A Founder’s Journey Includes Fighting for the Right To Be Heard in the Face of Adversity With Dr. Elizabeth Clayborne
October 16, 2022
VENTEUR spoke with Dr. Elizabeth Clayborne, a physician, mother, CEO, and leader about her entrepreneurial journey. Dr. Clayborne attended Duke University as an undergraduate, where she designed her own major in Medical Ethics and Religion. Before medical school, she completed a two-year research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in the Social and Behavioral Research Branch of the National Human Genome Research Institute with a research focus on race, ethnicity, and genetics. Dr. Clayborne attended medical school at Case Western Reserve University, where she completed a dual MD/MA Bioethics degree in 4 years. She completed a residency in Emergency Medicine at the George Washington University Hospital and served as Chief Resident in her fourth year.
Dr. Clayborne is currently a faculty member at the University of Maryland School of Medicine Department of Emergency Medicine with an academic focus on ethics, health policy, end-of-life care, and innovation/entrepreneurship. She developed NasaClip, a novel nosebleed device, as a resident and, in 2015, was awarded the NSF I-Corps grant, which helped to launch her company Emergency Medical Innovation, LLC.
Dr. Clayborne is the former Chair of the MedChi Committee on Ethics and Judicial Affairs, serves on the Ethics Committee of the American College of Emergency Physicians, and is a member of multiple academic and professional organizations. She also did a TEDx talk on advance care planning entitled: “How to protect your body and your doctor's soul during Covid-19.”
The entrepreneurial journey is one of self-discovery. What have you learned about yourself while building your business?
The skills I rely upon every day to be a great mom, doctor, professor, and public health informant align well with making me an excellent entrepreneur, CEO, and innovator who has invented a medical device that makes it easy to treat nosebleeds.
Some of my most vital personality traits – including creative problem-solving, persistence, and resilience — have been helpful when taking on something high-risk, like starting a business.
I learned I am good at redirecting, pivoting, and making a way when there isn’t one. I’ve become a master of multi-tasking because I lead a multi-faceted life. I proudly tap into those parts of my personality and identity as Liz, the CEO, founder, mother, doctor, leader, and woman of color.
The entrepreneurial journey is often lonely. Have you experienced loneliness as an entrepreneur? If yes, what was that experience like, and how did you overcome it? If not, why do you think this is the case?
Being an entrepreneur is lonely because you are the only one on your path. No one person is doing exactly what you are doing at any given time. Also, as a start-up founder, you often work at home and are physically alone.
It can feel like the adage: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears, does it make a sound?” Every day I talk to numerous people, make hundreds of decisions, and put out multiple fires. But there is no real support or appreciation from anyone, so you have only your self-satisfaction to go on as a day well spent.
This is why I am disciplined in maintaining a healthy work-life balance. I have seen the results of burnout in doctors in medicine where you go, go, go and give and give. The same can be true for an entrepreneur in business. You can’t work so hard that you begin to lose your passion or understand why you are doing what you are doing in the first place. I continue to see patients in the ER, spend time with family, and stay connected with peers and friends to maintain this purpose.
The Psychological Warfare
Entrepreneurs generally sleep less, work more, and let their health slip. This combination, combined with loneliness, often results in insecurity, self-esteem issues, and low self-worth. Have you experienced any of these issues as an entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurs are set up to lead unhealthy lives. That’s because there are poor work-life boundaries, and they often feel the need to work all the time. This leads to overworking and ignoring basic needs like eating, sleeping, exercising, or socializing. I’ve fallen prey to these patterns.
The important thing is to recognize bad habits. Like everyone, we know that it’s one thing to acknowledge change is needed but another thing to do something about it. It helps if I take baby steps like committing to a quick 20-minute workout, getting more organized to manage my time more effectively, ensuring I’m eating and drinking properly, and giving myself a day of rest.
Getting just one of these things done can help change my frame of mind and set expectations into more manageable bite-sized pieces.
I strongly believe in also taking a ‘Sabbath’ day–one of the most profound pieces of advice I adhered to after reading Wayne Muller’s “Sabbath.” It helped me find greater balance and renewed energy as a Founder and CEO, a single mother of two young girls, and a physician. After reading this book, I decided Mondays are my “day of rest,” and I do my best not to schedule meetings, clinical work, phone calls, or obligations to check my email.
The book examines the importance of respecting rest and why it creates the space you and your employees need to be more creative and productive at work. This counters how most U.S. businesses operate today, where little respect is given to the need for personal time or vacations – a mindset that I do not wish to replicate in my company culture or way of life.
Newer entrepreneurs often equate their success with the success and value of their business. If their business fails, they are a failure. If their business succeeds, they are a success. Have you experienced this warped perception of reality?
It is a natural human tendency to connect your baby to your identity. But similar to my children, they are separate entities from me. They are not a direct reflection of you, despite how heavily invested you are in dedicating your time, effort, and care toward their overall growth and success, much like a business.
