Susanne Althoff: “Asking for help is powerful”

Asking for help is powerful. In my research on entrepreneurship, I’ve seen how important a strong network is, and that you have to feel comfortable turning to that network to get the help you need — anything from advice from someone with more experience than you, to a “warm introduction” to an investor. Unfortunately, sometimes women don’t […]

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Asking for help is powerful. In my research on entrepreneurship, I’ve seen how important a strong network is, and that you have to feel comfortable turning to that network to get the help you need — anything from advice from someone with more experience than you, to a “warm introduction” to an investor. Unfortunately, sometimes women don’t tap their networks. They feel as if they’re using people. But they must reach out to others and ask for help.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susanne Althoff. Susanne is the author of the new book LAUNCHING WHILE FEMALE: Smashing the System That Holds Women Entrepreneurs Back, based on more than 100 interviews she did with women and nonbinary entrepreneurs across the country. The book exposes entrepreneurship’s gender gap and proposes ways to make the entrepreneurial space more inclusive and equitable. She’s an assistant professor of publishing at Emerson College in Boston, an adviser to student startups, and a former magazine editor (including editor of The Boston Globe Magazine).

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up outside Annapolis, Maryland, with my parents and older sister. My parents influenced me in so many ways. I’ll give two examples: They’ve been entrepreneurial their whole lives, always with side gigs going on and dreaming up their next project, and my sister and I were usually pulled into these activities. I vividly remember as a young girl helping my parents clean out and rehab dilapidated houses that they would then rent out or sell. That was my first exposure to working for yourself, and I was hooked. My parents also inspired my love of journalism. They were constantly reading newspapers and encouraging me to read alongside them. When I was in middle school, they helped me get a paper route.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

As a child, I read several biographies of Juliette Gordon Low, who founded the Girl Scouts in America in 1912. I was a Girl Scout myself, and I remember being mesmerized by the story of Low, who had an unhappy marriage and no children and suffered significant hearing loss, in part because a grain of rice thrown by guests during her wedding got stuck in her ear. After her husband died, she began thinking that girls deserved to have an organization that would get them outside and active and inspire them to be daring, and so she built it. Low’s work has led us to many newer, worthwhile organizations for girls, such as Girls Who Code and Technovation Girls. I think encouraging young girls to experiment and learn new things — especially in fields that are currently male-dominated — is key to achieving gender equality.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

This is not really a mistake, but it occurred to me recently that at three key moments in my early career — applying for a college scholarship, going out for a coveted internship, and interviewing for my first big-city magazine job — I didn’t succeed and instead came in second place. But in each of those three episodes, the person who had won the spot dropped out, and so I was selected. That was illuminating to acknowledge that I had suffered temporary failures before each of those important successes. The takeaway is not that you should root for successful people around you to fail, so that you can take their place. Instead, I think the message is that success isn’t a straight line, and things that don’t seem to be working out can eventually work out.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

We have a troubling entrepreneurial gender gap in this country. Women launch fewer companies than men, and overall their businesses have access to less startup capital, make less revenue, and employ fewer people. Women founders have incredible business ideas and talent, but they’re operating within an entrepreneurial system rife with bias and discrimination, a system built by and for men. They encounter funding disparities, microaggressions, a shortage of mentors and role models, a lack of confidence or feelings of impostor syndrome, and sexual harassment and assault. They have less savings to pour into their new companies because of the gender pay gap (and, for women of color, the racial wealth gap). Consider just venture capital investment: Startups founded solely by women receive less than 3% of the VC investment in the United States each year. The funding picture is especially bleak for women entrepreneurs who are Black and Latinx.

Because of this entrepreneurial gender gap, we’re all missing out on innovation and job creation. For example, the researchers who created the Global Women Entrepreneur Leaders Scorecard reported that if women started high-growth companies at the same rate as men, we’d add 15 million jobs to the US economy in only two years.

My new book LAUNCHING WHILE FEMALE: Smashing the System That Holds Women Entrepreneurs Back collects the stories of over 100 women and nonbinary entrepreneurs, explaining the hurdles they’ve faced and the ways they’ve overcome these hurdles. My book also proposes what all of us can do to make the entrepreneurial space more inclusive and equitable. The solutions range from devising new funding options to combatting microaggressions to directing more of our consumer dollars to underrepresented entrepreneurs.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of full entrepreneurial participation. In December, for example, the US economy lost 140,000 jobs, and women accounted for all of the job losses. Black and Latinx women and other women of color have suffered the most in this downturn. We desperately need to create new businesses and new jobs, and women and nonbinary people are key to making this happen.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Every entrepreneur I interviewed had a fascinating, inspiring story. It’s hard to pick just one. Allison Clift-Jennings offered a particularly unique perspective. She’s a serial entrepreneur in Reno, Nevada, creating her fifth startup, a music technology company called Tonic Audio Labs. Clift-Jennings is transgender and for most of her startup experience was perceived as a man. When I interviewed her in 2018, she told me that she came to realize how her years of being viewed as an entrepreneur who was a white, heterosexual, cisgender man brought unearned advantages. When she was perceived as a man, her expertise was assumed, she got credibility, she got respect. It led her to question what she had gotten on “easy mode” that other entrepreneurs with other identities don’t get.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

