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Female Founders: Wen Zhang of INNW Institute On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Slow Down — It is a marathon, not a sprint. Take care of yourself mentally. It is always easy and tempting to pull an all-nighter. When you first start your business, you are so excited to work non-stop and get things done, which easily becomes the norm and default mood. However, starting a business is a marathon, not a sprint. No successful business can be built overnight. Building a successful venture requires time and intention to create value for your customers or users and deliver consistently.

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

Wen Zhang is the Founder and CEO of INNW Institute, with a mission to empower and support founders to grow and scale their businesses.

Wen succeeds in both the startup and corporate world with experience in software, hardware, and service-based business models. She has also achieved success in launching a new business, expanding the market internationally, and scaling and managing global enterprise business. In a Fortune 500 company, she was leading a $320M yearly product portfolio while managing 400 sales teams across North America. She is passionate about supporting founders to grow and scale their ventures, working through their business model as well as the pitching process to connect and resonate with investors and customers via pitch deck.

Wen holds a Master’s of Science (MS) degree in Marketing and Advertising from the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Duke University, and a Bachelor’s degree in Advertising from Yang’en University.

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 was born and raised in a small and rural isolated mountain town in China, without the Internet or public transportation to the outside world. Where I came from, girls were unwanted, and at the time, the only option for a girl was to become a wife and mother. Thankfully, decades later, much has changed. However, I was always curious about the world beyond the mountain. (Just like Moana from the Disney movie!) The desire to go beyond my town led me to discover a cassette machine, which was how I taught myself English. About four years after finding that cassette player (and 9 failures later), I came to the United States in 2011 to start my “American dream”.

Ten years later, after earning two Master’s degrees and achieving success in both the startup and corporate world, my curiosity remains the same. I am still living my American dream every day, and I’m even more eager to explore the world in a bigger way.

I realized when my American dream came true ten years ago, it defined and transformed who I am. Today, I want to empower founders and entrepreneurs, who also have a big vision, and help them take charge of turning their vision into reality. This is why I founded INNW Institute.

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

My husband and I are very social. We like to meet like-minded people and cultivate a community where we live, and we attend networking events, parties, and gatherings together often.

Before I started my business, in social events I was often referred to and introduced by as my husband’s wife. Since launching my business, I have often introduced him as my husband instead of the other way around.

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 businesses that my husband and I started together was a consumer-packaged good (CPG) business, EverGreener. We spent $15,000+ on the patent application and legal process, which took over 5 months. However, after months of time and money investment, we were late in the holiday promotional sales cycle. We assumed once we filed the patent and had a website available that customers would fly in and buy our products immediately. Of course, it didn’t happen that way.

Lesson learned: Start selling now. It is never about having a perfect or pretty website. As a founder, your number one job is always to sell, whether it is selling your vision to investors for funding, or selling the idea to team members to inspire them to join, or selling the solution to your customers. You need to start selling your idea immediately and that is how you start building momentum to grow and scale. Don’t wait! It is never about the idea; it is always about the execution.

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 husband has always been my biggest support. Entrepreneurship is not easy. There were moments when I did not think I had what it took to get to the next level. However, my husband has always been right alongside me, cheering me on and reminding me of all the amazing things I already achieved, and how amazing I am. His belief and his support mean the world to me. I am forever grateful for him and our relationship.

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?

Generously speaking, fear of failure is the #1 reason women do not start a business. We are social creatures, and we often seek others’ approval first. We do not want to look bad or stand out. Therefore, women tend to be more risk-averse, and we would not start a business unless we believe it will be a successful venture. However, the truth is that you never fail. The moment you start embarking on a new journey or a new risk, you are already a success. All the lessons you learn along the way will provide valuable insight so you can improve upon your execution or pivot the business when needed. Those setbacks can be helpful market feedback. They provide validation or course correction when needed to build a successful business.

Secondly, compared to male counterparts, more women experience “imposter syndrome”. Therefore, many female founders simply feel as if they do not have what it takes to launch a business successfully (which is untrue). This usually stems from a lack of needed education, resources, or experience. Female founders, in general, are more likely to feel “less than”.

Furthermore, there are fewer role models or success stories out there for female founders. Women are not able to see someone who looks like her, or had the same experience as her and have achieved it. It is hard for a female to envision herself with that path of success without someone to look to.

Lastly, it is a lack of time and energy. Many women take care of their families, and especially those with young children. After balancing a full-time job and family responsibility, she rarely has time for herself, let alone time to start a business. Those are a few reasons that I feel women hold themselves back from starting a business.

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?

