Michelle Danner: “Work ethic”
Work ethic — You have to do it even when you don’t want to do it. That’s the key. I can tell you that I never want to do anything but I push myself and ultimately I am fulfilled by that.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Danner. Michelle Danner is a Hollywood Acting Coach and Film Director. She has worked with celebrities such as Gerard Butler, Chris Rock, Zooey Deschanel, and Salma Hayek. Her latest film THE RUNNER, starring Cameron Douglas, Elisabeth Rohm, and Eric Balfour, premiered earlier this year at the Cinequest Film Festival and has won several prestigious Film Festival awards including Best Feature Film at the Los Angeles Film Awards and Best Independent Film at the New York Movie Awards.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My father was the president of the WME agency in Paris, he opened up the very first offices there. I grew up surrounded by entertainers, traveled a lot in my childhood, went to museums, art shows, the theater, saw lots of movies and read many, many books. All of that led me to want to express myself creatively in my adult life. I took acting classes at an early age in Paris and fell in love with plays and screenplays, I even mounted productions in school and in theaters of plays like Antigone, Electra, an adaptation of The Queen’s Necklace by Alexandre Dumas, and when I was a teenager we moved back to the United States. I continued my studies there and I was lucky enough to be in the classes of Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, and many other wonderful teachers that have inspired me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I think the most interesting thing that happened to me was the moment when I really took control of the company’s finances. I was at my most resourceful trying to find a potential lead into someone who could help me secure funding for the business. I did a lot of research and was able to get an investor in another country on the phone at 5am in the morning for me and get him on board. That call literally changed my life, and all because I had a game plan and I succeeded. I remember telling myself over and over again “ I am going to make this happen.” Because of this experience I have had this mindset ever since, that if I want it I will go after it and I will make it happen.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was 18, at a dinner party with some very famous people. They were all older than me, literary geniuses, directors, writers, etc. I was intimated in the company of all these artists talking about their projects, books I hadn’t read, and films I hadn’t seen, and so I felt I needed to relax myself. As a young actress, I had been “pounding the pavement” as they used to say, going to auditions all day and I hadn’t eaten. I had half a glass of white wine and that was enough to make me tipsy. We sat down for dinner and I thought I was going for my napkin to gently wipe my face. Instead, I went for the tablecloth and when I pulled it, gravy and food spilled off the table and onto the laps (and some of the faces) of the other guests. I was so embarrassed and the only reason why it’s a funny story today is because none of the people at the party are around to remember it. The lesson I learned from that was not to be intimidated, that it’s okay to just know what you know, because if you find yourself in a situation where you feel you should know or say or do more, you can end up making a mess of things like I did.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am eternally grateful to my sister Valerie. She’s an attorney and everybody knows that it’s always important to have a good one to advise you, but when they love you and they’ve been watching your back for almost all your life it’s invaluable. There was a particular lease that she negotiated with a document literally as thick as War and Peace. She was still negotiating it a year later when she told me she had to pull over to the side of the road to take a call about it on her vacation. I asked myself “Who cares for you that much that they would do that for you? Only an incredible sister that loves you.” Since then, I don’t sign anything without consulting with her first.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I think at the core we ultimately all long for simplicity in life, and for those of us starting a company, it’s the direct opposite of that. I personally struggled with the timing of it all, balancing my creative aspirations with my dreams of starting a family. On top of being intimidated by the feeling of having to maintain those kinds of balances, women are reminded that succeeding in the world of business is a difficult thing because it’s been a man’s world for so long, and though we’ve come a long way there’s still a much longer way to go. I believe that some of the progress is made by asking these questions, having these conversations, and ultimately being able to not let any doubts, internal or external, stop you from pursuing your goals.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Having your own business, whether you’re a man or a woman, is difficult in and of itself. There are many rules and regulations, taxes, paperwork, etc. so I think it would help if some benefits could be created that would make a woman having her own business not so daunting. Things like paid maternity leave should be offered to all women, including those that are self-employed and run their own company, because those kinds of support are needed in today’s climate and can really make a big difference.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
As I said, though we still have some ways to go, it’s less of a man’s world than it was. At least a little less. Women don’t have to prove that they are great thinkers with formidable ideas but they are still faced with enormous road blocks. We all have the potential to be innovative and create companies that can make a difference in the world, and ideally those that help benefit other women. If we want equality in society, we need to work to achieve it together.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest one is that it’s easy to start your own business. It’s not, the road is filled with challenges. The myth is that you have it good because you call your own shots, but the fact is when you have people working with you or for you, you have to empower them. You think that now nobody can tell you what to do, when rules and regulations are what’ll dictate how you do everything. The most famous myth might be that you’ll make a lot of money, but after all the expenses, there might not be as much left as it seems from the outside.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
Not everybody wants the responsibility to lead their own business. Many people are perfectly content with clocking in and out and not bringing the office home. When you have your own business your mind activates 24/7 with ideas on how to move forward. It takes up a lot of real-estate in your mind to constantly ask yourself what choices you should make and because ultimately I believe everyone likes simplicity, to not have to worry about those things might lead you to a happier life.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Vision — You have to have an image of what you want to do and how you plan on doing it. I believe in Vision boards and lists and revisiting them all the time.
- Ambition — Waking up every morning with the drive and the energy to go after what you want and you have to risk thinking big.
- Work ethic — You have to do it even when you don’t want to do it. That’s the key. I can tell you that I never want to do anything but I push myself and ultimately I am fulfilled by that.
- Empathy — Understanding the pitfalls and the humanity in everything that you need to accomplish. If you’re empathetic you will judge less and ultimately that is always a good thing.
- And Patience — it’s the ability to breathe and understand that you don’t have to race there, you will get there in due time. It’s like when somebody passes you on the street because you’re not going fast enough and they give you a dirty look and a minute later you’re right next to each other at the traffic light. It’s more important to enjoy the ride than to speed through it.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’ve certainly tried to. Throughout the years, I have spearheaded many outreach programs for children, in schools and seniors that I know have made a difference. I’m drawn to making movies that are socially relevant. Recently we were showing “The Runner” at the Ischia Film Festival and the audience had a lot of young people and as I presented the movie, I talked about how it was a cautionary tale and definitely what not to do when it comes to drugs and many came up to me and spoke to me afterwards and I saw in their eyes that it impacted them. So if I can affect people in that way, it’s meaningful to me. It’s the reason I make movies, to reach the biggest classroom that one possibly can.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would very much like to create no-kill shelters for animals and create a rescue program to save animals from pounds and make kill shelters a thing of the past. We once showed a documentary at our film festival about the amount of animals that get put down and that is something that I would like to do in my lifetime.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Fareed Zakaria, I love his wisdom and his insights, point of view. I would love to pick his brain and have a conversation about politics and the state of the world that we are going to hand down to our children
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.