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Female Founders: Author Deborah Cole On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Women have a unique ability to collaborate within a company. It has been shown that woman leaders and women owned companies foster greater employee engagement, are the best at identifying potential and supporting that and are keen at creating diverse, well rounded teams which thrive and exceed competitors owned by or only led by males.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Cole.

Deborah Cole is a visual storyteller, writer and consultant based in Austin, Texas. After 35 years leading teams and managing large projects, the former business owner and leader enthusiastically shares her documentary style photography and stories with others. She has authored 2 books and shown her work in galleries in Texas and New York City.

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?

After finishing a Master of Science degree in landscape horticulture and learning that my dream job would never be available to me until a current employee of the City retired (in decades), I decided to take the easy path and teach school. When my eyes were opened to the fact that administration and I had differing views on education, I eagerly jumped at the chance to start a business with a friend who had the vision, had the education and had the confidence to nudge me toward entrepreneurship. Although our original idea to purchase an ongoing retail establishment did not become a reality (thank goodness!) we forged ahead with our dream of opening a design and construction firm on our own. We never stopped to think that we were dipping our toes into what had been historically a man’s world. We knew we had the education and the enthusiasm to launch this business. In the first two years, we grew beyond our expectations. Grew, in fact, to the point that my original business partner was overwhelmed. I bought her share in the company and took a deep breath. What I didn’t know, I would learn and what I knew I would capitalize on.

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

I knew that I had all of the technical knowledge to create and advise clients on landscape design and construction. I also knew that I had very little actual business smarts when it came to running a business. I was somewhat intuitive when it came to interacting with vendors and clients and never felt unprepared. But there were definite parts of the business where I was lacking. I began to sign up for every class, course or workshop I could find to fast-track my learning. I was the only woman in the skid steer loader (heavy equipment) class. I was the sole business owner in a lawn mower repair class. I took a night class in business accounting while at the same time I was enrolled in a personal computer use course. I only thought that my education would end with a Master’s thesis and diploma. I was constantly learning. I sought out experts in every field and soaked in as much knowledge as possible. I made a lot of mistakes and learned from them all.

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?

At each mistake, nothing appeared funny. It is only in retrospect that I can laugh. The mistakes happened daily; however, I consider those to be a valuable part of my on-the-job training. Although we were a landscape design and construction company, I almost never said “no” to any request. I always believed that I would say “yes”, take a breath and then go figure out how to make the project happen. After a couple of years in the business, I decided to dabble a bit in maintenance of landscapes. After doing some very small scale residential and commercial maintenance projects which consisted of weekly care of small gardens, I was approached by a large national hotel with extensive grounds. Having no maintenance equipment, I drove to a local equipment store and bought 1 gas-powered push mower (what was appropriate for a home lawn), one backpack blower and one string edger. I had no knowledge of how to prepare a proposal for these services and am sure that I undercharged them by quite a bit. After their acceptance of my proposal, I sent our two unsuspecting employees to the site to perform lawn and garden care with the ridiculous small amount of equipment. Those poor employees. They worked hard all day with the inappropriate equipment only to complete ½ of the job. We labored in this manner over the course of one year and then let go of the contract although the hotel client was pleased. I remember saying to myself “what was I thinking?” Years later, we picked up the same contract again this time with a full staff of employees, appropriate commercial equipment and STILL with the determination to get the job done.

I learned that enthusiasm is important when tackling a new task, but there is a lot to be said for doing the research and learning about requirements before saying “yes.”

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?

One of my favorite occasional mentors was actually a real estate developer client who was very kind and supportive of me as my company grew. He continued to support us with new contracts for work as well as advice. As I came to know him (his name is Dan Herd) he would provide business advice, strategic planning advice and even real estate advice. He was never too busy and always treated me as an equal in business. A time came when we wanted to expand into a second location. He helped find a piece of land for us and even helped put together a partnership to purchase the 6 acres of land. Although I am no longer an owner of the landscape business, we still are a part of the same partnership/ownership in the 6 acres of land. His kindness and his support went far beyond what might have been expected.

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?

Founding a company is extremely time consuming, exhausting and resources which are often not available to women. It is true that most women must rely on support in terms of time, money and energies when it comes to founding or growing a business. Women are still the primary caregiver in the family unit. A business requires almost a 24/7 commitment and this isn’t always easy for women. Also, those who fund companies are often primarily men and it is a fact that men fund male companies. Historically, women have not been considered as founders or leaders in business. Things are changing, but slowly.

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?

Women have begun to band together as groups, organizations to target women founders to help. Women helping women is a substantial start to overcoming obstacles. As individuals, women can participate in these groups to fund and support new startups. And as a society, we can also identify woman owned businesses to support through our purchasing power. Women helping women.

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?

Women have a unique ability to collaborate within a company. It has been shown that woman leaders and women owned companies foster greater employee engagement, are the best at identifying potential and supporting that and are keen at creating diverse, well rounded teams which thrive and exceed competitors owned by or only led by males.

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

One myth is that women do not have the fortitude to “stick with the task.” Also I’ve heard that women are too emotional to make the hard decisions that need to be made. I was once asked if I could keep up with the leadership of my organization because I was pregnant. A male who is expecting a child would never be asked this. And the myth that women are too emotional is not true. Women do often bring a kinder perspective to the decision making table. And after all, what is wrong with emotions??

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 do not believe that everyone is cut out to be a founder, just as not everyone is cut out to be an employee with a “regular job.” Founders tend to have focus, determination, a sense of fair play, are highly ethical and curious/creative. We all have our unique talents and the road of a founder is not an easy one. A sense of competitiveness and adventure are certainly important as well.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Founding a business is the hardest, yet most rewarding path to take. It is not for the faint of heart.
  2. One must be willing to sacrifice one’s own desires for the good of the whole (the company and its employees).
  3. It is important to be able to show emotion when the time is appropriate. It is not necessary to never show concern or worry. Being “in the trenches’’ together means a lot to those who are working along side.
  4. Paying attention to every financial detail is critical. Although there are those we hire to manage the finances, the founder must always stay closely involved.
  5. Take time to recharge. There is nothing noble about working oneself beyond exhaustion. Self care is company care.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I believe so. My ultimate exit strategy was to turn the company over to the employees. By developing an ESOP I was able to achieve financial rewards plus provide ownership of the company to the people who had worked so hard to build it. Many individuals have also gained personal rewards that would have been otherwise not attainable.

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.

I believe in a world where potential and support of that is a multiplier for success, not a divider of resources. I believe in the ultimate good of all and am a firm supporter of those who want a chance to succeed. Currently, I am a writer and speaker focusing on the potential of women in the workplace and in leadership.

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.

Yes, Sarah Blakely, founder of Spanx. I would love to learn how she continues to empower people (especially women) after the sale of a portion of her company. I’d love to know what her second act would be. I’m also a huge fan of Abby Wambach and would love to learn more about how teamwork is a critical key for success.

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

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.

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