The old saying “it’s lonely at the top” might be cliche, but there’s some truth to it. Which is why for Bethany Desphande community plays a key role in her growth as a CEO, and the growth of her business, SomaDetect. Bethany shares why finding and engaging with her community has been critical to the success of SomaDetect.
“It becomes necessary to say, ‘Yeah, I don’t know about this, but I can find out.’ And to take those steps forward to find people that can help you do that as well, to have a community around you that is able to listen to some of the struggles and listen to you in these moments of loneliness and uncertainty.”
In this episode:
- The accidental discovery that led to SomaDetect
- The impact statements SomaDetect uses to guide all of their decision making and measure success
- Balancing feminine and masculine leadership
- Personal and business growth in community
- Finding and hiring women
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Bethany: It becomes necessary to say, “Yeah, I don’t know about this, but I can find out.” And to take those steps forward to find people that can help you do that as well, to have a community around you that is able to listen to some of the struggles and listen to you in these moments of loneliness and uncertainty and all these shaky things. Sometimes even just figure out what you want to do about that or what your options are so that you can transition into action right into showing up, pressing forward, and all of these things. But yeah, absolutely. There are lots of cases where moments where I don’t know exactly what I’m doing or where I don’t have all the right answers, and getting to figure that out is a real gift.
Vicki: Welcome to SheEO.world, a podcast about redesigning the world. I’m your host, Vicki Saunders. In each episode, you’ll hear from SheEO venture founders, women who are working on the world’s to-do list. These innovative business leaders are solving some of the major challenges of our times. Sit back and prepare to be inspired.
Vicki: Welcome, Bethany. We’re thrilled to have you on the SheEO.world podcast today.
Bethany: Thank you for having me. It’s wonderful to be here.
Vicki: So who are you and tell me a little bit about SomaDetect.
Bethany: My name is Bethany Deshpande, and I am SheEO of a company called SomaDetect, and we do milk quality testing with dairy farmers.
Vicki: Okay. So have you always been passionate about dairy farmers and cows? Or how did you get into this?
Bethany: Yeah, so certainly not. I didn’t grow up in dairy, and, in fact, I didn’t know anything about dairy when this first began. SomaDetect started out of, essentially, an invention my father had made. My dad is a light scattering expert and realized he could measure some pretty unique things in raw milk. I got involved, mostly, I like to say, it was pretty much just a father-daughter project when we started, but has since then grown into something much, much greater than even I had imagined. I’ve learned a ton along the way about cows, and making food, and all of those really interesting things. Yeah, I didn’t come in because I had a clear passion blind to what we’re doing now.
Vicki: The technology behind this is really fascinating. I’m sure we can get into that a little bit, but just if you sort of pop up a level, why is it important that you exist right now? Why is this work important to you?
Bethany: Yeah, there are so many things in our world today that have turned SomaDetect into my absolute passion and the absolute best thing, a place where I’ve really found something worth waking up and getting dirty over. And there are so many reasons for that. A number of years as a climate change researcher looking at lakes and permafrost areas, and feeling really bad about the state of the world, and what we’re doing and what we’re ignoring when it comes to climate change. And so being able to have some impact into the sustainability of our food production in dairy is really important to me.
Bethany: And then I think we live in a time when we care enormously about agriculture, about our animals, about our farmers. It’s time to give dairy farmers the information they need to do the best possible job and to really support that. And I love having the opportunity to do that.
Vicki: Oh, that’s cool. So tell us, what does SomaDetect actually do?
Bethany: So it’s an in-line sensor we fit into milking equipment on a farm, and, basically, cows are… Their milked. They all come into a milking stall, and our sensor is completely flow-through so it doesn’t disrupt anything that they do. And it enables them to capture all kinds of information about the health of the cow, the quality of the milk, right then as that individual animal is being milked.
Bethany: And so we talk a lot about, basically, giving farmers insight into each and every one of the animals in their herd, not only in terms of observational insights of what they can see, but now they have a dataset that goes along it and can really help them make key decisions.
