“There are many books that delve into how to succeed as an entrepreneur, but most are written by men, for me. InnovateHERs provides a much-needed roadmap for the female entrepreneurial mindset. It’s a must-read for anyone looking to support women in building successful companies!” —Kate Eberle Walker, CEO of PresenceLearning, Author of The Good Boss
As a woman, have you leveraged an entrepreneurial mindset to advance in your career? Do you want to align your purpose with your traits and skills to “do well” and “do good” in your profession?
Authors Barbara Kurshan and Kathy Hurley, both experienced and highly regarded leaders in business and education, wanted to know how today’s top female leaders might answer these questions. So, they asked. The result is InnovateHERs: Why Purpose-Driven Entrepreneurial Women Rise to the Top.
Through personal interviews with 29 of today’s global, top-performing women in purpose-driven organizations, Kurshan and Hurley offer readers a unique, insider view into the diverse pathways to success. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, corporate leader, or new to business, InnovateHERs provides stories and ideas that show you how to leverage your personal entrepreneurial mindset to accelerate your purpose-driven professional journey.
Learn how these accomplished, purpose-driven, entrepreneurial women blazed new trails and rose to the top of their professions around the world. Discover how to think bigger, lead stronger, and embrace your unique passions, traits, and skills. They are InnovateHERs, and they’ll show you how to be one, too.
When we first embarked upon our mission to paint the Portrait of an InnovateHER, our goal was to understand the women around us, reveal what made them so successful, and create a model for future generations that demonstrated how women in purpose-driven roles rise to the top and seek success on their own terms. What we didn’t expect was for the stories of these women to touch us so deeply. We witnessed them sharing moving personal anecdotes about the obstacles they overcame on their path to achieving success. As we interviewed more InnovateHERs, it became apparent that a specific mix of entrepreneurial traits and skills, personal life experiences, and a purpose-driven orientation contributed to their success. If you are picking up this book because you are starting out in a purpose-driven career or looking to accelerate your growth in a purpose-driven organization, you’re in luck! In these pages, you will find many deeply personal stories that map the path to purpose-driven leadership. Or perhaps you have a daughter, sister or niece — a future InnovateHER — that you think could learn from these stories. Regardless, we hope anyone who pics up this books will find the same inspiration we did in learning what I takes for women to rise to the top and make a lasting, positive impact in our world.
Do you consider yourself an InnovateHER? What entrepreneurial traits and skills do you have that make you uniquely positioned to make a difference? When you were reading these stories, did you nod along with the lived experiences? Do you dream of achieving purpose and rising to the top of your field? Are you ready to embrace the journey to leadership? If so, InnovateHERs is the start of a long journey for you. Perhaps you already possess the need to achieve, passion, calculated risk-taking, and action orientation, and now, you are interested in honing those skills or building new ones. Perhaps you are like some of our InnovateHERs, and you struggle with self-confidence, persistence, idea generation and execution, or optimism. These stories are designed to share women’s words of wisdom and real-life examples of how to apply what they did—and how they did it—to your life. We wish you all the best as you find your path and rise to the top.
All successful InnovateHERs know you can be entrepreneurial without starting a business. We promise! There are many reasons why women do or do not start businesses—we call them InhibitHERs, or the things that hold women back from success. In Chapters 7 and 8, we will talk about how these internal and external factors influence women’s careers and how they can be leveraged for success. For now, remember this: We are surrounded by entrepreneurial people all the time, with or without the title of CEO or Founder. These people are heading up departments at growing companies or leading important initiatives within nonprofits, governments, schools, hospitals, and corporations. Understanding what makes them tick and what skills make them successful can help you learn how to build more effective teams, better delegate responsibilities, and leverage strengths to find success and rise to the top at any point in your career, regardless of whether you start a business or not.