If my company did poorly, I would seek learning opportunities and reflect upon things I could have done better. Through this lens, I do not see failure as being tied to my identity per se, but rather my experience at this moment, within my current role, in this company, instead of the totality of who I am or my worth.
What are your three biggest fears as an entrepreneur, and how do you manage those fears?
1. Having Financial Security
Being financially insecure is one of my greatest fears. I became a doctor to help people and improve the human condition, but I was equally attracted to the financial stability a medical career could provide. In my shift to founder and CEO, I find it nerve-wracking to wonder where my next paycheck is coming from while keeping the business afloat. However, I’ve been comforted in trusting my creativity and determination to find revenue and funding resources for the company. I also know that I can always pivot to another venture or fall back to being a practicing doctor if needed.
2. Running a Successful Business
Having a successful business and an exit has become my passion and my dream. I put a lot of my time, money, and energy into it. They say ‘dreams never die,’ so I have no option to fail. Yet, the reality that many startups don’t make it, particularly as a female minority business owner, the odds are against me– this makes my work even more challenging. Successful or not, I will continue to grow and blossom, gaining life experience and skills that can contribute to my company's success or another business venture in the future.
3. Being Accepted as a Black Female Entrepreneur
It saddens me to say this, but bias is pervasive in our society and can often influence and negatively impact those most deserving. I’ve felt this divide in the investor community, where there is a well-documented and known funding gap in the opportunities available to minority entrepreneurs, particularly female and black founders like me. Women receive only 2% of venture capital, and blacks get less than 1%. Real change takes opportunities like these to speak the truth, create awareness, and open people’s minds to recognize and appreciate the greatness in all people, no matter their background or race. I am proud to demonstrate black excellence for greater acceptance of black-owned businesses in today’s world.
What are three mistakes you made early on as an entrepreneur, what did you learn from them, and how can others avoid these mistakes?
1. Go Big Early
My early advice to those with a great idea is to go big. Early on, I could not give the time I needed to develop and grow the business. For those with great views, I’d recommend going all in with both feet and treating your opinion like your main hustle instead of your side hustle. Doing so will help you discover if you need to pivot or move to another idea more quickly.
2. Accept Help
You can’t underestimate how much help you will need. As a type-A physician personality who thrives on organization and believes in perfection, the hardest thing for me was letting go of control and understanding there is only so much I can do myself. I would advise building a trusted, supportive team that you can delegate to so that you can be even more nimble in growing the business while avoiding burning out in the process.
3. Be Fearless
Believe in yourself and your ideas. After years in school and training to be a physician, I struggled internally with whether to play it safe and hold onto being primarily a doctor. I was hesitant and timid then, but I am bold now. I know my worth. I believe in my idea and have the medical knowledge and experience to back it, along with the education and skill set to execute it. This propelled my decision to leap into fully committing to NasaClip. Today, giving everything to the business, I embody confidence and proudly project how sure I am of my product, business plan, myself, and value.
What are three things you see that are often overlooked by entrepreneurs you encounter, and how can other entrepreneurs be aware of these things from the beginning?
1. Focus on Your Business Because Time Is of the Essence
The business must come first, and time is of the essence. Even if you need to work to support your household, you must restructure your life to make the time required to keep developing your idea and launching the business entirely. For many, this means letting go and making the birth and growth of your business a top priority. By going full throttle, investors will take you more seriously, and family and friends will understand the depth of your commitment to launch the business. There is truth in the saying: the more significant the effort, the sweeter the rewards.
2. Seize Every Opportunity No Matter Where It Comes From
Never take for granted the opportunity to meet or speak to someone. Instead, be open and a sponge to receiving feedback and input. You never know who can give you something of value – advice, network, contacts, etc. You’ll be surprised how critically important each one of these interactions is in your journey as an entrepreneur. Often, the most rewarding prizes come from unexpected sources.
3. Prioritize Your Health and Wellness
For your business to be successful, you must first take excellent care of yourself. This means recognizing the critical role that your physical, emotional, and mental state of mind plays. If you have personal challenges with you or your family, you need to recognize that and make sure you are promoting your own business and self-care because if you are not succeeding, the company will not succeed either.
What are three seemingly insurmountable obstacles you’ve faced as an entrepreneur, and how have you overcome them?
1. Lack of Funding
When you have no funding, there’s no money to make a prototype, build marketing or sales, or take steps to grow the business. It can feel like there's no way forward. Since it’s not in my DNA to fail, I was tenacious and creative in how I targeted and applied to different accelerators and investor groups. I found my break with the Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO). The important thing is to have grit and keep going. If I hadn’t persevered, my company would not be where it is today.
