Female Leaders Share the Most Impactful Business Lesson They’ve Learned in 2020

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series,” is a series of stories, Q&As, and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds and are now leading successful companies.

Although the New Year is on the horizon and promising a fresh start, we can’t look forward without first looking back at what this year has taught us.

For the following 19 female leaders, the lessons 2020 has brought have been nothing short of abundant. In order to survive this tumultuous year, they were forced to think quickly on their feet, accept that done is better than perfect, and push past old habits to make space for a new framework of thinking.

Yet perhaps the most significant part of what the year has brought is not necessarily the lessons themselves, but how they’ll be put into action going forward. As we’ve all learned these past months, the future can be wildly uncertain, but 2020 has prepared these womxn to overcome any obstacle they may face along their journeys.

Secil Altintas

Associate at Axa Venture Partners, a global tech fund that invests in extraordinary teams with vision and drive across enterprise, digital health, cybersecurity, and fintech.

Secil Altintas female founder headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson From 2020: The importance of a team’s grit and agility to maneuver based on product-market fit, especially as market demands change rapidly. This year, we have seen dramatic changes in both consumer and enterprise needs. It has been even more important to maintain a healthy company culture while quickly thinking, planning, and executing together based on changing demands. A strong team that can build and move together is invincible.

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: As an investor, I encourage our portfolio companies to proactively think about their product-market fit and continue to emphasize the significance of healthy team dynamics. COVID-19 has been difficult on all of us, and empathy among colleagues would go a long way. Perseverance, agility, and empathy have shown to be the most critical attributes to succeed in collectively difficult times.

Lolita Taub

Co-founder and General Partner of The Community Fund, a $5 million early-stage fund that invests in community-driven companies through an investment partner team. 

Lolita Taub headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson From 2020: The timing for underestimated founders and investors to rise and succeed is now. “We believe that underestimated founders can and will produce outsized returns,” Jesse Middleton, Flybridge Partner, told me as he asked me to become a cofounder and general partner at The Community Fund. The tides are changing and the world of venture capital is waking up to the investment opportunity that we, founders and investors from underestimated communities, represent. 

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: It’s time to shift the narrative in venture capital on who the best investors are, what they look like, and what companies we invest in. I’m committed to leaning in, investing in the best founders with The Community Fund’s investment partner team, and proving that investing in underestimated companies leads to outsized returns.

Michele Heyward

Founder and CEO of PositiveHire, which connects experienced Black, Latina, and Indigenous women engineers, scientists, and technology professionals to management roles. 

Michele Heyward, founders and CEO of positivehire headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: What once was a nicety can change to a necessity. Employers affected by the pandemic and Black Lives Matter Movement shifted the market. More companies are now focused on creating inclusive workplaces for underrepresented women. This increased market demand for diversity, equity, and inclusion services.

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: In the future, consistent communication with clients will occur to track market changes. This will include one-on-one conversations, group masterminds, surveys, and panel discussions with clients.

Veni Kunche

Founder of Diversify Tech, which connects underrepresented people in tech to career opportunities. 

Veni Kunche founder of diversify tech headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: The power of no. I’ve said no to paying customers who didn’t share our values and weren’t the right fit for my community. I’ve said no to publicity and speaking opportunities. Saying no gave me the time to focus on more impactful things for my business and my family.

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: With practice, I’ve gotten comfortable with saying no. It was scary at first. However, as there is enough demand for our service, things worked themselves out in the long run. I will stick with my values and continue to focus on the right things for my business and my family.

Sophia Sunwoo

Founder and principal of Ascent Strategy, which creates money making brands with womxn entrepreneurs who refuse to settle for mediocre.  

Sophia Sunwoo founder and principal of ascent srtategy headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: The BLM movement shone a hard light on my privilege as an entrepreneur throughout my 14-year career. A strong lesson I’ve learned from this reflection was that my grit throughout the years has required a heavy dose of privilege. I’m not grittier than others, my privilege has allowed me the time and resources to be gritty, which has helped me become a successful entrepreneur. Being able to stick to a business through its highs and lows is not only a result of drive and perseverance—it’s also the privilege of having a financial safety net, a network that can invest in you, and social capital. 

