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Women in Business Q&A: Elizabeth Scherle, Co-Founder & President, Influenster

Elizabeth Scherle is the Co-Founder and President of Influenster, the free and unique digital community of consumers shaping the lifestyle marketplace through user-generated, expert social opinion and content.
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Elizabeth Scherle is the Co-Founder and President of Influenster, the free and unique digital community of consumers shaping the lifestyle marketplace through user-generated, expert social opinion and content. Elizabeth and Co-Founder, Aydin Acar, created Influenster after coming to the realization that there was a distinct need for an efficient way for brands to collect targeted consumer feedback. As Co-Founder, Elizabeth leads sales efforts and client partnerships. Under her leadership, Influenster has grown from one test program in 2010 to over 2 million products distributed this past year.

Originally from Henderson, IA, Elizabeth received her B.A. in Marketing from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. Upon graduation, she began to build national business partnerships from the ground up with Fortune 500 beauty, personal care and consumer packaged goods clients. In addition to her work with Influenster, Elizabeth volunteers for New York Cares, and Boys Town. Elizabeth has recently appeared on Bloomberg TV and CNBC to discuss harnessing the power of consumer voice to further marketing goals.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My upbringing was a strange juxtaposition: I grew up in an insular, small-town environment (I lived on a farm near a 171-person town in Iowa and graduated with a class of 25 fellow students), but I had very cultured parents who were well-traveled and highly creative. My dad was a guitar player, my mom was a talented artist, and my grandfather was a former US Congressman who expected us to hold heated debates about current events at the dinner table. Let's just say that from a young age, I learned to successfully construct and defend an argument, while constantly staying on my toes.

After graduating from Arizona State, I had the itch to move to New York City. With no connections and no money, I knew I would have to get creative in order to make it in the Big Apple. I started researching high level executives at companies I wanted to work for and sent them physical letters (this was way before LinkedIn). And it worked! One of them was impressed, invited me to his fancy midtown office and then connected me with a position at an advertising agency. I still rely on this same ambition and innovation to help Influenster achieve success today.

Shortly into my new life in NYC, my mom had a relapse of breast cancer. Life stopped for almost a year when I moved home to be by her side. Nothing quite gives you perspective on what really matters in life like caring for a terminally ill loved one. While this was no doubt the most devastating thing that had ever happened to me, it also proved to be the most meaningful experience of my life. Helping my mother cope with cancer helped me develop my own internal courage and strength, which I carry with me in everything I do -- including my career. I learned I should never be afraid to take risks. In fact, I believe I should always be doing things that scare me a little. I never want wonder what could have been because I didn't take advantage of an opportunity or didn't take the initiative to make one myself.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Influenster?
My first job in NYC was at a fairly corporate advertising agency. While the people were great, I was never given much ownership or responsibility, so I became bored pretty quickly. A year later, I made a move and was offered two positions at the same time -- one role at a prestigious magazine and another at a relatively unknown fashion event startup. While my head, and my friends, were telling me to take the magazine job (startups didn't have the same cachet they have now), my gut was telling me to take the risk and go for the startup. There, I felt like I could grow quickly and make a real impact. So that's what I did, and I've never looked back.

In my young twenties, I went from being terrified of public speaking to establishing a leading role on the business development and sales team at my company. I presented in front of marketing directors, brand managers, and CMOs for major companies like The Body Shop, P&G, and Redken. Eventually, I felt destined to do my own thing, but I wouldn't have had the confidence to start Influenster without these experiences early on that led me to be highly competitive, scrappy, and resourceful. I managed teams and developed company procedures by myself, and I knew I had the skills to to build something from scratch -- so with that, Influenster was born.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Influenster?
The most challenging time was definitely when we were just starting out. Any entrepreneur knows that getting something new off the ground, even if it's a great idea, is hard -- really hard. To be successful, you have to put a lot of thought into every move you make because each decision could mean the difference between sink or swim. For us, the key was getting face time with clients. But when nobody knows who you are, they're less willing to take a risk on your product and your services. It didn't matter that I had worked with some of these brands at my previous job. Without a reputation to precede us, we heard a lot of "no's". At times, it was difficult not to get discouraged. But full confidence in our platform and persistence eventually paid off, allowing us to gain both clients' trust and repeat business.

