“The big myth is that if you are a founder of a tech or STEM company, you must be a tech wizard with computer science degrees” with Penny Bauder & Liz Sara – Thrive Global

The big myth is that if you are a founder of a tech or STEM company, you must be a tech wizard with computer science degrees. Nope. Not at all. I’m an illustration of that. I think there’s a misconception that if you’re female with an entrepreneurial streak and no computer science degree, you better stick to ‘female’ stereotype companies: fashion, makeup, food. Says who? Good companies require good business people. And smart business people can run any type of company. Again, role models of successful women in tech companies who themselves are not coders is important to changing the perception.

I had the pleasure to interview Liz Sara. Liz is Chair of the National Women’s Business Council,the non-partisan, federal advisory council that serves as an independent source of advice and counsel to the President, Congress, and the Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration on issues that affect women business owners and entrepreneurs. Ms. Sara is also the Founder and President of Best Marketing, LLC, where she consults for more than 90 small businesses in the high-tech sector, and serves as a chief business advisor to entrepreneurs in creating and executing go-to market strategies. Previously, she played a principal role as Co-founder of SpaceWorks, an eCommerce software company, where she facilitated its startup and growth to nearly $25 million in revenue.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Liz! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve been involved in the technology industry ever since I read a book in the early 80s called “Megatrends.” The book identified 10 directions that would transform our lives, one of which was technology. I decided right then that I wanted to be part of that — but as a businesswoman, not an inventor. Back then, the IBM personal computer was just emerging. Most people, myself included, had no idea about computers. But the notion of what technology would do fascinated me enough that I wanted to be a part of it. I’m probably the least technical person I know that has spent an entire career in the field. I like it that way. That one decision is really the only concerted effort I made about my marketing career ever since. From my first job in tech, my path and subsequent roles along the way were all accidental. From being a startup founder to working with startup founders led me to this role as Chair of the National Women’s Business Council. The Council is a nonpartisan federal advisory committee — we advocate for female founders around the country by making recommendations to Congress, the White House, and the Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration on solutions that help women business owners start and grow their companies. This role was a really natural fit for me at this time in my career.

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

I have had the benefit of being at the forefront in a lot of companies since the 80s which have launched very disruptive technologies that have changed how business works and how we do everyday things in our daily life. I’ve had two different types of companies — first, I co-founded a software company which had a very groundbreaking role in providing eCommerce capabilities to big businesses. That was during the 90’s — both pre and post Internet. There weren’t many women in tech back then, and even fewer that were tech founders. Doing a startup was never anything I planned to do: it just presented itself and I bit. The second is my current company (Best Marketing LLC) that I started in 2001 — which works with small tech businesses and helps them launch new tech products, grow the revenue, gain market adoption. My marketing consulting firm also was never anything I set out to do: the first client was going to be a placeholder until I decided on the next startup. Well, that first client led to the next, and another, and now it’s almost 20 years and nearly 100 business clients later — and I can tell you every single one of them has had an interesting story. And an interesting founder. It comes with the territory. I obviously love doing this or I’d be doing something else.

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?

This story is actually only funny in retrospect — at the time it was anything but amusing. All small business founders face the challenge of lack of capital. There are traditional funding routes, then there is our route. During the first year of our software company, my co-founder called one Sunday morning to say we were short on cash to make payroll the next day. He asked how much I had. Nothing near what we need, I said. Long story short, I made an ATM withdrawal and he came by to pick it up: on his way to Atlantic City. He was driving up to play blackjack — to make payroll! I couldn’t even imagine that! At around 11:00 that night, he called to say he won! Relief. True story. I don’t recommend that approach for raising capital — we just got really lucky.

What do you think makes your company stand out?

