What it’s like to be a senior executive in the startup world and lead through authentic personal branding?


Being a founder, not to mention a CEO, can be a very lonely place, carrying loads of stress and requiring to constantly be at peak performance. This often makes it hard to find a balance between one’s professional and personal life. Maintaining strong relationships with the co-founders and investors is also not an easy task, where clarity and empathy are not always present. As one of my entrepreneurs says: “It’s not the technological challenge we deal with, it’s the mental one.”

“Throughout my +15 years as a professional, I’ve always been attracted to the intersection of business and psychology through entrepreneurship – what makes people tick? How do people think and act? And what motivates people in business? What drives me is being there for the amazing, who are under constant pressure entrepreneurs, so that they can make our world a better place. That’s what I’m here for.”

Efrat Fenigson, CMO of Mindspace, Co-Founder of G-CMO

Working with the fear

At the age of 25 after a bachelor’s degree, Efrat, who worked as a programmer at the time, entered another day at work, but something felt different. She admitted to herself that place didn’t feel right for her – even though she’s a good programmer, the job didn’t suit her. With the desire to make a change, rose fears – fear of disappointment, what people would say, and uncertainty.

On the other hand, she also had what she describes as an “inner calling– a gut feeling that I wanted to study business and didn’t want to go back to school.” An opportunity came her way through a friend’s jewelry business, and she embarked on a new journey, “learning about business from her own experience, in the academy of life.”

Fast forward a few years, and Efrat decided after an intense period of work, to take a year off and leave Airobotics– her place of employment at the time.

Even then the same strong fears came to the surface – she didn’t know what the next thing would be, what the plan was, had economic fears, and questioned whether it was the right move. All of these spun over and over in her mind and created a fog around her. In therapy, her psychologist asked her, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”, and that resonated with her. She got outside reinforcement which is what she needed at that time and gave herself a year to reflect, re-understand what makes her feel good, and build a renewed vision for herself.

Efrat shares that with every choice she had since the fear didn’t go away – but its role has diminished.

She believes that it’s worth working with our fear, to “not let this fear stop us, it exists in us and sometimes it’s very powerful. But our choice is whether to stop in its presence or continue to listen to our intuition, gut, and inner calling of what is right. After many years of inner reflection and working with her fears, Efrat no longer feels powerless by them – she has enough confidence to release her self-doubt.

Pave your own way

Efrat shared that her personal way of ‘paving your own way’ involved weaving and planning along the way. Her sight is not extended too far into the future; what she puts the most emphasis on is reaching short-term goals and checking every time – whether it’s right for her or not, whether it resonates with her or not.

Even though through eliminating options we understand our direction, the reduction of possibilities delimits our choices to the most refined dream, even if we don’t yet know exactly what that is. It’s okay not to know exactly where we’re going.

What helps Efrat maintain this anchor within herself is to make pauses as part of her routine and observe what’s happening and what she’s feeling – to check that she is really present in her life and in her path. As in mindfulness, it’s important to allow this space between inhaling and exhaling.

When we go out into the fast-paced world, exposed to all the voices of social programming, expectations, and what’s considered normal, we tend to lose the connection to our psyche, to our dreams.

Efrat shares that in a conversation with a friend who asked her what she wanted to do in life after leaving her job, she spoke from her gut and said that she didn’t know why and how this would happen, but she had a desire to represent Israel in the world. She had no experience, no direction, and honestly it sounded delusional. But two or three years after that, she started working at the Export Institute and led a delegation to Canada, where she spoke on stage and represented Israel to the world. The dreams that sound delusional to us today, could be our reality in the future.

The prices of being a senior executive

As a senior executive in startups, there are quite a few prices that come with this role:

  1. As one of few, there are not a lot of people with whom you can consult with.
  2. Everyone thinks they get it. You need to navigate and defend what will be best for the company.
  3. Personal price – the burden of the responsibility is great and touches on many areas.
  4. If there are no clear boundaries, work can spill into our personal life and take over.
  5. To be in the Israeli ecosystem can be tiring, with high alertness, always being busy and receiving lots of inquiries.

As a single mother, Afrat has decided that she’s not giving up on any role – being a mother or her career. From this decision, she realized she needed help, and moved in with her parents.

This “partnership” with our parents when we’re adults is not always easy, but Efrat shares that she asked for the help – so she made a choice. And because of it, the difficulties faded; she chose her path and never played the victim.

Sometimes we also get signals from our environment that helps us adjust our choices and understand the prices of our choices. Efrat shares that she worked around the clock for two weeks for an article as a part of her job, and when the article was published, her son approached her holding the newspaper with her picture on it, and said – “Mom, I see you here in the newspaper, even though I didn’t see you yesterday.” This sentence was like an arrow straight to her heart and made her re-weigh her decisions, but also realize there are peaks stressors to the job and that’s fine, if it’s not the routine.

Authentic personal branding

Personal branding has become a somewhat tiring phrase in the way it has been used in recent years.

One of the things I (Gali) say to entrepreneurs is that they promote two things – one is the startup, and the second is themselves as individuals, as a persona. And this is not a bad thing, on the contrary – investors first fall in love with the entrepreneur and the team before the product. It’s a task that many times for entrepreneurs, especially in the beginning, is not easy. Striving and wanting to be a leader or a person with influence comes with a lot of emotional and mental blocks. Part of the success of the venture will come after we are seen as professionals, and I believe that it must come in an authentic way. The key to authentic branding comes from the combination of how I put myself out there, and how I give value. At first, it will not be comfortable, and it’s ok.

“These are exactly the invitations that reality brings to push a mirror to us. These places where the triggers come up, the fears, our inner barriers– how will it sound to others, how do I not become too grandiose, impostor’s syndrome. All.” The barriers that arise are the invitations of the universe to deal with what’s stopping you. Because if you start a startup, you have no small vision–you came to create something new, and you will not succeed in your mission if you don’t allow yourself to learn, evolve and overcome the obstacles you have. It’s never easy.”

We didn’t choose the life of entrepreneurship because it’s comfortable. We chose it because there’s something bigger than us that moves us toward the vision of influencing the world, and it needs to be voiced both as a company and as an individual. When you see the purpose from the inside, it radiates out to the company. Efrat clarifies that. When one understands their mission, what gives them butterflies– the fear of what people will say about you disappears, because it’s no longer about you, it’s about your mission.

And in that place, we feel whole.

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