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Female Founders: Shagun Malhotra On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

It’s not easy to get customers — When you build a product you believe in, especially one that would have helped you immensely when you were in the shoes of the target demographic, you’d think it would be an easy sell. However, building a company isn’t just about the idea. There is so much work it takes that is separate from the core idea that is necessary in a business landscape — marketing, your reputation, building a brand, the list goes on. It took a full year of cold calling, meetings and hard work to get our first customer. The first time doing anything is always the hardest.

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

Shagun is an experienced auditor and process consultant, who designed ART for accountants. She started her career in public accounting and has worked in Fortune 100 companies such as Marriott and Freddie Mac. Her work focused primarily on internal controls and risk mitigation in both international and domestic arenas.

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 studied accounting but was not very interested in the typical accounting jobs. As luck may have it, the first job I secured was in a local public accounting firm to be a part of the audit team. I instantly fell in love with the idea that numbers could tell a whole story and my interest in audit, forensic and investigative accounting grew. There’s this misconception that accounting is boring, but the narrative ability of following patterns and changes in numbers can be so exciting. The average person may not know about the world of forensic accounting — there are actually hundreds of forensic accountants working for the FBI solving cases with the trail of numbers. In fact, forensic accounting was what led to the arrest of Al Capone!

Being on the auditing side of the accounting world, I felt like I was working for the better good by being the eyes and ears of the public, keeping the capital markets honest and increasing trust in the capital markets. People deserve to know the truth of what they are putting their money behind. Auditors are able to uncover fraud and deception, which can lead to consequences for companies that deliberately try to mislead the public. Uncovering fraud was something that was always important to me in my line of work, so naturally it became an integral part of the company I would go on to found. After working with Fortune 50 companies, I was able to see patterns and issues with processes which could either lead to fraud or inaccurate financials — and the month-end close process was the clear winner. Therefore, I decided to create a system that would minimize risk and enhance this process.

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

When we arrived at a CFO conference, we were chatting with someone who mentioned our male team member was already there. That was odd since there were no male employees of ours at this conference. When we brought this up, the person insisted he had already arrived, and was wearing a SkyStem t-shirt. This was even more strange as everyone else was in business attire. We later realized one of our customers was wearing our shirt as a fan! We were so excited and humbled by this gesture. This CFO was a champion of our product and wanted everyone to know how great it is. It was definitely an unexpected surprise.

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?

Lack of preparation is a frequent nemesis in the business world, but it can lead to some pretty funny instances. One time we were not prepared for a conference. This is an environment where potential deals are made and so it’s important to maintain appearances to make sure your customers know they’d be in good hands with your company. One of the ways this is done is by having an impressive booth — cool swag, an organized table and the most important part: the banner which tells attendees who you are. Well, our banner broke and all of a sudden we found ourselves horrified at how we must look trying to prop it up with a tree branch.

To make matters worse, this was our first conference and we really wanted to make an impression. I’m sure we did, although it may not have been the one we wanted! We managed to get through the rest of the show relatively easily, and made some connections who admired our tenacity. We learned that no matter what life throws at you there is always a solution. Even if it’s not the perfect one the answer is in the perspective — either you can panic and ruin the experience or make do and acknowledge human error and have a bunch of fans in the process. It’s all up to you.

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?

There were many angels along the way, both my family and my chosen family. My parents supported the idea financially and I will always be so grateful they were able to help get the company off the ground. My brother has been the backbone from the start and supports SkyStem in all ways. And then Nancy, the person who first joined me and has been crucial to the success of SkyStem.

Nancy and I first met online — I read a blog she wrote. We were internet friends for a while who admired each other’s work and eventually decided to meet up in New York. The rest is history. You never know where you will make the connections that change your life! The lesson is to go for it and not wonder what the other person might think about a random stranger reaching out. Always ask — because without that the answer is always no.

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?

Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge how many amazing, hardworking women founders are out there today. It’s certainly more than when I entered the workforce. There’s a famous saying about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire — she did everything he did but backwards and in high heels. I think that sentiment rings true in the business world. Women in our society are held to different and often higher standards. When a male boss is assertive he is just that, assertive. When a woman in charge behaves the same, she is called bossy.