On the path to becoming an InnovateHER, you undoubtedly will need mentorship along the way. Kathy shares her story about how both a mentee and a mentor helped her to become a transformative leader of impactful initiatives. Forty years of experience as an executive in the education industry has taught me a thing or two about the importance of good mentorship. My training to become a mentor and a mentee began long before I entered the professional world. My first unofficial mentor role was to my three younger siblings. At a young age, I was a sponge for learning from others and was always seeking out good role models to emulate. I wanted to learn from them, and I wanted to share what I had learned with others—siblings, friends, and even strangers. In college I realized that the one thing I wanted to do most of all was make a difference by helping others. Nothing could have prepared me for the role of mentor more than my first job being a special education teacher. Teacher, advisor, guide, counselor, tutor, instructor, coach—every synonym for mentoring was used daily as I worked with special needs students. While I played the role of mentor, I learned that there was much more to being a good mentor than guiding or instructing someone.
For Silver, empathy is clearly a guiding strategy to being a good leader, but it is also key in the line of work she chose. There is a bigger purpose to every company she has chosen to work with, and she uses her empathetic abilities to build teams and to hire people who want to make an impact—all while keeping her own motivations and purpose at the center. “Purpose is the binding force when things get difficult,” she said, crediting it as what keeps her teams on track and focused. According to Silver, it’s essential to any team-building strategy. Strategy, empathy, and collaboration helped her team achieve that purpose. Our research at the University of Pennsylvania aligns very closely with Silver’s profile. It suggests that purpose-driven entrepreneurs have a more developed empathy scale than do regular entrepreneurs. Within the group of purpose-driven leaders, women score 14 percentage points higher than purpose-driven men on this trait. Throughout our interviews, we heard echoes of this data. The InnovateHERs referenced investing in the people who work with them, working collaboratively, and caring deeply about the well-beingof their teams. In the professional world, people are taking notice. As seen in Silver’s story, it was the secret to her success.
Our research revealed that for purpose-driven leaders, the gap is wider than for typical entrepreneurs and corporate managers. Women working for purpose-driven organizations scored 14 percentage points higher than women entrepreneurs and corporate managers on the need to achieve trait, and they also scored 12 percentage points lower on self-confidence. As we saw in Chapter 4, InnovateHERs hold themselves to incredibly high standards, especially if their job or organization has a social impact. What we saw when discussing InhibitHERs was that women show a tendency to devalue their contributions, making it more difficult to feel successful and qualified for top leadership jobs. This raises the question, “How do industry veterans respond to this dichotomy?” Today, more than 30 years into her successful career, Mary Louise has learned to leverage her domain expertise in a way that feels authentic and helps her build confidence. Instead of advocating for a fake-it-till-you-make-it approach, she believes in showing up with humility first and working through the discomfort by using questions to your advantage when you are still building self-confidence. One way to help you earn trust with your team and stakeholders is by being vulnerable enough to ask questions and listen deeply.
To listen to Vicky speak is to get a masterclass in leading with the heart while staying humble, curious, and focused. She embodies what makes InnovateHERs stand out—taking calculated risks, putting the interests of the people you serve first, and building a talented team to advance a mission. Vicky’s achievements were not based on traditional strategic leadership frameworks. At the beginning, there were no models, financial projections, or even a competitive analysis. What she used was plain and simple: her gut instinct. Incorporating interpersonal sensitivity, or empathy, as part of her strategy was instinctive; she knew that putting the people who had firsthand experience with the problem at the center of the solution would be crucial to its success. Then, she took risks—both personal and with the Escuela Nueva approach—that were guided by her greater purpose. Finally, she was vindicated by the evidence. Not only was Vicky able to get more buy-in from hard-to-impress stakeholders, but she also distributed ownership so that each person would have a stake in the outcome.
Here is the irony of this InhibitHER: As Joysy achieved career success, her confidence and optimism increasingly became tied to performance. When things were going well at work, Joysy felt great. When things weren’t going so well, she developed a nagging sense of imposter syndrome—something she had always been able to power through in the past. She began to work longer and longer hours, relentlessly pushing herself to achieve more. She continued to hold herself 100 percent accountable for excellence, and her core skills—confidence, optimism, and even persistence—were called into question every time she felt that she wasn’t living up to expectations. Joysy’s story teaches us the following: 1. Imposter syndrome doesn’t necessarily disappear with promotions but talking to mentors about the issue helps to build confidence and move forward. 2. It is possible to recover from intense personal challenges and use the help received and lessons learned to reenergize career progress.
