Female Founders: Jenn Graham of Inclusivv On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

--

Build a circle of trust. Surround yourself with people who believe in you, who want you to succeed, and who have the business chops to poke holes in your ideas and make them stronger. You need a mix of counselors, cheerleaders and strategists to help you prepare for moments that can change the trajectory of your business. I have an advisor Kim Seals, who I consult with before every big pitch and with her help I won a $10K Startup Runway grant! And of course, be sure to thank those who help you along the way.

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

Jenn Graham is the Founder and CEO of Inclusivv. As CEO, Jenn is dedicated to creating a product that empowers communities to build empathy, raise awareness, and create collective action around critical issues. Since founding Inclusivv in 2016, Jenn has built a global team and a digital platform that has enabled thousands of dinners across the world, with a goal of inviting a million people to the table by 2021. Jenn has been named Atlanta Business Chronicle’s “2019 Small Business Person of the Year”, a 2020 World-Changing Woman by Conscious Business Media and is a 2019 Startup Runway Winner.

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?

It was actually a bike accident on my way to work one day that propelled me into community organizing. I had always complained about the lack of safe infrastructure in our city, but I had never done anything to change it, until I was the one impacted. It was through this personal experience of dealing with a structural system did I learn that there are two ways you can create real and lasting change. The first way requires changing it from within the system as a participant (employee, voter, volunteer, etc) and the other way is more disruptive, by changing the culture through stories (media, language, ideas, etc.).

After co-organizing TEDxAtlanta for five years I learned the power of storytelling, and the power of a well-structured story to package an idea and deliver it in a way that was well received. Yet I began to feel frustrated with the lack of implementation of these big ideas. I realized talk is easy, leading real and lasting change is hard. And I became obsessed with figuring out how we help close the loop for people, and give them the tools to take action around meaningful issues.

That’s when I discovered the power of participation combined with storytelling as a fuel for creating real and lasting change. I realized that in order to bring ideas into action and really drive progress, we need a way for everyone to be able to participate, share their voice and make a commitment to be part of the solution. In order to do that, we had to go smaller and more structured. That’s what led us to create Civic Dinners, now known as Inclusivv.

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

Nothing could have prepared us for the pandemic. In March of 2020, we were halfway through Techstars Social Impact, with big hopes and dreams of scaling. And then the world shut down. It was a scary time for our team and for people all across the globe. Essentially, dinner was cancelled. The whole premise of our company was in jeopardy. We held our breath as we pivoted overnight into the virtual world, at a time when we needed to feel connected more than ever, especially during peak social isolation. We successfully pivoted within just 10 days, and thankfully, video created the intimacy that we needed to recreate the magic of in-person conversations. The silver lining was that there were some perks to going digital. We were now able to bring others together from around the world, and suddenly geography or access to transportation was no longer a barrier for people to participate in these powerful conversations. We took this transition period to double down on our global mission and translated our site into 11 languages, setting us up for expansion into Europe, Africa and Latin America.

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?

After the bike accident that launched me into community organizing, I was introduced to Thomas Stokell, the founder and CEO of Love to Ride. He had built an app that used behavior change theory to get more people cycling, and I was blown away by his use of technology to help create real and lasting behavior change. I shared my ideas and early experiments with Civic Dinners and he saw immediately how it could be a global tech platform for gathering people around conversations that matter. As a non-technical founder, I leaned on him for guidance on building the MVP and the foundations for building a solid team. Full disclosure, we’re now married with two kids and loving every minute of it.

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?

As a woman, and as a mother of two young children, I can say personally why women might opt out of being a founder, for the same reasons they might opt out of any high-stress job that requires 110%. It’s a lot of work. And you have to have a high risk tolerance or be financially independent. For me, if it wasn’t for a supportive husband, and support at home, it would be impossible. Thankfully I was well on my way on my journey of entrepreneurship before having children. I also know that I have an abnormally high work ethic, but it comes with a lot of sacrifices and tradeoffs with friends and family time, and mom guilt. It can also be lonely being a founder, and without the right support system with other founders, few understand what you’re juggling. For me, the hardest part has been managing the finances, taxes, legal, hiring, firing, and all the not-so-fun parts of running a business on top of sales, customer experience and product development.

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?

I wish someone understood all that goes into being a founder. I feel there would be a lot more empathy and support if people simply understood what it takes to start and grow and fund a business from scratch. I feel blessed to have benefited from so many startup incubators and accelerator programs, from the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative of the City of Atlanta, to LaunchPad2x to the Center for Civic Innovation Fellowship, to Techstars. So many of these groups offer training and education on the areas of entrepreneurship, however I feel what we need most is the fractional technical support around finance, legal, accounting and financial modeling. Having trusted advisors to surround ourselves with early would give us the freedom to focus on our strengths, without costing us an arm and a leg. The early stages are so critical and often founders go without paying themselves or those essential first hires that can cover these core business areas. I was blessed to be offered a zero interest loan through Invest Atlanta and that helped me hire a COO to help take over areas of the business that weren’t my strengths. Therefore, access to financing that is founder friendly and perhaps even forgivable (if certain revenue metrics are met) would be powerful.

