If you asked Juliane Röll, co-founder of Structure & Process, how she got into entrepreneurism, the answer gets kind of…complicated.
“There are two stories to tell,” she said. “There are two identity categories.”
That’s because Juliane belongs to a comparably smaller percentage of CEOs: transgender individuals who transitioned while running a successful business. (SupportBee’s founder Hana Mohan is among them.)
Some SMB owners launch a business after their transition--or after “passing”--in many cases allowing them to bypass the professional logistics that come with transitioning at work (notifying clients and co-workers, changing bio photos and emails, taking time off for medical reasons...the list goes on). For those who do transition when business is booming, the experience is understandably different.
We spoke with Juliane about what that was like for her and how it impacted her business. What she gave us was a refreshingly honest picture of the wins and losses--and why it’s O.K to not have the answers all the time.
When did you know you were an entrepreneur?
I founded my first company at 16. I was an angry, dissatisfied child--you don’t start a company at 16 because you’re happy. It was a student magazine which I had never intended to turn into a company; I just needed a place to vent about my frustration with school. When people stopped listening, I started writing. Once the magazine got off the ground, I thought there should be advertisements. I went into one of the local candy shops and said, “Hey, all of my student readers buy sweets here,” and suddenly I was running a magazine with an advertising business.
I grew up in a small town in the country, and realized that if I published my thoughts on the internet I would have a wider reach. It taught me that if I put myself out there, there will be resonance. It brings the right people to you, and some magic can come from that connection.
How did the idea for Structure & Process come about?
At the right time, I bumped into the right person. Eight years ago I was living in Finland, working as a personal coach for entrepreneurs. I befriended a woman, and we ended up founding our coaching and consulting business together. We got a lot of business.
Four years into your venture, you began your transition. Where did you start?
It began as a social transition. I came out during a company retreat in the summer, when we had a team of seven people. It was really beautiful. We created the day’s agenda by writing a term or a topic on an index card, dropped it on the table, and then moved them around and picked one. I just wrote my name on a card--that was all. We got to that card and I came out and said, “Something is happening.”
So what did I want from them? I needed them to call me by a new name. I’d known for some time, and it was really clear to me, at that point, that I wasn’t a guy and I couldn’t continue acting as if I was one. I just said, something will change but I don’t know what.
Everyone got it, especially the women. There were hugs. We were all in the “not knowing” space about what I would do and how I would transition. I was quite sure it would have an impact on the business and I was concerned people would worry about that, but they weren’t so worried.
The next day they changed my name in our systems. And we continued our work.
Did clients react as well as your co-workers did?
I informed our clients by email. I had been working with a client for a couple of months, and they knew me in my old shape. When I returned the next time for a meeting, they immediately moved to “she” and used my new name. The client lead even wrote an email to the staff about the changes but [specified] that the work wouldn’t change.
After that, one of the client’s team members then came out to me as a transgender man. It changed my mindset because I realized I'm not the only trans person in the world...or the room.
He took the opportunity to then also come out to his team—they didn’t know he was trans but they didn’t care, so it was anticlimactic. Then people started joking about who would be the next person to come out. That client has stuck with me for the last few years.
Wow, so no real hiccups?
It did get complicated at times. We had a client--an agricultural company that was 90% men--and it was really confusing to them when I showed up. We had changed the website--my photo and name--in the midst of negotiating the contract. They were unsure how to address me. I said “her,” and the client said he thought he had been talking to a man. He even told me they had had an internal conversation about whether I was a man or a woman.
How does that make you feel?
There were times when it mattered, and also when it didn’t. There’s something in the way I show up as a queer, non-binary person that [the confusion ] doesn’t matter all that much to me. When I talk at work, I talk in this voice. And that’s O.K. I don’t need special treatment; it doesn’t matter if people screw up pronouns...it’s not dangerous.
People feel pressure to be and know everything, and feel in danger if they say the wrong thing or offend the minority person in the room. But think about how scared I am walking into a room of cis gender people! They’re scared? I’m scared!
I say, do your thing, we will figure this out, mistakes are O.K, and if something upsets me I will let you know. You don’t have to know the answer already, you don’t have to get it right. I trust we can have difficult discussions and we won’t break off the relationship.
"People feel pressure to be and know everything, and feel in danger if they say the wrong thing or offend the minority person in the room. But think about how scared I am walking into a room of cis gender people! They’re scared? I’m scared!"
Are there ways in which your transition has affected your business?
It’s been harder to connect with new clients. After I took time for my [fuller] transition and came back, I noticed that people weren’t buying from me as much as they used to.
It’s partly related to the type of work I do. When people seek out a consultant, they are usually in a vulnerable and scared place. My teacher used to say, “People who hire consultants are afraid of losing.” So my hypothesis is that they are usually not in a powerful place, and if they get irritated, disturbed, or made uncomfortable by who shows up and what they see, it’s harder to process.
