Liz Reitman

5 min | Leadership & Management Musings

Women Founders in Focus, Part 1

A Conversation between Liz Reitman (reitdesign Founder, EONY Vice President & Mentorship Chair) and Debbie Kiederer (ChalkDust Consulting Founder, EONY President)

On top of running reitdesign and recently rebranding the company, our founder Liz Reitman has taken on two Board leadership roles for Entrepreneurs’ Organization New York (EONY): Vice President and the Mentorship Chair. She teams up with Debbie Kiederer, founder of ChalkDust Consulting and Vanishing Hanger and EONY’s 2021-22 President, to lead the charge. We sat down with these two powerhouse leaders to hear their founding stories, learn their take on forging your own path, and tap into the women behind the work.

What do you do and for how long have you owned your businesses?

Liz: My company is called Reit (we just rebranded and renamed, we used to be reitdesign) and we are a branding design studio…so we do everything! At the core we build the foundation for a company’s branding and messaging; and we also create all the supporting elements thereafter: website, social media, advertising, collateral, anything that needs to continue to build that business. I’m the founder and CEO and oversee what’s happening in the business and mostly work on the business development side. I started the business officially in October, so we turned 26 years last month!

Debbie: The name of my company is ChalkDust Consulting. I founded it in 2001, so we just celebrated our 20 year anniversary in August [2021], founded three weeks before 9/11 which was definitely a challenging time. ChalkDust is a digital consultancy that focuses on technology repositioning in the ecommerce space. Our company is globally positioned; what that means is that we often work with a US company that wants to scale to the rest of the world, though we’ve also worked in the UK and Asia to scale companies to the US and elsewhere.

You both started your businesses on the cusp or just before the internet really took off. Did you know you wanted to go into tech or was there any hesitancy?

Liz: I approached the digital world kicking and screaming! My roots are before the computer — literally working on a board, cutting with an x-acto…you get the idea. And in the corporate world (my background was in publishing), the design and feel of the paper was important. So when we started to transition into using programs online and having to design online, I hated it! But I really listened to my team. I’ve always had younger people on board and when they were coming out of school and saying what they saw / what was being used, I really leaned on them and learned from them on how to approach technology and how to be online. I wouldn’t be in business if we didn’t build websites…so we pivoted. We still kept our roots to branding, but moved towards creating websites.

Debbie: And [my experience] was definitely the opposite. When I started my company, we were all virtual from the beginning…and the only chat that existed was Yahoo Chat! But I knew I wanted to get into tech. I had been in technology most of my corporate career. Similarly to Liz I was on the creative/production side of things [in my corporate roles] and in the 90s when tech was really in its infancy, I was always introducing technology to make [the business] better. When I left my corporate job and [transitioned] into my own independent consultancy, I really focused on being part of the technology teams, but differently — one of the areas where I saw the internet being perfect for my skill set was [that] I not only loved creative and design, but also the implementation of it — and technology and the internet allowed me to do both — design and technology together. Which at the beginning was really really hard, but as we’ve seen it’s come a long way.

Liz: That’s so amazing where you landed. That was never me — I was always artistic, but I fought it — because I was also really organized and scheduled, and I didn’t want to fall into the art world. When I was 15, my dad sent me to live with an artist in Hawaii — and he was like, ‘You want to be an artist? Go see what it’s like!’ In some ways it backfired because I had so much fun [helping her] sell her art at outside festivals in Hawaii, that I was like maybe I will do this! But if I think about it further, I’ve always been a huge voracious reader and one of my teachers in elementary school was a professional calligrapher; she taught me calligraphy in 5th grade and  how to hand bind books — and what is interesting to me in [graphic design] is the natural progression with typography. I loved it immediately and I feel like that was where it made sense for me to land in this world.

Could you describe your experiences in Corporate America?

Debbie: Yeah, I still to this day say that I could be a great corporate executive or a great entrepreneur. Either one was fine [with me]. Many people who are entrepreneurs don’t say that; many people in entrepreneurship feel like they can’t work with other people and they can’t deal with authority and that is why they go on their own. And that was not me, at all. I really thrived in a corporate environment; I knew how to navigate through the politics; and really understood how to do it. And I think one of the gifts that I was given was the ability to process quickly; so a problem would be presented and I could work through it pretty rapidly. And in corporate that was a big [skill to have] because there are layers above you [so to say] ‘this is what we want and this is how to do it’ [was rewarded]. I would say that I was very lucky, as a young woman, seen in Corporate America as someone with potential — every year or two I was promoted.

