Female Founders: Dr. Valentina Fomenko of Strategy DNA On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
…Intellectual curiosity. No company exists in a vacuum, and in this day and age, your operations, your product, and your suppliers touch upon many market spaces all at once. The pace of change is breakneck. I strongly believe in the power of generalists — especially when it comes to building a company. This is what the entire idea behind Strategy DNA is as we work to enrich clients’ understanding of their situations with insights from other industries. This is why I personally can’t seem to stop learning about new and exciting market spaces. No matter the kind of a company one runs, constantly learning about things outside of their field of vision can be the key to success — and even its very survival.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Valentina Fomenko.
Dr. Valentina Fomenko is the founder and CEO of Strategy DNA, a decision-support company that helps organizations respond to rapid change. As a self-described “strategy nerd,” Valentina and her team help startups, enterprises, and investors identify points of growth, predict disruptions, and adapt to market shifts. Valentina has over 15 years of experience across over 20 industries. She is working on a book on corporate climate readiness to help companies address the challenges related to climate change.
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?
I am what I would call a “recovering academic,” I received my PhD at the age of 25, and in my family, it wasn’t really a question of “if” but rather “where” because both my parents are PhDs and they run a successful sustainability consulting company that they started in the 90s in Russia. All in all, I am so grateful for my parents for equipping me with the knowledge and strength I have today which I can attribute to my success.
At that point, as a teenager, all I wanted to be was first a fighter pilot and then an opera singer, but some of those conversations at the dinner table — and my parents just loved talking shop — have certainly rubbed off on me. But I do have an independent streak, so it was important for me to do it on my own. But after getting that PhD, I didn’t want to do anything environmental. I was craving something much more practical. And after years in the public sector and corporate consulting, I started my own firm.
Deep down, I always knew this was for me — though the lure of the glitzy lifestyle of more established consulting companies was hard to let go. But I always had my own sense of what good consulting looked like and didn’t fully fit into other consulting firms. Toeing the proverbial party line wasn’t really for me, either.
But most importantly, I never take any opportunity for granted. As an immigrant, I appreciate not only the opportunity to do the things I want here in the US, but also the freedom to do them my own way. What cemented this desire for me was watching my great grandmother, the Valentina I was named after. During the times of the Soviet Union, she had a distinguished and storied career as a school principal who turned a struggling rural school into one of the best schools in the entire country. But in the 1990s, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union — and its socialist economy, — she shared with me her biggest regret — that she was too old to start her own business and take advantage of the opportunities that she watched cropping up all around her.
At some point, having spent years in academia, the public sector, and “organized” consulting, it hit me that I was right in the middle of the country of opportunity — and it was time to start acting on it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The beginning of the COVID pandemic was tragic and traumatic for all of us, but for me, it also showed how truly limitless human resilience and ingenuity is. For example, one of our clients found their mid-size firm woefully unprepared — and a sort of a denial of what was coming their way. Out of the three IT specialists, two were out sick. Barely anyone ever heard of Zoom. In three days, everyone was working from home, with no impact on the firm’s ability to serve its clients. In the weeks that followed, I watched in awe how this company transformed itself from an old-school operation to a modern, streamlined enterprise. But they didn’t stop there — and within months of the operational transformation asked us to help them rebrand — to make sure that the image they presented to the outside world reflected the new level of performance and innovation they were now capable of. Another company — a startup in the circular economy space — got its first big break in the first month of the pandemic. The doors that previously seemed shut flew wide open, and the founder was courageous enough to step right in. Another client of ours, a large chemicals company, doubled down on developing its inaugural climate strategy, to ensure sustainable future, in the middle of dealing with the crises of the present. A real estate developer continued to follow their vision of a mind-blowingly beautiful sustainable retail complex, and a multinational tech company renewed its efforts to quantify and expand its community investment efforts in markets half-way around the globe from its headquarters.
All of this was incredibly inspiring, and it’s that kind of momentum and commitment that I work to keep going into the future.
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?
Sometimes, thinking big has unintended consequences. When I started Strategy DNA, I followed the conventional wisdom of incorporating and issuing an impressive — if not slightly insane — number of shares. A few months later, when it was time to pay corporate taxes, I received a bill for about 80K from the State of Delaware. I was in shock and first started scheming about all the ways to cover the bill. I was just starting out, so the sheer amount almost gave me a heart attack. Then I switched to rehearsing imaginary conversations with the tax authorities in Delaware where I would plead my case and beg for an extension. But at some point, it occurred to me that well, there must have been other businesses in the same position, and… after a few minutes of frantic googling realized that using an alternative, and perfectly legal way of calculating the tax was applicable. That move cut Strategy DNA’s tax bill down to $400. But the initial shock was priceless. Most important lesson, surprisingly, given my background, was that not everything had to be hard. Struggle is truly optional. Ever since, I’ve been learning to bring more balance into how I do business, leaning on experts and looking for creative ways to solve problems.
