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How This Young CEO Made the Transition From Founder to Leader

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Kegan Schouwenburg, the co-founder and CEO of 3-D printed insoles company SOLS, just turned 30.

When she was raising SOLS' seed round, she was in her late 20s. And while she doesn’t think her age or gender held her back – startup culture tends to fetishize youth and, at the time, she found that many investors were actively searching for female-helmed companies – she ran up against other barriers.

She didn't attend an Ivy or honorary-Ivy, for one. Next, her background wasn't in computers, it was in design. And finally, in a sea of founders who conformed to the startup uniform of jeans and button-up t-shirts Schouwenburg, with her white platinum blond hair and trademark white eyeliner, stood out.

"There were definitely moments raising our seed round where I wished that I had gone to Harvard or Stanford," she says. "Or I would think about, am I wearing something slightly too masculine or too feminine or not feminine enough? Is my hair too weird? How can I show investors that I'm somebody they can trust and that I'm going to build a great company?"

She couldn't change her alma mater or her age, and she didn't want to change her style. In the end, she focused on showcasing her passion and the strength of her vision. The strategy worked.  "Ultimately," she says, "if you have a great idea people are going to back it."

Lingering questions about her authority and ability as a leader continued to arise as she made the transition from founder to chief executive. Most of that pressure was coming from within, particularly when she began hiring employees who were older and more experienced than she was. "That's a really challenging thing," she says. "Being a leader and a CEO and a manager is a whole other thing from being a founder. It's something you either grow into or you don't grow into."

It wasn't always easy, but Schouwenburg is finally beginning to feel as if she's made the jump from founder to leader. It's an ongoing process, she says, one that's forced her to grow up a lot.

To hear her talk about the first time she actually felt like a chief executive, watch the above video.


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