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Season 2, Episode 12
Making an Impact with Catharine Montgomery

Catharine Montgomery (she/her)  is the founder and CEO of Better Together, a communications agency that galvanizes positive change for purpose-driven organizations through creative strategies, messaging and branding. Catharine’s vision for Better Together is to build a more just, environmentally sustainable world centered around human and labor rights, access to education, and healthcare for all through collaborative and creative communication campaigns. After spending nearly 15 years working in public relations, Catharine knows what truly drives results and leaves a lasting impact.

Website | Catharine’s LinkedIn | Better Together LinkedIn | Threads

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SUMMARY: In this episode of Feminist Founders, Catharine Montgomery, founder and CEO of Better Together, shares her journey of building sustainable change. She discusses her unexpected start in entrepreneurship with VC funding and the social impact her agency aims to achieve. Catharine navigates the challenges of transitioning from employee to business owner, overcoming imposter syndrome, and modeling equity and social justice in her business practices. She emphasizes the importance of mentoring, networking, and finding clients who align with Better Together’s values. Through her experiences, Catharine provides valuable insights for entrepreneurs navigating similar paths, highlighting the intersection of feminism, entrepreneurship, and social change.

Discussed in this episode:

  • Catharine’s burgeoning and complicated relationship with feminism
  • Exiting a toxic work environment (and fighting back)
  • How a chance encounter (and a lifetime of preparation) helped Catharine unexpectedly start her agency with VC funding
  • Why Catharine decided to accept VC funding, despite being in an industry that isn’t known for relying on it
  • How mentoring and networking have helped Catharine as a newer entrepreneur
  • Better Together’s values and finding clients that share them
  • Making money and doing good
  • How entrepreneurship helped Catharine overcome “imposter syndrome”
  • The learning curve of going from employee to business owner
  • Modeling equity and social justice in how she runs Better Together
  • The legacy Catharine hopes to create with Better Together

Resources mentioned:

Becky Mollenkamp:

Hello, Catharine. Thanks for joining me for this episode. I’m so excited to chat.

 

Catharine Montgomery:

Hi Becky, thanks for having me, I’m so excited.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Good! Well first, tell us your relationship with feminism.

 

Catharine Montgomery:

I would say that I am pretty new to feminism actually. I, you know, went on marches for Me Too and I think that was my first, like, glimpse into feminism actually. And then I do feel like I’ve had kind of a give and take with it now. I don’t know really what to think about it. I think of good things, I’ll say, in that I know that people want to do positive work. Then there’s always the pushback from just all sides of like, do people really mean it? Do they, you know, is it just for white women? Can Black women have a part in that? And so I think I am all over the place when it comes to feminism, but I, for the most part, know that it comes from a good place and it’s meant to help women.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I wanted to go back a little for your career before we get into Better Together and how you started it and where you’re at now, because I have read quite a few interviews with you. And one of the things that I saw come up was about your leaving a previous job due to a racist coworker and that you had to deal with some derogatory treatment and management. In fact, not only do they not do anything to take care of it, from what I understand, the person who had done that was actually rewarded with a raise and a promotion. And from what I can tell, that’s the thing that sort of was just like, I’m done. Can you tell whatever you’re comfortable with sharing about that experience and leaving, and then that what came up for you after you left, but I don’t, from what I understand, you didn’t leave to something. You were leaving saying, I’m gonna just take a chance here. So tell me a little bit about that experience.

 

Catharine Montgomery:

Yeah, I will say that last year was one of the hardest, worst years of my life, honestly. And for some reason I put this in quarters, but it was like Q1 through Q3 were just awful. And I, you know, did love the work that our company was doing, that the agency was doing, because I moved to Boston to work on social impact work. And so that was a good thing. And it’s just so difficult when internally it’s the opposite. And so I wanted to give it a chance. I wanted it to work out and it just, it really didn’t. And I just felt so disrespected and kind of at a loss almost of words in a way of, what do I really do? And I never had to be so strong, actually, and fight for myself and actually fight for myself. Like a lot of times in the past, things have gone sideways, but I’ve just left, just let it go, just move on, things like that. But this time I really stood up for myself and said, I’m gonna go to the media, I’m gonna go to the government, I’m gonna tell them what’s happening at this organization or you can give me a buyout. I didn’t go small with the buyout. I, you know, went for what I thought I was worth and then went beyond that. And so I think that was the difference, and that’s what made me really proud of myself. I was honestly, I told people I was proud of myself, which I don’t really ever say that. And I think it’s hard for women to say that in general about ourselves. So that was the rewarding part of it. And I did, I left without having another position, not really knowing what I wanted to do next, but I was in a place of privilege. And what I mean by that is to start your own business, if that is something that, you know, you can do, you really have to be in a place where financially, you know, just personally, you can go out on your own and you can have maybe not an income for a month or two or three or however long. And so not a lot of people have that opportunity and I wouldn’t have without this buyout and going through what I did.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I’m proud of you too, because you’re right, it’s not easy. When you’re in a work situation, right, where there’s power differential and it’s your livelihood, it can be very challenging to stand up for yourself for all the reasons, and I also understand all the reasons why many people don’t, right, because it is about your livelihood and those choices that we make can really affect us. So more power to you, congratulations, and I’m proud of you too for making that decision. And then you were out on your own. And like you said, you had a buyout. It sounds like that gave you some cushion and some space to figure out what’s next. But I’m also gonna guess that was still scary. We’re talking about 2022. So the pandemic isn’t exactly that far removed. And you know, it’s probably scary to be out on your own. And you weren’t previously an entrepreneur. So did you go into it thinking, I’m gonna start my own thing? Or yeah, no. So then how did that kind of come about? Were you still just looking for traditional jobs, I’m assuming?

