Women In Business Q&A: Kate Frucher, Co-Founder and CEO, Imprint

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Kate Frucher

Kate Frucher is Co-Founder and CEO of Imprint, a "many-to-one" communications platform with a mission is to use social technology to spark acts of kindness and real human connection.

Kate has been a leader in the NYC startup world for over a decade, starting at Axiom Law, where she headed the national office and scaled the company from $10M to 60M+ in annual revenue. As SVP of E-Commerce at ideeli, she helped grow revenue from $23M to $145M in less than three years.

Kate began her career as a social entrepreneur, first in the White House where she helped launch AmeriCorps, then as a Skadden Fellow where she created a literacy program for court-involved youth. Following the attacks of 9/11, she was tapped by the Mayor's Office to help assess the FDNY's response and established the department's Terrorism Preparedness Taskforce. She then served as a Senior Fellow in the Combatting Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Kate is a graduate of Harvard College and Stanford Law School, and is a Henry Crown Fellow with the Aspen Institute. She lives in Brooklyn with her wife Jen and daughter Riley.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up in a tradition of service. Both my parents spent their careers in public service. All their pride was reserved for acts of what the Jewish tradition calls Tikkun Olam, or "repairing the world". Those are the values I grew up with.

I've been building growth companies for about a decade now, but the most formative experiences of my life were actually in public service. Before I finished college, I dropped out for a few years and ended up working in the White House as part of the founding team of the AmeriCorps national service program. That was a brand new idea, implemented at the national level, and affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people. I believed in it profoundly, and still do. It was really one of the great honors and experiences of my career, even though I was only 22 and still figuring out who I was.

I ended up finishing my degree and then going to law school, hoping to be Atticus Finch someday. In my first job as a lawyer, I was building a program addressing literacy in the juvenile justice system. And that's when 9/11 happened.

That morning, I came out of the subway just a few blocks away from Ground Zero as it all unfolded. I felt a responsibility to do something with what I'd witnessed. I ended up at the FDNY helping the Bloomberg Administration assess what had happened on that day and implement reforms.

That was an incredibly raw and emotional time. I spent my days attending funerals and meeting with chiefs and firefighters, helping draw out lessons from that awful day to prepare for the future. It was a transformative experience. But challenging and draining on many levels too. I was becoming a homeland security expert - teaching at West Point, that kind of thing - and in the end, as important as that is, and there's nothing more important... it just wasn't me. I'm happiest when I'm free to build things, unencumbered, like we were doing with AmeriCorps.

So I became a startup-er, and that was home for me. Is home for me. I got lucky to be part of two rocketships, and now am building my own, Imprint. It's full circle in a way, because for me Imprint is as much service as business. It brings together my service values with the joy of building.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Imprint?
I've had a pretty unconventional career path, and I've loved it. You learn so much and build different muscles navigating different worlds, working with a range of people, confronting all sorts of challenges. I highly recommend it as a background for the bushwhacking that is the startup experience.

But by the end of my time in the fashion space, in my last role, I saw another big problem I wanted to tackle. And it was personal. My life felt too crammed, and with superficial, unsatisfying things.

Maybe life always feels that way to some extent. But it felt bigger than just that, and as I talked to people, it felt more universal, somehow affecting the character of many people's relationships and sense of community.

It struck me that over the past decade, the way we communicate has changed. We've moved from conversations to texts and social media, and I believe a lot of depth in how we interact with each other has been lost.

That's the problem I wanted to solve with Imprint - bringing depth back to how we communicate, to our relationships. And drawing on my past experience, I wanted to use technology to solve it. Technology isn't inherently shallow or snarky. Its how we're structuring and using technology in our technological adolescence that's the problem.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Imprint?
The highlights and the challenges are always about people! No matter what you're doing, but definitely in a startup.

The biggest challenge, especially in tech, is finding and recruiting and landing and integrating a team of world class, and fundamentally good, people. In our case, it took more than a year. But we've done it, and now the challenge becomes the highlight, because now that we have it - a team of superstars who really enjoy and complement each other - it's such an incredible pleasure to take the risks together, ride the ups and downs together, commit ourselves together to trying to build something great.

The other highlight is seeing the Imprints themselves. Every day, people all over the country and the world are using our little tool to express more gratitude, more appreciation, more connection. So it's a lot of fun to get out of bed in the morning and bike over to the office.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Well, my first piece of advice is just, go for it. Women in startups face some real challenges that shouldn't be there, but that doesn't mean they're not surmountable. And there are more and more people - women and men - who are trying to level the playing field.