Liz: I think I was the opposite of you, Debbie — I definitely had a problem with authority! I was very frustrated as a young person, I was never lucky in the business world. I didn’t get promoted…everyone in the positions above me didn’t leave, they just never left and stayed in those positions forever. So there wasn’t room for me to be promoted. And so I personally felt that I never really had luck in Corporate America. Which makes me sad because I do think I could have done well in Corporate America but I just [didn’t have the opportunity or environment to do so] — but starting out [on my own] at 24, there wasn’t a lot of time in the world [to begin with].

How did your previous work experiences shape your decisions to start your own businesses?

Liz: My father was an Executive Recruiter in the Publishing industry and I worked in the Publishing industry, for internships throughout college. So when I graduated I started working at Harper (I remember they were Harper and Row at the time) and they hired this firm to rebrand them. This was probably ‘91 or something. And they spent $1.2 million to rebrand to HarperCollins. And as a 20+ year old, I was like, ‘What the hell, you have 40 designers on staff, why wouldn’t you use us?!’ Like I couldn’t believe it and also the amount of money [they spent on the project]. And then I went to John Wiley & Sons (I was the Art Director at the time) and they were building their first website — so now I have a little bit of clout — and I went to the Executive Team with the other Art Directors of other departments and said, ‘Let us design the site. We know the products, we know the brand, we know the business.’ And they rebuked, ‘No, we’re hiring an outside firm’ — and they spent $500,000! and  that was 1994.

I wanted to work on those cool projects. And I’m not saying that this isn’t the case now, but back then in-house departments did not have the credibility — or weren’t thought of to work on the bigger, more visionary projects. Which is why I branched out on my own as a dumb 24 year old! I wanted those projects, I thought I could do it on my own. And I wanted to be part of the bigger thinking, and strategy…and have more of a say.

Not so dumb, you’re still kicking it 26 years later!

Liz: Yes, that’s true!

Debbie: When I had children — I had a first child and then a second child in Corporate America — it got really hard. And on top of that, my husband got sick and his business started to fail — and I realized I needed to do something else. So I left Corporate America and began consulting. I officially went off on my own 3 weeks before 9/11; at that point my husband hadn’t been working for 2 years, I had two children and a baby that was 2 years old, and I lost every single thing [I had worked for] right after 9/11! And shortly after all this happened, I was offered a COO position, but I was like, ‘If I don’t become an entrepreneur now, I’ll never be one. That was insane — absolutely insane…but the point I’m making here is if I hadn’t taken that risk [of starting my own business], I would have gone back into Corporate America, I would have hardly seen my children, [and] my life would have been completely different.

It seems like your answers align with the idea that you’re willing to take risks even in the face of discomfort -- for example, you both tried something new, even if it was unfamiliar to you or cumbersome. I’m really curious to hear how this translated to starting your own businesses?

Debbie: When I think about my career, I was always on the cutting edge of new technology. And part of that is I was blessed to be part of a corporation that was very successful and was seen as progressive [and because of that] a lot of companies wanted to work with us. So I just had to make a phone call and I could get these new companies in. But I was always interested in — before the word ‘startup’ was even a thing — working with companies that were really looking to change the way things work.

Liz: And I think for me, what has really led me to longevity was — because I [started my company so young] and didn’t have the staff or team [to support and take risks like a large company could do], I would see what other people were doing and bring those ideas to my clients. So I didn’t necessarily have the staff, but I would always pitch the ideas — and have no idea how I was going to get it done — but that was the fun for me. Even when a client came to us with something we had never done, I would say ‘Okay!’ and figure it out — that was invigorating. So for me, I always loved that challenge of [figuring out] how to present something that was appropriate [for the client]. I never said no; I always said yes to anything. And from there I would just figure it out.

Debbie: And I think that’s a big tenant of leadership: not being afraid to take risks. To take a step forward [without knowing all the answers] and [from there], seeing what this can look like and what we can do. And all along you don’t play it safe, you kind of say — ‘Yes, we can do this over here, and I want you to think about this’.

Want more? Stay tuned for Part 2!