Uta Preston: “PASSION”

PASSION. As a founder, you have to be passionate about your vision and the product or service you have created. No one will be as passionate about it as you, and that passion will help you push through obstacles, particularly in those early days when you are constantly battling a steep learning curve. As a part […]

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PASSION. As a founder, you have to be passionate about your vision and the product or service you have created. No one will be as passionate about it as you, and that passion will help you push through obstacles, particularly in those early days when you are constantly battling a steep learning curve.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Uta Preston. Uta Preston is the founder and CEO of Little Fishkopp. Little Fishkopp is a children’s apparel company that is 100% sustainable and organic. Preston launched the company after leaving her corporate career.

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?

Thanks for having me. My name is Uta, and I grew up in a small town in Northern Germany, which was effectively the middle of nowhere. Granted, there was an upside. I got to spend many summers at the North Sea, building sandcastles, flying kites, and biking among the many sheep. That makes me a “Fishkopp,” what Germans call someone from the northern coast. My dad owned a local hardware store he had inherited from his father. My mom was a teacher for a while but eventually joined my father in helping run the business. In hindsight, my upbringing seemed very “old school” European. We even lived above the hardware store, so I saw firsthand how a small, family business is run and how much work it is, but also how rewarding it can be. In fact, both sides of my family were business owners. My grandfather owned a trucking company, and there were more hardware stores in the family. More recently, my cousin started an online e-commerce platform in Germany called Sugartrends.com. All that probably explains why I have always had an itch to be an entrepreneur, even as a child. You could say it’s in my blood.

Eventually, my small town started to seem too small, and I became eager for an adventure. As a result, after high school, I ended up coming to the United States on a scholarship to play college tennis. That proved to be a formative experience that enabled me to complete my undergraduate education and get an MBA. It also convinced me that the U.S. is where I wanted to be over the long-term. After completing my education, I spent a number of years working first in finance and investments, and later in management consulting. That was great training that taught me a lot about business, but I was still working for others rather than doing my own thing.

It wasn’t until I had my second child that the right combination of timing and inspiration came together. Naturally, I wanted to raise my children using the same traditions I grew up within Germany. That included using sleep bags with my children, which people in Germany have been using for ages as a practical way to keep their children safe and cozy while sleeping. When I couldn’t find the right products for my little ones, I decided to bring German-style sleep bags to the U.S. So I quit my job in consulting to try my luck in the apparel industry. Given the North Sea is in part of my identity, I, of course, named my company Little Fishkopp.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

COVID-19. Who would have thought our lives and businesses would ever get interrupted by a global pandemic? I remember the start of the pandemic very well. We had just added a new retailer and delivered our first order to them. The very next day Los Angeles went into complete lockdown! That new retailer wouldn’t reopen for customers until nine months later. To make things worse, we’d just sent our latest look book to hundreds of baby boutiques around the country, only to have most of those boutiques shut down temporarily, and unfortunately, some of them never reopened. My MBA definitely didn’t prepare me for navigating a pandemic. After nearly two years, it seems like we are starting to adjust to the new “normal,” but it’s been a crazy ride.

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’m not sure if I would call this story funny, but it’s definitely crazy and one that’s made me be more selective about how I make business decisions. When I first started out, I needed a cheap warehouse space to store all my inventory. I found a place nearby which worked out great until the day a big storm hit, and I suddenly had a water leak in the roof. We had to quickly move the entire inventory to a different room to avoid flooding. Luckily, none of the products were damaged. That seemed like rotten luck, but it was nothing compared to what happened next. A few months later, the warehouse was surrounded by the FBI and raided because my landlord was implicated in tax evasion. The other tenants and I thought it was all a joke at first, but quickly realized it wasn’t. That was both surreal and scary, and I was thankful that all the debacle ultimately didn’t interrupt my business. The lesson I learned here was that trying to save money over the short-term can sometimes prove more costly over the long term, so it pays to think carefully when making financial decisions.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Entrepreneurship can be a lonely path, especially if you don’t have a business partner. You need a person that understands you, your business vision, and is willing to listen and help. I’m lucky that my husband is that person. He has been there with me when Little Fishkopp was just an idea, continues to be involved on a daily basis, and has helped me through thick and thin. Even though he is a scientist by training and neither a business nor apparel expert, he has been my sounding board, helped at trade shows, sorted out IT problems, and at times he’s even helped pack and ship orders. It’s so important to have a person that you can turn to for honest feedback, vent when you have bad day, and brainstorm on strategy. I feel very grateful, and I always joke with him that he is lucky to be getting a free, hands-on “MBA” experience thanks to me.