Vicki: And so what are some of the decisions that this enables you to make?
Bethany: Identifying disease. So do I need to treat this cow? Yes or no? Lots of decisions around reproduction. So do I breed this cow? Is the cow in heat? Is this cow pregnant? All of that. Reproduction is such a critical part of dairy production, as I think every woman will be able to understand. And then all kinds of stuff about are my cows eating enough? Do they need a different ration of feeds? Do they need a different type of feed? That kind of thing.
Vicki: And before this existed, presumably people didn’t know that their cows were pregnant until they were really pregnant? How do you know if the cow’s pregnant? I grew up on a farm, but I’m sure most people don’t know this.
Bethany: The other way that they determine when cows are pregnant is through rectal examination. So we replaced the need to put an arm up the backside of a cow and feel around for a fetus.
Vicki: Wow, which is also obviously a very expensive, [crosstalk 00:05:08].
Bethany: It’s one of those things where I think a lot of people go to vet school and not, necessarily, know that that is actually a really big part of large animal vets, is their [inaudible 00:05:19] pregnancies in cows and other big animals. And you can get all that information from the milk, which is this incredibly rich source of not only nutrition, but also data. It’s been neat for us to figure that out and see the impact that that has on our dairy farmers.
Vicki: Wow, that’s cool. So, okay, how did you get started taking this to market? So there’s an invention that happens here. There’s obviously probably so much disruption in this space because it’s so new. How do you get this out to farmers? How did you start?
Bethany: My father, basically, discovered accidentally that he could measure things in milk. And he’s one of these totally scientific people and had not… I basically set out to talk to some farmers and talk to some end-users and do all of this human-centered design that I think is so important. And so it was just knocking on doors and asking farmers if we could meet their cows, if we could see their equipment. And then bit by bit as we explained what we did, they would get excited. And so we were easily connected into a network of dairy farmers, which was really important and so helpful for us in the early days.
Bethany: And people were so willing to spend time touring us around sharing all kinds of information and all this stuff. So it was just so… There’s a generosity that exists in the dairy farming community, which is not unlike what we see in SheEO community, as well. But that is so important. That’s made a huge difference to us. So it’s a lot of asking questions and a lot of learning that helped me realize what this could do, how big of an impact it could have, and really how necessary it was for the world. And that just made me more and more excited about what we were doing.
Vicki: So what’s the vision for SomaDetect? If you’re successful, what will you have enabled?
Bethany: So we have three impact statements that we use. Better data for farmers, better milk for consumers, and better lives for cows. If and when SomaDetect is successful, those are the things we will see in the world.
Vicki: Can you say those again?
Bethany: Better data for farmers, better milk for consumers, and better lives for cows.
Vicki: That’s very tight. How did you get that so tight? This is a hard thing to do as an entrepreneur.
Bethany: So our companies started with those impact statements, and then everything else has grown from there. It was a gift. We did a workshop in New Brunswick with some of the entrepreneurial community there, that led to those impact statements and they have been absolutely guiding for everything we’ve done. And we talk all the time about vision statements that come from their mission statements that come from there, and all this stuff. But they’ve been an incredible guide to me and to every person in our business as we’ve… You make all sorts of decisions on product on how you do sales, how you interact with people, and all those things. And it’s really started from those impact statements and knowing that we wanted to have positive, and massive, and disruptive impact in the world.
Vicki: Female founder talking to farmers who are mostly men? Yes?
Bethany: We work with a lot of women dairy farmers, and so I purposely… Some of our most innovative forward thinking farmers are women. That was a really funny thing. The other key thing is when you go on a farm, even if it is… So you might be speaking with a male farmer, even your stereotypical idea of what a dairy farmer is, but then it’s the wife that makes a lot of the purchasing decisions, and so that was a really funny thing to discover, as well. So you’ll have a conversation in the barn about what the technology is and what you do, and then you go inside and you sit at a kitchen table and you run through the business, like the return on investment and the real business behind it with the wife, and kids, and the family. Yeah.