Two factors make my current marketing consulting practice stand out. First and foremost is the entrepreneur’s perspective I bring to the table as a business leader. I launched and grew a software company from a blank sheet of paper to $25 Million in a few years. That was pretty rare back then…as well as now, actually. And the challenges I faced along the way are the same ones all founders face. So I can relate to them completely and help them avoid mistakes. Next, my depth of experience in the software space is unparalleled. The expertise that comes from delivering strategies to grow 100 software clients. I don’t know anyone in our community that can make that claim. That is what enables me to understand what works and know what doesn’t work across every vertical industry and job function.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

That’s like asking a musician if he’s working on any exciting new songs right now. Aren’t they all? Seriously, though, there is a project we’re tackling at the National Women’s Business Council that will make a big impact on women entrepreneurs. One, in particular, is our recommendation to Congress to pass a tax credit for angel investors. If you’ve seen the show Shark Tank, that’s what I’m talking about: individuals investing their own money in a startup. I’ve been an angel investor in the DC area for a few years — putting my own money into some software startups. We believe that by enlarging the pool of individuals across the country that invest in their community’s startups (of all kinds — not only tech), women founders will benefit. Typically, women founders have a more difficult time raising capital than male counterparts. Women tech founders only landed 2% of all the venture capital funds last year. Every community has the successful doctors, lawyers, car dealership owners and so on. If we can motivate them to support their area’s startups, more companies — including those led by women — will get access to capital that otherwise would not exist for them at their stage or for their type of company. Stay tuned for the release of NWBC’s Annual Report to Congress and the Administration in December. The report will include policy recommendations touching on the Women’s Business Center grant selections, the SBIR & STTR application process, and engagement with underserved communities among others.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I’m not at all satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM-related companies. We are nowhere near being adequately represented as founders in this sector. To understand why, we have to look at the landscape of K-12 education. In a 2016 report from the Educational Research Center of America, we find that girls and boys do not significantly differ in their abilities in mathematics and science but do differ in their interest and confidence in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects. Although 53% of all college graduates are women, in 2016, only 7% earned a degree that could be classified as STEM. Not much interest there when you see that number. To change this, we need to change the culture surrounding STEM subjects. We need to make it “okay” for women to pursue these subjects and to portray those subjects as ‘not for men only’. We need to encourage girls at a young age that they can do as well as the boys then support them when they do. We need more female role models, more female STEM educators, more female mentors from this sector. We need STEM celebrities — the STEM equivalents to the Kardashians!

Although data shows underrepresentation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), recent research from NWBC found that millennials, and women in particular, are the most educated generation to date and that entrepreneurship courses are expanding significantly on college campuses. According to the ‘Profile of Millennial Women: The Future of Entrepreneurship in America’ report, 36.4% of millennial women entrepreneurs have received an Associate Degree or higher. Millennial women are also the most likely generation to hold a degree in a STEM field, but does that mean women are starting businesses in STEM? Currently, only 5% of tech startups are operated by women, yet these firms generate 12% higher revenue than male-run startups. We need to encourage millennial women entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses in STEM and we need venture capitalists, male and female, to invest in their efforts.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

One of the biggest challenges for women entrepreneurs in STEM is raising capital. Most venture capitalists are men. And therefore, most venture funding goes to male founders. This will change when more women get into finance and venture capital. I’m thrilled when I hear about another women-led venture firm that will fund only women-owned startups. Or a woman-only angel group that will invest in only female-founded companies. Brava, as they say in opera to praise the soprano.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

The big myth is that if you are a founder of a tech or STEM company, you must be a tech wizard with computer science degrees. Nope. Not at all. I’m an illustration of that. I think there’s a misconception that if you’re female with an entrepreneurial streak and no computer science degree, you better stick to ‘female’ stereotype companies: fashion, makeup, food. Says who? Good companies require good business people. And smart business people can run any type of company. Again, role models of successful women in tech companies who themselves are not coders is important to changing the perception.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

