Episode 258 – Launching While Female with Susanne Althoff

Susanne Althoff‘In a way you have to be really cocky and bold to say I’m going to write a business book and it’s going to be worthwhile and lots of people will want to read it. You have to be overflowing with confidence. And I saw in my interviews with women entrepreneurs that confidence is hard to sustain. Not only do women often knock down their own confidence, they have negative self-talk themselves, but in addition to that, they hear messages all around themselves, telling them this is not suitable for you.’

Susanne Althoff and I explore the parallels between writing while female and launching while female in this fascinating conversation, and I also learn some journalist’s tips for getting started, practical ideas for organising your material, and the useful mind-bending trick of tricking yourself into not thinking you’re doing what you’re doing… 

Susanne’s site: http://susannealthoff.com/

Susanne on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SusanneAlthoff

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Susanne Althoff, who is the author of Launching While Female: Smashing the system that holds women entrepreneurs back. She’s a veteran journalist and an assistant professor at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, where she teaches publishing entrepreneurship and women’s media.

She’s also served as an advisor to women-led startups. And before joining Emerson in 2015, she worked for 22 years as a magazine editor, including six years as the editor in chief of the Boston Globe Magazine. And her writing has appeared in Wired, Fortune, the Boston Globe, of course, and other publications. So welcome to the show, Susanne. It’s great to have you here.

Susanne Althoff: Thank you. Alison, I’m thrilled to be here.

Alison Jones: And may I just congratulate you first on the title? I did actually laugh out loud when I read Launching While Female, that was a genius title. Where did it come from?

Susanne Althoff: Oh, Thank you. I mean, my goodness. I’ve seen so much, yeah, you know, Running While Female, Voting While Female. I mean, there’s so many flavours of that. Thank you.

Alison Jones: Tell me about the motivation behind the book. What made you think: do you know what, we need a book about this? I think I know this and I think we could probably have a nice rant for quite a long time about this, but I want to hear it from you.

Susanne Althoff: Yes. Well, so the book as you know, examines entrepreneurship’s gender gap, and I explain the ways that our economy is weaker than it should be, in that we all miss out on innovation when we don’t see full entrepreneurial participation and I saw this firsthand in a number of ways – as you noted I spent the first two decades of my career as a full-time journalist.

I was at the Boston Globe for a dozen years and during that time, I participated in several product launches and that’s where I fell in love with the entrepreneurial process. Identifying an unmet need, researching potential markets, all of it. So that’s where I got the entrepreneurial bug and I really began diving into the research about entrepreneurship and who does it and what kind of companies do they start?

Then with that interest, I became a college professor and I started mentoring students who were starting their own companies. And it just happened that every single one of the students that I was mentoring was a woman and they repeatedly would tell me stories. You know, investors were not taking them seriously, they couldn’t get traction on their ideas. They felt that they were being belittled. Their confidence was being chipped away at, and this was all aligning with the broader research that I had seen about the entrepreneurship gender gap.

You know, I saw statistics for example, that women launch fewer companies than men. Women overall have access to less startup capital, make less revenue, employ fewer people. So like everyone, I found this really frustrating but I knew that entrepreneurs who are women and non-binary still create amazingly successful companies. So I wanted to use my journalism skills to collect the stories of women, entrepreneurs, and non-binary entrepreneurs, and to hear from them directly what they wished was different about the entrepreneurial space.

Alison Jones: And that’s what I really enjoyed about the book as well, is that you do move quite quickly on to how we can change this. And I loved your very kind of robust, pragmatic thing at the end. You know, it’s just like any change, it happens by each woman chipping away at it, being successful, doing their thing.

But what were the learnings for you? What did you discover researching the book that perhaps you hadn’t picked up in those years of talking to your own mentees?

Susanne Althoff: Yes. Well, as you mentioned, Alison, there is… each woman must be successful and needs to find the tools that will help her reach that success. And there’s a lot that each individual entrepreneur can do. But what I was really struck by in my research is how much bigger this is than just telling one individual woman, you know, lean in, work harder or pitch differently.

It really is so much bigger than that. There are structural issues in the United States, in the UK and across the world that are preventing these entrepreneurs from reaching their full potential. And these are system-wide things that… all of us need to recognize that it affects all of us. It affects the number of jobs we have, the kinds of products and services we do or do not have, and that we all need to lobby. You know, for example, in the book I detailed some of the government policies that would make a difference. Having universal preschool and subsidized childcare, having family leave that is generous, these are all policies that have been shown by research to help entrepreneurs. Student loan debt is a very significant issue. People are reluctant to start companies if they are saddled by student loan debt. So plans that address student loan debt will lead to more entrepreneurial activity.

Alison Jones: It’s frustrating, isn’t it? Because it doesn’t feel as though this stuff is that new. I feel like we’ve known this for a long time. It’s like lending in the third world, isn’t it? It makes much more sense to lend to women. And we know that women-led businesses tend to be more successful even though self-reported they seem to think they’re less successful.

