Did you know that there are almost the same number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies as there are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies named John? Finding women at the highest levels of executive operations is painfully few and far between, and Jennifer Ehlen is making massive strides to change that.
Coming from a background in private equity (an overwhelmingly male-dominated field), she launched Brazen Global to directly help women entrepreneurs build their businesses, providing them with training, advice, and community in a world that favors the skills of Johns over women. With deep intentionality and years of experience, Jenn is building up women and breaking down barriers. We promise you’ll be inspired by her wisdom and oh-so-relatable mom moments:
Name: Jennifer Ehlen
Current Title/Company: Founder & CEO, Brazen Global Inc.
Location: St. Louis, MO
Education: MBA, Saint Louis University; BSBA, University of Missouri – St. Louis
Children: 4 kids; 13, 9, 8 and 4
What was your first job and how did you land it?
I have had so many jobs. From paper routes to working under-aged in a local restaurant – I think I started working in some form or another at age nine. I grew up in a very small community, and my family didn’t have much (my father worked in a factory and my mother was a nurse in a rural hospital). If my siblings and I wanted something more than the basics, we knew we had to find the money for it ourselves. I think this is how I learned how to hustle and be scrappy. And I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I didn’t just erect lemonade stands – we created lemonade stand empires, complete with tchotchkes and home-made goods. We would even go door to door selling painted rocks – whatever it took.
What prompted you to take the leap from being a Director at Thompson Street Capital Partners to focus on Brazen and PWE? What challenges (if any) did that present?
I learned so much at Thompson Street. I would love to see more women and other under-represented populations pursue private equity and venture capital as their profession (and, of course, I’d love to see more of those firms make a diligent effort to recruit women and other under-represented populations). We were so good at seeing what business models were scalable, most efficient, less conducive to economic cycles and customer concentration issues…. and how to grow a company quickly post-acquisition. And I felt like I was working among colleagues who were next-level smart. It was a really difficult decision to leave for a variety of reasons – including my chagrin that I would be yet another woman vacating one of these coveted positions. That being said, PWE (now Brazen) was continuing to grow and needed a full-time CEO to take it to the next stage. It occurred to me at that point that this company could truly help women entrepreneurs worldwide, and I wasn’t about to watch another person take the helm and expand the company that I thought of while I sat on the sidelines. It was (and still is) truly a leap of faith! In my career, I’ve heard so many entrepreneurs say “well, we figured we could always go find jobs if this didn’t work out”. I guess I thought the same thing “I guess I can always go back to private equity if this doesn’t work out.”
What skills from your other positions helped you in the jump to starting your own business?
I truly believe everything leads you to exactly where you are now. I have taken something from every position and company I had prior to making the entrepreneurial leap. I learned how to hustle at my childhood lemonade stands. I learned how to think bigger at Boeing. I learned mad business development skills and program management skills from my years in non-profit fundraising at PBS and Saint Louis University. And, as I mentioned previously, I learned how to think through efficient business models and grow companies at Thompson Street. I like to think I also learned how to have higher and higher standards for excellence at each interval as well.
Where did the concepts for Brazen and PWE come from?
Brazen and PWE were born out of research from 2011 and 2012 from Kauffman and American Express. These publications discussed the intrinsic and extrinsic factors facing women entrepreneurs today and, in American Express’ case, even ranked the top metropolitan communities for how well their women entrepreneurs fared regionally. At the time, St. Louis came in dead last – tied for 25th with San Francisco. I had just left the role of Director for the Center for Entrepreneurship at Saint Louis University, where I had worked pretty hard to ensure our programs and workshops represented gender parity. To say I was devastated to learn that my hometown ranked dead last was an understatement. Several incredible women entrepreneurs and friends (including my co-founder, Aimee Muirnin Dunne) and I decided to do something about it. We set out to create programs that would move the needle for women entrepreneurs in a substantive way. To go beyond the speaker series and social organization and offer continuous, immersive programs that would help women entrepreneurs achieve their growth aspirations.
How do the women you work with at your companies inspire you?
Where do I start? Our members are passionate, creative, wicked smart and BRAVE. They come from every walk of life, every socio-economic background and every trade. But they all have one thing in common: they know that this crazy journey called entrepreneurship is a scary and difficult one, and there’s no point in going it alone – which is why they’ve come to Brazen. I am in awe of them all. At headquarters, we can easily get removed from our members as we dedicate so much of our time to supporting our regional Directors. So we try very hard to BE members as much as we can (I love attending our events and I am in a Brazen Growth Group!). I also personally mentor a handful of our members – and I always get more out of our conversations than I think they get from me.
