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Female Founders: Leslie Danford of Vitaminis On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Purpose: What do you truly care about? What are your wildest dreams, and can you picture yourself achieving them? For me, it is building a company that will help more kids get better nutrition, to best set them up for health and success. Keeping your purpose front of mind, whatever it is, will help you remember why you set out on the entrepreneurial journey in the first place, which could be just what you need to keep going on difficult days.

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

Leslie is a driven and passionate team and business leader combining her personal interests with her formal business training to launch the first scale brand in children’s functional food and beverage: Vitaminis (www.vitaminisbrand.com). Previously she served in strategic growth role and general management roles at Softbank-backed OYO Hotels and global spirits company Beam Suntory. She began her career as a Management Consultant at Bain & Company and earned her MBA from Harvard University and BA from the University of Chicago.

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’ve been a self-starter and had entrepreneurial tendencies from a young age, writing and an illustrating a short story to sell outside the local hardware store at the age of 7, and building a babysitting business to fund my first mutual fund before graduating high school.

I began my formal career in a very traditional way, following “typical” paths to building a business and general management foundation, including pursuing an MBA, spending time in finance, management consulting and rotating through various functional roles at large corporations. Most of these roles felt like a learning opportunity or step on the way to running a business “someday,” as opposed to an end in and of themselves. When I lost my job in hospitality as a result of the pandemic in 2020, new roles were slow to materialize.

As I was spending more time at home with my three young boys, I needed easy and convenient snacks and drinks to meet my kids’ nutritional needs; however, I found the kids offerings nutritionally empty, sugar-filled and generally low quality. I was more than willing to pay for better options if only there were some! When my kids returned to school during the pandemic, I researched ways to help support their immune systems and protect them from germs. While many immune support supplements were on the market, very few were targeted to kids, and those were formulated like candy. I didn’t want to start my boys’ days with teeth covered in gummy, sugary chews. Unfortunately, nothing I could find offered a healthy, nutritional, real food solution in an easy, convenient package.

As a beverage and consumer packaged goods industry veteran, I thought who better to address this challenge! I set out to create an easy-to-serve, fun-to-drink food and beverage brand that also plays a functional, positive role in kids’ health and development. Vitaminis is the result.

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

One of the most surprising and interesting things I’ve discovered in the process of starting a business is where I am finding support and encouragement. People that I don’t know very well have really stepped up to share their learnings, give advice and offer to help. I’ve developed networks of fellow entrepreneurs that have been invaluable, and friends and acquaintances I had previously lost touch with have taken the time to connect and support me and the business. The support of these people means so much, particularly when much of the entrepreneurial journey is very lonely.

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?

While I wouldn’t call it funny, I accidentally printed an order of shipper boxes with the same barcode as the individual bottles and didn’t realize it until it was too late. While I triple checked all of the colors, fonts and wording on the shipper box proof, it didn’t occur to me to flip it over and double check the barcode numbers against the database. While it might seem like a small thing, it was a big deal. Being an entrepreneur isn’t just about the big picture, it’s also all about the tiniest details!

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’m most grateful for my wonderful husband. Becoming an entrepreneur is a huge leap of faith, a financial sacrifice and a major commitment of time and energy. In the early stages, I spent a lot of time talking myself out of starting something, thinking of all the reasons I couldn’t do it, or it didn’t make sense. My husband encouraged me to take even the smallest steps to try out my ideas, countering every excuse I made for myself. On the home front, he is a true equal partner around the house and with our three kids, prioritizing my professional goals right alongside his own. I’m so grateful to him on so many levels!

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?

While we’ve come a long way, most of society (families, support systems, communities) are built around traditional structures where the man’s career takes precedence, and the woman bears the majority of the burden of home and children. It’s hard enough to be a working mom with kids, finding and keeping stable childcare, juggling household responsibilities, all the while putting in the time and effort and work to overcome bias and stand out. For many women, the added financial and time pressures of starting and building a business seems beyond reach, particularly if their career is secondary.

