Female Founders: Andrea Heuston of Artitudes Design On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
A Kickass Outfit — You need an outfit that makes you feel like you can own the world when you wear it. It adds to your confidence level. It’s the outfit that makes you feel like a superhero; this is your uniform, this is your costume, and you are who you need to be to rule the world in that outfit. I have a pair of pants that I call my Super Woman pants. If I really need some good mojo, if I’m going to be speaking in front of a crowd or giving a big presentation, it’s what I wear. I also have a floral pantsuit that is one of my superhero costumes. It’s hard to have a bad day when I’m wearing it.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrea Heuston.
Andrea is the founder and CEO of Artitudes Design, an experiential design firm that works with Fortune 500 companies (Microsoft, Starbucks and Expedia to name a few) as well as startups and non-profits. She is also is the creator and host of the podcast, Lead Like a Woman, where she interviews female leaders and entrepreneurs who share their tips on life, leadership and entrepreneurship. She is passionate about empowering women and helping to close the gender gap for women in business.
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?
At 24 I was putting myself through college and running the creative services department at an energy systems engineering firm in Seattle when the company was purchased by a French firm. They had me lay off the entire team of seven designers and then laid me off. However, two days later they called me back and said we made a mistake — we need to do some rebranding and we need you to come back. I decided I didn’t want to put my fate in somebody else’s hands anymore, so I jumped in my car, drove 60 minutes to Olympia, the state capitol, got a business license, and the energy systems firm became my first client.
I also grew up with a father who had traditional values around gender roles, favoring female domesticity over entrepreneurship and leadership. He didn’t believe that women should be in business. The realization that I could run a company and I could do it well was also the attraction, motivation, and inspiration for founding Artitudes Design.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In 2008, I started the year off in the emergency room. In March I had surgery. In April I had more surgery. On May 30th, I became very ill. Three days, one misdiagnosis, three emergency rooms, two ambulance rides, and one very concerned husband later, I was in surgery yet again. I didn’t wake up from that surgery for nearly 3 weeks. I had aspirated on the operating table, contracted pneumonia, which then turned into Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome or ARDS. ARDS is similar to SARS. It turns the lungs to stone. The doctors put me into a medically induced coma until my lungs could recover. At the time, ARDS had an over 70% fatality rate.
I don’t remember anything from that time. Except for some very vivid, medication-induced dreams! My husband and family remember it all. I woke up and met Dr. Stuart — the head of the hospital. (You know you’re really sick when the head of the hospital takes you on personally!) Dr. Stuart said to me, “I’m so happy to meet you because I didn’t really think I’d ever get a chance to.” I had no idea how ill I’d been until that moment. It was a long road back to health, and I missed over 8 months of work in 2008.
During that time, something amazing happened. The enthusiasm and passion I had breathed into Artitudes Design kept the company alive — without me! My incredible team of talented, creative and yes, enthusiastic heroes pulled together and saved the day.
Prior to this experience I was a micromanager, a control freak. I used to touch at least 80% of all projects that came through our doors, but because of my illness, I was forced to step back and see where I could truly add the most value to the company, and where I could let others shine with their skills and enthusiasm. It’s changed the way I lead, and I believe that both Artitudes and I are better for that decision.
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?
That’s a hard one. My mistakes are always huge, but not amusing! For example, my first employee and my best friend embezzled money from me. Another employee interviewed so well that I didn’t check her references before hiring her and she ended up throwing a chair at a contractor working for us at the time and I almost got sued. They’re funny in hindsight but were no laughing matter at the time. However, I learn so much from my mistakes. They’ve taught me resilience and made me a better person and leader.
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?
My Grandma Gerry was a powerful woman for her time in the 40s and 50s. She raised two boys on her own after her husband left her. She needed to work so marched down to Boeing and got a job operating a huge computer back in the day when computers were the size of a room and few women worked, let alone at a male-dominated company like Boeing.
When I spoke to my grandmother about starting my own business, she was incredibly supportive. She loaned me 5,000 dollars to start the business which was a huge amount of money to her. I paid her back, with interest. She insisted on interest. Smart lady.
