Why the diversity conversation is so hard for me

I read this awesome post by Katie Womersley and I love it.  The quick synopsis is that people who identify with a specific stereotype could cause them to do WORSE.  I believe in diversity and think it makes all of us stronger, but I don’t actually identify with ‘being a woman in tech’.  I have never liked the label, and part of me resents it a little bit. I am just ‘in tech’.  Or rather, I just ‘am’.

Recently, I’ve become fascinated with this idea of the player and the victim, and I’m seeing it everywhere.  The player is someone who looks at the situation and wonders how they impacted the outcome.  “Wow, that was a big fight.  In what way did I create or contribute to the situation to cause that fight?”.  The victim is someone who takes more of a blaming stance. “That jerk took his bad mood out on me”.  I’m seeing it literally everywhere.  “The investors don’t get my business” vs “I’m not articulating my business in a way that makes investors excited”.  “You don’t trust me” vs “What am I doing that causes you to doubt me?”.  “My startup failed b/c we ran out of money” vs “My startup failed b/c I didn’t understand the economics of my business well enough”.  “This meeting is brain damage” vs “I have an experiment I’d like to try with the format of this meeting, if you’re game”

I worry that being identified as the victim here, as a woman in tech, creates victims.  In fact I can think back on 2 specific  situations where I walked out of a meeting extremely frustrated from not being heard, thinking “I’m just in a room full of men, THIS is what they mean by being a female in tech”.   But in retrospect, I took the victim stance. I should have asked myself “What am I doing that’s contributing to my inability to get my point across?”.  If I can answer that question, I can take myself to the next level (which I have by the way!).  Blame them for not being included in the boys club, and I move backwards, never in control of my own destiny.

I’m not saying that prejudice and bias don’t happen.  They do.  And they did in both of those meetings where I was frustrated. But the only way I can change what the world thinks of me is by not playing the part of the victim.  I don’t want to play the part of a woman in tech – but rather of someone who excels in her role, who can adapt to constantly changing and fast paced environments, with people that I do and do not identify with.  It’s not about me being a woman.  It’s about me kicking ass at whatever I chose to.

Thanks Katie.  Don’t lets stop this conversation.

Middle school students and entrepreneurship

I just spent the morning alongside David Brown, talking to 115 middle school students about entrepreneurship.  I do this periodically and it’s one of the most fun days of my year.  The amount of unbridled energy and enthusiasm in the room is always palpable, and the kids have wonderfully insightful questions on how to startup a startup.  Questions like:

  • What should I do if someone tells me my idea is stupid?
  • How do I know if my product is a good idea?
  • What happens when you fail?
  • How do I identify my target market?
  • Once I identify my target market, what kinds of questions do I ask them?
  • What is better, a product business or a service business?
  • How do I get the money I need for my startup?

Rewording some of these questions, they sound identical to the same topics we often discuss at Techstars.   I can only imagine that if we really taught entrepreneurship to kids at this age, imagine how much more quickly adult entrepreneurs could move through the stages of a startup.  Maybe they would be less afraid of failure, know more about when they’ve hit product/market fit…

I’m all for teaching kids entrepreneurship and wish more middle schools did it. Consider pushing your local school to add it to their curriculum, or mentoring a young student if they have a program in place already.


Evening Events

I get a lot of invitations to evening events – all for great things.  Startup judging events, student entrepreneur events, networking events, happy hours, open houses, startup launch parties, and more.  I could go to an event a night easily, and often times its more.

When I was in my 20s, evening events were great fun.  But now that I’m, uh, not in my 20s anymore, evening and weekend events are really hard because I have two young children.  I travel a ton, I’m often away, and the only time I get to see my kids is 2 precious hours in the evening and on weekends.  And weekends are even tough because I’d like a LITTLE personal time – so even on the weekends I’m not with them 100% of the time.  So when asked to attend an event at night – I want to join you, I really do, but the decision I have to make is between your event and my family.

I’m often asked how to make startups and the tech environment more female-friendly, and my easy answer right now is “hold lunch events instead of evening events”.   So tech, consider hosting more lunches!  Bonus, you don’t usually have to buy alcohol and the food is less expensive.  🙂  Or at least hold happy hours where the event is done by 5:30 or 6.   That way people (notice I didn’t say women, I said PEOPLE, because this is a family issue not a female one) with families can still get home for dinner and bedtime, like we did with our 7 Weeks of Awesome series at Techstars.

As an aside, I look forward to the day when my kids are old enough that they don’t want to hang out with me anymore and my evenings will be more free.