Vicki: That’s awesome. I grew up in a farm, so I understand this. Everybody’s part of the business, right?
Bethany: Exactly, yeah. It’s so powerful.
Vicki: What size is your team right now?
Bethany: We are 26 people.
Vicki: Okay. That’s sizable. And so what’s your biggest struggle these days as you’re building?
Bethany: Lots of things. I’ve been learning a ton about leadership, my own ideas of what I think leadership is, what my team needs sometimes, in terms of leadership. I talk a lot with the SheEO, our cohort, with my SheEO mentor or guide, as well, about balancing masculine leadership and feminine leadership and really meeting my team where they’re at. You go through this phase, and we have over the last six months, I would say, maybe more than six months, a year? Where things are small, communication is easy, decisions can happen quickly. It’s easy to turn, or pivot, or whatever you might call it to… With a team of 26 you have to be so intentional about what you’re saying, who you’re saying it to, how you’re saying it, and all those really key things. So it’s been awesome. I’ve realized so much how personal business is, and just how much I can put all of myself into our team, and our business, and really show up. And I absolutely love that part of what were doing.
Vicki: Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you? So how personal business is? I was just doing a podcast with the routine goddesses. They were really just talking about how this is their life, right? This is like breathing for them. This very much a manifestation of who they’re meant to be in the world, and business is just the vehicle for it. And I wonder if you feel the same way about what you’re doing?
Bethany: 100%. I am in full agreement business and what we’re doing, it has allowed me to show up in the world to learn, to gain voice, also. Especially as a CEO, you have to be able to say, “This is what I want. This is what I don’t want,” very clearly. And many times, multiple claims, as well. And then building relationships with every single member of your team so that you can give them feedback, they can give you feedback. That’s the only way you’re going to get better. That’s the only way they’re going to get better. In SomaDetect, certainly, is that you see all the places, things you didn’t take care of, or moments where maybe you didn’t speak out, you see the impact that that has later down the road. So all these times we let ourselves down in a given moment, you see how that plays out. And I think that’s true in personal life, as well as professional life.
Bethany: And SomaDetect, it’s a vehicle. In some ways, it’s a microscope that allows me to really see that, which is sometimes it’s scary, and it’s uncomfortable, and it can be lonely. It can be isolating, and I think those are feelings that we all like. [inaudible 00:12:03] that I have and I think that many of us have in the room, but then you also see the difference that happens when you step forward, when you show up fully in yourself, when you say unequivocally what you want, what is okay and what is not okay, and take on that full responsibility to contribute to your company, your industry, and your team. SomaDetect has been, for me, something that’s enabled me and given me a context to do all of those things. And it’s beautiful when that works out, right? It’s wonderful to be able to look at the company and see pieces of myself in it. Even if there are so many, it takes more than one person to make a business. Absolutely. But there’s a lot of places where some really nice things have shown up in really good ways, and so it’s lovely to see that.
Vicki: Do you ever feel like you don’t know what you’re doing? And, if so, how do you cope with that?
Bethany: Yeah, so I feel that way all the time. Maybe not on a continuous basis, but I encounter all kinds of things that are completely unknown or it becomes necessary to say, “Yeah, I don’t know about this, but I can find out.” And to take those steps forward to find people that can help you do that as well, to have a community around you that is able to listen to some of the struggles and listen to you in these moments of loneliness, and uncertainty, and all these shaky things, and then help you sometimes even just figure out what you want to do about that or what your options are so that you can transition into action, right into showing up, pressing forward, and all of these things. But yeah, absolutely. There are lots of cases where moments where I don’t know exactly what I’m doing or where I don’t have all the right answers, and getting to figure that out is a real gift.
Vicki: Have you always been good at asking for help? Is it something that you forget to do? Can you talk about reaching out when you don’t know what you’re doing? What’s your process for that?
