It takes a special inherent quality to see solutions when none exist, this ability along with determination, willpower, and sheer tenacity to build something that benefits millions of families worldwide is what drives Sheri Atwood, single mom, entrepreneur, Founder & CEO of SupportPay which is located in Sacramento, California.
The Athenian Philosopher Plato once remarked, “Necessity Is the mother of invention” these words so aptly describe the journey of SupportPay which started 10 years ago and is transforming child support, which affects nearly 300 million parents who exchange more than $900 billion per year in child support & child expenses worldwide. A process that is time-consuming, stressful & complex, as Sheri shares, “With SupportPay, today’s modern families can spend less time managing and arguing about child support, expenses, and alimony and more time focused on raising happy, healthy children. We want to make family life easier by changing the way families manage money across households – from a conflict-ridden, time-consuming & stressful event to a collaborative process between family members. We want to make single, divorced & blended families’ lives easier by delivering innovative applications that will save parents time, money, and headaches.”
Trials & Tribulations: From being a Single Parent to becoming an entrepreneur
Sheri’s life has been inspirational, but it also serves as life lessons for budding entrepreneurs everywhere. It was while working as a Silicon Valley Executive, she became a single parent, and had to face the stressful process of tracking and managing child support and her daughters’ expenses. She needed a solution, but to her dismay, found that none existed. This was the opportune moment where the idea behind SupportPay was born. As she describes, “An app to make it easy for separated and divorced families to exchange money, without the drama of the fighting.”
The harrowing experiences of being a single mother and facing sexual harassment in corporate America, cemented her resolve to take her future into her own hands, leaving behind a steady paycheck, health benefits to launch SupportPay. With no one to lean on this was the ultimate risk. As she puts it, “I had no one who would save me or my daughter if this big idea failed. I had no choice. It had to succeed.”
One of the biggest challenges was educating the market, over 55 million affected families in the US, and no one knew that there was a solution. Keeping that in mind SupportPay was launched in 2011, the platform rose steadily and by 2016 had more than 40,000 users, 25 employees, and $7 million in funding. With promising growth, revolutionary product, and smart leadership SupportPay was poised for greater things, but in a bid to grow Sheri had to give up control, “In December of 2016 I closed a $4M Series A round. The capital enabled me to continue to grow the company, but it also meant I gave up control of the board, with me being only 1 of 3 votes (the other 2 were investors). Seven months after raising Series A I was fired from my own company and replaced with an investor insider. Within 30 days of me being fired, 20 of the 25 employees quit or were fired and within 2 months the product didn’t work and a few months later I found out, with the other shareholders that they were liquidating my company.” Despite the major setback, Sheri reached out to the board to allow her to come back and fix the situation. She felt owed to the investors and users who had believed in her, but the request went unanswered. There were several offers made to buy out SupportPay but when prospective buyers found Sheri was not involved with the company they backed out.
Rising Again: Women Leaders Challenges & Lessons
There is a prevalent bias against women that ensures that Women founders and CEOs face an uphill battle. A study by the University of California Law Professor Joan Williams has even given it a name “prove it again” bias. They receive a very small amount of capital to grow their companies, representing a small minority in leadership and are judged twice as harshly as their male counterparts, still they consistently deliver higher levels of return. These challenges tested Sheri to her limit but for her, SupportPay is not just a company. She says, “My passion is to help the millions of parents and children struggling to manage their child support & share expenses while giving children the financial support they deserve from both of their parents.” In early 2018, Sheri formed a holding company and offered to buy back her assets, spending all of her savings and taking out a loan to do so. “Having tough skin, determination and grit have all helped me on my entrepreneurial journey. These qualities have also helped me to endure the challenges and hardships that you face as a female leader.”
Her odyssey can act as a model for women everywhere including her teenage daughter, as this quote by Winston Churchill sums it up, “Success is not final, Failure is not Fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.” Sheri’s life is full of courage, and going on when going gets tough. After acquiring back SupportPay she started improving the product, getting previous users back, and driving revenue to ensure financial independence, whilst educating parents and family law professionals about SupportPay. “Most parents don’t realize that a solution is available, so they don’t bother looking” That is precisely what she intends to change. SupportPay seeks to use technology to automate anything done manually, along with hiring passionate people who will strive to meet all the customer needs in the most resourceful way possible. Sheri believes that organizations should remain nimble to be able to adapt to the constant changes in the market and technology.
The Post-Pandemic Future
In this ever-changing world, Sheri points out the criticality of having more women in positions of power, “We bring a different insight to the table. If we aren’t at the table then that insight can never be explored and a solution can never be offered. There is a reason why women-led businesses and female founders / CEOs deliver a higher return than their male counterparts.” This gender gap, disparity, and inequality between male and female leaders is appalling and needs to be addressed, but she states, “There has to be a compelling reason for white men to change.” Women leaders like Sheri Atwood are slowly becoming the reason for that change, women being unafraid to voice their stories is making a huge difference. Sheri strongly advocated for more exposure of women and young girls to demonstrate what is possible, a way to enforce equality and laws that make pay equality a requirement.
As for SupportPay, the future looks promising, with 50 percent year-over-year growth overall from March 2020 to March 2021. Their recently revamped web and mobile platform have made the interface more intuitive and user-friendly. With its promising product and huge potential SupportPay has attracted the attention of Morgan Stanley, which has shortlisted them for its Multicultural Innovation Lab, whose primary focus is on companies capable of high growth rates and being led by women and culturally diverse entrepreneurs.
Being a seasoned leader, managing her own company has helped Sheri Atwood gain deep insight and knowledge. To all young women professionals and budding entrepreneurs, she shares her mantra for success: Be prepared for a long hard ride, continue to demonstrate and deliver results, seek to work for organizations that believe in a diverse team, or create a team of your own, no one can argue with results – so delivering them will make you successful, and also have tough skin. She also suggests knowing you have to be better because the standard is higher, and you have a unique perspective, and finally don’t be afraid to voice that perspective. She concludes with this message, “Support other women, if not, none of us will ever succeed.”