Book Forward

Book Forward for All In: How Women Entrepreneurs Can Think Bigger, Build Sustainable Businesses, and Change the World, by Stephanie Breedlove

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

—Margaret Mead

When Stephanie asked me to write the foreword for All In: How Women Entrepreneurs Can Think Bigger, Build Sustainable Businesses, and Change the World, I nearly declined without even skimming the manuscript. Like most of us, I was already overcommitted. I was working too much and had a lot of business travel on the horizon. On top of this, I was in the midst of selling one house and buying another. The timing, it seemed, couldn’t have been worse.

I’m not sure what inspired me to start reading the manuscript, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down. Even before I finished the third chapter I e-mailed Stephanie and said that I would write the foreword. Now that I’ve read the whole book, I’m so glad I said yes. As it turns out, the timing couldn’t have been better.

Like Stephanie, I started my company, a social venture built on a business model that relied on earned revenues rather than donations or grants, in my twenties—but I wasn’t “all in.” I started it the same summer I started my PhD in economics. . . not something I would recommend! I spent all my spare time building the venture—throughout the first several years of my doctorate program, while researching and writing my dissertation, and finally alongside my first job out of graduate school at the Federal Reserve Board under the direction of Alan Greenspan.

I was working full time in Washington, DC, teaching a masters class in economic development at George Washington University, and running my venture, which was by then operating in six countries throughout Latin America and Africa. After accepting a new job in San Francisco, my husband at the time suggested that I take the next steps in my own professional career by focusing my efforts on scaling my social venture (and perhaps attempting to get a little more sleep as well). So I quit my job, moved west, and began the next chapter of my journey. In this book, Stephanie emphasizes how valuable an encouraging life partner can be in these early stages of entrepreneurship, and I couldn’t agree more. I’m quite sure that I never would have taken the leap without a supportive spouse who had a secure paycheck and health insurance.

However, something still held me back from pouring my heart and soul into this effort. In fact, I was so sure that I wasn’t the right one to bring it to scale—because I didn’t have the skillset to do it—that my focus became getting the venture financially stable and in a position to hire someone else to scale it. I’m not sure where that lack of confidence came from. I bootstrapped like the best of them. I didn’t pay myself until year 7 or 8, only after I’d quit my job, and even then it was only about a quarter of what I was making at my first job (with zero benefits). I was frugal to a fault. I relied on volunteers and interns and hired much more slowly than I should have. A couple years after moving west, the venture had a cushion of $200,000. I opened an office in San Francisco and expanded operations to support three additional countries. At that point, I started looking for the “right” person to successfully scale the venture.

To make a long story short, the person I hired and the subsequent leadership ran six-figure deficits in their attempt to scale the venture and very nearly ran it out of business. I’m happy to say that the board stepped in and turned it around. Now under new leadership, the venture—which just celebrated its twentieth anniversary—currently operates in ten locations in seven countries and has exciting opportunities on the horizon. The number of people we’ve supported through the organization over the last two decades and the impact we’ve had is one of the things I’m most proud of in my life.

Could I have done a better job scaling the company? Possibly. Would it be in a better position now if I hadn’t stepped down? I will never know since it was not the path I chose. Why do I tell this story? Because, while I don’t choose to waste time regretting decisions I made in the past, I do know that I want to be “all in” on my next entrepreneurial journey, which is happening as I write this. Hence, reading this book now is perfect timing.

However, I can’t explain my next venture without first telling you a little bit about the amazing path I’ve been on with the Kauffman Foundation, the largest foundation in the world dedicated to entrepreneurship. My work with Kauffman has allowed me to focus my talents on researching entrepreneurship and better understanding the gender and racial gaps we see in both entrepreneurship rates and entrepreneurial outcomes. Because of my dissertation on the role of race, gender, and discrimination on business performance and my subsequent work at the Federal Reserve on small business financing, I was recruited by the Kauffman Foundation to lead their largest data initiative to date: a longitudinal study of firms that began operations in 2004 and were tracked over a period of eight years. Through this study, the Foundation sought to shed light on early firm dynamics, why some firms grow while most do not, and why few experience the high growth like those that dominate the news. One interesting fact we learned is that high-growth companies come from all industries, not just tech. For example, Sara Blakely founded Spanx, an entrepreneurial firm in the shapewear industry, at the age of 27. In 2013, Sara was the first woman to join Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge by agreeing to donate over half of her wealth to charity. Today, Sara remains the sole owner of Spanx, having bootstrapped the company herself, and it has annual sales of over $700 million.

