These are all HUGE generalizations, but women are traditionally intuitive, empathetic, and humble. These are studied and defined traits of women.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lizzy Neufeld.
Elizabeth “Lizzy” Neufeld is the CEO and Founder of Strat Labs, a social impact agency empowering cause-driven brands and individuals to refine their story, amplify their voice, and build their community through strategic marketing and communications.
Lizzy has worked with nonprofits, corporations, foundations, and national associations for more than two decades to bring their visions to life through well-crafted communications strategies, as well as contributing her own personal donations over the years as an angel investor.
In her free time, you will find this former Chicagoan planning her next family adventure, skiing, hiking, and generally just pretending to be from Colorado.
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 found my love of the cause-industry at the ripe age of 10, when a few friends and I started an organization called “Caring About Kids Everywhere,” or CAKE. Interestingly enough, there is an organization with this name today – though it’s not the one from my childhood.
I’ve always sought to tell other people’s stories and to better understand their worldview, which is why despite my early draw to the nonprofit sector, I originally set out with the intention of being a journalist and documentarian. Falling equally in love with entrepreneurship, strategic marketing, and business strategy over the last two decades, I founded Strat Labs to support change agents across the world by telling and marketing their story.
Strat Labs is a social impact agency located in Denver, Colorado, empowering purpose-driven brands and individuals to refine their story, amplify their voice and build their community.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Right as Strat Labs was starting, I got a call from a friend and mentor, asking if I would be able to support some of the students involved in March For Our Lives as they embarked on starting a separate non-partisan nonprofit called Empower The People. These were Parkland students who had just experienced an insane amount of trauma from the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and they were using their trauma to make sure that people understood who they were voting for and what issues those candidates stood for. Their approach was unique and appropriate. It made sense. I felt so lucky to be able to serve as an advisor and strategist for them for nine months. I learned so much along the way. The students were 15 to 18 years old and had way more insight into what it took to create change than the adults that I was also working with at the 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?
I used to do my own invoicing and billing. I came up with some elaborate excel spreadsheet, as I didn’t want to pay for Quickbooks or a bookkeeper. Which is ironic, as my mom has been a bookkeeper for 40 years. There were formulas galore that would take the information from my time tracking app and convert to a dollar amount. But it wasn’t perfect and I sent a bill to a client for $100K without realizing the formula was off. This was 20 times what it should have been! She said she nearly fainted when she received it.
There were two lessons learned throughout this scenario. First, the time I spent creating my own payment system may have seemed like the smart move to save a few bucks, but in reality, it took away time I could have been spending with my clients and their projects. Second, it taught me to focus on my strengths and invest in experts or tools to streamline the rest. In the end, get Quickbooks and a skilled bookkeeper!
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?
There are so many people who have helped me to get to where I am, but there are two that have played a huge role in my willingness to take risks and desire to change the world through my work.
I am lucky enough to still have two living grandparents (ages 97 and 101). They are actually the longest married couple of record in the United States. My grandfather was a very successful entrepreneur. He would always tell me that I needed to work for myself and that I should pursue my dreams with grit and hustle. My grandmother was in my other ear. She was always volunteering and supporting the local hospital, which she did for 40 years. Through her volunteerism, and subsequently my mom’s, I learned the joy of giving back and how powerful collective action could be in creating change.
When I lost my dad at 23 years old, I was lost and unsure what to do with myself and my career. I had applied for a Master’s in Public Policy but his death derailed my plans. With my grandparents in both ears, my grief, and being suddenly thrown in to “real” adulthood, I decided maybe now truly was the time to work for myself.
I ventured into real estate developing and investing as my first business venture. My brother and I owned a successful development company in Chicago, and I worked with buyers and sellers to market and sell their properties. I was 24 years old and in two years, I had secured $20 million in sales. I loved the thrill and high of doing deals and working with people. But something was missing in my life. I kept trying to find ways to be more involved in the community, but it wasn’t enough.
After six years in real estate, I finally convinced the owners of the real estate company I worked for to let me start a nonprofit foundation for them. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but enough to get things off the ground. I was dedicated to the hustle – ready to face all of the challenges that were coming my way. I realized fairly quickly that I had a passion for advising cause marketing strategies that would raise the public profile of the company while simultaneously doing good.
The foundation, @properties @ gives back is still around and last year they worked with Chance The Rapper to donate to his nonprofit.
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 love to read both fiction and nonfiction, but the book that had a huge impact on this particular phase of my career was Seth Godin’s “This is Marketing.” It is such a straightforward concept and explanation of how all marketing should be seen through the laws of human nature.
When I read the book, I was one year into Strat Labs, I reached a plateau and some burnout. I was struggling with how to explain our work and why we do what we do. Everything Seth Godin says is brilliant. I took so many notes. Many of which I still refer to. I have Post-it Notes all over my desk with his quotes. I especially loved the way he talks about how marketing is at the core of the stories we tell ourselves about social status and that the best way to achieve your goals is to help others become who they want to be.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” – Alice in Wonderland
My husband often tells me to slow down. It is hard for me to do that. But what I have learned over the years is that nothing good comes from both rushing to the finish or taking shortcuts to get there. This is true in life and business. I notice that when I try to scale too quickly, build without a plan, drive forward without process—it all falls apart. I see this with our clients too. Those that want to skip strategy (the plan), are often the most unhappy of clients. 100% of the time they come back for our strategy session. We now require it before we move into implementation.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
As a family, we believe in giving back and Jewish principals of Tikkun Olam, which can be interpreted to mean “repair the world.” We instill this philosophy in our kids, our work, and our lives. We surround ourselves with people who feel and do the same. I once heard that you are the average of the five people who you spend the most time with. Knowing that, I am careful to make sure that my inner circle has aligned values around making this world a better place for all of us—whether that is through action, work, values, or time.
