Pam Kostka is CEO of All Raise, a nonprofit accelerating the success of female founders and funders to build a more prosperous, equitable future. Her favorite problems to solve are what she calls “navigation” problems—thinking a few steps ahead, working backwards from a goal and finding creative ways to carve a path forward.
The unprecedented and near-constant change of this year has caused us to fundamentally rethink everything from privilege, inequality and our systems of justice—or more appropriately, injustice—to how we work, socialize, learn and access health care. To help me navigate, I’ve been revisiting a few practices and principles: First, I can’t always control what happens, but I can control how I respond. This mindset gives me agency, puts me in a position of leadership and allows me to turn problems into opportunities. At All Raise, we realized early on that women-led businesses were being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and the recession. At first, we were in a defensive position, focusing on stopping the backslide. But we quickly shifted to offense. Companies will be born out of the ashes of this moment, and we want to help shape their funding, founding and scaling.
The second principle relates to not getting stuck in the rearview mirror. Mistakes are part of the process for any leader. We are truly in uncharted territory, and no one has a blueprint. I give myself a set period of time to dissect a mistake and think about what I could have done differently—then I take what I’ve learned and move forward.
Finally, I leverage ruthless prioritization as an ally. I start every day with a list of what needs to get done, professionally and personally, and I make sure the essentials get covered. Early on, I was overlooking stress relief; I had to work on creating windows for exercise and getting enough sleep. I also lean heavily on the resources around me—my team, my board, and my husband and friends.
Before you take any advice, remember no one knows your business better than you. Some first-time founders make the mistake of trying to follow all the advice they get, but other people’s opinions are just that—opinions. Plenty of them won’t be applicable, and it’s your responsibility to figure out what to listen to and what to ignore.
It can be hard to tell which is which, but I think it’s helpful to look for advisors who listen more than they talk. When someone just gives you an answer, they’re giving you their answer. What you really need is someone who will try to understand the root cause of the issue and help you find the clarity you need to make your own decision. They might nudge you in a particular direction or suggest milestones to watch for so you know whether you’re on the right path. But your best mentors and champions won’t give you the right answers. They’ll ask the right questions.
I’m often asked about how to get funding—and why it’s so hard! Pitching your company is personal. It’s your idea, your baby. But you have to get used to hearing a lot more nos than yeses. That includes female founders pitching female venture capitalists; I think sometimes there’s a different expectation there. But a female funder is just like any other VC. She has maybe five opportunities per year to invest in the best businesses she can and thousands of people knocking on her door.
As far as figuring out how to break through, the best place to start is by talking to people who have navigated the process before, which is why we started All Raise bootcamps for female founders. You can learn a lot from the experience of someone who’s been through fundraising themselves—both their successes and their failures.
When I was in elementary school, our choir made it to nationals. There was so much prep before the performance—we were practicing every day—and I didn’t really want to do it. But my mother said to me, “We’re not a family of quitters.” This was something I’d signed up for, and she told me I had an obligation to the other people in the choir, and to myself, to see it through. If I decided not to do it anymore after the event, that was fine, but I had to get on that stage.
That really stuck with me, and I think it’s so applicable to some of the challenges of startup life. When I was CEO of Bluebox, we had a moment where Apple made a contract change and our business virtually disappeared overnight. Your first reaction is, “We’re done for.” But then you steel yourself and realize there are still paths to explore. I went to my team and told them, “I know this feels like a dark time, but we do have options and we can move forward together.” I also said anyone who wanted out could let me know, and by all rights I should have lost people during that process—but not a single one quit. And ultimately, we were able to leverage the assets we still had, reinvent the business and keep going.
I ask about someone’s superpowers and kryptonite—the things they love to do and the things they do because they have to. It helps me understand how they’d complement the team, and shows me how self-aware they are—and how open and willing to share. I once had a candidate who was very honest and said, “My kryptonite is I don’t suffer fools easily.” It was a great moment because it allowed us to talk through the difference between suffering fools and letting people learn and grow and make mistakes.
Sometimes people don’t know their superpowers yet, especially if they’re early in their career, which is okay, too. Identifying and refining that is part of what we can do together. Companies take a pound of flesh from their employees, and I strongly believe we owe one back in return. Whether we spend a year or 10 years together, giving my team members tools they can use after they move on is part of my responsibility as a CEO.
Early in my career, I had an employee who wasn’t performing well. But I was new to management, and they were older than me. I thought, “How can I fire them?” So I waited too long to act. A separation shouldn’t be a surprise; you need to have meaningful conversations about performance on a regular basis. But we almost always do it later than we should.
Just like with layoffs, you can disengage in a way that’s respectful. Give them some agency in the process: “This doesn’t feel like a good match. Do you agree?” But when a team member isn’t pulling their weight, you can’t let that fester. It’s not good for them in the long run, it’s demoralizing for the rest of the team and your own credibility can take a hit. It’s easy to think you can’t afford to let someone go. Who’s going to do all that work? But as the saying goes, “bad breath is worse than no breath.” No one in a company is 100% indispensable, not even the CEO, and it’s better to put a project on pause or reassign some critical tasks than to let someone keep dragging down the team. The world will not stop turning. In fact, most of the time, things will quickly get better.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz is one of my favorites. We spend so much time celebrating what look like straight-line success metrics, but every startup is littered with highs and lows—and rallying the troops when hard times hit is what it’s really about. I love the book because it has such good advice on navigating those moments.
I think one of the most important parts is just having the awareness to step back and admit it: “Yes, this is hard.” People aren’t always transparent when they’re going through something difficult, like layoffs. But it’s important to be open in those moments, for both the people leaving and the rest of your team. Treat someone with respect for what they’ve contributed, and be thoughtful about how you can support them, whether that’s a financial landing pad or opening up your network to help them find their next role. When you lead with a moral compass and remember the obligations you have to each other, you can make even the hard stuff a much healthier experience.
- Admit when it’s hard
- Give back to your team
- Don’t quit