Paying it forward with missionary zeal.
by Deborah Hamilton-Lynne
When I asked for quotes from friends and co-workers of Ingrid Vanderveldt, one in particular stood out: “Ingrid is like a superhero, a force of nature. She jumps out of airplanes. She runs marathons. She rides motorcycles. She spends her days building a huge business and her downtime saving the planet. Her energy or enthusiasm is boundless and coupled with the passion to make every moment matter.”
It came from Heidi Messer, the chairman and co-founder of collective and a member of the Dell EIR Advisory Board, someone Vanderveldt describes as a mentor, advisor, close friend. She’s also the woman who encouraged Vanderveldt to attend her first Dell Women’s Entrepreneurial Network event, one of those precipitous events that led to an ah-ha moment and a calling.
After meeting the petite force of nature named Ingrid Vanderveldt, I read this quote and I thought my job was done. Messer had described her friend in a nutshell and this would be the shortest article in the history of the magazine. However, there are so many facets to Vanderveldt and her life’s work that it seemed impossible to come up with a comprehensive description.
Digging a little deeper, I reached out to Lauren Flanagan, managing director of BELLE Capital USA, and also a member of the Dell EIR Advisory Board.
“Ingrid is a force of nature. Her energy is contagious and she brings the heart, soul and DNA of entrepreneurism back to Dell and to thousands of entrepreneurs and government officials in her role as Dell’s entrepreneur-in-residence. She is my hero and soul sister,” Flanagan says.
So now that I have your attention, let me describe Ingrid Vanderveldt as a woman who lives life and everything she does with remarkable zeal. Living up to Webster’s definition of the word “zeal”: a strong feeling of interest and enthusiasm that makes someone very eager or determined to do something, she does not contain her passion for her calling—empowering entrepreneurs, particularly female entrepreneurs—to “authentically honor what they are called to do and then to move forward, to take action.”
Vanderveldt, one of four children, grew up in Bethesda, Md. Her father was an engineer and her mother was a psychologist. They met at Catholic University of America and instilled a deep sense of faith and purpose in their children, so deep, in fact, that Vanderveldt seriously considered becoming a missionary. But entrepreneurship also ran through her veins. As a child, she would produce plays with neighborhood children and happily collected the quarters from the parents in attendance. After receiving a master’s degree in architecture from the Savannah College of Art and Design, Vanderveldt realized she had a talent for enterprise and was drawn to entrepreneurship, which led to Austin and the McCombs School of Business. Receiving her master’s degree in entrepreneurship, she also connected to influential mentors, including Dr. Royna Kozmetsky, George Kozmetsky, Tom Meredith, Bobby Inman, Red McCombs and Willie Kocurek.
Launching her first company in 1998, Vanderveldt transferred her missionary zeal to a passion for entrepreneurship and never looked back. Today, she serves as entrepreneur-in-residence at Dell, heading global entrepreneurial initiatives for the company as creator/curator of The Dell Center for Entrepreneurs and the Dell Innovators Credit Fund. She is currently serving a two-year term as a member of the United Nation Foundation Global Entrepreneur Council as one of 10 members who help foster change and innovation throughout the world. The UN Global Entrepreneur Council features entrepreneurs age 45 and younger, spanning the corporate, creative and media industries. Her personal mission is to empower a billion women by putting a mobile device in each of their hands by 2020.
Her combined roles of entrepreneur-in-residence and head of global entrepreneurial initiatives for Dell have brought Vanderveldt full circle, combining her love of architecture with a purpose-driven enthusiasm to see women create and succeed at their own businesses. Referring to herself as a serial entrepreneur she has created and continues to create companies that have all had one common denominator: a tie to technology. Speaking to a group of budding female entrepreneurs at the recent BIG Austin 1000 Women of Wealth event, Vanderveldt related a personal story of her successes and her failures, including a venture that took all of her capital and left her homeless.
“I had just sold my first two businesses and we didn’t make a lot of money there,” she says. “I jumped in to another venture that I was extremely passionate about and I knew I could make it work. I jumped in with both feet without doing my homework. I was young, in my 20s and was a slow learner. I was also determined to be responsible about the people who worked for me and believed in me, so I kept trying to make it work. From that experience, I learned the importance of doing your financial plan and being the architect of building a business. When you get knocked down and find yourself against a wall, it is very humbling. Fortunately for me, Tom Meredith gave me the chance to learn from him how important learning and understanding financials are to success of a business.”
