LEA A. ELLERMEIER | ENTREPRENEUR, CEO, AUTHOR, VISUAL ARTIST, & EXPLORER
A candid conversation with Lea A. Ellermeier covering everything from how she approaches entrepreneurship, hiring the right people, the value of being in the office & the future of work.
Lea has spent her +25-year career in start-up and small tech companies focused on bringing disruptive technologies to software and healthcare markets.
She is also a painter and a writer. Her memoir, Finding the Exit, is the story of overcoming a tragic beginning and finding success in the hyper-competitive world of technology start-ups. It captures the feelings of economic vulnerability that stalk women of disadvantaged backgrounds as they become executives and leaders.
In 2003 she co-founded Lingualcare, a medtech company that made customized orthodontic braces that go behind the teeth.
Lingualcare won the prestigious Dallas 100 Entrepreneur Award in 2007 for being one of the fastest growing, most dynamic companies in Dallas. In October 2007, 3M Company acquired Lingualcare. After selling Lingualcare, Lea co-founded Natural Dental Implants AG, REPLICATE Dental Technologies PLC and 2C Dental Technologies Inc.
A native of Nebraska, Lea received her B.A. from the University of Texas at El Paso and an M.B.A. from the Thunderbird,
School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona. She is currently the CEO of 2C MedTech and resides in Dallas, Texas and Berlin, Germany.
[00:00:00] – Lea Ellermeier
Entrepreneurs have to take the red pill every day, because if you don’t, then you won’t be successful. You have to look at that in that raw truth of where you’re at and not shy away from it.
[00:00:22] – Doug Foulkes
Welcome to The Future of Work, the podcast that looks at, you guessed it, the future of work, it’s brought to you by WNDYR for their blog, Chaos and Rocket Fuel. WNDYR are productivity and human behavior specialists who use technology to help us humans on our digital journey from disruption to transformation. Find out more at their website. That’s WNDYR.com. I’m Doug Foulkes. And along with WNDYR CEO Claire Haidar, we regularly meet up with industry experts and mavericks to get their take on work in the future.
In today’s conversation, we meet Lea Ellermeier, a serial entrepreneur, author, visual artist, and explorer. Lea has spent her 25 years plus career in startup and small tech companies focused on bringing disruptive technologies to software and health care markets. She’s currently the CEO of 2C MedTech and resides in Dallas, Texas.
Lea’s memoir, Finding the Exit, is the story of overcoming a tragic beginning and finding success in the hyper-competitive world of technology startups, where from an early age, she’s had to navigate the highs and lows of the entrepreneurial rollercoaster. Join us now as we ride along with her.
Lea, I’m going to start off just by saying hello and welcome. So nice to meet you.
[00:01:42] – Lea Ellermeier
Nice to meet you.
[00:01:44] – Doug Foulkes
I’m going to take you back in time to your childhood, and I’m going to ask you to share the top three lessons that you learned in childhood. All about business.
[00:01:53] – Lea Ellermeier
Sure. So, growing up, my dad was an entrepreneur and he showed me as a kid what the freedom was like being an entrepreneur. And I think that was the one thing probably that appealed the most to him, was having that independence and freedom and being able to chart his own course. So my early look at entrepreneurship and business was that it was fun.
And when I was 16, my father died unexpectedly. He had a sudden heart attack, I would say, brought on by the stress of being an entrepreneur. This was back in the very late 70s, early 80s. If you roll back in time, the economy was not doing very well in the US. We had a lot of issues with interest rates. They were up in the sometimes 20-22 percent and my dad was a real estate entrepreneur. And so anybody back in that time who was leveraged had a lot of issues and that included my dad. He owned hotels and apartment buildings, restaurants, self-storage, lots of different types of businesses.
He did something that was not legal. He started floating money between banks and he was caught by the FBI and they were looking to prosecute him when he had a heart attack and he died. And so the lesson that I learned from that was don’t ever cheat a government agency. No, that things can go wrong and you have options in the way that you respond. You know, my dad’s response was to do everything that he could to keep his empire alive. And it ended up killing him.
And the consequence for me was that I ended up without a home. And I decided then that I would never want to be an entrepreneur because I just didn’t want to take those kinds of risks. I met another entrepreneur when my mom remarried. His name was Wayne and he was a rancher. I ended up going to work for Wayne when I was 19 years old. I learned from Wayne that I could do anything that I set my mind to.
So even though I grew up in Nebraska, I wasn’t really a farm girl. So I took this job on Wayne’s ranch and he taught me to do things that I never thought that I could do and I was afraid to do. But his attitude was, you know what? Just try it. Just see how it goes. And if it doesn’t work, then we’ll try something else. And there are very few things that are, you know, you can’t recover from.
