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Female Founders: Jennifer Pope Of Work Shield On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Collaboration is key — From my experience, women intuitively know the value of collaboration. A female founder may think of an innovative business idea, but it usually takes more than the founder’s efforts alone to get a business up and running. Building a team with capable people who can support each other and the business is critical.

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

Jennifer is the Co-founder of Work Shield, the only start-to-finish workplace harassment and discrimination reporting, investigation and resolution solution that protects employees, employers and cultures at the same time. Jennifer’s background as an attorney fueled her desire to help others. She leverages her professional experiences in business and law to help employers shift the paradigm related to workplace harassment and discrimination to ensure that everyone has a voice.

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?

First, thank you for sharing this opportunity with me. When I look back at my professional career path, it’s not surprising to me that I am where I am today, as each of my prior roles has helped prepare me for where I am now. After graduating from Texas A&M University (Whoop!) with a BBA in Finance, I worked for an HR consulting company in their defined benefit practice where I learned not only the importance of providing excellent client service but also how critical workplace culture and employee development is to the success of a company. When I reflect back on this first job that seems as if it were a lifetime ago, I appreciate even more the lessons I learned from my team members and managers at such an early period in my professional career.

I decided to continue my education and graduated from SMU Dedman School of Law with a focus on business law. It was during law school that I met my husband, Jared Pope, who is also a founder of Work Shield. I ended up calling Dallas home upon graduation and joined a large law firm as a corporate and securities associate, where I was both challenged and energized by my work. I then transitioned to SMU Dedman School of Law’s Office of Career Services, where I counseled law students and assisted legal employers interested in hiring law school students and alumni. These experiences provided me with immense satisfaction knowing that I was helping people and companies grow and become more successful.

In 2018, Jared, our friend and a fellow attorney, Travis Foster, and I founded Work Shield, which was born in response to the #MeToo movement and the need to provide employers with an immediate platform that allows their employees to safely voice workplace misconduct issues while providing them peace of mind that issues would be investigated and resolved efficiently to mitigate risk. Work Shield’s vision remains the same today as three years ago when we founded it: to foster positive and open workplace cultures comprised of integrity and trust.

Our vision was something I could get behind immediately because early in my professional life I knew of unfortunate situations in which employers did not handle workplace misconduct incidents with integrity, let alone trust. The effects of mishandling this workplace misconduct left the employers with potential liability and the impacted employees without a voice to be heard. Not only did the outcomes negatively affect employee morale, productivity, and retention, but also thwarted the trajectory of their professional careers. These were truly lose-lose scenarios. Had these employers’ partnered with Work Shield, their employees would have been more likely to speak up and toxic behavior could have stopped sooner. The last three years have been an exhilarating flurry of innovation and execution on our goals, and I am excited about our future.

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

What comes to mind isn’t so much recalling a story as much as a lesson learned that has helped me keep perspective as a leader. Jared and I often talk about the phrase “attitude reflects leadership,” and we understand the responsibility that comes with being a leader. I may be in the thick of it with my team, working alongside them on projects and initiatives, but they are still looking to me for guidance, perspective, and encouragement. They are watching and observing me lead by example, and that is an honor and duty I take seriously.

How can I expect our team members to exude our core team values of commitment, collaboration, innovation, respect, and winning if I am not intentionally portraying them myself? Building culture within a company starts with the leaders, who set the tone for all others to follow. I remind myself of this regularly as we continue to add new team members to our company, knowing that my attitude and actions, and not merely my words, are what matter most.

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?

Online video conferencing snafus — check! When I was younger I remember showing my parents how the latest and greatest technology worked, whether it was demonstrating a new gadget, computer program, or even how to order something from an online site. As much as I don’t want to admit this, I think I may be in the same category as my parents now when it comes to using certain technology.

Luckily, the results of my lack of video conferencing skills were funny and light-hearted, but I learned that in areas in which I am not as knowledgeable, it’s worth taking the extra time on the front end to prepare, even for something as minor as setting up video conferencing!

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?

