Surround yourself with mentors, coaches, role models and cheerleaders. There have been times when I found myself wavering or losing confidence in myself. That’s when I most needed someone else to jump in with their expertise, advice and encouragement. I once had a coach who told me to imagine myself as an intergalactic superhero with a digital cape flowing in the wind. She reminded me that the digital skills I had developed were truly unique. Had she not pointed this out and created that funny image of myself as a superhero, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to promote my company’s services internationally.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ginny Santos.
Ginny is the founder and CEO of Neolé Inc. and Hot Cup of Clarity, as well as an associate professor of Creativity and Innovation at an Executive MBA program. She is also a dedicated Holistic Coach with a passion for health and nutrition. Ginny believes that we should all feel empowered to live our best lives and invites you to treat your life as a gift worth crafting with intention and creative purpose.
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 very independent from a young age, and found myself resisting my father’s rules and expectations. When I was 17, I moved to Canada on my own. I did my last year of high school here in Canada, then went on to university. One day when I was in university, I got a letter in the mail from my dad. I opened the letter and pulled out a newspaper clipping. The headline said: “Scientists prove that women’s brains are smaller than men’s”. The message I got from my dad implied that as a woman I really should consult him when making decisions, consult him on everything, because he always knows best. At the time I laughed because I had gotten to a point where I knew that was nonsense and I didn’t need any scientific proof to know that men were not superior to women. But I was still bothered by it, and so I felt the need to prove myself, and I believe that this has always been with me and is one of the things that pushes me to be a high achiever, or to be ambitious. I can’t say it’s a positive trigger, but it’s part of who I am.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I think I would have to talk about the beginning of the pandemic. My business was basically a one and a half person show: my part-time assistant and I. It was good, it felt comfortable, I felt like I was doing interesting work, and I was starting to move down a new path towards holistic coaching. That’s when the pandemic hit. A woman I had been collaborating with for sometime, Laura, pointed out to me that there would likely be a lot of demand for the type of work that I was doing. And she couldn’t have been more right. I felt overwhelmed with the stress of having more demand at a time when I was already feeling quite maxed out with all the projects I was working on. The minute I realized that I didn’t have to do it alone, however, I felt excited. We could grow as a team, and provide even better services together as opposed to keeping my business as a one-person show. Within a month, I asked Laura to start working with me, and also approached another female friend who is very skilled in project management. From there, we quickly grew from three women to being a team of nine, at this point.
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 remember being invited to make a presentation of my services at a very successful consulting firm (the CEO’s wife had recommended that they meet with me). I knew that I’d be presenting to their leadership team who happened to be all men. I figured I should present as very confident and in control. So I put on my best outfit (black pants and a blazer) and a decent amount of make-up. I think it’s important to point out that I don’t usually wear any make-up and I don’t usually dress up in business attire. My style is much more casual. I felt like I needed to fit in by playing the corporate-game. When I arrived, the receptionist invited me to take a seat in the waiting area. While waiting, I paid close attention to my surroundings and noticed that all the decor had a macho feeling to it and the magazines were corporate men’s magazines. I looked through them with curiosity but felt my insecurities mounting. By the time I got to the boardroom, the feeling that I had to “fake it until you make it” had tripled in me. So I did my best to mirror their communication style and pretend like I was totally in my element. I left that meeting feeling utterly exhausted. I suffered from severe imposter syndrome for that entire month. Nothing came from that meeting but I did learn an important lesson: I rather work with clients who want to work with the real me, and not go out of my way to impress people who I’m not aligned with.
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 so many people in my life that have helped me to get where I am today. One of them is my current partner, who is a really hard worker and who, as an immigrant with a significant language barrier, manages to work really hard and keep a really positive attitude. There have been times when I have had to work hard and late, and times when I feel overwhelmed by the number of responsibilities I take on. My partner, has helped me embody a very positive outlook on work and life in general. He inspires me to be more grateful for the times when I feel overworked. Instead of complaining, I can be appreciative of the fact that I get to do work that I enjoy, I get to work with a team I love, I get to design a company that I am proud of, that serves as a role model for other companies. So he really inspires me to be grateful and to work hard with pride, instead of falling into the victim mentality of: “Oh poor me I have to work so hard.”
