If ever a book reflected the basic philosophy of the Woman Quotient, it’s Julia Boorstin’s “When Women Lead: What They Achieve, Why They Succeed, and How We Can Learn From Them.” Julia is a good friend and I am honored to be in the book with amazing founders like Whitney Wolfe Herd, Katrina Lake, Gwyneth Paltrow and Lena Waithe sharing their stories. Plot twist? Many of these leaders have learned that the key to success is to lean into the so-called “soft” skills usually associated with women and embrace our authentic selves.
Julia is a well-known expert in management. In her longtime role as an on-air reporter for CNBC, she has had access to some of the greatest business minds of our time. She also created the CNBC Disruptor 50 to spotlight transformative companies. Her book is a must-read for everyone, men and women, at every stage of their career, from aspiring entrepreneurs to CEOs. Read my interview with Julia to learn some of the hard-won lessons from these powerful women.
Shelley Zalis: You’ve interviewed thousands of CEOs and executives. What are some of the surprising leadership lessons you learned from the women you interviewed for “When Women Lead?”
Julia Boorstin: The dozens of powerful women I profile in my book all led in ways that were completely authentic to them—and often with approaches that didn’t match the archetypes of traditional male leadership. It was interesting to learn that none of these women were born leaders – not only did they have to work hard on ideas, but they had to work hard to develop their attributes into superpowers. This means that all of us – myself included – can improve our leadership.
I was also excited to see how women can come together to help each other succeed and push through bias – there is some great data on how small groups of women can neutralize the negative impact of stereotypes.
SZ: The women you interviewed represent a wide range of fields. Did you find any common threads in their stories? What are some common personality traits that stood out to you?
JB: The first is empathy. Every one of the leaders I spoke with, from Cityblock Health CEO Toyin Ajayi, to KindBody CEO Gina Bartasi, to Melissa Hanna, CEO of Mahmee, created companies because they saw other people struggling with big challenges, and they saw an opportunity to build businesses. it would help them.
The second is vulnerability. So many of the women used their vulnerability about their struggles or what they don’t know to help them succeed. Stitch Fix founder and former CEO Katrina Lake became a talent magnet very early in the company’s trajectory, attracting an executive from Netflix to improve her algorithm and from Walmart.com to oversee e-commerce strategy. People were shocked at her ability to attract such senior executives to such a fledgling company. Her explanation: she simply admitted that she had no expertise in their fields and needed help.
Goop CEO Gwyneth Paltrow reached a much wider audience when she was vulnerable about her struggles with postpartum depression, which made her seem more accessible to readers. Paltrow was also open about her inexperience with business jargon. After secretly Googling acronyms under the table during meetings, she started asking directly what things meant or why things were done a certain way. Not only did she educate herself, she also made it acceptable for everyone else in the room to ask questions.
SZ: In the book, you describe how women have been held back because of what you call “accidental pattern matching.” Can you explain what it is and how to avoid that pitfall?
JB: Pattern matching is the term behavioral psychologists use to describe the very human instinct to try to predict future outcomes based on past patterns. When it comes to startups, that means VC investors might be looking for someone who reminds them of Mark Zuckerberg. The problem: the instinct to find well known things can create an echo chamber where funding goes to a group of homogenous leaders – and perhaps even homogenous ideas or approaches. It also makes anything that deviates from that model difficult for people to analyze if they don’t see a pattern for comparison. Just understanding that pattern matching exists—and isn’t malicious—is critical to succeeding in worlds where you might face it. When you can recognize that a particular question or criticism may be the result of you not matching a pattern, the better you’ll be able to address them—and explain why your new model of how a leader sees out, is just as valuable.
SZ: One of the astonishing statistics you cite is that 82% of all investment dollars go to all-male founders. Can you elaborate on the implications of that?
JB: That statistic is so crazy. In 2021, according to PitchBook, 2% of venture capital dollars went to all-female teams, and 15.6% of capital went to co-ed teams. The numbers are far worse from an intersectional perspective. A 2020 study found that companies led by black women attracted 0.43% (that’s not a typo—less than half a percent) of VC investment in 2020, down from 0.67% over the previous two year. Digitalundivided does a great job of tracking the growth of Black and Latina-led businesses – and recently released a study showing remarkable growth of these businesses in healthcare, education and Fintech, but there are still huge holes.
The problem with all-male founders dominating the startup landscape is that they may overlook or fail to understand the needs of people who represent more than half of the economy and the vast majority of purchasing decisions: women. Technology companies are incredibly powerful and influence the way we live, work – everything. It will only benefit society – and it makes more sense from a business perspective – if the people who run the companies with power look more like the people their companies serve.
SZ: With the lack of investment dollars available to women, what are some creative ways the female founders you’ve profiled have funded their companies?
JB: Female founders have shown the ability to do more with less – there is some good research on how female founders return more to their investors after getting smaller checks up front. But I’m hearing more and more about how women are bootstrapping – taking out loans and seeking angel investment – and trying to do more on a shoestring. Some of these women tell me that not only is it too difficult to secure VC funding at the earliest stages, but there are also advantages to being independent and not dependent on investors who might be pushing for some kind of growth.
SZ: What can men learn from reading “When Women Lead?”
JB: The leadership styles that women have traditionally displayed—empathy, vulnerability, gratitude—are more important now than ever for everyone. The pandemic really shined a light on the universal value of traits more typically associated with women—that hadn’t typically been associated with great leadership. With workers scattered and customers struggling with inflation and all sorts of different challenges, there’s no doubt that empathy and vulnerability are essential. And then there is gratitude. I was surprised to learn that women are more comfortable with the feeling of gratitude and practice gratitude more often. I was thrilled to learn that practicing gratitude is more likely to inspire people to take a long-term rather than a short-term approach. Men need to get on board – we all need to plan for the long term!
SZ: After writing this book, are you more optimistic about more women stepping into leadership and founding roles in the future?
JB: Yes! All the data indicate that diversity – of both gender and race – is beneficial to all levels of business. Investing in diversity isn’t just a nice thing to do – if people want to make money, it’s an economic necessity.
“When Women Lead” is a masterclass from passionate female innovators who have discovered their unique superpowers. As Julia says in the book, I am a convener, having created the Equality Lounge® as a space where women can collaborate on ways to lift each other up. Julia’s results underscore what The Female Quotient has always maintained: When women lead, we all win.