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Lara Vandenberg of ‘Publicist’: “One of the most overlooked qualities in a founder is empathy”

One of the most overlooked qualities in a founder is empathy. I truly believe that leading with empathy makes the best leader. Empathy is an intrinsic quality for most women which leads to strong leadership. To me, having not only passion but compassion and a high-level of emotional intelligence are necessary traits for healthy leadership, […]

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One of the most overlooked qualities in a founder is empathy. I truly believe that leading with empathy makes the best leader. Empathy is an intrinsic quality for most women which leads to strong leadership. To me, having not only passion but compassion and a high-level of emotional intelligence are necessary traits for healthy leadership, and something I see more often in the female leaders in my life.


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

Lara Vandenberg is the CEO & Founder of Publicist, the company redefining the way brands hire Communications and Marketing talent. Publicist is the online marketplace to source premium pre vetted marketing and communication experts on demand. Solving a major pain point for the industry and as a thought-leader in the Future Of Work category, Lara is on a mission to transform the inefficiencies in marketing. Prior to Publicist and over the course of her career, Lara has led Communications & Marketing from high growth tech and consumer startups to large enterprises. Vandenberg was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and the B&T 30 Under 30 list for innovation in advertising.


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?

The marketing and communications industry is in my blood. My father had an agency in Australia and from a young age I was privy to the inner workings of the media-world, and how foundational the industry is to relationships. I started my career in agency-land before moving to New York to work on Westfield World Trade Center. This then led me to leading Communications and Marketing for a beauty company followed by doing a similar thing for a high-growth tech startup. As you can see, I have been on nearly every-side of the marketing ecosystem. From big-brands to startups to agencies. I love it.

No matter where I was in my career, I kept on running into the same problem: access to premium marketing and communications talent is hard.

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?

Now I’m not sure if this is ‘ha-ha funny’, but when I was first starting out I had engaged a woman to build the first version of the website. Halfway through the build, she disappeared. Her domain name changed, her presence of slack was deleted. It was an expensive lesson to learn but these failures teach you so much… including making sure your contracts are laser tight!

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?

I strongly believe in mentorship and I am lucky enough to have an army of mentors. An advisor once told me to build a personal board of directors; people you can go to for advice on different topics. It’s some of the best advice I’ve ever received in that I have a particular person who can help me when it comes to being a female founder in a sector dominated by men, or another person that can help me when it comes to fundraising.

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?

I’m currently reading (and re-reading) Principles by Ray Dalio. I think the reason it consistently resonates so much is because while you are reading his principles and sub-principles, you can’t always action them until you are in a scenario — but they are great to apply as guides for decision making. Some favorite principles he outline are:

“Choose your habits well. Habit is probably the most powerful tool in your brain’s toolbox.” and “If you’re not failing, you’re not pushing your limits, and if you’re not pushing your limits, you’re not maximizing your potential.”

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

I’m learning to love Sheryl Sanberg’s words “better done than perfect”. Being the founder of a technology company; things go wrong, bugs happen, product is often iterated on. You could spend forever trying to make a feature or a product or messaging perfect, and instead you need to value your time and time management.

A relevant story to this was launching Publicist. We were ready to launch at the end of March 2020. Everyday was the wrong timing. No one knew what was happening with COVID, and it seemed insensitive to push our story in a news cycle centered around so much fear and loss. By May it was one of those things — there was no time in the foreseeable future that was going to be perfect. We decided to launch to market because I knew it was better to do it imperfectly than continue to wait for a perfect time that may never come.

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

I feel very responsible for creating an equitable community of talent on our platform. We have a responsibility to set people up for success on the platform and be a place where access to opportunity is equal. This really drives me in building the brand because currently the marketing industry is limited by a word-of-mouth network that blocks talented professionals from access to opportunity with great brands. I’m also a big believer in mentorship and reverse mentorship. Just because someone may have more experience does not mean they always have the right answer and there is always something you can learn from somebody else to lead to personal or professional growth. I aim to spread that mentality not only within my team but within my company.

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?

A few realities stand out that I believe still holds women back. One, women historically haven’t seen themselves in senior leadership positions, such as CEOs or on boards. That’s beginning to change, but on a day-to-day level, most women still see men as examples of who holds the top roles at their office. Second, companies still create barriers for women in the workplace after they have children. It’s not only harder to get back into the workforce but if it does happen, few companies and positions allow for the flexibility that women need to feel supported and work at the best of their ability. We have so many female entrepreneurs on our platform — becoming a solopreneur and starting a freelance business has never been easier with Publicist. COVID accelerated the work-from-home movement and while there are certainly challenges in finding work/life balance, a big part of our mission is to enable women to pursue a career that allows for more flexibility and autonomy.

In regard to women founding companies there is a huge problem with funding. Only 2.3% of all venture capital went to companies led by women in 2020, and less than 1% of that money went to women of color. I believe a big reason for this is because only about 5% of venture capitalists are women. For women to receive the funding they deserve, there needs to be more gender equality and representation amongst decision leaders in venture capitalism.

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

Women-Led Startups Received Just 2.3% of VC Funding in 2020. I fell into that category and it’s a number that makes me really frustrated. It’s not news that the pandemic led to an incredibly disproportionate adverse impact on women’s careers, especially for women of color, many of whom were forced out of the workplace completely. I take my responsibility to help empower women seriously. I’ve created resource documents for fellow founders to ease the barrier to entry. I’m intentionally very vocal in sharing the processes, knowledge, and introductions that have led me to be a founder. I also am involved in mentorship groups for aspiring female founders and dedicate time to speak at universities on how to break into and brace yourself for entrepreneurship.

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?

One of the most overlooked qualities in a founder is empathy. I truly believe that leading with empathy makes the best leader. Empathy is an intrinsic quality for most women which leads to strong leadership. To me, having not only passion but compassion and a high-level of emotional intelligence are necessary traits for healthy leadership, and something I see more often in the female leaders in my life.

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.

  1. Believe and practice in mentorship. Be a mentor, be a mentee, and be a reverse mentor.
  2. Kindness and empathy are two traits that are completely overlooked but vital to being a founder. These are two skills that are intrinsically in most women.
  3. Teach women to play into both their analytical and empathetic natures. These are incredibly important and complementary skill sets that women are often taught to play down, particularly empathy, for fear of not being taken seriously.
  4. Empower women by hiring them! Give them a seat at the table, allow them to project manage, allow them to listen to a board meeting, give them clear growth opportunities. We need to empower women top-down!
  5. Teach female employees to get comfortable with failure. Entrepreneurship is about constantly operating outside your comfort zone. Providing constant feedback helps aid growth, success and 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.

Using technology to create equal access to opportunity in the industry I know best, which is the driving force behind my company.

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.

Can I choose two!? If it was breakfast for three I would like to have breakfast with Ginni Rometty and Whitney Wolfe Heard. Very different in experience, both women who have overcome difficult barriers to entry with their respective companies. Whether it was Ginni leading IBM at a time when most of the Fortune 1000 leadership was male, or Whitney overcoming initial adversity in getting Bumble off the ground when her competitors and the media didn’t make it easy. These two women exemplify perseverance and never giving up.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find my company online at Publicist.co. If you’re a brand looking to expand your marketing strategy or an individual looking to work for yourself but aren’t exactly sure where to start, Publicist is the place. We’re also @pulicistco on Instagram where we post tools for brands and individuals to build their marketing strategies.

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

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