 

Catharine Montgomery:

I didn’t start just looking for a job. I actually came into a consulting role for another agency that was focused on social impact, actually. And they were looking for someone working like three days a week, but the salary was fantastic. It wasn’t a salary, it was like just, you know, an hourly rate or whatnot, but the work was great. The pay was good and I still had time to kind of figure out what I wanted to do long term. So I happened to be on a Slack channel and a recruiter posted that a venture capital firm was looking to expand to the US, and they only invest in public relations agencies. And of course, that’s really unique because you don’t need VC funding to start a PR agency, you just need more clients. And so I really did think this is so sketchy. Like am I gonna do this, just you know meet with this random recruiter from a Slack channel but it was like I’m just chillin’ here might as well just try it out so I reached out to her and we met virtually. She lives in Austin and we really hit it off. It was like instant best friends. Some people you just really hit it off with. Literally the next day I met with one of the investors who lives in Connecticut. We had worked at one of the same large agencies, not at the same time, but we knew some of the same people. Again, I wasn’t looking to be an entrepreneur, but I knew that if I ever did or if I ever worked in another agency, I wanted to be focused on social impact. And so I think I was able to bring that to the conversation and that kind of bled through my passion of what I really wanted to do. And so I didn’t really need a business plan, but I needed that passion. And that was definitely a lesson for me later on. And then he introduced me to the other investor who lives in Germany. And that was just two days later. And again, I didn’t have a business plan or anything like that and he did ask me, you know, how am I going to make money, which I had no idea. I was like, I found out about this like three days ago, you know, but again, it was that passion for social impact that really pushed me through and I think that’s how I found the right opportunity of what was next.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I saw that you have a Google Doc in one of your interviews called ‘All the Things’ where you just dump all your ideas, right? And that ultimately ended up serving you because you got this opportunity to meet with this funder with no real warning and pitch an idea and you had this doc that you could go to and say, what’s here? What’s here can I make of this? I just think that’s a really nice reminder for people to capture all these brilliant ideas that we have in the shower or while we’re, you know, when we wake up in the morning or whatever and put them somewhere because you never know when they might pay off. So I love that you had that.

 

Catharine Montgomery:

Yeah, yeah, I started it in 2019 with no idea of what I would use it for. And it came in really handy. I mean, the name of the agency was in there, I think the tagline was in there, the random number that I came up of how much I would earn in the first year was in there, although the investor was like, yeah, that’s not enough. And I was like, I just got the number randomly from someone. So, but yeah, there were, I still, you know, it’s not in the same document but I transferred a lot of that to a spreadsheet and other materials that I still use to this day. So it can be really helpful.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I want to talk about the VC funding because as you said, it’s not something that I think people typically think of for VC funding. Obviously, our mind immediately goes to tech because that’s where so much of those funding dollars go, not to a PR agency. And as you said, you could start a PR agency in your bedroom, you know, if you had enough contacts to do that. So why go down that route for yourself? What was it about the idea of VC funding that felt important or useful to you as somebody who wouldn’t necessarily have to take that on to start your business.

 

Catharine Montgomery:

I didn’t know a lot about VC funding and honestly, same for you, like I just heard about it, you know, on the news or something, or watched it in a documentary where someone failed to use the money properly and then they went bankrupt or something like that. So we didn’t have a lot of experience with it. I didn’t know a lot about the struggle that a lot of women go through to try to find VC funding. So I was kind of learning all of that as I was going. And I asked a lot of people close contacts, like my brother, my dad, my mom about what they thought I should do, what path they thought I should take, because do I want to have someone who can kind of direct where my money goes and where, you know, like maybe you don’t stick to your passion of social impact. Like there’s someone who could, they could say that, you know, like, Hey, we want you to kind of move away from that. Like, do I want that potentially to be with an investor or do I want to make sure that I’m able to stick to my mission by just staying on my own? But the more I got to know the investors and realize who they are as people, they weren’t what I typically would think of as investors. They’re not ones to dictate, you know, what you use the funds on, what kind of clients you get, who’s gonna work at your agency, anything like that. It was up to me to make it a success and to use my mission for good and also to, you know earn a living. And so as I got to know them more, I realized that it’s more of an opportunity for me to work with them. And it also depends on how you want to scale. You know, if I wanted to be, you know, smaller for a longer time and maybe, you know, 5, 10 years later have 10 employees and if that’s what I wanted to do, I think that, you know, being on my own would be perfect. And for a lot of people it is. I mean, that’s wonderful as long as you’re happy, but I want the impact that we make to be as big as it can be. Like I want us to help as many people as we can. And I know that with VC funding, I can do that. And they’re always gonna be there to support me when I need another employee or when I need funding for this particular month. Like they’re gonna be there because they have the trust in me that I’m going to get the business down the road. And just knowing that the more support I have for them, the more that I can succeed in achieving our mission of using communications to achieve equity.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

What is your vision for the company? By the time this airs, you’ll be just over a year into the business. Where do you want it to go? And how does the VC funding, I know some more specifics around how that actually helps you make that happen in ways that you couldn’t if you were self-funded?

