Grit — You will be told your idea has been done before. You will be told you’re not differentiated enough. You will be told ‘no’ repeatedly. You will receive customer complaints, social media comments that will feel so personal. You will make mistakes that feel like the end of the world. You will need grit to pick yourself back up and continue forward.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Salwa Khan.
Salwa Khan is the Founder and CEO of Cubbiekit, a sustainable baby basics subscription that aims to make modern parenting easier while giving back and minimizing waste. A highly analytical and strategic professional with a passion for problem solving, it’s no surprise Khan pursued a solution to the many stressors of new parents. Her passion for giving back and minimizing waste is what drives her mission for Cubbiekit, with a goal to extend the life of each garment, diverting as much clothing from landfills as possible. With a background in corporate finance and busy mom of two, she’s also heavily involved with the Young Women’s Alliance of Austin and Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network.
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’ve followed an established playbook since starting my career and fully intended on seeing it through. I started in accounting, became a CPA, worked in corporate for 8 years in various finance roles and never foresaw myself becoming an entrepreneur. I’m an introvert (hence the accounting) and always saw myself just advancing in corporate finance — I was good at it. As I started working my way up and had my first pregnancy, I imagined that things would get easier as my career progressed. It didn’t. Balancing work, home and family life is not a joke. There was a never-ending to-do list and I was constantly prioritizing my work list while creating a backlog of all the things I had to do at home “when I had time.” When I was pregnant for the second time (I had my son during the beginning of the pandemic), I was still working full-time with both my kids at home without childcare, my husband was the breadwinner of the family, and I realized just how much I had been putting off. I was very frustrated with the amount of time I spent shopping for the kids, how much “stuff” I had accumulated for them. I really wanted to take ownership over my time again. After maternity leave I started working on Cubbiekit as a solution to a simple, but very frustrating problem and I never looked back.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I wish I had a specific interesting story. The truth is I’m an introvert and avoid “interesting” scenarios driven by social anxiety. However, I have found that in doing so I’ve been cold emailing notable retail and ecommerce industry leaders to make connections, seek advice, and learn. Because of this, I’ve been able to have zoom calls with really prominent founders and thought leaders, just from a simple cold-email or Linkedin invitation. It’s interesting how real founders are willing to share their experiences and pay it forward, you just have to ask.
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?
Mistakes don’t feel funny when you’re in the thick of it as a first-time founder. I am a perfectionist to a fault, so when I make an error, I over-analyze every single thing that led me to that mistake. In hindsight, it never seems as bad as it actually is, and you are your harshest critic. I believe you absolutely learn from your mistakes, but I don’t think I’m at the point yet where I can laugh about them!
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?
I worked at Kendra Scott, a jewelry company based out of Austin, Texas, for 4 years before I started my company Cubbiekit. There, we referred to ourselves as the KS Family (#ksfam), and it really was. It was a place where there was an open-door policy at all levels. The network and relationships I built from the c-suite down to the associate level have helped me tremendously, and I know that I can always find someone through that network for mentorship and guidance. It’s hard to list out individuals, otherwise I might have the whole company roster here!
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?
There’s a mismatch between the sources of funds and the uses of funds. What I mean by that is that typically when women stumble upon a problem and look to start a company, they’re solving a problem that is typically for women. Investors, i.e. the sources of funds, are typically men, and they’re not in the target audience for female-founded companies. They don’t understand the need for the woman’s solution to the problem she’s facing. Therefore, it’s unrelatable to them and they’re less inclined to invest early on in the business without demonstrated traction. The indicator for them to invest is revenue, which is a pretty challenging bar to overcome if you’re strapped for cash and on a very limited budget (let’s not even go into systemic gender pay inequity) and probably a detractor for women wanting to take the plunge into entrepreneurship.
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 that until there is more female representation on the investing side or more men willing to take risks on women with potential and not demonstrated performance, there will continue to be a challenge for women to start and scale 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?
