Welcome to our new interview series in partnership with Empowered Women, a nonprofit advocating for women to live a fulfilled life as they define it. We’ve teamed up to interview inspiring women who are forging their own paths and living what it means to be an empowered woman. Join us as we meet a new woman each month.
Only 4 percent of female-led start-ups are run by black women, and Sarah Kunst is one of them. Sarah got her start working in marketing at Chanel before climbing the ranks in the tech-focused venture capital and start-up world. Now, she’s the founder of Proday.co, a venture capital–funded fitness app that lets users work out alongside professional athletes. Proday features a variety of engaging training routines led by fitness celebrities and world-renowned athletes, allowing subscribers the ability to watch entertaining demo videos and put the moves to work.
Kunst has been named among nearly every best-of list that she’s eligible for, including Forbes’ 30 Under 30, Business Insider’s 30 Most Important Women Under 30 in Tech, and Marie Claire’s Young Gun List. If you’re not inspired yet, consider that she’s also served as a commission member for the New York City Board of Education and is an active philanthropist to boot. She also happens to be wildly generous with her knowledge and insight, which I learned firsthand when I got the chance to interview her.
Anna Quinlan: Looking at your résumé, you are truly a multi-hyphenate extraordinaire. You work in venture capital, and you’re a founder, an editor, and a board member—what title do you most identify with?
Sarah Kunst: I founded a company, Proday, recently, and that has kind of taken over my whole life—in a good way—and is defining my career and my focus right now.
AQ: Who in your life, maybe including yourself, do you think is most surprised to see “founder” on your business card?
SK: Hopefully no one! When people are surprised by someone’s success, I think it’s because that person hasn’t been expressing their true self and their true potential, or people haven’t been listening.
AQ: I find, though, that people who do well as entrepreneurs sometimes don’t fit the mold of “Corporate America.” Do you feel like you thrive more as a founder now that you get to call your own shots?
SK: I think that when you’re a founder, you have way more ability to succeed. There's never going to be exponential upside from taking a paycheck from someone else because you're always hedging that upside with the security of having health insurance and vacation days and a support structure inside of your company to rely on. I think that founders learn a lot more about themselves. There is a massive amount of self-reliance that comes into play that just doesn't happen when there's a massive support system around you.
AQ: What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned as a founder?
SK: One of the big things you learn is that you can do a ton of things. There are so many things you might not think you know how to do, and then when you're the only person to do it, you quickly realize that you are actually pretty good at anything from negotiating a contract to figuring out taxes to fixing the plumbing when it breaks. It’s sort of a corporate version of a spirit quest: You go out on your own into the wilderness, and you realize that you actually can handle a bunch of things.
AQ: There’s a lot of talk from thought leaders such as Tim Ferriss, Brené Brown, and Seth Godin about the value of failure and how the most successful people often have some pretty memorable failures on their résumés. What role has failure played in your success?
SK: Honestly it's not something that I really dwell on. I think that every minute you spend obsessing over something that you just can't change is a completely wasted minute. Everyone has failed at something before because that's just a natural part of life. Some days you're up, some days you're down, and that's just a fact of life and gravity; you can't do anything about that.
It’s about understanding that nothing is permanent. You have to look at your life and your career with a much longer vision than, “Oh no, I failed at this, let me obsess about it.” If failure is something that you can't deal with, life is going to be very hard for you. The most successful people have to be resilient because otherwise, the first time you hit a road bump you're just going to fall apart.
I think that there's such a desire, especially from women, to make everything linear: If I do X, Y, and Z, this is the reward, and if I don’t, this is the punishment. But life isn't kindergarten, so it pretty much never works that way.
AQ: In an interview at the Tech Superwoman Summit, you said to a room full of women, “Your impostor syndrome has no room in the pitch room.” What commonalities do you see among the women you’ve known and worked with who have avoided the impostor syndrome pitfall?
SK: It comes back to resilience and a sense of self-efficacy. Anybody can have impostor syndrome, but I think it’s almost forced on women sometimes. If a guy walks into a pitch room thinking, What do I know? How can I do this? Am I really qualified? but everybody sees him and greets him and receives him as qualified—which we know from studies is what happens—it's a lot easier for him to squash the impostor syndrome. When a woman walks into the same room, maybe ten times more qualified but having the same doubts, and people say, “Where’s your boss? When is your CEO going to be here to pitch?” it feeds into every little fear she has.
AQ: How do you move past that?
SK: Just put it down, and don't worry about it. If you pick up an apple and you go to bite into it and you see that it's rotten, you don't sit there wondering why it's rotten and did you make it rotten and should you have been more careful about buying that apple and what did you do to deserve this and why aren't you more mindful. You're just like, that's gross, and you throw it away and move on to the next piece of fruit. You don't have to honor self-doubt; you don't have to listen to it. You can just put it away and go on to do whatever it is that you were going to do. It’s not so much about trying to eradicate it, it's just moving forward.