I spent two decades working as a magazine editor, and my last post was editor of The Boston Globe Magazine. While at the Globe, I participated in several product launches and absolutely fell in love with the entrepreneurial process — identifying an unmet need, researching the potential market, all of it. When I became a college professor in 2015, I started mentoring and advising students who were starting their own companies while still in school, and it just so happened that everyone I was working with was a woman. They told me stories of investors and other people not taking them seriously and belittling their ideas. I heard their struggles to secure the money they needed to grow their companies. I began digging more seriously into the data on women entrepreneurs. Like so many people, I found the evidence of disparities really frustrating. Yet I knew that entrepreneurs who are women and nonbinary still create amazingly successful companies. So I wanted to use my skills as a journalist to collect the stories of women and nonbinary entrepreneurs and to hear from them directly what they wished was different about the entrepreneurial space and what could ease the gender gap.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Since the book was published in late 2020, I’ve been approached by a number of young women who are aspiring entrepreneurs. They’ve told me the stories in the book make them angry but also fired up to take action. They desperately want to start their own businesses and feel they now know what they might experience along the way. But, crucially, they also want to work to make the entrepreneurial space better for everyone. One woman told me about a new approach to angel investing that she’s starting to develop. Her idea has so much potential. I can’t wait to see it launch.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I could easily list more than three! But for now I’ll limit it to this:

  1. Improve the funding options for early-stage entrepreneurs.

We need to overhaul the traditional ways money is loaned to entrepreneurs and invested in businesses, such as by minimizing bias in loan applications, creating a more diverse community of VC and angel investors, and stamping out the sexual harassment and assault perpetrated by investors. And we need to develop new innovative ways of funding entrepreneurial ventures, such as character-based lending and an expansion of crowdfunding.

2. Tackle student debt.

Student debt has been shown to limit the odds that someone will open a business. For example, researchers have found that having up to 10,000 dollars in student debt lowers the chance of starting a business by 7 percent, and if that entrepreneur does launch one, the debt seriously impedes the company’s income potential. Women owe almost two-thirds of the outstanding student debt in this country, and Black women hold the most student debt of all. Women also take longer to pay back their loans, in part because of the gender pay gap. Proposals to cancel student debt, as well as lower the cost of college in the first place, would unlock the entrepreneurial potential of so many.

3. Reimagine the ideal entrepreneur.

The idea that men, especially white men, are particularly suited to entrepreneurial ventures has been hard for society to shake. Male entrepreneurs are celebrated in business school case studies, on the covers of books and magazines, and in movies and on TV. This influences the beliefs of everyone from investors to little girls figuring out their career ambitions. For instance, when pollsters quizzed British kids ages 11 to 18 if they could identify a single woman entrepreneur, only 19 percent said yes, and the children were almost four times as likely to picture a man instead of a woman when hearing the word “entrepreneur.” We all can play a role in reshaping this narrative, whether it’s spreading the stories of women business owners in our local communities, teaching the young girls we know that they could one day open their own business, and speaking up when we see a lack of representation, such as an all-male panel at a business event.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I consider leaders to be people who articulate what’s possible and then either help or inspire other people to make it happen. I teach a college course on management, and my students and I talk about the fact that leadership is not management, and management is not leadership. In a company, leaders can be found at any level, even at the intern level. Leaders are the people who are paying attention to trends and thinking innovatively. They are dissatisfied with the status quo and want to do something about it. They are speaking up.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Meritocracy is a myth.

I was raised to think that people who work the hardest and have the best ideas inevitably rise to the top. But I’ve seen in my own career that that’s not always the case, and it certainly happens in the entrepreneurial world, where, say, Black women have obstacles thrown in front of them that others don’t have to contend with. One study from Georgetown University highlighted this meritocracy myth: It showed that rich kindergartners with low test scores have a seven in ten chance of attaining a high socioeconomic status when they grow up, but poor kindergartners with high test scores have just a three in ten chance.

2. Asking for help is powerful.

In my research on entrepreneurship, I’ve seen how important a strong network is, and that you have to feel comfortable turning to that network to get the help you need — anything from advice from someone with more experience than you, to a “warm introduction” to an investor. Unfortunately, sometimes women don’t tap their networks. They feel as if they’re using people. But they must reach out to others and ask for help.

3. Pay it forward every day.

When I was younger, I questioned if anyone really needed my help or expertise. Didn’t I have to learn more before I could be of use to others? No. At every stage of your life, you can and should give back.

4. Obsessing over little details can cause you to miss the big picture.

I’ve experienced this in my past career as a magazine editor. Fussing over minor things like word choices can feel necessary and urgent, but doing so can distract you from noticing more significant issues, such as which stories you aren’t telling or which competitors are overtaking you. Pledge that every so often you’ll step back, look around, and take stock.

5. Sleep and exercise are priorities.

I think the pandemic has really driven home this point for me. It’s tempting to skimp on sleep and exercise, especially if doing so let’s you cross off one more thing from your to-do list, thinking you’ll feel better as a result. It’s not true. The work can wait until tomorrow.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I like that it acknowledges that failure is possible and maybe even likely, but you can emerge in a better state. You’ll learn something from the experience. You can be resilient.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d love to meet Melinda Gates, because I’m inspired by her work addressing women’s economic empowerment globally. She’s advocated for helping more women start businesses and drawn attention to the lack of financial and community support for women entrepreneurs. Gates once told an audience that “the next Bill Gates may not look anything like the last one. And not every great idea comes wrapped in a hoodie.”

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My book LAUNCHING WHILE FEMALE is available online (and also at independent bookstores). Other ways to find me: at my website and on Twitter and LinkedIn.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you so much for having me!

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