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: I am planning on raising more awareness about this topic by being more vocal about it as a startup coach and educator, and also working with my clients on creating bridge grit plans to help them financially sustain themselves during these phases. My hope through this conversation is to also reduce the shame that many entrepreneurs feel when they’re not able to stick to startup building long enough and lack the grit to keep it going.

Amy Rowland

Founder of Varia Search, a boutique legal recruiting firm that uses a bespoke approach to fill legal department roles. 

Amy roland founder of varia search headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: The 2020 pandemic gave me the time to consider what I really wanted to get out of my work life. It also let me host my own podcast that focuses on people who have found fulfillment after changing direction in their career paths. As I listened to these inspiring stories, two things became increasingly clear: if I wanted to find both success and happiness in my business life, I would need to launch my own boutique legal recruiting firm and that firm would need to target the types of clients that I find most interesting to work with. 

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: Based in part on the incredible lessons I’ve learned from the experiences of others, I have launched Varia Search, a boutique legal recruiting firm which serves startups and growing tech companies. I find the tech sector particularly exciting. Connecting with these types of companies and their founders to help them determine and meet their legal staffing needs is the type of work I find most rewarding.  

Miraya Berke

Head of Marketing at Mixily, the event hosting platform of your dreams, for IRL and URL events. 

Miraya berke head of marketing at Mixily headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: When so much around you is out of your control, focus on what brings you joy and you’re good at. My business is planning festivals that gather thousands of people IRL, which can’t happen anytime soon. After a few months of coming to terms with the state of the world, I decided to focus on what I could control. I joined a startup helping event organizers create virtual events and am able to support small businesses and share my expertise in the event world. 

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: As an event planner, I really like plans, but 2020 has taught me that many factors will be out of my control; I can keep making game plans but will need to learn to be okay with plan B or C, or a totally new vision.

Teresa Comi

Co-founder and Creative Director of Caeli, a home decoration and art brand with the mission to create relaxed and inspired spaces.

Teresa Comi co-founder and creative director of caeli headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: The importance of building a good distribution channel. I am a product manager by profession and by heart, so my focus is always on building amazing products that meet customer needs. This year, starting as an entrepreneur in the middle of COVID-19, I learned that without a good distribution, your product can be the best but it will be invisible.   

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: I have already started building my distribution channel! And happily, results followed. It is a very valuable lesson for any business I might want to start in the future.

Daria Leshchenko

CEO and partner of SupportYourApp, a service company providing augmented customer support with a focus on the tech industry. 

Daria Leschchenko CEO and partner of Supportyourapp headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. At the beginning of the crisis, we lost 15% of our clients, mostly from the entertainment and travel industries. Fortunately, we made up for the loss with other clients who faced a surge in customer support inquiries: meditation apps, online payments, and remote learning. But it was a valuable lesson about the importance of client portfolio diversification. Landing a big client could feel like a huge victory, but it also puts a service provider in a position of dependence. Always remember to diversify your business in case of a crisis like COVID-19.

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: Our portfolio is pretty diverse, but I would spread our focus a bit wider. We were and will always be focused on the tech industry, but from now on we will expand the areas we work with and the types of companies we partner with. 

Minna Taylor

Founder of Energize Your Voice, which harnesses play and acting principles to increase confidence, employee engagement, and team performance.

Minna Taylor - Founder of Energize Your Voice, headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: The rise of protests on the heels of the pandemic challenged us to consider how we are meaningfully participating in the conversation of equity. We clarified that education is at the foundation of equity and the social, economic, and political power of public speaking has the potential to change someone’s life. This led to the creation of our social equity program, Buy 1 Give 1, that seeks to democratize access to high-quality professional development training through a corporate gift model. Every training we enroll with a corporate partner results in a gifted half-day training to a hyper-local nonprofit and the community that they serve. 

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: The creation of our Buy 1 Give 1 program has committed us to operating with a constant lens of equity and access. We are an organization built on the intention of creating happier and higher performing humans, not just corporate professionals. Moving forward we will continue to scale our B1G1 program beyond NYC, seeking to impact nonprofits and the communities they serve all over North America.

