Fearlessness is a big one. You don’t know what the day’s going to look like, you don’t know what skills you’re going to have tested, and you don’t know if you’re going to be asked to do something you’ve never done before. But because you’re the CEO, one way or another, you have to figure it out.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Lakshmi Shenoy.
Lakshmi Shenoy is the CEO of Embarc Collective, a nonprofit startup and innovation hub helping founders across Florida build bold, scalable, thriving companies. Embarc Collective offers hands-on support driven by the unique goals and needs of each member startup. Working with a growing roster of nearly 100 early-stage companies, Embarc Collective is located in a newly built 32,000 square-foot office in downtown Tampa.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! 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?
Before Embarc Collective, I was Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at 1871, a Chicago-based technology incubator. I loved that job; I had a great team, was able to work with high growth startups, and appreciated the impact I got to make each day. One morning, I received a note from someone I had met the year prior, Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning (2020 NHL Stanley Cup champions). He was investing in growing Tampa’s downtown and knew that attracting and retaining top talent was a key ingredient to enabling that growth.
Knowing about my work at 1871 in Chicago, he offered me the opportunity to build something similar in Florida. I was excited to build something from scratch, leveraging my experience and the lessons I have learned along the way.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most interesting thing that happened since I began leading Embarc Collective was how I began. Like most startups, it was a heavy lift to get the organization off the ground. We were building the team as well as the program and startup support from the ground up while managing the build-out of our 32,000 square foot space (which had several construction delays). Finally in January 2020, we were able to officially launch and open our startup hub — only to have the pandemic hit a couple months later. Embarc Collective, like the rest of the world, had to navigate a whole new way of working.
What’s funny is those very things that had been challenges before turned out to be strengths when confronted with COVID-19. Being so new, we hadn’t yet developed an institutionalized process for doing things, so there was no concern for sticking with the “way things had been done” before. And in fact, those construction delays in 2019 meant we already had experience working remotely, since we had to do it while the delays were going on. We were able to very quickly and nimbly revert back to that way of operating, and I learned how challenges can become strengths–even in unprecedented situations.
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 father is a big inspiration to me. He was a physicist, and an amazing one at that. There are so many commonalities between paths of scientists and entrepreneurs. They are both constantly discovering, building and improving things. Both devote their lives to making the world a better place. But his example inspired me even further than that.
He led the creation of a facility called the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory which, at the time, was the world’s brightest X-ray source. Through the X-ray, scientists can see things at a level of detail that was previously unattainable. Today 5,000 scientists use the facility. In other words, he built a tool to empower other scientists to conduct their research and achieve amazing things. My father passed away just before I started to build Embarc Collective. It was obviously an emotional time, but I gained solace that I was following in my father’s footsteps to build something that could help others solve the world’s biggest problems. I feel humbled and honored to be able to carry out his professional legacy through the work I do here.
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 believe in the power of preparation. I have a commitment with myself to prepare any materials required for a big meeting, presentation, or proposal at least one week in advance. That way, the stress of preparing is concentrated a few weeks ahead of the event, meaning that the week leading up to it, I’m only focused on tweaking and perfecting. By the time the day arrives, I’m already fully prepared and can focus all my energy on being present in the moment.
I’ve noticed that we’ve come to de-emphasize or even mock preparedness. Recently, people were critical of President Biden for coming into a press conference with a large binder of briefing materials. I would think people would want that level of preparation and forethought from their leaders. Our culture’s disdain for careful preparation, which seems to be a relatively new phenomenon, shows how under-appreciated it is to be thoughtful before acting.
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?
George Floyd’s murder created national reflection on where systemic racism overtly exists and hides within the United States. In June, I found myself pausing to listen to those around me instead of jumping to action (my natural instinct normally). As my team internalized what happened, I found myself watching them to understand what I needed to do as a leader to best help them and best steer our organization to be aligned with our collective values.
It was incredibly important for me in that moment to have a diversity of perspectives to inform my decision making, which is really how it should be for every business or organization all the time. Leveraging those different voices helps ensure my organization is behaving in a way that reflects the community my team wants to be a part of and build.
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.
- If you recognize weaknesses, you can address them.
At the start of the pandemic, the demographics of the population we served skewed white and male. For an organization that wants to use entrepreneurship to equalize access to opportunity, we knew we had to do better. We could have chosen to say it was a problem with the pipeline, but we knew that wouldn’t get us anywhere. We chose instead to have an honest discussion about where and why we were falling short and failing certain groups.
2. Build new strategies if old ones aren’t working.
When we had our own tough conversation about our lack of diversity, we realized we had the power to change things. We had originally only accepted companies that had reached a certain stage of traction. But we realized this may have left a lot of people out of the funnel who could benefit from our support and the support of our network. As a response, we built an eight-week curriculum focused on bringing in and developing companies in the “idea stage” or who were just getting off the ground. Demographically, the inaugural cohort exactly represented the community that we live in and who we aspire to serve.
3. Don’t go it alone.
Having partners come alongside you in your goal to be more inclusive is critical to achieving real results. We knew we had to meet startups earlier in their development. We identified partners, such as Hillsborough Community College, which is reaching a diverse set of students across our community. Two students in their entrepreneurship course were building technology ventures, so we sponsored their membership to Embarc Collective to take advantage of the support we can offer. In other words, we’ve become proactive rather than reactive.