Bethany: I have had two modes. So one mode is pretending like I have all the answers and not asking for help. And then I have another mode which is like full on damsel in distress, and, “Oh my gosh, I need…” Yeah. I’ve been learning a lot to balance those two things, and that both of them are not good in different contexts. Figuring out, basically, the middle ground between them also, which is just a genuine and very honest ask for help. I don’t think I started out there, right? I started out with these two extremes that were both awkward.
Vicki: This is an interesting piece that I think about in my journey as massive personal growth. Basically, everything that you have that’s dysfunctional will show up in your business, right? Or where you’re not aware of something, it all just gets magnified. And, especially, as you grow, it gets magnified in everything. Do you have books, or workshops, or processes, or things you’ve done along the way to help you learn about yourself? Or is your business the Petri dish for all of that?
Bethany: No, I have lots of books, and lots of help, and a coach, and now working with Dorothy through SheEO has been fantastic, as well. And meeting lots of other leaders… It’s funny that you say that, because I feel like you’re someone I look to and is doing this incredibly big disruptive thing that I feel is carving a path, even for what so many of us want to do now. And so I really, I do thank you for that. Even having things like SheEO and our cohort has just been incredible ,and all of that comes together to mean that SomaDetect is a Petri dish and there are lots of things about myself that have shown up there that I wish I didn’t have to look at, but now I do.
Bethany: But then I feel incredibly supported, as well, by community around me and by people that care about the business. They care about the impact that we’re able to have. They care about all this stuff, but that I feel also really care about me as a person, even in these moments of total messiness and imperfection. And that was something… I don’t think I expected that. Right? Like you don’t… I had never imagined what it would feel like to have people come forward and support you in that way. But it is one of the most beautiful, humbling, wonderful things that I’ve been able to find in the folks around me. And that I absolutely adore.
Vicki: I felt isolated so much, but it was also of my own doing, right? It was just not… All the stuff was around me, and I just needed to ask. And I had my head down and wouldn’t do it. And it is literally one of the things that I love most about the community that we’re all building together is that we’re there for each other. Because it literally makes all the difference. It’s just so much easier when you can go, “I’m feeling like this. Has anyone else ever felt like this?” And it literally, everybody’s like, “Oh my God, all the time.” And you’re like, “What? Oh, okay, cool.” It’s one of those things, and so being in a cohort, I think to have other sisters there to just support you is definitely part of it. Are there other elements that you’ve seen that have really helped you to stay calm in the storm as you’re going through your entrepreneurial journey? Are there other tips that you could provide to people? What advice you’d give them?
Bethany: So early on I would sometimes, while I’m a wallower, I would wallow in a place of non-action and isolation, as well. And now, I might still stop there a little bit. I certainly have days or moments where things feel bottom of the barrel, but I’ve gotten better at moving myself more quickly through that. And I think that’s just been reflection, and talking some of those things out, and having people that say, “Okay, well this is the situation you’re in. What are you going to do about it?” Right? And so all of that. I think finding community that supports you, but then also pushes you, sometimes, gently and with care and kindness, but nonetheless, pushes you has made a difference for me. And then I think everybody needs a way to disconnect and to do things totally different. It’s like when you’re in the shower and you think of all these ideas that can zap into your head while you were looking away from whatever the key problem is.
Bethany: We talked so much about life balance and finding balance, and I don’t have a choice anymore but to find that balance, and to cherish it, and to make that time for myself. If I were to give a piece of advice probably to any entrepreneurs or community of people doing something hard, that’s probably what it would be. Don’t feel guilty taking that time away.
Vicki: And do you have regular vacation schedules as part of your work?
Bethany: I do now. I have a December vacation planned, which is a new. I’m very excited. But no, I think for the first year and a half, two years of the business, we barely took any time off and even weekends, right? I’d be working almost all the way through the weekend, and I realized that’s just completely unsustainable. You would never ask that of another person. And so it became more and more absurd that I asked that of myself. I’ve gotten better at date night and disconnecting over the weekend, and now, even taking very conscious time off this Christmas. So yeah.