Influenster is now four years old, and it's amazing to see how far we've come. We have an incredible network of over 850,000 members all across the US and Canada, which is only growing bigger each day. And I love the passion and excitement members have for Influenster -- for instance, our app just soft launched a week ago, and with no announcement already has over 2,000 downloads -- just from members searching us in the app store!

On the other end of the spectrum, we've had a stellar record in terms of client retention. It makes me so proud to know that we're a company that people want to come back to, and I still get a rush whenever we receive positive feedback during client meetings.

And it's not just clients who recognize us; Influenster is practically becoming a household name! Just recently, one of my sister's friends was raving about this great website she loves and encouraging my sis to join -- which turned out to be Influenster! This is the type of story that excites me most.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
To any woman -- or man, for that matter -- who wants to start his or her own business, I would say this: Confidence is critical; seek advice and be receptive to constructive criticism, but don't bend so much that you lose sight of your own vision. If you 100% believe in your idea, others will too -- it's a self-fulfilling prophecy!

On a more tactical level, try working at a startup or small business before making the leap yourself. It's important to see if this is the right environment for you, and the experiences gained and lessons learned will give you a big advantage with your own business venture down the road.

Partnership is also a critical. If you decide to go that route, make sure your partner is someone who you're compatible with, and also brings different ideas and skills to the table. A business partnership is a lot like a marriage, so you want to trust this person to be in it for the long haul.

Finally, just get out there and do it! You can spend years thinking, brainstorming, writing a business plan -- but your dream won't become a reality unless you stop talking and start doing. When Influenster was in its very early stages, my partner quit his job first to start working on the business full-time, while I continued to work and save money for the company. I don't think Influenster would exist today if he hadn't devoted all those hours in the beginning.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
The absolute biggest lesson I've learned is to first and foremost provide excellent service. Overdeliver on your promises, and the money will follow. Of course, it's easy to be short-sighted and focus solely on making money in the early stages -- especially because this is the time you're the most hungry for cash! But it's important to think long-term and strategically invest in the partners and companies with whom you want to develop long-lasting relationships.

In order to for Influenster to survive, we knew we needed to build a strong reputation and reputable case studies. We had to figure out a way to get our foot in the door, so instead of trying to bulldoze our way into marketing budgets, we made it impossible for clients to say no by letting Fortune 500 companies test our services for free. While this may seem crazy to some, we knew once we had the chance to prove ourselves, these companies would not only choose Influenster over and over again, but would recommend us to others. And they've done just that!

Overall, our #1 goal as a business is to make clients feel good about working with us. This dedication to service is one of the most important keys to our success.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Well, in the beginning stages of building the company, my work/life balance was basically non-existent! This is something that anyone who wants to start a business really needs to be prepared for -- because it can be a major shock not only to you, but to the people in your personal life.

Now that Influenster has grown into a more mature, stable company, it's also important to remember one of the reasons I chose to start my own business in the first place: to have the freedom and flexibility to decide how I spend my time. I have no problem working late or on weekends, but I now make a conscious effort to carve out time to do all of the things I love at least a few times a week. Luckily, one of my passions that's tied to work is travel, so anytime I book a business trip I make sure to build in extra time to explore and experience the people and culture of the the cities I'm visiting. From seeing my favorite indie bands, to checking out art exhibits, to even hanging out at home working on one of my many projects (lately, it's reconstructing clothes), I've learned it's just as important to prioritize my own interests and personal life as it is my business. Obviously, as a business owner, you're never really "off the clock" -- you think about it 24/7. But new experiences outside of the office will not only benefit you personally, but will also bring fresh inspiration and innovation into the workplace.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
My experience is a lot different than most because I've mainly worked at startups where I've held one of the top or the top position, and many of the clients I work with are all high-powered, successful women in in advertising, pr, and brand management industries. So I'm definitely inspired by female leaders on a daily basis and appreciate the generations of working women before us who have broken down barriers.