Random Act of Kindness

I spend a lot of time meeting new people who are interested in becoming Techstars mentors.  Recently, at the end of one of those quick 30 min meetings, the guy I was meeting with, Ben, said to express his gratitude, he’d like to extend his personal Apple Employee Discount to me, giving me 25% off anything in the Apple store (for personal use of course).  Fabulous! I’d been wanting an iPad mini!  So I bought myself one on the spot, enjoying that discount.

Later that evening, I got an email from Apple telling me my order was cancelled because Ben was over his hardware discount quota.  I didn’t think this was a big deal AT ALL, it was overly generous of him to offer in the first place, but he was embarrassed when I told him and he spent too long profusely apologizing.

Two days later, when I got to my office, there was an iPad Mini (the expensive one!) sitting on my desk from Ben.  WTH???  There was no way I could accept a gift like that.  I don’t even buy my husband gifts like that!  When I tried to give it back, Ben basically said he wouldn’t take it back and that it was his ‘random act of kindness’ for the month.  So in an effort to make it right, I donated what is equivalent to a few iPad Minis worth to Impact on Education who provides tablets & training to at-risk youth who are struggling to read.  I can’t tell you how great that felt, just to keep Ben’s kindness going.  So I kept it going…

With friends that owe me money, I ask them to redirect their repayment to one of a few different charities instead (like KanguEFCO, Application Developers AllianceKiva or Impact on Education!)  Almost every time I buy coffee, I also buy a cup for the person behind me.  I’m constantly looking for opportunities for random acts of kindness.  In fact, you were one of the reasons I decided that my TEDx Brooklyn talk was going to be on Giving First.  Which led to discoveries of other generosities including this homeless guy who was rewarded nearly $200K for returning a diamond engagement ring, or this tragic story about the Gruners and their 18 month old son.

So thank you Ben.  The iPad was the smallest of the gifts.  You reminded me how much fun and rewarding it is to surprise and delight people on a regular basis.  Keeping that momentum going is one of my big goals for 2014.

Karen Nyberg should be mama of the year

Karen Nyberg, a female astronaut, landed back on earth today after 6 months in space.  I saw the news with photos of her reuniting with her preschool aged son Jack.  I don’t know why, but the story really affected me.  I can’t imagine saying yes to a ride on a rocketship with the knowledge that survival rates are low and I might be killed leaving behind 2 small children.  But I can’t imagine saying no to the opportunity either.  I mean, it’s a ROCKETSHIP!  I imagine the decision must have been excruciating for her, and all I can say is Karen, today, you’re my hero.

Personalization is boring

I completely understand why personalization is necessary in today’s tech world.  Because there is just too much content, we become overwhelmed by the sheer number of options, and we shut down.  So the sites that have figured out how to do personalization well are crushing it with higher engagement metrics.

But there’s a dark side to personalization.  Personalization runs the risk of making us more close-minded simply because we’re not exposed to things outside of where we might first click. Because we’re exposed to the same types of content over and over again, we begin to believe that’s the way the whole world is.  We can get bored of it, and even tune it out completely.

An interesting analogy is what’s happened in retail shopping. Go to any shopping area and you’ll see identical stores – Banana Republic, Old Navy, The Gap, Nike, Macys, Bed Bath & Beyond, even the top brands like Michael Kors, …..Wherever you go, it’s all the same.  And they feel like they carry the exact same stuff, they’re all inspired by the same designers that season, so there isn’t a ton of variety.  Lots of options, but very little variety.  And I hate shopping because of it.  Its uninspiring to me.

But I was in London recently just exploring the city and was fascinated by all the cute little stores carrying unique items I’ve never seen before.  I fell in love with stuff I wouldn’t call ‘my style’, mostly because it was so new to me that it was exciting.  And the times I’ve traveled outside of western culture, I really fall in love.  In fact, my favorite trip on memory was to Bolivia where I witnessed a dying culture of people who live on floating rafts, built of reeds.  It was beautiful and amazing because it was unique and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.  I believe the single biggest downside of globalization is the loss of that cultural uniqueness.

I don’t know about you, but I like being exposed to content, clothing, ideas, books, food, people, religions, (insert whatever noun you want) that is outside of my immediate circle of ‘interest’.  It helps me discover things I didn’t know I would like.  It helps prevent tunnel vision.  It helps me be empathetic and more worldly and more grounded. It helps me be a better mother/wife/investor/managing director.  It helps me think bigger.

So tech world – I get why you personalize things for me, but I’d really like some variety too.  In fact, I’d love to see an exploration area on your site where I can get exposure to the complete opposite of what you would otherwise show me.  I might just learn something.

