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Female Founders: Dorothy Spence of Imaginal Ventures on the Five Things You Need To Thrive And Succeed As A Woman Founder

An interview with Candice Georgiadis

Even though it’s a personal journey, don’t take things personally! Keep your business and yourself separate. There are feelings of guilt and shame, of not being enough or doing enough, and you need to separate all of that out or else you’ll really beat yourself down. A lot of the burnout that entrepreneurs experience comes from not being able to separate self-worth from business success.

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

Dorothy Spence is an engineer, serial entrepreneur, author, speaker, and the founder of Imaginal Ventures and The Purpose Led Business School. Dorothy’s 20 years of experience as a skilled business and leadership advisor has helped countless companies catalyze profitability and asset growth. Her work with scaling purpose-led businesses through building supporting structures and systems has gained distinction in the entrepreneurial community, including being named the Canadian coach for SheEO and receiving the Top CEO Award, Innovation Award, and the Professional Engineers Service Award.

Dorothy was one of four women (out of a class of 80) in her graduating class from Dalhousie University’s engineering school. She went on to become a pioneer in building technology-focused companies, including a nationally deployed healthcare platform. Throughout her career, she has focused on creating environments where non-traditional entrepreneurs can thrive and become successful business leaders.

Imaginal Ventures is the culmination of her decades of experience, fusing her background in technology with her passion for entrepreneurship and leadership.

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 about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Today I’m a “serial entrepreneur” with a passion for starting and growing businesses, and for helping others do the same. But I didn’t always see myself in this role. In fact, I have a degree in engineering. When I was in school only 5% of my class was made up of women; so even before starting my first business, I knew what it was like to be a part of this extreme minority. It gave me a real understanding and empathy for women founders right from the start. My first co-founder and CEO role was with a national health technology company, another place where women were the minority. I’m used to the traditional hyper-competitive business environments right from these early experiences, and I think that’s one of the big reasons I find so much purpose in guiding change away from that world. We need a shift into hyper-collaborative business environments, where searching for connection and meaning and purpose is an important part of the business. And we’re seeing that shift happen, especially after the long wake-up call of the pandemic.

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

Well… the path of being a founder is all interesting! I have a million stories to tell, but maybe the most interesting one was being asked to represent the Dalhousie University medical school on a visit to Kuwait in the mid-90s, in order to gauge the viability of a telemedicine network. I was a young woman in Kuwait during Ramadan, and I was just completely immersed in a culture that was different from anything I had ever known. For instance, I had to have a written introduction from the Kuwaiti Minister of Health just to start my meetings. I’m there trying to understand how a telemedicine network would operate in their healthcare deliveries system, and I quickly realized there was a cultural component that was as big as any infrastructure or logistics component. That was a real lightbulb moment for me, realizing how this network creates a flat system that would have been disruptive to their culture’s traditional hierarchical system. Without getting bogged down in the details, we ended up with this great solution that created a technical benefit to citizens and the school while fitting into Kuwaiti culture.

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 mentioned my background as an engineer, so this really fits in. My very first design assignment as a student was in a pulp and paper mill — the first time a woman worked in the mill. I had to design a sprinkler system for a remote part of the mill. I spent all summer figuring out the pipes, pumps, and everything else in this complicated system. It was a huge undertaking and I was so enamored with the scope of it all. But when I came back at Christmas to see how it was doing, they informed me that not a drop of water was coming out of it. That is the exact moment when I realized that full-on engineering design was not my thing. I’m a philosopher, I love systems and big ideas. But someone else can get in there and do the hands-on engineering part of it!

None of us are able to achieve success without some assistance 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?

That would be Jim Moir, the Chairman of the Board at my first business. He’s an outstanding leader who really understands human nature and how to help people realize their potential. He taught me an incredible amount about people and how to lead from the heart — in particular, how to be courageous and bold.

I met Jim when he came into our MBA class and invited anyone to see him after. Well, of course I would take him up on that — what an opportunity! I remember walking into his big corner office and saying, “I am here to tell you the story of two amazing, courageous women…” and proceeded to lay out the plans my co-founder, Linda Weaver, and I had for our first business. Little did I know I had him with that line! He became our second major institutional investor and stuck with us through thick and thin. We learned so many things from him — the importance of not running out of cash, how to lead, how to be bold in our vision. These were foundational lessons that have played key roles in essentially all of my business ventures, and I was lucky enough to have someone showing them to me on my very first entrepreneurial experience.

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?

Making the choice to grow your business by bringing in investors and external funding sources is a challenging journey for any founder; but usually, there is a whole ecosystem or network of mentors and supporters and potential investors to assist you on that journey. One of the challenges for women founders is an absence of that same level of support as exists for men. The “boys club” is, unfortunately, a real thing even still. Male founders start to go south (80% of businesses do at some point) and a group of men come in and say, “we’re going to help you sort this out.” That same network doesn’t exist for women to the same degree — it’s starting, but that same network of connections and established success is not something that women have built to support other women. And that’s simply because men have had a massive head-start here; it wasn’t until the 1960s or 70s that women in Canada and the United States could do things like open a bank account without their husband’s permission! How were we supposed to start our own businesses? Women entrepreneurs are very much a new thing and our network is still in its relative infancy, but you know what? It’s growing fast, it’s growing strong, and it’s already bringing important change into the world as a whole.

But the fact is: if you’re going to get funded, you have to know a lot of rich people. You need investor networks or know how to access them. That’s a big gap for most women founders. Added on top of that, research shows that when women present an investment opportunity to investors, they focus on the risk. When a man presents, they focus on growth and vision. There’s a bias in how we grow businesses, how we think about businesses… which actually makes women founders a safer bet!

