Qualities of Audacious Leaders
Audacious solutions to business challenges can come from the most unlikely of places. Where do we often find them? In the stories of the scrappy underdogs who are the movers and shakers, innovative thinkers, and industry disruptors.
Over the past 50 years, we've seen several underdog leaders use their grit, determination, and creativity to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and achieve incredible success.
And let's face it, who doesn't enjoy an underdog story?
It's why Rudy and Rocky are such beloved characters and why we all root for the feisty entrepreneur trying to make it big in a crowded industry. There's something inspiring and empowering about watching someone rise up against the odds to achieve their goals. So, what are we looking for in underdog leaders?
Many people would say they have a strong sense of drive, unwavering confidence, and relentless ambition. But perhaps there's another quality that these underdogs have in common, one that's perhaps even more important than any of these other traits—audacity.
Audacious leaders are not afraid to challenge the status quo.
Are the odds against you? An audacious leader will say, "Bring it on." They believe they can find new solutions to even the most difficult problems—and they’re determined to prove it. In this article, we're rooting for the underdogs as we profile three business leaders who were able to achieve great success despite facing a fair set of challenges along the way.
So, cue the Rocky theme music and get ready to be inspired.
Back in 1995, women represented 37% of computer scientists. Leap forward into 2022 and that figure has plunged to just 22%. To address this alarming trend and encourage more girls to pursue careers in tech, Reshma Saujani launched Girls Who Code. This non-profit organization works to empower young women and close the gender gap in STEM.
But, Saujani's journey to becoming a leader in the tech world was not an easy one, nor a perfect one. In fact, she faced public loss and rejection.
Saujani always knew she wanted to make a difference in the world. But, her drive for perfection led to doubt, anxiety, and fear of failure. Despite these fears—she persisted.
As a young lawyer, she paused her successful career to take a risk and run for political office—despite having no political experience. She was the first Indian-American woman to run for U.S. Congress, and as much as you’re cheering her on right now as you’re reading this, she, unfortunately, lost badly to the incumbent congressman. She recounted, "When you run for political office, everybody knows that you lose. You can't hide it."
And, despite this public loss, she ran for office again.
And lost again.
But, through this experience, Saujani learned that it wasn't failure she feared. Rather, it was the feeling of not being good enough, of not being perfect. She says that her loss was an awakening.
In the midst of failures, something caught her attention. While campaigning for New York City Public Advocate, she noticed that the public school computer rooms were consistently packed with young boys, not girls. And this triggered an epiphany. Saujani realized that the lack of girls in tech was a significant problem, and the more she researched the issue, the more passionate she became about it.
Though she knew nothing about coding, she saw it as a unique opportunity to empower young girls and help close the gender gap in tech.
Teach girls, bravery, not perfection.
—Reshma Saujani, Founder of Girls Who Code, author, and activist
And, so, Girls Who Code was born.
Since 2012, Girls Who Code has been the leading movement to educate, inspire, and equip girls and women with the skills and resources to pursue careers in technology and engineering. Over 500,000 girls, women, and nonbinary students in all 50 U.S. states have been served by Girls Who Code programming classes, summer immersion programs, and other initiatives.
As a result of her efforts, Saujani has earned countless accolades and recognition. As an underdog, her audacity and resilient spirit have moved the needle for women in STEM and narrowed the gender gap for tech innovators and leaders.
SPANX. It's one of the most famous underdog entrepreneur stories—and one of the most inspirational. I mean, it all started with cut-up pantyhose.
And from that genius idea and relentless determination, Sara Blakely founded SPANX and became the youngest female self-made billionaire in history. But her story shows that persistence and authenticity really do pay off.
I love the idea of CEOs showing vulnerabilities and the ups and downs. I don't feel I need to put on a facade to be taken seriously as a leader.
—Sara Blakely, billionaire, Founder and Owner of SPANX
Blakely's rise to undergarment success was not a quick one—nor was it necessarily what she had in mind growing up. In fact, she originally wanted to be a lawyer, like her father, but she didn't have a high enough LSAT score to get into law school.
With her dream busted, she moved from her hometown of Clearwater, FL, to Atlanta, GA, for a glamorous job as a door-to-door fax machine salesperson and part-time comedian. Seven years passed before the idea for SPANX came to her—and it hit her hard. Getting ready for a party one night, she cut off the feet of her pantyhose so that they wouldn't show under white pants, but would provide her a slimming effect.
She used $5,000 from her savings account and invested it all into the new innovation—SPANX.
Was it an instant hit? Not really.
As an outsider in the fashion industry with no business experience, she quickly received a rejection from every hosiery mill she attempted to pitch in North Carolina. However, just two weeks after being rejected by the manager of a facility in Asheboro, he called Blakely with a business proposal. And what started out as a small operation in her spare bedroom with two sewing machines is now a billion-dollar enterprise.