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?
The biggest difference between the work the CEO, specifically a startup CEO, does versus the work other business leaders do is balancing addressing today’s needs with planning for the future. As executives, we are always shifting from thinking about how we are delivering on what we need to do today with planning for how to actualize a big, ambitious vision for the future. I go from being deep in the weeds to high-level strategy in a matter of 15 minutes. We’ve got to both deliver in the moment and ensure we’re staying competitive long-term.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
There’s always the myth that as you climb up the ladder, there’s less work. It’s actually the opposite. As you climb the ladder, especially if you’re a CEO, it will be more work than you’ve ever taken on before. It might be different kinds of work, but it will likely be much more mentally taxing and exhausting. That’s why you’ve got to really love what you do so you can stay energized.
Another myth I’m personally dispelling is what a CEO should look like. I’m a (relatively) young Indian-American woman. I don’t fit the current profile of the average American CEO. I’ve had so many people email me calling me “Mr. Shenoy,” and I like to think that when these people meet me for the first time, I’m making them rethink their unconscious assumptions.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Being a CEO is lonely regardless of gender. But for women, because there are fewer of us, the loneliness can feel especially tough.
Also, the societal expectations around women and their role in the home still hasn’t completely changed. Even if the expectation isn’t about running a household — though it often is — women typically aren’t delegating the mental burden of managing their lives outside of work, and men don’t experience that at nearly the same rates. More people are becoming aware of the problem and more men are taking ownership of it, but we have a long way to go.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Leading a startup hub is a relatively new role, and there isn’t a huge population of people who have done it. The only person who had modeled this job to me before I took it was my former boss and mentor, Howard Tullman. He was the CEO of the Chicago-based technology incubator 1871. We’re very similar in a lot of ways: we’re both operators going 100 miles per hour. So I sometimes try to refer back to the way I saw him do the job as a model for myself.
Howard is a tremendous brand builder and leveraged that strength for the benefit of 1871. Based on his example, I knew that would be a big part of my day to day. But I didn’t expect to be diving in so deeply with startups we serve the way I do. I meet with about 15 Embarc Collective members each week, so it often feels like I’m part of their teams. While it’s an unexpected aspect of my job, it’s my favorite part.
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?
Fearlessness is a big one. You don’t know what the day’s going to look like, you don’t know what skills you’re going to have tested, and you don’t know if you’re going to be asked to do something you’ve never done before. But because you’re the CEO, one way or another, you have to figure it out. It may be as simple as hiring somebody else to do it (note though, hiring well is difficult), or it may be as tough as trying to learn how to do it yourself, but you’ve got to be able to trust yourself to come up with a solution.
The other trait required for executive leadership is confidence. The pandemic is a great example of this. During the early days of the pandemic, I was just focused on survival, making sure that everyone around me was safe, and they had what they needed to do their work well. At some point, I reached survival fatigue. I found the confidence to realize that we’re figuring our way through the pandemic, and we should take this time to get aggressive with our growth. And we delivered — we doubled the number of startups being supported by Embarc Collective between March 2020 and March 2021. If I’d stopped what I was doing to really consider how little I knew before every decision I made through this pandemic, I would have been paralyzed. But, like so many other executives at that time, I just kept marching forward.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I firmly believe you’ll never regret helping another woman, and I try to model that behavior for our team. There are so few women leaders, and there’s room for all of us. It’s definitely not a zero-sum environment. Whenever you are able, lend a helping hand.
I owe so much to a peer group I belong to made up of other women CEOs. I highly recommend other women executives to identify a similar type of support system. I rely on these women for knowledge, experience, and playbooks and look forward to each conversation we have. There is probably someone out there right now who’s been in the same challenging situation you are going through. Take advantage of that. Take help when it’s offered. You don’t have to be alone in figuring everything out. Leverage the resources you have access to so you can do the best job that you can.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
At Embarc Collective, we help people create positive change to make the world better. We do that by empowering them to create and scale problem-solving businesses that solve real challenges through the use of technology, drive innovation, and generate wealth for themselves and their community, drive innovation.
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 believe that every day is an opportunity to learn and change the way you think. Even before my time at 1871, I dreamt of creating a continuous education center for adults. Education doesn’t end with your formal schooling, and adult learning shouldn’t simply be related to what you do for your job. I would love to expose others to new ideas and concepts for the sheer love of learning.
My mother is a retired reference librarian, writer, and astrologer, and my father was a physicist. As I was growing up, they were always ingesting new ideas. From an early age, I was comfortable with the notion that you don’t know everything, and that knowledge isn’t fixed. I’ve tried to create that culture at Embarc Collective, and invite an openness to learning from different perspectives within the peer community to build world-changing ventures.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My father used to say, “Give until it hurts,” meaning: whether it’s your time or your resources, if somebody else needs that from you, give wholly to them and don’t second guess it. Even if it’s to a fault, that’s how I operate.
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.
Serena Williams. I love how multi-dimensional she is. Not only is she one of the best athletes in the world, she’s also a venture capitalist, brand builder, and mother. I’m fascinated by how she divides her time to give each of those efforts attention and delivers at such a superior level. I’d ask her how she balances her many passions, manages the pressure to deliver in her many roles, and finds satisfaction in the moment when there is always so much more to achieve.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.