  1. Cultivate supportive environment

When we all come together collectively to share our experiences, success, and fears, we grow stronger together. It is my firmest belief that when there is fear, we need to lean in and shine a light on it, which is how fear dissipates.

Surround yourself with supporters, and share what is in your heart — maybe it is the fear or that loud voice screaming saying, “you don’t have what it takes”. The act of speaking out loud and sharing with others, help you to see that you’re not an imposter anymore by definition. That can be liberating and freeing. This can be done in a supportive friend’s group, an accelerator program/group, or a mentoring environment. Any of these options is a safe space to come together.

Once we overcome that innate fear, or “imposter syndrome”, it is easier to see the possibilities and boundless potential in yourself and your vision.

At the end of the day, it is never about the resources, education, or experience, it is about being resourceful, creative, and finding a way to make it happen.

2. Resources & support

Companies and corporations should promote and enable more flexibility for workers. It would also help if the government provided financial compensation or incentives for females to start a business. Financial institutes and banks could also lower the barrier for female founders to borrow money when starting businesses. Collectively, female founders would have more time and resources to balance their responsibilities and support them in following their dreams to start their businesses.

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?

In the startup world, for businesses to grow, founders typically need to raise capital. One important aspect of raising capital is financial projections, which simply means the anticipated growth of your company. There are many that I call “startup bubbles”, where the financial projection is crazily unrealistic, and therefore, the evaluation of the company is high. As a result, you often see startups raise an insane amount of money, then the business crashes, and none of those financial projections come to fruition.

On the other hand, a female founder will often take the more conservative approach to her business, meaning for every dollar raised, she will spend it more carefully and thoughtfully to receive the best outcome. Female founders, generally speaking, do not like to let people down, and they will do everything to make it happen. Therefore, the success rate for them to achieve that vision is significantly higher.

Secondly, women, in general, are better “salespersons”. Women are better able to connect with others and build relationships. As entrepreneurs, they can share their vision and pitch their business effectively from the start.

Lastly, women can be more eager to learn and less egotistical about wanting to be right. They tend to take feedback well and are more coachable. In the early seed stage, most investors invest in and weigh heavily on the entrepreneur or founder than the business. Coachability is the #1 capability that investors value in the early stage of investing.

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

Myth #1: You have to know everything.

You do not need to know everything. Curiosity is the best start. Along the way, you will learn how to problem-solve effectively, then you will work your way into the next solution. With our modern advances, you can easily search on Google or YouTube for just about any unfamiliar solution. You could also surround yourself with a trusted advisor or mentor to ask questions or bounce ideas off of. You can also seek advice, or hire a person whose strength is your weakness, and collaborate or partner with others who complement your skills and capability. You do not need to know everything to get started. The journey will unfold itself as you go. All you need is to get started!

Myth #2: It is a lot less scary than it is.

Fear of failure is more overwhelming than the failure itself. Even if your startup fails, you can always fall back to your job. Or you can find another job or go back to the life you had before founding a business. Regardless, you will learn valuable lessons, not only in business but also in life, about yourself. The fear of regret, or giving yourself a chance to start the business of your dream, would be more painful than failing. Just get started!

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?

Everyone can be a founder! If you have a fire on your heart, or there is something that you cannot stop thinking about, it is your responsibility to make it happen and share it with the world. The vision is yours to build, and I firmly believe that the world will be a better and brighter place when you share your light.

The top skill of being a successful founder is having curiosity. The inquisitive mind is curious about the world, often wondering why things are the way they are, why the problems exist, or what are possible solutions and why some work and others don’t. Simply being curious and asking the right questions will help you find the right path, despite how many pivots your business might have to make along the journey. A startup is all about pivoting and solving the right problem for the right customers.

However, people who are uncomfortable with ambiguity, or who need to be told what to do constantly, might not be a great fit for being a founder. The startup world is ambiguous, and no one tells you what to do. You will have to be disciplined and motivated to figure out what you want to build and achieve. You will need to create a vision and inspire and support your team to make them a reality. If you cannot see the vision nor understand how to lead yourself and others around you, you would not likely be a successful founder.

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.)