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?

We hosted a public conversation on “Working Moms,” with special guest Allion Robinson from The Mom Project. The insights from this conversation were mind-blowing, but they reinforced something I’ve always known and still believe: women bring an invaluable perspective to leadership which, in the end, is good for everybody. There are so many studies highlighting how women leaders positively impact a company’s bottom line, but beyond that, women have a unique way of pouring into their teams. And we can’t overstate the importance of representation; when younger women see us in leadership roles, they are more likely to pursue these roles themselves.

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

One of the greatest myths or misconceptions about being a founder is that “they” have all the answers. It’s likely that the founder had a great idea or a grand vision and the curiosity and persistence to pursue it. But it doesn’t mean that they are an excellent people manager, or finance wizard, or can even teach people how they do what they do. As a founder, it requires a lot of humility and self-awareness to understand what you’re good at, and where you need to either buff up your skillset or outsource. There’s no way the founder can be everything to everyone. And the leadership style at the top has to adapt to the changing needs of the organization as it scales from 1–10 to 11–20 to 21–35 in size.

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?

Being a founder definitely requires responsibility, adaptability and a high level of comfort with uncertainty. It requires a certain risk tolerance, and a level of confidence that you have what it takes to figure it out along the way. If you prefer stability and security, it’s probably not the best fit for you. Being a founder has exciting highs and also gut-wrenching lows, and needs the emotional support and high self-esteem to keep going when things get tough. There’s also power in being an intrapreneur within a company, where you have the security of a paycheck, and the freedom to build something new.

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. Know what brings you joy. I’m definitely one of those people who takes every self assessment available on the planet, from DISC to 16 personalities, to Enneagram, to Human Design. You name it, I’ve taken it. But true self-awareness is understanding what makes you happy, what brings you joy, where you feel most valued, and how you serve others using your strengths. It’s important to remember what brings you joy, what’s worth your time and attention, and what’s not.
  2. Dream big. Asking questions like, “if you could do anything, knowing you could not fail, what would you do?” to get to the root of your passions and desires. I did this with my husband after we got married knowing that we had two years before we would start a family. I made the decision to go all in and see if this idea of bringing people together for conversation could fly. And then I got to work.
  3. Build a circle of trust. Surround yourself with people who believe in you, who want you to succeed, and who have the business chops to poke holes in your ideas and make them stronger. You need a mix of counselors, cheerleaders and strategists to help you prepare for moments that can change the trajectory of your business. I have an advisor Kim Seals, who I consult with before every big pitch and with her help I won a $10K Startup Runway grant! And of course, be sure to thank those who help you along the way.
  4. Stay customer focused. No matter what, always stay close to your customers. They are the ones with the problem you are helping them solve, and they help co-create the solutions with you along the way. One thing we’re implementing is a Customer Advisory Council to help us understand the biggest pain points, where we are providing the most value, and where we could improve. It’s humbling and it’s gold.
  5. Live in integrity. Being a founder is hard. There will be moments where you want to cry, and others where you feel invincible. There will be moments when you aren’t sure if you’ll make payroll and have self-doubts. Stay true to your values and be true to yourself and your word. Remember that even if everything doesn’t go as planned, you’ll always have yourself to fall back on. Therefore be kind and proud of yourself, for you have the courage to pursue your dreams.

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

When I first set out to build Inclusivv (formerly known as Civic Dinners) I wanted to create a company that would be an example of how a business could do well by doing good. I’m proud to share that we are a Benefit Corporation, and recently B-Corp certified. We’re also a women-owned business and certified, and have a very diverse team, leadership team and board. We truly walk the talk. And what we do is all about elevating consciousness around important issues, and giving everyone a chance to share their voice, hear diverse perspectives, and commit to action. Through our platform, we’ve held over 3,000 conversations, engaging over 26,000 people around the world on topics ranging from Bridging the Racial Divide, to the Voice of Women, to Belonging. We have a goal of equipping one million people with the skills and tools to engage in meaningful dialogue around important issues that strengthens empathy and leads to real and lasting change within organizations and communities.

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 truly believe that Dr. MLK Jr. had it right all along. I feel that at the root of the division in this country and the world is not hate, it’s separation. I believe that if we committed to getting to know one another on a human level, through sharing stories and engaging in dialogue around the issues we care about, we’d realize that we have a lot more in common than we thought and we’d start collaborating rather than arguing. There’s so much misunderstanding because we’re talking at each other, about each other, but not with each other. Therefore, the movement I’d love to see is everyone having monthly conversations with people they’d normally not meet, and being exposed to new perspectives. I believe it would generate a tremendous amount of empathy and help accelerate the necessary culture change that we need around climate change, racial equity and more.

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.

Brené Brown is one of my advisors, although she doesn’t know it. I follow her work and imagine collaborating with her one day as at the core of our work with Inclusivv is the power of storytelling and the importance of vulnerability. It would mean so much to be able to co-create a curriculum with her and leverage her deep knowledge and research with our platform to help practice vulnerability through structured conversations in a safe, brave space.

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

--

--

Candice Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

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