First, we cannot ignore the men in the market because there are more of them than us. Get used to it and figure out how to navigate through it. We need men on our team, on our boards and as advisors. Second, we need to be able to talk about our business as a business executive. That means financially, too. Women must be able to speak fluently about the fundamentals of their business. Too many women founders leave that to someone else. That makes them look uninformed. Third, we need to take a tip from men how to network. Men get a lot of business done that way: so and so plays golf with so and so who lives next door to so and so. All of a sudden, a big deal gets done because of that connection. We can do that. But we need to do it more. Fourth, we need to lend a hand to other women. Up and down the corporate ladder. Women need to do a much better job at this. It doesn’t diminish our seat at the table when we bring another female to it. We can make the table bigger. Fifth, when we make decisions, we need to act with confidence. Men are great at this, women less so. Given the same tough decision, men will appear as if they have done it a hundred times. We need to trust ourselves and act with conviction. I’ve learned there are very few decisions that cannot be redecided down the road if they do not work out.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Compliment your people when they do a good job. Even if it’s small. We are too busy, handling too many things in too short a time that we simply forget the importance of our people. Acknowledgement makes a big difference because people like to know that what they do actually matters. There is nothing that motivates people more than when they are recognized for doing something well. The level of excitement and enthusiasm you convey both verbally and non-verbally will also have an impact on the team and how they perform. If you’re not enthused, why should they?

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

First, it’s very important to be clear about your expectations on a particular project. Are you expecting an appetizer or all seven courses? Second, be specific about the deadline and where it fits in relation to everything else going on. Third, ask what their concerns are and how you can mitigate the obstacles in their way to get the job done. View your role as how you can make them successful, not the other way around.

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?

I would say that my dad had a big influence on my career and I’m most grateful to him. He spent his career at IBM, thirty-something years, in a finance role. Like many of his generation who were IBM ‘lifers’, he loved IBM and loved business. Growing up, my brother and I learned a lot about business, maybe through osmosis, because of him. In fact, we each had a bank account when we were in kindergarten! We learned about money at an early age. When I went to college, which my parents paid for, he said my major was up to me, but I should take business courses, too. Since I wanted to work in business, he reasoned, it would be a good thing to understand the ropes in advance: accounting, finance, business law, marketing, and so on. Made sense and I did. Then, when I got my first job after college, he said as soon as I learned my role at the company, I should start learning the others. Made sense and I did. Only by understanding how all the facets of a business interact to get the product out the door and into the hands of the customers, can you run a successful, profitable business. He is right.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I know first-hand of the challenges facing female founders. I’m confident that as Chair of the National Women’s Business Council, we not only shine the light on the obstacles but come up with creative and concrete ways to eliminate them. I’m very encouraged by the actions and recommendations we have made just this year alone. We’re tackling women business owners’ challenges with access to capital, with launching STEM-related companies and with starting companies in rural communities. Most importantly, we are not just talking about the problems. We are doing something about them. Our full list of recommendations will be presented at the end of December. Helping more female founders succeed is a good thing for business and for the world.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. ?

Education. According to the Global Partnership for Education, if every girl worldwide received 12 years of quality education, lifetime earnings for women could increase by $15–30 trillion dollars. More than 700 million adults are illiterate and do not have the awareness necessary to improve both their living conditions and those of their children. Imagine the good that education could bring to these lives?

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

I have two. First, since the Washington Nationals just won their first-ever World Series, I’m still basking in this success story as a DC resident! (And watched every single post-season game!) Thus, my nod to Babe Ruth who said: “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” That surely applied to the Nats this season. And it also explains my approach to everything I do in business and in my personal life. One more phone call. One more email. One more contact. One more meeting. One more time. The second one, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody is not thinking,” came from General Patton. That’s the underlying premise for why companies hire me — I’m not there to agree with everything they are already doing. If I did, what do they need me for?

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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’d love to have a private audience with Queen Elizabeth. She’s the longest reigning monarch of all time: 65 years. She outlasted all the kings! Boy, do I have a lot of questions for her.


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