Surround yourself with the right people: There will be enough nay-sayers out there, usually men who tend to feel threatened, may have linear cognitive processes, and might not buy into your vision. To deal with these kinds of issues, it’s vital to surround yourself with positive, supportive people who can give you honest feedback and provide insight into how to move forward. For women in my generation, we didn’t have many female mentors or role models in the workplace. Finding other women who’ve been in the trenches can help you find funding, and understand the role that sexism plays in business, giving you the much needed support to navigate uncharted territory.
Dr. Jan Roberts is a licensed clinical social worker and recognized leader and clinician in the field of mental health, including the therapeutic use of cannabis and cannabis-based medications.
Dr. Roberts is the founder of Madison Square Partners (MSP), a private equity firm with the aim of funding and creating novel healthcare businesses targeting underserved communities and The Cannabinoid Institute an educational institute focused on providing CME/CE accredited English and Spanish-language education to physicians, pharmacists, nurses, and mental health practitioners across the globe in hopes of improving education and reducing adverse outcomes to vulnerable populations.
Dr. Roberts currently lives in New York City and still sees patients at her private practice in Manhattan.
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?
Absolutely. I’m a therapist, mom and business owner who has spent my life overcoming adversity in many directions. I am originally from a working-class family in Alabama, and the first one in my family to go to college. As a trauma survivor, I’d always felt different from those around me; because of my early experiences, I was curious about what compels people to do the things they do. I started struggling with depression and anxiety in my late teens and early 20s, and I began having panic attacks and knew something changed. In search of solutions, I began practicing meditation, mindfulness, and yoga. I found that connecting to my body really was vital and helped me begin a path of healing. I’d held executive level roles in various healthcare organizations but wanted to make a difference on a grander scale. In my mid-30’s, after planning for more than a year, I decided to return to school to be a therapist. Within two months of me leaving a lucrative career at U of Pennsylvania Health System and starting graduate school full-time, my husband left me for his secretary. I felt betrayed and scared, and I was broke. As the mom of three kids, I decided to continue the path of becoming a therapist. Fast forward fifteen years later, I am so grateful for those lessons. I remind myself: “if you have to go through something horrible, you can use your experience to help others”. That has been my motto and continues to influence all of the choices I make. I’ve spent my career trying to help other women, especially those who’ve experienced trauma. There are so many of us out there, and frankly I continue to see patients and invest my time and energy into helping women to quit playing small. Creating tools and helping others to live their best life influences all of my projects at work.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I’ve been very fortunate to focus on providing innovative solutions to healthcare issues across the globe. What started as my work simply as a therapist has emerged to be a disruptor and change-agent in the mental health and wellbeing space. Probably the most interesting story I’ve had was during a business trip to China. I’d been flown to China by the Chinese government to speak about the role of CBD and its impact on mental health. Since this is such a new area, a lot of people don’t quite understand the intersection of cannabinoids, the endocannabinoid system and mood regulation. But being asked to speak with politicians, scientists and physicians at this grand event was such an honor. I love experiencing new cultures, and this event was one of the most incredible experiences I ever had. But the best part was actually the relationships I made there. I made some great friends and business connections that I still benefit from today. For me, building relationships and collaboration are necessary to impact this world in a positive way. Being able to have a global platform to do that is not something I take lightly.
I was in Colombia speaking to the Colombian Society of Pediatrics about cannabinoids and mental health. It was a huge event and the first time anyone had provided this type of education. I was interviewed for around 30 minutes by their leading newspaper in Bogota (El Tiempo). The reporter also interviewed one of the male researchers who worked for me for around two minutes. I was excited to see the press coverage because the event was being widely followed and new laws around CBD had been passed by the government. The day of the event, I woke up to find the article and a picture of the male researcher who worked for me on the front page of El Tiempo. Essentially the reporter attributed most of the content to my male employee and made little mention of me. I understood that the culture was less favorable to women in Latin America, but I’d never experienced that level of discrimination for being a woman. It was the first time that it occurred to me that while being a woman in business in the US is considered more acceptable, being a woman-owned business in some cultures is a major handicap. In the US, we often fail to realize that women have more autonomy than in other parts of the world, because it’s so easy to forget our history and how much our mothers had to go through. But, this event solidified my own desire and commitment to focus more on women’s health issues on a global scale; oppression of any sort is oppression for 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?
