Letter to the Editor
A 'typical' reader, Joline Godfrey, sets the magazine straight on women, entrepreneurship, and role models for the 1990s
All this began with a letter that arrived in our offices sometime last fall. It came from an obviously intelligent and devoted reader who felt she had discovered something about us that called into question the magazine's relevance to her. She did not mince words:
" Inc., you let me down. Four years ago, I flexed my entrepreneurial muscle, started a company, and became one of your regular readers. You've kept me up to date on who's doing what. You've offered up good ideas, cautionary tales, and management visions I can be comfortable with. But lately I've felt more irked than inspired. Try as I might, I couldn't quite put my finger on the source of my discomfort. Then you sent me your Tenth Anniversary issue, and -- in one of those awful illuminating flashes -- I got it. Inc., my buddy, my partner, my friend, you're sexist."
She proceeded to note the dearth of women in the issue generally, as well as our failure to include even one woman on the Dream Team of entrepreneurial visionaries. "Let's get this straight," she concluded. "I do not think you should edit your magazine by the numbers or establish any system of quotas. What bothers me is that you can't seem to see us. You cite statistics showing we're out here by the millions, but very few of us show up in the pages of Inc. When we do, we're usually in the sidebars and short items. We're almost never the heroes or the role models. So what gives, guys? Are we invisible? Or are you wearing blinders?"
The letter was signed Joline Godfrey, chairman, Odysseum Inc., Boston.
Godfrey's letter was not, in fact, the first we had received on the subject, nor were her concerns particularly new. Three and a half years ago we even ran a cover story entitled "Why There Aren't More Women in This Magazine" (July 1986). The truth is, we ourselves have long wondered why we don't see more examples of women-owned growth companies. Her letter offered an opportunity to come up with some fresh answers. We called her up and arranged to get together. At the time, we had no thought of publishing the conversation in the magazine.
But we found what she had to say so challenging that we invited her back, and this time we brought a tape recorder. Her comments went far beyond the issue of Inc.'s putative sexism. They spoke to the changing nature of business and the changing values of entrepreneurs, and they were relevant to everyone who runs a company.
By way of background, Godfrey was trained as a psychologist and worked for 10 years at Polaroid Corp. In 1986 she left to found Odysseum, which provides team-building seminars for corporate clients. Backed by $500,000 in venture capital from American Research & Development and Entertainment Media, she and her colleagues quickly established a national presence in the corporate meetings industry. Today Odysseum's customers include American Airlines, General Electric, Cigna Insurance, and American Express. The company registered 1989 sales of $500,000, with 12 employees.
We should note that Godfrey does not claim to be an expert on women entrepreneurs or to speak for anyone but herself. Nevertheless, we find her opinions compelling, if only because they force us to question so many assumptions we bring to the process of growing a business.
Joline Godfrey spoke with editor-in-chief George Gendron and executive editor Bo Burlingham at Inc.'s offices in Boston.
INC.: We've just been through a decade in which women founded upward of 2 million businesses. So why aren't we flooded with examples of fast-growing women-owned companies?
GODFREY: I can think of two possible explanations. One is that you're not really looking for them. The other is that you don't recognize them when you see them.
INC.: Isn't there a third possibility? Some people have argued that a lot of women are not so much founding companies as creating jobs for themselves outside the corporate mainstream. If that's true, we may not see as many of these businesses as we'd expect, because the vast majority just aren't growing.
GODFREY: Perhaps, but I know plenty of women whose companies are growing, and I'm not sure you'd see them either. People tend to see what they're prepared to see -- what their expectations make them ready to see. A lot of women-owned businesses may not fit your expectations of what a growing company should look like. They don't fit the traditional model.
INC.: How would you define the traditional model?
GODFREY: I mean the Make Money, Get Rich, Grow Fast, Devote Your Whole Life to This Thing model. It's a model that's very popular with men. When I talk to men about what's involved in starting a business, I find that a lot of them have the same set of assumptions. They believe you have to work 100 hours a week; you have to give up your family; you have to sacrifice everything to the business; and so on. Whereas most women I know have a completely different set of assumptions. They think you have autonomy; you set your own hours; your routine is entirely flexible. Now those are two very different approaches to the same process. Clearly you can do it either way. You make choices. But the choices you make are going to have a big effect on the kind of company you build.
