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Female Founders: Beth Nielsen of aspectLED On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Beth Nielsen: Entrepreneur and CEO, aspectLED.

Beth Nielsen is a proven internet and technology executive and thought leader who has co-founded and led a number of successful technology-focused ventures through acquisition. She has also invested in numerous internet-based high tech and medical device startups. In addition to technology, Beth has deep expertise in LED lighting, architecture, interior design, manufacturing, logistics, supply chain management, technology, hospitality, retail display, luxury residential.

Beth currently serves as the CEO of aspectLED, a manufacturer of LED lighting products for the industrial, commercial, residential, entertainment, and architectural lighting markets based in St. Paul, MN. Beth is also a Principal and a member of the Board of Directors at MacroVentures, Inc., a private equity investment firm located in Minnesota.

Beth previously co-founded PartnerUp, the first and largest online community for entrepreneurs and small business owners, where she was responsible for products and user experience strategies as well as finance, procurement and business operations. In 2010, PartnerUp was acquired by Deluxe Corporation (NYSE: DLX) and Beth continued to serve as Senior Vice President.

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?

The business career path was something I stumbled into by accident, when I met my husband and co-founder, Steve Nielsen, at the age of 16. He was always a budding entrepreneur, with a business building websites and providing managed hosting. At first, I ‘m not sure if I actually believed that he had a business, so he showed me what he did for customers and showed me the business financials. I immediately noticed that he was only invoicing his customers sporadically, every few months or so, and he told me that was because he only sent out invoices when he needed money to buy a new server or to hire someone. He was doing business with Fortune 100 companies, but he would go 3–4 months at a time without billing them for their monthly services. I felt like it would be somewhat annoying to the people on the other end of the invoices, receiving them so sporadically. Thus, I offered to take over the financial aspects of the business and actually invoice customers at the agreed-upon intervals from that point forward. We’ve been partners in every business since.

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

The original vision for aspectLED came from our own experience building a house. We needed lighting products that could be used in specific spaces, but we couldn’t find them, so we had to design our own. We figured there were likely many residential contractors facing the same challenges, so we decided to start a business to meet their needs. What we did not yet realize at that point is that there were lots of other types of businesses that needed custom lighting products, for everything from vending machines to airplanes to cabinets. So, our business quickly morphed from being a residential lighting company to a B2B supplier of all kinds of lighting products.

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?

Early in the business, I was setting up an important customer meeting, while I was simultaneously on the phone with another prospective customer. Because I was multi-tasking, I accidentally put the wrong location on the meeting invitation. A few weeks later, Steve and I flew to Atlanta to find that we were at the address of the prospect, rather than the customer we were scheduled to meet with! Luckily, this story had a happy ending because the prospect found it hilarious and they agreed to meet with us anyway. They ended up working with us, and have been one of our best customers. The other customer that we were supposed to be meeting with on the other side of the country also found it hilarious and was willing to meet with us after we got back from Atlanta.

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?

Laura Radewald, CEO and Founder of Hiper, has been an amazing mentor to me, especially while we were both at Deluxe Corporation. Deluxe acquired our company, PartnerUp, in 2008 and Steve and I continued to run the business as a subsidiary of Deluxe. Laura took me under her wing and taught me so many things about business, leadership, and how publicly traded companies function.

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?

The funding gap, particularly within the venture capital world, is still a very real barrier. According to TechCrunch, in 2020 only 2.3% of VC funding went to women-owned businesses, down from an all-time high of 2.8% in 2019. This has received lots of focus lately, and some progress has been made in 2021, but there’s clearly a long way to go. Entrepreneurial mindset is another issue. As we start to see more examples of women founding businesses, more women will realize they already have the skills and abilities they need to do it, too. That’s why it’s so important to highlight the success stories of women who have built successful businesses.

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?

In 2017, I was honored to receive a Women in Business Award from the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, which was very gratifying for me. I speak regularly at my alma mater, Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, and I can’t tell you how many women have introduced themselves to me and commented that seeing other women, like myself, take a chance at business and succeed proved to be instrumental in giving them the confidence they needed to pursue their goals. So, again, I think it’s really about providing opportunities for women to see other women start businesses and succeed.

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?

Flexibility is a big reason. Founding a company is an incredible amount of work, but one of the beautiful things about it is that it allows you to structure your life the way you want to. You can set up your work/life balance in a way that works for you and for the business. It also gives you the opportunity to engage at the highest level with whatever you are super passionate about, whether that’s airplanes or fashion, or circuit boards, or something else altogether.

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

One common myth is that it’s a high-risk endeavor. Starting a business is not necessarily a winner-take-all, zero-sum game situation. There are a variety of ways that you can build a business. The smart way to do it is to be very strategic and incremental in your approach. First, focus on getting customers and serving those customers well. You don’t have to rush in and raise millions of dollars in VC money and grow at a breakneck pace. It’s okay to grow in a methodical, iterative way. Another myth is that you have to be from a certain kind of background to be a founder. The truth is that you can be from any walk of life and any type of educational background and still be successful. The most successful founders I’ve seen have identified a customer pain point and developed a solution to address it. Some have specific expertise or knowledge, and in other cases they may have existing relationships that will help them, but you don’t necessarily need to have connections, capital, or an MBA, as long as you’re willing to work hard and serve your customers.

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?

In my view, passion and optimism are the top 2 traits that help founders to be successful. You need to be passionate about what you are doing and always be willing to look at the glass half full. Otherwise, you might find starting a business to be a discouraging endeavor.

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. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. As a founder, you will find yourself in lots of uncomfortable situations regarding deadlines, conversations, and other things that can’t be avoided, so you have to find a way to function within that. Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.
  2. Hone your communications skills. Nothing is more important than being able to communicate effectively about mission, value proposition, vision, processes, and more.
  3. Build a strong support network. You can’t do it all by yourself, so it’s critical to have a team of people you can trust and turn to when you need help.
  4. Cultivate resilience. A big part of this is practicing good stress management. Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Amit Sood, the former Executive Director at the Mayo Clinic for Resiliency and Well Being. He taught me lots of critical skills around resilience, meditation, guided imagery, and more that have been incredibly helpful to me. It’s really important to have good mechanisms in place for stress management.
  5. Find the right balance of patience and persistence. Every founder faces setbacks and obstacles. Don’t give up. You have to work very hard in order to make your own luck.

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

The first way is becoming involved in women entrepreneurship, by speaking to groups and trying to inspire women to start their own businesses. The second is my work in animal rescue. I have a soft spot for animals and am an active volunteer and advisory board member for numerous animal rescue organizations. The third would be our fundraising work for children’s cancer. My husband is a survivor of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which he had at the age of 16, so that is a very important cause for me.

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 that it’s very important to help people find roles that will help them to pursue their own passions. In order to be successful, people need to find fulfillment in their work, but our education system doesn’t always surface all of the potential career opportunities that are available to children. For example, our world is filled with people who love to do things with their hands, like being an electrician or a plumber. In many ways, our education system doesn’t introduce children to these types of career opportunities and our society tends to push them in other directions. I think that it is incredible helpful to help children find things that they are passionate about and introduce them to the career opportunities available within those areas.

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 have to say Mary Barra, the Chair and CEO of General Motors. She is the first female CEO of a “Big Three” automaker. I find her very impressive because, she has literally headed up virtually every function within the GM organization, and did an amazing job at all of them, including human resources, administrative, manufacturing, global product development, purchasing, and supply chain before becoming CEO. That parallels a lot of the different functional areas I’ve had to learn about, and grow within, in my own career.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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Candice Georgiadis

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