Female Founders: Suteja and Paula Grace of Inner Treasure Hunt On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
The job is non-stop. There is no such thing as a weekend. Weekends have lost their meaning as a time of rest and rejuvenation. Every day you work. You dream about the enterprise in your sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night and make notes so you don’t forget ideas that come to you at odd hours. It’s like having a child — you don’t ever get to ignore the baby crying in the next room, needing your attention to grow and develop.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing co-founders Suteja and Paula Grace from Inner Treasure Hunt. Suteja is a former monastic whose approach is a unique hybrid of ancient traditions, modern science, natural healing, and practical application. She doesn’t believe she is anyone’s guru: she is a teacher and guide who helps people find and heal themselves. Paula Grace produces the educational content and manages the website.
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?
Suteja: Most people ask mystical questions at some point in their life. “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “Why am I here?” The questions are intriguing and seem to lead to a great unknown awaiting discovery, but they get put on the back-burner due to the obligations of living. These questions stayed center stage in my life and I spent a lot of time seeking answers.
I went deep and was able to heal myself from chronic fatigue syndrome and create a strong philosophy of life that supports me through difficulties. For me, seeking answers to mystical questions is very practical in terms of one’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Now I’m sharing my findings with people who are in difficulty, especially with the pandemic, the isolation, and the uncertainty of our time.
Paula: After studying social psychology in grad school, I counseled at-risk youth in a group home, which was emotionally rewarding but financially debilitating. I couldn’t make a car payment much less buy a house, and dinner was often one cheap beer and the free chips and taquitos at a local cantina. I didn’t want to leave the non-profit world where I knew I was doing good for others, but I couldn’t continue living a hand-to-mouth existence. After grappling with this dilemma for some time, I decided that I needed financial security and that once I’d found a steady, livable income, I could donate my time and money to worthy causes.
A friend suggested that I would make a good salesperson and she was right. I switched careers and started selling computers at the birth of the tech revolution. In those pre-internet days there were no user manuals so I had to train the lawyers, CPAs, and doctors I was selling equipment to because if I didn’t, they’d return it and I’d lose my commission. I felt like I was still doing good in the world because my customers were thrilled with their Commodores, Osbornes and Apple IIs, and ecstatic when Lotus released Visi-Calc with its revolutionary 32KB program.
But more importantly, I fell in love with training. I say that because there’s nothing better than seeing the lightbulb go off when someone learns something, or witnessing the sense of accomplishment that comes when someone is able to do something new for the first time. Training is like another form of doing good by passing on knowledge and skills. I was offered a full-time training job and jumped at the chance, starting a forty-year career spent developing organizational talent from the front-line to the C-suite. Working hard and dumb luck have allowed me to buy a car, make a house payment, and donate my time and money to charity. Most importantly, Inner Treasure Hunt would not have been possible without all that I gained from the wonderful people I worked with and the advanced technology I used at the companies I worked for, for which I am eternally grateful.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I’d been healing people through Ayurveda and massage for many years, which I loved doing, but there was a part of me that wasn’t satisfied, namely the teacher part. I ached to share all that I’d learned and put into practice, in ways that could do as much good as possible. I was waiting for some kind of opening to focus more on teaching, and could intuitively feel that the time for a school was coming closer.
I was thinking about closing my healing practice to have more time to focus on teaching when Covid-19 hit and shelter-in-place laws closed my practice for me. Shortly thereafter Paula retired with her amazing skills, experience and knowledge. When I asked her if she wanted to create ITH with me and she said yes, I knew we had the dream team. So without two external events completely out of my control, the pandemic and Paula’s retirement, I couldn’t have founded my vision for a school that helps people heal and thrive. You never know when the stars will align for you, so stay open to whatever may come.
We had to create an online video-based school using only our savings in the middle of a pandemic, and I discovered that I could learn everything we needed from the internet for free. I found thousands of reviews and online tutorials that taught what I needed to learn about shooting and editing videos and managing a website. When we started to build ITH, I didn’t realize how much we’d be able to do ourselves thanks to the resources available online.
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?
