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Female Founders: Susan Clark Muntean Of The University of North Carolina Asheville On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Be sure to pay it forward. Consider rewarding your employees with a piece of the company. Mentor others. Invest in others. Make the world a better place.

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

Susan Clark Muntean is a researcher, author, and consultant focused on organizations and entrepreneurship. With over two decades of experience consulting entrepreneurs and a wide variety of businesses and non-profits, her approach to creative problem solving combined with practical and actionable ideas translates into increased revenues and reduced costs and risks for new and growing ventures. Muntean is an Associate Professor of Management at the University of North Carolina Asheville.

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?

Over the past decade, I have been a dedicated researcher, consultant, and advocate supporting women’s entrepreneurship. In my role as a tenured professor of management at UNC Asheville, I teach entrepreneurship, mentor founders, connect students with business leaders, and publish books and articles about best practices for supporting women on their entrepreneurial path. I ventured down this path driven by a passion for removing barriers women often face in achieving their ultimate potential as creative innovators and business leaders.

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?

Mentorship is everything. Find someone you respect and admire; reach out and build a friendship as well as a professional relationship with them. My co-author Banu Ozkazanc-Pan has been my biggest support and guide throughout my career publishing about women entrepreneurs. We have a book forthcoming — my first published book — with Cambridge University Press in 2022 called “Entrepreneurial Ecosystems: A Gender Perspective.”

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?

Women have always been a part of the entrepreneurial economy and continue to be. What has changed over time is the gendered division between necessity-based entrepreneurship and opportunity-driven entrepreneurship. Opportunity-driven entrepreneurship has the highest potential for market and economic impact and wealth generation. Of the billions of dollars in venture capital financing of startups, 97 percent continues to go to male founders. The 20 percent figure refers to startup teams that have a single female. Women CEOs of startups are rarer and much, much less likely to receive rounds of venture capital investment. My focus is not on empowering women, as women are already powerful, and no one can grant them that power they innately hold. What is holding powerful women back are systemic, cultural, and institutional barriers. To fix this, we need to focus on reforming the gatekeepers and decision-makers. For example, instead of coaching women on pitching to investors more like men do, we need to educate investors about the implicit bias that skews the types of questions they ask female founders and the double standards they hold for women entrepreneurs. Nothing is holding women back from founding companies.

Implicit bias, lack of access to networks, lack of mentors at the top, implicit bias among VC firms — these structural and cultural barriers perpetuate the gender gap. Women also need structural barriers removed and a strong support structure, including affordable, accessible childcare and spouses that fully support them at home.

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 individuals and as a society, we need to be entirely comfortable with having a woman boss as we would with having a male boss. Women should be at the top of the list when someone asks you to name the three to five famous entrepreneurs, CEOs, or business leaders you admire most. For mothers, childcare costs have risen approximately 900 percent over a generation (source: Elizabeth Warren, Persist). It costs more annually to provide 40 hours of childcare in most states than it does to send your son or daughter to a public university. We all need to do our part to remove these obstacles, or billions of dollars of lost productivity, economic growth, and tax revenue will continue to disappear into the ether.

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?

SCM: I support and study women founders. The biggest takeaway from the dozens of interviews I have had over the years is that when women launch a business, they experience a tremendous personal growth trajectory. The self-knowledge, confidence, and grounding that women gain by being their own boss and starting and growing something they control and put their heart and creativity into is enormous. Further, the path to wealth creation is through passive income, not earned income. A wage or salary is by definition limited, and raises occur very rarely in today’s economy. Growing revenues, profit margins, cash flows, and stock prices, on the other hand, are much less fixed and less limited. The world’s billionaires and multi-billionaires did not get there through a CEO’s salary. They got there through stock holdings increasing in price, exercising stock options, receiving dividends and other passive earnings, or through inheriting the passive earnings of family members. Even if you don’t aspire to be a billionaire, your personal and household wealth is much more likely to beat inflation and grow through passive holdings, not wages or salaries.

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

I used to subscribe to a magazine dedicated to entrepreneurship, but I ended that subscription after a year of having the same images on the cover every month. A big myth is that an entrepreneur is a wealthy, youthful, attractive white male. This image arises when we think about who is an ideal-type founder of an enterprise. Why don’t we think of Oprah Winfrey, Susan Wojcicki, Sarah Blakely, Beyoncé, Wang Liachun, Cher Wang, Denise Coates? In addition to demythologizing a one size fits all founder and what they look like, another myth is that the founders of large and successful enterprises did it all by themselves. We have a winner take all system that greatly rewards founders, which does not recognize that it was not only Jeff Bezos that built Amazon, but all of the workers, innovators, and supporters that built Amazon alongside him. And they should be rewarded too! I’m a big fan of employee stock-ownership, which would more accurately reward those who work toward building and sustaining successful companies.

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 have my students take an assessment called the Entrepreneurship Mindset Profile, which I have been certified to administer. This tool assesses 14 traits and identifies whether someone might be a better fit or have greater capacities to be a business administrator or a hired manager vs. an entrepreneur or a founder. But anyone can grow and develop entrepreneurial capacities, such as risk tolerance, self-management, and creative problem-solving. Another strategy is to partner with, hire or outsource talent where you might fall short. In my opinion, the ability to sell yourself and your idea, network and secure mentors, investors, and other supporters, and persevere and execute are the top traits that I see in successful entrepreneurs across the board. These capacities can be developed and honed if the drive to do so is there.

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. Seek out help and actively listen to those who offer it. Mentorship is everything.
  2. Obtain an optimal balance of humility and confidence. Be willing to pivot, especially after listening to your target customers.
  3. Seek out advisors, investors, mentors, and advocates with regularity. Be willing to sell yourself and your ideas and do so boldly, but also be humble enough to process constructive criticism and advice that seems counterintuitive to you.
  4. Pursue opportunities that fulfill your higher purpose and that constitute what you consider your calling in life. Complete dedication to a cause much greater than yourself and making money will get you through the dark valleys, uncertainties, and setbacks that all founders face.
  5. Be sure to pay it forward. Consider rewarding your employees with a piece of the company. Mentor others. Invest in others. Make the world a better place.

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

I chose the professorial path to inspire my students to understand the world and strive to make it a better place, and secondly, to be a thought leader through my own research, writing, and outreach, including this interview! People of all walks of life seek guidance, inspiration, mentorship, and knowledge. My career in academia allows me to do this most days of my life, and for that, I am grateful.

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.

My latest passion and undertaking has been rethinking how we reward entrepreneurship and contributions to enterprise. With massively increasing wealth inequality and political and social inequality, a simple solution would be to create more capitalists by making stock ownership more accessible. There is no good reason why the workers delivering your Amazon Prime or Door Dash order shouldn’t be rewarded with stock ownership. We need to democratize business management and share the wealth gained through entrepreneurial ventures and business growth and development in order to have just, fair, humane, and sustainable capitalism.

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.

It’s a tie between Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé!

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

Thank you for the opportunity!

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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.