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Female Founders: Ruth Sun of Tempest On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Acting with integrity will always ensure we treat others with respect, do what’s right for the long-term value of the business and establish trust with your team. In the process, Support is so important as it takes a village to realize a vision and building a support system is critical to realize the long-term success of a business.

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

Ruth Sun is the CEO of Tempest, the only clinically proven digital recovery program that provides holistic, shame-free and effective care to anyone who wants to change their relationship with alcohol. Most recently, Sun served as the Chief Operating Officer at Force Therapeutics, where she led business strategy, GTM, Product and R&D innovation. Sun previously served as the SVP of Growth at Welltok, the VP of Strategic Development at Blackboard and started her career at IBM where she later became Managing Director of Watson Health. Sun was also the President & Co-Founder of Sun Medical, which was acquired by Hackensack Meridian Health in 2020.

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?

My answer is part personal and part professional. Personally, I am a second-generation immigrant, born in subsidized housing in Brooklyn, New York. My parents were first generation immigrants who came with only the clothes on their backs. I am the oldest of four children and have always lived a life where I juggled many responsibilities including school, caring for my siblings, and cooking meals to help my family while my mom worked nights and my dad went to school and worked to make ends meet by working a variety of jobs including delivering eggs on a bicycle.

Throughout those times, my parents instilled in me a set of values that were grounded in some basic fundamentals: work hard, give it 200% and invest your energies with an organization that makes the world a better place. These values have stayed with me throughout my career in technology over 25 years and lead me to what I do today at Tempest. What I love about our mission at Tempest is that we put people in the center of their recovery and support them with a personalized digital experience to support them in their lifelong recovery journey. Our approach is holistic, shame-free and effective. We celebrate each person for the power they have from within, and we do that without sacrificing the quality of care. So, we are the industry’s only clinically proven platform in modern recovery and proven to be as effective as outpatient therapy, which costs up to $2,000 a month, but any individual can experience Tempest for less than a cup of coffee a day. I am thankful for how I started as a child, how I’ve grown and how that has cemented the values that align so much with what we do today at Tempest.

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

About a month into my role as CEO of Tempest, I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting with the member community and in that process, we received a lot of good questions, interesting comments, and follow-ups. One of the follow-ups I received was from an individual who happens to be a very successful business leader, and that individual reached out to congratulate me on joining Tempest and wanted to share their personal point of view on the incredible value and impact Tempest has in the marketplace.

This individual is a professional who has been with Tempest as a member for many years and shared how Tempest is their support system when they go to social work functions, of which they have to go to many. As you know, most social work functions have a lot of alcohol available, and it can be tough to work the room and manage business in a social setting when everyone else may have an alcoholic drink in their hand. And this individual said, “When I have a challenging moment, I politely excuse myself for two minutes, and I check in with Tempest because Tempest is my support system. But what’s more important is nobody knows, and nobody has to know.” It was so encouraging to hear real life from a member how they leverage us to support them in their personal life, but more importantly, the potential that we have as we continue to invest in improving the member experience, and improving our outcomes, to help so many people in the world.

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?

What a great question. For my first full time job, I moved to a new city and was so excited about starting a new life and career. However, I didn’t have any friends or family nearby and often felt lonely. So, I joined the Leukemia Society and decided to run a marathon as a fundraiser to help children suffering with Leukemia. I’d never run more than a 5K before and was so eager to pick up a new hobby that I overextended my training and ended up fracturing my right tibia. This meant I couldn’t run the marathon I’d trained so hard for, which was such a depressing moment. Eventually, I replaced that marathon with a century bike ride and one year later ran the NYC marathon — again with the Leukemia Society.

I made that mistake 25 years ago, but I still exercise daily and have learned the incredible importance of making time for myself every day, so that I can in turn, help others personally and professionally.

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 so grateful for my parents, and particularly, my mother. As I mentioned earlier, my parents were first-generation immigrants that literally came with nothing but the clothes on their back. My mother came to the States as a nurse and as a single woman because she knew that in the United States, she could earn a living and earn enough to also help her family. I am grateful to my mother because as brilliant and talented as she was, she always prioritized helping other people first.

My parents instilled in me a set of values that are fundamentally grounded in living a life high in integrity, deep in personal passion and committing to helping others. Those values have guided me to build a career in digital health, which is an industry all about leveraging technology and innovation in really important ways to make the world a better place.

