Amanda Kahlow didn’t have the easiest childhood.
Her parents divorced when she was two years old. Her mother never made more than $19,000 a year. Kahlow and her two older brothers lived in 22 different homes before she was 18. There wasn’t always plumbing — or heat.
Last week, her startup 6Sense emerged from stealth mode with $12 million in venture funding. It also won the innovation showdown contest for early-stage companies at VentureBeat’s DataBeat conference.
“The universe is a really incredible place if you put it to good use,” Kahlow said during a conversation with VentureBeat last week.
6Sense examines structured and unstructured data to identify potential customers for companies’ goods and services. Between 6Sense’s core technology, early customer traction, and venture capital, Kahlow’s startup has a promising future.
But it’s not her first venture, nor her second. She worked hard to get to 6Sense.
After Kahlow attended the University of Colorado, Boulder — which her father helped pay for alongside her student loans and bartending income — she cofounded a company called BusinessOnline with her dad.
Back in 1997, it was a product for folks who wanted to start an e-commerce business, not unlike Adobe Dreamweaver. Today it’s a digital marketing agency owned and operated by her older brother, Thad Kahlow.
After a few months, she left BusinessOnline to move to San Francisco, near the heart of the dot com boom. After a year-long research associate gig at Giga Information Group, an advisory services firm, she founded CI Insights, a big data services company. HSBC Bank was her first customer. Cisco was a CI Insights customer for over 10 years.
Kahlow attributes her ability to close and retain customers to skills she garnered as a girl, when she regularly hopped from one school to another.
“I always saw our moves as an adventure and was excited to meet the new kids,” she said. “It’s clear that moving so much taught me resiliency and social skills, which has translated into sales and lasting customer relations within my business life.”
Both of Kahlow’s brothers are also entrepreneurs. Thad Kahlow has spent the last 15 years as BusinessOnline’s CEO. Her oldest brother, Aaron Kahlow, worked at BusinessOnline for close to nine years and then founded the Online Marketing Institute, which provides online training for Internet marketers. He’s served as OMI’s chief executive for over six years.
Much of Amanda Kahlow’s entrepreneurial spirit stems from two books her brother Aaron gave her, she said: Og Mandino’s Greatest Salesman in the World and Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
But the biggest factor was her upbringing. Her mother always prioritized education, pushing for books and imaginative activities over time in front of the television. Her father set an entrepreneurial example, founding several profitable software companies. And both parents had an abundance of love for their kids.
“Despite our unique upbringing, one thing both our parents instilled in us was an abundance of self-confidence, assuring us we could be anything we wanted in this world,” said Kahlow. “I believe it’s really important to instill that in children.”
Kahlow doesn’t have kids of her own, but says she’s incredibly passionate about educating young women — particularly girls in developing countries. She and her brother Thad serve as advisors to Girl Rising, a film and campaign that aim to spread awareness about educating girls in developing nations as a sustainable method of building thriving communities and economies.
As a female CEO, Kahlow is a rarity in the world of enterprise software. She feels extra pressure to be successful, she said, because she has an opportunity to inspire other girls and women to get into this male-dominated sector of the tech world.
“I think we really need to instill that sense of confidence in women that they can do it too,” she said.
“It isn’t really about the venture capital process. I think it really comes back to more women knocking on the door — walking through not just with a good idea, but also with confidence.”