Entrepreneurs, both immigrants and American-born, have built America from the ground up into the world economic power that it is today. We can all recall some of the names of our nation's greatest self-starters: Henry Ford, Bill Gates, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs and Rebecca Shanahan (Avella Specialty Pharmacy, 2014 revenue: $800 million), just to name a few.
From Henry Ford's assembly-line production, which transformed American life when he put a car in nearly every garage to Bill Gates who founded Microsoft, they all possess remarkable similarities: mental toughness, strong discipline, intelligence, perseverance, confidence, vision, creativity and a fierce drive to succeed. In fact, we tend to idolize these fiercely-driven individuals because they perpetuate the American ideal, which is that in America, anything is possible-with hard work.
But for all of the Elon Musks, and Lori Greiners of the world there are countless others that we never hear anything about who never make it. What happens to the tens of thousands of failed entrepreneurs who never get there? What types of people have the backbone for entering the world of entrepreneurship, where the risks are as great in number as are the sleepless nights?
Karen Gordon, CEO of 5 Dynamics, and Cynthia Scott, Ph.D. M.P.H. clinical psychologist, offer their expertise regarding the mindsets behind start up founders, and how the intense feelings of failure and success can exact a hefty toll on all parties involved in the physically, mentally and emotionally draining (and exhilarating) roller coaster ride that is entrepreneurship.
Rather then showing vulnerability, business leaders have practiced what social psychologists call “impression-management," also referred to as “fake it till you make it," what does this ultimately mean for the individual going it alone, as an entrepreneur often does?
Cynthia: In my work teaching leadership at Presidio Graduate School, I focus a lot on the development of the capacity to be authentic, which includes being vulnerable. Leaders have a hard time knowing when to be authentic because people want to see the real you, but if you show the real you, that makes you less of a leader. It's a catch 22, especially for women. There can be a downside to displaying that authentic self, and a downside to not displaying your vulnerability. Good leaders are able to balance authenticity with vulnerability to build trust and valuable relationships in their work. As for “faking it until you make it," there is nothing wrong with that and people do it constantly. It can also be called “rapidly prototyping," trying something out and learning from it. The act of trying something new (like starting a company or parenting your first child) makes it difficult to feel authentic in doing it, yet it is essential when going forth to launch a new idea you feel passionately about as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs can't fear failure or the act of trying something new to do what they do.
Karen: A common pitfall for entrepreneurs and leaders is that they think that they need to be an expert in everything. They don't. It is much better to recognize and be able to name your strengths and weaknesses. We all have them. If you understand where you prefer to spend or not spend your energy and your time and you have a growth mindset.
Brad Feld, prominent venture capitalist and Founder of the Foundry Group, shared that he has struggled with mood disorders throughout his adulthood, and started blogging about his depression and was surprised by the number of emails from other very charismatic and well-known entrepreneurs who voiced many similarities regarding emotional and psychological struggles. He reported that there was one common thread: "None of them felt that they could openly talk about their emotional struggles, as if it were akin to admitting a character flaw or weakness." Why is "talking about it," still so taboo?
Cynthia: In my early career I worked in employee assistance programs, and at that time the statistic that we used was that 15-20% of people who are able to get up and go to work have some kind of mood disorder, (depression, anxiety, etc.). Entrepreneurs and VCs put a great deal of pressure on themselves to succeed and perform to their own and industry standards. Paired with the misconception they can't be vulnerable or authentic while also being a leader, this can cause a lot of strain when the pressure builds up.. What if I don't get funding because someone knows about my mood disorder? What if it affects my business success or the careers of my employees? If the risk of those looming and seemingly detrimental factors are great enough, entrepreneurs or leaders will keep the anxiety or mood disorder quiet to protect themselves, their business and their employees.
Karen: The old adage is true. It is lonely at the top. When you are a leader, people expect you to have all of the answers and to be steadfast and strong. We all have self-doubt, but as a leader, you cannot express that to your team, and so you internalize everything. That is why it is important to connect with other CEOs, but even there, initially, people will posture because they feel that they are held to a higher standard. It's wise for leaders to hang in with a like-minded group for an extended period of time to allow for trust to build. Having a safe place to share your fears and doubt is important, even for CEOs.
