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It’s time to burn the ladder and build the table

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In Conversation With... Sarah Stockdale, Founder and CEO, Growclass

HSBC’s In Conversation With… series is aimed at spotlighting diverse business leaders who serve as a source of inspiration to entrepreneurs everywhere.

We recently sat down with Sarah Stockdale, the founder and CEO of Growclass, an online growth marketing training company. Sarah shared her thoughts on entrepreneurism, equity, the glass ceiling — and her desire to redefine what we consider success.

Tell us about your personal journey to becoming a successful leader.

Honestly, we are all works in progress, so if I was to call myself a successful leader, in a sense that would also mean that I’m in some way finished— which I’m not. Leadership is consistent growth, and doing the work again and again with no end in sight.

My path to becoming a leader started out at a company called Wave as one of the first 20 members of a small startup team. We raised two big rounds of funding while I was there, so I got to be part of some huge growth in the business. After that, I joined a small team out of San Francisco called Tilt to launch their first international market in Canada. I helped grow the company in Canada, and then led the Community Growth team internationally— launching in Australia, the UK, France, the Netherlands, and the Nordics. We had local growth managers for each new launch, so I was building a team that maybe could meet once a year— it was an incredible test of leadership abilities, one I had to keep failing at until I got it right.

My whole early career was really focused on building and scaling early stage startups, and I loved it. Wave has since been acquired by H&R Block, and Tilt was acquired by AirBnB.

How did your work at tech companies inspire you to launch Growclass?

I came up with the initial idea when I was hiring at Tilt. I was exhausted from growing the business and trying to train people at the same time. I really wanted to be able to send my team somewhere to get some practical marketing education and support. Everything out there either felt too broad and unhelpful, or stuffed full of acronyms. Then when I was consulting for tech companies, this same problem kept coming up. The businesses I was working with were struggling to find great talent and train their people. Founders I worked with hadn’t dug deep into digital marketing, and needed a non-fluffy place to learn it— so we built Growclass.

As I continued to grow I realized that in addition to practical career education, folks need community and a place to grow personally as well. Entrepreneurship can be so lonely, so we work to foster a close community where our members can get advice, bounce ideas off each other and celebrate our wins. I’m really proud of the community we’ve built— it feels like the most supportive place on the internet.

Did you always aspire to hold a senior leadership role?

No, not in a corporate sense. My goal was always to have an interesting career where I could make a real impact. I really like helping people grow, but I always wanted to build something of my own.

What do you feel are some of the biggest obstacles still confronting women on the path to the C-suite?

I think if we want real paths to the C-Suite, we need to be building the companies. The more companies founded by women and people of colour, the more we’ll be able to change who is sitting at those tables. I’m not interested in breaking glass ceilings, I’m interested in building structures with no ceilings.

One thing that needs to change so we can do that is that our companies need to be given a fair chance to succeed. As founders, women get 3% of venture capital. Black women founders see a tiny fraction of that capital, something like 0.24% of VC. So our companies are just not being funded. We aren’t getting access to resources that a lot of the men in our networks are getting.

If we want to change who are in positions of leadership, we have to change companies from the ground up — so I’m focused on helping businesses helmed by women and marginalized people succeed.

Do startups offer more opportunity for ambitious women than larger organizations?

No, I can’t say they do.

More established companies, though not all of them, have HR practices, they have oversight from a board, they have people who are keeping tabs on these things, or at least they should be. Startups are really self-organizing in a lot of ways, with a lot less oversight, and tend to be heavily dominated by one type of person.

I think it’s getting better — there is acknowledgement that things need to improve and there are a lot of us out there — but it’s very slow.

How important is mentorship in helping climb the ladder to leadership positions?

Honestly, I want to burn down the ladder. I don’t want us to have to climb a ladder, I want to set fire to that whole way of thinking of our career paths.

But I do believe that mentorship and community are the most important factors to helping someone succeed. I am so grateful for the people in my career that spent time helping me grow — I’m standing on their shoulders every day.

With Growclass, we’re building an entire community of support for founders, entrepreneurs and marketers. We’re surrounding our students with experts, mentorship, coaching and support because that’s the only way to really help someone get to the next stage of their career journey. Your support system needs to be vast because no one succeeds in a vacuum.

What do companies need to change about their mindset to ensure women are considered for senior leadership positions?

There must be an understanding that a diversity of experience, background and thought is going to make any organization a lot more powerful.

When you have people making decisions at the top of a company who went to similar schools, who have similar economic backgrounds or vacation in similar places, for example — those people are going to make decisions based on a very narrow understanding of what the world is like. And they are going to miss opportunities to grow their businesses.

If you include a lot of people with different lived experiences, that is when you’re going to do really interesting and creative things.

What’s the best piece of advice you received?

“Do it scared.”

It’s the mantra I’ve used to build my businesses. A lot of us wait to feel that we’re ready. We wait for this magical moment to feel we are prepared to start a business, and then that moment never comes. The people who are building companies, writing books, and making art aren’t the ones who are the most qualified to — they are the ones who felt inadequate and scared, and did it anyway.

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