Jamie has had her fair share of barriers and challenges to overcome. She has leaned into the skills she learned growing up—working hard for everything she’s ever had, motivated by her parents’ hard work—and the experiences she had with teachers to double down on her purpose. Now, as the CEO of Edmentum, she leads a team of over 1,500 education professionals, who serve educators and students in more than 40,000 schools throughout the United States. Jamie’s story demonstrates that InhibitHERs such as financial constraints or learning differences can be turned into ActivateHERs. Her experiences reinforce the following: 1. Early childhood experiences and caring, committed role models—both inside and outside the home—are influential in defining one’s purpose. 2. Risk acceptance is important to measure when following your purpose, and when the tradeoffs are too high, it’s worthwhile to step back to find another path to achieve your purpose.
If we were to put all the mindset traits in a machine and ask it to create the perfect InnovateHER, no one woman would ever represent 100 percent of each of the entrepreneurial traits and skills. InnovateHERs can have any combination of those skills and exhibit them to varying degrees of intensity. If we think about this as a recipe, these traits and skills would be the ingredients. Too much of one skill or trait might overpower the others, while too little might mean the recipe doesn’t work. When it comes to the proportions, certain combinations work better than others. It is then up to the chef to find the right balance to be successful. Needless to say, the intensity of each of these traits and skills falls on a continuum for each InnovateHER. Perhaps the tricky part to wrap our brains around is that there is no one “right” answer or formula for becoming a successful InnovateHER. However, what we did find in the research is that there are potent combinations that are especially powerful. So, what do the most effective combinations look like?
In a perfect world, all the barriers to InnovateHERs’ success would be internal, and nothing would stand in our way. If that were the case, challenges would be easier to fix because they would all be within our control. Unfortunately, the world is not something over which we can exercise control. As long as women are a minority in leadership positions, they will continue to face obstacles that their male counterparts do not. These external InhibitHERs are speed bumps on our road to success, and as we learned in our interviews and saw throughout our careers, not all roads look the same. A crucial and hard truth emerges from this chapter: There are obstacles in the workforce that we simply cannot control or change, and they often directly impact our success and well-being. However, learning about these external InhibitHERs can make us better leaders, innovators, and mentors. External InhibitHERs are real, and they are an additional barrier that women must overcome to get to the same place as men in their careers. Whether it’s growing up in a low-income household, having to face structural racism head on at a young age, or not being able to count on familial support in your career, it is true that not all women have the same number of hurdles to jump over.
It may surprise you to learn that not one single InnovateHER got to where she is today without the continuous help of mentors throughout her career. Of all the ActivateHERs we have addressed, mentorship is the thread that weaves through all the stories of success and stands as the golden standard for how to scale the ranks at a purpose-driven (and really any) organization. No matter how entrepreneurial, how innovative, or how persistent the woman, every single InnovateHER we interviewed attributed a part of her success to good mentorship. In some cases, this mentorship presented itself as intentional—the kind that is mutually agreed upon—but in others, it occurred by virtue of observation, sometimes even manifesting in the form of observing a parent, grandparent, sibling, or friend. Regardless of how it showed up in the lives of our InnovateHERs, mentorship was ubiquitous in every story, across the board. For many of our InnovateHERs, mentors also provided important encouragement to help them strive for the things they wanted. While mentors come in different shapes and sizes, the one thing they have in common is the ability to play the important role of influencer and guide. Our InnovateHERs provided eight key takeaways about the role that mentors play.