For me, the funniest mistake I made had to do with a sneeze. Some people have teeny little sneezes that sound like puppy yips, so 1 on a scale of 1–10 where 1 is the quietest sneeze on earth. Other people have booming blasts that sound like dynamite explosions, so 10 where 10 is the loudest sneeze on earth. My sneezes are 11s. When I sneeze, the cat leaps up and hightails it out of the room, and I have the scratch marks on my lap to prove it.
We were recording a video with me in front of the camera and Paula at the computer wearing headphones connected to the microphone. I felt a sneeze coming but didn’t think anything of it. I knew she could edit around it so I figured I’d just sneeze and keep going. So I sneezed.
I kept going but immediately stopped when I saw Paula yank off the headphones, her eyes the size of plates, her mouth open in a silent howl of pain. She clamped her hands over her ears in a vain attempt to massage the hurt away. I realized too late what had happened but there was nothing I could do — the damage was already done. Paula started laughing and accused me of trying to turn her deaf. I’d been holding my breath but burst out laughing, and we laughed until tears came. I promised to warn her whenever I had to sneeze and I’ve kept my word. Thankfully she’s able to snatch off her headphones every time.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, I pulled out the old sewing machine and got pretty good at sewing masks. So when we started ITH and realized that Suteja would need a wardrobe in which to appear in videos, I figured I could sew it. We bought fabric, patterns and trims, and I started sewing. No classes, no experience other than masks, hadn’t sewn since high school, just chutzpah. Words fail me in describing the horror show that followed. Maybe if I had taken a class or had a sewing teacher, but covid precluded any kind of gatherings so we were stuck with the most ill-fitting monstrosities that were so bad all we could do was laugh every time Suteja tried one on.
I’ll never know how to fit an armhole or collar and Project Runway contestants are magicians as far as I’m concerned. That was an expensive mistake which we decided not to prolong. We ended up finding inexpensive tops and jackets in a variety of colors online for Suteja to wear. I’m still sewing face masks, including masks made out of left-over wardrobe fabric, but I know my limitations and have learned to stick to my lane. I prefer the ‘undo’ command to seam ripping any day.
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?
First I am grateful for Paula without whom my dream of teaching wouldn’t have happened. I’m also very grateful for all my patients with whom I have a deep heart connection. They were disappointed to lose the support of their weekly sessions because of covid, but were open and flexible enough to shift to online meditation sessions to continue their healing. Many of them became the first members of ITH. I thank them for their presence, their feedback, and how they have shaped ITH.
I will be forever grateful to the ancients around the world for the legacies they have left humanity. I thank the Yogis in India for their discoveries about the subtle body, the Toltec in Mesoamerica for their amazing connection with nature, and the many other civilizations from which I draw inspiration every day for my own spiritual life and my work. And finally, I am eternally grateful for the seekers of the world who continue to ask the deep questions and look within for answers. They are building a harmonious future for humanity.
I am grateful for Suteja who continues to keep me sane in an insane world. I’m also very grateful for the great colleagues and leaders I worked with as an employee and consultant at companies like Autodesk, DHL, Schwab, Genentech, HP, RingCentral, and many others. I met marvelous people who impressed me with their knowledge and willingness to share so I could learn. I was fortunate to design training programs with subject matter experts from other departments including Sales, Marketing, Finance, Technology, Operations, Production, R&D, and HR. This gave me a well-rounded perspective of what it takes to run a business, which has been invaluable.
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?
My answer is going to seem far-fetched but I’m a healer and I’ve seen that my patients’ identities are often built on the identities of their parents and ancestors. Through our work together they would discover hidden reservoirs of unresolved family trauma stuck in their bodies, clinging to their organs and muscles and joints, without their awareness or consent. I would work on a painful part of their body and they would get an image of something, perhaps weep, and release long-held physical pain. Later they would tell me that their images had to do with things they had vague inklings about which were whispered in the family but never openly discussed since they were taboo. By releasing their connections to their ancestors’ traumas, they healed not only their pain but the pain of their family line for generations in both directions. So I’ve recognized that we all contain bits of our ancestors psychically and physically, a recognition shared by many in the healing community.
