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Female Founders: Sue Downes of MyEyeDr On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Not everyone aspires to be the CEO, and that’s ok. Listening to your team and discovering their goals is better than assuming that their ambitions match yours. You need to understand each individual’s needs and dreams and find where that fits into your company’s growth plans.

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

Sue Downes, CEO and co-founder of MyEyeDr., had an extensive career in the eye care industry prior to starting the company, and has worked in almost every area of the eye care field for more than thirty years. She has built a brand that is as unique as she is and has created a brand identity for MyEyeDr. that connects independent optometry practices under one unifying mission — to provide the best vision health and wellness experience possible for patients. In addition to her work, Downes is an active volunteer throughout the community and has been the recipient of several prestigious honors, including Montgomery County Chamber’s “Spirit of Free Enterprise” award; the 2011 Most Influential Woman award; the 2012 Smart CEO award for Entrepreneurial Spirit; the 2015 ACG Corporate Growth Award; the Optical Women’s Association 2016 winner of the Pleiades Award; the 2018 Person of Vision by Prevent Blindness; and was recently named Vice Chairwoman of Highpoint University’s Elizabeth Miller Strickland Women’s Leadership Council.

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?

Every great business usually starts with a problem to be solved, and the energy behind founding MyEyeDr. was no different. My father was very sick and, in the hospital, and I found myself spending more time dealing with insurance companies trying to understand his benefits than I was focusing on his care. My background at that point was in the optical field with a deep knowledge of managed care so I thought, “Why couldn’t there be a business that took the mystery and the confusion away from vision insurance benefits so patients could spend more time with their doctor and less time on the administrative task of trying to figure out what was covered and what was not? So, we started MyEyeDr. with the concept of ‘welcoming all insurances’ so our patients could have an expert in their corner to help them navigate the administrative side of care. The concept is simple — you can spend more time focused on your eye health and eye care needs if you could spend less time and energy trying to understand what you are entitled to and how it works.”

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

“This was more scary than interesting for me, but right at the same time we were negotiating with our first private equity partner in 2012, I came down with optic neuritis. I didn’t know that at the moment — what I did know was that I was losing my vision rapidly and I was scared that I was going to be blind. Optic neuritis is a condition that occurs when swelling damages the optic nerve — that bundle of nerve fibers that send visual information from your eye to your brain. Now, I was fortunate to be surrounded by wonderful optometrists and I knew how to get the help I needed. It was through that experience that I realized how fortunate I was to have the support and knowledge that I had. In a very real way, I understood and appreciated more deeply how people living with severe vision loss are impacted. So, the experience truly crystalized our company’s mission for me. Everyone deserves to have access to comprehensive vision healthcare, and I try to bring that passion to the causes we support. For example, the company and I continue to support Prevent Blindness, a wonderful organization that delivers direct service programs designed to preserve sight through screening, publications, safety, education, information and referral through volunteer efforts.”

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?

“I like to quote Michael Jordan, and he’s been credited with saying that ‘you miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take’. So, have I missed some shots along the way? I know I have, and I will continue to make mistakes but that means I’m in the game, trying new things, putting myself out there. And every time I earn a new battle scar from my mistakes, I’m stronger and more resilient. It is not the successes that make you, it is the wounds that you earn along that way that help you get better.”

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?

“There are 2 people who come to mind right away. First, Dr. Parker May gave me my first job in an optometrist’s office and he taught the importance of filling every available exam slot with someone who needed to be seen. I’ve never lost that lesson about the urgency of getting a patient in for an appointment because that could be the appointment that saves their life, literally. Secondly, my co-founder, Dr. Rob Samit modeled such an amazing drive to succeed, and he gave me the autonomy to grow as a professional. I will always be grateful for his faith in me.”

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 would hope that my experience isn’t the norm, but I’ve learned that too many women have heard the messages that I heard as a young co-founder — ‘You can’t do this or that” or “No one else does it that way, it won’t work.” For me, I was motivated by those messages, I was determined to prove them wrong. But that’s not everyone’s experience. Those discouraging messages can take a toll and stop some potential entrepreneurs from taking a chance and trusting their skills and expertise. I do believe this is changing, as I am seeing more young women expand into many different fields that they might not have even ten years ago. We must do more to open the eyes of young females to careers that allow them the same trajectory that men traditionally have access to.”

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?