My second thought is to be as selective and thoughtful as you can about who you work with. The people we work with determine how much we achieve AND how happy we are doing it. So be deliberate and ambitious about choosing your colleagues, whether you're evaluating job options or recruiting to a startup.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Inevitably, in startups and probably any job you throw yourself into, you're going to face some really tough times. Humiliations, disappointments, moments you feel like you're dangling over an abyss. It's just part of the ride.

Put real thought into how to ground yourself, and where to turn for strength and perspective. Remember that taking a small step in the right direction often gives you momentum to take on bigger things. And know that no matter what happens, you'll you come out deeper, more empathic, stronger. At least once you've had a good rest.

And consider doing it with a friend. I can't image doing a startup without a trusted partner in the business, and supportive one at home.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I've never figured out how to work on something I really care about without it taking up more space in my life than I'd like. But outside of crunch times, I find it counterproductive to work all the time.

Sleep, being with my family, time outside and exercise, catching up with friends and on what's going on in the world, just broadening my mind beyond my narrow to dos - these replenish me. When I sit down at my desk or in a meeting, I think more clearly after I've stepped away. So regularly overdoing work has serious diminishing returns, and fitting work and life together is by far the best strategy for both.

But, as the old saying goes, the real goal should be to find work that doesn't feel like work. In my personal time, I make a lot of Imprints. Initially I did it as work, to stay in touch with the product. But increasingly I'm doing it because it takes me outside of myself and focuses me on strengthening my relationships. I've seen what an enormous difference there is between caring about people, and actually TELLING them you care. Many of my relationships are now better for it. As Imprint as a company begins to help spark the telling for more and more people, I don't mind it so much when I have to work some Saturdays.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Men still dominate most leadership teams and boards. And that means men in leadership are often just more used to working with men. In most mature, grown-up companies, overt sexism is becoming increasingly unacceptable (thankfully). But there are still deep problems on more subtle, human levels.

Whose voices are really listened to in meetings, who's invited to grab lunch or to other informal social moments that build relationships, who do people turn to in a pinch, etc. If people are drawn to people like them, then people in leadership need to be conscious of and work to overcome that inclination. And everyone needs to call it out if that commitment doesn't seem to be there. It takes genuine effort, and more women in leadership, to change these dynamics. Same goes for achieving other forms of diversity, beyond gender.

I also think deeply ingrained gender expectations beyond work have a real impact on work. Definitions of "femininity" and "attractiveness" don't always jibe with being a powerhouse at work. And expectations around who, at the end of the day, is most responsible for caring for little kids, or a family member who's sick, aren't shared equally in many families. So equality at work is deeply tied to changing expectations in the world beyond work.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I've had some amazing mentors, professors then managers I looked up to and who went out of their way to know me and advise me as I navigated my course. I'll always be grateful, and hopefully I've done the same in my own little way for others.

But I think most mentorship happens in far less traditional ways, in the course of day-to-day work when people take time to push each other to be better. So I don't think people should worry too much about finding a powerful "mentor" to invest in them, and instead surround themselves with people who have different skills and experiences, and encourage them speak up when they think you could use some guidance. "Running toward feedback" was one of the first things I learned in business, and it remains a core tenant - it's how people grow, and how relationships deepen.

Mostly, mentoring is important because it's investing in relationships. When I look back at my life so far, it's the relationships I've built and the ways I've helped people grow and develop that's most rewarding. All the other stuff falls away. So taking the time to mentor each other is also just core to living a good life.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are many, but Eleanor Roosevelt is definitely one of my heroes. She forged her own path, and walked down that path fearlessly. She chose to spend her time doing all she could for political, racial and social justice, and to further human rights around the world, often at great personal cost. She never stopped fighting, even though the wind was always blowing strongly against her.

What do you want Imprint to accomplish in the next year?
A year from now, I hope people will be talking about an inflection point in social media that we helped spark: away from tools that help broadcast a bunch of superficial thoughts and reflections about ourselves, and towards tools that help us genuinely connect and deepen relationships.

I think people are craving this. I've seen the little step of making an Imprint renew relationships, and I believe this subtle shift in orientation could spark broader changes. In an era that's "me" focused, and when people feel their sense of community is fraying, Imprint uses technology to knit us together.