 

Catharine Montgomery:

It’s not really about the number of employees, I think, or, you know maybe for the investors and for me, like I have financial goals of where I want the company to be, but it really is about that impact that we can make and how many people can reach in the world. And those key performance indicators of campaigns that we run achieving, we’ve helped X number of people, either learn about certain aspects of social impact that they didn’t know about, whether it’s college loans or health care, whatever it is, just making some kind of impact that we can look back on and say, we were part of that and we helped move that along and educate people through communications. So that’s really the impact. And I want all of my employees to not only want to show up for work to help those organizations, but show up because they actually want to work at Better Together. And when I say show up, it’s virtually because we are fully remote. But I want them every day to be excited about being with their coworkers, having me as the person to look up to as direction for the agency. And one thing is that I’ve looked back at the other jobs I’ve had and how difficult they’ve been sometimes, and I realize what I don’t want in my agency. So that’s a really good thing to go through those experiences and then say like, this is what I want to think about every day and realize I don’t want my employees to be treated that way. So I think it’s like having a good internal culture wise and then also making sure that we can look back on our campaigns and be proud of what we’ve done. When it comes to really more granular and the VC funding. So when I first started in January, I was able to hire an employee and that was before I even launched. I was able to hire an employee. I didn’t have, I started from nothing. I started from no clients or anything, but by having VC funding, I was able to make my first hire to help me with the launch and carry that out and actually start the business. And so when I had my first client, someone there to support me as well. So that’s one very tactical way that VC funding helps. Also all of the programs that are needed to run a successful agency like Asana for project management, Slack Pro, or paying for Gmail or Zoom or all the different things, they add up in cost. So all of those, the VC funding helps pay for that too. And they don’t just haphazardly invest in people, they invest in people they know and they believe in who will eventually get them their money back. But I think that it’s just the starting off that they really are there to provide the resources needed. And it’s not just money-wise. Like, I meet with them every other week and I create the agenda. I go to them with any concerns I have or any advice I need, and they both have run their own public relations agencies successfully. So they’re able to say, yeah, I’ve been through that, this is how you might deal with that situation. And what I also really love about the situation is that they don’t tell me to go in a certain direction. Like we have disagreed several times and they might say, well, maybe you should do this. And I’ll say maybe not. And that’s just how it is. And I respect my decision. And sometimes I do make the wrong decision, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to go anywhere. They’re going to be there to support me. And maybe correcting it or, you know, hey, this time you learned that maybe that’s not the right direction to go or, you know, what you need to do. You know, there have been clients that I’ve had a really difficult time with the past nine months and they’ve been able to say, you know, here’s maybe something I would say to the client who’s going this direction. And what I really, really love is that, you know, I’m getting to a point where I can say no to clients that are rude or, you know, maybe they do have a good mission, but they’re just not the right culture fit. And so that’s also because of them and because of the direction and support that they’ve been able to provide.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I’m glad you mentioned that it’s not just the money, because I’ve seen that you’ve talked a lot about the importance of mentorship and networking and having support as you’re building a business. And so you’re getting that from them. How else are you getting that in your life? And how is that helping you as a newer entrepreneur?

 

Catharine Montgomery:

Q4 2022, I joined almost every organization I could think of. I mean, there are a dozen and I mean hundreds that you could join. And so I was just like, I’m joining everything. I’m gonna see how it works out and which one I want to, you know, keep up with. And I think all of them brought something to the table. I met so many wonderful, in particular, women I would say. I think mostly women who were either in the same situation of launching a business, had already done it, weren’t looking to launch a business, but had, you know, advice for me and I just, I really just embraced all of the ideas and thoughts and perspectives and it opened my mind to industries I never even thought I would be interested in. It opened my mind to clients and opportunities that I wouldn’t have known about if I didn’t join those organizations. I also learned that it’s okay to become close with other people and build a relationship with them and not just think all the time, hey, how am I going to get money from this person? How am I going to get a new client? And I think that really was what changed the way that I kind of like, quote unquote, sold or networked Better Together and myself, is that building authentic relationships is what kind of got me to other clients because they would think like, oh yeah, Catharine does public relations, like social impact. Like, I think she’d be great to refer to this person or maybe it wasn’t necessarily a person I had met, but they were thinking about me in that way down the road. And so I really learned a lot from those instances. 

