Female Founders: Nirit Rubenstein of Dovly On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Support network — It helps a lot to have mentors and advisors — not to mention family and friends — that can keep you grounded as a founder. These people can give you space to show vulnerability and to think through ideas without risk. For example, we were recently exploring a revamp of Dovly’s pricing model. I had become enamored with a trendy approach that several new players in the market had adopted. Two of my advisors gave me a swift reality check, drawing on their decades of experience marketing financial products to consumers. It was a great counterpoint that saved me from fruitlessly chasing the latest SaaS trend.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nirit Rubenstein.
Nirit Rubenstein is Dovly’s Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer. Throughout her 20 years of business experience featuring leadership positions at both public and private enterprises, including Salesforce, Green Dot Corporation, Del Monte Foods (now Big Heart Pet Brands), and most recently as Chief Operating Officer of telecommunications provider Nextiva, Inc., Nirit has led organizations with over $300MM in revenue and over 400 personnel, including sales, marketing, product, finance, and engineering. The entrepreneur earned her MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, her undergraduate degree from Haifa University in Israel, and is also a decorated veteran of the Israel Defense Forces.
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 always shown an independent streak, something I inherited from my father, a self-taught engineer and life-long entrepreneur. We were immigrants to the U.S. in the eighties, and our family had to be self-reliant to get by. Like many immigrants, my parents pressed me to get a good education and pursue a secure career path — which I certainly did — but I never totally shook the inclination to be my own boss. In the early days, I also witnessed how difficult it was for my parents to manage without a good credit history. Their lack of access to credit impacted our lives in serious, tangible ways. For example, in the beginning we struggled even to rent an apartment. My co-founder Tedis, also an immigrant, had similar experiences with his family. This background underlies our passion for the business of Dovly. We’re constantly working to make our technology more effective, accessible, and affordable. We won’t stop until everyone who needs help with their credit can get it, so that everyone has a fair shot at financial independence.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The COVID-19 pandemic threw a curve ball our way. So many people had their lives disrupted — especially their financial lives. Access to credit became more important than ever before. We couldn’t continue to operate our business as if nothing had changed. So, last year we redoubled our efforts to make credit restoration more affordable and accessible, beginning with a new, slimmed down product offering called Dovly Starter. This product allowed people to address flaws on their credit for under $10/month — an unprecedented new marker for affordability. Starter quickly became a meaningful lifeline for thousands of people. Now we’ve gone a step further with the launch of Dovly Free, the first intelligent repair solution accessible for no cost whatsoever.
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 like to keep a finger on the pulse of our members, and especially in the early going, I took turns with the team responding to member support inquiries. One weekend, I fielded a call from a really strange character, who started telling me his whole life story. My co-founder has a deadpan sense of humor, and is known to pull my leg, so I suspected he was playing a trick on me. I played along and started laughing at the caller and asking him a lot of inappropriate questions. As the call continued, my heart began to sink into my stomach as I realized it was a real Dovly member on the phone, trying to complete his enrollment. Eventually we were able to turn the call back to business and help the member with his problem. I was reminded fast and hard that customers come from all walks of life, and we’d better be prepared for the unexpected.
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?
When I was still holding my corporate job, I was introduced to an executive coach, someone who has since become a close and trusted friend. When we began discussing my professional situation, she quickly diagnosed the mismatch between my career path and my personal aspirations. She laid bare what I probably knew all along but had been reluctant to admit — that I could only be satisfied as an entrepreneur. I had let the trappings of a good job — compensation, stature, security — suppress the ambition to do something for myself. Something where I was the agent of my potential, where win or lose, I would be able to hold the person in the mirror accountable. No finger pointing, no excuses. My coach helped me understand that I needed this autonomy to really be satisfied… even if it meant unlatching the safety net of my corporate career.
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 used to be one of the women who refused to make an issue of my gender. Yes, I intuitively understood that women had it harder, that we needed to outperform our male peers to get a fair shot, but I didn’t see virtue in playing the victim. It just felt like weakness to me. However, that changed a bit when I first tried to raise investment capital for Dovly. While I struggled, I saw how checks were getting written for men who hadn’t come close to matching my level of achievement. It seems to me now that the men’s club is a real thing. It’s fundamentally easier for investors to support founders that look and sound like they do. That usually means men funding men. And if it’s harder for women to get financial support, it’s harder for us to found a company.
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?
Well one thing I don’t believe in is a quota system. It does us little good to get behind people simply because of their gender — or any other particular identity. That just sets us up for diminished expectations. Instead I think the key to widening opportunity for women founders is something softer. We need to find a way to broaden the ecosystem of investors, advisers, and corporate partners to include people with a track record of looking beyond the typical founder profile. It doesn’t mean you have to be a woman to invest in women. But it does say something when all the founders in your portfolio look the same.
