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Female Founders: Sheila Talton of Grey Matter Analytics On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Vision, creativity, risk tolerance, and the ability to shift from tactical to strategic focus are four traits founders need. A fifth one is understanding what leadership really is. A lot of people think leadership means you get to tell people what they need to do. I believe that, especially in a small company, you need to hire people who are capable. Your leadership comes in when they have obstacles to getting their jobs done. Your job as the entrepreneur and leader is to move those obstacles, not to tell them how to do their job.

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

Sheila Talton is President and CEO of Gray Matter Analytics, which she founded in 2013. Prior to launching Gray Matter, Sheila was the VP/Globalization Officer for Cisco Systems in China and South America, President of EDS’ Business Processing Information Services and a Senior Managing Partner at Ernst & Young/Cap Gemini.

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’ve been in technology for my entire career. I ran a large organization in the Midwest for Ernst and Young’s critical technologies practice. I’ve also run global services for EDS and Cisco Systems. In those various roles, I had responsibility for all verticals — manufacturing, financial services, consumer products and healthcare.

I got bit by the data bug early in my career. I had been with a software company that built the early iterations of relational databases, which are the underpinnings of data and analytics. When I got bit by that data bug, I started doing some analysis and research on the industries that are totally dependent on data but have not taken advantage of how data could really help them improve performance and grow revenue; healthcare came to the top. Healthcare has been quick to adopt technology on the clinical side but has not been quick to adopt technology on the operations and financial side of the business. So that’s how I got to where I am, and so far, it has been proven that my analysis and research were correct.

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

It’s more of an observation. We’ve talked to hundreds of health systems, as well as hundreds of health plans, and one thing that has been become very evident to me is that it’s quite difficult for health systems to understand their true costs. I have not run into any health system that does cost accounting, which is something most manufacturers and retailers do. So, the journey to value-based care has been long because health systems aren’t used to being paid a certain amount regardless of costs.

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 the mistakes I don’t find humorous, but for the first four years I was running Gray Matter we were consulting totally around data, rather than targeting one vertical. Originally, we were going to focus on two verticals — healthcare and financial services, which also is data-driven — but it became apparent to me within about the second year of operations that there was so much work to be done in healthcare, while financial services companies had so much money, they would be able to buy their way to the solutions they needed. So, in the second year we abandoned financial services, and that was a good decision.

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?

I’ve been in this business for more than 35 years, and in that time, there have been many people that have helped me along the way, including professors in college who led me down the path of technology, coworkers, and external mentors who have helped me think through my career journey and supported me when I made choices. One gentleman who I worked for at Ernst & Young, Mike Green, shared some advice that I’ve always tried to live by: “Seek first to understand before being understood.” And the reason why that has been so critical Is that listening is a skill many of us don’t develop because we like to talk. I have tried to incorporate that advice into everything I’ve done, including managing people. That’s because in trying to understand what motivates your team, you really do have to understand what motivates employees personally to best support them in their success.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this Crunchbase report, only about 20 percent of newly 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?

That’s a very broad question and there’s no single answer because there are some unique factors based on industry. I’ll stick to healthcare technology, which has always been dominated at the senior ranks by men. Not that men were more qualified, it’s just that men were the ones making decisions from the board level to the CEOs to their direct reports. But most financiers — meaning venture capitalists — want to fund people who have held senior roles inside healthcare technology companies, and those happen to be men. Whereas many women have had mid-level roles in healthcare and are just as capable as men, but they might not have been the SVP of product or the SVP of global sales.

What are some of the things that could be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help more women found companies?

I’ll start first with commercial business. For a long time, there’s been a “focus” on supporting women businesses and minority-led businesses, yet when organizations are looking to procure services they’re not particularly looking and holding accountable their senior managers for how much of their dollars are actually being spent with suppliers that are women-run companies or companies run by people of color. Getting serious about enforcing equitable procurement policies would be very helpful in changing that.

On the government side, when you look at access to capital — and I don’t mean $500,000 because when you start talking about capital as it relates to women and people of color, the numbers shrink fast as far as the amounts — successful technology companies across the country, and in particular in Silicon Valley, have raised tens of millions of dollars. And they’ve all made mistakes along the way, but they have the financial agility to be able to recover from those mistakes and continue to grow.

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?

The corporate route is still very hard for women and people of color. You probably can count the number of women CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies on two hands. And if you’re talking about the Fortune 500, you can definitely count them on one hand. So that corporate slog of getting to the senior ranks is still very difficult because women don’t have the support and the mentors inside those corporations. So that’s one reason.