And that gave me a lot of confidence in myself and in my ability to navigate through things that were pretty frightening. I had never driven heavy equipment or welded. I ended up riding horses to do work. And I had never other than, like, summer camp, ridden a horse.
So my childhood was just a mixed bag of lessons. The most important ones, I think, came later on. And those were that it’s worth risking to have that kind of freedom, and if you just keep going, if you just keep trying and if you don’t give up and if you don’t let the fear just stop you at the doorframe, you can make some pretty amazing things happen.
[00:05:35] – Claire Haidar
I just love hearing these stories from you. As you know, I couldn’t put your book down. And, you know, many of these are in there. And that’s why I really just wanted to start the show going right into those lessons. So thank you for sharing them with us and getting us started today. So, going back to the book that I’ve just mentioned, one of the things that made it so hard to put down for me when I read your book was it’s your candidness. You’re just so raw and absolutely real about the facts. Has this extremely candid approach to life being something that’s just come naturally to you, or is it something that you’re very deliberate about on a day to day basis?
[00:06:22] – Lea Ellermeier
I would say that I’m very deliberate about it at this juncture of my life. One of the things that is in my book is that I’m an alcoholic. And one of my responses to my father’s death was to just fall into drinking as a teenager. And I got sober when I was 20. And one of the things that I learned going through rehab was that I had to stay in reality. I had to be emotionally real and I had to be honest with myself. And that extended to being honest with other people and not being ashamed of who I was or what I was going through. That posturing wasn’t going to be helpful.
Entrepreneurs have to take the red pill every day because if you don’t, then you won’t be successful. You just won’t. You have to look at that in that raw truth of where you’re at and not shy away from it. But also in doing it, you realize that you’re stronger than you thought, that you can face it. There is no reality that is so bad that you cannot confront it. I don’t think.
[00:07:43] – Claire Haidar
The reason why I wanted to bring this whole, you know, being very deliberate about reality is I genuinely believe it’s one of the most critical skill sets that the future is going to demand from particularly young people. When AI filters into work and when it becomes—automation—becomes such a significant part of our lives that it’s actually going to feel like a colleague in the office with us. We’re not going to be able to hide from reality the way many times we can today still, because we don’t have that level of automation. What are your thoughts on that?
[00:08:21] – Lea Ellermeier
I think that it’s a really interesting place where we’re at right now. Where do we as humans draw our boundaries? What belongs uniquely to us? And while we see a lot of interesting things happening with machine learning, I think there’s something that’s very specific about our ability to sort through all the different inputs that we get and decide what our reality is. Because as we know, it can actually be many different things based on the lens of perception.
And I hope that we never lose the ability to determine that for ourselves and bring that clarity to the workplace. Because one of the things that humans do is we view everything in many ways through the lenses of the past and our emotions. So what what is real?
[00:09:28] – Doug Foulkes
Let’s move on. You’re an entrepreneur. Therefore, you create work. You’ve also spoken to us about grounding yourself in reality. And the reality that we’ve all had to become accustomed to is a new one. What do you see coming up as the hardest parts about job creation in this new reality we find ourselves in?
[00:09:47] – Lea Ellermeier
I think it’s hard in this environment right now where everybody’s working remotely. I mean, on one hand, certainly there are benefits because you’re not sitting in the car, you’re not dealing with traffic, maybe you’re a little bit less stressed out. Maybe you’re a little more stressed out because you’re home schooling children. But I think that remote work has always been something that people have thought would be good for them. I think people are probably getting a little bit of a different viewpoint on it right now because they’re experiencing it firsthand and realizing when you work from home, it’s very hard to have separation between where is my home and where is my work.
So where I think it becomes complicated for people is a lot of work happens around collaboration that is not planned. You know, you run into somebody in the break room and you start talking about, “hey, what do you think about this?” You know, or you overhear conversation in the hallway and it gets you thinking about, oh, well, what if you did it that way? So I think that that that part is missing. And I don’t know how you ever recreate that in a digital world.
So when it comes to job creation in this economy, I think it’s particularly tough for kids who are just coming into the workforce because they don’t have all the experience that we had going into remote work. I think for employers like myself, it presents a bigger challenge because now we really have to work hard to make sure that people are included, they’re up to speed, they feel engaged, they’re not disconnected. In some businesses with other CEO friends that I have, they’ve just put their hiring on hold because they don’t trust that they can bring people in and make them productive in the environment right now. I think it’s a big challenge and it’s going to remain that for a while.