Sage Lefkowitz

Chief Technology Officer of Joan of Sparc, an inner work community for creatives, entrepreneurs, and radicals. 

Sage Lefkowitz chief technology officer of Joan Sparc headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: The ability to adapt to change is paramount. Being creative in the ways that you provide your services and show up for your community, clients, and users is an opportunity for growth and trust. We learned the importance of being able to go fully digital while creating experiences that still allow for connection. Every experience is a new opportunity if you allow it to be. A positive and creative mindset will help you succeed in times of fear.

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: I am very impressed with our company and how we supported our community during this time. We offered all of our services for free when the pandemic first hit. A lesson we learned is to always leave room in our budget so we can without a doubt support in times of emergencies and not have to make hard decisions. As a startup, it’s difficult to have room in your budget for these hypotheticals, but we learned that back up plans are crucial for start up survival.

Xi Chen

Founder and Creative Director of Sonderlier, a sustainable clothing brand offering women camera-ready clothing that they can sleep in.

Xi Chen - founder and creative director of sonderlier headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: Building a new clothing brand in 2020 has been a fascinating learning experience. One of the most helpful things I did was to really take the time to dig deep on the why behind the business. Being clear about my why allowed me to make guided decisions when there was much uncertainty, and perhaps more importantly, to reject things that don’t serve the why. I’ve also found that it’s key to communicate the why with my supply chain partners. 

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: I will continue to let my why guide me in building collaborations and hiring decisions. 

Juliana O’Brien

Founder of hula, a curated e-boutique for gift recommendations.

Juliana O'Brien founder of hula headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: Done is better than perfect. I find that I’m not alone when founders say that they have to tame their perfectionism in order to launch and get things done. It was an impactful lesson in order to pivot and adapt as fast as possible to what our users engaged with this year. 

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: To not overthink small decisions or to ask for too many people’s opinions. Change is healthy, and I’m no longer afraid to make mistakes. 

Samantha Patil

Co-founder and CEO of Well Traveled, the first members-only travel club and booking platform designed for travelers, foodies, and adventure seekers.

Samantha Patil, co-founder and CEO of well traveled, headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: Don’t let perfect get in the way of progress. Before the pandemic and the world got turned on its head, I spent a lot of time trying to perfect my next step or find the perfect moment to do something, whether that was releasing a new feature, launching a marketing campaign, or reaching out to an investor. But if you’re always waiting for perfection, you’ll end up waiting quite a while. Rather, it is the act of doing versus thinking that transforms ideas into reality and drives change. What’s more, I’ve learned the more actions I take, the more momentum I create. People thought it was wild when we decided to move forward with launching our travel club in May 2020, but launching at that moment was one of the best decisions we could have made and it opened us up to new opportunities we hadn’t even considered before. I can’t help but think about the phrase “fortune favors the bold” and I’m willing to bet the bold are acting on their ideas, not just thinking about them.

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: When I feel myself spinning on an idea or overthinking a decision, I take action, even if it’s something small. I’ve learned that action, not thought, is the fastest way to clarity. Taking some action helps combat indecisiveness and even fear.

Sonali Nigam

Founder and CEO of Petminded, a platform offering virtual classes and activities for pet lovers.

Sonali Nigam founder and CEO of Petminded headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: I realized that community is the moat for my company. Going into this year, I was building a travel startup for pet parents. Once the pandemic hit, we quickly pivoted to offering virtual events to keep our audience engaged and optimistic. After hosting 60 virtual events, attended by 3000+ people, I realized that we were, in fact, creating opportunities for pet lovers to connect over shared experiences—and that is how we could offer real value to pet parents. So, I decided to shut down the travel arm of the company and doubled down on building a community of pet lovers, who would support each other in their pet parenting journeys both during and after the pandemic. 

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: We are doubling down on community-focused programs. In the fall we tested the waters by launching month-long group programs with pet experts. In 2021, we are launching a Petminded Academy with various group programs, a dedicated community, and virtual weekend retreats for our members. 

Alice Katter

Brand and community strategist and creator of Out of Office, a platform exploring ideas and offering resources and tools to shape our work culture. 