INC.: Are you saying that this is a matter of gender? Do you really believe that women have one approach to business and men have another?
GODFREY: It's not a matter of gender. It's a matter of values. It's a matter of what you think is important, what you want to achieve, and how you want to achieve it. Obviously there are women entrepreneurs with traditional values, and men entrepreneurs with nontraditional values. But I have to say that I think women generally go about building a company differently from the way men do it. And that may help explain why you don't see more growing companies owned by women.
INC.: I don't follow.
GODFREY: You don't see them because, to you, they don't look like growing companies. The people who run them don't fit your image of "real" entrepreneurs. They're not like the guys on your Dream Team -- Steve Jobs and H. Ross Perot -- who I admit are pretty interesting fellows, by the way. They're dynamic and exciting. They're also visible. You recognize them. You're prepared to see them. They embody the great American story of individual success. But, meanwhile, you're missing an entirely different type of entrepreneur that's emerging right now, and a lot of these new entrepreneurs are women.
INC.: Now wait a minute. An entrepreneur is someone who takes an idea and turns it into a business. I understand that different people have different styles and abilities, but isn't the process fundamentally the same, whether the person is Steve Jobs or Joline Godfrey?
GODFREY: On one level, I suppose it is. If you were to ask me my business goals, I'd tell you I want a very successful company that's a great place to work, makes a lot of money, and has a product we can be ridiculously proud of. I suspect Steve Jobs might say something similar.
INC.: What do you mean by a different type of entrepreneur?
GODFREY: It has more to do with the way you set up the company and the way you operate. Control, for example, is not a big deal for me, but I have a killer need for independence. The two don't go together. If you insist on having a lot of control, people are going to be very dependent on you, and I really want to avoid that at all costs. What I want is control of my time.
INC.: How many hours a week do you work?
GODFREY: I work all the time, but that's not the point. When I talk about controlling my time, I mean something else. For example, my partner, Jane Lytle, and I made an agreement early on that we'd each take off one to two weeks at a time, once a season, to do whatever our hearts desire. Travel. Go to museums. Whatever. But not related to the business. And we promised we wouldn't break that agreement, no matter what. We said, "OK, we'll design the company to meet this need."
INC.: When you say "once a season," do you mean four times a year?
GODFREY: That's right. And here's another thing we did. We decided we didn't want our names on the business. That was a strategic decision. We didn't want the company to be dependent on our personalities. If this company were totally dependent on me, I would never be able to leave it. I would be wedded to it in a way that would make me feel claustrophobic. This is not to say I don't love my company deeply. I do. But God forbid I couldn't do anything else.
INC.: How explicit were you and your partner about all this?
GODFREY: We were very explicit. We were very clear on our values. We talked about these sorts of things and also about how the company would be managed. We realized that we had to hire people who were self-managing, who were able to take initiative. We weren't interested in having a parental relationship with employees. We didn't want the kind of business where you tell people what to do and how to do it. Obviously, this had major implica-tions for the structure of the company, the qualities of the people we recruited -- that sort of thing. And I suppose, if you get right down to it, we were again operating out of the desire not to have people terribly dependent on us.
INC.: You're saying, in effect, that one of your major business goals is your own personal autonomy.
GODFREY: Yes, but I don't think my desire for autonomy is in any way detrimental to the company. Jane and I have many interests in our lives, far beyond business. If I am totally ensconced in my business for 365 days of the year, I lose something, and the business loses something. I don't get the infusion of energy and creativity from the other part of my life, and so I can't put it back into the business. You don't do your business any favors by being immersed in it. You have to go outside to get perspective, to get energy and knowledge and ideas. The challenge is to figure out how to do it, because there aren't a lot of models around.
INC.: So this is where the traditional model stops working for you.