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 love that you are highlighting female founders. The more high-visibility examples we have of successful female founders, the more aspiring female entrepreneurs will see that it is indeed possible to achieve all their wildest dreams. Government and non-profit funding for programs to inspire and support female entrepreneurs in schools and communities will further encourage more female founders to take the leap. As more women start new ventures, today’s kids (both boys and girls) will see and be inspired by all that female entrepreneurs can achieve, thus beginning to change long-held and deeply engrained beliefs about gender roles.

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?

If you believe that happiness is linked to agency, entrepreneurship is the ultimate expression of that. Some of the most challenging things in life can be the most rewarding (like raising children!) Building a business from the ground up can be powerfully rewarding for those that feel called to do it.

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

I think a lot of focus in entrepreneurship is put on fundraising, celebrating the size of funding rounds and names of high-profile investors. While raising funds is certainly something to be celebrated, it misses the core value of entrepreneurship. Much of being an entrepreneur is grueling work, sleepless nights and endless detailed follow-up and execution. While this perhaps doesn’t make for splashy headlines, I think the day-in and day-out grit of successful entrepreneurs is something to be highlighted and celebrated.

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?

I am always amazed at the diversity in backgrounds of entrepreneurs that I meet or hear about. I think that anyone with a particular passion and calling to build something can do it, as one can always build a team to supplement needed skills. That said, I think confidence and determination are important. While you can try to test and learn along the way, starting a company requires confidence in your idea beyond what you will be able to fully test or validate at any given time (confidence bordering on faith!) Determination is also important, as there will be many mistakes, setbacks, naysayers and times of doubt. Being an entrepreneur is a delicate balance of grit to persist in the face of resistance and open-mindedness to flex and adapt.

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. Purpose: What do you truly care about? What are your wildest dreams, and can you picture yourself achieving them? For me, it is building a company that will help more kids get better nutrition, to best set them up for health and success. Keeping your purpose front of mind, whatever it is, will help you remember why you set out on the entrepreneurial journey in the first place, which could be just what you need to keep going on difficult days.
  2. Positivity: For a long time as you build traction, you will be your venture’s biggest cheerleader. While there will be setbacks, naysayers and times of doubt, you will need to be able to focus on the positive and keep that top of mind in conversations with employees, partners, investors, media, etc.
  3. Support Network: Whether it’s a cofounder, a supportive partner or mentor or close friends, you will need a support system to lean on in times of doubt, uncertainty or just when you need direct advice, feedback or a pat on the back. I have found my small circle of supporters to be invaluable. Being a founder can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
  4. Help at Home: Particularly for women founders with children, you need reliable support (hired help and/or a hands-on spouse) to help cover responsibilities at home. In the early stages, starting a business can seem like it’s not a “real job,” thus easy to deprioritize vs. home demands. However, without dedicated work and focus, you won’t reach your goals.
  5. Self-Care: Whatever fills your cup (for me it’s exercise, meditation and hot baths), you are going to need a good self-care routine to maintain calm and focus on your journey. Making time to take care of yourself can be hard when you are always getting pulled in multiple directions; however, you will only be able to give your best when you’re taking care of yourself.

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

I remember clearly the key people in my childhood, early adulthood and professional life who invested in me, gave me words of encouragement, pointed out my strengths and weaknesses and gave me opportunities to grow and contribute. On a day-to-day basis, I always say yes to requested mentoring or networking conversations even if I don’t feel I can spare the time. I also try to go out of my way to reach out to those that I think I could benefit from my advice or words of encouragement.

I also give back more formally through my alma maters, the University of Chicago and Harvard, and am active on the board of Youth Guidance, an organization that creates and implements school-based programs that enable children and teens to overcome obstacles, focus on their education and, ultimately, to succeed in school and in life.

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.

If everyone could spread just a bit more kindness in their day-to-day interactions, the world could truly become a better place. Whether it’s smiling to the clerk serving you your coffee instead of typing on your phone, letting that car merge ahead of you, or extending sympathy to someone who is short with you instead of getting frustrated, kindness spreads and could make more of a difference than you might realize.

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.

Elon Musk. Wow, what an incredible individual. I read his biography by Ashlee Vance and was just floored by the breadth of his vision, impact and execution across multiple diverse industries. I would love the opportunity to hear first-hand about what motivates him and his vision for the future.

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

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