Tell us about why intersectional feminism matters in business.
Intersectional feminism matters because gender is only one part of our identities. I love Wikipedia’s definition of intersectionality: an analytic framework which attempts to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalized in society.
We who stand for women must stand for ALL women, and ALL of the other ways that they may be marginalized such as race, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status, etc., because it all matters – in business and elsewhere. As a white woman, I know I have faced subconscious bias because of my gender – but I also know that I have tremendous advantages because of my race, my work experience, my neighborhood, etc. We’ve all heard the statistics that less than 7% of early-stage capital goes to women. Well, less than .2% of early-stage capital goes to women of color, yet new business creation is being driven by women of color (the majority of new firm creation in recent years were new firms created by women of color). How do we reconcile that discrepancy as a society? THAT is why Brazen stands for ALL who identify as female. Full-stop.
What advice do you have for women looking to start their own businesses?
It sometimes feels like I’m squelching the entrepreneurship dream when I give this advice, but entrepreneurship is absolutely about boot-strapping it and the BEST way to bootstrap your learning curve is to go work for someone else first. Work in the industry that you hope to innovate prior to going out on your own. This essentially gives you the opportunity to learn on someone else’s dime versus your own. I really feel like I was doing this at all of my previous places of work. I was the Director of Entrepreneurship at a major top-tier university and also worked in a multi-billion dollar private equity firm before I ever tried to support other entrepreneurs or invest in them on my own. And I still make a ton of mistakes! I can’t imagine how many mistakes I would have made without the incredible experiences I had in those roles under my belt.
What advice do you have for women looking to support female-owned businesses?
There are so many ways to support female-owned businesses! The obvious ones are to shop for products that are made/distributed/sold by a women-led business. But don’t forget services! Hire female accountants, lawyers, etc. Look for women-led companies to supply your inventory, or manage your outsourced IT.
Start working with intentionality to ensure panels at your events have diversity on a number of fronts (including gender). Stop inviting Sara Blakely or Sophia Amoruso to be your keynote speakers and then get pissed when they say “no.” They are not the only speakers that are capable of representing the entire population of women entrepreneurs and they have businesses to run! Their #1 priority in life is NOT to add diversity to your panel because you decided “today is the day I’m going to be diverse.” And there are so many incredible, brilliant women out there that can knock it out of the park. Try harder.
For the female entrepreneurs out there? Join forces and figure out how to partner, merge and joint venture. There’s strength in consolidation. Have a smaller piece of a VERY large pie versus 100% of a small one.
Of your multitude of accomplishments and positions — Director at Thompson Street, parent, founder, CEO, Director of the Center of Entrepreneurship at St Louis University — of which are you the proudest?
It would be easy to say that my kids are my proudest accomplishment – but is that the right way to look at parenting? Like so many moms, I think I would still be proud of them if they wore a paper sack to school and didn’t bathe for a week. Somehow that doesn’t seem quite sufficient. I think I am most proud of the things I am trying to show them. I believe that I am modeling the American dream for my kids. I came from nothing and am showing them that a single mom can pursue her dreams with a bold, BRAZEN spirit and still have integrity along the way. Oh yeah – and I’m doing so with ZERO apologies, and they know it. We work hard and play hard and tell each other we love each other loudly and publicly. I can’t wait to see what dreams they pursue with a similar zeal and dedication – whether it’s teaching a classroom of kindergarteners or leading the free world. They will know that this momma has their back.
I’m also super proud that my ex-husband and I have figured out how to co-parent in such a way that benefits my kids so much. It wasn’t easy, but we got there. My kids have two parents – and two step-parents – who get along, communicate well, and even share in the joys and lows of this crazy journey together. That is very special.
What advice would you give your 23-year-old self?
Lawwwwwwd, where do I start? I guess the biggest regret I have is that I didn’t accept any of the opportunities I had to live outside of St. Louis. I had several chances to study and work in other cities, and I talked myself out of every one of them. Go live in Paris for a while, 23-year old Jenn.
Running two corporations and serving as mentors and coaches to a variety of other companies is massively impressive on its own, and yet you also pour so much into your family. How do you balance those worlds?
I think balance is all about choices and responsibility. At some point in my life, I guess I realized that no one was forcing me to do anything. If my life was overbooked, that was directly or indirectly because of choices I had made. It is up to me to decide where I spend my time and how I allocate my priorities. As a divorced parent, I only have my kids 50% of the time so I’m very protective of those days. I try really hard not to schedule travel or events on “mommy nights.” Interestingly, it took my divorce to realize how much control I have over my schedule (one of the perks of entrepreneurship!) and how readily I can generally choose how I compartmentalize my time.