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?
My “American family,” Les and Pat Joslin, whom I met when I first visited the U.S. in my senior year of high school. After spending three weeks at their home in Bend, OR, I decided that I would one day come back to Oregon for graduate school. Not just the U.S. — Oregon, like it was a separate country. It was Les who years later made sure it happened. It was also Les who became the first investor in Strategy DNA many, many years after that. It is that absolute confidence someone had placed in me that made a huge difference. Additionally, I can’t forget to mention my husband who has not only supported my endeavors throughout the years but has been my cheerleader, partner, and confidant through it all. I feel so lucky that he is riding next to me in this journey of life.
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?
What this statistic really illustrates is the chances of getting funding for female-led startups, which is only one aspect of founding and running a company. Yes, it shows some progress. Interestingly though, about 28% of ALL startups have a female founder as compared to 20% of FUNDED startups. This 8-percent difference actually tells me that a lot of work still needs to be done. It starts to look like there in fact may still be a “penalty” for having a female founder.
And let’s consider it within an even broader context. Women are founding companies at a large scale. Around 40% of all businesses are owned by women, so there is no lack of self-determination and guts out there for sure. But the majority never seek venture funding, but what’s truly heartbreaking is that they never grow beyond being a solopreneur. Which in most cases means severe limits on the reach, scale, business and social impact, and income potential of those lone female founders. In fact, the numbers of female founders tend to grow during recessions, which means that starting a business for many women is almost an act of desperation after losing a job rather than the beginning of a triumphant “entrepreneurial journey.”
So, the real issue is access to resources, whether it’s angel or VC funding, or good old business loans, or other support structures like childcare and family support. All of these are real barriers.
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?
As much as I would love to point back to the structural issues we’ve just talked about, there is no replacement for sheer determination and ingenuity. My great grandmother Valentina, at age 17, during Russia’s civil war, travelled hundreds of miles to St. Petersburg to gain entry to the only university in the country that could prepare her to be a school administrator. She had just lost her parents. She had one pair of summer shoes when she traveled across Russia in the fall. But what was important was that the college she was studying at wasn’t going to help her reach her dreams. So, she skipped classes in the beginning of the new academic year in Yaroslavl and sat at the office of the dean of the university in St. Petersburg until they gave up and admitted her.
I see people just like that in the founders, owners, CEOs, and executives at companies we work with. There are so many women founders who carry that same spark, and I continue to be amazed and humbled by their grit and vision. So, whatever we can do collectively as a society to nurture this kind of spirit and cheer people along on their way, is incredibly important.
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?
My PhD supervisor used to say that we can’t to expect to build a thriving economy while excluding half of the population from full participation in it. It seemed self-evident at the time, but it is profoundly true. There is some research into the superpowers women tend to bring to the table when it comes to business. But I try not to deal in generalities. We are all different. And precisely because of that we never know what kernels of talent each of us carries — and what we miss out on when someone is discouraged, dismissed, or ignored. When someone’s vision never gets the chance that it deserves. When the spark is dimmed. When dreams are squashed. When they resort to the quiet resignation of “someday, maybe.” Those times are when we all lose.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest “myth” is the story of the magical “unicorn” startup. Aspiring startup founders are fed stories of others taking their companies through the funding rounds all the way to IPOs. Everyone strives to become the next Facebook or Uber. We tend to focus on the heroic success stories — or, alternatively, the most notorious flops. But neither reflect the real experience of hundreds and thousands of people who build successful companies. There are so many spaces in between these two extremes, so there are many opportunities for founders to create companies that work for their lives.
There are many versions of success, too. For example, I started Strategy DNA as a SaaS company, which involved developing an MVP of the tool, assembling the development team, getting smart very quickly on machine learning and ai, dabbling in IBM Watson, working with patent lawyers, figuring out subscription pricing models… yet ultimately realizing that what I really wanted all along was to build the next McKinsey. A consulting company. With a strong technology component, perhaps, but ultimately, a knowledge hub, rather than a technology company. This is a vastly different game to play, and a whole lot harder to scale. But that’s ultimately what is a lot more exciting for me personally.
We always win the games we play, but we have to choose wisely and be clear about what it is that we really want to win at. Having more options to be a founder outside of the choice between a unicorn and an epic failure could help a lot of people chart their own course — and actually have fun with that.
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?
It certainly takes a different level of personal responsibility — the buck truly has to stop with me. And with that comes a much higher level of uncertainty, sometimes even chaos, and the ability to create something out of it is what ultimately makes the day.