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

And the other thing that you mentioned was your the VC funders and that relationship, how they give you a lot of space to do what’s right for you and have helped you get more and more comfortable with even saying no to wrong-fit kinds of clients. And I saw that you mentioned somewhere on your website, I think that you only work with people that have shared values that that’s really important for you. So what are your values as an agency and how do you make sure that the clients that you’re working with share those values?

 

Catharine Montgomery:

I think for the most part, it’s as long as the organization, they can be for-profit, not-for-profit government, like whoever it is, as long as they genuinely want to make a positive impact in the world. And again, that comes with getting to know them really well. So it’s not one or two conversations, especially if they’re a for-profit company, because it’s more about, you know, either performance, quarterly performances, or you know, the bottom line more so than a non-profit. So that’s one of the first things we look at is like, who’s the organization? What is their mission? What are they trying to do? And we can find money to sustain the company somewhere else that’s really gonna impact the world positively than just taking on any client. And that’s truly what makes us different from other agencies is that we don’t have a practice or department that’s focused on multiculturalism or DEI, but it’s who we are. Like it’s just, I mean, from the get, like this is what you’re gonna get. We’re gonna be focused on social impact, like nothing else. And it can the industries can change, but we have to be making a positive impact. So I would say that’s like our value, our core value.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

That takes me to my next question. On your website you say that you use communications to achieve equity and obviously you’ve talked a lot about social justice, or social impact. How am I correct? I guess it’s just a how and for whom. How are you using communications to achieve equity and for whom?

 

Catharine Montgomery:

I’ll give you an example. One of our clients is Touch4Life. And the woman who started at Laura Crandon, she was a two-time breast cancer survivor, and we call them thrivers as well. And her cancer actually moved to her brain, so then she had to have brain surgery, and she has to have ongoing treatments and everything. But she used to work for UnitedHealthcare. She realized that her passion was really in educating women of color on how to be educated around breast health and ensuring that you get tested when you need to get tested, all that. So she left her job, she started Touch4Life just a little over a year ago. And I’ve learned so much by communicating about the importance of screening guidelines. The difference between a woman of color and a white woman and how the government’s testing suggestions are not the best for women of color, and how you have to be educated when you go to the doctor. And I mean, I’ve personally done it myself. Like I’ve gone, gotten checkups and I’ve run down this whole list of items to talk about with the doctor. And the doctor’s like, how do you know all this? And I’m like, oh, well, one of my clients works in breast health equity. And I would know nothing about that if I hadn’t had her as a client. But we’re communicating that to women across the country every day on how important it is to be educated around these topics. And so I wouldn’t know that unless we were communicating it. There’s so many women around the country who wouldn’t know it as well. And so that’s just one way you don’t think about the LinkedIn post or the Instagram post that you’re doing that you’re really reaching a lot of people who don’t know about these topics. And so that just gives me chills knowing that we’re using our, you know, press releases and, you know, media insights and all that stuff to educate women and the best way to take care of themselves.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

And when you started the company and you said it was already in your Google Doc, but why Better Together as a name?

 

Catharine Montgomery:

Yeah, and I don’t remember what I said in that Doc, so that’s good. Better Together, it really, to me, obviously, we’re just so divided as a country, as a world. What other better way is to do it than together? You know, when can we not be so partisan when it comes to issues like just keeping each other alive and safe. You know, there’s so many issues where we should be together on them. And just because someone on the other side of an aisle disagrees, we’re not. And so I think that if we do come together on at least some issues like healthcare, education, you know, equal access for various things, then the world would be much, much better and much more equal and so many more opportunities for everyone. Equality and inclusion and diversity doesn’t just benefit one section of the world, it benefits everyone. Like we all benefit by being more diverse, more inclusive and more equitable. So I just, you know, really thought that. Why don’t we be better together? And to be honest, like I thought it was like, I was like, maybe that’s lame. Like, I don’t know, will people really like it? But yeah, they did. So, and I can use it all the time and say, well, we’re Better Together, you know, it works almost in every sentence.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Nice. And your website, I think, again, says that you do storytelling for marginalized voices. And I’m curious about what are some of the barriers that have kept those stories from being told and or from being heard? And how are you fighting against those barriers that have existed?

 

Catharine Montgomery:

One example, and this is going to be kind of controversial, but I say how much I love Chief. But there was a post in April by a former Chief member talking about feminism. And she’s a white woman and she got a lot of traction. She got into publications, she had thousands of comments and everything. And the message was right in that, we need to appreciate all women, regardless of color and what they have to offer. But I’ll say that a Black woman, maybe a couple of days later, posted the same message, different wording, of course, but posted the same message, maybe got 30, 40 likes, comments. And it’s like what makes everyone like the white woman’s comments about this when she didn’t ask me my thoughts on it, or if I agreed with her or not, but a Black woman does it, and probably has had the experience herself, but doesn’t receive the same support. And so I think just in general, we tend to support what we know and also, you know, even Black women are more likely to support when a white woman posts something than when someone who looks like us writes something. So it’s something that we’re struggling with. I think as society over time has just made it that way and made it more comfortable to support a white woman making those types of comments. And so it’s giving that opportunity for, you know, women who have gone through breast cancer or like my mom telling her story, my dad who has had prostate cancer is now speaking at chambers of commerce and different things like that to educate Black men on getting tested early. And so I think the more that we’re able to uplift those voices and make them realize that people are listening, that they aren’t going to be judged for having cancer. My dad will say that there are two things that Black men don’t talk about and that’s health and wealth. And it’s okay to talk about those and times are changing. And I think the more that we can just amplify that and show that it’s okay, the more that those things will change. And so that’s what we really want to do is speak to people who’ve been through certain circumstances, who’ve been marginalized or under supported and really uplift their voices and tell them it’s okay to speak up and speak out.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I think that I know the answer now that I’ve heard that to my next question, but let’s just make sure, which is why is it important for these organizations that you work with, these social justice social impact organizations? Why is it so important that their stories are told and are made more visible?

