SheWorx Founder and CEO Lisa Wang was celebrated as Red Bulletin’s Hero of the Year along with other Power house women like Olympic Skiier Lindsey Vonn.
Read on to see Red Bulletin’s coverage of Lisa’s life from gymnast to CEO of SheWorx.
Lisa Wang spent a decade thinking her peers were her competition. Today, as the founder and CEO of SheWorx, she's learned that collaboration is another path to victory – read her inspiring story here.
Lisa Wang missed jumping. That feeling she’d had as a rhythmic gymnast when she leaped after throwing a hoop or a ball or a club into the air, her legs stretched into an airborne split so deep it was as if she were a marionette. Jumping felt like flying.
But what Wang missed most after her decorated gymnastics career was having a goal, a higher purpose. She’d gone to Yale and landed on Wall Street as a hedge fund analyst. It was a prestigious position, but it felt hollow. She felt capable of so much more.
Eventually she figured it out. Today, Wang, 29, is the founder and chief executive officer of SheWorx, a global platform that empowers female entrepreneurs. But helping other women is the last thing she’d imagined doing. Because for Lisa Wang, finding her purpose meant confronting her past – and herself.
Wang has the poise and posture of a disciplined athlete even now, 10 years after retiring from gymnastics. It’s late on a Wednesday and she has plenty to do, but so does everyone seated before laptops or pacing around on cellphones at the NeueHouse co-working space in New York City, a 1913 industrial building-turned bespoke open-concept idea incubator. She's thoughtful and direct and used to telling her story.
She's always been a hard worker, she says. She started to win competitions soon after taking up rhythmic gymnastics at the age of nine, and it felt good seeing all her hard work pay off. But then she went on the message boards and read the comments, and winning felt like the world hating her. It was tough for a shy and sensitive kid who just wanted to fit in.
But the goal wasn’t friendship. It was the Olympics. She planned to end her career at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Wang’s parents had emigrated from China and she'd grown up speaking Mandarin; it would be the perfect ending and so the pressure was enormous.
She stepped onto the mat at the 2007 World Championships in Patras, Greece, as a three-time US National Champion and the Pan American Games Champion, but in her hoop performance she faltered and missed qualifying for the Olympics by 0.25 of a point. She'd failed. Devastated, she thought, I’m not good enough. I didn’t work hard enough. I wasn’t prepared enough.
Determined to salvage her legacy, she bought a one-way ticket to Russia, trained nine hours a day for nine months, then ended her career by sweeping all four golds and the all-around title at the 2008 Visa Championships in Houston, Texas.
“I was able to close that chapter very firmly, on my terms,” she says.
Or so she thought.
After leaving Wall Street, it took about a year before Wang crossed her “point of no return” into entrepreneurship. And that was after reading an article about Yo, an app that allowed users to text their friends – you guessed it – “Yo.”
“It was ludicrous, and I was like, how in the world did this thing raise a million dollars?” says Wang. If they could do it, she could definitely do it.
And she could do it. But not on her own terms. While she was in Silicon Valley fundraising for her first start-up, Fooze – a late-night food delivery service – an investor brushed Wang off as the assistant to her older white male chief operating officer.
Again and again she felt like the men in the room overlooked, undervalued or ignored her work and accomplishments. She says one prospective investor forcibly kissed her, then tried to follow her to her room. She didn’t think to call it harassment at the time, but she knew it was wrong and she wanted to know how other women were dealing with it. She started attending female entrepreneurial events, but instead of strategies and action, she found a lot of talk about the pay gap or about how little funding female entrepreneurs received.
“But we already knew all that,” says Wang.
She wanted to learn how to overcome those issues and how to connect with investors, so she created her own event. In July 2015, Wang pinged messages to 35 like-minded women, called the group SheWorx and convinced a top investor to talk to them about negotiation at a Union Square cafe in New York City. Within six months the group was meeting weekly with prominent mentors advising on specific topics; she was charging participants a small fee and tickets for the gatherings were selling out. For Wang, empowering women felt like a calling she never saw coming.
In gymnastics, Wang’s peers had been her competition. The environment was so loaded with drama, jealousy and bullying. She says, that at Yale, she avoided sororities and large groups of women. It was only post-graduation – when a college friend expressed genuine enthusiasm for her landing the job on Wall Street – that Wang felt the power of another woman having her back.
SheWorx would be the antithesis of that zero-sum, winner-takes-all game. And Wang was determined to close the funding gap for female entrepreneurs through collaboration, not competition. She handed Fooze over to her COO and devoted herself full-time to building her vision.
Outwardly, she was a force, dedicated to improving gender parity in entrepreneurship. Inside, however, she was stuck. She knew her mission, knew her numbers, knew her company’s impact, yet in meetings she felt ineffective. Unheard. Not good enough. Over and over, she asked herself: Why am I not super confident? Why am I not super aggressive? I know how much I bring to the table – why doesn’t that translate when I speak? And then finally: Where does this all come from?
At the end of the day, I believe I can impact millions, if not billions, of peopleLisa Wang
The more she thought about it, the more she thought about how she could never watch the Olympics. How she'd dropped her identity as an athlete. How the word “enough” kept haunting her. And then finally she landed on that moment in Greece when her Olympic dream fell 0.25 of a point short.