It’s not nice, but it’s true that people like to relate to others, and so they are drawn to people who are similar to them. It takes work to overcome our internal biases, to realize you have internalized racism, internalized transphobia. Everyone has it, even trans people have it. We, too, grew up with images of what a man is, and what a woman is, what is right and what is wrong. So when someone shows up with the face and voice I have, it [triggers] something.
If I put that together with my business performance post-transition, I’d say yes, the business has been affected. I had never been “ghosted” in business before, and that happens all the time now. That’s new and all I can do is accept that.
"It takes work to overcome our internal biases, to realize you have internalized racism, internalized transphobia. Everyone has it, even trans people have it."
How do you deal with these kinds of challenges?
To a degree my thinking relates to my Buddhist practice. I have to accept the situation as it is. Instead of focusing on what is terrible and what opposes us, I need to have constructive thoughts and conversations. I want to focus on, "What can we do? What might we do?" Let’s put aside people who can’t or won’t work with us, and find where there is connection and nourishment. That’s the only constructive thing to do.
There are other places and times to be an activist. On the business side, I need somebody at eye level who wants to relate with me and work with me. I won’t make someone want to do that.
This sounds similar to your consulting approach, which focuses on “holacracy”--collaborative organizational development. How do you get companies to undertake such a shift in mindset?
Holacracy is a social technology, invented by American entrepreneur Brian Robertson. I learned from him and apply it in my work today.
I wouldn’t try to get someone to use holacracy...I’ve spent enough time in this life trying to convince others of my opinions! What’s more interesting is working with people who are finding a new way of being.
For example, I’ve spent a lot of time in communities, which are often anti-hierarchical. You’re in a circle with other people and it’s frustrating and lacks efficiency. On the [end of the spectrum], hierarchy comes from the military. It's industrial, it's not humanist.
The traditional ways we run companies now are ready for new types of organizational structures. My co-founder and I wanted to do something more effective, without hierarchy or domination--or endless circles of consensus seeking. I wanted to create this kind of technology and work with people interested in something else.
Holacracy isn’t necessarily about a revolutionary change. It can be about language, and new ways of opening up an honest conversation. In any company, there’s something. Processes are too complicated, the meetings take forever, bosses are too busy to listen to their employees...there are so many reasons why good thoughts get stuck in conventional organizational systems. What would it be like if you never had a boring meeting again in your life? What if any new impulse could be quickly processed into a meaningful output by anyone? That’s where holacracy comes in.
What are the challenges to changing mindsets in a professional setting--an especially relevant topic for transgender entrepreneurs?
Coming to the realization that we don’t have all the answers. In my first consulting career I thought I knew everything. Now, I might walk into it with a good intuition, and I am very often wrong. That’s a good thing. I’m learning.
As someone who has always needed to understand how to fix a problem, I understand how it can be a challenge for organizations to be comfortable with not having the answer.
What is your advice to people who are considering a transition while running a business?
Coming from someone who identified strongly with their work—I very much existed through my work—I would prioritize your transition at any cost. It is more important than your career or your business.
At the same time, many things will change. For me, work was very stable while most of my private life changed, and my body changed. My company was the one thing for the first two years that didn’t change. But I was also self-employed and had a supportive team.
Some of us do change as people; it’s not just our gender. My company was already built pre-transition, but after, I felt like it belonged to the person I no longer was. Part of me wanted to let it go, but I couldn’t because it was my livelihood. I had the idea that I could just transform it along with my new shape.
"I would prioritize your transition at any cost. It is more important than your career or your business."
If I had to live it again, and knowing the person I’ve become, I would have let it go. That impulse was right; my company has had its time. My advice is that you will find other ways of connecting with people and making yourself useful.
There is a lot of stuff connected to transition--including trauma--and things that seemed very relevant pre-transition might not be relevant after. Yes, there are economic pressures and so on, but the truth is you should put the emphasis where you need it most, and trust that you will make new connections.
We are folding up parts of the company, and I’m trying to find new ways to work, and how I can show up in the world. It’s still an open question of how I will do that. I’m definitely looking for opportunities.
Juliane Röll studied business economics at TU Dresden. She became an IT project manager and a freelance e-business consultant in 2001. An early blogger, she became a well-known expert and speaker on the impacts of the Internet on organizations and society.
From 2009-2010, Juliane lived at Won Kwang Sa International Zen Temple (Esztergom, Hungary) and Providence Zen Center (Cumberland, Rhode Island) to practise Buddhism intensely. In this time, she worked as a builder, gardener, temple cook and head of the meditation halls.
In 2012, Juliane co-founded Structure & Process to discover and explore new ways of collaborating, both in her own company and with client organizations.
Juliane is a pioneer practitioner of Holacracy in Europe and an active member of the community developing the Holacracy Constitution. She is a member of the Open Space Technology community, the Art of Hosting community, the European Consultants Camp, and a practitioner of Non-Violent Communication. Juliane is an improv dancer and a person of transgender experience.