focus on individuals who have a vision and understand the process of making that vision a reality. While both men and women are equally capable, men consistently fill that role and their business inspiration stems from the need for a male-oriented solution. We need more women founders to show support of women, to encourage young girls that they can do anything, and to bring more female-focused businesses into the market. What Sara Blakely and SPANX have done for women is the perfect example of female founder success and why we need more women founders. Sara created the Red Backpack fund — a 5-million-dollar grant to support women entrepreneurs. This is precisely why we need more women founders.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
I think that our society typically views founders as individuals who have it all figured out before beginning the founding journey. I don’t think that’s true and I rely on the learning process. As Marie Forleo has said in her book of wisdom, Everything is Figureoutable indeed. With a clear understanding of your goals, the people and the skills needed, the procedures and protocol to guide you, you can begin and improve the process as you go. It’s always worked for me!
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?
I believe that there are specific traits that are more likely to fit the entrepreneurial lifestyle. Typically, entrepreneurs seek the opportunity to utilize their creative, passionate and innovative vision. They want the flexibility to make that happen outside of normal working hours. Working as an employee is great for those of us who want the systems and processes in place, and feel passionate about complementing and improving what has been established ideally for their personal benefit. These individuals might seek structure, consistency, growth opportunity and reliability.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Forget competition. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing and concentrate on doing what you do well and being the best at those skills. The rest will follow. In the beginning, I got distracted by worrying about other businesses and that ultimately slowed our progress.
2. Being a Founder is a commitment, not a glorified idea. If you are truly passionate about founding a business, know that its success begins and ends with your personal and professional growth. You can’t have the honor of being a founder without the responsibility of being a founder.
3. Ask more. In the beginning, I did not feel comfortable asking for help or money. That was my personal issue which had nothing to do with Hope Loves Company. Once I understood that the help and money were imperative to our MISSION, I felt empowered to ask the right questions.
4. Patience is so important in founding anything. Our minds set goals and we create a vision and expectations that might be greater than the outcome initially. Be patient with the process and recognize every win!
5. You are far more capable than you imagine. Trust your inner voice and intuition. Establish a respected sounding board with your ideas, but also recognize that if you felt compelled to found a business or nonprofit, there’s a reason. Passion and purpose fuel ideas.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Yes, Hope Loves Company provides free resources to children and young adults around the United States. Children caregivers (who have had or have a loved one battling ALS in their lives) can now find support through Camp HLC, Hugs of Hope care packages, group chats, scholarships and more. We have created something meaningful and needed in the world and for that, I am very proud.
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 hope and plan to improve the recognition, admiration, and support we provide to children caregivers not only regarding ALS but all diseases and illnesses. Children are our future and we adults are their best advocates. We are should feel responsible to children in need.
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.
Since you asked me this fabulous question, I would love to have coffee and brunch with Arianna Huffington! It’s her favorite meal and she is a mentor of mine. I could learn a great deal from her work and wisdom.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.