July 16, 2020

Purpose and Product: A Conversation with Sherry Coutu CBE

Sherry Coutu CBE, the Canadian Founder and now Executive Chair of Founders4Schools, is motivated by two things in life: purpose and product. Her drive to see more school children chasing careers with meaning has led her to explore purpose in both a practical and intellectual sense, helping articulate and redefine what purpose can be for the many children who (quite understandably!) don’t want to be journalists, doctors or lawyers.

We sat down with Sherry to discuss her ambitions for Founders4Schools, the importance of encouraging children to chase after high-impact careers, and her top tips on how to scale with success.

Sherry’s Key Learning Takeaways:

  • Solve a problem worth solving. If you don’t have a problem worth solving a) you might get bored yourself and b) your ability to attract a team dwindles significantly.
  • You don’t have to be great at everything. Hire the right people to help you with the things you find most challenging.
  • Scaling and hiring are interlinked. When you don’t have a team around you that wants what you want, and that doesn’t feel motivated to collaborate, then it becomes really hard to move the needle.
  • Impact is the end goal. Chase after a career where you’ll be able to have the most positive influence.
  • The impact that entrepreneurs can have by talking in schools is phenomenal. Take the time to give back to the community and you’d be surprised by how much you get out of it.

Can you tell us about Founders4Schools’s core mission?

Our goal is to connect students to the people who create jobs: entrepreneurs and business leaders. And we do this because we want to make it really simple for students to understand what sort of opportunities they can pursue. At the end of the day, we want kids to follow high-impact career paths that bring them genuine enjoyment.

This is the problem that I’m trying to untangle. As entrepreneurs we try to solve problems and this is the problem that gets me out of bed in the morning. It’s really difficult for kids to answer the question, “what do you want to do when you’re older?” But it shouldn’t be.

And I happen to think that forming your own company or joining a company that’s highly innovative and growing quickly is the highest impact choice anyone can make. When I was a student I was told that I should be a social worker but I wanted to be a lawyer. I had never met an entrepreneur before, so for me it wasn’t a high impact career. Children in schools today are often told all about careers in law, government and journalism, but nothing about entrepreneurship and business.

What drives you on a day-to-day basis?

I love creating an amazing product. Yesterday, for example, we were running a hackathon, the outcome of which was to improve the service we offer to our users. We’re always working towards improving our offer.

It’s the first time in fifteen years that I’ve been able to do this. After starting out as a product developer and programmer, I moved into Angel investing for quite a while, before only recently turning back to my entrepreneurial roots.

I feel on fire, alive and really excited about every single day because I love the product that Founders4Schools is building. We’re solving a big social problem that no one else is tackling.

“My creative instincts lead me to zero in on product, so the challenge has always been finding a team to run aspects of the company that I don’t find so exciting.”

This could be sales, this could be marketing, this could be brand (I’ve always been such a failure on brand!); it doesn’t much matter, as the important thing is building a team that covers the essential elements.

I never delegate product. I get such a kick out of figuring this out and delivering the end result to the customer. The problem always starts with the customer – and in my case this means helping students on their journey to really enjoyable and high-impact lives.

What skills have helped you make an impact?

Is tenacity a skill or a trait? I’m not quite sure, but it’s certainly helped me out. Curiosity is important and this obviously feeds back into being tenacious. If you’re curious then you’re going to keep on working towards a solution rather than baulking at the first hurdle. And I think this is important for everyone, not just in their work lives but in their outside lives and personal relationships too.

“Curiosity also fosters a love of learning. I think it’s important that younger people know that learning isn’t about reading books until you’re eighteen and then stopping.”

As individuals it’s about exploring the boundaries, and as the world unravels and ravels and reconfigures itself in ways that we have scarcely imagined this idea of lifelong learning will become evermore important.

Is there anyone in your network who you find particularly inspiring?

I love everybody! This week, delightfully, started at 10 Downing Street, with Reid Hoffman, a close friend of mine, and we had a great conversation about problem solving. I always learn a lot from his philosophical approach to business.

People who get massive things done always get me super excited. Yesterday, for example, we had ten data scientists in who were all incredibly talented. They understand Elasticsearch in way that really impressed me; I used to program but their understanding of what is at its core a very narrow subject took us to some interesting places. Smashing things together with people from different disciplines and building bridges between different worlds is always worth exploring.

What’s the key to scaling? And what are the main challenges that entrepreneurs typically face?

My advice would be to solve a problem worth solving. If you don’t have a problem worth solving a) you might get bored yourself and b) your ability to attract a team dwindles significantly. A problem worth solving is linked to having a mission as a business. If you want to surround yourself with phenomenal people and achieve something that you would love to tell your grandparents you were associated with, you need to think about impact.

“If there’s a problem that others agree is worth solving, you’ll be able to be a talent magnet and this will allow you to solve this problem. But part of being a talent magnet is learning to appreciate the contributions made by others.”

One of the things that I’ve learned, both as an investor and as an entrepreneur, is how important it is to attract, retain and grow a team. You absolutely must have a team that works together. You can have the brightest person in the world and a problem that desperately needs solving, but if they can’t work in a team then fundamental issues crop up. It quickly becomes a scaling issue. When you don’t have a team around you that wants what you want, that doesn’t feel motivated to collaborate, then it becomes really hard to move the needle.

What would you include on your learning playlist?

I’m a fan of Atlas Shrugged. It’s a 1,100 page book in 6pt type but it’s definitely worth reading as it articulates a philosophy of impact. Do you wish the world to wash over you or do you wish to navigate life? That’s the sort of question it explores. Rand’s book had a big influence on me when I was younger and certainly changed the way I thought about a number of things.

I’m also very interested in behavioural economics and psychology. Books like The Nudge get underneath how people think and what motivates them. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Reid Hoffman’s The Alliance are also favourites of mine. Reid’s book, in particular, is well worth reading, as it talks about aligning people behind team goals rather than exploiting them to achieve your personal goals. In a world of extreme talent shortages, a phenomena which is only set to worsen, it pays to be mindful of how to get the most out of your people.

One conference that I’ve attended every year for the past 15 years is the TED conference. It’s great to see that they’ve opened up their platform up in the last several years. Susan Cain’s talk on introverts, for example, is spectacular. It opened me up to the different ways that introverts add value to a company.

“While I’ve always known that introverts can be great leaders, it helped me realise that some people would rather die than be in crowded room. This in turn has made me rethink how I deal with people who may not necessarily like to live out loud.”
“Another talk that I really like is by the head of the Gates Foundation. She talks about the application of data science to public health, and this approach made me realise that what I’m doing is applying data science to public education.”

Silicon Valley Comes to the UK, which I’m involved with, is the event that I look forward to the most each year. Now in our tenth year, it’s our mission to bring high-impact entrepreneurs to the UK. For the people we bring over to the UK, it gives them an opportunity to see what’s happening in the wider world. When you’re growing as fast as they are you can easily get stuck in an echo chamber of sorts, so we like to give them an opportunity to take stock and reflect on the world around them.

On the other hand our British-based entrepreneurs gain an invaluable insight into how high-growth companies and the people who lead them operate. We convene each June and November, and the previous November we explored the application of AI in bio solutions and financial services. I have a slight fascination with blockchain at the moment because of my work at the Stock Exchange.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The impact that entrepreneurs can have by talking in schools is phenomenal. It triples the percentage of kids that positively change their behaviour, often for years afterwards, and one hour with an entrepreneur is all it takes. I would urge any entrepreneur to give it a go: you don’t have to prepare — you just need to come and be yourself.

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