 

Catharine Montgomery:

I’m going to say that for more nonprofit organizations, it’s a little bit more expected for them to have these kind of stories told. And it is very important they have to reach their target audiences and make sure they’re reaching their influencers and the people who are donating and all of that, I think is even more important when it’s an organization where people don’t even expect it. And those organizations, you know, the one I just started working with, where, you know, at first maybe even hesitant to work with them, but they, you know, prove that they are committed to this change. The more that they amplify the voices that need to be heard from an unexpected place, the more likely people are to believe it and to say like, wow, even they are uplifting these voices, like I wonder why they’re doing it. And so questioning it more, looking into it more. And so just the more places that it’s coming from, coming from nonprofits, coming from for-profits, coming from the government, just the more likely people are to believe it. And I think the more it’s not coming from one place, the more likely people are to take it to heart and actually accept it and embrace it and move forward with it.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

And you’re obviously really passionate about these issues. And that’s why you started this company and why you say that what you guys are doing is different than what’s out there for PR agencies to be focused on this very specific way around social impact and for DEI and all these issues to be just interwoven into everything you’re doing really sets you apart. And also you work a lot with nonprofits or other companies that are interested in these issues. And you said that ‘we’ve been committed to building a business that not only drives profits, but also makes a positive difference in the world.’ And you see it as something that can be both, as do I, which is the goal with this show. But I also know that often those are seen as separate things, right? That you make a positive difference or make money, but it’s real darn hard to do both. And you’re working with VC funding where in typically in the world of funding, we definitely think where they are prioritizing only money. And so for them to invest in you, like what were those conversations like to say, hey, yeah, I would love for you to fund this company. And I’m thinking about doing social impact and making a difference in the world. Were they like, whoa, we’re here to make money? Or how were you able to sort of sway them into saying, this can also make money?

 

Catharine Montgomery:

Yeah, you know, for the investor who lives in Connecticut, he was like right off the bat, like, okay, yeah, that sounds about right. You know, like you could definitely make money on social impact because unfortunately in the US every day there’s something happening that it’s like, okay, yeah, that needs communication support, you know every single day, yeah, it’s awful. But the investor in Germany, it was a little bit different. It was like, so a whole agency, like why, why an entire agency on social impact? Like where, like who are you gonna talk to? Who needs all this support? And so it didn’t take a lot of convincing and I’m sure the other investor talked to him you know, sometime later, but just saying like every day there’s something new. It’s not, you know, in Germany there’s healthcare for all. There, you know, a lot of people aren’t carrying around guns everywhere. So, things are a little bit different. Of course, they definitely have their issues to deal with. But when it comes to, you know, a US-based social impact agency, there’s no shortage of opportunities to engage and try to make the world a better place. So not as hard as you might think, which I don’t even know if that’s a good or bad thing. I guess maybe somewhere in the middle.

 

Becky MollenkampL

Yeah, I don’t know. Yeah, I can see what you’re saying. And though it’s great because I think too often people think of making a difference as separate from making money. And the idea of bringing together is the only way that we’re going to have change. So I think that’s wonderful. And something you had said was that ‘combining social impact and business doesn’t mean failure, but it does mean change.’ Expand on that.

 

Catharine Montgomery:

I think a lot of, from what I have learned over the years, that when you talk about social justice, social impact, things like that, it kind of means weak in a way, or you’re soft. I mean, I’ve been very, just very transparent about what I’ve heard growing up in the space of, you know, the real things are tech and going to California, being in Silicon Valley or working on climate change technology, not really the impacts of it, not like worrying about people in Flint, Michigan who have dirty water, but the technology behind it. So when you start the feelings, the emotions of what social impact means that was always seen as kind of less than or more like a woman’s role is kind of to do that. And I don’t think, that’s not true. I mean, it’s not something I think I know it’s not true. And times are changing where especially new generation, younger generations are forcing organizations to not only build the systems that need to be in place to make the world better, but also to add that emotion behind it and realize that we are all humans and we need to embrace that and accept it. And so I think that it’s not seen as a failure to add that emotion into it, but it’s seen as success and it’s seen as new and just inclusive, you know, like let’s not separate the two, let’s bring the two together and let’s figure out a new way of moving forward. Yeah, I think that’s it. I just, the world is changing and a lot of people are stuck behind and not embracing the future, and they’re going to be left behind. And they already are starting to be left behind. And I think that that’s why I know Better Together will be successful in not only bringing in profits and hiring other employees to be in a great environment, but also helping the world be a better place.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Well, on that piece about it being emotional and less than in some way, I noticed a lot of your languaging around the work that you’re doing with Better Together is that you’re combining that piece, that emotional piece, the social impact, the change, the difference, and all of that with data. A lot of your work is rooted in data, which I think speaks to that other part of that person who might be saying, oh, it’s just emotional fluff or something to say no, we’re also combining data. Without like giving away all your secret sauce, can you share a little bit about what makes the work, the way that you’re approaching this work different than a lot of what’s out there and how you’re combining data with the emotional side of these things?