Why aren’t we seeing change. And are you more hopeful with the election of Biden? Do you think things, you know, what’s going to happen in the States to actually move the needle on this politically?

Susanne Althoff: Yes. Well, I mean, Alison you’re right, I really dove into the historical research on women’s entrepreneurship. There’s one chapter in the book on history and it was very sobering to see how long we have known about entrepreneurship’s gender gap. You know, in taskforce, after taskforce, government reports, you know, pledges to do better.

We’ve known about the ways, especially in the United States, we’ve known about the white supremacy and the male supremacy that is baked into our business world and what the effects of that are. So there’s been a lot of attention to this over the years, and the needle has moved.

There’s been improvements over the years, but the pace is glacial. Joe Biden, I am hopeful that we will see some changes, but it’s actually not because of a new president, although that’s huge. But I think the pandemic is really going to be a pivotal moment for us.

I mean, we have really hit rock bottom in terms of the number of companies that have closed, the number of jobs that have been lost. And I think that it’s so bad that it’s going to force us to really get serious about what it would take to create more jobs in the United States and around the world.

And I’ll give you one example, researchers have looked at what would happen if women launched growth-oriented companies at the same rate as men, and in the United States if that happened, it would mean 15 million additional jobs in two years. And then there’s similarly striking numbers for the UK and for other countries.

So, you know, when you look at data like that, to get out of the pandemic we are going to have to knock down some of the barriers or all of the barriers that we see that prevents some people from pursuing entrepreneurship. And I should say, it’s not just women, it’s people of color are also facing these hurdles.

And there are several marginalized groups that need attention.

Alison Jones: It may be the silver lining of the pandemic. I think lots of things have come out of this that, we will never go back to life in the same way, but it would be a great legacy if we were to restructure the way we think about business and be more inclusive because we bloody well had to be because we couldn’t run it on just the fraction of privileged white males that have got us through in the past.

Susanne Althoff: Yeah. You know, I’ll just give you one example, a lot of accelerator and incubator programs for entrepreneurs before the pandemic required that you moved to the city where the incubator was located, you had to live there for three months or six months. That boxed out people who had childcare responses, people who had financial limitations. So now that we are so well-versed in doing things in a remote way, there’s no reason why these entrepreneurial programs cannot be conducted remotely so that people can do it in the evening or, you know, do it in on the weekends and do it from their home.

And, that is just one of many ways that maybe the pandemic can teach us this differently.

Alison Jones: Yeah, maybe it’s the end of presenteeism as well. It is fascinating, I think there’ll be a whole slew of PhDs analyzing the effect of the pandemic on women’s employment, because in some ways it has been awful, you know, women trying to work and homeschool and it’s just been awful. But in other ways, as you say, it’s created opportunity and it’s made people think differently about flexible working and all the old excuses that we couldn’t make this work well, do you know what? It turns out we can.

So, yes, really interesting.

Susanne Althoff: Researchers have identified necessity entrepreneurship which is different than opportunity entrepreneurship. Necessity entrepreneurship is when you need to start your own company because you’re unemployed or you’re underemployed. So I think we’re going to be seeing a lot of necessity entrepreneurship, and there are so many unmet needs that have become really obvious right now, you know, the delivery of education, the delivery of healthcare. So that to me is exciting that we will see new companies coming out of the pandemic that will address these shortcomings that have been really exposed.

Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. And hopefully the funders will take a new attitude to that.

I’m really interested as well that you have focused so much in your experience on publishing entrepreneurship particularly, just tell me a little bit about, I mean, obviously as a publisher, I’m just really interested in this.

What, if anything is different about the publishing sector? I’m guessing you’re talking broadly about magazines, journalism, whereas I tend to come from the books space, but generally in that area, what’s interesting about entrepreneurship there?

Susanne Althoff: I’m really excited by the number of new startups that are experimenting with different business models. You know, we’ve all seen the shortcomings of advertiser-based news organizations where they really need those ads to run. We’re seeing a lot of creative ways to be subscriber supported and really going after a small niche audience, an audience that is passionate about something and delivering something unique to them. I’m also excited about the number of publishing companies and media companies that are looking at non-profit models, which I think has a lot of potential.

There’s a new startup in Silicon Valley called The Information that started six years ago by an entrepreneur named Jessica Lessin. It’s a tech news site. They’ve seen impressive growth. It’s a high subscription cost, but it’s delivering something really unique to its readers. And what I think is exciting about them, they’ve started an accelerator program where they teach other publishing entrepreneurs around the world, how to sort of copy their success and find a new audience and a new way of doing business.

