You could say Dina Rousset’s path to entrepreneurship looked like Steve Jobs’ who famously dropped out of college. Except Dina went back. Or you could say it looked like her parents’ who were Main Street business owners in NOLA. Except Dina’s venture grew to 1500 employees in 3.5 years…in post-communist Poland.
LZ: How did you end up becoming an entrepreneur?
DR: I actually didn’t want to be in business. My parents owned a flower shop and I watched them run it seven days a week. They worked all the time. They emphasized education for all their children. So I went to college to study something solid where I could get a job — medical technology. But after two semesters, the college and I both decided it wasn’t a fit. (laughing) So I dropped out (really flunked out) and got a job as a bank teller.
At the same time some family members and I ended up buying a business – a Sno’ball and ice cream stand. I discovered that I liked it and I was good at it. I still didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur, but it was enough to realize that I should go back to school. So I started going nights and eventually went back full time and graduated with a degree in business.
LZ: But you didn’t exactly take a traditional business job after graduation, right?
DR: No. I was really interested in community and giving back so I joined the Peace Corps, which changed my life in many ways. I got sent to Rwanda where I ended up starting an artisans cooperative that helped people start their own businesses. And a friend was studying for the GMAT and suggested I take it too. To my surprise, I aced it and got accepted to the University of Chicago. I never dreamed I could study at that level and that someone would take me after having flunked out of LSU. So I studied finance and international business and my plan after my MBA was to work on Wall Street.
“As a leader, if I’m going to change someone’s decision, I make sure I have a strong rationale and explain why I’m making the change.”
LZ: But you took another detour?
D.R. The Peace Corps was so amazing. So I joined the MBA Enterprise Corps which was actually started by a UNC professor. This was right after the wall came down in eastern Europe. I went to Poland to help entrepreneurs and immediately saw opportunities. So I worked with a Polish partner and we started three businesses. That’s when I realized I would be an entrepreneur. I thought I would be in Poland for a year or two. I never dreamed it would be nine years before I came back to the U.S.
LZ: So you go to Poland and very quickly you are leading hundreds of employees located all over the country. What did you learn and how did that shape your leadership philosophy?
DR: The experience in Poland helped me realize how important it is to empower your employees. There were times that I realized I could manage an individual retail location better than the manager, but that the best use of my time was managing the organization. I think you have to let people make their own decisions even if you would have done it differently. As a leader, if I’m going to change someone’s decision, I make sure I have a strong rationale and explain why I’m making the change.
I also believe that you lead by example. I never ask anyone to do something I’m not willing to do. And I’m willing to do just about anything. [laughs] HR is a top priority for me. It’s important to listen to your customers but also really important to listen to your staff/employees and take care of their needs.
LZ: Usually, I don’t do this much background in interviews, but I think your path is so amazing and your story can really inspire others to think that even though they don’t fit the mold they can be really successful. So after Poland, you had triplets and then a fourth child! And then you started another growth company!
DR: Well my answer may not be relevant in that I had a large exit, which gave me financial flexibility. So I was able to hire people to help me. It wasn’t that I was looking for something to start. It’s again, that you see a problem/opportunity and you can’t help yourself.
Everything in life and every decision has advantages and disadvantages. I think being a parent and entrepreneur has the advantage of flexibility. You work more, but you have flexibility about when and where.
“Good entrepreneurs — more than the ability to take risk — need the ability to deal with ambiguity.”
LZ: Today, your role, among other things, is that of fearless leader at Launch Chapel Hill –recently named the #2 University-Based Acclerator in the U.S. What insights do you have about venture success after shepherding more than 70 startups through the program?
DR: Good entrepreneurs – more than ability to take risk – need the ability to deal with ambiguity. You don’t know what the odds are for any part of your business and you need to be able to make decisions despite that.
A lot of it is about having the right team. I think the ability to work within a team or lead a team is so important and we like to see people who already have some experience doing that. There are a lot of ideas out there. It comes down to the team’s ability to see the opportunity, collect resources and make things happen.
Too often entrepreneurs pick their team and partner with friends. They should be asking does this person have skills that are different than mine and are they important in this business. The beer test should not be first.
Then when they do found with friends, they set it up so everyone has equal say and everyone has to be in every meeting. That’s inefficient. It doesn’t mean that others shouldn’t have input, but the good startup leaders realize the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals on the team and let people make (or at least lead) decisions in their area of expertise.
I also think founders spend too much time on building better mousetrap vs. listening to customers. They should get feedback earlier and do iterations from there. As you know from the projects we worked on together – we did focus groups, figured out who the customers were and what they wanted. And then we designed. And we continue to survey and iterate after every single cohort.
LZ: What do you think founders gain from joining an accelerator program?
DR: Well you generally have experienced people who are asking you to pull your head up and think about the bigger picture and where you are going. Also, having a community of others that are going through the same process. There are actually way more similarities than differences among startups, so having people around when you have a question can be really helpful.
LZ: Do you think men & women are evaluated differently as leaders?
DR: Yes. And there’s plenty of research to back it up. There’s the HBS case study where the protagonist has the same problem and makes the same decisions. The only difference is the name – in one it’s Howard and the other it’s Heidi. The decisions are evaluated completely differently. Howard was seen as confident, strong and assertive. The woman was not liked and seen as aggressive and a b#$ch.
I’ve personally run up against that. I’m direct and most of the time I think I’m fairly tactful. But I cut to the chase. I’ve been told I’m too abrupt and aggressive. Or told that in a meeting I was too direct in commenting or offering another idea.
It was actually different when I was in Poland. They saw me as American first and a woman as a distant second. So they had a different set of assumptions and expectations about the way I would act.
“We need to do more work emphasizing the value of having women involved [in leadership].”
LZ: How does Launch do recruiting female founders?
DR: Right now 40% of our companies have a female founder, but overall 75% of the people in the building are men. I think to bring more women in, we have to think differently about how we recruit entrepreneurs. We need to look outside the business school. We need to explore the social entrepreneurship space. We need to reach them and figure out how to get them comfortable coming into this male atmosphere.
LZ: Women only get 3% of all venture capital dollars. What do you think it’s going to take to change that?
DR: We need more women in VC. That’s happening but it’s slow. And we need some of the VC groups to look at the research that talks about how teams with a woman increase the chance of success and start including that into their decision criteria. We need to get more women on boards. We need to do more work emphasizing the value of having women involved.