The Founder of the e-commerce site Ecomom, Jody Sherman, 47, took his own life, in 2013; Sherman's not alone, as there were others before and since. What resources would you recommend for entrepreneurs to access before they reach the point of desperation?
Cynthia: For entrepreneurs, the perceived (and sometimes actual) stakes are higher if failure occurs, and so exposure to the thought of suicide is greater. Failure for them is much more public than failure for others. If there's a chance an entrepreneur could lose their job, company or funding, it creates greater pressure for success. Society can do much better about disseminating and making available helpful resources before people reach the point of desperation, as Jody did. Feelings for suicide are overwhelming and sometimes frequent, but temporary, so if you call or talk to someone on a hotline (National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255) or someone you know who you feel comfortable with, it can mitigate those temporary feelings. Suicide Prevention hotlines are valuable resources now available across the globe. The Internet is good for these resources as well, allowing people to talk to someone, either by phone or email, creating a safe space for anyone to tell the truth. Entrepreneurs may prefer these types of resources that are private and not privy to people in their lives or networks.
Does a certain type of person become an entrepreneur?
Karen: To become a first-time entrepreneur you either have a high tolerance for risk or you have someone in your network who has a high tolerance for risk who encourages you to move forward with your idea. People who exhibit high levels of risk tolerance are future-oriented thinkers. They love living in the world of ideas and possibilities. They ask the question “What if?" and you need to pair that ideation energy with a drive for getting things done (executing, not sitting on ideas with no sense of urgency or direction).
Why are there so many more entrepreneurs today?
Karen: People have become disenchanted with the idea of working for a company for their entire career, and they are looking for freedom and flexibility in their lives. Work is no longer the most important thing in people's lives. They are looking for experiences, and want flexibility to enjoy life. The internet has played a role in the upswing of entrepreneurs as it has shown people what is possible.
What should new entrepreneurs know about the unspoken risks of the going “all-in" career path?
Karen: The entrepreneurial path is not for the faint of heart. It is tough! It can be all consuming. You never completely walk away from it. You wake up in the middle of the night thinking about challenges that you face in the business. Even if you take time off, which you definitely should, you can't stop thinking about your next moves. The good news is, once you build a strong team around you, that burdens is lighter, as you recognize your team will manage the day-to-day while you are away and you are able to move back into the world of possibilities.
What are some of the common misconceptions about the character traits of entrepreneurs?
Karen: The most common misconception I see regarding entrepreneur character traits is that entrepreneurs have to be competitive, have a high tolerance for risk, and have a relentless ability to ideate and execute in order to be successful. But as I said before, stereotyping anyone is dangerous. Many entrepreneurs may have these traits, but they also have unique traits that aren't stereotypically associated with go-getter entrepreneurs. Some are very focused on people and tend to build happy and productive teams. Others are focused on data and keep a close eye on metrics. All need to understand their unique gifts and how to lead from those gifts, but there is no one-size-fits-all entrepreneur profile that people can compare themselves to.
Though launching a company will always be a wild ride, full of ups and downs, there are things entrepreneurs can do to help keep their lives from spiraling out of control. Most importantly, making time for friends and loved ones is paramount. Don't let your business squeeze out your connections with actual people; they will, oftentimes, help to keep you grounded when it's needed most. Never be afraid to ask for help, and see a mental health professional if you are experiencing symptoms of significant anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts or any degree of depression.
Something as simple as a brisk 20-minute walk each day will go a long way to help clear the mind of nagging thoughts while getting much-needed exercise, which can also boost your mood. Though sleepless nights are often an entrepreneur's reality, set aside at least seven hours, for sleep, each night. Lastly, make the effort to eat a well-balanced meal, every day. Adequate nutrition, rest and exercise can significantly enhance one's mindset and help to maintain a healthy balance that will be needed to endure those particularly trying moments when they surface.
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.