She was a major influence in my life. She was never a victim. I really respect that about her. A lot of people are victims in this world, and they look at life as being bad to them. That wasn’t my grandmother. She would pick herself up and deal with whatever life threw at her. And throughout my many tough life lessons I’ve kept that in mind. That power to choose our reaction to anything the world hands us forms the basis of my book, Stronger on the Other Side: A Guide to Getting from Victim to Champion.
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?
I think there are a lot of things that are holding back women from founding companies. First, we don’t have a lot of role models. Founders of businesses are almost always white men. Because it’s not what we have in our purview, we don’t think it’s possible. It’s not that it’s not possible, it’s that we just don’t see it often enough to believe it ourselves.
Secondly, the societal norms are still that women are expected to be the house, the hearth, the home, and still expected to run the family. It is changing and the new generation that’s coming into the workforce believes that anything is possible which I absolutely love. But overall, that expectation that women will run the home is still there and that can get in the way of their ability to have the time and energy to found a company.
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?
We need government subsidized childcare for families so women who want to can get back to work or found companies. Incubating a baby and incubating a business are both incredibly hard things and we need to provide resources and support that make it easier to do both. The cost of childcare is prohibitive, and families often decide that one parent should stay home. Almost exclusively the man makes more money. So, when as a couple you have to make the decision of who’s going to stay home, you go for the lower wage earner.
Secondly, we need better access to capital for women and more education about it, so women know what’s out there and how to get it. Women almost exclusively bootstrap their companies. When men have an idea and want start something they’ll ask their friends and their family for money or they’ll go out and seek Angel or VC funding, but women historically bootstrap because a) they don’t think they’ll get it, and b) they’re afraid to ask and afraid to incur debt.
Access to capital is one of the biggest things that works against women — they either don’t see the access, or they can’t find it. There are a ton of grants for women who are in business or starting businesses, but they’re really hard to find. I’ve spent hours and hours on the Washington State grants page looking for a grant that’s specifically for women owned entities that other women founders told me about, but it’s buried so deep I can’t find it.
There need to be more programs like the Office of Women’s Business Ownership (OWBO) which helps women entrepreneurs through programs coordinated by SBA district offices. The more things like that that are available and visible and publicized, the more likely we are to be to go for them.
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?
Women bring so much to the table — as founders and as executives. Women are both empowering and inclusive. They are generally more inclusive of ideas, of people, and of different thought processes, and more likely to challenge the status quo, so you get a stronger company with that. Also, companies that have women at the helm or women on their board make more money than companies that don’t. Other benefits according to The Harvard Business Review are that companies with more women in senior positions are also more socially responsible, and provide safer, higher-quality customer experiences.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
One of the myths is that you must be focused on your business 100% of the time for it to be successful, but that’s absolutely not true. Being able to focus on yourself and your family and your mental and physical health will make you a stronger leader and make your business stronger. A lot of people say, ‘it’s going take all your time, you’re going to take away from your family, you’re not going to have time for anybody anymore’. That is utterly untrue, that is a decision you make on your own — there are super successful female founders who work 20 hours a week.
The other myth is that you have to know everything about everything. You categorically don’t. The best thing you can do as a founder is surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Don’t ever be the smartest person in the room, because if you don’t believe there’s room to grow, you never will. I think that it’s vitally important because a lot of people, especially men, want to be the smartest person in the room. But if you’re not open to somebody else’s ideas or looking at something a different way that could make your company bigger, faster, stronger, better, you’ll at best limit your growth and at worst, fail all together.
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?
Oh, it’s definitely not for everyone! To be a successful founder you need to get over the fear of failure. You must believe that if you fall down six times, you get up seven. That’s such a trite quote, but it’s really true. If you look at something and you say, ‘What if I fail… What if I lose this?’ you’ll be paralyzed. You have to go through that exercise in your head that says, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen?’ and the worst thing that can happen is you lose the business. You need to be ok with that and say, “hey, I’ll just do something else, or I’ll start a new one.” Setbacks fuel growth and future success and you need to believe in that with every fiber of your being.
There are some people who like clear parameters and direction — they like to color inside the lines. When you tell them what needs to be done, they can execute brilliantly, but they need that roadmap.