Gender parity. I started my business to encourage gender parity in everyday household chores and remove the burden off of what is primarily the mothers’ endless list of invisible chores. As a female founder and mother of a boy and a girl myself, I want to normalize guiltless working parenthood and to have both of them grow up and view a world where their options are limitless. The more women that start companies, the less stigmatized it will be for men to take more ownership of the household, the more children will see what equitable parenting looks like, and the higher likelihood to lead to gender progress in future generations.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
It’s not glamorous, especially when you’re just starting out. I’ve always worked in very traditional corporate roles where I’m at a desk, working in Excel and responding to emails, in a very nice office, with a company-given laptop, the supply closet is stocked, there’s toner in the printer, and you can message all different groups for tickets/support, and there’s generally training for tools and systems. When you’re a founder, you’re on your own. There is no one explaining how an order management system works, or something as simple as how to properly do an exchange for a customer in the system. There isn’t anyone breaking down and clearing boxes from your warehouse. It’s a very humbling experience, but I think media has glamorized what founders do.
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?
I believe it’s a nice thing to say that “anyone can be a founder” with the right attitude, grit and motivation, but I believe that comes from a place of privilege. You certainly do need to possess those characteristics and a risk-taking mentality, but by not acknowledging other, more pragmatic reasons holding individuals back from entrepreneurship would be unfair. For instance, I gave up a very stable job in corporate finance with upward mobility to start my company with some savings already in the bank to get started. I have some sense of financial stability (though it’s not the same as before) because I am fortunate to be in a dual-income household where I can take a salary cut and still have my family supported. These factors led me to be able to take this risk. This is not the case for everyone, even if they had the right attitude, motivation and business idea. I think we need to acknowledge this more when we look at diversity statistics in entrepreneurship because there will always be some hidden entrepreneurs out there that will always have a “regular job” as a result of this.
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.)
- Grit — You will be told your idea has been done before. You will be told you’re not differentiated enough. You will be told ‘no’ repeatedly. You will receive customer complaints, social media comments that will feel so personal. You will make mistakes that feel like the end of the world. You will need grit to pick yourself back up and continue forward.
- Humbleness — There will be a lot of unglamorous work that needs to get done. It’s humbling when you’re in a meeting with a venture capitalist and the next minute your tearing down boxes to drop off at the recycling center or counting inventory at 5am prior to a launch.
- Support — Imposter syndrome is a real thing. As a mom starting a business, you can get easily type-casted as mompreneur hobbyist, solving a juvenile problem. It is something that can really warp your sense of confidence. Without my support system of family, friends, former colleagues, mentors and advisors reminding me that I’m well equipped to do this business, something I’m passionate about, I would have given up a long time ago.
- Willingness to Learn — You will do things you have been trained to do, things that you might not want to do, and things you have absolutely no clue how to even start. You have to be willing to unlearn things that you’ve been trained to do to creatively solve problems. You have to be willing to learn things that were never in your wheelhouse when you have resource constraints. You have to be willing to learn everything about your business inside and out to grow and scale.
- Passion — If you don’t love your business or believe in your mission enough, you will not make it far. There will be so many obstacles and punches thrown at your face. If you don’t have passion for your business and remember the “why” behind why you started in the first place, you will not find it in you to pick yourself up and continue forward.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
When I became a parent, I felt very alone. I experienced post-partum depression and had a difficult transition into parenthood even with a support system and a healthy baby. I couldn’t imagine what that must be like for parents that don’t have a support system and are struggling with balancing it all while raising little babies. Cubbiekit was born in an effort to eliminate the invisible chores of motherhood, take shopping off busy parents’ to-do lists, and help families in need. We work with various community organizations that support new parents, such as Partners in Parenting, Texas Women and Infant Center, and The Cloth Option. When we give back to the community and support parents, we feel successful and is the “why” behind everything we do.
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.
Redefining classic gender-defined parental roles and eliminating stigma around stay-at-home fathers. Fathers are becoming increasingly more involved in managing the home and raising children, yet a study by Pew Research cited that only 8% of the public believes that children are better off with their fathers at home. If a father is choosing to be home, there is no reason why we shouldn’t be supportive. Creating gender equity in the family is not only better for children and individual relationships, but it relieves the stresses of raising a baby through conscious partnership. We should be encouraging this!
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.
Kirsten Green from Forerunner Ventures. It’s not a secret that she’s a pioneer in identifying and investing in modern consumer brands.
Maxine Bedat, Founder of the New Standard Institute. I recently read her book Unraveled, which documents the lifecycle of our clothes along the global supply chain. It is something that I previously researched and observed first-hand at sorting facilities (i.e what happens to your clothes after you drop it off in a bin) when starting Cubbiekit, but the way she narrates the story is so eloquent and really creates the sense of urgency to reevaluate our current toxic relationship with fast fashion and general consumption of “stuff we don’t need”.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.