“I think there are tons of great private initiatives out there building up the confidence and self-esteem of women so they can tackle the toughest business challenges in a world still dominated by men in the C-suite. One of those is the Strickland Women’s L.I.F.T Fellowship Program through High Point University that I am proud to be a part of. The program provides networking, leadership development, mentorship and coaching for female students interested in becoming CEOs, leaders, entrepreneurs, executives, and trailblazers in their chosen careers. There are so many programs like this across the country and I would encourage young women to get involved and seek out these mentorship opportunities. But I would add that it’s not just programs for aspiring female entrepreneurs. There are groups working hard to expand opportunities for many diverse populations and we have a need to grow the representation of many different groups within business leadership, not just women.”

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?

“Well, I think more people in general regardless of sex, should consider entrepreneurship. Starting and running your own business is part of the American Dream and I would hope that more and more people would seize the opportunities and be less afraid to take that leap. However, I understand why you ask your question the way that you do. Women historically have not been business founders and that’s a shame. I think that women have a lived experience that gives them a unique perspective on project leadership and on building and motivating teams, understanding how to balance caring for people while enabling their ability to perform. Remember founders can’t do everything themselves. They can try for a while but it’s not sustainable. Successful founders solve problems and surround themselves with talent to get things done, and, in my experience, women are pretty good at that!”

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

“The biggest myth could be that I have all the answers. The truth is that I don’t have all the answers — but I’d like to think that I ask all the right questions and then hire a group of people who are experts in their specific fields who, when brought together, help me deliver on my vision.”

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. To start a company takes someone who is comfortable with risk; someone who is comfortable driving forward when others say stop; someone who thrives on change and on evolving themselves. Being a founder can be a scary proposition and you must be the kind of person who embraces that fear and uses it as positive energy.”

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.).

Not everyone aspires to be the CEO, and that’s ok. Listening to your team and discovering their goals is better than assuming that their ambitions match yours. You need to understand each individual’s needs and dreams and find where that fits into your company’s growth plans.

Failure makes you stronger. But only when you accept and own your responsibility within the failure. What did you learn? Always deconstruct what happened and apply those learned lessons for the next time. You can never be afraid to try!

People are the true key to your success. You may have expertise in your field, you may have a great service to offer, you may have abundant resources; but, at the end of the day, it’s your people that will deliver results.

It really does take a village. In your journey, there will be hard times. You will need your friends, your professional colleagues, your local community, your family — everyone at one time or another. Keep those connections strong and invest in those relationships.

Grow thick skin. You will receive the criticism, I promise. But if you approach the criticisms as opportunities to reevaluate, rethink, challenge yourself, you will learn something every time, even if it’s a lesson you didn’t want.

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

MyEyeDr. optometrists saw over 3 million patients last year and that number grows every year. That’s over 3 million patients that had an opportunity to learn more about the critical role that vision healthcare can play in their lives. That’s the mission and what inspires me every single day — helping people recognize the value of great vision and great vision healthcare. You don’t know how much better you can see the world until someone gives you that gift of clear vision. Think about it — how does a child know that the blurry sign 20 feet away can be seen with perfect clarity by the person next to her? She likely thinks that everyone experiences the same fuzzy world that she does. We are changing people’s relationship with their eyes daily, and I truly believe that helping the world to see clearly can make the world a better place.

Of course, MyEyeDr. supports several outside charitable causes like Prevent Blindness, The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Toys for Tots, as well as starting our own charitable entity, The MyEyeDr. OneFamily Community Fund. Those are important, but we see our daily work as making the world a better place — one set of eyes at a time.

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’s simple. If I can be a part of convincing everyone in this country to have their vision checked annually, that would impact millions of people. Think of children whose vision issues could be caught early and corrected. How would that change the trajectory of their lives? We have been taught for years that you should have your teeth cleaned twice per year. I’d like to play a part in creating a world where everyone knows the importance of getting their eyes checked every year — not just when they have a problem, but to prevent future health and eye health problems.”

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.

I am like most people, so my first thought is I’d love to have lunch with my little dog Coco and find out what she’s really thinking about all day! But this is a very good question. I think if I had to choose, I would want to spend some time with Queen Elizabeth II. She has been through so much change over the time of her reign and has survived through it all. If you’d like to tag someone with this interview, I would enjoy time with Howard Schultz too. His leadership in adapting the Starbucks brand for the future fascinates me. He didn’t keep doing the same thing, and he recognized that to continue to thrive, the brand needed to keep evolving.

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

Female Founders: Sue Downes of MyEyeDr On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.