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 short answer: because women can really make an impact. Every individual is unique, of course, but generally speaking, women are different — and that’s a good thing! I think I’m able to bring a perspective and sensibility that stands apart from those of my male peers — things that I believe help make our company special. For example, I’m a mother of three kids, and I have a deep and personal sensitivity for family obligations. It enables me to balance my hard-driving business leadership with empathy for the home-life pressures on my team. I try to make each member of the organization feel appreciated as a whole person, and not just as a worker in the business. If we didn’t encourage women to step up as I’m doing, I think a lot of potential would be squandered — both of the founders themselves and of the people they could lead.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
While it’s true that some great companies have been founded by kids in college dorm rooms, I think in most cases experience matters. My co-founder and I each had over 20 years of real-world work experience — including military service — before we pulled the trigger on Dovly. Youth — and the fearlessness that goes with it — does count for something, but when push comes to shove, most founders need their past experiences to drive sound ideas and decision making. The trap is when someone has spent so much time in a conventional work environment that they’ve lost the vision or capacity to try a different way. In my opinion, a great founder draws on her past to fuel her creativity.
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 would be presumptuous of me to draw the boundaries on what makes for a successful founder. If anything, the ability to stare down the naysayers is what every entrepreneur needs. That said, I can speak for myself, about what I think has made me cut out for this work. It starts with a bit of frustration — the feeling that the conventional way of doing things is messed up, and the annoyance that no one is doing anything about it. If you are someone who can just keep your head down and let things lie, then maybe you don’t have the willpower to step up as a founder. In my case, I saw the magnitude at which credit repair companies were ripping off desperate people. I couldn’t stand it, especially when it seemed there was a better way to get things done, one that took advantage of emerging technologies. And that’s how Dovly was born.
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.)
I have to challenge the premise of this question because it suggests that women founders need something that male founders do not. I’d counter that what women founders need is what all founders need to thrive and succeed. Maybe as women we benefit from these attributes in slightly different ways, but in my opinion, no founder can make it without them:
- Grit — We have to tolerate punches to the gut and keep on fighting. The question is not whether things will go wrong, but how we will respond when they go wrong. Early in our company’s evolution, we had to uproot and change our engineering leadership. It was seriously disruptive and set our roadmap back by several months. But we powered through it with new leadership and hung in there until we got things back on track.
- Empathy — Successful founders need to surround themselves with great people. People have different motivations and aspirations, and if you don’t tap into those differences, you won’t attract or retain a winning team. A young member of my team had joined Dovly to fill an immediate need for data analysis. As I got to know him better, however, I surmised that he was eager to branch into more of a product role. We gave him the opportunity to try something different, and he’s now become a vital member of our product team.
- Self-confidence — At the end of the day, people want to do business with people who believe in themselves. We raised capital from Silicon Valley in the middle of a pandemic, pitching our business over Zoom. More than one investor has told me they liked our business but they were really investing in me as a founder. I don’t think that would have happened if I’d let adversity sow doubts about Dovly’s potential. I had to be ready to walk away from the table in order to ensure that the other side didn’t.
- Thick skin — Despite our accomplishments, we’ve taken a lot of blows over the past three years. We’ve heard it all. Prospective investors criticized us in novel and sometimes contradictory ways. Prospective business partners disparaged the efficacy and value of our technology. Program sponsors put us through the paces of multiple presentations only to conclude that we didn’t have what it takes to be successful. If I let these doubters get into my head, we would have closed up shop a long time ago. Instead, I dust myself off, and move on to the next opportunity. It’s the only way to win.
- Support network — It helps a lot to have mentors and advisors — not to mention family and friends — that can keep you grounded as a founder. These people can give you space to show vulnerability and to think through ideas without risk. For example, we were recently exploring a revamp of Dovly’s pricing model. I had become enamored with a trendy approach that several new players in the market had adopted. Two of my advisors gave me a swift reality check, drawing on their decades of experience marketing financial products to consumers. It was a great counterpoint that saved me from fruitlessly chasing the latest SaaS trend.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We’re just getting started at Dovly, but one of the great aspects of this business is that we are thriving by helping people. It’s not a side-effect. It’s not a PR gimmick. It’s central to our mission. We founded the company because people needed help with a thorny problem: their credit reports were cluttered with mistakes, and there was no easy or affordable way to deal with it. Our platform solves that issue, and then it helps people build better habits so they don’t fall back into the situation that brought them to us in the first place. The more people can get their credit in shape, the more they can access the critical products and services needed for financial independence. I’m not saying that money buys happiness, but with financial freedom, you are in a position to live a more stable and secure life. After your physical well-being, what could be more important?
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.
The consumer credit system in our country has powered the greatest economy in history, but it doesn’t always work for the benefit of consumers. In many ways, the three big credit bureaus are “black boxes.” While they consume data, and spit out assessments which have serious consequences, people don’t really understand what is happening. Our technology is putting one tool in the hands of consumers to give them more control over the situation. In the future, however, we want the system to become transparent and instantaneous. It shouldn’t take weeks to get updates, and it shouldn’t be a guessing game. Every consumer should have a complete file that reflects their creditworthiness accurately and in real time.
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’d like to meet J.K. Rowling. Her story is striking because of the depths of the personal challenges that predated all her fame and fortune. She is someone that faced down family illness, domestic abuse, single motherhood, and poverty before she finally broke through.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.