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Female Founders: Jennifer Steiner of ‘Lightfully Behavioral Health’ On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Your kids will be so proud of you. Throughout my career, I’ve felt intervals of guilt for being a working mom. Recently I asked my daughter if she remembered the day I picked her up from school and another mother asked me if I were the nanny. My daughter said “yes, and I used to brag about you all the time. I thought it was really cool to have a mom that’s a CEO.”

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Steiner.

Jennifer has a history of excellence in healthcare delivery and a proven track record of success. During the last decade, Jennifer has been actively creating positive change in mental health on a national scale. She is passionate about improving the standards of care in mental health by maintaining an intense focus on clinical quality, fostering collaboration and accountability, and facilitating innovation.

Jennifer holds an MBA from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and earned her undergraduate degree in liberal arts from The Colorado College.

She lives in Santa Barbara with her family, including her golden retriever, Mochi. She enjoys running, yoga, learning and the beautiful California shoreline. Jennifer is also the founder of “Lead Like a CHIQ”, a movement she created that promotes the power of authentically female leadership.

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?

I have been in healthcare services my entire career. I was an anthropology major in college, and quickly realized there wasn’t a huge demand for anthropologists!

I fell into a job at a skilled nursing company, where I worked for 13 years. My mentor at the time told me that if I wanted to get further in seniority, I needed business training. So, I went back to school to earn my MBA while working full time. I had two children and a third on the way, so it was a very challenging time for me.

I’m so glad I went to business school. I learned a lot and I stretched myself out of my comfort zone. And, it led me to the next phase in my career. For a brief time, I worked for a real estate investment trust that was investing in health care companies. This role forced me to face the things I was most intimated by, including finance. It was challenging and interesting but I quickly learned that I was not fulfilled. To “fill my cup”, I needed to be closer to the delivery of care.

Next, I worked for DaVita, the world’s largest dialysis company. I was given the chance to operate a large division with operations spanning from California to Oregon. I learned two key lessons. The first was the importance of culture and creating a consistent care experience for clients across all locations. The second was the importance of data-driven operations to measure lots of metrics and hold people accountable.

A few years later, I was recruited to my first CEO job for a company that treated adolescents suffering from mental health conditions. At the time, the ACA had just passed, and care was limited to people who could pay out of pocket. Mental health care for adolescents wasn’t talked about much. In fact, some of my friends and colleagues thought I worked for a nonprofit!

Then, I went to work for an eating disorder company where I learned about insurance-based mental health care. That job led me to the concept of Lightfully Behavioral Health. I saw a hole in the market. There wasn’t a national company out there that was solely specialized in mid-acuity, general mental health care (treating things like depression, anxiety and trauma.)

I’d say the theme is that throughout my career, I have been inspired by opportunities to serve vulnerable populations. We all find ourselves at points in our lives when we (or our family members) are in the hands of a health care provider when we are really suffering. It’s an honor to be there for people when they need us most.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I started Lightfully Behavioral Health to address an exploding need in the market. In light of the abundance of research about the impact of Covid on Americans’ mental health, I feel constant affirmation that we’re in the right place at the right time.

Everyone that I tell about Lightfully — from the grocery store clerk to the auto mechanic to my primary care doctor — confirms the need for primary mental health care by sharing a personal story of a friend or family member’s struggle. I often hear “It’s so wonderful what you’re doing. It’s incredible needed.”

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?

One of Lightfully’s values is wabi sabi which is to appreciate the beauty and concept of imperfection. At Lightfully, we celebrate the fact that we all make mistakes. We know that an environment of psychological safety is essential for building a culture where innovation happens. If we feel like we have to be perfect all the time, we won’t try new things.

In fact, we have a tradition on our monthly all-company call where I share a mistake I made. Most recently, I shared a story about when I was doing a presentation on Zoom to our leadership team. I thought my camera was off — but it wasn’t! As it turns out, my children were making breakfast in the kitchen behind me throughout the entire call!

I’m glad that I made this mistake, and I’m glad I shared it with the team. We’re all living this balance of working from home, and we don’t need to pretend that we don’t have real lives in the background.

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?

So many people!

Vicki Kroviak, founder and CEO of Acorn Health, has been incredibly successful in building several healthcare companies. She has inspired me by demonstrating that strong women can build companies and have wonderful outcomes.

