Women in Business Q&A: Lauren Bigelow, CEO, Growth Capital Network

Lauren Bigelow has served as the CEO of the Growth Capital Network (GCN) since 2010. With this platform, Lauren and her team have managed programs for the innovation and entrepreneurial community including the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition, the Midwest Greentech Entrepreneur Academy and the Midmarket Capital Survey. GCN also provides strategy, analytic, and evaluative services to the foundation and non-profit community for measuring impact and ROI.

Lauren has spent 15 years in the innovation and technology space where she brings a strategic perspective with exceptional execution skills on all organizational levels. Lauren has an exceptional professional network of senior executives and emerging technologies as well as an expansive network of venture, private equity, and corporate investors targeting early to mid-stage technology. Prior to GCN and before its '09 acquisition by Bloomberg, Lauren was the North American Commercial Director for New Energy Finance, the leading independent provider of information and research to investors in the clean energy markets. From 2004 - 2008, Lauren was the Managing Director of the Cleantech Group where she oversaw the firm's technology and entrepreneur pipelines. Working directly with over two hundred early stage CEOs, more than $1.4 billion was raised by presenting companies. She is currently on the Advisory Board of the Erb Institute, the Zell Lurie Fund and Belle Capital Michigan as well as the board of the Energy Innovation Business Council. Lauren is a lecturer at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. She has a B.A. in Economics from the University of Michigan and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Northwestern University.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I've been fortunate to have a broad and eclectic set of experiences in my life. I pursued academic work as an archeologist across East Africa, Europe and the Middle East, learning Turkish at Boğaziçi University and Chinese at the Monterey Institute. I was an early pioneer in the Cleantech industry and helped to attract nearly $1.4B of capital to early stage businesses and launch the investment sector.

In all this diversity, the two themes that have threaded through my journey are to say yes to as many opportunities as my schedule will allow - and to focus on what can be accomplished rather than what obstacles lay in the path. My openness to new experiences has led me into a couple of harrowing moments, but it's flexed intellectual and emotional muscles that have made me far more creative in my work and considerably more empathic to the individuals that I lead. And by viewing an individual problem in the scope of the larger project, rather than obsessing on the problem itself, it makes it less daunting to address and overcome.

Having faced a number of challenging situations in my academic and business life, I have learned that most successful projects create a strong plan and build in a flexibility to accommodate creativity and individual engagement. When I am able to focus on the end goal and build on the individual needs and skills of the team, our entire staff gets more deeply engaged and can feel real accomplishment at the end of a project.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure as a CEO and entrepreneur?
My prior employment experience taught me a lot about how not to run a business, especially in terms of how to treat your colleagues and staff. The employer/ employee relationship has to be one of reciprocity and respect; your staff will only be as loyal to you as you are willing to be towards them. A positive cycle of respect and flexibility will garner a reputation and a workplace environment that is going to attract and retain higher quality employees.

I also learned that involving my staff in the hiring process is a cornerstone to success. It has created positive team dynamics that are key to good workflow, communication and successful projects. I think that because of this, we've been able to maintain a work environment where everyone is focused on our client deliverables and our collective success.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure as a CEO and entrepreneur?
Giving away a million dollars each year is a lot of fun! Managing the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition and being able to infuse millions in capital into our eco-system and to some really worthy entrepreneurial companies has been an incredibly rewarding experience. I get a deep sense of gratification from watching the success of these companies as they achieve their business goals and reach larger capital milestones - knowing that we were able to help along the way.

Also - working with the foundations in Michigan to discern the impact of their philanthropic dollars on their target communities is incredibly fulfilling. Not only can we quantify their impact, but we can highlight the success stories of the lives touched irrevocably by their generosity. Being able to engage daily with the grantees and provide the technical assistance to help them generate new fundraising is another wonderful part of my job.

One of the greatest challenges has been watching individuals within entrepreneurial and non-profit organizations take their funding for granted. Both investment and philanthropic dollars are a limited. I'm confident that Detroit and Michigan will rebound, but impatient for results. I'd rather that those funds be used by the most capital efficient companies or programs to accelerate the recovery.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
You should develop a clear vision of exactly what you want to create and how you're going to make it happen. That way you can articulate it to the partners and staff who will help you build your company and to the customers who will ultimately help you to achieve your goals. It is a critical part of selling yourself and your business - and will allow you to stay on track with the work you are trying to accomplish.

Also - hone your organization skills! Organization can make or break a business, particularly if you have a family.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
I've learned to engage the entire company in your success, so that the people who work for you can have ownership over the achievements of the group. Creating a personal stake in the success or failure of any endeavor will prompt the people working on it to engage more deeply. From the interns to the CEO, every person should have a clear set of goals they are working on that articulate with the larger achievements your organization is trying to accomplish. If you have a really good year, the wealth should be shared, if a project doesn't perform as well as anticipated then everyone should be involved in discussing lessons learned and the critiquing of how to improve. You should also make sure you are verbally acknowledging the efforts that your employees are putting in, and passing along positive feedback from outside sources.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I do my best to prioritize things that keep me healthy in mind and body. I enjoy the relaxation that I get from exercise, outside reading and time with friends and family. That said, I also recognize there are times where my work/life balance is askew, and I don't beat myself up about it too much. I get the work done, and move on, and don't dwell on it any longer than needed.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think that the lengthening work day and heightened professional pressures along with the myth that we can have it all without sacrifice doom some women to constantly feel inadequate. Many traditional businesses lack the flexibility to accommodate women who want to use their intellectual energy, but don't want to be tethered 18 hours a day to email and phones. And our 24 hour news cycle puts undue emphasis on striving for material gain rather than genuine contentment so women are constantly looking outside of themselves for validation. It can become a vicious cycle which can destroy self-esteem and families.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has accelerated my business learning curve and brought a considerably broader perspective to my personal life. It opened my eyes to opportunities that I would not have considered and introduced me into networks that would have taken me years to develop organically. My mentors have given me a new perspective of myself as a business woman and of my firm in the marketplace. Their gentle critique has been instrumental in keeping me on an even keel while maintaining a solid set of goals for my company.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are a lot of public figures like Angela Merkel and Ruth Bader Ginsberg who are constant reminders of the strength and influence that a woman can have on the greater world stage. They have reached the pinnacle of their professions and have the respect of their peers. Their persistence and determination has blazed a trail that will be much easier for women of my generation to traverse. We owe them a debt of gratitude.

What do you want to personally and professionally accomplish in the next year?
I want to imbue a little bit more adventure and creative engagement into my days. I miss the exploration and excitement of being an archeologist, so even if it's a more scheduled jaunt off to a city or country that I haven't yet explored - I've made a commitment to myself to prioritize it for 2015 and beyond. This coming year, Vancouver and the Galapagos Islands are on the list. I'm also currently in the process of refurbishing a mid-century modern house and I think that is going to be an incredibly gratifying project.

On a professional level I would like to continue the organic growth of our company and add on several new and interesting projects. Having played a role in the economic redevelopment in Michigan, I would like to roll out similar innovation programs and set up impact measurement frameworks in other cities and states, and expand our influence past Michigan's borders.