[00:11:46] – Claire Haidar
This new reality that we find ourselves in is completely altering and changing the employee-employer relationship. And I wanted to ask you, if you look back on how you grew teams before, what were the guiding principles that you used back before we were in this like truly remote reality that we’re in now? And do you think they’re going to change vastly because of the new reality we’re in?
[00:12:15] – Lea Ellermeier
Of course, I always look for people who are qualified, but I’m also interested in people who are naturally curious and who’ve done a lot of different things. So I would rather have somebody who’s had four different jobs that were a little bit different than somebody who’s only done the one thing, because I think that when you’ve done different things, you can come in—or have been in different industries, so to speak—you can bring that new perspective into what you’re doing and and be a change agent. And in entrepreneurial companies, you need that. Of course, in some hiring, you want people that are very experienced. So I would say, like, you know, accounting and finance. And that’s that’s one thing. But I’m talking more sales, marketing, product development. I actually love hiring entrepreneurs who have failed. You know, they’ve gone out. They tried to do something. They took the initiative and maybe it didn’t work out for whatever reason, because I know that they’re going to come at it with the right mindset.
And I also like people who are just curious. I mean, I don’t think—you can’t teach curiosity. I also will ask people a lot about their decision making. You know, OK, you decided to do this. Tell me about a decision you made in your in your career. Why did you make that decision? To understand what are the parameters that they’re looking at? How are they thinking about it? Because, again, to me, good decision making—I’ve never learned how to teach that to somebody. So if I can get an employee who has good baseline skills, good decision making, they’re naturally curious. One of the things that I know about them is that they’re going to engage and they’re going to let me know what they don’t know. That’s the one thing that I think people struggle with is, OK, I want to seem competent, but I don’t really know everything. And I’m the first person to raise my hand and say, I have no idea. Let’s find out. So I need people who are willing to do that. And I think that’s particularly important in this remote work environment. Don’t pretend like you know what you’re doing if you don’t.
[00:14:25] – Doug Foulkes
It’s quite interesting because we started this podcast last year and was called The Future of Work. You could argue that the future of work is now the present of work. What do you think, looking forward, the new future of work would look like?
[00:14:38] – Lea Ellermeier
I think the future of work will definitely include a lot more automation, hopefully focusing people on the things where having human interaction, human discernment is most important and things that don’t require that do become more automated, can be taken on in some capacity through machine learning, that we have a combination of remote and in-person work. I think that there is something invaluable that happens when people get together. I think we’ve all learned over the past six months through different Zoom meetings, that while it’s great to see people’s faces and hear the tenor of their voice, so much communication happens with your body and the small micro expressions that don’t necessarily come through on a Zoom connection. And so I think that there will always be a component of face-to-face.
I think the future of work has actually been accelerated through this. Companies have seen that they can have remote employees, that there is benefit there on lots of levels. Certainly from a cost perspective. Not having to put somebody in an office. And realizing things like I don’t have to maybe have all my salespeople traveling all the time, that they can do some of this remotely, that we can be more efficient, and save on some of that downtime. I think it’ll be a very interesting evolution. And what I hope happens is that we get to the point where we can spend our time doing what we can uniquely do.
[00:16:33] – Claire Haidar
We’ve run a fully virtual company way before the pandemic ever hit us, and we received so much flak from so many people, particularly the investment community, about it. But it’s just, it’s something that we resolutely have stuck to. And I think you’ve just summarized like one of the things that we found were the magical components of running a virtual team is that fact that you’re allowing people to blend their lives in such a way that they can really focus in and hone in on the things that they’re really, really good at.
You’ve recently—well, I shouldn’t say recently because you’ve been at it for quite a few months now. And I’ve been the recipient of one of your beautiful pieces of art. But you’ve recently really started exploring art and in particular painting. What are you learning through this this new medium that you’re exploring? And is it teaching you anything about business specifically?
[00:17:32] – Lea Ellermeier
I’ll tell you what has been so magical for me about painting, and that is I feel like I have just expanded my creative muscles in doing it. And by doing that, I am better in my job and my approach and my ability to look at things.
As you know, in a startup company, when you’re working on projects, some things just take forever to get to a conclusion. And sometimes it never concludes.When you paint a painting, you can start with a blank canvas of whatever size you choose and you can paint and decide at some point, “I like that. I’m done.” And you can look at something that’s complete. And so for me, when I do that, as I’m painting, it’s like a meditative experience and I am thinking about business in the back of my head. My brain is working. And I frequently come out of it with really good ideas. So I think it’s an opportunity to flex the creative muscle. And I also like the fact that I don’t have to deliver in any kind of a performance way.