We donate to support a variety of causes each year that our kids get to pick and be part of the decision-making process. I’ve also been fortunate enough to invest in women-backed venture funds with Portfolia to support companies that are helping to change the world. I have also raised over $12 million for nonprofits and purpose-driven companies through my work and—while I was paid to do that—I still see it as a contribution to this world.
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?
I think women are being held back because they either don’t have the tools, resources, or confidence to plow ahead. We need to start earlier with a clear and direct entrepreneurial education for girls. Their experience will be different than it is for boys. And while we would like it to be equal, it is not. And thus, we have to rethink the tools that we present and ensure that these tools are developed with research based on what we know about gender roles in business and leadership. I believe that if this education were given earlier, then we would see an increase in women-led and founded companies from a younger generation. And maybe we are already there, but this was not my experience.
It is also no secret that in a family dynamic, if the woman is working, there will always be some compromise with the family and household. This is something that is talked about in a negative way from early on, even before pregnancy. I think this plays into a lot of decisions about careers for women, as despite progress, the rhetoric is still very much that you are either a “working mom” or a “stay-at-home mom.” I believe these types of conversation can influence women from an early age to pick a career that is “stable, predictable, and flexible.”
This will change if we make it acceptable to allow moms to work from home, have flexibility to pick up their kids, volunteer at school, etc. without it being seen as unproductive or “less than.”
I had a short stint where I went to work for a company after being their consultant for a few years. I thought I needed the stability a job would offer versus owning my own consultancy. I was able to work part-time, which was the dream, as when you own your own business there is no part-time. I was the only woman and the only one with little kids. Yet, I still managed to outpace my teammates in productivity, timeliness, and effectiveness. I was good at managing my time and motivated to get my work done within the hours that I had dedicated. But I wasn’t rewarded for this. Instead, I was made to feel less than because I wasn’t available on my days “off” or because I had to pick up a sick kid.
It left a bad taste in my mouth. I heard my grandfather’s voice in my ear, and I said, “never again.”
I have managed to make my family and self-care a priority, and I still run a successful and growing company. I am lucky that my husband shares in a lot of the responsibility in our household He enjoys this shared responsibility. He is also a CEO/Founder of a successful mobile health company, so there is sometimes a play for who’s work needs to come first. We do a good job finding a balance, but it took coaching and discussion to get to where we are.
There is more that has to be done to change these cultural norms, especially since the pandemic, women haven taken a giant step back into being the primary caregiver in the home and have had to make choices that their male partners have not been asked to make.
When both partners are part of the conversation about priorities around work, family, and responsibility, then maybe we will be move toward a greater number of women leaders and founders, who won’t feel that they have to make a choice between family and work.
Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?
I founded Strat Labs with the mission to support change agents in every corner of the globe, but with an emphasis on elevating women and women-led organizations. Since Strat Labs was founded in 2017, we’ve grown 325% with 75% of all clients being women-led brands and organizations. I’m so proud my team who have helped these women-led organizations launch from scratch, drive impact through active community engagement, and reach aggressive revenue goals.
Women are more likely than men to effect change based on simple laws of human nature. For that reason alone, I want to empower more women founders to create the change we are all seeking in this world.
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?
These are all HUGE generalizations, but women are traditionally intuitive, empathetic, and humble. These are studied and defined traits of women. Intelligence, curiosity, empathy, integrity, and coachability are studied and defined as “women” leadership traits, as stated by Harvard Business Review.
A University of Connecticut study tells us that women are more likely to lead with “inspiration, transforming people’s attitudes and beliefs, and aligning people with meaning and purpose.” For that reason alone, we need more women leaders. Our world is broken and with women leaders, I believe we will see faster and more intense and lasting change.
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.
- Provide focused entrepreneurship education to girls starting in Kindergarten. Similar to how they are rolling out these programs for STEAM, entrepreneurship should be rolled out at an early age. If girls are learning about entrepreneurship in high school—it is too late—especially in communities of color.
- Similar to the above, leadership development and the study of women leaders should be a required class (just like Health and PE) in middle school, when girls are looking for leadership opportunities that often show up as bullying behavior.
- More funding should be purposefully dedicated to women owned and led companies from VCs and other funders. Only 3% of business investment goes to women and that is a problem for this world. Portfolia and other venture funds are starting to do this, but I don’t think it’s made clear how important these women founders are to the health of our systems. Only 12 percent of VCs are women and over two thirds of firms don’t have women partners. With more women at the helm of investing, we will see an increase in women backed ventures. There is data from BCG that showing that women return twice as much revenue per dollar invested than men, so in a perfect world, we are all investing in women owned ventures at much higher rate.
- More women led incubators and startup studios that specifically host and focus on the needs of the female leader and entrepreneurs. The world talks about investment in women owned companies as a pipeline issue. But the talent is there, as are the organizations connecting them to VCs. The issue that women don’t have the same tools and resources that are designed for them, for their lifestyles and at various stages of their life, even when they have kids.
- The funding world needs to rethink their attitudes and outdated customs. We need to teach and engage women at an early age the importance of investing and how to do it. Not only will it empower them when it comes time for them to raise their own funds, but it will teach them to seek out and look for women led companies for their own purposes—either as a consumer or an investor.
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.
That is very kind of you to say. I am not sure I am there yet as a person of great influence, but I do have big dreams in this world. I don’t understand how we can produce a vaccine in nine months that can help end a pandemic, yet we have never been able to figure out how to eradicate homelessness, hunger, and poverty. It is a public health crisis of the greatest scale that fuels so many other public health issues. While I don’t currently hold the answers, I know that everything we are doing isn’t working. I have always wished I could solve the puzzle that is this very real public health crisis.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!