Inspire Me

Sweeten Founder Shares How She Rises to Meet Every New Learning Curve With Confidence

'You have to accept that you're the type of person that likes the challenge. When you make that switch, it's game on,' says Jean Brownhill.
Sweeten Founder Shares How She Rises to Meet Every New Learning Curve With Confidence
Image credit: Courtesy of Jean Brownhill.
Entrepreneur Staff
Staff Writer. Covers leadership, media, technology and culture.
8 min read

Editor’s Note: Inspire Me is a series in which entrepreneurs and leaders share what motivates them through good times and bad, while also sharing stories of how they overcame challenges in hopes of inspiring others.

Sweeten Founder and trained architect Jean Brownhill finds that as CEO of her own company, she can forget growing comfortable in her job and breathing that sigh of relief.

Effectively leading her business means understanding that every day will bring on a new challenge. But it is the thrill of accomplishing those new goals, and the positive feedback and success stories from her users that allows her to keep going during tough moments.

“It is a job that really requires you to enjoy a vertical learning curve. And once you accept that, it becomes a lot easier. But, literally, the second you feel like you understand how to do the job and think, ‘Oh cool, I got it.’ It's like boom. New job.”

Brownhill says, “If you accept that being a CEO will have a vertical learning curve, and you have to also accept that you're the type of person that likes that and likes the challenge. Then when you make that switch, it's game on.”

Her journey to lead her own company began when Brownhill started renovating her house in 2007. She thought that given her 10-plus years' experience as an architect and working in the construction industry, the renovation would just fall into place. This was not the case. Brownhill had hired the wrong general contractor, but her mistake wasn’t a complete loss. If the renovation process was difficult for her, she figured it would be way more stressful for someone who didn't have the benefit of her education and expertise.

In 2011, she decided to launch Sweeten, a platform that connects homeowners with general contractors who share a similar vision so everyone can be at ease. Seven years later, the free service has nearly $900 million in construction projects in the pipeline.

Sweeten is Brownhill’s first business. While she has taken the lead on many design projects over the course of her career, she says that being a CEO has demanded a whole new set of skills, chief among them being the ability to adapt at a moment’s notice.  

Accepting her role as CEO as always changing has also helped her with her challenge in fundraising. Brownhill has achieved a major milestone in her career. She is one of only 26 African-American female founders in the country to raise more than $1 million in venture capital, and that is only the beginning. She has her eye on growing Sweeten into a unicorn -- with all the hard work that entails.

“I am constantly facing the challenge of fundraising. Wanting to grow a billion-dollar company, you need external capital to do that. The way I motivate myself is I read our blog,” Brownhill tells Entrepreneur. “We always try to feature the family we've done the renovation for. We've got all different types of renovations and lots of diversity, and it just makes me so happy. Then I can remember why I'm doing this, and who we are in service to, and I can keep going.”

Related: Refinery29's Christene Barberich on How All the No's Pushed Her Forward

What is a quote that inspires you, and why?

My quote comes from this Langston Hughes poem called "Mother to Son," and it's the last line. And I say it to myself all the time. The mother is talking to her son, and she says, “I’m still climbing. And life for me ain't been no crystal stair. I’m still climbing.” It just resonates so deeply with me. Anytime I'm feeling like I had a tough day, I think of the whole poem, and I keep going.

What is a book that inspires you, and why?

Personal History, by Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of the Washington Post. I recommend it to any woman for professional motivation. It is such an incredible book that really shows you the techniques can be your own, the style of leadership can be your own -- as long as you lead. And she really did. She had so much courage and so much discipline and really did lead the company and the paper to be wildly successful. [What I learned from that book] is that leadership doesn't have to look like what we consider [to be the stereotype of a strong leader]. She was so open about her vulnerability, indecision and questioning.

Was there someone who really encouraged you about your ability to launch a company?

Before I was an entrepreneur I read this book Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist. It's by Roger Lowenstein, and I was inspired after I read that book to write Warren Buffett a letter, and he wrote me back. When I saw the message in the mail, I almost fell over. And it was really such a turning point in my thinking about what was possible. From then on I really tried to follow this feeling of being deeply inspired and creative. It was like 2005 or 2006. I kept writing him, and he wrote me back a few times and invited me to the annual meeting. It was just wild. It was so random and so crazy, but it really did give me this incredible feeling that other crazy things might be possible, too.

Who is a woman that inspires you, and why?

Madam CJ Walker. She inspires me because not only is she African-American, but she was also the first self-made woman millionaire in America. Period. So to do that [and run her haircare company] in the 1900s is very motivational to me. [If I have a tough day, I look at her and think] I'm pretty sure you can do this.

Related: The Muse Co-Founder Alexandra Cavoulacos on Why 'It's Kind of Fun to Do the Impossible'

What inspires you at work?

As a CEO of a startup that's now transitioning to more of a growth-stage company, it's definitely my inspiration that keeps changing, because the job keeps changing. I would say that now I am most inspired just by seeing the light bulb turn on in someone on the team. It's such an incredible feeling. They're motivated, they are working hard and it's totally from their own engine. When that happens I feel so excited, not just because they're going to do a good job at Sweeten -- of course I want them to do a good job here -- but I hope that [light] stays on in them forever. Maybe it's similar to like what a teacher feels like.

Are there lessons from earlier bosses or mentors that you think back on when you need an extra boost or bit of encouragement?

My first boss was Elizabeth O'Donnell. She was my structures teacher at Cooper Union. who hired me and gave me my first job. And she continued to work at Cooper Union and became the interim dean while we were looking for another dean. Elizabeth worked really hard for that place, and it was never about getting her name out there or being a name-brand architect.

[She taught me] to be committed to the overall good and mission of the vision, not your personal seat on the journey. At Cooper Union, Elizabeth has been a student, a teacher, the associate dean, the dean and back to associate dean again. She is deeply committed to the school and its students, but she's never focused on the role or title, just the impact she can have. To me, her career is the embodiment of this quote from Harry Truman. “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit."

Who or what has inspired you to be a better person?

My grandmothers. I am named after both my grandmothers. Jean is my mother's mother. And Virginia is my father's mother. They both had pretty extraordinary lives. My mom's mom was in the Blitz in London with two small children, and she ended up emigrating to this country. My dad's mom was a domestic worker in the South who never was able to learn how to read or write. I can't not think about them every day, because my first name is Jean Virginia.

For those women who are looking to start a business, or have begun one but are feeling discouraged, what advice do you have for them to keep going?

With tech startups, entrepreneurs often talk a lot about scaling their business. However, most of them have internalized this concept incorrectly. They think "scaling" is about the tech platform working when many people are using it. But that's not the hard part, at least not anymore with services like Amazon.

The key is to work on scaling your value proposition and having it resonate with a lot of people. If you get that right, all the technical issues will then make themselves obvious, which makes them easy to fix. You'll see where the water has broken through and can reinforce that area, instead of spending a bunch of time on the entire dam.

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