Alison Jones: That is really heartening because publishing has been, I mean, I suppose every industry has, but publishing has been so badly disrupted by the internet that, you know, there were times when it looked like it wouldn’t survive. So it’s really heartening to hear it’s reinventing itself in that way, and that women founders are at the heart of it.

Susanne Althoff: Well, you know, I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily at the heart of it. We’re seeing the same gender gaps in publishing entrepreneurship as we see in other industries. I mean that’s frustrating, the same hurdles exist and the same under-representation exists. But yes, definitely exciting projects coming out of the publishing space.

Alison Jones: Yes. Green shoots. That’s really good news.

I want to talk about writing for you as well, Suzanne, because that’s what we do on the show, we go under the hood as well. And just tell me a little bit about, I mean, obviously you’ve been a journalist, so that there’s nothing new for you about writing, you know, you sit down, you do the job, but what did you discover when you came to write the book and interview the people and just work at that scale? What was different to journalism and what surprised you perhaps about it?

Susanne Althoff: Yes. I mean, I have so much journalism experience, but there was still a lot for me to learn. I set as my goal for the book to interview 100 women and non-binary entrepreneurs. And that was really helpful to me to set a goal like that. It helped me understand how much progress I was making.

And it made sure that I heard from lots of different voices, people from all over the United States and in many industries. And, then it was a matter of planning. I’m a huge fan of outlines and really organizing what I write. I also try to say that I’m not sitting down to write the book, right.

Alison Jones: That is paralyzing, isn’t it?

Susanne Althoff: Right. And that to me was like, sort of really unlocked a better writing voice. It just was a more casual, conversational voice. If I just said, no, I’m just simply taking notes or I’m just writing a memo, and then I could go back and edit it. But yeah, I do think sometimes as writers, we need to trick ourselves into not thinking we’re doing what we’re doing.

Alison Jones: That’s such a great point. And there is something deadeningly oppressive about the ‘I’m writing my book,’ it feels huge and significant and public, and I love that you trick yourself into making it more private and conversational and just exploratory.

Susanne Althoff: Absolutely. Yes. I think there’s a lot of, you know, I take lots of notes and over-research as well. I think, don’t sit down to write if you do not yet have a ton of material in front of you.

Alison Jones: And when you say in front of you, I’m always really interested to explore this because some people work very much offline. Some people have got it all nicely structured online. Are there any particular systems, processes, or tools that you use to help you organize all that material and pull it all together?

Susanne Althoff: Yes, I’m a huge fan of Google docs. And what I ended up doing is I created a Google doc for each specific narrow topic in my book. And I did that at the very beginning. I called them my brain dump files. And whenever I saw a news article or I had an idea for someone to interview or a new study came out, or I saw an interesting tweet, I would right away, copy that and put it in the file, put it in my brain dump.

And I think sometimes, you know, we may say to ourselves, Oh, I’ll remember that when I go to sit down to write, or I don’t need to take notes about it and I don’t think you, you forget, of course you forget. So if I just constantly added to those files over and over again, so that when I really did sit down to write, I opened it up and it was this 10 pages of notes and ideas.

And of course, some of them I threw out because I realized, Oh, that’s not really necessary, but it really helped me have so much material in front of me. I was never staring at a blank page when I was sitting down or a blank screen. I always had so much material to work with.

Alison Jones: And the blank screen is such a killer. Isn’t it? Yes, that’s brilliant.

And what I love about that as well. Yeah. And you have to get the scale right, don’t you? Because I know people who have a notebook and they just jot everything down, but then when you come to write the book, it’s one notebook and an unmanageable amount of stuff, none of which is related to the next bit, but by creating those topic-based Google documents, you kind of knew where to put stuff. And then you had a more granular approach, which made it easier to work with, I’m guessing, when you came to sit down and do it.

Susanne Althoff: Absolutely. Yes. I mean, you need to sort things, one is different than the other. I think that the idea of one single notebook could get overwhelming very quickly. And then, I mean granted, you know, I added new Google docs along the way, or maybe I collapsed two Google docs into one. So you know, it’s not that you have to stick with this system the entire process, but yeah, I think it helps too to break off little chunks, you know, you’re writing a thousand words as opposed to you’re writing 70,000 words.

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s much less overwhelming and much more likely you’ll actually do it, isn’t it?

 If there’s somebody listening who… I’m imagining them writing furiously and taking notes on the Google docs tip, because that’s absolute gold, but what would you say to someone who’s perhaps struggling in the early stages of putting a business book together for the first time? What’s your best tip for them?

Susanne Althoff: I would really focus on thinking about what you bring to the project. You know, personally, I knew that I was a journalist by training and that’s what I’m good at. And so I said, I’m going to write a journalist’s business book. But you know, maybe you’re going to write a business book that’s, you know, a first person in the trenches, I’ve experienced this all firsthand.

I mean, think really hard about what it is that calls you to write the book. And why is your point of view different than the other people who have currently written a book.

