Humility- As a founder you always want to do it your way. Listen to your customers first, the rest will come.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marissa Evans Alden.
Marissa Evans Alden is a seasoned technology entrepreneur and founder with more than a decade of experience in startups. She currently serves as the CEO and Co-Founder Sawyer, which uses technology to connect parents and providers of the best extracurricular activities and enrichment programs to ensure every child has the opportunity to discover their own love of learning.
Prior to starting Sawyer, Marissa founded the consumer fashion app, Go Try It On. After being acquired in 2014, Marissa led the Growth Team at Rent The Runway until starting Sawyer. She holds a BS in Human Development from Cornell University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
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 have always been excited and inspired by “starting something”. I started my first company in college with a friend and from there went to business school. After graduating, I entered the workforce in New York City in 2008 and watched the financial crisis break apart the financial sector. So many innovative startups were birthed at that time in New York. It was the days of Guilt Group, Foursquare, Yipit, etc and that community inspired me to start my first venture backed startup, Go Try It On. I ran that business for 4 years and sold it to Rent the Runway. After a few years at RTR I was inspired again to launch Sawyer. I think the entrepreneurial journey matches up well with my personality and it has always just felt like the perfect fit for my professional life!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I had just come back from maternity leave with my second daughter and was running a board meeting in my office. I felt uncomfortable needing to break to go express milk and was getting all awkward about taking a 30 min break. I decided to channel my old boss and thought about how she would handle the situation. I realized, it’s my company, I am the CEO! If I need a 30 minute break to express milk for my infant, I very well will take the break and everyone else can wait too. I took the break, everyone was fine with it. I realized I need to lead this change that I want to see in the world, if I can’t do it, no one will feel comfortable doing it! And the more we can make this a normal part of a board room meeting, the easier it will be when others around that table need to do the same.
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 once wrote a pitch to the editor in chief of a major news publication and wrote “I have been ruining Sawyer for the last 3 years” vs “I have been running Sawyer…” ( learning: Proof read!! Even the CEO can make a mistake).
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?
It really does take a village. I am most grateful to my husband for supporting me in this journey since the beginning. He is a real partner in my life and as we started a family, things have only gotten more complex. He is my biggest cheerleader, a confidant and friend who I’ve gotten a ton of value from. We often spend evenings talking about our days and sharing perspectives and I couldn’t be doing what I am doing without him!
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 that there has been a lot of new capital being put towards female and minority founders recently which is great, but we need funds focused on making sure female founders get access to bigger and bigger checks. My old boss and I used to talk about this alot. It’s great there is 100K dollars for a female run startup, but what about the 20M dollars and 50M dollars checks. Sawyer is now at a point where we need access to larger and larger investments. To build billion dollar companies, females also need to be supported in later stages of venture financing, which there is just less of these days.
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?
I think federal paid family leave would help support startups and small businesses and give parents access to time off to help take care of their newborns (for both primary and secondary caregivers). Universal pre-k programs would also support parents looking to work — giving more families access to affordable options when their children are young. Additionally, early “head start” programs have shown to be very beneficial for young children. In my opinion, the more we can support educating our youth, the stronger our collective future will be.
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?
-The way to have an impact is palpable. You can start a business that supports a cause you are passionate about and you have the power to enact change.
-Women are great at inspiring, exciting people and the more women founders there are the more female oriented businesses there might be.
-Role models, the more you see it the more young girls think they can do it too!
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
You have to work 24/7- I think you think about your company all the time, and you are “responsible” all the time, but you can make your schedule work for you and I know as a working mother I am grateful for being able to create Sawyer’s culture towards parents, making sure my schedule also works for my personal life.
It’s lonely at the top- It can be, but if you have great co-founders you are not alone and the highs are so much sweeter together!
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 think having focus, passion, charisma and a healthy sense of determination are key traits to being a founder. You can’t get too bummed out by people pushing back on your ideas, you have to be able to see beyond the “no” and understand there will be a yes. I think you either have to like living with little structure or be the type of person that can create your own structure. That is key for an early stage founder.
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.)
“5 Things You Need To Thrive & Succeed As A Woman Founder”
1. A village- As a parent, Co-Founder and CEO of my startup, having a team that I can rely on is critical. I have two other Co-Founders at Sawyer who are my anchors and help balance out my own skill sets. I also have a wonderful partner/co-parent at home, and am lucky enough to have child care that helps us with our young children. It really does take a village!
2. An ability to buck the odds- Only 2% of female founders receive venture capital funding each year. I have raised venture capital for 2 startups that I have started. The ability to push past the odds!
3. Stamina- Founding a company is a marathon — We are 6 years in and it feels like we are just getting started… I have had 2 children as the CEO of Sawyer while raising over 20M dollars… There have been some winding and long roads and you have to have an eye on the prize, along with the will to preserve.
4. Buddies- having close friends I can call and talk about work, or non related topics keeps me silly and sane.
5. Humility- As a founder you always want to do it your way. Listen to your customers first, the rest will come.
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.
Let’s make great educational opportunities accessible for all children!
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.
Meg Whitman or Reece Witherspoon.They are both leaders who know how to take risks, build amazing companies, and bring people along for the ride!