Women in Business: Sue Heilbronner, CEO and Co-Founder of MergeLane

11/18/2014 06:04 am ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

Sue has been a CEO, President, or Chief Marketing Officer for digital marketing and ecommerce companies since the earliest days of the internet. She began her career as an attorney - last as a federal prosecutor with the US Department of Justice. She transitioned to business by founding an online baby gift company in 1999, which she later sold when she joined Discovery Communications, parent company of Discovery Channel and 15 other international networks.

Since Discovery, Sue has led companies in the interactive travel, digital publishing, ecommerce, and online education sectors. Two of these firms had successful exits. Sue has the privilege of serving as a mentor in the international Techstars Accelerator program and an Adjunct Professor of Law and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado Law School. She is an avid angel investor in companies with amazing founding teams working on problems she cares about. She has been mentoring tremendous young talent throughout her career.

Sue earned a B.A. from Oberlin College and a J.D. and M.A. from Duke University.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I'm tempted to give you a pat answer about the hundreds of lucky breaks, benefits, and outreached hands that have been a part of my life experience. Those were indeed all present. But instead, I'll admit what is a bit harder to share.

First, I was the oldest of two kids, and I grew up without a tremendous amount of day-to-day parental supervision. Starting in second grade, my brother and I walked home from elementary school together, the proverbial latch-key kids. This produced in me a reliable and sometimes fiercely independent streak. I don't remember a time when I wasn't self-sufficient. I think this helped nurture an innate drive to move walls and achieve what I want or need with very little concession to fear, doubt or hesitation.

Second, I am told by friends old and new that I have always been wildly amazed by the little things. I have a deep well of appreciation for wins and a patience for getting past losses. I have a bottomless reservoir of passion as well, and my enthusiasm crosses over from my personal to professional life.

Third, I care a great deal about other people. I am a blend of drive and empathy, and this combination makes me a very connected mentor and leader. Almost everyone I've worked with or managed remains in a very tight (and growing) network. Over time, I've developed what I believe to be an incredible ability to read people for both great talent and solid values. This may be the most important underpinning of my leadership toolbox.

I think these are the core nature or nurture features of my life that render me a leader. At some point (not that long ago), I realized that when I walk in one direction, other people in a group tend to follow me. This is somewhat effortless for me, and I think it's a function of being a passionate person that other people feel they can trust.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as an angel investor?
This is my favorite Steve Jobs quote:
"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future."

I once found it stressful to introduce myself at meetings because I only embarked upon a career in business at age 33, after nearly a decade as a lawyer. But as I look back, the dots aligned perfectly. My legal background has been invaluable to me as a CEO. It supports a highly analytical framework for analysis and decision-making, and it gives me the ability to spot major legal issues with some foresight.

During what became the last year of practicing law, I started a moonlight ecommerce venture in 1999. I made countless mistakes, but I did everything in this company myself. I learned from the errors, and I sold this first company and successfully transitioned from law to business without looking back.

After a subsequent journey through one big company and a few startups, I found myself in a position to mentor early stage companies and make angel investments. The incredible range of my career makes me fairly agile in both these pursuits. I feel like my background has equipped me to do almost every aspect of building a business. I have broad perspective. And most importantly, I have worked with a lot of different people. I think this span of experience and instinct serves me extremely well in making quick evaluations of angel investments and startup teams.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure as an angel investor?
For me, angel investing is an opportunity to support extraordinary people doing extraordinary things, and to have some upside. I've had the opportunity to support tenacious entrepreneurs building businesses about which they care deeply. I choose businesses that are pursuing issues that resonate with me, but my primary objective (and the dominant reward beyond hoped-for investment returns) is engagement with great teams.

Candidly, I haven't seen too many downsides of angel investment. One of my companies was acquired recently, which is exciting for them and for me. One policy I have that probably minimizes downsides is that I tend to invest in rounds that are led by "super-angels" or VC funds. Although I do the diligence on team and plan, I have the benefit of the deals themselves being negotiated by investors who are larger and more seasoned than I.

It's worth noting that I don't consider the risk of loss of investment to be a "downside." That, fairly obviously, comes with the territory.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to be angel investors?
Go for it. I can't tell you how many smart and capable women I've met who are more than ready to take on angel investment, but think they need to do more homework and planning before being "ready". The only thing I can say for certain about startups is that there will be uncertainty. Experienced angel investors understand this. At MergeLane, we want to back extraordinarily talented leaders with tenacity and a deep passion for their business. We want to invest in people who can navigate the inevitable tornado of startup uncertainty and convince other remarkable people to join them for the ride. These things are far more important than having a perfect 10-year business plan.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
This is a tough one. I am in the camp of not believing in this idea. I don't see a tradeoff between "work" and "life". I am lucky enough (and intentional enough) to love my work. I am launching an accelerator for women-led companies. This is a perfect marriage of passion and business motivation. And I am doing it with one of the most talented and wonderful business partners I could have ever dreamed up. This, to me, is "life." I also get outside a lot. I go for hikes, play golf, cross-country ski, do yoga, imbibe in delicious food and drink with friends, read novels, and make a routine point of connecting with the extraordinary people in my orbit.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think there is a general workplace preference for optimistic extroverts with strong skills of persuasion and lots of confidence. Although there are men and women who don't fit this preferred mold, I think women most often end up discounting their value in organizations as a result of these (often unconscious) preferences. I think that the simple consciousness around these generalized differences would be really friendly to more diverse types of people in companies (introverts, women, etc). In this case, I believe awareness makes for radically increased results for teams and happier people.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
It's enormous, both from the benefits of being a mentee and a mentor. I have been incredibly lucky to have a group that I call "rabbis" whom I can call for wide ranges of questions and gut checks. I also get tremendous satisfaction from mentoring others. It's a win-win-win-win.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I think Kim Jordan, CEO of New Belgium Brewery, is extraordinary. I think she's a clear, direct, authentic and caring leader. Her recent move to sell the company to her employees, at what I imagine is a rate far below market, is one of hundreds of people-first choices she has made. I think that mindset is at the core of the success of New Belgium.

I admire Margaret Miner, who is a local entrepreneur in Boulder. Without any formal business education or a college degree, she began selling clothes out of her home on consignment. She built that basement business into a multi-unit, multi-million consignment store chain called Rags. She has an intuitive touch for growing companies and retaining talent. Even at pivotal times of growth and stress, she has an unwavering and contagious optimism.