My personal experiences are scientifically substantiated by the scholarly study of Transgenerational Epigenetic Inheritance, the passing on of traits from parents to children from generation to generation, including experiences of trauma. Mark Wolynn, Director of the Family Constellation Institute, explains the studies supporting TEI in his enlightening and readable book “It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle.” Once you recognize that this is going on, my answer will make more sense.
As much as we would like to speed up the world for women founding companies, the woundings of women are so deep and have lasted so long that the impediments are still engrained in the cells and subconscious of women the world over. I’m talking about thousands of generations of women raised to question their ability to survive on their own without a male provider, of being terrified of being sexually active or having a child out of wedlock, of being seen as worthless if they couldn’t procreate, of being considered chattel and second-class citizens. My own mother told me about how her father threatened to kick her out of the family if she got pregnant before marriage, and how women in her grandmother’s generation were thrown in jail if they got pregnant without being married (based on the laws in France at the time).
The root of one’s power, according to the chakra system devised by ancient Yogis, is the first chakra where sexual organs and sexual pleasure are. Basic energetic empowerment comes from each chakra, and most women have been denied access to their own sexual pleasure and the root of their power throughout recorded history. This denial is embedded subconsciously in women, and every woman has to fight against it as she tries to rise. It’s like the chains on Marley’s ghost in “A Christmas Carol” — whether you realize it or not, chances are that your female ancestors were not free to express their sexuality or be empowered by doing so, and you’re dragging the chains of their imprisonment behind you.
The oppression of women has been going on for millennia and the rise of the women’s movement in the last half-century is a step in the right direction but a drop in the ancestral bucket. The pernicious societal trauma that every woman carries in her bones and reproductive organs will take generations to release, but we don’t have to wait. There are many ways to address ancestral trauma which is why our classes and events offer a variety of methods. As more women heal, the female wounding will be released from the collective subconscious and not carried forward.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for women is overlooking the very attributes in which women excel: collaboration, empathy, vulnerability, inclusion, being organized, acknowledging intuition, and learning from mistakes. I’ve found that women who express these characteristics can be very effective in the business world.
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?
On an individual level, look at your ancestry and learn all you can about what happened to those who came before you on both your mother’s and father’s sides. Even if you think they lived uneventful lives, think again. We all live through trauma and fear, and are marked by the experiences of the world around us. People living today remember where they were when Kennedy was shot, the Challenger exploded, the World Trade Center fell, and Covid-19 shut down the world. These traumatic events become embedded in our bodies and psyches, to be passed down to our children and their children just like our grandparents’ experiences in World War I and the Great Depression and World War II and the Holocaust became embedded in their bodies and psyches, and were passed down to us. You can heal intergenerational trauma by going deep into your subconscious to identify what you are carrying from the past and release it. I see it happen all the time.
Give yourself permission to express characteristics unique to you, even if they don’t align with what the traditional business world claims to be necessary. You can be a founder without being a ruthless, dog-eat-dog, take-no-prisoners type of person. Collaboration, empathy, generosity, and intuition can go a long way in supporting your vision and making your enterprise more successful and your life more enjoyable.
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?
When you feel empowered, your life force is strong and pushes you to create; by creating you feel empowered. It’s a lovely symbiosis. This is reason enough to become a founder. When you are your own boss, you’re free to create as you see fit. The more you feel empowered as a human being, the more likely you’ll become a founder.
I often used a game called Lutts and Mips to teach problem-solving and team dynamics. Eight to ten people sit in a circle in age order, with the oldest person in the first seat and the youngest in the last seat. Each person is given cards which contain clues that solve a problem the team is working on. You can’t show your cards to anyone, but people can take turns sharing one of their cards aloud with the group until all the cards have been read. The oldest person is also given a ball. But there’s rules about talking.
Only the person holding the ball may speak. The ball may only be passed from the oldest team member to the second oldest team member, and so on to the youngest member. The ball always travels in the same direction and does not skip anyone. Older team members may interrupt any younger team members at any time by taking the ball. Younger team members may not interrupt any older team members at any time. When someone finishes speaking, they pass the ball to the next younger team member and the team resumes the age-related speaking order.