A lot of my paintings, I have donated or have given to people in exchange for donations to the North Texas Food Bank. That’s been really fun to feel like what I’m doing a). it’s going to beautify somebody’s space that they’re now kind of stuck in during the pandemic. But also, money is going to be going to a very worthy cause.
[00:19:12] – Claire Haidar
That’s beautiful. I actually didn’t know that you were doing that. And it’s an amazing way to, you know, factor the charity factor into that. Love that you’re doing that.
[00:19:23] – Lea Ellermeier
Like I’ve had college students reach out and say, “oh, my gosh,” via Instagram, “I really love your painting, but I know I can’t afford it.” And I had one girl in Washington, I said, “you know, what? Do you have some canned food in your pantry? Because if you’re willing to go and donate that to your local food bank, I will send you this painting.” And she was so happy she posted the picture of it in her apartment. And so for me, it’s about touching people and hoping to bring some beauty into the universe.
[00:19:56] – Claire Haidar
And I think the piece that I love the most about what virtual work gifts us is that reclaiming of dead time, which, you know, you can sit in traffic for two hours and listen to podcasts and nourish your mind and stuff like that. There’s always ways to kind of recycle that that lost time. But I think if we start getting really deliberate about it—and the reason why what you were saying kind of like triggered that whole chain of thought in me, was it gives us the opportunity to really stand back and say, how can I start contributing again? Because we had kind of gotten into this, like, rat race of work and just everything bundled around it and then coming home and having to deal with everything at home. And there wasn’t that expensive space where we could really be in community with each other. And I’m definitely, just like you have shared with us now how how you’ve built that back into your life, I’m seeing it. You’re not the first person that I’m hearing this from. You know, it’s kind of like I’m hearing it in conversations everywhere. It’s sparking up. It’s like I actually am really thinking about this time that I have and what I’m going to do with it.
[00:21:07] – Lea Ellermeier
A couple of things have happened for me that have opened up that opportunity to do things like write and to paint. My only child has graduated from college and is out into the world. And I find that that has given me a lot of time. I mean, I do things like have meals delivered. I used to go to the gym a lot. I stopped going during the pandemic. But I live on a nature trail, so I make a point of going out and running. Every day, I can just step out the door. And I have saved that time because it was 15 minutes to the gym and back. So there’s, you know, 30 minutes a day. But I’m also at the point in my life where I ask myself, hey, what is it that I wish to leave behind? What’s my legacy to my—I mean, I’m not that old, but, you know, what do I really want to do? What are those things that I pushed to the side because I was so 100 percent focused on work? And is there a way to have a little bit more balance? I mean, as an entrepreneur, it’s never going to be the kind of balance that I think you have if you have a quote-unquote, regular job. But there are some areas where you can reclaim your time, and I think it’s important to do it.
[00:22:22] – Doug Foulkes
Lee, what are you working on at the moment? That maybe has come out of your extra brain time through painting?
[00:22:30] – Lea Ellermeier
So we started a new company and that has been pretty, pretty fantastic. One of the things that we didn’t touch on, but I will just touch on it briefly is my very last company before this one, we had created a product that required FDA approval and we worked for seven years with FDA to define a regulatory path and to do what they asked us to do in order to get the product approved. And at the very last minute, they elected not to approve our product. Seven years and almost thirty million dollars later. So that was devastating.
And in very short order, it went from no approval to losing our financing to having to declare insolvency for the company. And that was the first really big failure that I’ve ever had. As an entrepreneur, I’ve had many situations where things were, I’ll call it a near-death experience, but I never had a company fail completely with no ability to save it. Zero. And I spent about a week in a very bad place, pretty much talking to the FDA in my head all the time.
And I would add—Claire knows this—that same week we had to declare insolvency, my mother died. So it was a lot of immediate loss. And people talk a lot about success as entrepreneurs. Fewer people will delve into that failure. And one of the things that I came to realize is, the day that we were denied FDA approval, it could have gone either way and I would have been the same person whether they had said yes or no. So them saying no, and the waterfall of events that happened while I felt like a failure, the truth of the matter was I was still the same person I had been before and I wouldn’t have been a success either if it had been a yes. Do you know what I mean? We are who we are in our core.
One of the things that I had been working on in the summer was helping a couple of German orthodontists who had an idea for this new company and product get a structure built. And we invested in it and also helped them get some money raised. And right around the time, our FDA approval didn’t happen and the company spiral downward. This new company got funded and they approached me and said, “well, hey, we were going to work with this other CEO, but we’d really love to have you do it.” And I thought, well, because I originally thought, well, maybe I should take a little time off and decompress and think about it. And I thought, what? I’m going to spend the next month talking to the FDA in my head. Maybe I’ll just jump into this.
