Whitney Johnson is a consultant on innovation and the author of Dare, Dream, Do (see my review). She consults with Fortune 100 Companies, including J&J, PepsiCo and Morgan Stanley. Johnson studied music and later became Merrill Lynch’s senior telecom and media analyst for South America. She has lived in Europe, the US and South America.
Johnson joins us in this exclusive interview on women investors, the nature of entrepreneurship, government policy and personal innovation strategies.
YS: What trends are you seeing in women as investors? What is your own special approach as a woman investor?
WJ: Because I am in the process of launching the $50 million Springboard Fund, I am very focused on this question. Women-led companies tend to be capital efficient and have higher success rates, and VCs with female partners are 70% more likely to invest in women. At Springboard, our focus is media, tech and life sciences.
As for my specific approach, you can take a peek at my ‘Harvard Business Review’ piece: Women, Finance the World You Want.
YS: How much of entrepreneurship is innate, and how much can be taught?
WJ: This goes to the nature v. nurture question for which we don’t have a definitive answer. What I do know is that children do what their parents do and not what they say, so if our children see us acting in entrepreneurial, resourceful ways, even if they weren’t born that way, they can learn.
But what does it mean to be entrepreneurial? Or what are the characteristics of a successful entrepreneur? In my experience, the only thing that really matters is the dreaming — even hungering — for a better life. When we dream, we become problem solvers letting nothing stand in our way.
YS: Which countries have favourable policies towards women entrepreneurs?
WJ: According to the Gender-Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index (GEDI), the most favorable countries for women are the United States, Australia, Germany, France and Mexico. In addition to the usual requirements, like favorable tax treatment, these countries provide greater access to education and capital for women.
YS: In the time since your book was published, who are some other interesting innovators you have come across?
WJ: Celine Schillinger, the head of stakeholder engagement for the Dengue Fever Vaccine at Sanofi; Scott Heimendinger, director of applied research at Modernist Cuisine, and Avni Patel Thompson, founder of Papaya + Post. All are finding ways to move innovative ideas forward, whether inside a large corporation, via crowdfunding, or simply starting a business.
YS: What are the typical challenges entrepreneurs face as they scale up their company from a startup to an established firm?
WJ: When you are starting out, you are in discovery mode, trial and error, the more the better, relishing the messiness of the start. Scaling requires an entirely different skill set — organization, clarify, codification of processes. Most people are really good at one, not both, hence the reason that teams of co-founders generally fare better than a single founder.
YS: How should innovators strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’?
WJ: It is both and and or. Once you know your why (vision), your what and how are free to flex.
YS: Is there such a thing as the ‘ideal age’ for an entrepreneur, or can the startup bug strike you at any time?
WJ: There is the stereotype of a entrepreneur being a geeky male, but the average age of entrepreneurs is actually 40, while individuals at 55, even 65, have more innovation potential than a 25-year-old.
YS: Who are some of the entrepreneurs you admire the most today?
WJ: I really admire Erin Newkirk, the Founder of Redstamp, a mobile app that makes it easy for people to be thoughtful on the go, and which has been a top 1% app in the iTunes store. I like how she thinks, the business she has built — and who she is.
YS: What is your current field of research in motivation and entrepreneurship?
WJ: I am writing and thinking about personal disruption — how this drives innovation, in particular disruptive innovation.
YS: How was your book Dare, Dream, Do received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got?
WJ: Dare, Dream, Do sold enough copies that it is in the 95th percentile of all business books sold. But enough about numbers. One of the unusual and surprising responses — men like the book.
One gentleman, in particular. He manages hundreds of millions of dollars. He read the book. Now we are working together. Also, a long-time acquaintance told me she picked up her violin again, after years of neglect. Happy for her — and me.
YS: What is your next book going to be about?
WJ: It is titled Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work. It will be out in October 2015.
YS: What is your parting message to the startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?
WJ: Dare to disrupt yourself. Dream your very own dreams. Do.