I’m not sure if it is funny, but I certainly laugh at my naivety back then. Years ago, I started to incorporate integrative health practices such as massage, nutritional coaching, and yoga into one of my businesses. Personally, I knew that mind-body strategies were vital to creating health for our patients, but I knew nothing about the business of yoga and massage. The venture wasn’t profitable, and, after a year of this expansion and investment, I pivoted back to focus on the therapy side of my business for business reasons. It’s funny now because I used to think “good intentions” were enough. But the lesson I learned was that no matter how good your intentions, to be successful and authentic requires balancing your values, knowing where you need support, and executing your vision with discrete, achievable goals.
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?
Unfortunately, for too many women my age, we’ve had few role models or mentors in the workplace. I am only here because of the people I’ve surrounded myself throughout the years and from the tough lessons I’ve learned. A few years ago, I was considering closing one of my businesses. I’d moved to New York a few years prior, and it was clear that my work in NYC was expanding and time had become a precious commodity. It was one of the hardest decisions I ever made, because it was “my baby”. But, in order to move forward with Madison Square Partners, I knew something had to give. I was being pulled in a significantly different direction and I knew that what I was doing would present a greater impact on society and women especially. One of my mentors actually laughed at me one day when I was discussing my concerns and how I was struggling to make the decision that I knew needed to be made. He pointed out, “You’re running your business like a therapist!” I realized he was right. After working with patients for so long and teaching them about healthy boundaries and the importance of self-care, I wasn’t following my own advice. I was stuck in my emotions and caretaking of others instead of the healthiest thing to do for me. Shortly afterward, I made the decision to close that business, and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
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?
I have found that often when people fail to perform or fail to “shoot for the stars,” it’s their own limiting beliefs or self-doubt holding them back.
I am so grateful for the progress that has been made to encourage and empower women over the last twenty years, but there is still so much more that needs to be addressed. As a business owner, but more importantly as a therapist, I am keenly aware of how our thoughts influence our feelings and behaviors. In my experience in working with women, I often find that they have such ingrained, automatic limiting thoughts. I’ve seen this play out in my past as well. In our society, while we have made advances, women and young girls still carry the lion’s share of responsibility as caretakers, and our value remains remarkably diminished as evidenced in salary differences and expectations.
We need to do better. We need to keep chipping away, improving and moving away from the ingrained behaviors of a patriarchal society and share and collaborate in building a more balanced way forward that draws on the strengths of all. I remember when I was in grade school, the ERA failed to pass. I remember at that time thinking that the failure to pass meant that people did not support women as equal to men, that all people are created equal. First, we need to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. We need to ensure that women are fairly compensated, and as a society we need to celebrate our commitment to equality. Legislation is part of that. Second, we need to begin changing how we raise all our children no matter their gender and beyond. We need to remain vigilant about recognizing, teaching and modeling equality: respecting women as equals through consent, dismantling objectification, and sharing roles, responsibilities, parenting, and power.
People tend to give up power only when they are compelled to do so. Male fragility is real, and we need to address how our society still embodies patriarchal attitudes and expectations. And finally, and most importantly, we need to begin addressing the unacceptable reality of how trauma has impacted women. Years ago, before I started my business, I had a physician corner me in an office, and try to kiss and grope me. I reported it to my manager who reported it to the CEO. The physician received a slap on the wrist and I was assured he’d “never work with me again”. Within a year, due to staffing shortages, this physician who had a history of abusive behavior, was brought back to my department to work side-by-side with me. It was demoralizing and infuriating to be so disregarded. These types of situations and patterns are egregious — they impact women exponentially more than men. When businesses allow this to happen, women are more likely to internalize the message that we are not equally valued. These types of practices lead to women playing small. When I hear women apologizing or saying “I’m sorry” repeatedly, it’s a clue that they’ve internalized not being considered equal. We need to deeply evaluate and discuss how our thoughts can limit us, and how our voices are negated. Women will remain disadvantaged until we are respected, lawfully, as equals.
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?
