Robyn Fukumoto is both an entrepreneur and supporter of fellow entrepreneurs. While working at BCG Digital Ventures launching corporate start-ups, Robyn and her co-worker (another serial entrepreneur) noticed a gap in the skincare industry. Sunscreens on the market were chemical-based with heavy-packaging, harming the environment and the human body. States like Hawaii, where Robyn is from, are banning these kinds of products to protect coral reefs. In response, they established Lani & Kai, a sustainable sunscreen brand made out of 100% minerals, 98% organic ingredients, and with 60% less non-recyclable plastic packaging.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
My path has been a wavy one like most entrepreneurs. I graduated into the 2009 recession with an internship and clear career path, but that all dissipated in the course of a few months. When trying to figure out what to do next, I decided to scratch my own itch while waiting for the rest of the world to open up. So, I started a one-time and part-time job matching site for unemployed students. At the time, we were an unintentional competitor to TaskRabbit when it was just in Boston. We were both hustling, trying to figure out our market, and ended up capturing a good share of the Javits Center, a vast convention space. We took over all the conferences there and started setting up temporary jobs for them.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
The majority of entrepreneurship is about passion and follow-through. There is a misnomer about entrepreneurship that you have to have a perfect idea. Nobody has a perfect idea. In my experience and current job, I have learned that it’s about having the gumption to continue on.
You have an idea, you do some testing, figure out what’s right and wrong with it, and you pivot until you have something that works in a market. You are not an entrepreneur if you have something in your head and stick with it even if market conditions tell you not to, and then you end up failing. It’s a matter of being resilient and continuing to change.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Firstly, being humble with your ideas. As an entrepreneur, the only constant is change – you will have good days and bad days. Secondly, perseverance and follow-through. I think it is very easy to get stuck in your head and go in circles searching for something perfect. Still, you have to just start, put something out there, and then continue on your path and change it if you hit adversity (which you will!). The third skill is having passion; the best entrepreneurs are the ones the most excited about their ideas and the process. Those are the people I like working with.
What is your favourite part of supporting entrepreneurs?
I started in social impact working with non-profits and educational institutions, something I have always wanted to pursue. However, although I found I wanted to make a difference, the public sector worked a bit slowly for me.
I really like entrepreneurship because I found nothing more impactful than helping people realise their ideas and make things happen for themselves. My favourite part is continuing to support entrepreneurs and as an entrepreneur myself, feeling that fulfilment personally.
What entrepreneurial individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
There are so many it is hard to capture! At the moment – and apologies for the cliché answer for the times – female entrepreneurs and shops run by women inspire me. They face so much adversity in getting funding, a lack of representation, and expectations of a complete home life whilst being an entrepreneur. They really are super women.
Some specific individuals and organizations that also spring to mind include: Afton Vechery and Carly Leahy’s work with Modern Fertility, Kat Schneider who set up Ritual, Steve Case a social investor/entrepreneur and Pat Brown who developed Impossible Burger.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
For Modern Fertility or Ritual, I’d want to ask them how they pushed through the education of their idea in mostly male-dominated board rooms, and if or how they think female-led funding would change that. Also, what the biggest stigma was to overcome and if they think we will still be fighting that battle in years to come.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment while supporting entrepreneurs?
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned while supporting entrepreneurs?
The failures are endless; I don’t even dwell on them! Start to expect and desire failure. Try to fail early as it’s easier to fix and change. There’s a perception if you put on blinders and push through, you’ll be successful as an entrepreneur. But if you pivot early on, it’s a lot easier than if you have gone deep into development and often ends up being less costly. Something I also think a lot about is your co-founders and the team you start your business with. Getting along with them personally as you spend so much time with them is crucial, and also doing a trial run, so you know if your work ethic and mindsets are mutually compatible.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
In terms of funding in Oxford, apply for the Oxford Seed Fund. If it’s socially bent, apply for the Skoll Ventures Awards. The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship has many other different inroads to other places, like mentors you can speak with.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman supporting entrepreneurs? If so, how have you overcome them?
Over the years, a notable comment that has stuck with me is that often the way women entrepreneurs get funded is less on business more on ancillary opinion. The male VC will go home and ask if his wife if she likes the product, and if his wife does, it’s funded.
Also, there is a tendency to shy away from important issues today; one of them was this amazing story of a female entrepreneur trying to get egg freezing done simply. Lots of male funders backed off and said it seemed too sensitive, but were ignoring swathes of the population, their changing needs and the opportunity to impact so many lives.
The space of menopause is also fascinating. The fact that we haven’t had much innovation in such an important stage of life seems like a real miss.
What resources would you recommend for other women interested in doing this?
At BCG Digital Ventures, we are building our Women’s Group. By finding points of inclusivity in our culture we hope to bridge the gap between women who feel they don’t have mentorship and those who want to help.
Try starting young. If you start in college and learn about these things quickly it can become easier because you gain confidence earlier. Getting yelled at by a VC in college means you can get yelled at by a VC when you’re older!
How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs?
I noticed that in class women often apologise first or only raise their hands when they have the perfect response. Women are also not raising their hands to be more educated about entrepreneurship and for opportunities. Finding a way to equalise this disparity, perhaps by making it a mandatory process to learn about and then an opt-out system would be fantastic.
We had a mentorship program for high school students with 35 boys and only five girls who raised hands. We need to change these numbers because the girls were all brilliant minds. I just wish there were more of them!
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Find the women who support women. I’m incredibly lucky to have had fantastic mentors in my past who have helped me navigate challenges and advocate for me to step into opportunities I would not have been given without support. If you have influence, be that advocate.
As a female entrepreneur entering the space, we tend to underestimate ourselves, but failing is an important part of the challenge. It’s key to go out with confidence, try your thing and if it doesn’t work; change it. Just remember, you’re smart and capable and can do it as much as anyone else can!
Any last words of advice?
Don’t be afraid to reach out or to share. Entrepreneurship is made up of a community of people who have been through what you’re going through. It can feel like it’s a secret society or a small group of people, but the more we can broaden ourselves out, share our learnings and be more accepting, the rising tide will lift all boats.
Enterprising Oxford is a University of Oxford initiative to help connect people to the entrepreneurship resources they need, and to promote entrepreneurship across Oxfordshire.
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