Of course, there's still work to be done. The workplace continues to be affected by issues such as the glass ceiling and the gender pay gap, just to name a few. And women with families feel the residual effects of gender stereotyping. Unfortunately, we still live in a society where women are expected to be the primary caregivers and run the house; some of my friends who have children find that they are not considered for certain projects or overlooked for travel opportunities because others assume they are unable to balance their kids' needs with their professional obligations. And on the flip side, men who want to play a more active role in family life also are impacted. My friend told me her husband would be laughed at if he asked to leave work early for their appointment with their children's pediatrician.

Additionally, women are often still the minority in many fields. Recently, my sister, an assistant US district attorney, applied for a magistrate judge position and was the only female finalist among four other men who were vying for the position. It turns out that this disparity is rampant in the American legal system, where women account for only 33% of all state and federal judges -- an alarming statistic given that women make up 50% of law school graduates. Women are underrepresented not only on the bench, but in many other industries, as well -- and this is a national problem.

Even in the face of all these challenges, I think that as women, we shouldn't feel held back, but instead feel empowered. Women will only see progress if women take action; it's up to us to create opportunities instead of waiting for them to come around to us. My advice for the workplace? Speak up at meetings and voice your opinion. Exude confidence. Bring ideas to the table. Ask for more responsibility. If you transform yourself into an irreplaceable asset, your employers will start to see you that way.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Though I haven't had a mentor in the traditional sense of the role, there are a number of women who have been incredibly influential in my life. My grandmother, for one -- at a time where women did not typically pursue a higher education, attended college and later went to graduate school for medicine. Her story taught me the importance of achieving financial independence and encouraged me to aim high in my own career.

I'm also incredibly lucky to have super successful, talented female friends. These women run the gamut in terms of their professions -- one is a fellow entrepreneur, another is a writer, and the rest are in the tech, finance, and advertising industries. Whenever I need advice, they act as trusted sounding boards for my ideas, and help me to see multiple perspectives when making important professional and personal decisions.

Finally, the president of the company where I worked prior to starting Influenster definitely made a lasting impression on me. While we didn't always share the same approach to every situation, I know working under her -- a highly ambitious woman who started multiple companies before the age of 30 -- was a big part of what sparked my interest in venturing out to start my own. And I'm thankful for having the opportunity to learn from her.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I know I'm not the only one, but I truly admire the bravery of Malala Yousafzai. Even if you were to ignore the fact that she's only 17, you can't help but admire her spirit. Despite the seemingly unconquerable obstacles, she found a way to effect change and be heard. At such a young age, Malala is able to eloquently articulate her story and encourages others to take action. She is a fearless, resilient leader who has an extraordinary passion for creating a better world -- not only for herself, but generations of women to come.

Renata Black is another leader I applaud. The founder of Seven Bar Foundation and Empowered by You (and also the author of the Huffington Post blog "Paradigm Shifters"), Renata utilizes her education, intelligence, and various networks to help women all over the world. I know how hard it can be to start your own enterprise. Underprivileged women have even more challenges, which is why I truly admire what Renata has created. Utilizing microfinance to empower women is a creative solution that I hope inspires others like myself.

What do you want Influenster to accomplish in the next year?
This year I'm focused on hitting our annual revenue growth of 450% and working with our community team to hit 3 million members. Ultimately, I want people to think of Influenster as the resource for product discovery and be their "go to" source for product reviews and information about a particular product. With traffic increasing 100% year after year and millions of reviews written on our site, we're well on our way!

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