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?

Clearly, 20 percent is not a very impressive number! Change needs to happen, and it can’t come soon enough! There continues to be a systematic gender bias in society and the business world, particularly. When I started my company, for example, I was routinely offended, because people assumed I was pursuing some kind of hobby business to keep myself amused while being a Mom. No one would patronize a man that way. Not only does that double standard deter women from pursuing entrepreneurship, it also holds back women who do, making it more difficult for them to succeed. In the workplace, the gender gaps in terms of pay equity and leadership opportunities are well-documented.

Meanwhile, on the home front, most women still do the majority of the work at home in terms of family support, even when they have a demanding career job similar to, or more senior than, their male counterparts. That makes it all the more difficult to start a business, because you need to take risks, have the freedom to quit your regular job, and be able to balance work and the rest of your life. We need to normalize equality in parenting so that both women and men can be involved parents, and in business, so both women and men can compete on a level playing field. Look at the Scandinavian countries. They have been very good at building a culture that places women on a more equitable footing in society. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go.

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 definitely believe that equity is going to be a core theme that shapes the future of entrepreneurship. But realizing that future is going to have to be a shared responsibility across all elements of society. We can start with individuals making changes both large and small to improve the culture and environment in which we all live. Those collective individual efforts persistently pushing forward can manifest as real change. Meanwhile, in an ever-more polarized environment, we need leaders in business and government willing to help create a level playing field that allows all people to live up to their potential, regardless of power, privilege, race/ethnicity, or gender. But I also strongly believe that we as women aren’t limited to waiting around for others to make change. We don’t have to sit on the sidelines hoping for a chance to get into the game.

Women founders across society can create connective networks to share success stories, learn from failure, and help normalize images of women as entrepreneurs. As we do that, we can lift up and create opportunities for all women while taking a leadership role in promoting environmentally and socially responsible practices in business.

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?

My first response is “Why the hell not?” Anyone who has passion, a good idea, and wants to start a business should be able to pursue it. Gender shouldn’t ever be a part of the equation. That said, women bring great talents to the workplace and offer different perspectives than men, which can be advantageous. They have very good intuition and, in my opinion, are often better at putting themselves in others’ shoes. Moreover, they are very good at developing new products and services to fill niches that have gone overlooked. For example, in the baby industry, most new companies in recent times have been started by women because in their daily life as a mom they come up with new and clever ideas on how to make their life easier for other moms.

I think we’re starting to see similar things in other industries as well, which is the benefit of having women engaged and making decisions across the entire business value chain. And of course, the more women founders there are, the more influence women will have in entrepreneurship, including financing and investment in new ventures. That, in turn, will motivate other girls and women to enter the founders’ world. The more women in positions of leadership, the more it will catalyze opportunities for other women to be in leadership. We see this across the spectrum in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion and it is why I’m so passionate about working with people who share the values of sharing opportunities to fulfill potential.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

These days the word “founder” is oftentimes used in a glamorous kind of way. Based on social media and media stories, it seems like starting a new business and realizing success is the easiest thing in the world. However, all companies start small, and a lot of startups are a one-woman show. So the daily tasks are often not glamorous at all. Most founders will find themselves doing everything when they start out, including not only the cool fun things, but also the boring and tedious ones such as bookkeeping and order fulfillment. Trust me, doing all of that while managing a budget that always seems smaller than your ambitions is quite humbling. Unfortunately, the failure rate of start-ups in their first few years of operation is quite high, and that is a constant reality that sticks in the back of your mind.

