A conversation with Stephanie Carlson, Co-founder of Reflection Sciences and Reflective Performances and a developmental psychologist in the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.
Stephanie Carlson, Co-founder of Reflection Sciences and Reflective Performance. Professor Carlson is a developmental psychologist in the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. Her research interest is in the development of children’s executive function skills, including psychometrics and the key roles of imagination and the caregiving environment. Professor Carlson co-founded Reflection Sciences in 2014 and Reflective Performance in 2021.
Please tell us your background story on how you ended up starting a company.
Stephanie: I am a professor at the University of Minnesota. For my research, I had been developing tools to measure executive function - these are the neurocognitive skills for self-control that allow us to pay attention and control our thoughts, actions, and feelings. As we all know, young children are not very good at these things, and it takes a while for them to develop. There were not good measures of executive function skills for young children. In order to carry on my own program of research, I started to develop those measurement tools and got some grant funding from NIH for this purpose. That funding ended up lasting over ten years with extensions and supplements. In the end, we had a valid and reliable assessment tool.
We started using the assessment in our own research as well as getting a lot of requests from other researchers for the tool. As awareness of the importance of executive function and self-regulation skills started to spread in education, particularly around kindergarten readiness, we began to get requests for speaking engagements, professional development, and even the assessment tool from educators. We had our first request come from a group of schools in New York City that wanted to use this tool and asked how to get it. We did not have a mechanism for providing this in a way that was going to be sustainable. For example, once you go outside of the research and academic field, you need to be able to provide training and support - someone needs to answer the phone when somebody calls. What really got me thinking about forming a company was to be able to provide these tools and become an R&D shop for continuing to develop more tools and services. The company would not only assess executive function but also make teachers, parents, and policymakers more aware of the importance of executive function and be able to provide services, activities, and curriculum to support executive function skill development for students.
Were there any other specific scientific or career milestones, such as tenure, that made you believe that now was the right time to pursue entrepreneurship?
Stephanie: I cannot say that I would have considered it earlier in my career. Certainly, getting tenure was the foremost goal when I was in the probationary period. The company just happened to be something that came to be after I already had the security of tenure. Having the security already was an important factor in me deciding whether to stay in academia or not.
I contemplated whether to form the company very, very carefully beforehand. Two things: I co-founded the company with my partner, Phil Zelazo. He is not only a work partner; he is also my life partner. We co-direct a lab, and this would be yet another thing to do together and would take us in a different direction. We even went to therapy together to talk about forming the business beforehand which was helpful. The other thing was that my family is all businesspeople - not academics. They were a good resource for talking about what to expect. They put us in touch with a strategic advisor to talk about this. He told us that we were going to have to decide if we wanted to run this company or stay in academia and have other people run this company. That was hard. I think the security of tenure allowed me that base of operations so that I can continue to innovate and eventually let others take over on the business side. That was an important consideration. If I did not have tenure yet or was a graduate student at the time, I might have been more willing or able to take that leap.
Regarding networking, how has that worked for you as far as starting up your company and what has been useful to you?
Stephanie: The people at the Venture Center were helpful. There were two entrepreneurial academics that I knew, so I also met with each of them. One was a professor from another university whom I told I was thinking about doing this and would like his advice. He told it to me straight; he said that it is another thing to lose sleep over at night! Another professor at my university was helpful in terms of how to form a board and work with the office of technology and commercialization. Those were the two most proximal network advisors that I had in the beginning.
Did you have anyone that you consider a mentor for your entrepreneurial journey?
Stephanie: No, and I would say that it is pretty lonely. I don’t know many other women who have done this. I haven’t had mentorship. One of the professors I spoke with had a female co-founder, so I eventually did reach out to her when I was visiting her university to give a talk. It was also another situation of a male and female co-founder, but in her case, it was a more senior male. She was just starting to become more involved in the business at the same time or even a little after I was, so she was not able to mentor me on it, or vice versa.
What have you noticed are the biggest differences between your role in academia and your role as an entrepreneur? Was there anything that was surprising?
Stephanie: I became more conscious of the ways in which running a lab is similar to running a business. I did an entrepreneurial leave where I was the CEO of the company. Coming back from that, I was recommitted to my lab and running it more intentionally than I had in the past. I am not there yet, but I came back with the intention of being more present. I became much more aware of the extent to which visibility of a lab, such as utilizing social media more, is important to its success as much as it is to a commercial entity.
Were there any life hacks inside the home or lab that you put into place that allowed you to pursue entrepreneurship? Have these continued to work during the pandemic?
Stephanie: To be honest, my work and personal life have bled into one another from the beginning. For better or worse, my mother was a role model on that. Growing up there was never a vacation when work was not happening – her work calls were always going on in the background. But I learned a lot vicariously; I could tell she was good at it. I think I ended up the same way. I had kids in the early part of my career and was breastfeeding at the keyboard. Even when I was on entrepreneurial leave, it wasn’t like my lab just stopped. I still had graduate students who needed to meet regularly and all that. It was really an addition rather than a substitution. And with my then teenage kids, it was often just doing the best you can every day. One thing that I would say that I started to take up around then, that I realize now has served a function for me, is gardening. It’s helped me realize that I like to tend, cultivate, and grow things. As my business and kids aged, gardening became more of a thing.
Tell us more about your entrepreneurial leave.
