My feminist father
Lessons from my dad on building a team, a business, and a life worth living
My father was a great man. It has been six years since he died at age 56. I miss him every day. The gnawing hole he left behind never gets easier to hide, but it has become a familiar struggle.
Glen Riesterer, my father, was a great man by all the conventional, masculine, American-exceptionalism standards. He was charming. He was handsome. He was a serial entrepreneur. He was an incredibly successful businessman. He ran marathons. He coached high school cross country teams that made it to the highest level of State competitions. He was Vice-Chairman of the board. He co-founded a fun run that raised thousands of dollars for Big Brothers Big Sisters, a charity that supported local kids. He bootstrapped it all with only a high school education, a lot of grit, and an incredibly supportive wife.
My dad was an accomplished individual, but his accomplishments were not what made him great; it was the profound impact he had on people that cemented his legacy. While Dad probably never would have called himself a feminist, his leadership style was a uniquely inclusive, individualistic, and emotional one that continues to influence and inspire me today. After six years, I’ve finally come to a place where I can reflect on and organize some of his most important lessons into themes that I want to share with the world.
My dad believed nothing was worth doing if you weren’t going to do it well.
It didn’t matter what Dad endeavored to do, he was going to do it to the best of his abilities. He put in the time to research how to do it right, or he found someone in his network who could. As children, he expected us to do the same. There was no half-assing our chores. If something wasn’t done to Dad’s expected level of quality, you heard about it. Even when you knew you did well, he always pushed you to do even better. I remember coming home from school one day, ecstatic that I’d gotten a 98% on a particularly challenging test. His response: why wasn’t it a perfect score? Dad taught me to always strive for continuous improvement not just in results, but in how I achieved them.
My dad understood that treating people equitably was more important than treating them equally.
My dad was the assistant coach of the Kiel High School Cross Country team for 14 years. He was not a particularly gifted runner, but he was persistent and passionate. Some of the athletes on his teams were naturally talented and ran significantly faster than the coaches from day one. Others couldn’t run one lap around our high school without walking. Dad treated these athletes equitably — not equally; He didn’t believe in a one-size-fits-all model of success. For the top athlete, success meant shaving off a few seconds of time, while for another athlete success was merely finishing the race. Both achievements were equally laudable, and my father celebrated both. He made a point to cheer on every single athlete at every single meet. He’d be at the finish line with just as big of a hug for winning the race as he did for beating a personal record or even merely finishing. Dad taught me that meeting people where they are and celebrating their unique struggles was more important than chasing some unattainable extrinsic definition of success.
My dad didn’t believe in transactional relationships.
Dad built his business selling life insurance, health insurance, and investments. Lots of salesmen in this space get a smarmy reputation for putting their commissions ahead of what’s best for the client. Not my dad. Dad listened deeply to his clients’ needs before he ever suggested a product. He asked lots of questions. He knew the names of his clients’ pets, the colleges their kids were attending, and the health issues of their aging parents. He held their babies, attended their funerals, and supported their businesses. Once, Dad unexpectedly brought home a labrador puppy he bought from a client. He was honest and frank and built a reputation as a trusted mentor, whether you’d invested a few thousand or a few million dollars with him. You were never just a potential revenue number to Dad. I’d say he embodied a customer-first mentality, but Dad didn’t see his clients as customers — they were friends. Dad taught me that when you see your customers as real, whole people, and truly design solutions that fit their unique needs, everything else in your business will fall into place.
My dad never told us kids our dreams were out of reach.
Neither of my parents went to college, but they always valued education and technical expertise, no matter your gender. In high school, my older sister decided she wanted to be an engineer. Dad got her in touch with an old high school friend, a mechanical engineer, so she’d have a mentor. A few years later when I decided to go to school for Computer Science, he never once implied that I should consider a different path, despite knowing the statistics of how few women there were in my chosen field. He simply asked if “computer problems” were the kind of problems I wanted to solve with my career. While I don’t think he ever fully grasped what my sister and I did (he notoriously called one of the images in my sister’s PhD thesis a toilet and never understood the difference between IT management and software engineering), he was so proud whenever we achieved a professional milestone. When I left my comfortable full-time employment to pursue a start-up idea of my own, he never told me it was too hard. He asked me what problems I was going to solve for people, how I was going to make it financially successful, and what support I needed to get there. He was always ready with advice when I needed guidance on structuring my business, and weighed in on quite a few early sales pitches. By never questioning our technical career choices, Dad gave my sister and I permission to be ourselves in male-dominated spaces. He knew we were just as qualified to be there as anyone else.
My dad was a servant leader.
There were few tasks that my dad found too menial for his time. As a coach, Dad ran alongside the cross country team at every single practice, often doubling back to finish with the slower pack. In his charity he work, Dad stuffed envelopes and bagged t-shirts with the rest of the volunteers. In our personal lives, he hated a dirty car. He was meticulous about keeping his vehicles washed and detailed. I, as a “busy” (aka lazy) college student, did not share his fastidiousness about keeping my car clean. The first time I came home from college with a filthy vehicle, he rolled his eyes and lectured me. The second time, I woke up to him washing it at 6 am on Sunday before church. Dad taught me the importance of modeling the behavior you want to inspire in others. It wasn’t just enough to tell the team, his volunteers, or my 19-year-old self to do something. If his message wasn’t getting across, he got in there and did it with you.
My dad brought his whole self everywhere he went.
My dad was a principled man who valued his family above all else. It didn’t matter what Dad did, he showed up with his whole self and never hid the fact that he was a proud father. I’m told that he talked about my sister and me with anyone and everyone who would listen. He always had pictures of us prominently displayed around his desk. Unlike so many in today’s bustling business world who feel like they need to find a way to succeed despite their families, Dad wanted to succeed FOR our family. My dad measured success in the opportunities he was able to provide for us. Especially as he got older, he was unapologetic about scheduling family time. Dad taught me to never apologize for prioritizing my family over other commitments.
My dad wasn’t afraid to show his emotions.
I am a very public crier. I’ve cried at school, at work, in front of embarrassingly large groups of people. I cry when I’m sad, when I’m stressed, and when I’m beyond frustrated. Dad was a crier, too. He cried at weddings, at funerals, at major accomplishments, and even sometimes at the movies. If you caught dad crying, he’d just smile and wipe a tear from his eye, then scoop you up into some kind of warm conversation.
One of my most vivid memories of Dad is the last Christmas Eve we spent together. It was candlelight service at our church, and we were getting ready to sing Silent Night. As we were passing out the candles, I noticed Dad had tears in his eyes. I asked him quietly if he was ok. He told me that Silent Night was the last song my grandmother requested before she died. He told me how much he missed her. I held his hand. We sang together, both of us with tears streaming down our face, his back strong, unashamed of his grief, of his love for his mom. He died nine days later. To this day, I can’t hear Silent Night without tears. Before losing my dad, I was ashamed of my inability to control my tears when emotions ran high. Dad taught me that grief is uncontrollable, even for the strongest, greatest of men, and that there’s no shame in publicly mourning those we’ve lost.
I miss my dad more than words can describe. I had the honor and privilege to experience his uniquely personal leadership more intimately than most, and I strive to pick up the baton where he left off and carry it forward to inspire others in his memory.