So, we have a new—we started a new orthodontic company with a really cool product for aesthetic orthodontics. And then when the pandemic hit, we started focusing on this new technology for continuous air and surface pathogen reduction. Basically, air and surface cleaning in a very green, proactive way that isn’t a filtration system, it’s not heavy chemicals. And bringing that into dentistry.
And that’s been really fun. I’ve sold the product to airports, to different types of businesses, to people to put it in their home, because it’s just a fantastic technology. And I think it’s making a big difference during the pandemic. And so I feel like we’re helping people get back to work to protect their employees and their loved ones and their customers that come into their space. And, you know, again, doing it in a very green non-chemical way.
[00:26:38] – Doug Foulkes
[00:26:40] – Claire Haidar
Lea, we’re heading towards the end of our time together. If you were to leave one thought, that’s kind of like really stuck with you and that you know has been a very big light bulb for you through this failure that you’ve just navigated with the FDA, and combine that with everything else that you’ve had to navigate in the last few months. What is that? What is it that you would like to leave with our listeners?
[00:27:08] – Lea Ellermeier
I would say that it is to know who you are and to know that what happens to you is not who you are. That you have a core. And if you can accept who you are and come to the world with vulnerability and openness and being candid, that I think that’s how we honor ourselves and we can put forth our best work, whether it’s in a virtual environment or it’s in a room full of people. I think that’s how people—people connect with you as a leader if you’re willing to be honest and to tell them your own vulnerabilities. And it opens it up for them to be vulnerable and for the more real you can get, I think the more successful you can get, you can understand problems at a better level. You can understand why people are struggling and how you can help each other.
So, you know, that’s at least been my guiding principle as a leader is to just be honest, to put it out there, to be forthright and to expose those vulnerabilities. Because when people see you being vulnerable, you basically give them permission to not be perfect. And the more we can understand about the mechanisms that make our businesses successful and understand what’s working and what’s not working, then the faster we can serve our customers better. Because at the end of the day, we are here to build value for all of our stakeholders, our employees, our customers, and our investors. And the way I think we do that is through transparency, honesty, vulnerability, and not being afraid to fail. I mean, I will tell you that I was terrified of failure last year at this time as we were coming into this thing with FDA. I mean, just terrified. It felt like the world would end and it did not.
And in fact, now here I am 11 months later, in a position where I think we’re doing a lot of good in the world and maybe I wouldn’t have been in the position to do the good that I’m doing if I hadn’t had that failure.
[00:29:42] – Doug Foulkes
Lea, I’ve got one last question, if you don’t mind, and it’s really around building teams. Obviously, as an entrepreneur through your career, you’ve built many teams going forward, maybe your latest venture has been an opportunity to build another team. And I’m assuming it would be more in a digital realm. Is there anything you would change or innovate around that process of building a digital team?
[00:30:05] – Lea Ellermeier
I think I’m really learning how to build a digital team successfully. I wouldn’t say that I am there yet. But we are definitely working on it, bringing new tools into the company, trying to help people manage their time. I think that everybody that I’ve ever managed has had time management issues. You know, trying to figure out how to focus, how to deploy their time in a way that will move the—hate to use analogies—to move the ball forward in their own realm of the company.
And so I think as a manager at building a team digitally, I’m still trying to figure out how I can be there for them proactively, because this whole idea that someone’s going to come to you every time they’re struggling is, you know, people don’t. So how can I know when people aren’t where they need to be and be able to proactively intervene with them and make them feel good about coming to me. Having good metrics, having good software tools, making sure people know that the expectation is that we’re all going to make mistakes and that they need to be open about that and then having ways to actually see those in real time and intervene when we can. I think all of that is my challenge over the next couple of years, because I think digital is going to continue to be the way teams grow.
[00:31:49] – Claire Haidar
Lea, it’s just been so good chatting to you. Thank you for taking this time. Thank you for investing it into us and can’t wait to listen to the recording.
[00:31:58] – Lea Ellermeier
Absolutely. Thank you guys very much. I appreciate it.
[00:32:01] – Doug Foulkes
Lea, thank you, and very nice to meet you. Good luck with your future ventures in the dental environment.
[00:32:06] – Lea Ellermeier
[00:32:09] – Doug Foulkes
You don’t get more real than that. A wealth of experience from the entrepreneurial coalface. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast and found it of value, please don’t be a stranger. Make sure you pop back for more top of mind conversations.
Just a reminder, for more information about WNDYR and the integration services they supply, you can visit their website. That’s WNDYR.com. And so from me, Doug Foulkes, and Chaos and Rocket Fuel, stay safe and we’ll see you soon.
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