Another reason — and this is not so much about being an entrepreneur as it is being in a smaller entrepreneurial company — is that when you’re working at a smaller entrepreneurial company, even if you’re not the founder, you learn a lot because you get to see how the sausage is made. Your vision and your exposure are much broader than being inside of a company of 50,000 people where you have a very small role to play, and even if it’s an important role you don’t learn as quickly and get the breadth of responsibility that you would get in a smaller company.

I also contend that not everyone is meant to be an entrepreneur. But to my previous point, some people are really good at supporting entrepreneurs.

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

That’s a really good question. I think people believe that they can learn to be an entrepreneur.

And I think there are some aspects of being an entrepreneur you can’t learn. Certainly, many people have the innate vision to be able to see different applications to a problem that might be unique because that’s how they see the problem.

But not everyone has the tolerance for risk, and being an entrepreneur is very high risk. Data shows that half of all startups fail within five years, regardless of funding, so risk tolerance is innate in some people. To be able to not only have a good idea or good way of applying a solution to a business problem, but also have the capacity to tolerate risk and uncertainty is something that not everyone has.

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.)

First, I wouldn’t suggest that there are different qualities for a woman founder than there are for male founders. But I think that one of the necessary qualities is to be a visionary, to be able to see things in a different way over the long term than other people. I’ve always had that skill. Entrepreneurs are able to look at a business problem or raw technology and ask, “Now, where would be the right application for this technology?”

So, there’s a level of creativity and vision that is really important for an entrepreneur to have.

When you ask about a story, that is how and why Gray Matter exists today. I was in the data space many years ago. It was broadly around a technology for relational databases. But when I looked at founding the company, I started thinking about data in ways that it could be applied from a business perspective.

So, visionary creativity is really important. The other thing that is important, which I mentioned earlier, is risk tolerance. When you’re an entrepreneur, there are things that will happen — and it doesn’t matter how smart you are — that will shake you. It could be a key employee resigning, or the technology fails a test, or you lose a major customer. Those are all things that you have to get used to and figure out how to recover and recover quickly.

Also, when you’re an entrepreneur, in the course of an hour you’re tactical, you’re strategic you’re back to being tactical, you’re back to being strategic — so that ability to shift from tactical to strategic is really important. I’ll give you an example. The strategic part is deciding what new products to build and which markets to target. Then, in the next hour, I’ve got to start looking at this week’s accounts payables to make sure we’re managing cash appropriately so we can continue to fund our existence. A lot of people struggle with the tactical-to-strategic switch, not only in the course of an hour, but even in the course of a day or a week.

So, vision, creativity, risk tolerance, and the ability to shift from tactical to strategic focus are four traits founders need.

A fifth one is understanding what leadership really is. A lot of people think leadership means you get to tell people what they need to do. I believe that, especially in a small company, you need to hire people who are capable. Your leadership comes in when they have obstacles to getting their jobs done. Your job as the entrepreneur and leader is to move those obstacles, not to tell them how to do their job.

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

I try to do that every day. I am involved in a number of nonprofits and at my church as well. One of the places that I go to church is in a community on the west side of Chicago that has been struggling for a long time. I purposely go to church there — and I also teach Sunday school — because I think it’s important for young kids to see successful people in their community. I try to make myself available and to provide exposure for younger people so they can see someone in technology who has been successful. I volunteer at a women’s shelter that provides temporary housing to homeless women with children. The shelter also provides transportation so those kids can continue going to their own schools. That’s really important to me. Finally, I support a program at the Shakespeare theatre in Chicago where we teach Chicago public school teachers how to teach Shakespeare. Many of the public schools in Chicago have cut their arts budget significantly and we support those schools by allowing the students to put on abbreviated Shakespeare plays at the theater. And then we do what we call Shakespeare in the Park, where we take the plays out to the neighborhoods, so again there’s exposure to the arts.

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.

That would be a movement to make sure that everyone has equal opportunities, starting with education. Education really is the beginning of exposure and enabling people to understand what their possibilities are. It doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone needs to go to college, but they need to have a good foundation from K through 12 so they have the option of college or vocational schools. I cannot stress how important it is for everyone to get a good public school education.

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 U.S. 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.

Michelle Obama. I think her journey is very similar to mine and I have admired how she’s transformed and transitioned and publicly embraced her roles as a mother and wife.

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

Female Founders: Sheila Talton of Grey Matter Analytics 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.