Why are there so few female founders in today’s society?
According to a recent study by Crunchbase, the percentage of female-founded venture-backed companies grew from 9% in 2009 to 17% in 2012, and has not changed since. On the investing side, only 7% of partners at top 100 venture firms are women. As a result of male dominated venture firms, women face a greater challenge when it comes to fundraising for their companies. Often times, women have to “break into male networks, which predominate at most investment firms,” according to an article by Techcrunch.
Faced with similar challenges, former SEG client Ellyn Elson drew on her experiences to share her story as a successful female founder. In recognition of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day this November, we interviewed Ellyn to learn more about her role as President and CEO of over 6 companies in the past 45 years.
But first, a little background information about Ellyn: Ellyn founded Computrition, a leading provider of foodservice software in the healthcare, university, long-term care, military and corrections industries (see transaction highlights). In December 2007, SEG advised on the sale of Computrition. Since then, Ellyn has managed and founded many other companies, authored her book Live Like You Mean It, and is currently the CEO of a publishing company, Coloring Concepts, and Partner at Kinesis Collective.
Here are some highlights from our interview:
Q: You have been CEO and President of 6 companies over the past 45 years. Were there any pivotal moments throughout this career that got you to where you are today?
Ellyn: I started a bunch of companies, and the one thing I learned is that I would never work for anybody else. I really like being my own boss because I am creative and I need people who are strategic and tactical around me to help implement what I am doing. And when I have to be the strategical one and the tactical one, it’s not really much fun for me. Realizing this has got me to where I am today.
“I really like being my own boss…”
Q: What was the most difficult moment of your career?
Ellyn: I once worked for a misogynist in a medical device company. I had raised 8 million dollars for this company to market it internationally, except we ran into an issue with one of the investors. He had a problem with women running his company, and the other investors wanted him out. He refused, and they ended up losing the funding and I left the company. It was the most challenging experience of my professional career.
Q: Why do you think there are so few female founders?
Ellyn: We live in a very patriarchal society. There is a notion that men should be the breadwinner. There’s misogyny, and men who think that women shouldn’t be working. For me, I had a really hard time getting loans at the beginning. At that time, it was exceptionally hard for women to borrow money for their businesses. I also think that women have to make choices. It’s not easy to start your own business, to be a wife or mother, and it’s certainly not easy to do both. In most businesses, people fail because they don’t have the sales acumen, management, or financial skills.
Q: How did you balance personal and family time with your busy career?
Ellyn: I have 4 kids and I am no superwoman. I had a nanny for my kids and I was also traveling between 100-150 days a year. I called every night and talked with every kid. Sometimes you have to realize you’re not going to have a lot of free time, or time to see friends. When you’re at home or have free time, you’re going to devote the time you have to your family. The bottom line is that you do what you’ve got to do to get to where you want to go. I tell everybody that we all go through tunnels in life. Some tunnels are longer than others, but there’s always a light at the end. It just depends on how you want to get through that tunnel – you can travel through it faster or slower. Sometimes you don’t have any choice. It could take as long as it’s going to take. Balancing your life, to me, is a tunnel because the light at the end of the tunnel is my kids growing up and finally going out on their own. I feel really lucky that my kids are all successful, financially and personally with what they are doing in their lives.
“I tell everybody that we all go through tunnels in life. Some tunnels are longer than others, but there’s always a light at the end. It just depends on how you want to get through that tunnel – you can travel through it faster or slower. Sometimes you don’t have any choice. It could take as long as it’s going to take. Balancing your life, to me, is a tunnel…”
Q: What advice would you give to young women who want to succeed in founding their own companies?
Ellyn: Never give up. Ask people for advice, have a plan, work the plan and stay focused. Also, you can’t be everything to everybody. Some of the downfalls of small businesses today is that they want to have and be everything instead of focusing on what they really do well. Often times, they don’t know how to say no to customers. They should really focus on what they do well because that is why they went into business. It’s another story to diversify when you have a financial base from which to draw. Women starting their own businesses need to have support, especially if they have kids. It is a true balancing act.
“Women starting their own businesses need to have support, especially if they have kids. It is a true balancing act.”
Q: As the author of Live Like you Mean It, what is one piece of advice you would give to other founders and CEOs to live a life of significance?
Ellyn: We are all individuals and we all have things we want to do. You don’t want to wake up when you’re 50 years old and realize you didn’t accomplish what you wanted to accomplish. It’s really important to set goals and to learn how to get around the obstacles. I wanted to wake up and say ‘my goodness, I’ve done much more than I ever expected I would!’
Thank you for sharing your inspirational story, Ellyn. Happy Women’s Entrepreneurship Day!