Vicki: Yeah. I really think about the whole journey. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. The metaphors that people have. And I remember saying to my uncle when I was first getting started, “If you had your life to do over again, what would you do differently?” And he said, “Four day work weeks and mandatory one week off every quarter to remind myself that I’m not as important as I think I am to everything that’s going on in my life.” I loved that, so we instituted that in one of my companies, and we do a version of that with SheEO. We do work at home Fridays. We close for a month at Christmas, holidays time, and really try and work on that. Because I feel like we all get so… We think we’re all so self-important. Like, “I could never be out of the business for a week. What? Four days off? Oh my God.” It’s absurd that we think that as you say. It’s kind of crazy.
Bethany: Totally. And I think all you do is stop the people that work with you from taking the ownership that they want, right? The leadership that they’re asking for that shows up when suddenly you’re not there. Well that’s been part of it, as well, is trusting myself to be able to step away and then having total trust in my team that even if something comes up or whatever, that they are absolutely able to handle it without me.
Vicki: That’s great. And do you think about gender during your work? Do you think about gender balance? Do you think about diversity as part of the growth of your company and what you’re creating in the world? Does that matter to you?
Bethany: Yeah, it absolutely matters to me. I grew up… I have three brothers. I think we both do. And so gender has always been something that was a really key part of my identity. These are the boys, and then Bethany. Like being the only girl in the family like that was really important to me. And so the parts of that, my own perspective on gender showing up in the company, I love being a female CEO. I love working in a business where my vision of leadership matters so much. So we’re incredibly diverse, and in a lot of ways with regards to language, and place of origin, and different thought processes, all this different stuff, but gender was one place where I was like the woman at the helm. And then I think we had, at one point, a really poor, like less than 25% of the company was women, even though it was a woman run company. We were a lot of engineering types, product development people, and that was the focus of our business.
Bethany: But now we think about that a lot as we’re hiring, as we’re recruiting, and even in the people we asked, asking for references for asking to put, “Can you help us post this job?” If you ask only men to help you post a job, it’s only going to go in a few places and you’re going to get men back. All of these things have helped us be better at finding women, hiring women, and also living that through in our company, as well. Yeah, it’s really important to me to be able to find some of that balance in what we do.
Vicki: So as we sort of finish up here, I think one of the things I would just really want to ask you, is how’re you feeling about the world today and your place in it? And how does that affect your leadership every day at SomaDetect?
Bethany: I live through moments where I feel really bad about the world, but most of the time I feel pretty hopeful. And one of the things I love about the work that we’re doing, is that we are… SomaDetect is disrupting the dairy industry. We are the data nerdy rebels in this really interesting industry, but also an industry that’s not always at the forefront of everybody’s mind. And so I love… We get to work in this little niche thing, and then we get to do something completely badass and rebellious within it. And I love the role that I get to play there as CEO, but also that my entire company gets to play there in terms of taking the wayward way or being the rebellious ones in just about any room. And so it’s fun. I think it’s easy to look and feel bad about what’s happening in different places.
Bethany: Dairy gets a lot of scrutiny, as well. There are some really negative things that have come forward in different parts of the dairy industry, but all in all, for the most part, it’s people making food for other people. And supporting that and playing a key role there, having responsibility over some little piece of that is an incredible joy.
Vicki: Well, thank you very much for your leadership and for what you’re doing in the world. And here’s to better data for farmers, better milk for consumers, and better lives for cows. Thank you for being with us today.
Bethany: Thank you, Vicki.
Vicki: Thank you for listening to the SheEO.world podcast. If this conversation resonated with you, please share it with a friend and subscribe on your favorite podcast player. If you’d like more information about SheEO, please visit us at SheEO.world that’s S-H-E-E-O.world.