 

Catharine Montgomery:

Something new that I’m really getting into is around biases in artificial intelligence. And I, you know, have had a lot of recent experiences, like since generative AI launched with ChatGPT last year of biases in what I’ve looked for. And I’ve really embraced generative AI, I think it’s a powerful tool that’s really going to revolutionize the world and already has, but before that was created we should have already been thinking about how to make it inclusive. And there should have been the right people around the table. It shouldn’t have been just 25-year-old white men making the technology that everybody in the world has to use. And so one way that I’m trying to figure out if it’s even a concern for people is by using data. Soon I’m going to release a survey to people across the US to see, you know, one, do you care about biases? Do you think about them on a daily basis? Do you know what artificial intelligence is? Because a lot of times I’m in this bubble where I think everybody knows about, you know, certain things and it’s like, no, I’m living my own life. Just do it like, you know, whatever and wherever I live in America. And so really trying to figure out if you do know what it is, if you do care about biases, like what can we do to correct that, you know, it’s going to be a long process because a lot of this technology is already created. So we can’t necessarily go back and redo it. So what do we do now? And why would you care about it? If you do know about it, why do you care? What can companies do to let you know that they care about it and they’re trying to change it. So that’s like with the backing up. I could go to someone and keep writing LinkedIn posts that have no data backing it up, but there are a lot of biases in AI, we should all care about this. But if you do add data to it, you show that people care about it, that’s what’s gonna get those larger companies and those people focused on the technology to care and to act about it. Similar to, you know, a lot of tech companies went to the White House about safeguarding technology. And so it’s taken a lot of research from them, a lot of oversight committees, a lot of people in high places coming together saying that we’re not protecting ourselves against the dangers of security when it comes to AI and technology in general. And what does that do that brings the top people from, you know, around the world from these companies to meet at the White House and say, hey, we need guidelines around doing this. And so how do I get people to sit down, those same people to sit down at a table and say, yeah, what about biases in AI, which is like, you know, the soft thing? Like, how do we really care about that? You do that by showing them the data. Of, if we care about biases in AI, we’re going to make more money, we’re going to have more customers? Yes. Okay. Then they’re going to care. So that’s how, I mean, it’s tricky. It’s, you should just care in general, but I mean, that’s not how the world works. And so how do we put those two together, combine them so that we make a difference, but we get people to care at the same time?

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

It’s really smart and that’s very specific, obviously, but I think the overall theme is really relevant to so many of us who are running businesses and trying to think, how do I create change? How do I help to create the change I want to see when I’m operating inside of capitalism? And some of it is that, right? It is having to say, how do I take this bigger idea around equity, or whatever it is I want, and make it practical?  Because unfortunately, as long as we live in capitalism, that’s part of the job. It’s about how do we make it so that people say, oh, I get it, not just from the emotional side, but from my rational, bottom-line sort of side. And so you’re combining those things and what you’re doing.

 

Catharine Montgomery:

Really quickly, someone said, actually someone, Hillary Clinton, we should have more women in higher places because then we wouldn’t have war. We wouldn’t have all these troubles that we have. And so I just keep thinking about what we were saying about the emotion and everything in that. It’s so true if we, you know, it’s just seen as a bad thing, but if we had women in these powers, these positions of power, like how much less controversy would there be? And would we even need to have all these different workarounds, you know, to get people to actually care about what’s important? So yeah, just more women need to be in power. Good point.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

100%, I agree. And I think even more specifically, more Black women in power, because I think the more, or more folks who have varying marginalized identities that have those different lenses into the world, because that creates that more inclusive space of understanding how all of those things intersect. And I know that you had risen into the C-suite before going into this role on your own. Obviously, that means that you are somebody who had achieved a lot. And I saw that you have said in a few interviews that one of your biggest challenges has been overcoming imposter syndrome and constantly feeling like you don’t belong and that has been compounded by, you know, the systemic barriers and biases the Black women face in the workplace. How has that continued to show up for you? How do you manage it? Is it better or worse as an entrepreneur? 

