Updated: Jan 6
Stephanie heads up the community of investors at Gratitude Railroad, an alternative investment platform shifting capital from traditional finance to impact investing. She is also co-founder of Womenpreneurs, a Utah-based collective driving bold female leadership. She draws on 13 years of experience in the impact and sustainability sector. Most recently she directed a technology commercialization accelerator on behalf of BoomStartup for the State of Utah’s Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Prior to that, she led community development and programming for Impact Hub Salt Lake, Social Enterprises, and the Green Sports Alliance. She holds an MA in Leadership for Sustainability Education from Portland State University and a BS in Economics from the University of Utah.
What has your experience been like as a woman in the VC world?
This question reminds me of a Star Trek rerun I recently (and embarrassingly) indulged in. Doctor Beverly Crusher found herself stuck in a static warp bubble by concluding that, “Since there’s nothing wrong with me, there must be something wrong with the universe.”
That’s the best way to describe my experience. I spent my 20s trying to figure out why my male counterparts were succeeding so easily in business, while I felt so much friction. I kept thinking that there must be something I just didn’t have – connections, mentors, knowledge, credentials, whatever. And some of that is true; it is much easier to excel with a robust rolodex, Ivy League branded pedigree and easy access to capital. But there’s more to it. In twenty years, the ratios have hardly budged of women-to-men in the C-suite and senior levels of finance. I discovered that there’s an untold story behind the scenes, and here it is:
Success has far more to do with opportunity than capability. My experience has shown me that there is an invisible ether that magically opens doors for people of a predominant demographic – however mediocre they might be – welcoming them up into decision-making positions. We’ve seen this phenomenon on the national level, i.e. congress and Hollywood. This same ether is ever-present in finance. Many people are unaware whether the ether has helped them rise – but you definitely know if it hasn’t, usually because you fall outside the predominant race, gender or class.
So, in order to succeed in finance as a woman – or any marginalized person, you need to be far more competent than your peers, have a thick skin, and be willing to go the distance to create your own opportunities.
What needs to change to make it possible for more women to get involved in the VC world?
I have been lucky enough to find a backdoor into finance and carve an opportunity for myself at Gratitude Railroad, which is a truly phenomenal group of individuals. The route I took is rare and won’t work for everyone. Glass ceiling, high-bridge, or ether - it doesn’t matter what metaphor you choose; the fact is that women simply are not excelling in finance like they should. That negatively impacts all stakeholders.
A strategy that has proven to be successful is women opening doors for other women. I believe that is the leverage point for systemic change. And that is where Womenpreneurs has decided to focus its energy, by empowering a virtuous cycle, so to speak, of female leaders, founders and funders that reinvest in one another until women rise throughout the whole financial system.
Tell us more about Gratitude Railroad? What makes them different from other VCs? How did you get involved with them?
Gratitude Railroad (GRR) is a community of impact investors and investment business. There are a few things that make it different from the traditional VC world. First, we focus entirely on investments that generate social and environmental impact. Second, while GRR does make investments into ventures, we’re technically an alternative investment platform that has made investments across asset classes, including venture, private equity, hedge funds and real assets. Third, we exist to support investors who are interested in shifting from traditional finance to impact investing, so a good chunk of our business is dedicated to educating, inspiring and activating our impact investor community.
That’s where I come in. My background is in impact and sustainability. I found GRR in its infancy and came on board to head up the investor community. I guess my role is most comparable to investor relations in a traditional firm. But GRR is anything but traditional, it is bold, experimental and a learning organization committed to bettering the world. I’m thrilled to be a part of it.
It's been so great to see Womenpreneurs evolve over the years, where do you see the organization in the next three years?
Womenpreneurs is on the cusp of big re-brand and re-positioning to serve a much greater reach of people. We spent the past five years as a fiscally-sponsored non-profit and really enjoyed our place in the community. As we have grown in our careers, we’ve found that we can have a much greater impact as a company with an evolved mission.
In order to help women rise into powerful leadership, we need to take a whole-systems approach and connect resource flows throughout the founding-funding cycle. That means that female leaders, entrepreneurs and investors need to be better supported and connected to shift the financial system in a way that women can break through the barriers that I previously described.
We envision Womenpreneurs playing a valuable role in this endeavor. In early 2020 we are formally launching three new programs: Ascendant Circles, the perfect mix of a mastermind, leadership training, and moon circle to support authentic development in your venture; The Raise, a hands-on workshop designed to move female founders through the obstacle course of acquiring capital; and Investors Ascend, a learn-by-doing training for women to gain the camaraderie and know-how to become confident investors. We’re thrilled to expand the breadth of the Womenpreneurs community and support more bold, capable and brilliant women rise into all their potential.
What makes Salt Lake City uniquely poised as the next hotbed for business, tech, entrepreneurship, etc? How does that benefit women?
I think that Utah’s insular nature has been hazardous to the growth of women. Utah celebrates the same (male & female) winners tirelessly, because we don’t see enough churn. Unfortunately, that keeps the bar stagnant, and restricts the circulation of new thoughts, voices and ambitions.
On the plus side, Utah continues to be a good place to do business, and the list of national notables from Utah keeps growing. More and more, I regularly hear industry colleagues come through SLC for conferences, shindigs or business opportunities. Further, Utah is comparatively very nimble and well-resourced without the rigidity that comes with excess capital and power like SF, NYC or Boston. In that sense, Utah is still the ‘wild west’ of entrepreneurship. So, if you take the lens of creating your own opportunities, Salt Lake City is a fantastic place to be.
When and where were you happiest?
I spent two months studying yoga on Koh Phangan, Thailand and was able to find liberation in my mind from barriers I hadn’t known were there. By extrapolating the assumptions I held about myself to a distant place and new methodology for living, I learned in a very real way how to harness a sense of freedom and joy.
Which talent would you most like to have?
Honestly, any talent in any form is awe-inspiring. My husband in genuinely talented; he is a gifted designer. It’s remarkable watching his brain work when he’s in his flow, and it’s given me considerable perspective. Genuinely talented people are a rarity. Most of us are generalists, which are also super important. Generalists are going to solve the world’s intractable challenges because they are problem solvers – the real creative ones, at least. I aspire to be a creative generalist and simultaneously hone the fledgling talents I had when I was young: drawing and dance.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Nothing. I don’t believe in regret or desire for change. I believe in growth by taking accountability and turning mistakes into lessons. I further believe in growth by actively working to improve the things in my life that warrant betterment.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I’m a life-long learner. I strive to maintain a beginner’s mind so as to broaden my awareness of the world and myself. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. Often times people consider world-view altering personal transformation a phenomenon of youth, but I welcome it as a necessity on the route to wisdom. My greatest achievement to date is my willingness to remain uncomfortable in order to continue learning.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
The Earth. In Junior High my dance team president gathered all of our happy thoughts for the year book. Mine was “The Earth.” She called me that night to alleviate my confusion, explaining that my happy thought didn’t make sense and wouldn’t fit with the others. Instead she offered me a dumb quote about girls, friendship and laughter. Humiliated, I conceded and allowed some corny quote to misrepresent me forever in the 9th grade yearbook - (the horror!). Never again. My happy thought is the Earth. I aspire to die and come back as a part of the living, breathing Mother Earth. And there’s a likely chance what will happen!