Over decades using this game, in small rooms with one team to giant ballrooms with hundreds of teams, the results were always the same. The only teams who solved the problem in the allotted time were all-female teams or co-ed teams where the oldest member was a woman. Okay, maybe 5% of the time male teams solved the problem, but that was rare. And why did the women always win? Because unlike the men, the women didn’t interrupt others or snatch the ball away from younger people, and they saw to it that the ball went all the way around the circle many times, thereby ensuring that everyone shared all their cards and had equal opportunities to discuss the solution. In the male circles, the youngest members either never got the ball so they didn’t read their cards aloud, or after reading their cards aloud they never got the ball in order to contribute to the solution. When debriefing the activity there would always be young men on the male teams who had solved the problem but never got the ball so couldn’t share what they knew to win the game. This would be a shock to the other members of their team.
As far as I’m concerned, Lutts and Mips is the best reason why more women should become founders.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
One myth of being a founder is that you have to be a charismatic person with a strong, outgoing personality who loves human contact, shakes a lot of hands, laughs easily and loudly, and talks a lot. I’m living proof that introverts can be founders. Being introverted means that I’m comfortable spending time and energy on quiet introspection rather than noisy outward expression. I cherish time alone and am used to finding solutions inside of myself. I find that clarity comes in the empty spaces I create. What’s most important is having a vision of what you want to create, regardless of whether you’re introverted or extroverted.
There’s a piece of paper taped to the wall of our office that says “F**k Everything! I just have a message!” We printed it after a lengthy discussion in 2020 about how impossible it would be to start a website where Suteja could share her knowledge about healing with others. There were so many problems we couldn’t see solving and so many scary things to consider given how private a person Suteja is, that we’d reached the limit of our ability to dream and were sitting in gloomy silence.
Suddenly Suteja jumped up and shouted, “F**k Everything! I just have a message!” I gasped — I’d never in twenty years seen Suteja have an outburst much less swear (merde doesn’t count), and the passion behind it was impressive. It was like she morphed from Gandhi to Xena Warrior Princess. We stared at each other then burst out laughing so hard I peed my pants. We memorialized this breakthrough with a wall sign, the first of many as it turned out.
We’re all taught a myth: that we need a business plan and funding, and that success is measured only in numbers. Don’t believe it. What you need is to be inspired, determined, and ready to last for the long haul. You need to be open to luck and serendipity. You need to be kind and generous, ethical and grounded. You need to acknowledge and address your fear. You need to define success on your own terms. And it helps if you’re smart.
Suteja and I don’t have a business plan. We didn’t look for financing. What guides our enterprise is a relentless desire to get what the ancients knew about how to live in harmony and thrive out into the world. She’s on board because she’s a conduit for healing who is driven to educate others about what she’s learned. I’m on board because I’m having fun doing what I love, instructional design, and she’s great to collaborate with. Our measures of success are if we’re enjoying ourselves and if our members are benefiting. As long as both are in place, ITH will grow. “F**ck Everything! I just have a message!” is our business plan, and we’re committed for life.
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 that the most important trait of a successful founder is a sense of self. There can be an enormous amount of uncertainty and fear when you found an enterprise, and having a strong sense of self based on self-awareness and humility is the only thing that can overcome fear. Your sense of self enables you to create an enterprise that supports and sustains you so your work doesn’t take over your life and you forget to eat, sleep, and take care of yourself. As a founder, you are your enterprise, and you can’t let your enterprise kill you. Your enterprise needs to help you flourish, not drain you.
I think the traits of curiosity and imagination tempered with acumen and pragmatism increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder. You have to be able to envision multiple possibilities for how your enterprise could grow — the more possibilities you dream the more likely one of them could happen. This is a good way to stay open to happy accidents so you don’t miss them. Of course, this has to be balanced with judgment, awareness, and sober assessments of reality including the reality that you don’t know what the future holds.
As for a “regular job,” it’s a good way to make a steady income while you gain knowledge and skills. There’s nothing wrong with holding a regular job, in fact, some of the greatest founders in the world were first employees.
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.)
1. The job is non-stop. There is no such thing as a weekend. Weekends have lost their meaning as a time of rest and rejuvenation. Every day you work. You dream about the enterprise in your sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night and make notes so you don’t forget ideas that come to you at odd hours. It’s like having a child — you don’t ever get to ignore the baby crying in the next room, needing your attention to grow and develop.
