Liz Reitman

5 min | Leadership & Management Musings

Women Founders in Focus, Part 2

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

Reit founder and EONY VP & Mentorship Chair, Liz Reitman, and Debbie Kiederer (Founder, ChalkDust Consulting, Vanishing Hanger and EONY President) kick us into Part 2 of our Women Founders in Focus conversation. We wrap up the discussion exploring their paths to entrepreneurship, their support systems, and what women in leadership means to them.

What was your experience building your own businesses? What support systems did you have (or not have) in place?

Debbie: What was interesting for me — and Liz this might have been similar for both of us — our partners were very entrepreneurial. My husband, Bobby, was really entrepreneurial so he really was about ‘Why don’t you do this by yourself?’ and I was like ‘Ugh, I came from a family of engineers; only men worked and the women had secondary roles, I can’t really do that!’. I was the first woman [in my family] to have any corporate job that wasn’t a secretary, so I was [already like] ‘Look at me!’; but he was like, ‘You can do so much more on your own…’. And I really feel that so much of my initial thinking behind it was his support. And I would not be who I am today [without it]. Would I have been successful? Probably. But not in a way [I was able to as an entrepreneur] where I was able to raise my family, be part of a different community, to be on the outside rather than on the inside, and really gaining knowledge I never would have gained had I stayed inside [Corporate America].

Liz: No, I love that. It’s interesting that you talk about the support; the fact that Bobby was entrepreneurial in spirit — I think that’s so important. And for me, my father had his own business, so I had that modeling. I [also] saw that he was very much a champion of women; I’ve always been lucky to have him in my life and that he pushed me [towards entrepreneurship]. And I know when I thought of leaving John Wiley & Sons, it was really Jim [my husband at the time] that said, ‘You can do this’. He left Maryland to come to New York in his 30s because that was his dream, and his family said, ‘Are you crazy?’ He very much had that ‘Do what’s going to make you happy, don’t be afraid’ attitude.

As business founders and mothers, what have you experienced personally that was not obvious in your professional or personal spheres?

Liz:  I will say that managing both things [work and family] being a parent and managing my business was extremely difficult. I remember giving birth to Aidan, my daughter, and having to go back to work and sitting on a donut in the office because I was still sore from giving birth…I was so frustrated! Even the night before I went into labor I was working on a project… it’s always been a juggle. For me it’s been a challenge because I can never give anything 100% …that’s always been hard. I’ve always wanted to be the best mom I can be, and I’ve wanted to be the best Leader of my team! So I guess I thrive on having a lot of stuff going on, but it’s also been disappointing that I can’t give everything my all.

Debbie: I want to add to that a little bit. As a working mom, you really give 110% because you’re trying to do the right thing by your job and the right thing by your children. And I’m going to say something that people may not like…but you don’t have the luxury of hanging out. Because you don’t have time to hang out. Because when you’re with your work, you’re working, and when you’re with your kids you don’t want to be hanging out because you feel like you should be working. So if you’re going to do this you’re going to do it right, and so now you’re all about it, and so you’re exhausted because you’re on all the time.

Liz: You know what? That’s so true! And I guess when I say I couldn’t give it 100% it’s because you’re giving your family 100% when you’re there and when you’re at work you’re giving that 100%. It’s funny, recently my daughter called me and said she used to be so frustrated when she called me on the phone and I didn’t pick up. Meanwhile, it was because I’d be in a meeting, but she didn’t realize [because] she only saw me as a mom and needed me right then and there. And then she did an internship in my office and she was like ‘Oh my god, I now realize why you didn’t pick up the phone…you’re busy! I never saw that there’s a whole other side to you, I only knew you as my mom…I knew you had a job, but I didn’t realize what that involved!’ I love that she sees me as a full person now.

What have you had to weather as women professionals in your working lives?

Debbie: I worked in beauty [and] I worked with so many women. Publishing was similar. At least in my experience, I think that the women above us had to fight tooth and nail to have any acknolwedgement  — forget titles, just to be recognized for their contributions — in the business world. And so they felt that because they had to fight so hard, we had to fight so hard. I remember when I got pregnant and they were like, ‘What do you mean you got pregnant?’ and I said, ‘Well I want to have a family’ and they were like, ‘Well nobody has a family, you can’t have a job then!’ And I had to manage around that.

Liz: I sort of always felt that I was treated differently, always. Since I started out at age 24, I never wore jeans to work, I always felt that I needed to up my professional presence to be taken seriously, especially because I was so young. But for me it was also a challenge because Jim worked with me and I would notice how people would gravitate towards him even though I was presenting and it was clear that I was the one who had done the work. That sort of happened consistently over 15-20 years and having that [imbalance] play out right in front of me. We both would come in and I’d present, and then they [the prospective client] would direct their questions to Jim…I wasn’t able to verbalize it at the time because I was just trying to survive [and build my business]. Only now, have I been able to take a step back and realize what was going on. And I see it even now when I pitch; I recently pitched to a client and didn’t win and the prospective client said to me, ‘Yeah it’s an all male firm [that won the project], it’s all guys…’ It’s so funny that he even had to identify it that way. Like there is an awareness of it. But I love that [now] people are starting to become aware of [the imbalance] and trying to change the conversation and the direction.

You have such differing paths [in your entrepreneurship journeys] but such similar experiences...we’re curious to hear: What did mentorship look like when you were both starting out (professionally and on your own)?

