Be brave. This is the most important one for me. As a founder, you have to do a lot of scary things like make big decisions without having all of the information, hire people and assess them, just to name a couple. It’s okay to be afraid, but it’s critical to not let that fear stop you from pursuing a path that could be better in the end.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren Salz.
Lauren Salz is the co-founder and CEO of Sealed, a home wellness company that modernizes home heating and cooling to create a more comfortable home while conserving energy.
A Forbes 30 Under 30 alum, Lauren and energy policy expert Andy Frank founded Sealed in 2012 after seeing an unmet opportunity to lead the movement towards home electrification and to mitigate the impact from climate change. At Sealed, Lauren helped develop its first-of-its kind financing approach that covers 100% of home energy upgrade costs for homeowners and built its patent-pending machine learning algorithm that can accurately predict energy use and savings.
Prior to joining Sealed, Lauren worked as an Investment Analyst at McKinsey & Company. Lauren holds a B.A in Economics from Barnard College and was also a visiting student at University of Oxford.
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 was born and grew up in New Jersey. Three of my grandparents were political refugees, and arrived in the U.S. penniless. They worked hard and sacrificed a lot in order to give their children a good education. As a result, most of my family is in medicine (I broke the mold a little bit).
Growing up, I was always a little different from my peers. I had a stutter and I was taller than the girls and boys in my class. Everyone treated me like I was older than I was, and a lot of people looked up to me as a leader, even at a young age. Being in that constant leadership role was isolating for me at times, even though I had a lot of friends. In the instances where I felt isolated, I turned to music, one of my greatest passions. In high school, I played the flute and the piano. At one point, I thought I wanted to be a professional musician, but I realized that the audition process was taking out all of the joy and passion.
After high school, I had this sense that I needed to make a big impact on the world. I wasn’t sure what exactly that meant, but I went searching for it. This brought me to the critical decision of taking time off before going to college.
I spent six months working on a political campaign, and I learned quickly that it was not for me. After that, I spent eight months doing volunteer work abroad. The biggest takeaways for me from that experience were: if you want to make an impact, you have to have the right skills; and good intentions don’t always equal a positive result. That was a big growing year for me, and I became quite independent. By the time I got to college, I was ready and excited to learn. I was still searching for the best way I could make an impact, so I decided to study economics in hopes that it would give me the tools I needed to help the developing world. I wanted to solve the problems I witnessed firsthand when I was volunteering abroad. But even after that, something was still missing and I still had no idea what I wanted to do.
I continued to follow my instincts. I knew that I needed to graduate college with a job; but all I had learned up until that point was about the jobs I didn’t want. I ended up interviewing at various companies that were recruiting on campus at Columbia, and eventually accepted an offer to work at McKinsey.
Fast forward a few years, and I finally found where I wanted to make an impact: Sealed. I truly believe I have one of the best jobs in the world. It’s a hard job that comes with a lot of sacrifices, but it’s worth it for me. I don’t think I could have another job other than being a CEO. What inspires me the most is the people I get to work with on a daily basis. They are positive, intelligent and motivate me to be the best I can be every day.
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?
Representation and confidence. Although we’re seeing progress, 20 percent is still a small percentage of companies with women founders. I always hate to generalize, but there are a few things that I’ve noticed which have been supported by studies as well. One in particular being that women tend to operate under the pretense that they have to meet every job qualification to apply, whereas men often apply regardless. Women are more hesitant to go after jobs that they don’t meet all the qualifications for, or that they feel that they’re not ready for. But the truth is no one is ever ready to be a founder. You’re not going to know when you’re ready, and you’re not going to know until you do it. When I took on this role as CEO, I just decided that I was going to do it. I didn’t have a ton of experience, but I learned how to do things while I was doing them, and learned from other people who have done them before. There’s also the fact that there aren’t a lot of female founders and CEOs that people know about, especially in spaces that are catered to women.
Being a female founder is especially meaningful because you become that representation. Someone may look at you and say, “that person looks like me, and they managed to do that, so I can do that too.” You get to be an example and an inspiration. This plays a huge part in propelling the human experience forward because it’s showing to society that these positions are not reserved for just one “type” of person.
I would like to be able to say that it’s not harder to be a female founder than a male founder, but I’ve found that that’s not true. However, I certainly don’t want that aspect to hold women back. I think because of the dynamic, women think they have to be far more qualified to be a founder than they actually have to be. Confidence is key.
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?
Being a female founder is meaningful for so many reasons. When you are founding a company, you are choosing to invest in something that is meaningful and important to you. You get to set the agenda and do something about that meaningful problem. You also get to provide meaningful work opportunities for people who you choose to work with, which is really special. When you’re a founder, you’re starting from scratch and you make it your own. It’s more than just leaving a mark, you’re creating it.
One thing I enjoy about being a female founder is outperforming expectations. People tend to doubt you more as a woman founder, just based on your gender. In those instances, it’s satisfying to overcome their expectations.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
One myth that stands out to me is readiness. You will never be “ready” to be a founder, you will only get there by being one. But, there are a few things you’re going to have to accept. One of those things is that you’re never going to have 100% of the information. The vast majority of the time there won’t be clear information or direction, but you’re in charge, and you’re still going to have to make a decision.
In addition, you have to accept that even if you’re the most successful founder, you could fail at some point. You can work the hardest, make great decisions, hire the most talented people, and you still will run into inevitable roadblocks. It’s critical to understand that you are operating at a high degree of uncertainty, but the risks are worth the reward.
And finally, you’re going to have to accept–and this is one that people tend to have the most difficult time with–that work will interfere with some of your personal goals in your life.
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?
The life of a founder is one that can be very rewarding. It’s also one that is extremely challenging. If you have conviction around doing it, you should do it. If you don’t have that conviction, I’d say don’t, because it’s not for everyone. You have to be willing to make personal sacrifices to make it happen. Think to yourself, would you be happier doing something else that’s easier?
It’s also about having deep honesty with yourself. There are certain personality types that are geared more toward being a successful founder. For example, you have to be able to hold yourself accountable. If you need to rely on someone else to push you and motivate you, it’s probably not the right time for you to start your own company.
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.)
- Be brave. This is the most important one for me. As a founder, you have to do a lot of scary things like make big decisions without having all of the information, hire people and assess them, just to name a couple. It’s okay to be afraid, but it’s critical to not let that fear stop you from pursuing a path that could be better in the end.
- Have conviction about what you’re doing. You have to do all of your own pushing and motivating. It’s essential to cultivate that within yourself if you want to be a successful founder. Starting something from the ground up requires more conviction than almost anything else.
- Empower people. It’s your responsibility as a founder and a leader to empower your people by giving them the tools, data, and resources to make smart decisions. Of course there are times where you’ll have to push on certain things, but ultimately, you want to empower them to find the right answers and make the smart decisions themselves.
- Take risks. Take risks, and be able to accept the risk of failure. When we take a business risk, there’s always a chance that the business could fail. But if you’re successful, it can put you on a vastly different trajectory than what you’re on today. You have to be able to see a vision of that future scenario in order to have the courage to look at the potential negative outcomes and say, “I accept that this is a risk.”
- Pull the plug on mediocrity. You can’t accept something that’s simply working “well enough.” When we radically changed our market strategy at Sealed, it was a scary decision because it was working, but in a mediocre way. Those are the scariest times to pull the plug, because things are working, but not as well as they could be. Find the courage to make those changes and remind yourself of what the mission is, and know that being mediocre is not going to cut it.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.