This is about power frankly. Business founders set agendas and have significant impact in the world. We need women founders so that women’s experiences can be represented. In my work in women’s health and mental health, I am committed to promoting women’s health issues that have historically not been addressed or promoted. It has been said that the personal is political. And, I’ve used my experiences and outrage about being treated unequally to guide my work. Women leaders in business can better ensure that we are represented in research dollars, product development, and beyond: and we can enforce an inclusive culture in the workplace and everywhere, where we are respected and treated as equals. Inclusivity is vital to creating fairness and innovation. Differing perspectives can make us stronger drive progress. Having dedicated my career to helping people live their best lives, I founded Madison Square Partners as a means to help direct my passion to support much needed change and equality. I can’t rely on male executives to protect my rights or those of other women, and I am putting my time, money, energy, expertise and commitment to reverse the deficits currently holding us all back.
Mentoring is also vital. We have come a long way, but there is so much to be gained when women and men are treated equally. I never had female mentors and have committed a significant amount of time mentoring young women to change that. When there is an imbalance of power, we can expect problems. The pandemic has proven that the old ways of operating are no longer working. This is why we are seeing so many people leaving their jobs; they are questioning systems, assumptions, and inequalities and making their voices heard. Many are looking for collaboration and questioning the existing structures and hierarchy. Many are demanding inclusivity and resisting oppression inherent in the existing culture and constructs. Women founders and our voices are critical now. We can effectively improve our lives, by voicing and protecting our interests, and in turn, the interests of all who are disadvantaged or oppressed, as role models and leaders.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
There are three. One is that being a founder means that you’re always successful. This is simply not true. Failure is a part of life and a part of growth; it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or that you’re not doing something worthwhile. Some of my better achievements have come out of my worst failures. And the lessons I’ve learned from those are immeasurable.
We tend to think of failure as a dirty word. But those of us who have failed magnificently have used those lessons to grow. All of us fail, and we shouldn’t be afraid to discuss it. How many light bulbs did Thomas Edison attempt to create before he found his way?
The second myth is that female founders must not experience fear because of their courage. We all experience fear: it’s part of the territory and risk-taking. Having courage does not mean that you aren’t scared or afraid of failure. Fear is a normal human emotion; it is not a sign of failure or lack of ability.
The third myth is that being a founder means you have to be great at everything. This is absolutely untrue. No one becomes a professional athlete without lots of practice, working with a team and constantly learning and honing skills. Being a founder means surrounding yourself with talent, learning from your mistakes, and remaining coachable. Know your limits and blind-spots, and then surround yourself with the right people who can help you achieve your goals.
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?
That is such a great question! Most people have no clue what it’s like to run a business. I believe in order to be a successful founder, you need to be diligent and risk-tolerant. That is not for everyone. It takes a certain belief in yourself and willingness to meet the blind spots to persevere. Some people are not risk tolerant for many reasons, and for those, a ”regular job” might be a better choice. To be fair, sometimes I have asked that question of myself, but I don’t think I could ever go back to working for someone else. That just doesn’t seem like much fun. I like my autonomy.
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. Surround yourself with the right people: There will be enough nay-sayers out there, usually men who tend to feel threatened, may have linear cognitive processes, and might not buy into your vision. To deal with these kinds of issues, it’s vital to surround yourself with positive, supportive people who can give you honest feedback and provide insight into how to move forward. For women in my generation, we didn’t have many female mentors or role models in the workplace. Finding other women who’ve been in the trenches can help you find funding, and understand the role that sexism plays in business, giving you the much needed support to navigate uncharted territory.
For me, I’ve had to let go of relationships and people who bred negativity. Getting critical feedback is one thing, but listening to someone doubt your every move can be disabling and is most likely a reflection of their own fears and approval needs than your own failures.
2. Learn how to have difficult conversations: Let’s face it. We all want to be liked, and unfortunately because of how we’ve been socialized, we tend to value others’ opinions of us over our own voice. However, you can’t lead a business endeavor or a strong team, if your self-worth is based on other’s opinions of you. This often leads to women being uncomfortable with conflict. Recently, I had a client who realized that she was afraid to address a coworker’s lack of abilities because she “didn’t want to throw her under the bus”. My client found that her co-worker’s ineptitude was negatively impacting her own work and causing significant more anxiety. We worked on creating confidence around having difficult conversations and even role-played the scenario with her supervisor. As I expected, her supervisor had noticed this as well and my client learned that there were solutions to the problem. Learning how to have this difficult conversation gave my client the confidence she needed and reinforced her value and worth. Since that conversation, she’s become more comfortable having difficult conversations which have led to better results and less anxiety; if she would have avoided these conversations, she would still be anxious, overworked, and most likely filled with resentment of her colleague which have significant impacts on high functioning business teams.