In my opinion, there’s one main reason why women are a smaller percentage of founders. It’s the level of support women get from their families, children and the entire community to embark on a very hard journey of starting a company. Many times, women have to make other things a priority as they possibly do not get assistance to help overcome those challenges.

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?

The traditional roles for women need to be put aside and the expectations need to change so that they can elevate to whatever path they choose. This means supporting female-founded companies on a personal and structural level. Individuals can do things like addressing their own conscious or unconscious bias, including thoughts and actions which uphold barriers to entry for people without the same advantages as others. The government can pass legislation that targets practices such as the wage gap, bad maternity leave and childcare support and discriminatory hiring.

Sometimes a bias isn’t intentional. This can happen in a business situation like deciding which employee to hire or promote. It’s human nature to want to surround yourself with people you believe are a reflection of yourself, which can manifest in decisions like this. Since there are more male executives, it is likely they will be able to see themselves in those who more clearly match up with their identity. This isn’t always the case, but an example of how unconscious bias can uphold a marginalization of women in the workforce.

As a society, I think these issues start with how different genders are socialized. A study was done where researchers watched parents with a young child trying to conquer a physical obstacle. Boys were more likely to be encouraged by their parents to attempt the obstacle, whereas girls were more likely to be warned or even physically removed from the threat. A big part of starting a company has to do with facing your fears. When you are taught to avoid your fears rather than facing them head on, it takes a lot of work to undo that social conditioning.

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?

Diversity, as we know, definitely benefits the world at large. Around half of the world’s population are women. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s a strong business decision to not ignore women as leaders, who may be able to better articulate and execute what their customer base wants.

However, many companies are unaware or perhaps choose to ignore just how much purchasing power women have. Take industries which have traditionally been male-dominated, like guitar. Research shows half of new guitar buyers are women. Yet many guitar manufacturers primarily market to men. Sometimes with advertisements that are downright offensive to women. If a woman were to found a guitar company, not only would they be able to put out better representation, I would wager female customers would be more inclined to buy from a company that reflects their identity and values. Being a founder is rewarding in its own right. You are a part of a community and able to make your voice and ideas heard. It can also be lucrative if you are able to tap into your target market.

The success of the different genders becoming founders stem from opposite strengths. We can learn from both kinds of leaders.

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

Being a founder is not as glamorous as it seems in the papers. There are a lot of emotional challenges that founders have to face. This can be anything from stress or even impostor syndrome, which is something a lot of successful women struggle with. On top of these challenges, you have to be able to lead a team as well, no matter what you’re feeling inside. You have to be strong for them even if you are struggling. I don’t think any team expects their leader to be emotionless or robotic, but as a good leader you have to keep a clear head in times of turmoil and be a guiding compass for the company.

Founding a company means there are no days off. While it is important to maintain a work-life balance and keep time for rest, you never know when an issue is going to arise. And sometimes it’s something that needs immediate attention. There is a kind of anxiety that develops when you have to be at least somewhat available around the clock. Oftentimes, your personal life can be affected by missing out on time with your loved ones. This can lead to a strain on friendships and other relationships in your life. You have to be able to put healthy systems in place to cope with the heavy demands of founding a company. And most importantly, surround yourself with people who are supportive of your endeavors.

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?

Resilience and being able to accept repeated rejection are the two main traits potential founders need to have. Fortunately, these are skills that can be learned. The question is if you are willing to accept all the failures you must encounter along the way. For some, this is too hard and that’s perfectly ok. The beauty of life is we can choose which path will bring us the most happiness and which lifestyles will best suit our needs and wants. It is a personal decision to decide what you are willing to go through in life to achieve what you want.

It’s also important to distinguish the variety of options available for starting a company in the digital age. There are plenty of people who have a small business of one — freelancers. In today’s economy there are influencers, dropshippers, resellers, artists, designers and everything in between. The old saying “if you build it, they will come” has never been more true if you are willing to put in the effort and accept the self-doubts that will inevitably sneak in. If you feel in your heart you want to be a founder and you are willing to take all the lows that come with the highs, there isn’t one set way to do it.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

It’s not easy to get customers — When you build a product you believe in, especially one that would have helped you immensely when you were in the shoes of the target demographic, you’d think it would be an easy sell. However, building a company isn’t just about the idea. There is so much work it takes that is separate from the core idea that is necessary in a business landscape — marketing, your reputation, building a brand, the list goes on. It took a full year of cold calling, meetings and hard work to get our first customer. The first time doing anything is always the hardest.

