How This Founder Uses Obstacles as Inspiration: 'I'm Making Lemonade'
In the Women Entrepreneur series Mentor Moments, female founders sit down to chat with their own mentors (and us!) about how and why the relationship developed, and the lasting impact it’s had on their careers.
Camilla Olson isn’t a first-time entrepreneur. With two successful exits under her belt, she has the kind of track record any founder would be proud of. But as she’s worked on her most current project, Savitude -- a startup that uses visual recognition and machine learning to match retailers’ clothing to shoppers’ body types -- she’s encountered fresh obstacles when it comes to growing her business and fundraising, something she suspects is because she’s not just a female founder, but an older female founder. But she pushes through those pain points and uses fresh hurdles as problem-solving inspiration. And she’s got some help, too: through the Techstars Accelerator program, Olson met Trish Adams, who most recently served as the EVP of merchandising for Target before retiring after a 34-year career with the company. Here, the two talk about mentorship, the value of networks and changes in the business world -- for better or worse.
Women Entrepreneur: How did you two first meet?
Trish Adams: I’m retired now, but I met Camilla through Techstars, when I was still working at Target. I wanted to get involved in their mentorship program, and I have extensive background in apparel, so when I heard Camilla’s business idea I was super excited. She’s solving a lot of really critical questions for both consumers and retailers.
Camilla Olson: Techstars does what they call “Mentor Madness” -- over a three-week period each team meets 150 mentors and spend 20 minutes with each one. It’s crazy. Out of that you select five to 10 you’d like to work with. When I met Trish, she stood out like a lightbulb. Instantly, I knew I wanted her to be my mentor. I heard she was retiring literally that week, and I was like, No, stop! At our first meeting I think I offered her a job. She nearly slapped me! [laughs] But she agreed to do this even though she was retiring.
WE: What drew you to Trish so immediately?
CO: If you’ll let me step into the confessional for a moment, I really, at first, wanted her because of her background. She has this amazing track record, she knows everyone, she’s done everything. Who knows where that could lead us? It was super attractive. But now, it’s a year later, and we’ve literally never ever talked about that. Our relationships has been so genuine. When we get together -- Trish, we’ve talked about this once -- it’s all about the context. She knows exactly what I’m talking about, and she can tell me that I’m not crazy. She knows what I’m going through, she asks the right questions. Frankly, she keeps me sane.
WE: Trish, had you served as a mentor before?
TA: I guess most of that was done in the context of trying to help people at Target, whether they were direct employees of mine or other people within the organization that needed some stirring. Later in my career I became more involved in women’s organizations, and that’s when my relationships broadened. But Camilla is my first true entrepreneur, founder mentee -- I’ve never been involved with this previously.
WE: How have you seen women’s experiences in business shift over your career?
TA: I worked at Target for 34 years -- the world has changed a lot since 1983. But even then, I think one of the large reasons that the tenure of a Target employee is quite long is because of the culture. In the 80s and 90s when it wasn’t popular to be supportive of women, Target still had an amazing track record and continues to have one today. Not that climbing the ladder wasn’t hard work, but you’re given chances, and it’s up to you to run with it.
WE: Camilla, you’re a serial entrepreneur. As a female founder, what have your experiences been like?
CO: It’s hard to answer that one because I’m an older female founder, and I’ve done this a lot. Trish and I talk about observed changes and the way things are. Just before this call we were doing that -- it’s like, yep, that’s still going on.
WE: Has that landscape changed for you?
CO: Honestly, it was a whole lot easier 20 years ago. I could raise money literally on a sentence, it was no problem. Now, it’s a whole lot harder, and I believe it’s because of my age -- I’ve had two successful exits. But that doesn’t count for women when you’re older.
WE: How do you overcome that?
CO: Right now I’m sitting here with my CTO, and I’m suggesting we put him forward in front of investors and see if that helps. You have to think about the company. It’s not about me, it’s about getting Savitude funded. You have to think more creatively and get out of who you are and say, Okay, I was successful before, and I’ll be successful again. How do I use my assets and get them going? So you get creative, and it develops your mind further. It’s the part I enjoy --it’s like, oh, I’m making lemonade.
WE: How important is building your own network to create the kind of support and community you need?
CO: It’s huge. And you can’t trust everybody based on gender. It's not a hard line. There are a lot of males who are extremely helpful to us. And what really irritates me is, there are a lot of women who are really not nice and not supportive and not there if you’re not young like them -- and Trish gets all of that. It’s so great to have someone like her who, again, understands the context. But, it’s not all bleak. [laughs] Things are going well.
TA: We want more mentoring, not less.
CO: That’s what it’s all about.