I am truly grateful to all the mentors I have had along my journey who put in their time and effort to help train me and invest in my professional growth. In each of my past positions, I was fortunate to have a mentor to learn from and to guide me. One partner at my law firm was gracious enough to invest his time in me by introducing me to his clients and giving me the responsibility for handling day-to-day client projects.

This partner had been the head of the corporate section back in his day, and he had been with the firm since he graduated from law school, so his historical perspective of the firm and the legal profession was unmatched. He had a full career, and spent his latter years training younger associates in preparation to hand over his client accounts upon retirement. I also appreciated that in a field still heavily dominated by males at the partner level, he looked past my gender and younger age when mentoring me. We often talk about the need for women to uplift and support other women, and that’s true. But what we also need is for men to do the same, and I will always be grateful to this partner who did that with me when he could have chosen my male counterparts to mentor.

One nugget of wisdom he imparted on me is that some things are meant to be celebrated today and not put off until tomorrow. This is one of the reasons our team celebrates our Work Shield ‘wins’ and rings a bell on our wall — to take the time to acknowledge and show gratitude for our victories, however large or small. The lessons learned and confidence I gained under his mentorship taught me the value of mentorship throughout one’s career. I will continue to seek out mentors throughout my professional life, but now, I also serve as a mentor to others, and encourage anyone in a position to mentor others to do so as well.

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?

We know that access to funds presents one of the largest barriers for female founders to overcome. When you couple that with the effects that the pandemic has had on working women, the impact is overwhelming. When LeanIn.org released their 2020 study #WomenInTheWorkplace, the results were sobering: one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce. If as many as two million women are considering leaving their current positions because of the hardships the pandemic has had on working women, similar hardships exist for women who are thinking of creating companies.

The pandemic had a significant impact on working mothers, where work expectations stayed the same but responsibilities at home increased. Women assumed greater responsibilities including childcare, household, and caregiver responsibilities. LeanIn.org’s study found working mothers are 1.5x more likely to spend 3+ hours a day on housework and childcare than fathers, equating to 20 hours a week — a part-time job!

Other working women feel the pressure to be “on call” past working hours and are doing more at work for fear of losing their jobs at this uncertain time where many continue to feel the financial strain of the pandemic. While businesses are opening back up and trying to reverse the negative impacts of the pandemic, we still have much progress ahead. With less time and fewer resources available, the current hurdles that women face to begin a company may appear insurmountable. To empower women to create companies that have a chance of success, there should be a focus on connecting women and providing access to education and resources.

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?

To make progress and empower women to create companies with their diverse and innovative ideas, we need to continue to focus on increasing the network and connection between women leaders to build a sense of community, resources, and support.

Successful female business leaders are stepping out to lead this charge. For instance, Sheryl Sandberg is a champion for women’s equality and closing the gender pay gap. Her Lean In movement is a global community dedicated to helping women achieve their ambitions through education and connection.

Melinda French Gates, who is also an advocate for women’s equality, recently invested in Female Founders Fund to support efforts to give women funding resources to help build companies that will lead to a more prosperous and inclusive economy.

Other private companies have created targeted initiatives to grant financial funds to female founders in response to the devastating impact the pandemic has had on many female-owned businesses. My hope is that companies will continue these efforts past the pandemic. Targeted efforts like these help to remove barriers and increase the likelihood that women will have better advocates and resources to fund companies.

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 need more women founders because, without them, their innovative and transformational ideas will stay just that…ideas. Women add diversity not only in gender but also in thought. Women founders are critical as companies that have women at the top levels financially outperform those that don’t. And women at the top have a meaningful impact on company culture and are often champions for racial and gender diversity within their own companies. Women founders often serve as role models for all the other women within their companies, providing encouragement and empowerment.

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

The biggest myth that I have encountered is that once you are a founder you instantly enter this upper echelon of achievement and success, as if simply founding a company alone is what makes it successful. A company may be born from a transformative idea, but it is up to the founders to bring the company to life and grow its success. There is nothing “instant” about that process, rather it is a continual and often painstaking work in progress.

