Published: March 22, 2021 By

Want to turn your passion turn into a business? Learn how from Michaela Shepherd (MBA'21), the CEO and founder of W.P. Equestrian, a premier equine-facilitated, evidence-based leadership development program that focuses on inclusivity and authenticity. Michaela—who has more than 10 years of experience working as a professional athlete and trainer in the equestrian industry—wanted to create a more inclusive program that targeted an audience beyond individuals who just want to learn how to ride horses. She ended up focusing her business model on building conscious, ethical leaders. Learn more about the strides her company is making:

Q: What is your startup or business idea? 

Michaela Shepherd (MS): Our team ensures that socially-minded executives and founders learn how to effectively implement psychological safety and develop emotional intelligence in the workplace. At W.P. Equestrian, a team of professional facilitators will work with clients on the ground through a series of tailored exercises to address their individual needs and goals as leaders. Horses serve as a catalyst for teaching leadership in an unbiased, safe setting. Horses serve as a mirror for clients to understand blindspots in their leadership styles, which pushes clients to make real-time changes to their verbal communication and nonverbal body language. Horses serve as channels for targeting emotional cues and are visual barometers of emotional intelligence. By working with horses, our clients apply what they’ve learned immediately, resulting in long-lasting information retention and skill development. Our facilitators will capture visual content of clients participating in exercises; the content will be used to bolster self-reflection, help define concrete action items for clients, and allow our team to follow-up with clients after the program has concluded.

Q: How did you come up with your business idea?

MS: I have spent over a decade working as a professional athlete and hunter/jumper trainer in the equestrian industry. I have spent years teaching riders how to advance successfully to the highest levels of one of the most demanding sports. Not only have I had to teach riders how to become experts in decoding nonverbal body language (human and horse alike), I have taught riders of all ages important team building skills (due to the fact that a successful rider must be able to form a partnership with their horse). In order to be a top tier athlete and horsewoman (or horseman), you must have a deep understanding of patience, empathy, and compassion. Now, my goal is to translate my expertise from the equestrian industry into the leadership development space.

michaela sheppard jumping horseQ: What inspiried you?

MS: After working in the equestrian industry for so many years and traveling to the best competitions in North America, I wanted to create a program that is more inclusive and targets an audience beyond individuals who just want to learn how to ride. While pondering how I wanted to pivot within the equestrian industry, I realized that we are facing a dramatic shortage of conscious, ethical leaders. In a recent article by Dr. Stefanie Johnson, she highlighted the outdated “think manager, think male” stereotype that embodies so many of our leaders today. Because of my expertise in the equestrian industry, I have the ability to offer experiential leadership training that leans in to the relational side of leadership. In order for leaders to understand how to implement a “people first” approach, they must grasp the understanding of human skills, like empathy, courage, patience, and respect. Through my desire to foster more ethical, conscious leadership in the world, I was inspired to create W.P. Equestrian.

Q: What is yuor role at your startup and how did you form your team?

MS: I am the founder and CEO of W.P. Equestrian. I was able to form an incredible team of women with highly complementary expertise. Kathryn McClain, a second year MBA, brings her extensive knowledge of human animal connection and animal ethics, her Master of Social Work, and Certificate in Animals and Human Health to the team. Talia Slatkin is an undergraduate student studying Strategic Communications with an emphasis in Public Relations, as well as a double minor in Business and Italian; she also has over fifteen years of experience working with horses. I connected with Kathryn through my MBA program, and I connected with Talia through the CU Equestrian Team, where she serves as social chair.

Q: Why did you decide to compete in New Venture Challenge (NVC)?

MS: I decided to compete in NVC for the incredible experience. The competition fosters young companies’ success by providing resources, like workshops that host Nicole Glaros, chief investment strategy officer at Techstars Boulder. My team was also able to connect with highly skilled mentors, Andrew Morton, Duane Casey, and Sue Heilbronner, who have provided invaluable feedback and insight to my team.

Q: What CU Boulder academic courses and entrepreneurial resources did you take advantage of to help you build your business? 

MS: During my MBA experience, I have taken classes from George Deriso, Jay Waddell, and Brad Werner (and my team and I are currently taking Jeff York’s New Venture Launch class), which emphasized high level entrepreneurial concepts, as well as hands-on business plan development. My team has also participated in many of NVC’s workshops, including IDEAS Generator, IDEAS Validator, Intro to Founder Agreements, IP, Patents and Team Dynamics, and How to Build a Pitch. Through classwork, NVC resources and our mentors, my team has been able to better communicate W.P. Equestrian’s offerings, uncover our blindspots, and determine action items that will contribute to our continued success.

Q: What has been your biggest challenge in running your startup? What about notable wins or successes?

MS: The biggest challenge in running my startup has been the educational barrier. More often than not, I am asked, “why horses?”. I have had to learn how to communicate the benefits of learning leadership from horses in a clear and concise manner.

My team has a notable win every time we talk to a new person about our startup. When presenting our idea, individuals light up and share their personal experience interacting with horses and their memory of the impactful human animal connection they retained. This relatable element helps us anchor our pitch for our leadership development program and sets up validating the power of horses being the catalyst for long-lasting leadership skills. Recent successes for W.P. Equestrian include establishing verbal contracts for partnerships with equine facilities in the Boulder/Denver area. It has also been exciting to integrate content into W.P. Equestrian’s curriculum from professors in my MBA program, such as leadership experts Dr. Stefanie Johnson, and Dr. Christina Lacerenza.

Q: What do you love about having your own company?

MS: I love the demanding, fast-paced environment of my startup, as well as working with my dynamite team. Not only do I enjoy networking and making new connections on a weekly basis, I have been able to grow both personally and professionally by launching a company that deviates from my previous career path. Creating a company that fosters authenticity and inclusion among executives and founders, while also advocating for the ethical treatment of horses combines my equestrian passion with my desire to pursue purpose-driven work.

Q: What advice would you give to other students who are interested in starting their own businesses or wanting to compete in NVC?

MS: Don’t be afraid to fail. NVC is an amazing, low-risk, high-reward environment that is great for beginner and amateuar entrepreneurs. In terms of general advice for students wanting to start their own business, I really like to remember: "If I don’t ask, I don’t get." And never forget to celebrate your wins and keep a sense of humor.

Q: What is your plan for your startup after graduating? Do you still plan to work on it? If so, what are your goals? 

MS: After graduating, I am planning on still working on my startup. I always planned to return to the equestrian industry in some capacity after graduating, and with W.P. Equestrian, I have the opportunity to explore a new offering within the industry I love.