The challenge is that it is hard to gauge one’s “level of preparedness” to take all of this on until they take the plunge into entrepreneurship. To be honest, I never felt “ready” to start my company, and the experience has been nothing short of a personal transformation. I know many entrepreneurs in that same boat. So a better gauge of someone’s potential for entrepreneurship is, very often, their level of discomfort with the “regular job” — or more likely a string of “regular jobs.” Now that I have not been an employee for some time, I have a renewed appreciation for what that takes — and it’s certainly not for everyone, either. We’ve just been conditioned to think of it as “the norm,” and that’s why so many people are so miserable in their jobs.
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.)
- Critical thinking — the ability to think for yourself and choose the course that is the right fit for you and your company. There is just too much bad advice out there, from clueless content peddlers regurgitating someone else’s insights — to self-proclaimed gurus whose marketing machine is the most advanced part of their business — to bona fide experts and entrepreneurs who have achieved success but whose approach may not be applicable to everyone. In fact, most books written by business leaders contain the highly sanitized, “public” versions of their stories and omit the real struggles, tricks, and the ways they actually achieved success. And gets convoluted very quickly. You are supposed to hustle — but also seek balance and set boundaries. You need to specialize — but also cast a wide net to “future-proof” your business. Multitask — but also hyper-focus. Delegate and outsource — but control everything. Package and productize — but stay flexible and hyper-personalize. Sell on social media — but make sure you’re not seen as sales-ey. It’s all about execution. And — it’s all about the mindset. All of these may be true — but you need to be able to quickly separate signal from the noise and only follow the advice that rings true to your company, your goals, your customers, and your market.
- Compassion, including self-compassion. Sometimes this means understanding when to push the team and when to let off — the COVID pandemic, for example, has brought this into focus. Sometimes — knowing what’s right for the client rather than what looks good as a consulting product. Compassion may also mean tolerance for imperfection. When I just started Strategy DNA, I was a perfect… perfectionist. I hired a copywriter to create Strategy DNA’s website copy, then rewrote it, and then rewrote it again. In the meantime, what made the difference was my firm’s ability to diagnose and solve clients’ problems — and honest, insightful conversations about the future of their companies that I have had the privilege to engage in. Not the perfect copy.
- The will to do what it takes. This is what makes running a company different from being an employee. In fact, I once didn’t get a job exactly because I said in the interview that on one of the prior projects, I “did what it took.” Ironically, the hiring manager interpreted it as being too much of a conformist — and that was certainly the first — and the last time for me to be labeled this way. Far from that, in my book, doing what it takes meant taking full responsibility for everything that happens. For someone to so clearly misunderstand it is in itself a telling sign that the concept just isn’t common in the world of employees. That’s not necessarily bad or wrong, but to run a business, one must have it in their bones.
- Intellectual curiosity. No company exists in a vacuum, and in this day and age, your operations, your product, and your suppliers touch upon many market spaces all at once. The pace of change is breakneck. I strongly believe in the power of generalists — especially when it comes to building a company. This is what the entire idea behind Strategy DNA is as we work to enrich clients’ understanding of their situations with insights from other industries. This is why I personally can’t seem to stop learning about new and exciting market spaces. No matter the kind of a company one runs, constantly learning about things outside of their field of vision can be the key to success — and even its very survival.
- An addiction to adventure. It is extremely unlikely for someone like me to end up where I am now. To begin with, I grew up next to an oil refinery in a provincial part of Russia. I didn’t get a degree in computer sciences or biology and was told by other Russian immigrants that there wouldn’t be much future for me in the U.S. Starting yet another consulting company in today’s market is not necessarily a recipe for quick success, either. Bringing new services into a market with armies of other consultants selling the intangible is in itself a nail-biter. But breaking through all of these barriers has been first and foremost, fun. Part of what brought me to the U.S., was, of course, ambition. But another huge part was just the sheer love of adventure. Being a founder absolutely requires it.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I love seeing the impact of our work — whether it’s someone gaining clarity on their company’s direction, making the right choices, or having the confidence to move in an exciting new direction. Sometimes the impact can be measured millions of dollars and thousands of jobs. Other times, it’s a look on a founder’s face when they realize that their long-nurtured dream is within reach. Both are priceless.
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 would declare a “war on potential.” This is one of the most overused and hollow words — yet our culture seems to be addicted to it. It means something not yet fulfilled, and that “yet” is what makes it seem OK. But that’s exactly the problem. The reality is, most people never live up to their true potential. That “someday, maybe” never happens. But our gifts are meant to be expressed, and everyone deserves an opportunity to do so.
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’m a huge fan of Roland Frasier, an investor, a business mentor, and a self-described “recovering lawyer.” He has this incredible ability to make complex information accessible to all, in a friendly and practical way. Everything he does is a blend of hard-nosed analysis, creativity, and inspiration — the perfect formula for changing the world one business at a time.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.