We sat down with Rhonda Shrader, the Executive Director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program and frequent GIST Mentor and competition judge, to discuss how entrepreneurs can get creative in this uncertain time and her advice for early-stage innovators.
GIST: You have served as a judge and a mentor for multiple GIST events including pitch competitions and startup trainings. What qualities from innovators really stand out to you when you are evaluating their startups?
Rhonda Shrader: All of the incredible entrepreneurs I’ve met through GIST have an obsession with solving the biggest and toughest problems on our planet. The very best ones have a personal connection to the problem that fuels them through doing the hard work of creating a successful startup.
I think often of three entrepreneurs I met during last year’s GIST Catalyst competition as part of the GES at The Hague. Zoe Welz, a rancher and environmental engineer from Wyoming building tools to prevent overgrazing. Syed Abrar Ahmed, founder of Pakistan’s Azaad Health to prevent medication mistakes in emergency situations like the one that took his brother’s life. And, Dr. Vena Ahouansou of Benin with a similar portable health record she created after losing a patient in urgent need of a blood transfusion.
GIST: There is an incredible opportunity for social entrepreneurship at the moment. The health tech industry is already seeing a huge pivot toward addressing the world-wide Covid-19 crisis. Can you speak to the issues that startups might be facing in this unprecedented time? Are there any cautionary statements you would express to them as they seek to pivot toward new solutions or as they ramp up production of an existing solution?
Rhonda Shrader: Entrepreneurs are by nature, problem solvers. They also tend to be creative and able to see possibilities that others cannot. That makes their skill sets particularly advantageous during times of crisis. It’s so inspiring to see this in action with global stories of how entrepreneurs are pivoting or even forming new businesses to address both the current reality as well as life, post-pandemic.
Two examples from our Berkeley ecosystem include Mask-Match started by two female founders of successful, unrelated startups to match mask and PPE donors with health professionals most in need.
Dispatch Goods, also a female founder who is a current MBA student, was set to launch a major pilot in San Francisco for its reusable food containers. When that was shelved due to shelter-in-place orders, the team decided to use what they had—a dishwashing facility and delivery process—to partner with a local distillery and focus on hand sanitizer, instead.
The fundamentals of entrepreneurship are the same, whether or not it’s social or for-profit. Two of the biggest mistakes I see with first time founders, is that they don’t understand the ecosystem around their customer or clearly identify precisely who will pay. This can become quite complex, especially with businesses focused on enabling the public good. It’s ok to make guesses and be wrong, but you have to ask the questions early to avoid finding out later that no one is willing to pay.
GIST: Given the state of flux in all industries right now, what advice can you provide early-stage innovators who are just starting out with their venture? How can they manage such uncertainty and still succeed? What measures can they take? What considerations should they be weighing in order to weather this period?
Rhonda Shrader: Periods of uncertainty, like the ones created by economic shocks, are a reality that every entrepreneur will face. I survived the crash of the dot com era, 9/11 and the 2008 recession—all as an entrepreneur. My businesses didn’t all survive, but in each case I learned something about how to better manage uncertainty.
There are three mantras I use to keep myself on track:
Control the controllables. Startups can expect a tougher fundraising environment, as investors double down on existing investments and reduce new ones. This can’t be controlled. What can be controlled is a continued focus on the fundamentals of building a solid business, solving problems customers care about.
Focus goes where attention flows. It’s so tempting to sink into distractions right now—watching breaking news, scrolling through social media feeds or streaming endless videos. You don’t have to be perfect, just willing to redirect your attention to things that move you forward. Focus will follow.
Stop forcing, start allowing. This is one that a wise yoga teacher whispered into my ear when she saw me straining during a particularly tough day. Many times you can power through adversity by trying harder, but life often requires us to take a step back or even aside. It’s not about giving up, it’s simply observing and learning from what you see.
GIST: For innovators in their idea stage, what is the most critical aspect of that phase you believe innovators need to get right?
Rhonda Shrader: Once you’ve validated a specific problem, find out who cares, why do they care and how much do they care. Quantifying this last part is key—you have to understand if what you’re solving is a “shark bite” problem requiring immediate action…or not.
GIST: You often champion networking as a powerful tool for innovators. But which networks actually work and how can an innovator identify those?
Rhonda Shrader: LinkedIn has been the great equalizer for entrepreneurs in many parts of the world. It is literally possible (and highly recommended!) to connect with experts, anytime, from anywhere. This is a powerful tool for early stage entrepreneurs as they map and validate their customer ecosystems.
Learn more about customer discovery from Rhonda Shrader and a panel of other experts from the 2019 GIST TechConnect: Developing Customers Abroad.