Alice Katter, brand and community strategist, creator of our of office platform headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: The power of adaptability and movement. Having lived in five different cities in the past 15 years, I learned how to recreate community and build a network everywhere I went, but building a new professional network in times of COVID-19 made me reimagine my approach and relationship to my work. We often get hung up on certain goals or ideas we have in mind and get stuck on trying to get there. This year really taught me to not get hung up on these things, and instead, try to see everything as a process and journey. Doing different things is like picking up things along the way, making new experiences, meeting people, and collecting and connecting one dot at a time. We might not see the bigger picture right away, but at some point, we might realize how these unique experiences, big and small, will have set us up perfectly for something we didn’t even know existed.

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: I try to not be too hard on myself and give myself permission to play, explore, and follow my curiosities, now more than ever.

Yewande Faloyin

Founder and CEO of OTITỌ Executive Coaching & Consulting, which partners with organizations, business leaders, and high achievers to accelerate them to their next level of success. 

Yewande Faloyin, founder and CEO of OTITO executive coaching and consulting heashot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: Put yourself out there and then create space to see and hear the opportunity. Doing this helped me secure my biggest contract of the year and to date, coaching the CEO of a $1.2 billion AUM hedge fund. Just months before the initial connection with my client, I’d been hesitant to put myself out there for fear of whether I was ready and because the whole world had turned upside down thanks to COVID-19. I did small things like having a bolder LinkedIn profile and significantly increasing my marketing to attract my ideal client, but they made a huge difference. The CEO saw my posts and reached out about working together. However, I did not notice his message for one week, which is where the second part of my lesson comes in—to actually create the space to embrace the opportunity. We can be so busy doing that we forget to look out for the reward. I could have easily have missed his message in the doing, but I did see it. And the rest is history! 

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: Go bigger and bolder and at the same time reinforce the structures I’ve put in place that enable me to not just keep doing, but to create the space to think and connect with people. Concretely, what that means is launching my group program, while still keeping my boundaries in check—not starting work before 10:00 a.m., having weekly two-hour strategy sessions, and taking clear breaks throughout the day. It is in these times of down time and connection that the real magic is realized!

Natalia Lumen

Founder and CEO of ThyForLife, a mobile platform for the more than 400 million thyroid patients to optimize their health  

Natalia Lumen founder and CEO of ThyForLife headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: Trust the inner instinct when it comes to hiring and creating a cohesive company culture. The pandemic caused havoc for everyone, and in our case, we were expanding our team to help drive our growth. The rapid expansion made team building and socializing a lot more challenging. However, we’re all in it together and I’m thankful for the strong team spirit across borders that is formed without anyone ever meeting each other in person! 

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: We’ll be nominating one of our team members as “Minister of Fun” to help come up with virtual ways to continue building our culture and foster team relationships.

Trish Boes

Leadership and Life Coach at Soul Leadership Solutions, LLC, focused on supporting people to discover, own, and amplify their greatness.

Trish Boes, Leadership and life coach at Soul Leadership Solutions headshot

Most Impactful Business Lesson in 2020: To practice radical compassion and to focus on my being as a foundational part of each day. Prior to COVID-19 hitting, I was planning on launching a series of in person workshops focused on supporting womxn to “Amplify Their Greatness”. Yet with COVID-19 all of that changed, as I had to take care of my daughter at home full-time while pivoting my business offerings. The overachieving perfectionist part of me often felt overwhelmed and anxious that I wasn’t doing a lot of the things I had planned. Practicing compassion at all costs has helped me to ground myself in a place of being that is calm, centered, and focused on being present.

What I’ll Do Differently Moving Forward: By being compassionate with myself, I have a lot more space to work with my clients and create workshops in a more organic and relaxed way. Things don’t have to follow the old rule book, and what matters most is how I am mindfully tuning into myself and authentically sharing what’s possible in the moment with my clients.

Dreamers & Doers is a private collective which amplifies the entrepreneurial pursuits of extraordinary womxn through high-impact resources, community and mutual support. It is supported by a global ecosystem of 30,000 womxn. Learn more about Dreamers & Doers and sign up for their monthly carefully curated list of top career and entrepreneurial resources.

  • Originally published December 9, 2020, updated December 15, 2020