Vanderveldt went on to create multiple businesses and was invited to the pilot Dell Women’s Entrepreneurial Network event in Shanghai in 2010. Designed to connect female founders, CEOs and leaders of high-growth businesses in the world’s top markets to share best practices and challenges, and to celebrate the impact women-owned businesses have on the global economy, the event immediately impressed upon Vanderveldt that “there was no ask on the part of Dell other than asking us to share our stories and asking us how they could help us succeed. They genuinely wanted to support women and help us grow our businesses.”
It was on the plane coming home from the second DWEN conference in 2011 in Rio de Janeiro that Vanderveldt experienced an ah-ha moment.
“I knew my commitment would be to women globally and that I would make that commitment my calling. I asked myself, ‘How can I, as a person of integrity and authenticity with the vision to help women globally, not work with this company that was also committed to a global reach?’ When the plane landed, I called the president of Dell [at the time], Steve Fellis. I was so nervous because I had no idea how or what a job would be,” she says. “I just knew it had to happen and I asked for a meeting with him. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to ask for, but as it happened, just five days before the meeting, I met with my first entrepreneurship professor, Gary Cadenhead, and we were discussing ideas when he mentioned the concept of entrepreneur-in-residence and I got it. I went and met with Steve and was totally authentic with him: ‘Here is what I want to do on a global basis, and how can we work together?’ Coincidentally, Steve had been considering an EIR program for Dell, so it was one of those timing things arranged serendipitously by the universe. We walked out and said we were going to do it.”
Appointed as Dell’s first entrepreneur-in-residence in 2011, Vanderveldt has largely defined the role in relationship to corporations as something previously most often associated with universities and venture capital funds. When asked what an EIR is and what she does, Vanderveldt describes it this way: “The concept of EIR is to bridge the outside in. Three or four months in to the job, I began to go to Steve and later to Michael [Dell] and tell them what entrepreneurs needed and they empowered me to build what I wanted and needed when I was starting out. I strategized with the leadership team to find ideas to create more value for the entire global marketplace. They understood and got involved with entrepreneurs and women at a time when no one else would do it, and it was a win/win for everyone. My plan was to establish Dell as the No. 1 end-to-end solution provider for entrepreneurs worldwide, and that we execute that vision through the Dell Center for Entrepreneurs, which I created with my team. Separate from my role as EIR, I head up entrepreneurial initiatives globally for the company, including the Dell Center for Entrepreneurs, the Dell Innovator’s Credit Fund and I currently oversee the $115 million debt fund. I run those initiatives just like I would run an entrepreneurial venture. The goal is to keep Dell in the No. 1 position by using our four pillars—access to knowledge, expertise, technology and capital—to basically show up with our people and resources to get in there to support entrepreneurs, to figure out how we can help them succeed. We have not only created a new sales model, but we have created a number of ways to engage with our team.”
For Vanderveldt, her work is not a choice; it is purely and simply a calling. She believes women need more role models and that when women see themselves as leaders, they can realize their fullest potential. That potential translates in to being a successful entrepreneur. Realizing women have a long way to go, Vanderveldt believes that the momentum is in our favor, citing statistics that 70 percent of new businesses are started by women and that through our dollars, women also control 70 percent of the world’s GDP. She encourages women by saying, “Roll up your sleeves and get to work. I feel physical pain when I meet people who say what they really want to do but aren’t honoring it for one reason or another. Take the first step. If you know the stats, you cannot fail.”
What is the No. 1 reason women do not heed their authentic calling and take the leap to become entrepreneurs? Vanderveldt says it is purely and simply a lack of confidence and successful role models. But that is changing as more women head successful entrepreneurial ventures and men welcome them among the ranks of CEOs.
“I challenge women to shift the mindset past the glass ceiling to it is what it is,” she says. “Focus on that and focus on what it is that we want to do. That is where women become exceptionally powerful. Women are getting more active now and historically guys have been the drivers, but let’s move on. I believe that the guys have just been waiting for us to show up.”
How do women get the confidence to take the risk and make the leap in to entrepreneurship? Get to the bottom of what it is you are authentically called to do and take action. Vanderveldt says the fastest antidote to lack of confidence and expertise is to take the first step. Find out what you need to know and learn as much as you can.