2. Overcoming Supply Chain Challenges
The COVID shutdown and work stoppages in the U.S. and abroad continue to cause disruptions in the supply chain. There have been several issues among multiple suppliers resulting in months of delays. These delays were becoming a real threat to the business. However, I was able to figure out a way to get around these challenges by shifting our manufacturing approach. It made all the difference, and the device is even better than before. If you ever feel like you are in a corner or stuck, then pivot and turn in another direction.
3. Managing Personal Life Events While Growing the Business
Life is a series of precious moments. We have our highs, which may include a new job, a baby, or a home. We have our lows, which can include sickness, death, job loss, a breakup, or a divorce. These events bring emotional, physical, and financial impacts. During the lows, it may feel like there is no way through.
Yet, staying focused and trying to see the good still is essential. In my journey, going through a divorce while building my business allowed me to create a more peaceful living environment where I can be my most authentic self. Even though it's been painful, the growth I’ve experienced in living a more accurate, purposeful life has made me align with my North Star and be better at everything I am doing in my multifaceted life.
What are three ways you have managed to boost your productivity without causing burnout?
1. Have a Clear Vision and Stay True to It
I am more productive when I am appropriately rested. That is why I’m a huge proponent of scheduling a day of rest to free myself of the barrage of emails, texts, meetings, and phone calls, for the kind of quiet your mind and soul need to reset. As a physician, I would prescribe a minimum of one month of vacation and a four-day workweek for employees. You are inefficient when working at a deficit, which can result in injury, costly mistakes, loss of creativity, and bad choices for most.
2. Actively Staying Organized
My calendar is everything. It keeps me on track and helps me make the most of my days. I tend to schedule a time for blocks of meetings or set follow-up reminders about tasks, appointments, or essential functions like eating and exercising. I am also more purposeful with my time by reflecting at the end of the month to see where I could be even more efficient.
3. Remaining Flexible and Open-Minded
I am constantly taking inventory of myself and my business in terms of what is working and needs improvement. I often tap into the advice of experts like an executive coach, advisors, and team members so that I can work smarter, remove inefficiencies and boost productivity. It’s a critical practice you should follow to identify where and when changes need to be made quickly.
How can newer entrepreneurs develop a healthy work-life balance even when it seems like an impossible task?
It is worth repeating once more: schedule a ‘sabbath’ day. This day of rest is essential to your physical health and well-being. You must respect the need and purposefully find and schedule the balance between life and work.
We have flipped values in the US that you are not valuable unless you are working when it should be you are not as useful unless you are a healthy and happy human being. Rest and balance are equally crucial for your mental health. Do not feed into the unhealthy belief and mindset that you are unworthy, undeserving, or lazy because you wish to rest, a basic human need. It is a misnomer and will set you up to not enjoy your time off.
Being your best means staying your best. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
I think I am more valuable when I have more work-life balance because I show up more purposefully as the human that can sometimes be a mother, sometimes be a doctor, and be a founder and CEO in each of those capacities if I am balancing a way that speaks to me and my needs, which makes me happy.
What three key pieces of advice would have made your entrepreneurial journey easier, and why?
1. Don’t Let Perfection Paralyze the Process
Your first prototype of your product or iteration of your idea may not be perfect, but you need to get it out. You have to start somewhere and take that leap. You will learn, grow, and improve the product along the way. You just have to keep moving ahead before an opportunity passes.
2. Build a Great Team
Remember to set the tone for the culture and environment of your company by attracting the people you want to work with. Establish what you want that vibe to be early on and invest in people. Building a great team will help you reach success.
3. Believe in Yourself
Don’t let fear or insecurities bog you down. I had to let go of the imposter syndrome, especially as a black woman, and whether I was qualified to be a CEO. I had to stop wondering how good I was and embrace how good of a Founder I wanted and knew I could be.
What do you think the most significant difference is between how an entrepreneur sees their career path versus how an employee at a company sees their career path, and why?
Entrepreneurs see their path intimately linked to their personal stories. Some people are working for a paycheck. Entrepreneurs are also often working for the fulfillment of a greater purpose.
What role has intuition played in your success as an entrepreneur, and why do you think this is the case?
Exceedingly important. Your intuition and emotional intelligence will take you far if you are attuned to recognize them. Trust your gut.
How has entrepreneurship catalyzed your healing or expanded your consciousness?
Interestingly, my life took this turn where I went from a structured, predictable career within medicine to the never imagined, unpredictable role of CEO and Founder.
My role today as a CEO and founder has helped me realize and engage in the things I am most passionate about – speaking in front of people, leading by example, representing black excellence, building generational wealth, and being a role model to my daughters. To me, it’s like living in a dream, and hopefully, my experience can help open doors through knowledge and understanding so that others can pursue their dreams no matter their background.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I love seeing opportunities in the media like this, where such thought-provoking questions and expanded dialogue about meaningful topics can help people learn and grow from one another.
We have such untapped talent around the world. Still, capturing our stories is essential, especially from populations and demographics like mine that haven't been able to engage in this way historically. Everyone’s journey is slightly different, and we can learn from each other.
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