Patience. We are still in a place in the world where women have to prove themselves. As a female founder, I took every speaking engagement thrown my way. I gave free advice left and right. I went to every networking event I could attend. Over time, my star rose, and the people I met then who might not have believed in me at first started to call back. Seeds I planted during those four years came to bear fruit when I needed them most.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kate Weidner.
Kate is the co-founder and CEO of SRW, an independent, full-service marketing agency with a penchant for growing health and wellness brands like Simple Mills and Kite Hill. A mom of two young children and former journalist, Weidner left her roots in production to co-found SRW with her partners Charlie Stone and Brian Rolling. They ‘quit advertising’ more than five years ago to start an agency that focused on doing great work with and for people doing good in the world.
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?
My dad was an entrepreneur and used to say all the time, “Trust me, Kate, you want to be your own boss.” In spite of his sage advice, I did a few tours in corporate America, working for massive entities like the U.S. Government and NBC Comcast. Along the way, I also got my Master’s in Journalism during a time when traditional media was declining and all things digital were rising. After working in broadcast television and then a digital agency, I knew I wanted to combine both arenas. But I also knew my dad was right: I did want to be my own boss.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I discovered that entrepreneurs are just lucky people who notice opportunities that other people might have passed by. I wish I could say that we founded this agency knowing we would work with wellness brands, but we really just set out to work with good people, and the universe did the rest of the work. A few weeks after we launched the agency, a mutual friend connected me with the VP of Marketing for a new, unknown brand called Simple Mills. They were on the hunt for a social agency. A week later, the founder of a startup collagen company — Vital Proteins — moved into the office across the hall from us at WeWork and he needed help with graphic design. From there, they referred us to all their other wellness startup friends. Together, we grew some pretty impressive empires.
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?
Pitching a sugar-laden, bad-for-you gummy bear brand after establishing all that goodwill in the wellness world was a colossal mistake. Thankfully, we lost the pitch. But we learned so much about ourselves in the process. Above all: stay true to ourselves and know what we do best.
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?
Of course, my business partners, family, and husband have been the strongest and most supportive humans in my orbit. But we would also be nowhere near where we are today without the amazing business relationship we built with Simple Mills CMO, Michelle Lorge. She pushed our agency at every turn to be the best we could be and also trusted us to be experts in our craft. Michelle is the type of client that knows how to get the best work out of her agency partners while motivating them and making them feel appreciated in the process. She has always looked out for us, from referring us to other brands to taping testimonials and even just giving me her thoughts and feedback on our business. It’s rare to find such a strong friendship through the agency-client relationship, and I’m truly grateful to have her in my life.
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?
In a word: childcare. Michelle Obama famously said, “It still ain’t equal, y’all,” and she couldn’t be more right. I’m floored by how much progress we’ve made since my mom’s generation, but it still ain’t equal, y’all! Even if a mother is given paid leave, it’s likely given only to her and not her partner. That means, from day one, children start from relying on just their mom for all their needs — and moms, in turn, learn to fill those needs. Who do we think kids will want to stay home with when they’re sick? Who knows what to pack in their lunch every single day? We are too hard on working moms, and we treat them like it’s their job to coach their partners into equal responsibility as parents. Society has stacked the deck against them, and then we give them that extra job to do, too? We, as a nation and a society, need to do better for women. I would love for everyone to stop treating mothers like it’s their fault for doing too much.
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 believe the two most important foundation points are universal childcare and paid leave for all parents — any gender, whether birth or adoptive. When paid leave is equal, parenting can begin on equal footing. The Affordable Care Act was a step in the right direction, too — I wouldn’t have been able to leave my previous job and found my company without marketplace insurance to make sure my family was covered.
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?
I have discovered that caring is a superpower that feels especially strong within women. We need more people in charge who truly recognize and care about the impact they’re making every day — on the people around them, on the planet, and on the women who follow in their wake.
