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Female Founders: Sheila Talton of Gray Matter Analytics On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

By Candice Georgiadis | September 23, 2021
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Vision, creativity, risk tolerance, and the ability to shift from tactical to strategic focus are four traits founders need. A fifth one is understanding what leadership really is. A lot of people think leadership means you get to tell people what they need to do. I believe that, especially in a small company, you need to hire people who are capable. Your leadership comes in when they have obstacles to getting their jobs done. Your job as the entrepreneur and leader is to move those obstacles, not to tell them how to do their job.

a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheila Talton.

Sheila Talton is President and CEO of Gray Matter Analytics, which she founded in 2013. Prior to launching Gray Matter, Sheila was the VP/Globalization Officer for Cisco Systems in China and South America, President of EDS’ Business Processing Information Services and a Senior Managing Partner at Ernst & Young/Cap Gemini.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

ve been in technology for my entire career. I ran a large organization in the Midwest for Ernst and Young’s critical technologies practice. I’ve also run global services for EDS and Cisco Systems. In those various roles, I had responsibility for all verticals — manufacturing, financial services, consumer products and healthcare.

I got bit by the data bug early in my career. I had been with a software company that built the early iterations of relational databases, which are the underpinnings of data and analytics. When I got bit by that data bug, I started doing some analysis and research on the industries that are totally dependent on data but have not taken advantage of how data could really help them improve performance and grow revenue; healthcare came to the top. Healthcare has been quick to adopt technology on the clinical side but has not been quick to adopt technology on the operations and financial side of the business. So that’s how I got to where I am, and so far, it has been proven that my analysis and research were correct.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

It’s more of an observation. We’ve talked to hundreds of health systems, as well as hundreds of health plans, and one thing that has been become very evident to me is that it’s quite difficult for health systems to understand their true costs. I have not run into any health system that does cost accounting, which is something most manufacturers and retailers do. So, the journey to value-based care has been long because health systems aren’t used to being paid a certain amount regardless of costs.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the mistakes I don’t find humorous, but for the first four years I was running Gray Matter we were consulting totally around data, rather than targeting one vertical. Originally, we were going to focus on two verticals — healthcare and financial services, which also is data-driven — but it became apparent to me within about the second year of operations that there was so much work to be done in healthcare, while financial services companies had so much money, they would be able to buy their way to the solutions they needed. So, in the second year we abandoned financial services, and that was a good decision.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve been in this business for more than 35 years, and in that time, there have been many people that have helped me along the way, including professors in college who led me down the path of technology, coworkers, and external mentors who have helped me think through my career journey and supported me when I made choices. One gentleman who I worked for at Ernst & Young, Mike Green, shared some advice that I’ve always tried to live by: “Seek first to understand before being understood.” And the reason why that has been so critical Is that listening is a skill many of us don’t develop because we like to talk. I have tried to incorporate that advice into everything I’ve done, including managing people. That’s because in trying to understand what motivates your team, you really do have to understand what motivates employees personally to best support them in their success.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this Crunchbase report, only about 20 percent of newly funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

That’s a very broad question and there’s no single answer because there are some unique factors based on industry. I’ll stick to healthcare technology, which has always been dominated at the senior ranks by men. Not that men were more qualified, it’s just that men were the ones making decisions from the board level to the CEOs to their direct reports. But most financiers — meaning venture capitalists — want to fund people who have held senior roles inside healthcare technology companies, and those happen to be men. Whereas many women have had mid-level roles in healthcare and are just as capable as men, but they might not have been the SVP of product or the SVP of global sales.

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