Suneera Madhani Wants To Teach Women To Build Businesses With CEO School

By Rebecca Suhrawardi

Suneera Madhani and I are on a video interview. She’s coming off a couple of weeks of travel which included attending The White House’s Eid Dinner hosted by the President and Vice-President. We’re bonding over our choice of attire for the call–sweatshirts. Except hers is much cooler than mine, it says: Mom, I am a rich man.

We laugh over the quote attributed to the superstar Cher who, when told by her mother to settle down and marry a rich man, responded with the saying on her shirt, “But mom, I am a rich man.”

The words are hardly an exaggeration for her–Madhani founded a $1 billion Unicorn called Stax which upended how businesses process credit card payments. While her success with Stax is the stuff of Silicon Valley dreams, she very well knows that most female entrepreneurs are hardly as lucky her, and she’s out to change that.

“Nothing bad happens when women make more money” is the motto of her new venture, CEO School, a platform created to support and nurture female entrepreneurs toward breaking barriers to achieve greater financial success.

Madhani shares stats, stating that “18% of women make it to the six-figure mark and 2% of us make it to the million dollar mark, so, of course, we’re not getting funded–less than 3% of venture is going to female-founded companies. We’re not even there from a revenue standpoint to go ask for venture capital. I didn’t raise my seed round until we had a million dollars in revenue.” She’s since raised over $500m in investment capital during her tenure at Stax.

Madhani is a natural storyteller and she is a skillful master at understanding the power of media to shape businesses and culture. It’s part and parcel of why we’re speaking today, as she has not only built the Unicorn, she’s used everything from TV to Podcasts to help move it all along on the way.

The documentary series in which she’s featured, Spiraling Up: The Journey to Becoming a Unicorn, is what roused my attention towards her media-savviness, and when we chat she reveals how important finding a voice through culture has been towards cultivating her brand and business.

“As a founder, something I have learned is you have to command your seat at the table,” Madhani says. “No one’s going to give it to me. So, I’m never going to get invited. I have to find my way and find my voice within whatever room I need to be in.”

“It’s as if I have all these advocates talking about me, or the company, when I’m not in the room,” is how she describes the use of media as a tool. “I do think that it’s a huge part and it has definitely cultivated the success of my companies, but also the success of anything I do in the future, especially CEO School.”

Indeed, CEO School had its roots in media born via Instagram Live which Madhani launched organically during the lockdown of 2020. Its following grew to the point where she recognized its importance and influence, and also her lack of ability to host a live talk every evening, and turned it into a Podcast centered on creating support for female entrepreneurs to help them grow and scale.

The child of Pakistani immigrants who were uneducated, Madhani’s parents came to America with “absolutely nothing,” and Madhani describes herself as a reluctant entrepreneur; that business building was something that was a necessity growing up in her household.

“Entrepreneurship wasn’t something then like it is now. It wasn’t revered, and it definitely wasn’t sexy and cool. But growing up in that sort of household, entrepreneurship is in my DNA and it was a part of my entire life,” the Stax founder says. “I worked in every single small business that my parents owned, from convenience stores to restaurants, to a marketing company.”

When Madhani’s pitch was rejected to launch her concept for the subscription-based credit card processing concept (now Stax) with the company where she worked at the time, it was her family that inspired her to go ahead and build it on her own.

“Why don’t you just go do this? Why don’t you go start the company?” she recalls her parents’ response after the rejection. “It was the first time that anybody had ever suggested this, and I was like, ‘Me? Where do I go find Mr. Visa? How do you even start a payments company?’ But then I thought, ‘Why not me?’”

She admits the odds were stacked against her and her brother, Stax co-founder Sal Rehmetullah, especially as Pakistani Muslims without connections, CEO school, or the makings to raise venture capital.

But Madhani took her parents’ advice and bet on herself, sold everything, moved in with them, and within 6 months got her company off the ground. Now, 10 years later, she’s built a billion-dollar company that processes $40B in payments annually and supports over 30,000

customers nationwide.

“We were ambitious Brown kids without resources. So, every single day, I showed up for a job that was harder than the one I had yesterday,” recalls Madhani of the early days of Stax. “The thing that made us really successful was the fact that we just kept showing up.”

It wasn’t a fairy tale process, there was a lot of rejection and confusion, from how to handle her pregnancy while raising capital (she was advised not to mention it and hide her bump until it was no longer an option), to being passed over in the room while in the presence of her male counterparts, to showing up on social media after being told CEOs don’t use social media, and the lack of self-confidence because of the biases placed on her which made her question herself.

Madhani recalls occasions where she would show up at speaking events where, one after the other, male attendees would approach Madhani as if she was support staff.

“I arrived at a retreat event and I’m standing outside taking an important partner call, and CEOs are pulling up in their black cars and coming out for the event,” she describes.

“I had one CEO tap me. He says, ‘Which way is the event?’ I’m on the phone, and I’m confused but I say, ‘Okay, that way.’ And then another one pulls up and he’s like, ‘Where do I go get my badge and registration?’ And I’m like, ‘What is happening? I’m on the phone here,’ in a private corner,” Madhani continues. “I realized when the third person stopped me, they assumed I was an event coordinator or something, not the CEO. When I got up on stage and I could see their faces, I could the expressions of ‘Oh, boy. She belongs in the room.’”

“Now, I can definitely walk into a room and every private equity knows who I am, which is nice, but it shouldn’t have taken that many scars on my back to get here,” she says.

Since exiting Stax, she describes the post-Unicorn phase as one which was isolated and lonely. While there was so much opportunity, as well as pressure, to scale to $2B or go public, Madhani had to address her internal struggle.

“I had to intrinsically ask myself, ‘What am I building for? What’s my legacy that I want to leave behind?’ I didn’t just want Unicorn and billion-dollar business next to my name,” she says.

Madhani eventually realized scaling Stax to $2B or taking it public wasn’t the answer. Changing the landscape for underrepresented founders and women to achieve entrepreneurial success, however, was, and Madhani’s purpose now is to grow CEO School and in turn, grow the collective success of female entrepreneurs.

So, what has she learned about the experience of being a female entrepreneur after having mentored thousands of them?

Women are more risk averse than men and this shows up most as not hiring talent quickly enough (which affects scaling and growth) and there is an inherent absence of knowledge sharing with women entrepreneurs. She’s also found that the lack of an established boys club, such as the men have, equals a lack of community and support. There is also a general unavailability of resources.

“For example, women have to prove what they’ve done to raise capital, and men are given investment based on their potential,” Madhani says.

The traction of CEO School is a visible one with the Podcast almost having reached a almost a million downloads this month and the presence of over 3000 women as part of the community. More importantly, CEO School entrepreneurs defy statistics. According to Madhani, 25% of CEO School’s community have passed the million-dollar mark, and over 50% have exceeded the $100,000 mark with their ventures.

“I didn’t know I could go build a million dollar business, let alone a billion dollar business, because you can’t be what you can’t see, so I didn’t know how to go strategically in. I made so many mistakes along the way, so many mistakes,” Madhani shares passionately. “Like giving away too much equity because I didn’t have the right support around. That’s why I want CEO School to be one of the most diverse communities for female founders, to make sure everybody has a seat at the table.”

“It’s not about making women greater than men. We want equality,” Madhani concludes. “I’m not asking to be treated better. I’m not asking to discount anyone else. I just want the same opportunity.”