Customers are your greatest asset — There’s a reason why market research is a multi-billion dollar industry. Companies don’t have to guess what their customers want, all they have to do is listen! It is a point of pride at SkyStem that we always have at least a certain percent of our new product features come directly from our customers. You may think something is really useful, but if your customers don’t agree it doesn’t matter. For this reason, you have to put your ego aside and let your users guide the development of your company as well. Plus, referrals are one of the best and most consistent ways to win business.

The world is full of flaky people -

At the end of the day, you are the only person you can completely rely on. I don’t mean this in a jaded way, just that you are responsible for making things happen. In life you have to plan for the unexpected, and be able to roll with anything life throws at you. Prospects will no-show to meetings, vendors will miss deadlines and there will be instances where you’ll have to act on the fly when issues like this arise. What you can do is remember you can’t control other people’s actions, but you can control how you handle it and be proactive to make sure you know what to expect. Always be the one to reach out, and a simple reminder can mean the difference of getting what you need and not. Communication is very important.

You don’t need all the information to make a decision -

Especially when you are first starting out or establishing new processes it’s important to move forward as quickly as possible (without being recklessly uninformed, of course.) In the start up world the concept of an MVP or minimum viable product is important to push a growing company forward. If we waited until we felt 100% ready to do something, nothing would ever get done. Tying into what we were speaking about earlier, women are statistically more likely to wait to make important decisions. While preparedness is never a bad thing, waiting too long to act can hurt your bottom line or cause you to miss out on other opportunities. Remembering to trust yourself and your judgment, it’s ok to take risks and it’s also ok to make mistakes. You learn a lot from your intuition and pivoting to find new avenues of success.

Chemistry with your team is paramount -

Your team is your company just as much as you are. Having alignment between your personalities and working styles is key for a business to run smoothly. That’s not to say differences will never work out, it’s also important to maintain diversity of thoughts and approaches. It’s more of a culture fit, between what your team members need and want in a professional environment and how that matches up to what the job description entails and what resources are available. For instance, at SkyStem, our culture is very DIY. Anyone is able to suggest ideas and implement initiatives that make sense. We put a huge emphasis on learning and growing outside of our comfort zone. This is a great match for team members who thrive when they are left to their own devices and have the discipline and time management to handle the freedom and creativity this kind of environment facilitates. However, some people might prefer a job where there is a more rigid process and less independence, like in a large traditional corporation. Finding the right fit is a two way street and it’s crucial to have that understanding and chemistry between the people you’re working closely with.

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

Giving back to your community once you’ve reached a place of success is so important. I am very passionate about entrepreneurship and to invest my time back into the community. I have participated in panels, judged contests, and spoke as keynote speaker for entrepreneur type events. These are the places where people who are starting out get inspiration and learn how to forge a path forward. Volunteering for the events lets me have interactions with those who will go on to solve more of the world’s problems. It gives me great pleasure to motivate and guide new founders with knowledge I wish I had when starting out.

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 inspire the next wave of female founders. I think the movement is already happening where more and more women are choosing to give their dreams a try and not succumb to self-doubt and external pressures. It takes a lot of courage to break the shackles of a previous society.

If there’s one thing I want people to take away from this interview it’s to show other women that they will never regret following their passion. It may be hard and at times you may feel like giving up, but I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.

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.

Richard Branson. I’ve always been an admirer of his entrepreneurial spirit. I once read he started his first business venture at 16! To have that kind of bravery and ambition at such a young age is something most people aren’t born with. The Virgin Group is truly a renaissance company in that they have all sorts of industries and business types. I’ve always had many interests and I’d love to pick his brain on what it’s like to have so many outlets. Plus, he might have some extra seats on a flight somewhere tropical!

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

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

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

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