“It was so hard to look back and reopen those wounds, and it was something I'd never done,” she says. “But when I faced that pain, it was this release of like, this is where this low-grade stress and feeling of ‘not enoughness’ is coming from, the fact that I never owned that loss in my life.”
So every other weekend, she'd skip happy hour or brunch or a night out dancing with her friends to sit at home in front of a notebook and ask herself five hard questions at a time. Stuff like: What am I afraid of? Why do I react the way I do? What is my purpose? She sat with her questions for hours at a time, determined to unravel herself.
“At the end of the day,” she says, “I believe I can impact millions, if not billions, of people, which means I know myself better inside and out. Sitting with unresolved issues is not just going to hurt me, it will hurt my work, and therefore, hurt a lot of other people who can benefit from it.”
In less than three years, SheWorx has grown into a global collective of more than 20,000 female founders. It operates on a membership, sponsorship and events model and has chapters in seven cities around the world. Among the membership perks is direct access to top mentors and investors through roundtables and summits.
Wang launched the SheWorx100 Summit Series in 2016 as an antidote of sorts to the typical conference experience where investors stand across the room from founders who get three to five minutes to pitch their companies. For founders, it’s about “let me boast,” and for investors, it’s about “let me judge you,” says Wang. “And frankly, women aren't over-exaggerating: We’re more realistic about our numbers, and by comparison, that makes us look less ambitious or less daring.”
By contrast, the SheWorx100 summits pair small groups of founders with one investor and give each entrepreneur equal time to talk about her company and her challenges. Then everyone at the table pitches in with solutions, opportunities and potential partnerships. “It flips the dynamic from ‘How do I judge you?’ to ‘How can I help you?’ and it evens the playing field,” says Wang.
And it’s working. At last year’s summits – in New York, San Francisco and London – more than 90 percent of investors set up follow-up meetings with women they met, and 10 percent of the women who attended met their lead or follow-on investor.
By the time she heard about the summit in New York, Rachel Renock had talked or emailed – unsuccessfully – with nearly 200 investors. As a gay woman and a first-time founder with no business background and no contacts who was trying to pitch a company targeting non-profits, she hit a lot of barriers. “It was a brutal hustle,” she says.
At the event, Renock, 27, sat with six other women and an investor. She gave a one-minute pitch about her company, received feedback from the investor and from the group, and when it was over, the investor asked her for a follow-up meeting. He ended up becoming her lead investor, and after three months, Renock had raised US$1m to scale her company, Wethos, a platform that connects non-profits with affordable freelancers.
“It was a super-collaborative environment,” says Renock. “As women, we’re taught to be perfect and not to try unless we’re a hundred percent confident we can do it, and we tend to get paralysed in the unknown. So we stop before we’ve even started. Being surrounded by other women who have faced these challenges and who might not look qualified on paper but have pulled it off encourages other women to try, even if they do fail. It’s OK not to be perfect, and it’s OK to not have all the answers."
Like Renock, Kristina Jones met her lead investor at SheWorx100 summit, in San Francisco. When she raised her seed round of $1m for Court Buddy – a company that matches lawyers with clients based on their budget – she became the 14th African-American female founder to do so. Wang, who's also a columnist for Forbes, profiled Jones and celebrated that fact in the magazine, and the exposure gave Jones a new purpose.
Both Renock and Jones say they now regularly help other female entrepreneurs. “I take two or three calls a week to help them strategise and navigate the things I wish I’d known when I was pitching for the first time,” says Renock.
Wang, too, has recently followed her own model and stepped into the role of mentor. At this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW), she spent nearly three days helping a young entrepreneur named Kira Gobes. They met through the Red Bull Launch Institute, a platform that began in 2017 that aims to elevate the potential of collegiate entrepreneurs through mentorship programs and event partnerships. At SXSW, the Institute featured workshops on pitching and marketing, mentor sessions, guest speakers and a public pitch event for the students.
Gobes, a senior at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is the creator of Loop, a bracelet that pairs with an app to gives young girls an accessible, fun introduction to coding. Gobes, 22, came up with the idea for a class, applied for a university competition, won a $10,000 prize, and built a prototype. She believes Loop has the potential to dispel the notion that engineering is for boys and get young girls excited about coding.
“We want to show them that this stereotype they see in the media, things like The Big Bang Theory and shows like that, doesn’t define what engineering means,” says Gobes.
Wang was serious with Gobes, and there was no coddling as she provided feedback on her pitch and advice on fundraising. For the first time, Gobes began to think of herself not simply as a student with a cool project but as an entrepreneur with an end goal. Gobes also got to see who she wanted to be, by watching Wang in action, networking for SheWorx.
"Her confidence was really apparent," Gobes says. "If I'm in a crowd, I might not be sure who I should talk to. She just walked up to people and started talking. She has a way of knowing she was allowed to be there. It's huge to see someone similar to yourself doing things you want to be doing, not taking no for an answer and just kind of owning it."
Wang says she has a better understanding of herself these days. Mentoring Gobes helped her realise that. Tough times – like missing the Olympics – just make her stronger. She has superpowers: the ability to motivate, inspire and help people find strength in vulnerability. She has a purpose and she knows what to do, and thousands of women are succeeding precisely because of who she is. And that is enough.