  1. Mindset — Move forward despite the fear, because on the other side of fear is freedom. Of course, we all get scared from time to time. I remember when I went skydiving for the first time, and I was so scared as we were ascending. Right at 14000 feet, the tandem jumper asked me if I was ready, I said “no!” He said, “Alright, let’s count 3, 2, 1 together.” And as magical as it sounds, as I was counting, I was only focusing on the numbers, and not the jump itself. Once we got to 1, we made the jump together.
    The first 3 seconds in the air were terrifying! It felt as if my heart sank into a deep black hole and the world froze. I could not breathe. Right after that, however, I started realizing that I was flying. I could see the clouds, the birds flying by, and buildings in the far distance. I felt so free and liberating. It was such a magical experience. Without fear, there is no freedom. There are simply two sides to the coin. Take a jump, and only by doing so can you move forward to make progress and an impact in this world.
  2. Belief — Believe that good is good enough, and progression is better than perfection. You can not be perfect. My client Nikki* was in the initial sales call phase of testing product-market fit. It took weeks to secure the call. She wanted everything to be perfect. She strategized questions to ask, the scenarios to ask about and built a fancy excel sheet. She wrote down a detailed script, imaging how the conversation would go, and asked me for feedback. After a few revisions, she had the script down to exactly what she would say, line by line (including what small talk she would say and how/when the first question be asked).
    Right before the scheduled call, I asked her to drop the script, forget about everything we wrote down or talked about, and talk to the customers as human beings and speak her heart and trust herself.
    The result was stunning. The customers loved what she has to offer, but most importantly, they were impressed by her professionalism, authenticity, and passion. This was how she nailed her first “yes” in sales. I do not know what would have happened if she stuck with her script and tried to be perfect, but the act of believing in herself and not being perfect is the reason she won the deal. *Name changed for her privacy.
  3. Change — Keep learning and adapting. Change is the only contact factor in the startup world, and pivoting is the name of the game. Name any successful business and I can bet that none of them got it right on their first shot.
    For example, in 2005, Twitter started off as a podcasting company. Later when Apple iTunes launched podcasts, Twitter pivoted to offering online news and social networking by microblogging, and the rest is history. All we can do is to remain curious to keep learning what works and what does not. Keep pivoting and adapting to the market or the customers, which is how you win in any marketplace.
  4. Grit — Get down and get up. Rejection is coming. Building a successful startup is hard; there is no doubt about it. Every single aspect of launching a business is a challenge on its own. Once you build a successful minimum viable product (MVP), now it is time to pitch either to investors for funding or to existing or potential customers for pilot projects. On average, you will get at least 50+ “nos” before you get one “yes”.
    Taking rejection after rejection is not easy. The truth is, it does not matter how you get knocked down, all that matters is how you get back up. Grit is the tenacity of adding passion, which will be your secret weapon. When the night is dark and long, it is that fire inside you that will pull you forward to try again tomorrow. Among all the rejections, how you keep the faith and passion burning and get up the next day is one critical factor of running a successful business.
  5. Slow Down — It is a marathon, not a sprint. Take care of yourself mentally. It is always easy and tempting to pull an all-nighter. When you first start your business, you are so excited to work non-stop and get things done, which easily becomes the norm and default mood. However, starting a business is a marathon, not a sprint. No successful business can be built overnight. Building a successful venture requires time and intention to create value for your customers or users and deliver consistently.

Though it might sound counterintuitive, speeding up oftentimes requires us to slow down. Slow down to at least allow one day of the week where you are not working. Instead, spend time on tasks and projects that rejuvenate you and replenish your creativity and energy. Then, you can come back Monday, full of excitement, and continue building your empire.

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

Today, I help startup founders pitch effectively to investors, partners, or customers.

When I worked with a biotech scientist helping her articulate a compelling vision and pitch to investors, she went on to develop a product that saved thousands of lives through bacteria and virus prevention in wound healing. I worked with an educated tech founder, whose product went on to bring accessibility of education to thousands of people in hopes of getting them out of poverty. Those are just a few examples.

I help visionaries articulate their business and why they matter, which helps them connect to and resonate with the right investors, partners, mentors, or customers to grow and scale their business. As a result, I believe this is how I share my gift with the world — by contributing to the advancement of innovation and humankind.

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.

One less fear a day — a 30-day fear challenge! Do one thing that scares you every day for 30 days. Whether it is public speaking, or calling a relative or parent that you have not spoken to for years or asking for a discount at your favorite store or restaurant, or if you’re feeling adventurous, lying down in a busy intersection for 2 minutes, just do one thing that scares you for 30 consecutive days. (Disclaimer: Please make sure whatever you do is safe and within legal boundaries!) You will be amazed who you are becoming and stepping into after 30 days.

I see growing a business as similar to living your life. It is never about money or success. It is about who we are becoming. Once you overcome the false fear that we all have within us, you will be amazed by countless ideas and possibilities that come your way. Dream big, because the world truly is your oyster. You can create a world with the change you want to see.

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.

Kendra Scott — She not only builds a brand successfully in a highly competitive industry, but she also fosters an entrepreneurial community through the University of Texas at Austin that supports female entrepreneurs and gives back. I am inspired by her journey, her success, and more importantly, her intention to cultivate a community to support female founders.

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

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