GODFREY: That's right. We regard the company as a kind of experiment. We've basically said, "If we get so immersed that we lose ourselves inside Odysseum, we won't have anything to give. The business will just eat us up." That's what happens to people who devote their entire lives to the business and demand total control. They may wind up controlling the business, but they lose control of their lives. They become prisoners of the company: it can't exist without them. In many cases, they can't even take a vacation -- and don't tell me that's good for the business. Jane and I weren't going to let that happen to us. We were determined to design our company so that we would always have ways to get outside.
INC.: What exactly do you do in your time away from the company?
GODFREY: All kinds of things. I've visited the Soviet Union. I may go to New York for a week and see as many Broadway shows as I can fit in. In a month and a half, I'm heading off to San Francisco to take a painting course. Do I really want this stuff in print? Oh, and there's the Kellogg fellowship.
INC.: What's that?
GODFREY: It's called the Kellogg National Fellowship Program. It's a three-year leadership-training fellowship, and it's an incredible opportunity. You can travel just about anywhere and study just about anything you want. They select about 50 people a year -- I'm one of the few from the private sector. The catch is that you have to be willing and able to invest the time. The foundation expects a quarter of your time. If I can sneak in a little more, I will.
INC.: Don't you feel some tension with your company over taking so much time away from the business?
GODFREY: I do in that I feel responsible to Jane and the others, but I actually feel a lot less tension than some of the other fellows.
INC.: How does Jane feel?
GODFREY: She's fine about it. She's thinking of applying for one this year. And her role is obviously crucial. I couldn't do any of this if I didn't have complete confidence in the person who's back at the ranch. I think the same is true for Jane. It isn't easy to create a company that doesn't depend on your personality. You have to have the right partner. Not only that, but you have to have the right relationship with the right partner.
INC.: Some people might listen to you and think, "This is all very nice, but she really doesn't care much about her business."
GODFREY: That's absolutely wrong. I am passionate about my business. I'm saying there is room for more than one passion in life. Now I realize some entrepreneurs don't believe that. You hear them talking about the company as their baby, or their family. I think our venture capitalists believed we felt that way, too. They assumed we'd always resist selling the company because we couldn't bear to give up our baby.
INC.: I'm surprised you went after venture capital, given the way you wanted to run your business. Weren't you putting yourselves under a lot of pressure to grow the company as fast as possible?
GODFREY: No, no. That's the whole point. We wanted to grow the company. In order to grow, we needed capital. We're in an industry that's fairly fragmented. There are lots of mom-and-pop shops doing programs for corporate meetings. I wasn't interested in that. We wanted to leverage the company in terms of marketing and sales and launch a fairly big national campaign. So we developed a more or less typical VC business plan. We said, "Yes, guys, if you give us money, we understand our obligation for return on investment, and we've organized our company around providing it. No problem." We got the money, and we followed the plan. Two years later we are, in fact, very well known within our industry.
INC.: I gather that you don't intend to stick with this business indefinitely.
GODFREY: Absolutely not. We've always thought that we'd probably sell to a larger company, which is still not a crazy idea by a long shot. For me, it all depends on the timing. Obviously, I will do everything I can to make sure the company goes on as long as possible. I am very committed to it. But I am not Odysseum, and Odysseum is not Joline Godfrey. What I've always wanted is to create a good product, have a good place to work, and produce a good return for investors. If I can do it in 7 to 10 years, I'll be happy. Then I can push for something else.
INC.: You seem pretty confident.
GODFREY: I'm not. As I said before, we don't really have any role models for what we're trying to do, and that makes it difficult. Note how uncomfortable I am when I talk about taking a painting course or going to see plays. Frankly, I'm worried about the impression I'm going to create. There's always a voice saying, "Give all, give all, give all." I guess that's one reason why I reacted so strongly to your Tenth Anniversary issue. It was filled with the old heroes and role models, and we desperately need new ones.
INC.: How will they be different?
GODFREY: I think they'll be more complicated people. They'll have broader concerns. They'll have to be emotionally healthy people, too. You can't run a company this way without having some self-knowledge. I honestly believe that the people running businesses in the '90s are going to be the most interesting people around.