After my divorce, I also had to find some help. I decided to decrease my budget for material things like clothes and shoes in order to hire some help. I bought a used car so that I would no longer have a car payment, and allocated that money towards a part-time household manager. For the price of a car payment, I was able to hire someone to help me pick up the kids a few nights a week, get groceries and stock other household items. This made ALL of the difference in my life.
Finally, I believe that paying attention to our health is extremely important – especially mental health. I think everyone needs to check in with mental health providers just as often (if not more) than they check in with their physical health providers and trainers. I check in with a therapist every other week, and it makes so much impact on my ability to re-center and decompress stress. Your physical health should not be a DIY project, nor should your mental and emotional health.
What skills from motherhood have you learned also lend themselves well business? And vice versa?
Ha ha – ALL OF the skills from motherhood also lend themselves well to business! Time management, multi-tasking, people management, inventory tracking – you can’t tell if I’m talking about your house or your biz, right? Research shows that women make excellent CEOs, and some of this is absolutely attributed to the finely-honed skills we learn as crazy mothers (!!) multi-tasking the hell out of our days, seven days a week. Don’t think you have what it takes to run a company? Think again.
How has your view of motherhood changed since becoming a mom?
Being a mom has taught me to have so fewer f—s to give. Every day we get to decide what battles we are going to pick, what mountains we are going to die on. Over the years, I’ve learned that, in the grand scheme of things, there are so few issues truly worth stressing or hurting over.
The important stuff surfaces to the top most of the time. It doesn’t matter if I have a few more pounds than I’d like around my middle or if my kids aren’t the star athletes on the basketball team. That my family and close friends are healthy and confident, my employees are happy (and paid!) and my customers find value in our services are really the only things worth giving a f— about anymore. Everything else works itself out in the wash.
What’s the most rewarding and challenging part of being a parent?
Most challenging? Remembering that they are kids, they are not adults. Stop trying to negotiate with them like they’re an investment banker, Jenn.
Most rewarding? Seeing my kids begin to take on projects, hobbies, and passions that I can tell they are interested in because I have exposed them to that.
When it comes to being a mom: what are you most insecure about and what are you most confident about?
It’s tough to be a single mom. My ex-husband remarried quickly after our divorce, which made me feel pretty insignificant as a parent since he now had a whole new family to offer my kids. So I promptly bought the kids a new dog (winning!).
I am most confident about the fact that my kids know they are loved…and that they shouldn’t get married until they are 30 (ha).
If you could only pick one, what has been your favorite memory from motherhood so far?
It’s just too tough to pick one. My favorite moments as a mom now are the private moments my kids want to have with me, mostly before bed. Each of them wants a little one-on-one “mommy time” and have constructed their own routine related to telling me about their days. It’s so precious and I’m pretty sure they will be my favorite memories when I’m thinking about this 10 years from now.
Tell us your morning routine.
On the days that I have my kiddos, I get myself completely ready between 6:30 – 7 so I can focus on getting them up and going by 7. They are up and dressed and ready for breakfast by 7:30, then out the door by 8. I have someone who helps me physically get them to school, and it’s amazing how much that simplifies my day at the beginning – I’m able to kiss them goodbye and head straight to work vs. sit in the carpool lane.
I’m all about simplification and efficiency, so I seized the opportunity to locate my company near my home (perks of being a founder!) — I walk two blocks to get to my office (yes, it is everything you imagine it would be – do it!). When I don’t have my kids, I swap out the time spent getting the kids ready with an hour or so of work before the rest of the world needs me.
Jennifer Ehlen is The Everymom…
Favorite family tradition?
For each kiddo, I designate one day a year (typically around their half-birthdays) as their special “day of fun.” We play hooky from work/school and they get to plan a full day of fun with just the two of us.
Craig (my fiance) and I and our kiddos are all pretty obsessed with Disney World and we aren’t ashamed to admit it.
Most embarrassing mom moment?
I’m nine years away from the good ole days of breastfeeding and diapers, so it’s been a while since I’ve had an embarrassing mom moment (see previous answer re: “no f—s to give”)
Favorite date night activity?
We both work so hard that our favorite thing to do together is to relax and do NOTHING. And we’re pretty damn good at it.
Best mom advice you’ve been given?
Hug your kids often.