 

Catharine Montgomery:

This is going to sound maybe unbelievable, but it’s like not a thing. I have gained that confidence of just, I don’t know everything. I am never going to know everything. I’m going to learn every day. I’m going to admit when I don’t know, and that is totally okay and I’m going to learn and my employees are going to know more than me about a certain topic and that is perfectly okay. But I’m going to do my best, and I’m in this position because I deserve it and I worked hard. I worked my ass off to be here and it feel really good to just know that I know I deserve to be here and I deserve more. Like bring it on, you know, and it’s not easy to do that. I’ve gone through my entire life of being bullied and, you know, put down and not believe that I should do X, Y, and Z or, I mean, just a year ago, I didn’t even think that VC funding was a thing, you know, but it’s really amazing that if you’re put in the right situation where you just have to, you know, do it. You just do it. We just do it. A lot of us, we always, every day, are sometimes put in situations where we’ve never had that circumstance, and we prevail. So there is no imposter syndrome. I mean, we hear it every day. It’s just, we’re doing it. We’re living it. So there’s no imposter. We’re just living life, being who we are and learning all the time. And I just, I wish that I, that term didn’t even exist. I really do because like we should embrace not knowing or knowing or whatever it is.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I have gotten on the soapbox many times, so I will keep it short. But we have pathologized a very normal human emotion, which is doubt, specifically as a weapon used against women. Because very rarely are men put into that conversation around imposter syndrome. It’s women. And having doubt as a woman, and especially as a Black woman, who has had very real experiences that show you why you should have some trust issues and some doubt in the workforce, of course you will feel doubt. But that’s just a normal reaction to a very real situation. And instead of just saying, hey, these situations, these systems suck. Let’s instead say, oh, you have a disease, right? You have this syndrome and that’s the problem. And it really gets me upset. So I love that you have pushed past that. Was it entrepreneurship?

 

Catharine Montgomery:

Yeah, I think it was that. It was embracing the, it’s okay to not be able, not to know right at this moment how to do something. I will say like one of the hardest things for me has been hiring, and hiring the right person and following a checklist of onboarding and doing some of these tasks that I’ve never had to do before, or letting someone go at the company, which I had never done before. And I asked someone to send me a list of things to do when firing someone. And you’re not gonna know how to do it until you do it. And that is okay. And I’ve just learned to embrace that. I’ve always been a person who likes adventure and the newness of things and all that. And so why not make that just acceptable and okay? And it’s okay to have, you know, a slight feeling of doubt as long as I’m able to overcome it. As long as I’m able to push myself forward and not say, I don’t deserve this. Yes, I do. And I’m gonna figure it out as I go. And yeah, you’re right. That’s how, that’s what men do all the time. They don’t know how to do half the stuff they do. They just like, kind of like jump in there and like figure it out. And most of the time the people who help them figure it out are women. And so we just need to do that. And maybe there’s a man along the way who helps us figure it out. And that’s perfectly fine. Like I said, we’re better together.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

The confidence of a mediocre white man, one of my favorite things to remember as you think about doing something. It makes me think of parenting for those who are parents. Like the very famous thing that people will say is, if you wait until you’re ready, you’ll never be ready. And it’s the same sort of thing around confidence. If you wait until you’re confident, you’ll never be confident because the confidence comes in the doing. You brought me right to the place I wanted to be too, which is around startup life and wearing all the hats and having to learn trial by fire, learning as you go. What have been some of the biggest lessons for you over the last year of running this business? Because previously you had been an employee, this is your first time into being the boss fully, and running your own business from everything. So what are the lessons? I know you said there’s been some things around hiring, what else have you been learning?

 

Catharine Montgomery:

I was talking about emotion before, but I think in a different way, there’s emotion that you put into, like, this is my baby, like, this is mine. So having to take yourself out of that a bit and say, like, this is also a company that I have to run. And so, you know, I have to think about it in a different way. I can’t, you know, just let the emotion take over. I have to think objectively about what I’m doing that comes with hiring, that comes with, you know, who needs to be let go, am I going to take on this client? How am I going to address this person? All that kind of stuff. So I think that’s been a huge part of it. Also, knowing who to listen to. Everybody has an opinion, and I want to listen to all of them, like, sure. But knowing that I have to make that final decision and I can listen to a lot of people, they can have great advice. Um, but I have to know what’s best for myself, my employees, my investors, um, to help grow the company. And so I’ve learned, um, that for sure. And also you, I really have been wearing so many hats that it gets so overwhelming and, you know, things can look great on LinkedIn or wherever, but it gets like really, it can be a lot. And so taking that time to go to dinner, try out another restaurant, go to brunch, workout, just like, and I, you know, it’s not, I don’t want to say work-life balance because there really is no balance. Like I do, I work a ton, but just like realizing that if I go out somewhere, I don’t have to feel guilty for doing that, you know? I don’t want to make it seem like I never get to get out or that I’m upset about it because I’m not. I love what I’m doing and I am so appreciative and glad that I’m in this position, but I know that for my health and sanity I have to get out. And I have people who force me to as well, so that’s always nice.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

We all need those people in our corner who make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves. And part of running a business that if you say you care about equity and about making the world a better place, it also has to start with you, right? If you’re not taking care of yourself, what does that really say about your commitment to running a company that’s about equity? And I’m curious, I love that you shared that because I was going to ask about how you are modeling that within your business. That’s one of the ways is just by giving yourself rest. How else are you modeling that commitment to social impact and equity in those things inside of your business and the way you’re running it with your employees or the way you give back, all of the ways that you show up?