Fear of failure and rejection have held back many entrepreneurs from achieving greatness. Blakely's mindset has been to learn from the moments of disappointment and error and use them as fuel to keep moving forward.
About this, she says, "I started realizing in everything there was some amazing nugget that I wouldn't have wanted to pass up. At SPANX, to encourage people to fail, I'm bringing up my failures in front of the team often . . . I'm always openly talking about it . . . If you learn from it and if you can laugh about it, then it's all worth it."
Blakely's attitude towards failure epitomizes the qualities needed to be a successful, audacious entrepreneur. Her vulnerability and willingness to take risks have allowed her to disrupt an entire industry, inspiring women worldwide.
Gary Erikson is an unlikely visionary in the world of entrepreneurialism. As a cyclist and avid mountain climber, Erikson isn't exactly the type of person you'd expect to become the co-founder and CEO of one of the largest energy bar companies in the world.
But, from humble beginnings an idea was born, and his audacious vision for a better energy bar quickly turned into one of the most popular protein bars on the market.
I didn't start Clif Bar to make money or to fill holes in my life. I did it because I wanted to make a better energy bar for my friends and myself.
—Gary Erikson, Co-Founder, Clif Bar
Clif Bar started as a simple solution to an urgent problem: a better-tasting energy bar. In 1990, at mile 125 of an epic 175-mile bike ride, Gary Erikson, a cyclist, gulped down his Powerbar, the only option available at the time for athletes. He hated it. The combination of chemicals and ingredients tasted horrible, and he thought to himself, "I can create a better-tasting energy bar!"
Erikson took matters into his own hands by formulating his own recipe (with help from his mom) to create an energy bar that tasted more like a cookie. Once created, Erikson and his friend Lisa Thomas passed out the Clif Bars (named after his father, Clif) to fellow cyclists. They became a huge hit, and Erikson knew he was on to something with his new energy bar business.
But, despite the demand for Clif Bars from his peers, it wasn't as though he had a booming business on his hands. When he launched Clif Bar, he said in his 2004 Memoir, "Raising the Bar: Integrity and Passion in Life and Business," that he was living in a garage with no heat and no bathroom, making $10,000 a year. But two years later, he pulled together $1,000 to invest in his energy bar business.
While many entrepreneurs struggle to launch their products, Erikson's biggest challenge was ensuring that his company stayed true to its purpose-driven mission. And it takes audacity to stay dedicated not to the bottom line but to the pillars of sustainability and social good.
The booming energy bar industry of the 1990s saw a surge in big food companies with deep pockets buying out Clif Bar's competitors.
Rather than giving in to the pressure of being acquired, Erikson doubled down on his original values and commitment to organic, natural ingredients for Clif Bar. He even turned down a $120 million acquisition offer from Quaker Oats in favor of keeping an independent brand that would maintain the integrity of its products and its vision.
Stickin' to your guns ain't easy. Especially with dollar bills flying at you from all directions.
But this audacious entrepreneur has shown that being true to your mission and values can be compatible with a successful business. Erikson said he went back and forth about selling the company, "I had been relying on the logical side of my brain," Erickson said. "Once I started listening to the emotional side of my brain, I had more clarity and knew keeping the company private was the best decision." But, this risky move wasn't easy—and wasn't cheap.
Not everyone was happy when Erikson turned down the offer from Quaker Oats. Erikson's business partner, Thomas, asked to be bought out of Clif Bar for $62 million (half the market value of Clif Bar at the time). It took Erikson a decade to pay off that debt, and with interest, cost around $72 million.
About this setback, Erikson says, "Given that Clif Bar is in a really nice spot right now, it's easy to look back and see that our early legal structure was lacking."
But, the commitment to the vision has won out for Erikson and Clif Bar, with a net worth of over $2.9 billion in 2022.
Today, Clif Bar is one of the most popular energy bars on the market, with a loyal customer base that includes athletes and outdoor enthusiasts. Erikson's commitment to integrity and staying true to his brand's purpose have paid off in spades, earning him respect and success as an entrepreneur and the title of a billionaire.
While Erikson's journey to success was not without its challenges, his resilience and commitment to his idealism are inspiring examples for entrepreneurs looking to make an impact in the world. If you have a big idea and want to turn it into a reality, don't be daunted by setbacks or the competition—focus on staying true to your values.
It's clear that audacious solutions to business challenges are the key to success. But what exactly does "audacious" mean?
It means fearlessly taking risks, thinking outside the box, and embracing failure as part of the journey. So if you're feeling stuck, remember Reshma Saujani, Sara Blakely, and Gary Erikson––and their audacity.
If you need help turning your big ideas into reality, we know a thing or two about that too. Rebel is a research and strategy firm. We analyze consumer journeys to find insights in places you wouldn't expect—to take you to places you never thought possible. Let's chat.