This startup scene is familiar: we’re sitting on a comfy green couch in a wall-to-wall glass room; I’m surveying the room and feel at home. A dozen employees in an open work format sit on bar stools, with wooden floors below them, brick walls around them, and an etched wood carving of the company logo on the wall. Each employee sits in front of two screens, listening to music and chatting excitedly about the next product launch. Freshly Picked—a darling of the Provo start-up scene—has all the trappings of a successful, trendy, fast-growing tech company.
The conversation, however, quickly reveals a difference in this startup, or at least its founder: the CEO talks about her startup success, and just as quickly transitions the topic to her other priorities, each just as important, some perhaps more so, than her successful venture. For most stargazing startup founders, achieving success comparable to that of Freshly Picked is a once-in-a-blue-moon scenario; Susan Petersen seems to have arrived, is relatively casual about it, and talks to us about other stars in the distance.
In a community spilling over with startups, an all-in culture has emerged. Entrepreneurs make the company’s agenda top priority and tightly align those driving it. Commitment to a startup plays to our tribal tendencies and produces somewhat of a badge of honor. As a founder myself, I recall all the military-like comparisons:
“I pulled the cord and left my job . . . I’m starting a startup!”
“We’ve burned the ships!”
“You’ve got to get in the trenches!”
“It’s a battle!”
You get the idea. And there is an all-out startup marketing assault in our state, ranging from billboards to podcasts, and prevalent in the largest of convention centers to the smallest of college classrooms. This assault both puts a microphone to the startup war cry and elevates the status of entrepreneur. There are many forms of worship—from deity down to entrepreneurs. For goodness sake, the most successful (by size of company and dollars invested or created) founders are celebrated above actual war heroes. So goes the story when people are followed by a pile of cash and a massive love group of employees, investors, and bystanders. And the overwhelming assumption is that they achieved their success through cunning and strategy, whereas any successful and honest founder will tell you that a great team and bit of luck played heavily into their success.
And now you understand why a sit-down with Susan is so personable. She pokes fun at this culture and moves on. Her strategy is to simply do one thing very well: Susan does Susan.
For this post, our MBA intern and I wanted to dive into the world of a successful Utah female entrepreneur. We turned to Susan, who went from an Etsy vendor to the owner and CEO of a multimillion-dollar company. We sat across from her as employees buzzed around us, and got an insider’s perspective on being a woman in a predominantly man’s world. Here are our four takeaways.
1. Ally support is clutch.
She has found a state of allies. “An awesome part about Utah and my counterparts in Utah (other entrepreneurs) is when they say, in response to gender bias, ‘Hey that’s not cool how that’s happened.’ I have received 100% support; people are understanding or at least are trying to understand; all the guys I know have been considerate and helpful.”
Susan is both a recipient and a giver of founder support. “I look at the women in my life who may be courageous about other aspects of life but not as much attacking their work. I’ve created a world where I can be a voice. I’ve had some pretty crappy experiences [being part of a minority group in startup] and have moved on, but I would hate for my daughter to have to deal with those same things. I hope that we’ve moved past this gender bias.”
2. If the system doesn’t work, buck the system.
“I think [not having formal business training] was an advantage for me. I have seen people get boxed into how things should be run, and entrepreneurship is about disrupting that. I don’t know if it would have boxed me in or would have been productive. What I’m trying to do is learn, win or lose, and if we fail, think of the lessons I’ll learn! I have no interest in the easy way. Learning is my passion, but not formal education. Learning from mistakes in my life is the most amazing experience.”
She’s honest about learning new things. “I saw a 3-year forecast for the first time a couple of years ago and I had no idea what it meant. How many have the opportunity to see it and learn from the person who built it? It was awesome. A lot of people feel there is a formula for successful, and I don’t feel that there is. You either get your MBA from a school, or from the school of hard knocks, and they cost about the same . . . if you feel like something needs to exist and feel compelled to do it, just do it and don’t listen to other people. Don’t let other people scare you off from jumping in.”
3. “Making it” is a myth that stifles drive and feeds ego.
“I never feel like I’ve made it. It’s not a thing. I’m never going to be there. You always feel like you left something on the table. I feel unsatisfied with where things are, but this is good because it makes me run faster.”
We asked about ego—what’s the balance between swagger and empty bravado? “I don’t have a lot of ego in a lot of things. I do have a lot of ego tied up in marketing—I freakin’ killed social media. But I don’t have ego in being a CEO. I think a lot of times people think ego signifies an insecurity, and I don’t have a lot of insecurities around my business. I know I don’t know how do this. I’ll ask anyone anything.”
4. Entrepreneur is just another a label.
“Motherhood is one of the best things I’ve ever done; so is sister, so is daughter. But they don’t define me. Being an entrepreneur doesn’t define me. What defines me is when someone feels sad and they know they can come to me. I want to be known for courage and for kindness. The others are labels you sluff on and off.”
[Many are] trying to be healthy, have a family, grow a business; too many times we think of it as a balance with scales. I like to think of it as a nine-burner stove. You can only pay attention to one hot stove and not burn the house down. At work, I’m the boss, 100% entrepreneur. I can’t have my kids come to work. At home, I’m not answering email or taking calls. I get up and work out before anyone is awake because that is my specific time. I am constantly rotating pots through these burners. That is how I’ve made sense of my different roles.”
“I believe that I have a life’s work. Freshly picked is not my life’s work; it is part of it, but it is something that I have to do to get to the next stage. I was born for something bigger than this.”
It so happens that today is International Women’s Day, and we join in celebrating the women entrepreneurs who bring fresh ideas to the Utah start-up scene. The men in this space have done a darn good job and any pokes at that culture are only used to emphasize the wonderful differences in a founder’s path to success. But there’s also a lot to learn from those who don’t fit the stereotypical mold. Susan’s grit, perspective, and growth mindset speak to her obvious success as a CEO. She reminds us that we cannot put people, particularly successful entrepreneurs, into one square box.
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