Liz: For me, I wish I had more mentors. I think because I started out so young and was juggling being a mom and owning a business, I didn’t really have people help me more or guide me. One person that did impact me though, was my client, Lisa Malat who was in charge of Store Operations for Barnes & Noble College… she was such a good model for me as a mom and as an executive. She was one of my first [visualizations of women in the workforce] — I dealt with a lot of men — and I was always impressed when [her kids] had a day off from school and she would bring them into the office. Or she would leave a meeting to take a call for her kid. I mean — she would stop a meeting to deal with something important with her family. And she had a nurturing side to her — it wasn’t all about business. And I just felt that she was such a good model for me to see that someone could do both. And make time for her family at work when it was really important. I had never seen this before.

Debbie: I really feel like my success was based on mentorship. My first mentor was at my first job —  she showed me the finer things in life without any snobbery and she was so instrumental in [learning how to] be comfortable in luxury. And then I got my job at Clinique, which really changed my life. And my mentor there was the Chairman of the company and she changed the trajectory of my life completely. For whatever reason at 28 years old took me under her wing and taught me so much about being a strong woman [and] a strong proponent of things. But my final mentor was President of the company and really took me under his wing. When I was courted for the COO position, he was my biggest advocate of taking it…and when I didn’t he tracked my career. I think for him I was this person that didn’t stay safe, [that] really went out there. He thought I was crazy, [and] then I wasn’t. And then he was on one of my boards for LiveLux [another company Debbie co-founded]. He’s been so good to me.

Liz: My champions and who I learned from, were the people I brought on to work with me and my clients. I remember this one strategy consultant who came from a big corporate job, she was really good about [teaching me]…I just watched how she worked, was disciplined with her time, how she put her presentations together, how she spoke, and the kind of respect she garnered…and along the way I learned and watched how other people managed through Corporate America.

And I had clients pull me aside and say, ‘It would be good if you can do this’ or ‘I need you to figure this out’. They would give me advice on certain things and that has always been helpful. I’ve also hired consultants to do assessments on my business, reach out to my clients and talk to them about their experience with Reit. Just asking a lot of questions like, What they think we should be doing? How we’re doing? What we can do better? And by having that third party ask the questions, our clients are way more vocal than anything they would say [to us]. And I’ve learned a lot from those comments. They’ve shared things like that I have a younger team; they feel like they’re getting a fresh perspective while also balancing that with my experience and design heritage. Getting those surveys done from these outside consultants I’ve learned a lot from and have really guided me as well.

Debbie: Mentors are people who are outside of your company, sponsors are within your organization that help you — and that is more corporate than it is entrepreneurial. And I think that’s important [to note] — and even clients like Liz mentioned — it really helps us move forward [as entrepreneurs] and provides the support that we need to remind us that we can do this.

But [one of] my sponsors in my company was the Creative Director. And I made him quite successful, [and he in turn] was very grateful that I supported him in doing the things to make him successful. So he [in turn] supported me all throughout the time I worked with him. And even though he received public recognition, he supported me behind the scenes and helped me achieve credibility in my consultancy to work with established and well-known clients outside of the beauty industry…and allowed me to continue to flourish.  I would say he was my biggest supporter.

What have you gleaned from your own experiences and how have you shared that with others looking to start their own businesses?

Debbie: After mentoring many people and prioritizing mentoring after 40,  I think I would never tell anyone to start a business as young as you did, Liz, because there are three reasons:

  • You don’t have a network of people enough to have sales — you’re up against RFPs and things that are so much more difficult [that you’re not aware of].
  • You haven’t spent someone else’s money. And you need to be in a role where you spend someone else’s money before you spend your own. Because you really need to know how to do that well!
  • You’re in your 20s and you think you know and you don’t know! And so I think that being young and going into your own business is very challenging because unless you have someone you’re working with that introduces you to other people it is very difficult to be successful long term. So I always tell people early 30s is a great time to do it. I did it mid to late 30s, because by the time I got out [of Corporate America] my coworkers and cohorts were Senior VPs of companies; so I could call them and they could call me’. And these are the relationships you built and curated in your life, which translates well to going off on your own.

Liz: Recently how I’ve been mentoring is approaching the person as a whole person. When someone comes to me and talks to me about their business I ask, ‘Where’s your downtime spent? Where is your family in this?’ So I really try to break things down so it’s not just about your business, but it’s about you as a person. And I love how Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) helps bring that too. Like, I love how Forum is about your personal life and family. And while other organizations may prioritize scaling your business or networking, that is not the full of us. Debbie, this is where our approach is similar: where we can bring the whole person in — from spirituality and family and more. There is an EQ that needs to be nurtured, too. As I get older too, I want to help people look at the big picture of their life and not be so focused on one aspect (like, how many employees they have). I also love that my Forum is still about profitability and really goes deep in support. Yet, the other day I had someone present about their marriage in that same group. And to me that’s amazing!

Any last words?

Debbie: I want to say one more thing. Liz and I just being part of EO is huge. It is huge. We had a woman president seven years ago, but having two women in leadership [and several other women on the Board], is powerful. [Liz] and I are similar where we have a powerful energy and we’re no bullshit. We’re not afraid to take this on — it’s a lot of work, but very rewarding. Especially if we can make a change [for the better] for others.

Liz: Agreed!