Meet Heather Waibel, a Solo Female Entrepreneur
Massachusetts is a hub for venture capital investment, education, and innovation. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it is consistently ranks in the top 10 best cities to start a business. But when it comes to female entrepreneurs, “Women make up more than half of Boston’s residents, yet 1 dollar out of every 23 dollars in commercial bank loans goes to women-owned businesses, while only three percent of venture capital investments go to businesses led by women” (Women Entrepreneurs Boston). Clearly there is a gap in desperate need of bridging, but Boston and the greater state of Massachusetts have a solid foundation of resources—including organizations such as WE BOS, the Office of Women’s Advancement, The Commonwealth Institute, the Center for Women & Enterprise, SheEOs, MassChallenge Women in Digital Health initiative,the Boston Women’s Venture Summit, and more—to assist female entrepreneurs. The city is working to establish itself as a place where female entrepreneurs can thrive, female entrepreneurs such as Heather Waibel.
Female entrepreneurs will change the world. Think about it; venture capitalists invested just shy of 98% of their capital in male-led startups last year — a common trend illustrating the pervasive gender investment gap. With a meager fraction of the funds allocated to their male counterparts, women are forced to operate on incredibly lean resources. And even among female-led startups that are successful in securing funding, they raise about $1 million less than their male counterparts. With such limited resources, how is it that women deliver more than double the amount of revenue per dollar invested than males?
As Heather Waibel, solo and female founder of digital health startup Welnys, would say: “absolute grit”.
The top 3 challenges reported by female entrepreneurs are a lack of funding, a lack of mentors, and a lack of a support system. Compared to their male counterparts, female entrepreneurs are half as likely to raise at least $100 thousand in funding and half as likely to have 2 or more employees. With less funding, no mentorship, and a minimal support system, female entrepreneurs sit precariously at the precipice of burnout.
Burnout is the Achilles heel of entrepreneurs; employees who are burned-out by their work experience more psychological and physical healthmproblems, decreasing their productivity and significantly lowering their job performance. Experiencing burnout increases workers’ thoughts of leaving their organization, increases rates of absenteeism, and has a direct effect on employee turnover. For female entrepreneurs who already face increased hurdles in funding, mentorship, and support, burnout can be the difference between success and failure.
Welnys, founded by a female entrepreneur who refuses to let these common challenges block her path to success, helps teams maximize employee satisfaction and combat burnout by offering the largest online marketplace for on-site wellness programs nationwide. With a marketplace of services from fitness to meditation to nutrition to ergonomics and everything in between, Welnys allows teams to customize a wellness program to champion healthy lifestyles and foster productivity for all team members. With less stress and more focus, Welnys helps employees and companies thrive.
I spoke with Heather Waibel, founder and CEO of Welnys and winner of the 2019 MassChallenge HealthTech Women in Digital Health Award to get her perspective on breaking barriers as a non-traditional, female, and solo founder.
Q: What is your day-to-day like as a solo founder?
Heather: As a solo founder, you are doing everything on your own which makes it crucial to be mindful of how stressed out you are and try to keep some balance. The greatest piece of advice I received was that when you are a solo founder, you have to be really cognizant of your own burnout. After all, if you burn yourself out there’s nobody left.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you face as a solo founder, running a business and starting a company on your own?
Heather: The main challenge is that it's really easy to get pulled in a million different directions. Especially at first, you are doing everything--from marketing to fundraising to sales to web design and everything in between--by yourself. In this kind of environment where there are such diverse demands for your attention, “you can spend a lot of time doing a little bit of a lot of things”. But nothing gets accomplished that way. Instead, you have to stay very focused, prioritize ruthlessly, and be comfortable executing main things while letting other things slip--because they are going to.
Q: How do you fit wellness into your life as an entrepreneur and founder of Welnys?
Heather: It can be ironic running a wellness startup because wellness and a startup are difficult things to have at the same time. My experience, knowledge, and belief that wellness is important for you as an employee and a human is a tool kit--filled with things like yoga and meditation--that I can draw on as an employee and human myself. As an example, not too long ago I was facing some burnout. Instead of letting it wear me down, I decided to book a 3-day yoga retreat to give my mind the space to be able to be creative and work through problems.
Q: Why is wellness important to you as an entrepreneur?
Heather: When you get trapped in a “go go go” mindset, your brain doesn’t have the space to come up with creative solutions or develop new ideas. But if you give your brain and body the time and space they are crying out for, it can be so beneficial in creating those epiphany “light bulb” moments for your business. It sounds a little silly, but I actually get some of my best ideas when I’m getting a massage. It’s almost like free-form thinking, my brain just flows and the answers come to me because I am allowing myself to truly relax.
Q: What did winning the Women in Digital Health Award mean to you?
Heather: For me, it was really impactful and moving because I have had such a tough road as a non-traditional solo and female founder. I’ve been through accelerator programs where we peer ranked each other. After a grueling ranking, all of the startups with male founders took the top prizes while the female founders came out last. I remember thinking, this can’t just be a coincidence. For the first time, I realized that I may be having a harder time because I am a female. Being recognized with the Women in Digital Health award is the polar opposite of that, validating what I am doing not just as a female but as an entrepreneur in general.
Q: What have you done that helped you to be successful where some other females or solo founders haven’t been?
Heather: For me, It’s absolute stubbornness. I just won’t give up. Even though people may tell me no, or say that I have to sacrifice everything and work insane hours, I do whatever needs to be done. It’s a combination of grit and my own belief in what I know I can do. As a non-traditional, female, and solo founder I have heard no a lot. One thing I have recently experienced first-hand is the startup equivalent of a gender pay gap. I recently met a male founder who raised tens of millions of dollars in funding, but has the exact same revenue traction as I do--and I have struggled to raise more than hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was a “wow moment” for me about how much harder it is for female founders to get investors to write those checks. But I take that and say: if you’re not going to invest in me and I can’t fundraise in the traditional sense, then I’ll just go out and sell and take care of it myself. It’s definitely a harder path, but in many ways more satisfying because the money you are operating off of is hard-earned money that you’ve gone out and earned yourself.
Q: What is the future of Welnys?
Heather: We are really growing very quickly, and going through the MassChallenge HealthTech program and winning the Women in Digital Health award has been a springboard that makes it a bit easier to get necessary fundraising conversations going. I think the future of Welnys could be going down the traditional fundraising path, but with so many things--female founder, solo founder, etc.--working against me, that can be a difficult road. But one thing that I’ve done, knowing that the traditional path may not be an easy one for me or Welnys, is design my own sales bootcamp. Coming into the field with no sales background, I set up and put myself through a 2-week long bootcamp with a panel of experts, required readings and homework assignments, and taught myself how to sell. At the end of the day, if I have to figure out a non-traditional way of doing things, I will figure it out.
Q: What advice would you give to other non-traditional, female, or solo founders hoping to build a successful startup?
Heather: Even though you are doing things the way that you are not supposed to or the way that people will advise you not to do them, it doesn’t mean you can’t still be successful. It may be a harder path, but you can do it.