Throughout the interview process, we heard time and time again about how the InnovateHERs learned to leverage different entrepreneurial skills to turn their InhibitHERs—internal or external—into ActivateHERs, or key lessons and takeaways that fueled their success. We both experienced our fair share of InhibitHERs, both internal and external, on our paths to the top of purpose-driven organizations. It was a topic we were deeply curious about when designing our interview questions. Would we discover similar experiences across generations? Would new barriers come up, and would others be diminished with the passing of time? While these struggles can be uncomfortable to discuss—failed boardroom presentations; a thousand no’s before finally getting a yes; imposter syndrome; lack of funding; work-life balance, etc.—we also heard frequently that overcoming these barriers built character and tenacity. The next chapters will discuss how each InnovateHER overcame her internal and external InhibitHERs by successfully converting them into ActivateHERs. You’ll see that the way we unpack these stories is unique to each InnovateHER. Because there was so much diversity in the way each InnovateHERs’ entrepreneurial traits and skills interacted, we thought each story warranted its own section to unpack the way this InnovateHER turned specific personality traits and skills into ActivateHERs to achieve success on her own terms.
The EMP research suggests that about half of the work that goes into building an entrepreneurial mindset occurs when we are very young. The other half are skills and abilities that we develop as we grow older and mature into our adult selves. In other words, Katie had the Goldilocks conditions to become an entrepreneur—and when the right moment hit and opportunity struck, her action orientation personality trait meant that she was ready to run with it. Understanding how idea generation and execution interact with one another was an “Aha!” moment when creating the Portrait of an InnovateHER. We quickly identified that this interaction between the two skills as something that sets InnovateHERs apart from other leaders. The women we interviewed all had a certain energy and spark. There were many fun conversations where the person being interviewed lingered on what had inspired them to start their business or organization and walked us through the iterations of their business models. This, in a nutshell, is the skill idea generation. The team at Eckerd College defines this as “the ability to generate multiple and novel ideas, and to find multiple approaches to achieving goals.” In other words, this is the intangible energy that visionaries are known for. It is the possibility inherent in the question, “What if?”
As investors and board members, we—Kathy and Bobbi—are constantly scanning the talent pool for new and exciting initiatives to support. We consult many intrapreneurs on their business and marketing strategies and work with entrepreneurs who have started their own companies or nonprofits. We’ve heard countless pitches and have had to give our fair share of tough rejections, but without a doubt, there is nothing harder and more deflating than hearing somebody talented pitch an idea and say, “It would be nice if…,” or even worse, “We haven’t done this because we are waiting for the perfect moment.” As entrepreneurial leaders, we know that the perfect moment never comes. A common denominator for those whom we consult with, invest in, and mentor is a bias to action, or action orientation. Action orientation is an essential trait for any entrepreneurial leader who is aiming to grow their initiative. The EMP defines action orientation as “a tendency to show initiative, make decisions quickly, and feel impatient for results.” Entrepreneurial leaders must be quick on their feet and responsive to their customers, especially in the early stages of starting a business or nonprofit. If they aren’t, the competition is quick to jump on the opportunity to claim their customers.
Think about a risk-taker. Who comes to mind? Is it someone who jumps out of an airplane to skydive? Is it an investor who puts all their eggs in one basket, betting on the success of one company? Perhaps you think of a high-growth entrepreneur. Risk-taking is so synonymous with entrepreneurship that it would be impossible to write a book about entrepreneurial mindset without mentioning it. The stereotype of a risk-taker in the startup world is predominantly that of a young, male entrepreneur with nothing to lose. But knowing some of the women we do, this perception of risk-taking as a precursor for entrepreneurial success didn’t fit with the narratives we were hearing. The more we discussed risk, we agreed that some of the riskiest moves we saw were being made by women who were moving their families across the world for a new opportunity or quitting their corporate jobs in their highest earning potential years to pursue a dream project. They were taking more than just financial risks—they were risking their personal identities. Risks were even greater for women who came from underrepresented communities, as they felt they had less space to fail. One of our initial driving questions was, “What does risk-taking look like for women, and how does it differ from the traditionally male stereotype?”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the EMP is the brainchild of an entrepreneurial woman. Pam Mayer has the spirit of a coach, which comes across as she greets us with a huge hello and immediately jumps in to pepper us with questions about this book. She loves to understand people and their motivations, and we were no exception—she is curious. Pam is one of the lead researchers on the EMP, and by building this tool, she has helped fill a gap in the market for developing a practical way to show how entrepreneurial mindset compare to corporate mindsets. After earning her master’s and PhD in Educational Psychology and spending many years in education as a superintendent, professor, and department head, Pam transitioned to working in the corporate world as an executive-level coach. She spent more than 15 years working with clients across sectors and continents who were at the top of their game at competitive companies. For a curious person, this was prime research material. Each conversation seemed to reveal something to her, and upon reflection, it seems her investigation into top-level executive minds began informally years before she thought of developing the Entrepreneurial Mindset Profile®.