In addition to being a founder, I am also a parent to two amazing and energetic children, and I liken founding Work Shield to adding to my family by twofold. Work Shield was born out of an idea, and it took time and preparation to bring it to life. There are long days and many, many sleepless nights where I contemplate and rehash business decisions relating to growth and strategy. It’s personal to me. It’s a part of who I am, and I am always thinking about ways to move it forward and make it better. There is so much learning and preparation to be done as a founder, and every day is different. There are no true breaks because as a founder, I am on 24/7. A parent’s role is never quite finished, and so it is with founding and running a company.

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?

Is a founder simply a visionary with a great idea? If that was the case, then we would have a lot more founders! It’s true that most founders are visionaries, who are always thinking of where they will take their company next, but other traits are just as, if not more, important. Some of the notable traits for successful founders to possess are decisiveness, adaptability, and grit.

A founder should be decisive and able to decipher information quickly and come to a resolution expediently. Time is money, and the startup world moves quickly, so founders must be able to process information and make key decisions swiftly and with resolve to continue moving their company forward.

Additionally, founders must remain adaptable to changing circumstances, ranging from changes internally within the company, out in the marketplace, and with key partnerships. Changing circumstances also means that the status quo is rare, and founders must be able to make decisions involving risk and change.

Grit is a buzzword that’s been around awhile, but it’s relevant here, and I think successful founders have to possess true passion and perseverance to pursue and execute their goals and commitments. This can be particularly hard when founders are faced with adversity and setbacks in growing a company, and having unrelenting grit is what keeps them moving forward, determined and resolute to continue.

Regular jobs differ in that many of them do not require an after-hours time commitment, meaning that the workday is done when office hours are. Founders on the other hand are always on the clock. Employees can still feel passionate about their regular jobs, but their mindset is more of a “clock in, clock out” mindset, and there’s nothing wrong with that because these roles are also needed.

Also, many regular jobs are task and project-driven, and do not rely on those employees to make overarching decisions for the entire company. Many employees don’t want that kind of responsibility and are content to fulfill their roles and responsibilities without assuming much risk. If someone is risk-averse and is not adaptable to change, that person may not be the best candidate to be a founder.

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.)

Collaboration is key — From my experience, women intuitively know the value of collaboration. A female founder may think of an innovative business idea, but it usually takes more than the founder’s efforts alone to get a business up and running. Building a team with capable people who can support each other and the business is critical.

At Work Shield, one of our core team values is collaboration. We believe in the power of working together to multiply our individual contributions. Shared goals and mutual support lead to greater success than isolated work and individual focus. Trust and care are important for collaboration. Without trust, we waste time waiting and chasing one another. Without personal care, one person may gain but at a cost to others, leading to a net loss of contribution. A female founder must be able to collaborate with others to go farther than she could go alone.

Adaptability to changing circumstances — Because circumstances can change on a dime, founders must adapt quickly to both internal and external changes that may impact their company. It is necessary to make plans and put processes in place to move the company forward, but as we have recently experienced as a result of the pandemic and many of the social injustices hurting our society, events happen that are beyond our control. Being able to adapt and move in another direction if necessary can make all the difference.

I am a planner by nature, and being adaptable and flexible does not come naturally to me. But I have learned over time that the more flexible and open I remain, the quicker we are able to find solutions. This often applies to my personal work schedule as well. Some days I may have had a list of items to tend to only to get to the end of the day and realize I had not tackled a single one. My time and energies were needed in other areas, and being adaptable to those shifts in direction ended up moving the company forward more than any of those items needing completion on my to-do list.

Commitment to continuous learning and growth — Life is a classroom, and founders are often both students and teachers at the same time. As we build our companies and hire employees, we serve as mentors and managers to our team while we are at work. But it’s necessary to spend time over and above managing our teams to invest in our own knowledge and continue learning. Most founders I have met have a desire to continue to improve their skills, knowledge and capabilities. The biggest hurdle is dedicating the time to invest in oneself.