AQ: Black women founders were recently called “the unicorns of tech” by Project Diane. In what ways, if any, has that been true for you?
SK: I personally don't understand why people in tech love the term unicorn. I have a name, it's Sarah. I have a title, it's CEO. In any space in the working world that's not cooking, cleaning, or taking care of kids, women and minorities are appearing in lower numbers. We know that to get black kids into school in the American South sixty years ago that it took, literally, the National Army. We know that to get women into college and to play sports in college, it took a new law. We should all accept based on these precedents that getting any sort of equality is something that doesn't always happen naturally. The people who have the power to shape those rooms and to fill those rooms are typically white guys who fill it with more white guys. So, of course being a double minority in this space is a rarity, which shouldn’t come as any surprise. If you're surprised by the low occurrence of black women founders in tech, I think you've been sleeping on the history of America. So hi, welcome, wake up.
AQ: Let’s talk about the kinds of people you want on your team now that you’re the CEO. Mark Zuckerberg’s sister is one of your investors for Proday. How do players like her fit into the ideal team that you want surrounding you and backing you?
SK: I think you need a team around you that believes in you. You can have the most talented people in the world but if they don't understand you or if they aren't on board with your vision, it's not going to work. The most important selection criteria for who is on your team isn't family name or pedigree or what they've done before, it's is this somebody who can add value, and it’s really hard to have somebody add value if they're not both really good at something and also really believe in you. A lot of us have had experiences, maybe in high school or so, where you like somebody and you try to convince them to like you and to date you, and it never really works. You might be able to talk them into it short term, but it never works long term because if somebody doesn't want to be with you, whatever capacity it is, they're not your person. With team building, people get really caught up in how to find the best people and they don't focus on finding the best people for them.
AQ: How do you prioritize diversity in your team-building process?
SK: The reason diversity is valuable is that almost no one sells to one customer. You might say, “Look, I sell men's shoes, so I need a company that's only made up of men who can afford a $500 pair of shoes that are very formal, and I really only need to appeal to men who make over a certain amount of money and have certain kinds of jobs.” The thing that you're not thinking of is the first time that lawyer or banker goes on a date and their date says, “Your shoes are ugly,” you're going to lose a customer. The first time they show up and their dad says, “I have those same shoes, that's what old guys like us wear,” you're going to lose a customer. So the idea that anything exists in a vacuum is patently false. You need diverse voices on a team because you are selling to more than one customer segment. I'm pragmatic and I used to be an investor, so I care deeply about profitability. Anybody who thinks that they can run a company with only one kind of person is due to fail because the world isn't made up of only one kind of person.
AQ: What advice would you give to your younger self?
SK: I think the most important thing is optionality. When you're younger you think the most important thing is following your passions, but the problem is your passions change a lot. A lot of times kids will enter college and really want to pursue a degree that’s more about following their passions then about setting them up for something practical. Just understand that the things you want to do will change and you can't really know the future, so shutting down the optionality is something that you're probably going to regret. The more that you can find ways to do what you want to do now while keeping your options open and preserving the ability to change your mind later, the more satisfied you're going to be with your life long term.
AQ: Do you feel like there were any specific choices you made that kept your options open?
SK: In college I had to work, so I worked in a bunch of different jobs and found out a lot of different things that I liked and didn't like. I also started to understand the value of money because I was working for it versus having it be a nebulous concept.
AQ: If you were to put together a survival kit for a young woman starting her career, what would you put in it?
SK: Probably the number one thing I would put in there is an iPhone or some sort of Internet connected device. You need access to information. No one piece of advice, no one opinion, no one book is going to define your life or change it. It's about the ability to gather new things. So often we get hung up on following a road map and saying, “This author or this role model wrote a book and said XYZ, and that's what I'm going to do,” and you're almost always going to miss the point with that. The real thing you need to figure out is how to compare what's important to you with the things you're going to have to do to get it. If you can do that, I think that you're on to something a lot bigger and more powerful than following some little piece of advice.
AQ: Any other survival items, maybe even metaphorical objects, that you think would be valuable for a woman starting out in a professional career?
SK: The main thing to keep in your metaphorical bag is a change of shoes. You need to have power shoes that make you feel awesome and that you can command the room in. And if it turns out to be the wrong room, you need running shoes so you can get out of there! Sometimes people get stuck and they think they can't transcend because they’re not metaphorically dressed for it, so retaining that optionality and the knowledge that it's OK to change directions if you need to, is a big part of success.
AQ: I love that. Hand all the college graduates an iPhone, killer stilettos, and some running shoes. Go forth and prosper!
SK: Yes! Go forth and prosper!
Illustration: Sam Kerr