In 2007, Team USA’s Lisa Wang headed to the Gymnastics World Championships in Patras, Greece, as a heavy favorite to qualify for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. Born to Chinese immigrants, Wang began competing at nine years old, and this would be the culmination of a decade-long dream: to represent America at the Olympics — in her parents’ home country, no less.
After a day of perfect performances, she was well on her way to Beijing. But a cheering crowd and unbounded expectations defeated her: she stumbled. “All it takes is a flash of doubt, and on that day doubt determined my fate,” she says. “I missed the Olympic Games by 0.25 tenths of a point.”
The Rules of Impact // Lisa WangMute/unmute
The deeply rooted experience of loss and failure gave Wang perspective on the insidious nature of perfection. “Everything I believed about myself completely shattered. There is nothing like that pain, the feeling of inadequacy when you are so close you can taste it.”
Fast forward to 2017: Wang is Founder and CEO of SheWorx, a global collective of ambitious women redefining leadership. The organization, which began as a local breakfast series in New York City in 2015, has evolved into a network of 20,000 members with flagship conferences in seven major cities. Its events attract C-level executives and investors who provide mentorship and guidance for overcoming obstacles and developing actionable business strategies for courageous female entrepreneurs. The model is effectively one of crowdsourcing, allowing women to come together to share resources, ideas and business opportunities that will facilitate growth. Yet its focus is on inclusion: speaking with — instead of at — people. “It’s about giving women a priority seat at the table.”
At a certain point in the female entrepreneur’s journey, it stops becoming a question of how to get inspired, and becomes how to overcome critical inflection points, whether that’s getting capital, the best mentors, or [access to]… other ambitious women on the same growth trajectory. tweet
While Wang isn’t the first — or the last — to offer a gateway to success for developing female leaders, SheWorx is on an admirable mission to eliminate the gender disparity in entrepreneurial leadership. The secret to its success comes from addressing the real-world challenges women face in how to scale and grow a business.
“At a certain point in the female entrepreneur’s journey, it stops becoming a question of how to get inspired, and becomes how to overcome critical inflection points, whether that’s getting capital, the best mentors, or [access to]… other ambitious women on the same growth trajectory.”
Today, male-led companies are almost twice as likely to receive funding from male investors as female-led companies, according to a study by the California Institute of Technology. During Wang’s own experience founding a startup, she was subject to the real-world challenges of launching a business as a woman: one investor blew her off as an assistant, expecting a meeting with a white, male entrepreneur. “I realized it’s not about the big, egregious stories we hear on the news. It’s about the small paper cuts that women experience every single day,” she says.
SheWorx arose from this profound need to empower women — feeling that she herself needed the support and motivation. The idea was to help them draw upon their existing strengths and develop skills to face said challenges head on, rather than sit around and complain or have to rely on aspirational pep talks. “For every successful woman, there is a group of other successful women who have their back,” Wang says. This mentality gave rise to SheWorx’ core values of the “Three A’s: Altruism, Ambition, and Action” — encouraging an inclusive and non-judgmental community where all are equal. To that end, SheWorx emphasizes “enoughness” rather than perfection, encouraging women to be their best selves without the trappings of trying to live up to impossible expectations.
“Founders are always striving to do more with less, competing with companies with vastly larger resources, and feeling inadequate in the shadows of the accomplishments of others.”
Wang’s relationship to perfectionism and sense of professionalism stemmed from those learnings as a young gymnast: as a child, Wang used her athleticism to mask her shyness, and her self-worth was developed based on the actual judging of others. But always, she strove to achieve the impossible. Unlike most sports, in gymnastics, your teammates are also your competitors: “There’s only one gold medal, which makes it a zero sum game,” she explains. “If I win, you lose.” The more Wang kept winning, the more she felt the competitive dynamics within her own team. Parents were also active on online gymnastics forums, talking and criticizing the routines and outfits of other children, complaining about why their kids may have lost. “Here I was at 14 years old, and wondering why everyone in the world hates me.”
When she failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, Wang decided she would not allow the moment to define her. She was accepted to Yale, but decided to defer for a year and move to Russia, where she trained for nine hours per day. In her last competition, the 2008 Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championship, she won all of the gold medals and Athlete of the Year. “When that happened I was like, peace I’m out. This is how I want to end my gymnastics career.”
This tension between “enoughness” and striving for perfection is at the heart of the entrepreneurial journey. Founders are always striving to do more with less, competing with companies with vastly larger resources, and feeling inadequate in the shadows of the accomplishments of others. Wang transformed and channeled the pain of loss as a girl into strength as an adult, and has lit up the stage once again, this time as the Founder of SheWorx.
When she started the business, Wang shared stories about being a female founder with other women, the challenges faced with investors, and the need for more events that addressed the unique challenges female entrepreneurs faced. It started as weekly breakfast meetings, which kept growing and sold out weekly.
And although the organization focuses on empowering ambitious women — hence the name — it has always been inclusive of all genders and backgrounds, a pragmatic approach that helped the company scale from idea to movement. Since then, Wang and her co-founder Yin Lin have started SheWorx 100 Summits, conferences focused on eliminating the funding gap through collaboration rather than competition.
“Business has been built upon masculine structures for as long as we can remember. It’s not about how women fit into traditional ways of doing business. Now it’s about expanding that definition, talking about the benefits of collaboration, having diverse perspectives, and tying that conversation together into a movement.”
“What’s the benefit of excluding men when that’s where all of the money is?” Wang says with a refreshing candor. “Business has been built upon masculine structures for as long as we can remember. It’s not about how women fit into traditional ways of doing business. Now it’s about expanding that definition, talking about the benefits of collaboration, having diverse perspectives, and tying that conversation together into a movement.”
Hearing Wang speak like this, you can feel the confidence and determination of the world-class athlete she is. Yet she remains humble and prefers her work to speak on her behalf, a trait inherited from her parents who taught her to be “frugal, careful with words, work harder and [with her] head down.” Wang’s grandparents were in labor camps, and her parents were separated as children from their families: “Having seen that sacrifice, it pushes you to be much stronger.”