If we think about moments in our day, often there are pockets of time that are prime opportunities that we simply aren’t capitalizing on. I enjoy reading, but I don’t have chunks of time to sit down and enjoy a book these days. So instead, I find the book in audio form and listen in the car while driving carpool and during my commute to work. I have a list of favorite business podcasts that are shorter and pack a wealth of information into 15 minutes. These quick periods of time spent on learning and personal development add up over time. This commitment to learning reminds me of the mantra I tell my school-aged children, “The more you know, the more you grow.”

Curious mindset — The current landscape is continually evolving, and today’s hot product, technology, or business solution may be obsolete tomorrow. Founders should always be asking questions necessary to ensure their company is doing what it should to stay relevant and competitive in its applicable industry.

At Work Shield, the team can attest that I ask a lot of questions! I’m curious about not only how we are doing things, but why we are doing them in a particular way. The answers to these questions also get the executive team thinking about changes that need to be made on important issues relating to scalability and making sure we have processes in place to sustain our growth. The result of curiosity can be attributed to our recent innovations, and we’ll continue to keep asking questions moving forward.

Own your “why” — Every founder has a story to tell, and these stories are usually inspiring and full of promise and hope. Why do we create companies if not to solve a problem or make the world better in some regard? Employees are also inspired by a founder’s “why” as it often becomes the collective “why,” motivating the entire company.

On a personal level, I rely on my “why” the most during setbacks and challenges. It provides me the strength to dig deep and go the extra mile, knowing that the work we are doing is changing workplace culture for the better. My passion and perseverance are driven by my “why.”

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

Employees spend most of their waking hours at work, and they want to work in an environment in which they feel safe and where they can bring their own selves to work. When something goes wrong, they want to know if they speak up that they will not be retaliated against and risk losing their job. I strive to make workplaces better by educating business leaders about ways to improve workplace culture and employee wellness.

Much of the content I help create for Work Shield relates to the positive steps that employers can take to strengthen their commitment to their employees and further the conversations around the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. Educating others on how to achieve this is very important to all the founders at Work Shield.

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.

This is a great question, and honestly, the movement I seek to inspire is already happening through Work Shield. The clients we partner with know the value of being a Work Shield Certified Employer. What keeps me intrinsically motivated to continue full steam ahead are the individual employees we impact within the cultures of all our client partners. It is the manifestation of our vision put into action, and we believe that Work Shield has the ability to positively impact all workplaces. Our client success stories are our biggest testament to this.

For one of our clients, employees on Work Shield’s platform who witnessed another coworker subjected to workplace misconduct felt empowered to speak up because they had an impartial platform to make the reports without fear of retaliation. In this case, the bystanders witnessing the incident turned into upstanders, empowering not just the victim of the workplace misconduct to speak up, but for others to speak up on their behalf as well.

Another client had a situation in which employees reported workplace harassment that took place during a remote online meeting. After Work Shield’s involvement regarding the misconduct that occurred in the initial meeting, during a subsequent online meeting, employees felt empowered to speak up against similar employee misconduct as it occurred and before it could escalate further. When employees were empowered to use their voices to address workplace harassment from happening in real-time, their voices were heard and the toxic behavior was deescalated.

A third example involves a client that was able to proactively address toxicity to improve their culture. Based on their incident data, our client learned that a larger percentage of their incidents were being reported from a particular location. The company was able to respond proactively to address the needs of that location by meeting with management and employees and provide prevention training. Employees witnessed their employer taking the matter seriously and addressing their concerns proactively, increasing the trust and integrity between our client and their employees.

I can’t help but think about these client success stories, and how differently the outcomes could have been for both the employers and the employees had Work Shield not been in place in their organizations. Our movement at Work Shield is to continue to add to the number of Work Shield Certified Employers who use our solution to better their workplaces and protect their culture.

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.

Hands down, Brene Brown! I have been following Brene’s work for the last few years, and appreciate her courage in bringing what some consider taboo topics like shame and vulnerability into workplace conversations. Her honest and authentic approach to how we should treat each other within our workplaces and communities is inspiring, and gives me hope that we are collectively moving in the right direction. I have learned much about the kind of leader I want to be from her wisdom and research. At Work Shield, our founders relate to an excerpt from one of Theodore Roosevelt’s speeches that she discusses in her book on leadership, Dare to Lead:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

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

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