Alison Jones: I’m wondering as well, if you’re a woman considering writing a book, drawing from your experience with female entrepreneurs, is there anything you’d say about, because I’m guessing there’s a shared, well, I know there is, I’m both a female entrepreneur and a female author. I know there is a parallel between the kind of imposter syndrome, the fear that you feel at the start of either of those ventures.

So is there anything that you kind of draw the parallels across that you would tell your mentors that might be interesting here too?

Susanne Althoff: Absolutely. I mean, you know, I mean, Alison, I think you’ve hit on it, in a way you have to be really cocky and bold to say I’m going to write a business book and it’s going to be worthwhile and lots of people will want to read it. You have to be overflowing with confidence. And I saw certainly in my interviews with women entrepreneurs that confidence is hard to sustain. Not only do women often knock down their own confidence, they have negative self-talk themselves, but in addition to that, they hear messages all around themselves, telling them this is not suitable for you. You know, for example, women see business book bestseller lists, and they see how rare it is for women to appear on those lists.

I just did about the United States for the year 2020 of the top 200 bestselling business books in the United States, only 17 were written by women. So, of course, if someone sees that and they think, Oh, well maybe this is just not a space for me. But we have to just push ahead and know that just because there were only 17 authors last year on that 200 bestseller list. That’s not the way it’s always going to be and my voice is needed and I need to do it. And a lot of it comes down to also making time with caregiving responsibilities and work responsibilities, it’s really difficult to carve out the time to write.

I have a young child, so I know that firsthand how tough it is.

Alison Jones: It’s tough practically, but it also can feel selfish can’t it, which is something again, you kind of have to get over if you’re going to do the work.

Susanne Althoff: Yes. Yes. It can feel very selfish, although, but if you think about how important it is that your voice is out there and how needed it is, hopefully that will be an impulse to keep going.

Alison Jones: Yes. And what a great role model you are for your child, particularly if you have a daughter. So I found that quite a useful one as well. Brilliant.

Susanne Althoff: I actually have a son. But I’m raising a really good feminist.

Alison Jones: Excellent.

Susanne Althoff: And my book helped with that tremendously.

Alison Jones: Yes, it does. Doesn’t it? Because you want to model what you want them to think of as normal. Yeah. Brilliant. And I always ask people as well to recommend a business book. Now you’ve just talked about the paucity of books by women in the bestseller list, but is there a book that you would recommend for us, apart from of course Launching While Female, which is a superb read by the way.

Susanne Althoff: Thank you. Yeah, I do have one recommendation. One of my favorites that I read last year was Arlan Hamilton’s It’s About Damn Time. If you don’t know Arlan Hamilton, Fast Company Magazine has called her the only black, queer woman to have ever built a venture capital firm from scratch. She’s based in Los Angeles.

So Hamilton’s book, she explains her life story, how she became a venture capitalist. She also explains how she overcame the many hurdles she encountered along the way. And then she tells readers how they too can overcome the hurdles that they encounter. I’ve heard Arlan Hamilton speak many times at conferences and at other events. And then I was also fortunate enough to interview her for my book.

And she has a very compelling, approachable, funny speaking style. And what I love about the book is that she was able to capture that voice perfectly. The person you hear speaking at a conference is the exact same voice in her book.

And I think that’s really hard to do, especially we talked earlier about how it can be very intimidating when you sit down to write and, you know, a lot of people put on their serious writer hat, right? Right. As we look forward to, you know, a voice of authority and sometimes when you lose that sense of playfulness, but Arlan Hamilton didn’t fall into that trap.

It’s a really fast, fun read. So yeah, I’m a huge fan of that book.

Alison Jones: Oh, that sounds brilliant. And I haven’t read it. So thank you for that recommendation. Just as an aside, reading what you’ve written out loud is a really good tip. Isn’t it? Because then you catch yourself when you’ve just gone all pompous. No human would ever actually say that sentence, you know? And when you say it, there’s nowhere to hide.

Susanne Althoff: Absolutely. Yes.

Alison Jones: Brilliant, Suzanne, where can people find out more about you, more about the book, more about the work that you do?

Susanne Althoff: Thank you. So the best place to go would be my website, which is susannealthoff.com. I recognize that’s not the easiest website name to spell. So if you Google Launching While Female, you’ll find me and you’ll find my website. On the website I talk about what the book is about and my research into entrepreneurship’s gender gap.

And I also have a list of resources for people who want to start their own company. I have a lot of funding ideas and other ideas like that.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. And I will put that link up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com, along with the transcript of this conversation as well. So if you have any trouble Googling Launching While Female, I can’t imagine why you would, but anyway, the link will be there as well.

It was just fantastic to talk to you today Susanne and thank you so much for your time.

Susanne Althoff: Thank you, Alison. It was a pleasure. Take care.


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