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 love to know what’s holding them back, because it’s such a fun thing to do! It does take a lot of risk-taking, and maybe that’s what holds women back: the desire for stability. To me, it’s a no-brainer… Like, there was no other option for me, but I’ve always been a risk taker and I’ve always done things unconventionally, so it’s hard for me to understand why everyone else isn’t doing it. I do remember when I was starting up and I was taking some workshops on entrepreneurship and on starting a business. I remember applying for some government funding to support me for six months while I was in the very early stages of starting up my business. There was a part of the application that asked “What might get in the way of your success?”, and I remember very clearly that my answer was the fact that I could only work while my kids were in daycare. I saw that as a limitation because the majority of the people in the program I was enrolling in were men, who tend to have a lot more flexibility and less family responsibilities. I also realized that meant that I needed to be way more efficient, I couldn’t just doodle around during the day, I needed to be clear on what my priorities were so that I finished my work by the time my kids got home. I think that really helped. Sometimes having constraints forces you to be more effective and more creative. And I would like to tell other women that, if they want to, they can do it. It’s really just a matter of being committed and following through, and having confidence in your ability to overcome the obstacles. One thing that has always helped me is following this mantra: When you don’t know HOW, ask WHO. Knowing that when you don’t know how to overcome an obstacle, you can ask, Who can help me overcome this? It doesn’t have to be all you.
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?
Definitely more supports for single mothers. More supports in terms of bringing down the cost of daycare, providing subsidies, etc. When I was starting, I was fortunate to have a government subsidy that covered most of the childcare costs, and that was a major help. It’s also very helpful to have organizations that provide some training, workshops, and coaching. The coaching is extremely helpful, so maybe more funding opportunities for women to receive business coaching. I think there needs to be more campaigns to change things on a systemic level as well, to encourage fathers to have a more active role in their responsibilities as a parent and with household tasks and whatnot. I have been fortunate enough to have partners who have always been helpful in that way. I also think a universal basic income would be fantastic and lead to a lot more innovation. Incentives for companies to promote women into positions of leadership would open up more doors for women founders.
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?
There’s no reason they shouldn’t. If there are X number of male founders, why shouldn’t there be the same number of female founders? There’s just no reason that it shouldn’t be more on par. And I really hate highlighting distinctions between men and women, because they’re all based on stereotypes, but I think that maybe it’s true that women are more empathetic and think more about the wellbeing of the collective, so if more women were founders perhaps there would be more healthy workplaces, perhaps there would be more products being created that are not just good for the company but good for the world and for communities. I think we’re moving into a period of history where it’s possible that the big giant corporation is going to become more and more obsolete, and what we’re going to see is a lot more smaller companies. This makes having women founders more important when it is a world made up of many small companies.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
I think one myth is that you have to be an allstar to start your own business. I feel like there’s this image that women founders are these magazine cover models, that they’ve got it all together, that they’re on top of everything, that they have above average intelligence, look good, etc. The truth is, we’re just regular women that have made some different choices, maybe taken more risks. It really is something that anyone who wants to can do. I don’t think it’s something that everybody should be doing because we’ve got psychological diversity: some people wouldn’t enjoy being a founder of a company. But I think people who really enjoy bringing ideas to life, I think those people are the people that should consider becoming founders, and not repress that desire in them to create. Becoming a founder of something is becoming a creator of something, and we are all creators, we’re just different types of creators. There are people who like to create within an organization, within an existing entity, and then there are people who like to create the organization, the entity itself. I think perhaps those are the people who should be founders.
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?
There is something called the Eight Personality Types, based on the work done by Dr. Stuart Brown who studied the nature of play and how it shapes our brains. I would say that, based on those eight personality types, if you can identify what your personality type is, I think it will also help you identify whether you’re someone who would do really well as a founder or not. One of the personality types is called the Director, and the Director is someone who likes to create a vision, then bring that vision to life by bringing together all the moving parts, and directing those moving parts. I think that’s one of the play personalities of a founder. Then there’s the play personality of the Artist Creator. In a way, they might not like to orchestrate but they do like to bring ideas to life.
I strongly believe that everyone should take the time to look ahead 10 years into the future and put yourself in the position of your future self. What is the future in which you would feel most proud of your accomplishments? If contributing to an existing company makes you proud then that’s great, there’s no need for you to be a founder in order for you to be living your best life. Not everybody is cut out to be a founder. Whatever it is you choose to do, what I think is important is that you be the designer of your own life, and that you not just fall into a type of role that you are dissatisfied with, or where your talents are not being put to their best use, or where you are not able to grow. I think that is a big mistake. But as long as you feel proud of the contributions you are making, and as long as you feel like you are using your talents and developing and growing and learning and that you’re challenged, then that’s great. You don’t have to be in a founder role to achieve that, though I do think that as humans we all have a lot of potential within us. I think that in some positions in some companies, people are kept doing repetitive work which really could be done by a machine. That’s what I don’t think anyone should be doing, but that doesn’t mean that everyone becomes a founder, that’s not ideal either.