3. Create healthy boundaries for yourself: Healthy boundaries are not just individual psychological tools but are healthy tools for business as well. Healthy boundaries include: self-care, not caretaking or enabling others, and holding others accountable. Self-care is critical for success. Most women have been raised to be caretakers and see self-care as a luxury or being selfish or self-indulgent. Unfortunately, this can have dreadful consequences in the workplace. I’ve seen this play out in many for my clients with the result usually being burnout, exhaustion, and ineffectiveness in their roles. To be effective as a woman business owner, you have to know your limits, know when to recharge, and know what is the best path forward. This includes not putting yourself in the role of caretaker for others at work as well. Because of our socialization, many women bring their nurturing side to their work. While being nurturing is not the issue, enabling others is- whether it’s with poor performance from an employee, insubordination from an employee, and even becoming too involved in their personal lives. By not holding people accountable for not doing their job (aka, having poor boundaries), women founders often take on the additional work and become overburdened. This leads to diffused attention and taking your focus away from your needs to be successful. It’s better to have successful performance management strategies than to take on additional responsibilities. In addition, being successful in business requires women to understand that “it’s not personal, it’s business.” I have experienced this as well and learned the hard way that my job is not to “mother” but to lead.
For me, creating healthy boundaries around my time is a must. To counteract my stress level, massages, yoga, and meditation time are required. In the mornings, I don’t look at my email or my phone until after I have taken care of my need for quiet meditative time. We need balance, and boundaries can help achieve that.
4. Follow your heart: Yes, I said it. Most men would never tell you this, but, if you are led by your passion and your purpose, you are more likely to succeed. Love what you focus on and you will never feel like you’re working; it always feels like play. In addition, research has shown that purpose-driven businesses “grew by 1681% compared to the S&P 500 average of 118%”. (Sisodia 2014; Source: https://www.businessofpurpose.com/statistics)
I’ve found that when my passion is activated, I put in more effort than is required and have higher tolerance for risks. Following your heart is a great way to be set up for success.
5. Be authentic: Women and men approach things differently. Often, women have unique attributes that historically have been deemed by men as “emotional” or “too relational”. These traits are not problems but assets when used correctly. They can be harnessed when following the other tips mentioned here to provide “transformational leadership”. “Transformational leadership” is a relationally-driven leadership style that many employees prefer and feel inspired by. These traits are most often found in female leaders and lead to higher employee retention rates and high performing teams. In my generation, most women starting their own businesses or working in executive levels often attempted to mimic men’s leadership styles. Not only have hierarchical and transactional leadership styles proven to be stifling, but they also don’t lead to creative solutions and growth mindsets. By authentically owning ourselves and our unique style in the workplace, we role model self-actualization and confidence to our employees. In addition, and this is one of the most critical factors, pay attention to the language we use about ourselves as women business leaders. There is no reason to apologize for being you. Many women automatically revert to self-deprecating behavior or language and often apologize or say things like “I’m sorry” when being assertive. As a result, we diminish our power. Realizing that our power lies in our authenticity helps to break this cycle, and learning how to harness the internal power we have is part of developing into a leader.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I started Madison Square Partners with the vision of creating companies to address healthcare issues for medically underserved populations. My focus is on improving mental health and women’s health in particular. I have a background in sociology and social work, so I bring the awareness that we are products of our environment, and to change our trajectory, we have to address power and influence. I have a commitment to helping those with less power or a voice in all that I do. And, I do this shamelessly. Frankly, I want to use my position to leave this world a better place than when I got here. I take this activist approach to heart, and it influences all that I do.
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’m fascinated with natural treatments that have shown to have an impact on health and wellbeing, and the research on the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and specific disease states makes it a great target for treating certain conditions. The ECS impacts hormone regulation, cortisol production, and mood making it an interesting area of focus for women’s health issues like menopause, fibromyalgia, endometriosis and so many other conditions. There are so many ways to influence the ECS without using cannabis as well, and there are some interesting ways to approach this without ever touching the cannabis plant. This is an area I am really passionate about. We need smarter approaches to treatment that involve a holistic and integrative approach.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.