After more than a decade with the Kauffman Foundation, I’ve written numerous journal articles, book chapters, and books on entrepreneurship, many of which address the gender gaps we see in entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial finance. Stephanie cites some of my research from a book I coauthored with Susan Coleman called A Rising Tide, which focuses on financing strategies by women-owned firms of all types, from nascent home-based firms to high-tech, high-growth firms backed by venture capital. The book’s chapters highlighting high-growth, venture-backed companies were so well received by readers that our publisher, Stanford University Press, asked us to write another book focused specifically on the financing of high-growth businesses. Susan and I agreed, but on the condition that we could also focus on the gender gap on the investor side, which is even larger than the gender gap in high-growth entrepreneurship—and they are very much related.

As Susan and I were wrapping up our newest book, The Next Wave, I was feeling frustrated that these gender gaps continue to persist, and that they are still so large. The research provided some clear evidence on why there weren’t more women participating in angel investing:

  • Many women aren’t aware of opportunities for angel investing
  • They aren’t asked to invest
  • They don’t feel prepared to make that first investment
  • They are risk averse and shy away from making large investments
  • They don’t know other angel investors and aren’t part of investor networks
  • They don’t see deal flow and aren’t exposed to investment opportunities

I wanted to do something tangible to address this issue and lessen this gender gap, so I designed the Rising Tide Program, a learning-by-doing training program that seeks to connect new and emerging female angel investors with experienced angels and equip them with the tools and knowledge they need to be successful. The program’s nine lead investors source investment opportunities and manage the due diligence, while also sharing their knowledge and expertise in a mentorship capacity to program participants. Thanks to a generous sponsorship from the Kauffman Foundation, the program also features a series of webinars and instructional videos on all aspects of angel investing, including valuation, term sheets, reading financial statements, and portfolio strategy. (These valuable educational materials are now freely available at http://nextwave.ventures/education-and-training.) By the end of the program, these new angel investors will have vetted more than two-dozen companies, invested in a diversified portfolio of about ten companies, and participated in numerous training and education activities, all with the goal of putting their experience to good use in their communities through their local angel groups, other funds, or as individual angel investors.

To truly be “all in” you need to believe passionately in what you are doing, because there are going to be times when that passion is the only thing that keeps you going. Choosing the challenges we feel most passionately about is doubly important given our limited time and resources. I’ve had the opportunity to partner with some amazing women who are committed to scaling the Rising Tide Program globally, and I’m absolutely “all in” to support their efforts. I think it’s extremely important that women own a larger share of high-growth entrepreneurial ventures and become a larger share of investors, mentors, advisors, and board members in our entrepreneurial ecosystem. When half of your population isn’t participating fully in the economy, everyone loses. I’m happy that many other individuals, including Stephanie, share my passion about this issue and are committed to driving change.

After reading this book, I realized that it is time for me to be “all in” with my other areas of interest as well. I’ve been passionate about animal rights for more than thirty years. I’ve also been vegetarian for nearly that long. When I started angel investing a few years ago, I invested in a company that encourages a plant-based diet. That got me questioning why my investing wasn’t 100% aligned with my values like my philanthropy. I want to not only invest in companies that are disrupting animal agriculture, but I want to support those entrepreneurs and help others invest in, support, and start these kinds of companies as well. I recently joined the advisory board of the Good Food Institute and have started working with several funds and angel investors to develop a syndicate of investors that will co-invest and support entrepreneurs in this space. To make a long story short, this is my “next big thing.”

What I love about Stephanie’s journey is how she exposes us to the realities of the entrepreneurial process. So many shallow sound bites in the media about extremely successful entrepreneurs lead us to believe those journeys were smooth and effortless. The true stories are probably quite different and less “sexy,” but we rarely get to hear that side. Stephanie delves into her failures as well as her successes, and shares what she learns along the way. We see that the path to entrepreneurial success is not a straight one, but rather one with plenty of swerves and detours, ups and downs, disappointing setbacks, and unexpected opportunities to learn and grow.

Stephanie’s message not only resonated with me, it gave me the energy and confidence to passionately pursue my next dream, to truly make a difference, and have the biggest impact that I can. I hope this book provides as much inspiration and motivation for you as it did for me, and that it encourages you to pursue your dreams and make a difference. The world needs us more than ever. It’s time to go out there and be “all in” together. We do not need to make this journey alone. Together we will change the world.

Alicia Robb, PhD, economics; senior fellow, Kauffman Foundation; visiting scholar, UC Berkeley