After several interviews, we began to shift our questioning around the need to achieve. We realized that the InnovateHERs lit up when talking about the profound impact their positions allowed them to have.Clearly, whether explicitly or implicitly stated, the need to achieve manifested as the InnovateHERs striving to do more, to do it better, and to significantly impact the people they served. The women we spoke with were not at all ashamed about their desire to grow their organizations and create a positive impact in the world but appeared to avoid describing themselves, alongside this desire, as “ambitious.” But this avoidance doesn’t change the fact that when the mission is personal, InnovateHERs with a strong need to achieve make unstoppable social impact leaders. Wanting to do well for yourself and to do good for others is an incredibly powerful combination for leaders of purpose-driven organizations and leads to the development of other skills that enable success. Three skills stood out: persistence, idea generation, and execution.
Passion, or “the tendency to experience one’s work as exciting and enjoyable rather than tedious and draining,” was the most universally mentioned and openly agreed upon essential InnovateHER trait. It is not the same thing as purpose, which is a specific topic or direction that passion can be aimed in. Passion is the fuel that feeds the flame and is what keeps people going despite setbacks. In the EMP, it is cited as a personality trait that you are born with. Passionate people don’t always have a purpose, but purpose-driven people almost always have passion as an entrepreneurial personality trait. If you look at organizations making meaningful change, you usually won’t find passionate people far behind. But what if you haven’t found “a passion” yet? This is where the entrepreneurial mindset distinguishes between passion as a personality trait and passion as a hobby. Passion is not necessarily about one specific thing or pastime but is rather an approach to life. Entrepreneurial personality traits are built into us from early on. Do you get excited about new ideas, or are you quick to dive into new projects? If that sounds like you, then you might rank high on the passion scale.
The decision to tell women’s stories was natural both for us. Not only have we had the opportunity to be at the helm of purpose-drivenorganizations, but we also picked up leadership positions before it was widely seen as acceptable for women to do so. Although we had many men who helped and sponsored us along the way, we were always relieved to find women modelling their own styles of leadership. We now recognize that many more women are following in our footsteps. In 2019, the percentage of women in senior leadership positions at purpose-drivenorganizations across the world hit 29 percent, and that percentage has continued to rise, reflecting the upward momentum of women’s representation across the public and private sectors. According to a 2015 report from ASU+GSV, 30 percent of education startups are led or were founded by women—nearly twice the percentage in other sectors—and 75 percent have a woman on their executive team. Healthcare and the government/nonprofit sectors follow closely. Unquestionably, a powerful wave of women leaders is coming. With more women than ever graduating from college and continuing on to master’s and doctorate degrees, we project that the future of the workforce will be women.
Our interviews with women who work with or have founded purpose-driven organizations grounded our research for this book. However, we added another framework to ensure that our interviews were structured and that the questions we asked would reveal answers about why women rose to the top. Essential to that process was the Entrepreneurial Mindset Profile® (EMP) built by the (LDI) at Eckerd College. Building on the research done by this team, we discovered that entrepreneurial women have four specific personality traits and four specific skill sets that have contributed to their professional success. These come together to form what we call the Portrait of an InnovateHER.
Throughout our careers, the two of us have been surrounded by women who help one another, their friends, their families, their communities, and the world. And once again, as the world seemed to be spiraling out of control, here we were, watching women do amazing things despite adversity. These women—the helpers—were the inspiration for our deep dive into understanding and painting the Portrait of an InnovateHER.
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