There is good stress and bad stress. Good stress is the type of stress that keeps you excited and challenged. It’s the stress you choose as opposed to the stress that falls on you unexpectedly. As long as your career choice allows you to enjoy a healthy level of good stress you are in the right place. But if all you have is bad stress and you don’t feel you have any autonomy or room for creativity within your job, then it’s time to make a change. Being a founder requires that you enjoy having a lot of good stress, you enjoy being challenged and taking responsibility for the risks you choose to take.
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.)
- Know how to take care of your physical health. The health of your business is directly tied to your own health. Running a business takes energy! There used to be a time when my energy would feel depleted by 2pm every day. There was also a time when I couldn’t get going without my morning coffee. That was before I completely transformed the way I eat. I now follow the WILDFIT lifestyle which gives me all the energy I need throughout the whole day. Without the need for any stimulants or mid-afternoon treats.
- Know how to take care of your mental health. My morning routine, combined with my healthy eating habits have made all the difference to my mental health. I used to suffer from anxiety attacks at least twice per month, I struggled with mild depression, an auto-immune condition, and had times when I wondered whether I should give up the business entirely and just find some easy repetitive job that wouldn’t require any thinking energy or any decision making. By the time I turned 40, I had figured out how to take care of myself both physically and emotionally. I feel even more energetic than I did in my 20s. This has given me the strength and stamina to not only grow my main business but to also launch another two businesses.
- Treat your ideas as experiments. When you treat your ideas as experiments, you get to test and improve along the way. This takes off the pressure to succeed at the first attempt. Don’t expect things to work out just as you wanted them to. Be open to the unexpected and flexible enough to pivot your plans.
- Surround yourself with mentors, coaches, role models and cheerleaders. There have been times when I found myself wavering or losing confidence in myself. That’s when I most needed someone else to jump in with their expertise, advice and encouragement. I once had a coach who told me to imagine myself as an intergalactic superhero with a digital cape flowing in the wind. She reminded me that the digital skills I had developed were truly unique. Had she not pointed this out and created that funny image of myself as a superhero, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to promote my company’s services internationally.
- Get very clear about what success means to you. It might be the dollars in the bank or it might be the entrepreneurial lifestyle that you are after. Maybe to you, success is getting to develop your dream team, or creating demand for a product that you know makes the world a better place. Don’t allow yourself to be influenced by what others think it means to be successful. I used to think that success meant getting new clients all the time, but now I know that what really motivates me is having clients that come back again and again, a team that loves the company, loves their work, and loves being part of this team. I now know that success is feeling proud of what you have accomplished. Success is not something that comes and goes, it’s something that builds your confidence and keeps you motivated to keep growing.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We often do pro bono work for organizations that need our services but can’t afford the full cost. I like to write a bi-weekly blog where I share insights and inspiration and strategies to help people live their best lives, and that’s a way that I contribute on a personal level. We also like to prioritize working with clients that do really great work in the world. We see ourselves as a mission driven company, and the services we provide make it possible for our clients to have a larger impact. I’m a strong believer in empowerment and engaging people in contributing ideas and contributing their creative thinking, and I think that is a way of contributing to the world and making it more democratized, more bottom-up.
My vision is to create a company that serves as a role model for workplace wellness. Where every team member is able to be at the best, develop their talents, feel supported and empowered to reach for new heights both personally and professionally.
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.
I am a strong believer in self care, so I would want to create a strong self-care movement. I believe that good self-care allows us to do a lot more and I have no doubt that me learning how to eat healthy, how to sleep deeply, how to relax profoundly helps me to be the person I am now. These are actual skills you need to learn! It’s not obvious how to relax, it’s not obvious how to have a deep sleep. We are surrounded by marketing of unhealthy products and fast food. Taking care of yourself in today’s world is a real skill. And so I think that learning how to feed yourself in a world where you are constantly bombarded with foods that are completely unsupportive of your mental and physical health, and being able to make decisions that contribute to your daily wellbeing make it possible for you to do some much more in the world. If I could create a movement, that’s definitely what it would be.
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.
If I could have a private breakfast with someone, I think I would want to have it with Vishen Lahkiani. I find his way of thinking very inspiring. I’m not 100% aligned with how he runs his business, so I would actually find it really interesting to have a conversation with him about how he makes decisions about his own business, and how that aligns with his larger vision for the world and humanity.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.