And, when more women are in charge, the world will begin to work better for women, instead of everything feeling like an uphill battle. Often workplaces have rules and policies that don’t work for women because women were never part of shaping them. When women have a seat at the table, the whole world can change.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
The most common thing people would say when I launched the company was, “How are you going to run your own business and raise your ten-month-old?!” Therein lies an enormous myth: that being your own boss is more challenging than having a boss. When you’re a founder, you can set your own schedule, and the number one thing parents crave in the workplace is flexibility. I work hard, and I work a lot, but I do it on my schedule. That’s something people massively underappreciate about entrepreneurship.
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. Most of the people I have known in my life would likely be pretty terrible entrepreneurs…and that’s ok! I think, more often than not, people want to do a job and leave work at work. They want to go on vacation and literally forget what they do for a living. A regular job is exactly what 99% of people need. If someone is considering striking out on their own I would highly recommend they go work for a startup first. If you can love building someone else’s business, then you could likely love building your own. A successful founder should have a strong stomach, a tolerance for risk, the perfect combination of confidence and humility, and the knack for finding opportunities that others can’t see.
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.)
- Resilience. Clichés exist because they are true. The truest cliché about entrepreneurship is that it’s a roller coaster. But what I discovered is that the key to riding this roller coaster is understanding that nothing is permanent. The bad times will not last as long if you have the strength to keep going. And the good times won’t last forever, either, so you better enjoy them.
- A thick coat of armor. I have worked in politics, sports, and the agency world. These were not always easy places to be a woman with an opinion. Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “Sometimes it helps to be a little deaf.” That’s the truth. A few times in the past, I have wasted my energy fighting with people who ultimately just don’t respect or want to work with or for women. Now, I save my energy and move on to those that do. Thank you, next.
- Patience. We are still in a place in the world where women have to prove themselves. As a female founder, I took every speaking engagement thrown my way. I gave free advice left and right. I went to every networking event I could attend. Over time, my star rose, and the people I met then who might not have believed in me at first started to call back. Seeds I planted during those four years came to bear fruit when I needed them most.
- Boundaries. On the flip side, you have to know what you won’t do. We all have caretaker and people-pleaser modes programmed into us by society and our upbringing. We will work ourselves to death if we don’t set the boundary ourselves.
- Self-love. This whole thing is hard. Founding a company, even when you have partners by your side, is incredibly lonely. You have to find time to be still, reflect on what you’ve done, and love yourself for all the good and bad moves you’ve made. You cannot waste time questioning yourself or beating yourself up. You have to be your own greatest champion.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
SRW has worked with charitable organizations and nonprofits including the National Parks Conservation Association. We’ve given our time and talents to local nonprofits and donated to charities. We’ve also given opportunities and internships to folks who might not have had the chance elsewhere. But the biggest impact we’ve made is very close to my heart.
My second year into founding the agency, I gave birth to and lost my infant son at 33-weeks pregnant. One of the most healing activities I went through was donating my breast milk to a local milk bank that supported babies in the NICU. I was surprised to learn how many mothers who lose their infants are unaware of this option. Once I got back to work, I reached out to the Mother’s Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes to see if there was anything we could do to help them spread the word about their important work. Over a few years, we re-did their website, launched their social channels, created new brochures, spoke on their behalf, landed them a front-page story in the Chicago Sun-Times, and made one of the greatest videos we’ve ever created as an agency. Their organization has grown tremendously and even moved into a large, new space to help continue their life-saving efforts. It’s probably the greatest thing I’ve ever done, and it was all possible because of SRW’s success.
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 incredibly passionate about paid leave. If we could inspire a movement that allowed for our nation, rather than our employers, to prioritize paid leave the same way other developed nations do, that would be a dream come true.
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 currently reading Glennon Doyle’s Untamed, so, at the moment, there is no one I would rather have breakfast with than her. I find it so inspiring that she continues to share her story as it evolves. I love the way she approached parenting. Her book is speaking to me at a pivotal moment in my relationship with my kids, and I’m just so grateful that she wrote it.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.