Stephanie: I think I was the first person to take this leave at the University of Minnesota. They had just formed the policy. We had our CEO resign suddenly in December 2015, and I took over January 2016, even though I was teaching that semester. The university helped me put the leave into place with approval from the Office of the Vice President of Research for the following academic year. It was a traditional sabbatical in that you receive 50% salary from the university, and then I was able to draw the rest of my salary from the company. It was one year, but it took us an extra 6 months to have a new CEO in place, so I doubled up again that last semester - I was teaching and still CEO.
How did that play into the growth of your business and your growth as an entrepreneur? Do you feel like you and your company would be in the same place without it?
Stephanie: I think it was helpful and necessary for the business at that time. Especially early on in the company’s development, it is hard to find anybody else who can do this the way you can - someone who is going to understand it the way you do, believe in it the way you do, and do it the way you would want to do it. I have not been to business school, so I did not know a lot of things like cap tables, quarterly reporting, etc. I did have to learn some of that. Looking back, I certainly seemed like a rookie. With other aspects of the business, I was the right person at the right time to be growing it. We did have year over year substantial growth while I was there. I felt proud of what I did and learned a lot. I had this experience of being in-between and liking many aspects of running the company day to day while building the culture and climate. But I had made this decision a while back that I would stay in academia, and with two kids soon attending college, it was scary to stay longer and let go of the university piece. So, we did hire a new CEO, but it was hard. It is almost like - and there are limits to this analogy - but the company was turning 5 at the time, and it was like sending a kid off to kindergarten. At that time, you are letting other caregivers help but secretly feeling like you could do it better. You need to let them – the kids, the company - go. So, it was harder for me personally to step back since I had been so involved as CEO.
Could you tell us a little bit about fundraising and what types of funds that you needed to raise?
Stephanie: I was involved in raising the seed round which was $700K. Then we raised another $1.3 million from friends, family, and angels. When we brought in the current CEO, we did a Series A round. In comparison, we have not raised as much money as others and should have raised more.
What was your role in the fundraising?
Stephanie: Phil and I were traveling to New York and other places to meet potential investors. That was before people were as comfortable with virtual meetings, so we were traveling for in-person meetings. We had a chairman of the board who was interim CEO helping us and going on some trips. We also had some local investors as well. I was able to get a scholarship from the Bush Family Foundation to go out to SoCap (Social Capital), an entrepreneurial conference, which was a great place to pitch and get practice with pitching.
You mentioned that Phil and you were pitching at the same time. Did you notice differences with how VCs or angels interacted with him vs you? Or how they reacted to the dynamic of the two of you pitching together?
Stephanie: We had sorted out early on that he is more comfortable talking about research and I am more comfortable than he is talking about business and numbers. Because of that dynamic, we kind of balanced each other out. Probably they nodded more when he spoke or trusted his authority more - just those implicit things - but I think they could see a fire in my belly. I said it and I meant it – I am not going to let this fail. I am just telling you right now and looking you in the eye – I am not going to let this fail.
What was the best advice you received? Did you receive any advice that you would not pass along to another aspiring female entrepreneur?
Stephanie: When I relinquished control and changes started to happen in the company, I felt that I did not have as much influence. An experienced entrepreneur and investor in my industry - who is not involved directly with my company at all, but another person that I spoke with early on - said move on. I told him that I was thinking of starting another company that is a spin-out of this one, and he said focus on that and put all your energy now into the new company. That was really good advice. Now I have co-founded a new company and am really excited about it. Reflection Sciences is focused on executive function for children and students. The new company, Reflective Performance, is focused on executive function for adults, particularly workforce development.
As far as advice I would not pass along, some people at the beginning said to emphasize how “lean” we would be as a company. Although I understand the rationale, for women and minorities especially, the metaphorical trap is that you can end up asking for a seat at the table while promising not to eat too much. This can perpetuate inequity.
What do you think deters women from pursuing entrepreneurship?
Stephanie: I think imposter syndrome - feeling that I could not possibly do that. Also, women already have so many extra demands with second, or even third, shifts that we are pulling, so I think it can be daunting or intimidating for women academics. Like I said, it is not a substitution. It is an addition. I also did not have support in my department. It was devalued and not seen as important, meaningful, or meritorious as the traditional signs of success in academia such as publications and grants. That was tough just trying to persuade the leadership that this matters too; this is another way in which we can really contribute and have an impact while bringing visibility to the university.
Do you think entrepreneurism was not engrained in your department yet? Have you seen changes to people’s reactions within the department?
Stephanie: That is certainly true. When we got a patent, it was not acknowledged or celebrated at all. It was the first patent that anyone in the department had gotten. I put it in my summary, but it was left out of the annual merit review letter that went on to the Dean. Another example was that we had prospective donors coming to events to try to raise money for a new building, and I was told not to talk about the business. At one of these events, I was not even introduced, and thankfully Phil stepped in and introduced me as Co-Director of our lab. I think the concern was that they might become too interested in investing in the business instead of this campaign. It was myopic, because they are different “buckets,” and donors would be thrilled to know that we are scaling the impact of our research in these ways. I have chipped away at this mindset, and new leadership has helped.
Is there anything that we did not ask you that you would like to talk about?
Stephanie: There are mentors out there, and you are helping to make them more visible! I did not do as much as I could have to reach out for that. There are mentors and resources out there if you are proactive.