Julie Schoenfeld has built three successful companies in her 20-year career as an entrepreneur, and is onto her fourth. She’s an advocate for women entrepreneurs, diversity among decision making in startups and more STEM education for girls. Schoenfeld is also a five-time judge of EY’s Entrepreneur Of The YearTM (EOY) awards competition. We sat down with her to discuss female founders and what it takes for an entrepreneur of any gender to succeed.
- You were an entrepreneur before it was cool.
It’s always been cool in my book. I’ve been the CEO of four companies over the last 20 years. Net Effect was my first company, which was acquired by Ask Jeeves for $288.1 million in stock for its customer-support software. Then I founded a company in the optical components space called OEwaves, which is still in business today. Next, I led Perfect Market, a digital media company that was acquired by discovery platform Taboola in August of 2014. Now I’m building Strobe, a company that brings a solution to the market for the self-driving car.
- When you began your career, women entrepreneurs were scarce, but today we’re seeing more female founders. What’s the secret for women in this field?
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education is critical for women. We must get women comfortable with the notion of working in technology and in engineering when they are younger than high school. I think that’s number one. If women are going to do well in startups, a technical education is an asset. Number two, I don’t think that a business executive team should be 100 percent women just as I don’t think it should be 100 percent men. It’s a fact that diverse teams make better decisions.
- Whether you’re a man or a woman, entrepreneurship is tough. What does it take to succeed?
To go from zero to the first million in revenue is one of the hardest tricks in business. I’ve taken a company from $10 million to $200 million in revenue and that was easier than going from zero to one or zero to 10, both of which I’ve done. The entrepreneurs that start from scratch with a piece of paper and an idea are people who have a really high tolerance for risk. Look at the numbers – venture capitalists typically fund one in 100 deals they look at, and of those, only 10 percent actually make any money. If you looked at the statistics and you were behaving logically, you probably wouldn’t do it. It takes somebody who’s got a greater belief in the idea, in themselves and in their leadership. It’s someone who says, “I can do this.”
- What’s your best advice to young entrepreneurs just starting out in their career?
I didn’t start my career saying, “Ok, I’m going to start a business.” I started by working at Hewlett Packard and Proctor & Gamble. I was able to build skills and learn how to bring a product to market and how to create an engineering infrastructure. As a result, when I became an entrepreneur I had a solid foundation to build on. I encourage entrepreneurs to acquire skills. That’s why I’m interested in people getting engineering degrees or getting STEM education. You can be a great manager of people and a great leader, but you must have the underlying skill set.
- What’s the benefit of awards like the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year that you’ve judged for five years?
The EY Entrepreneur Of The Year awards is a competition, and entrepreneurs flourish under competition. It’s good to recognize their achievement and their impact on our economy. I’ve also been involved in YPO (Young Presidents Organization) which, like the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year awards, helps entrepreneurs get out of their silos and be part of a network of leaders like themselves. It’s good for business and for being engaged in a community.
- What made you a serial entrepreneur?
There is a lot of pride in starting a company and seeing it grow. You nurture your team and soon, they become a second family to you. There is nothing like seeing something you’ve created being utilized or becoming successful.
For the second time, The Montgomery Summit will host a special evening for female founders the day before the conference. “The Rise of the Female Entrepreneur” will feature keynote interviews and a panel discussion with some of the leading ladies in tech today. The event takes place from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. on Monday, March 9 in the Wedgewood Ballroom at Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Bungalows in Santa Monica, Calif. Email Jane Chynoweth firstname.lastname@example.org to request an invitation. For more information, click here.