Can you articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

Role models! We need more women who are running funded founder companies who step up, talk about it, and get profiled in the media (just like this article is doing). The more we can see ourselves in somebody else, the more comfortable we’ll be going there. That’s something I didn’t have when I started this journey, and it’s something I actively look to pay forward with everything I do.

We also need more of our own support network. There are some great organizations out there currently, like The 51 based out of Calgary, who actively look to fund women founders and are really advocating for women to get involved in investing. Meanwhile, they’re also educating men on how to get involved in these opportunities. This is exactly what women in business need in order to level the playing field.

We’re also seeing all kinds of research and policy decisions starting to be made at different government levels around the world to focus on women entrepreneurs, plus we’re starting to see a big shift in research and programs going in that direction. Unfortunately, many of them currently are in response to the pandemic bringing about the “she-cession” with women leaving the workforce in droves. Women are taking on the burden of childcare, they’re leaving office jobs, and many of them are expected to never come back. That’s bad news for the workforce, but it also means that there are a lot of potential founders out there just waiting for the right opportunity to shine.

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?

One of the biggest reasons, to me, is that we need more control in creating work environments that are sustainable and renewable and inspiring, compared to the meat grinders out there. I strongly believe that if you see something that needs to be changed, you do something about it. More feminine energy is needed in businesses: more caring, more collaboration, more awareness, and more compassion. The world needs that different perspective, that different point of view. We need to unlock that power within and to move from the “Me” to the “We” philosophy.

Being a founder is not an easy journey, but it’s not an easy journey for men or women, so don’t let that stop you! Starting your own business can be really satisfying plus you can make a significant impact on people’s lives. The new economy needs more of that to balance out the over-consumptive and hypercompetitive environment we have now. It needs growth that is renewable and sustainable.

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

Despite what you hear, it doesn’t have to be hard and you don’t have to go it alone. It takes a village to raise a business! There are predictable ways to grow a business and there are actually a lot of resources to help you. On top of that, you don’t have to work 24/7. You can set the pace to what you want. There are intense periods, sure, but in general, you get to choose the pace that works for you. It’s never been my experience that “the harder you work the more success you have.” True success comes from working smart and being focused. And it’s more predictable than you might think since most businesses experience the same struggles — especially early on.

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?

No, this certainly isn’t for everyone. But then again, what is? To be a founder, you really have to understand the intensity of it and be up for that journey. It’s a distinct journey, and not for the faint of heart. You need to be ready to dig in deep, to tap into courage and face adversity, to take rejection and still stand up for what you believe in. And you need to be ready to do that on a sustained daily basis. Just know that in the end, it will all be worthwhile.

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. An understanding that it’s a personal journey. Being a founder will require a lot of growth and transformation. You’ll discover things about yourself and others in this environment that you’d never have an opportunity to experience otherwise. We have a saying at Imaginal Ventures: “Businesses don’t transform — people do; and leaders go first.” Expect that, and live it.
  2. Even though it’s a personal journey, don’t take things personally! Keep your business and yourself separate. There are feelings of guilt and shame, of not being enough or doing enough, and you need to separate all of that out or else you’ll really beat yourself down. A lot of the burnout that entrepreneurs experience comes from not being able to separate self-worth from business success.
  3. Ensure that you have the support you need for this journey. Whether that’s aligned investors, an aligned partner in your personal life, aligned clients/customers, or (ideally) all of the above and more, get the level of support you need! There will be financial challenges, personal struggles, frustrations, aggravations, and days when you just want to throw your hands up and quit. The trick is to keep going, and for that, you need support both personally and from within the business.
  4. Self-care. You have to maintain your center, your energy, and your health, throughout this journey. Without that, the business isn’t going to go anywhere. Plus you’re modelling it for everyone in the business — leaders go first, remember, so you’re always setting the example. Whether that’s burning yourself out or burning brightly and sustainably, your staff is going to follow suit.
  5. Make sure the business is connected and aligned to your personal values. A business can be a powerful way to create change in the world, and your values are your renewable and sustainable energy source. If your business connects to your “deeper why,” you will have all sorts of willpower and energy to put into it. If you’re doing it for the money, I’d say consider finding a different job — it’s a surer bet.

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

One of the core values of my business is to improve the world! Every time we work with a company, we emphasize how important it is to leverage their business as a way to create positive change. We’ve spread this message far and wide over the years. We work best with women technology founders who understand their business and who are working on the biggest societal challenges with their products. They’re high growth, and they comprehend how a business can be a force for good in the world.

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.

Self-responsibility! It’s so important to understand yourself and be responsible for your behaviors, thoughts, and actions. I’d love to see that happen on a massive scale. It’s all about living an examined life and learning about what it takes to be self-responsible. If we all lived that way, this world would be a much different place and, I believe, a much better one.

I don’t think it’s that far-fetched an idea either. People are really uncomfortable right now, and many have been placed in a pressure cooker where we’ve really been forced to re-examine things due to the pandemic and everything that’s come along with it. It’s creating a big opportunity for change. Some people are getting angrier, but many others are coming out with a renewed sense of purpose and a better understanding of who they are as a person, and that brings about a new sense of peace.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in business, venture capitalist 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.

The last time we spoke, I mentioned how much I’d love to meet up with Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia. Well, Yvon and I have a date this week to meet up and talk about creating business ecosystems that heal the earth as they scale.

Not to tip my hand too much about my love of Patagonia’s business philosophy, but I’d love to meet their former CEO Rose Marcario and have a discussion about being a female CEO in today’s rapidly evolving world. I’d also love a chat with Jeff Weiner, the former CEO of LinkedIn, as I find him very inspirational and self-reflective, plus I know he has a big vision for humanity. I always pick businesspeople for this sort of one-on-one because I know we are future world leaders and we’re capable of creating great change!

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

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