 

Catharine Montgomery:

There are a lot of ways. I mean, one in that diversity of employees that’s like has to be a top priority. I have people from all sides like reminding me of not just diversity of like a person’s skin color, but the fact, you know, where they live, their age, that, you know, their background, their disabilities. Like there’s so many ways. And I’ve been, I don’t know, just opened up my eyes to so many, especially around disabilities. I’ve been so involved in meeting people and learning about them. And it’s just something that I wasn’t privy to for the majority of my life. And I’ve learned so much. So just like opening myself up to learning about the different ways to be diverse when it comes to staff. Also we do have open PTO. And I know a lot of people think you have that, but you can’t really use it. But we really do embrace it as long as, I want people to take as much time as they need to. There have been people who have said, I’m just not feeling myself right now. I’m not giving my best. Can I have a couple days off? And they come back refreshed. And I would rather someone take their time away from the office, away from work, and come back giving their all work than just to force people to all the time. We also had our first team offsite two weeks ago, which was great. And we had it in DC. And my investors were like, Catharine, you have to do something fun, which I love to do fun stuff. But we met, and we learned about each other, and talked about 2024. We went bowling, and we went to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. And it just gave us so much to talk about and reflect on, and I think that just doing those activities and bringing people in and having that chance to do that at, you know, nine months in, just really showed that I care about making sure the culture works. And I ask them, I ask employees every day, you know, what can we do differently? What I mean, I can’t make everyone happy, but I’m going to try my best to, you know, come to some consensus in that we all enjoy working together. So I don’t pretend, again, to know everything, to know exactly, you know, how to lead in the perfect way. I want it to be a joint mindset of let’s all bring what we’ve learned from other companies, let’s all bring that together. And what makes us the best is by working together on making the culture what we all want and need.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

What do you want the legacy of your company to be? What’s the impact you want to have made the people remember?

 

Catharine Montgomery:

Yeah, you know, I look at a lot of awards that PR agencies get and a lot of reports that come out and all these things and they’re wonderful in the industry to have those to get more business. But if nothing else, I just want people to stay. Oh, do you know the agency behind this campaign that did X, Y, and Z that led to this, that, you know, just made this difference in the world? I don’t want to necessarily be known as the largest or the smallest or, you know, for a particular typical thing, like employees I mentioned, but honestly it’s the impact and I don’t mean to sound cliché, but it really is what impact that we have, positive impact that we have that made long-lasting effects on people’s lives. And so if we can be known for that, then I mean, that’s my dream.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Thank you so much. Before we get to the last two things, I just wanna let people know you and I are gonna have a separate little conversation about three tips around communicating, communications for your company. So if you’re not on the newsletter, go to the link and find out how to get on the Feminist Founders Substack newsletter, because I will be sharing those there with subscribers. It’s free. And then before we leave, the last two things I ask everyone is first for a resource.

 

Catharine Montgomery:

The book I’m reading is called “Unmasking AI: My mission to protect what is human in the world of machines.” It’s about the biases in AI. And it’s so profound that they played a video last week at this event called Vital Voices. And it’s about how a lot of AI facial recognition identifies Black women as men. And so they took Michelle Obama when she was a little girl and they said like 93% male. They took Oprah, they took Shirley Chisholm, they took all these amazing Black women and it was identifying them as, you know, like, oh, this person has a toupee on, this person’s a majority male, and so all those biases that are inherent in AI and so she really talks about them and brings those to light. And so it was really amazing how that was fitting into what I’m trying to do with bias in AI, and so there’s a lot for me to learn there and I’m really excited to learn more in that from her.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

There is so much there that I need to learn too. And like in equal parts fascinated and terrified. And so sometimes when I like get too far down reading about AI, I get really scared. It scares me off, but I do think it’s important because it’s not going away. So thank you for sharing that resource. And then the last thing is an organization, and I know you work with a lot of nonprofits. I know that this might be hard for you like asking you to pick a child, but what’s one organization that you would like to really shine the light on that’s doing good work?

 

Catharine Montgomery:

I have already spoken about Touch4Life, but it was gonna be the one I mentioned anyway, but Touch4Life, you can go to touch4life.org and find more information about them. Again, they recently started, but focused on breast health equity, just making sure we all have what we need to keep our health, first and foremost, and have early detection. And even if we are diagnosed with breast cancer, which can be male or female, that we have that support system and that we know that it’s not the end, but that a lot of people have survived and are thriving, and we are there for each other. So definitely Touch4Life. Look up Laura Crandon, and you’ll be just blown away by the amazing work that she’s doing.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Awesome. I’m gonna make a donation to say thank you for your time today and I hope those listening will do the same and I really appreciate you sharing so much today Catharine. It’s been amazing.

 

Catharine Montgomery:

Of course. Thank you so much, Becky. I love being on the podcast and I love listening to all your episodes and just thank you for all the work that you do.

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