2. You are in a constant creative process. This can be an exhilarating experience because you’re manifesting something out of nothing. But it can also be anxiety-producing because you are relentlessly facing the unknown. You can’t fall asleep at night because you’re wondering what’s going to happen and don’t have any certainty, just hope. The trick is to get used to forging ahead even when you don’t know what’s around the next corner.
3. You’re running a business. No matter how much time you want to spend on the creative stuff that turns you on about your enterprise, you’re going to spend a lot of time knee-deep in the muck of the back-end running the business: permits, taxes, fees, expenses, trademarks, financial reports, SEO, social media, etc. Either learn how to do this or be prepared to pay someone to do it, because no matter how good your product or service is, it’s not an enterprise without the back-end.
4. No one cares about your enterprise as much as you do. Don’t be surprised if your friends and family are not as excited as you are about your latest idea, or round of funding, or even your early successes. Ignore them. You care about your enterprise and that’s all that matters.
5. You set the deadlines; you can change them. Your sanity comes first, and if maintaining your sanity means moving back a deadline, then do it. Meeting a deadline but killing yourself (or others) in the process just isn’t worth it. Don’t let your enterprise fracture your life. Take your foot off the accelerator and coast for a while.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
The whole purpose of ITH is to improve people’s lives by providing them with tools for self-healing, thereby helping create a better future for humanity. I feel privileged and humbled to be doing work that makes the world a better place.
I’ve been fortunate to teach at some great universities and at San Francisco State I was able to donate my salary to create scholarships for women over the age of forty returning to school in the College of Health and Social Sciences. Now we’re donating ITH memberships and products to non-profits and educational institutions so more people can join in doing work that makes the world a better place.
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 schools teach children how to deal with their emotions — how to tap into their emotions, live in tune with their emotions, get messages from their emotions, and not be trapped by their emotions. There are very simple techniques that even toddlers can do, like breathing with their abdomen, to calm themselves and relax and recharge. In ancient Japan and China everyone knew how to breathe with their abdomen because it was part of the culture. In the Western world we either never had that or forgot how to do it, but it’s a surefire way to calm oneself down, clear the mind, and develop a sustained focus. There are other self-healing techniques I wish could be taught to children at an early age and reinforced throughout life.
According to Jessica Wapner’s article in the New Yorker Magazine, “Medicine’s Wellness Conundrum” (Nov 6. 2021), doctors and HMO’s are facing a growing number of patients suffering chronic pain or discomfort who want to include in their treatment plans alternative methods not found in the Modern Medical System such as Ayurveda, acupuncture, massage, and homeopathy, among others. Alternative treatments, which were once viewed as kooky and fringe, are now being regularly requested by patients, and have even been incorporated by a few small healthcare providers who are on the bleeding edge of integrated healing. But the vast majority of physicians in modern medicine continue to deride alternative/integrative healing, ignoring the efficacy of it, dissuading patients who request it, and refusing to refer patients to alternative practitioners. The consequences of their decisions have grave ramifications for our health and wellbeing.
When the community of people requesting alternative resources gets big enough and comes together as a movement, doctors and insurance companies will have no choice but to change. Knowing that the ‘wellness’ conversation is growing, no one should be afraid to raise the question of alternative treatments with their medical providers and healthcare insurers. You have the right to speak up for what you want to include in your healing. It’s your body, mind and spirit, and you have the power to tap into all the layers of who you are to help yourself heal.
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 love to meet Mark Wolynn, the author I mentioned earlier who writes about Transgenerational Epigenetic Inheritance in his book “It Didn’t Start With You.” I admire his work and the work of The Family Constellation Institute immensely and think we’d have a lot to talk about in relation to ancestral trauma and healing.
I’d love to meet Molly Patrick, co-founder of the Clean Food Dirty Girl website. Her weekly newsletter is always a beacon of positivity and inspiration, and not in a saccharin way. Her messages about self-acceptance and self-love are universal and grounded in a reality that everyone can understand and relate to. She offers practical advice in the form of healthy eating and is brave enough to show her vulnerability. Plus she swears.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.