Vicki is a friend and a member of Lightfully’s board of directors. She has been a sounding board, a deliverer of affirmation, a challenger when necessary, and a supporter. It’s a reciprocal relationship that’s really meaningful to me.

As I was embarking on starting the company, there were many times when I felt afraid. I questioned my own capabilities, and I wondered which path to take. Vicki supported me by frequently reminding me of my capabilities and helping me zoom out to see the big picture.

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?

As a woman growing up in business, I often felt like a misfit among management teams. Not necessarily because of my gender, but because of my inherent characteristics. I was not naturally aggressive, directive, combative, or forceful. My management style is much more collaborative, empathetic, and supportive. At work, I felt like I had to make an impossible choice: either emulate these different male characteristics to progress or remain authentic to my own style and risk being passed over.

Women who have grown up in these kind of traditional business settings may question whether they have what it takes to lead. They may look and act differently from the leaders around them. We were taught you to be emotionless, directive and know-it-all to be a good leader. I believe this is why women don’t envision themselves as leaders. They face a real conflict in how they show up.

As a CEO, I encourage all styles of leadership. There are many versions of great leaders, including women leaders or leaders who adopt a female style.

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?

Broadening our understanding of what makes a great leader is paramount.

Brene Brown is leading the charge by introducing this concept of vulnerability in leadership that would have seemed crazy 10 years ago. We’re on the right path now.

We’re studying and publishing articles and research findings that demonstrate the true efficacy of diverse leadership styles. It’s one thing to say that women are great leaders. It’s a far more powerful thing to actually provide data to support that assertion.

Studies show that companies with women on their board of directors perform better than those without.

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 build fantastic companies. We deliver shareholder value. We also build talent, create inspiring cultures, deliver quality products and services, and pioneer innovation.

The thing getting in the way is our lack of belief in our own capabilities. Out with the imposter syndrome!

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

I would like to dispel the myth of imposter syndrome. There’s evidence that women suffer from imposter syndrome at a much higher rate than men. Some studies indicate that even talking about imposter syndrome is holding women back. We need to dispel this myth that women can’t really lead, and their success is an accident. We need to dispel the myth that there are cultural norms that are prohibiting women from being successful in founding companies.

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?

Not everyone is cut out to be a founder. People who have an appetite for risk, comfort with wabi sabi, above average courage and a deep reserve of grit are more likely to be cut out to be a founder than those who seek safety in their day-to-day work.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. When you create an inspiring culture, people are drawn to it. We’ve poured our hearts into building an authentic culture at Lightfully, and people can see and feel that. People know when things are staged and when they’re genuine.

2. Every day is a roller coaster. Literally. Everything is so personal. This company is my baby, so the highs feel higher, and the lows feel lower.

3. Take care of yourself. Taking time for self-care is more important in this environment than any other environment I’ve worked in. If we allowed ourselves, we could literally work 24 hours a day because there’s so much to be done. That approach leads to burnout, and I’ve had to be deliberate about creating boundaries and forcing myself to disconnect.

4. Starting your own company feels great! I feel profound gratitude every day. I wish someone had told me that an opportunity to start a company was possible and within reach. I didn’t take the step to be a founder for many years because I didn’t believe it was possible. I didn’t think I had what it took. Now that I’m in it, I think why didn’t I do this 10 years ago?

5. Your kids will be so proud of you. Throughout my career, I’ve felt intervals of guilt for being a working mom. Recently I asked my daughter if she remembered the day I picked her up from school and another mother asked me if I were the nanny. My daughter said “yes, and I used to brag about you all the time. I thought it was really cool to have a mom that’s a CEO.”

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Creating a place that provides access to mental health care that helps people is making the world a better place.

I find great joy in growing leaders. I believe I’ve inspired many women to expand in their careers. I’ve given them opportunities, supported them in their growth, and encouraged them to be authentic leaders.

Someone wrote me this note: “I never thought I could be a leader until I met you. You opened my eyes to what a leader could be.” I’m proud that my success gave her a picture of what’s possible.

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.

Leaders come in all shapes sizes colors personality types. We all have inherent leadership characteristics for whatever we choose to lead — your family, your child’s PTA, your faith-based organization, or your company. I’d like to inspire people, build their confidence, and give them the courage to make changes in the world.

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.

Oprah. It’s always been Oprah. She lives in my town, and I’d love to take her to lunch!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this

Female Founders: Jennifer Steiner of Lightfully Behavioral Health On The Five Things You Need To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.