That is the opposite of what a founder does — a founder is always looking to color outside the lines, to push into uncharted territory. I’m not saying there’s not an element of entrepreneurship in a lot of jobs these days and people asking how they can do things better in order to succeed, but it’s different when you’re a founder. You have to be comfortable with the unknown and be able to jump off the building and trust that you’re going to make it, that you’re going to fly.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
As Sheryl Sandberg once famously said, “no one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table.” As girls and women, historically we have been taught to defer to men. Forget that notion! The “nice girl” attitude you may have learned growing up doesn’t work in business, and customers, leaders and clients may tend doubt your abilities or, worse yet, try to take advantage of you. You need to own the table. Learn to walk into any room or situation with your head held high confident that you are an equal, an expert in your field, that you deserve a place at the table.
We all need support, but female leaders especially need their tribe! Your tribe is as unique as you are, but I suggest surrounding yourself with people who support but also question you. You should have a banker, a lawyer, a CPA, a bookkeeper and a coach. And you absolutely need a girlfriend you can cry with and drink with. In my role as CEO and founder, it’s taken me a long time to understand that I need female peers, business partners, friends, a female community. From a book club to an all-woman business group to nurturing friendships in my life, actively seeking out a supportive female community is one of the best things I’ve ever done to contribute to my own success and well-being.
You also need to hear the hard truth sometimes. Your friends/tribe can see your crap and call you on it when you can’t see it yourself. When you have trusted people around you, they’ll be the first ones to see your patterns, good or bad. Your best source of an objective opinion is your trusted group of supportive women that don’t have any other objective but your well-being.
You have to have thick skin, because every person in your life is going to question you, they’re going to say: ‘Why are you doing this? Why don’t you just get a job? Why don’t you leave that to somebody else? What makes you think you can do that? Who’s raising your children right now? Shouldn’t you be making dinner?’ And when you’re assertive you’ll be called a bitch or bossy. It’s an endless litany of barbs. There’s always judgement about women. You need that thick skin, and you need to be able to laugh at yourself and let it roll off.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a scientist or if you run a design firm, you have to be creative in your conversations, you have to be creative in how you present issues and solutions, you have to be creative in the way that you look for funding, and you have to be creative in how you juggle the demands of home and work. Creativity fuels big ideas and opens the door to new business opportunities.
A Kickass Outfit
You need an outfit that makes you feel like you can own the world when you wear it. It adds to your confidence level. It’s the outfit that makes you feel like a superhero; this is your uniform, this is your costume, and you are who you need to be to rule the world in that outfit. I have a pair of pants that I call my Super Woman pants. If I really need some good mojo, if I’m going to be speaking in front of a crowd or giving a big presentation, it’s what I wear. I also have a floral pantsuit that is one of my superhero costumes. It’s hard to have a bad day when I’m wearing it.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’m passionate about empowering women to empower others and that’s really what I’m trying to do with my podcast, Lead Like a Woman. My goal is to help women recognize and realize their own power. I believe wholeheartedly that when we listen to women, we get a fuller story than when we listen to men. And that’s not to say that men’s ideas and voices are wrong or bad. That’s not at all what I’m trying to say. Rather, women have a different insight and different approach to things, and if we can inspire women to empower other people, the world will be a better place. Mainly because they will be listened to on a different level. Women see things that men don’t see because they’re deeper into the trenches generally of their lives, their families’ lives, of anywhere where the fringes are in society. Women when they get together can do incredible things. Men can, but there’s a little more jockeying.
How can our readers further follow you online
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.
If I could inspire a movement, it would be around the idea that feminism is stronger when all people support it — all genders, all colors, all political parties. When women rise, society benefit. Closing the gender gap in pay and societal roles can raise the GDP by 35%, according to the World Economic Forum. There is a rising tide for equality, and even equity in gender roles. I believe that it needs to be bigger, louder, and bolder in order to see some sort of parity within the next 100 years.
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.
Melinda Gates. I’m so impressed with what she’s doing to elevate women in this world. Everyone can learn from her. She continuously steps out of her comfort zone and listens and learns from the people she’s helping. She’s very humble and open to feedback and I don’t know many people in a position like hers that are so open to critical feedback. I’d LOVE to have her as a guest on my podcast.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Female Founders: Andrea Heuston of Artitudes Design On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.