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?

In my humble opinion, throughout history, women have often served as caregivers for their families and in society at large. This history results in countless women who have demonstrated incredible empathy and care for others, but also makes them more conservative in the decisions that they make. These behaviors can conflict with the high tolerance for risk required, both to start a company, as well as make and learn from the thousands of mistakes made to iterate a business to fuel growth.

In recent years, incredible progress has been made with more female founders than ever before, which also paves the way for other women to pursue their dreams.

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?

As an individual, it’s easy. It starts with me and with each of us, to pay it forward. I would not be here if it weren’t for other individuals, male and female, that saw my potential and encouraged me to pursue my dreams. I also enjoy helping others by paying it forward and am honored to work with a talented team at Tempest, of which many happen to be women. I work every day to model our values as we grow the company to realize our potential and put people at the center of their recovery globally.

As a society, it’s all about encouraging innovation and change and being blind to potential. When I say this, I mean we should give people a fair chance at opportunity and success regardless of their background, upbringing or social status as time has proven that all kinds of people can contribute to the advancement of society.

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

One of the myths associated with being a founder is that founders do not have good business sense. They might have great ideas, but their ability to grow and scale a business over time is not possible because the skill sets required to innovate and birth a company are very different skills than what’s required to grow a company consistently over time. This may be true in some situations, but there are also many female founders that have exponentially scaled companies. The Female Founders Fund recently told us about founder Whitney Wolfe Herd who took Bumble public, becoming the 22nd woman ever to do so and Anne Wojcicki who led 23andMe’s public offering, which valued the company at $3.5 billion. And in August alone this year, we saw Hello Sunshine, founded by Reese Witherspoon, get acquired for an estimated $900 million and Maven Clinic, founded by Kate Ryder, was valued at $1B. These are all examples of founders who had the courage to start a business with an amazing vision and demonstrated the self-awareness to surround themselves with leaders who would complement them and help to successfully grow a business. The reality is, regardless of what compelled you to found a company, we are all imperfect and need support to create a fully functional business operation. So being self-aware and surrounding yourself with other leaders with complimentary skills to help drive the company’s growth, is probably the best way to address this myth.

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 think a better question to answer is, is everyone cut out to be a successful person and realize their potential? I believe the answer to that question is absolutely, yes. We are all powerful people that come from a variety of different backgrounds, personal aspirations, and skill sets. So, if your background, skills, and potential leads you to identify an incredible idea, found a company and then grow it, that is fabulous. But if your interests lead you more toward supporting others to help grow a company consistently, that is amazing too. One is not better than the other; they’re just different. I think it’s more about who you are, what makes you the best at what you do and learning how to leverage your skills to realize your potential. The beauty of our society is that there are millions of different career opportunities that allow you to realize your potential based on what you want to do and what your interests are.

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.)

Passion, Grit, Vision, Integrity & Support.

Passion and GRIT are so important. You have to be able to fail forward, accept mistakes while remaining committed to the mission that inspired you to start a business.

Vision is important because when the going gets tough, it is always important to stay grounded in what inspired you to start the company in the first place.

Acting with integrity will always ensure we treat others with respect, do what’s right for the long-term value of the business and establish trust with your team. In the process, Support is so important as it takes a village to realize a vision and building a support system is critical to realize the long-term success of a business.

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

At Tempest, we put people at the center of their recovery and in doing so, we are making the world a better place. I am honored to be able to leverage my many learnings throughout my career in digital health to continue to help Tempest grow and help others.

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 would love to see the future of Digital Health in 10 years and see how we’ve leveraged innovation to transform how care is delivered, both for individuals and at the broader societal level. This is the ‘art of the possible’ of digital health that will continue as people embrace technology to support their physical and mental health in truly personalized and meaningful ways.

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 would love to meet with Kristi Yamaguchi and hear her life story. When my daughter was in second grade, she picked a hero she admired for a book report, and she chose to write about Kristi Yamaguchi. While helping my daughter with her project, I learned so much about Kristi Yamaguchi. I learned she was born with clubfeet which meant she was likely not going to be able to walk properly. Not only did she learn to walk, but she also went on to ice skate as a professional and won a gold medal at the Olympics. It would be an honor to hear her personal story, what inspired her to keep going, and what she’s done since.

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

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