“What gets me jazzed up is when I meet someone who actually knows what it is that they really want to do,” she says. “My mind goes to work and my process goes to work. OK, you are saying that now, but how bad do you want it? On your last day on this earth, do you want to look back and say, ‘Gosh, I wish I would have done something’? Or do you want to look back and say, ‘I did it and I lived the life I wanted to live’? ”
According to Vanderveldt, success also hinges on four important factors: passion, persistence, having a mentor and financial literacy. Each is essential to creating and sustaining a business.
“The No. 1 thing any entrepreneur can do to move forward and give them the best chance of success possible is to get a mentor,” she suggests. “From my mentors, I learned the value of integrity, the importance of connections, the value of asking for help and advice, the importance of financials and how important it is to stay true to your calling.”
Vanderveldt also says the importance of financial literacy cannot be over-emphasized when it comes to women in business.
“One thing where I spend a lot of time and effort is on the financial literacy for women,” she says. “It is a huge thing, especially for women. When it gets down to the nuts and bolts, they have no idea how to do it and they need the reality of how to put a financial plan in to place. Richard Branson admitted that up until 10 years ago, he didn’t really know how to read a set of financials, and this is true of most CEOs. The moment that an entrepreneur and especially a woman takes a deep breath and says, ‘You know what? I don’t know how to do financial, but I am going to learn,’ is the minute that women start to gain an understanding of how you model out a business idea. Financials force the important questions: Do I have enough money to start this business or do I need more? Can I afford to launch this right now? Do I need a loan? Do I need equity? Do my partners know people who can help me? It really makes you get real on what your risk profile is. I cannot tell you how many people I have met that jumped in to getting a business off the ground and when they later found themselves essentially bankrupt, say if they had done a financial model up front and understood the reality and the risk, they wouldn’t have made the mistakes that led to their failed business. My background is in architecture, so basically, if you build your plan and know what your resources are then you can model your business deliberately around that blueprint.”
The future for Vanderveldt is all about paying it forward and empowering as many women as possible in both her personal life and her professional position.
“I can’t tell what will come up next but I know that I haven’t even skimmed the surface. My commitment to play a global role to support women will only grow. My work in the policy arena is all going to grow. I can’t tell you what form that will take, but continuing to expand the reach is my priority. I want it to get bigger and bigger and more and more connected.”
Throughout our interview, Vanderveldt never lost her zeal as she talked about her calling. I was reminded of another quote describing Vanderveldt given by Heidi Messer: “Ingrid represents a rare and new breed of executive. She’s driven to succeed in business without losing her sense of mission to better the world.”
And I realized that she has come full circle back to her original purpose. The woman is spreading the gospel of the power of honoring your authentic calling through example. She has become a missionary out to make the world a better place by empowering a billion women.
Ingrid Vanderveldt’s Top 10 List for Women Building Successful Businesses
- Get a mentor.
- Form a support group. (the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network offers a great support network for women in business. Springboard Enterprises is an example of a women’s focused business accelerator.)
- Know your number and your risk (i.e., learn to run financial models for what you want to do and understand what you are and aren’t able to take on.)
- Show up and focus on what you are looking to accomplish. (Focusing on the business as opposed to the fact that you’re a woman at the table equalizes the conversation. Everyone wants to work with a winner, regardless of sex, race, background, etc.)
- Leverage technology to open new markets and help keep costs down. (Check out the Dell Center for Entrepreneurs at dell.com/entrepreneur for great resources for businesses at all stages.)
- Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Everything takes time and anyone building a legacy has to sometimes walk through fire to get to the other side. It’s part of the journey and all great leaders have had to go through it.
- Always be learning. Some great books to read include Overcoming Underearning, The Three Laws of Performance, My First Billion was the Hardest, SuperRich and The Laws of Divine Compensation.
- Mitigate risk for business partners. It’s great to paint the big picture, but if you want a strong investor or client, figure out what the win-win is and how to mitigate financial risk for them while proving your capabilities and building their trust.
- Screw-ups happen. Be transparent. Stay authentic. The most important asset you bring to the table is your own integrity. Keeping this will always help you to move forward.
- Make the impossible possible! When you live your life and follow your passions when starting your business (think Simon Sinek’s Start with Why), then anything is possible.