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?

Definitely not. Being a founder is like many other jobs, not everyone is cut out to do it. Given the many hurdles that stand in the way, you nearly have to be a bit crazy to take the leap of faith needed to pursue your dream and see it through. I would say certain traits, like passion for your business idea and persistency, are a must. Growing a start-up takes time, so one needs a lot of patience and resilience. People who only want to work from 9–5 should definitely stick with that “regular job,” and if you can’t handle setbacks, you are probably not cut out to be a founder, because there will be plenty. That said, I also believe our workforce has a wide range of talents and skills that are needed, and that they are not inferior to being a founder. For example, an effective visual artist may not be interested in being a CEO, but will help bring to life a CEO’s vision for their branding. That person wouldn’t be able to share their gift with the world if they got in their head they have to be a founder or else.

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.)

1. PASSION. As a founder, you have to be passionate about your vision and the product or service you have created. No one will be as passionate about it as you, and that passion will help you push through obstacles, particularly in those early days when you are constantly battling a steep learning curve.

2. CONFIDENCE. As a founder, you have to believe in yourself and your business idea, otherwise, there’s no point trying to start and you’ll struggle to bring others along with you. Personally, I live by the motto “girls can do anything” which is such an important concept for all women and especially the younger generation.

3. RESILIENCE. When you start a business, you need to be aware that there will be lots of ups and downs and probably you’ll experience many downs. So you better become resilient, develop a thick skin, and don’t give up at the first opportunity when things aren’t looking great. Resilience uses those downs as springboards to future wins.

4. NETWORK. As I said in the beginning, being a founder can be a lonely pursuit. That’s why it’s important to have a reliable network of women that you can turn to, not only for mental support but also to help you move your vision forward. You can’t know everything yourself, but by building a network of allies, you’ll always have someone to turn to for advice and guidance.

5. PATIENCE. Nothing will happen overnight. Having unrealistic expectations can work against you. Slow and steady wins the race.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Becoming a founder has definitely made be a big supporter of small businesses. Even though I saw my family build and run businesses, now that I’m running a business myself, I know how much work it takes. I’d rather support start-ups than big corporations, so I shop small as much as I can including at local businesses within my own community. In addition, through my organic baby apparel business, I’ve learned that manufacturing organic and sustainable products takes a lot of effort, hence I admire other people who are committed to operating sustainable companies. Sustainability is better for our planet, for our communities and for our families.

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.

If there is a silver lining to the tragedy that’s unfolded around us for what is now nearly two years, it’s that we’ve seen visions of alternative ways of living. When the COVID disaster struck, we innovated to find ways to enrich our lives. Out of necessity and, at times, for our own sanity, we spent more time outdoors, we closed down streets, we explored our communities, we traded our cars for bicycles, and we looked after our neighbors. But the irony is that we could have been doing these things all along, and, in fact, many of these ways of coping with the pandemic here in the U.S. have always been normal, day-to-day realities back home in Europe. So I want to inspire others to see the value in this approach to living and champion a more sustainable and community-oriented lifestyle as something that offers real benefits. My company is only one tiny piece of that, but I am not alone. There are plenty of other founders, people, and organizations out there who are looking to transform the world by protecting the environment and building a more sustainable and equitable economy in hopes of improving the quality of life for us all.

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.

I would love to have breakfast with Sara Blakely who is the founder of Spanx. She is such an amazing supporter of women. I absolutely love her energy and her attitude that women (or anyone for that matter) should dream big, and she seems super fun and adventurous, but also humble and doesn’t take herself too seriously despite all the success she’s had.

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

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