Ontological Arrogance

My husband Mark and I have fundamentally and radically different taste in music.  He listens to a lot of jam bands, like Widespread Panic and the Dead.  I’ve been to a lot of the Widespread Panic shows because many of our friends love the music as well, and the scene is a complete blast.  But when being honest, it’s pretty much the last music on the planet I’d chose to hear if given options.  In fact, I’d rather listen to silence than that type of music.  It’s a source of tension in our marriage because I’ve resorted to snide remarks about it.  (yes, not good, I know).

One day, rightfully so, he had enough of my nasty comments.  And he said to me something like “It’s not that the band sucks or that the music is shit.  Its that YOU don’t like the music – so quit projecting your opinion as fact.”  His comment has stuck with me (and is yet another example of why he’s such an amazing human being), and I began to realize  how often I’ve taken my perspective and generalize it to the rest of the world.  Its more often than I’d like to admit, so I’ve been actively working on rephrasing how I say things to more accurately reflect that something is my opinion rather than a widely-held truth.  It’s true at Techstars as well, we tell mentors to state things as opinions, to share with teams their experiences, rather than stating perspectives as fact.  And we warn teams to beware of the person who states their opinion as fact.

Today, I’m reading Conscious Business and the author put a term to this patten.  He calls it ontological arrogance, and its the belief that your perspective is privileged, that yours is the only true way to interpret a situation.  He goes on to use the example of his daughter, that she says she won’t eat broccoli because its yukky.  But the real truth is that she calls broccoli yukky because she doesn’t like it.

I find this fascinating, and since I’ve discovered there’s a term for it, I’ve noticed how often it happens outside of my own actions.  Nearly daily, if not hourly, someone I interact with does this.

I’m curious as to all the ways ontological arrogance is holding us back, and holding me back.  Off the top of my head, I can tell you it’s probably a huge driver in startups as they seek product/market fit.  A team has a hard time getting out of their own head (hence why customer development methodology has really taken off).  I know it happens in board meetings, I know it happens with investors.  I’d argue that not being able to see other people’s perspectives is a major factor in entrepreneurial and investor success.

So today, I’m making a public commitment to massively reduce my ontological arrogance.  I’ve started by simply rephrasing how I talk In an effort to affect how I think.  Just by saying “my opinion is xxxx” will help (I hope).  But I need your help too.  If you catch me doing it,   highlight it for me.

Maybe we’ll all be a little more successful for it.

The Confidence Coefficient

I’ve had this theory running around in my head for a while now, and I’ve finally broken down and written a blog post about it.  It’s called the Confidence Coefficient and what that means for your startup, and anything else you feel like tackling in your life.

The notion is around how your confidence levels can impact your success.

Read about the Confidence Coefficient here – a guest post I recently did for UC Berkeley.

I’d love to know your thoughts and whether you agree or not.

Why women make for better bottom lines

I’ve been pulled into a lot of conversations recently around the fundability of women and getting more women involved in tech and entrepreneurship.  Its a topic that’s received a lot of media attention given Marissa’s appointment to Yahoo as CEO while she’s pregnant.  I keep getting asked these questions around “Do women make for good CEOs” and “Are women good investments” and “Can a woman really have a family and be an entrepreneur?”

I thought I’d spend a little brain cycles here talking about my thoughts on this.  My disclaimer is that I’m talking about gross generalizations based mostly on my empirical experience working with and investing in both men and women, and also pulling from my own experience as a female, with 2 small children (11 months and 2.5 years!).  There are exceptions to every generalization.

First of all, a great study called Women at the Wheel came out showing that having women in C level roles or on your Board of Directors make for more profitable companies and better returns for investors.  I love this study, because if anything is going to move the needle for women, it’s this.  Show the industry how ANYTHING positively impacts the bottom line, and needles will be moved.  The results of this study aren’t surprising to me.  There are many reasons I think women make great executives and entrepreneurs.  They include:

  • Women tent to be less risk tolerant than men.  They’ll hedge their bets, create Plans B and C, thus will generally be more prepared when things go wrong.  They’ll step cautiously before making a risky decision and weigh all the options, instead of just charging head-long into it.  So having a mix of men and women making decisions is a great idea – it allows for a more robust plan of attack.
  • As a Part B to “women are less risk tolerant” – that means they’re more conservative.  More conservative with their financial projections, more conservative with performance projections.  This leads to many more pleasant surprises when things are going well, and fewer disappointments when they aren’t.
  • Women tend to be less afraid to ask for help and openly discuss their limitations.  I love this approach because if things are going wrong, or you suck at something, and I don’t know about it, I can’t help you fix it.  Asking for help and being openly honest about your limitations means stronger companies.
  • Women tend to be monster executors and are often more capable of multi-tasking.  I think this is critical to a CEO skill set.  I’d argue that women who have kids are particularly well suited for this role.  If you have kids, you know how to keep multiple balls in the air simultaneously with a watchful eye on all of them, know how to get stuff done quickly and efficiently, and know how to put out fires and remain calm when the shit hits the fan.  As a mom, it happens daily, no – hourly.
  • Because they are generally less ego driven, they’re more about boosting the morale of their team and giving credit to them for things.  I hear “we” much more often than I hear “I”.  They tend to care deeply about their teams and work really hard to ensure their happiness.
  • Interestingly, they tend to undervalue their contributions and work.  This is good news/bad news.  Good news for the investor b/c they won’t have the same salary demands, won’t ask for as high of company valuations, and won’t negotiate as hard.  Investors can get more of the company for less money which means higher returns.  This is clearly bad though for the woman, a weakness we all have to work on.

Some of the negatives about women CEOs

  • Women have babies and are chemically/hormonally oriented around this.  My husband stays at home with our 2 kids.  And when our kids were born, my mom basically lived with us to help care for the infants while I worked.  I figured I wouldn’t ever worry about them because I pretty much had it as good as it gets.  But that wasn’t true.  Women are chemically tied to their children.  When they’re sick or sad, I’m STILL the first one to call the doctor and sit by their side and fret about medicines and dosage and temperatures and everything else.  My husband doesn’t worry about it – he says “yep, they’re sick!” While I’m going through every disease and symptom and possibility in my head and calling the doctor 15 times.  I’ll put everything, EVERYTHING on hold when my kids aren’t well, physically or emotionally.  But flexible workplaces with teams to compensate for family needs don’t just benefit women with kids, they benefit the men too and make for stronger families at home.  And the benefits of having a women CEO far outweigh this one challenge.  This is what it is.  Companies need to just embrace it.
  • Because women are generally more conservative, they tend to think smaller.  I know lots of men that dreamed of being a superhero and saving the world (or destroying it) when they were children.  Most girls don’t think that way.  But having an amazing Board of Directors in place can counteract this.
  • I think women have a harder time letting a bad apple in the company go.  They’ll work really hard to make things right for that person at the expense of the company.  Sometimes, you just need to fire the bad apple and move on.
  • I think generally women aren’t great negotiators.  We think that the world is a just and fair place, that we get what we deserve.  We won’t fight hard for salaries because we think we’re being paid what we deserve.  I heard a great analogy to this – that women are compensated for their performance and men are compensated for their potential.  If this is true, I don’t fault men for this – its women’s fault b/c we don’t fight for it.
  • We tend to be more apologetic, more self-conscious, and less risky than our male counterparts.

Alrighty then, now that I’ve convinced you to put more women in executive and board seats of your company, the key becomes HOW.

  1. First of all, support sport programs for young girls.  Did you know that 80% of all women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies were athletes?  I LOVE this statistic.  I don’t know if its because they have more confidence or are more competitive or are used to performance/working hard/kicking ass…  but who cares.  Let’s help create a pipeline of strong young girls who grow up to be capable, strong women.  Added bonus is that they’re probably less susceptible to violence at home, early pregnancies, and all the other things that can create a vicious cycle.
  2. Secondly, support STEM and specifically girls in STEM programs.  Along these lines – support NCWIT.  It’s a great national program based out of Boulder that works across the country to increase girls involvement in STEM type activities.
  3. Give a woman a chance, but be supportive of her there.  Hire her as CEO even if she doesn’t have CEO experience.  Put her on the Board even if she doesn’t have board experience.  Put resources around her to ensure her success.
  4. Give a ton of visibility to those women who are in the executive roles in your organization.  They make great role models for other women and will be a great example for other companies that don’t have a lot of women represented.  Highlight them in blog posts and newspaper/magazine articles and TV shows, invite them to be keynote speakers. Most women I know aren’t great self-promoters, so they won’t do this naturally on their own.
  5. Create a culture of flexibility in the workplace to ensure women that are also moms are comfortable taking executive rolls.  A woman shouldn’t have to decide between a title and her kids.
  6. Hire women that have been out of the workforce for a while b/c they’ve been raising kids.  Train them.  Put resources into them and support them.  It isn’t a negative that their last “job” was 10 years ago.  I’ve hired 4 women in my life that had been out of the workforce for between 5-10 years.  They were, hands down, some of the best hires I ever made.  They were monster executors, humble, eager to learn and prove themselves, amazing multi-taskers, could handle crisis with ease, didn’t have ego….  They were all rising stars.  And I’d be willing to bet that raising kids is much harder than whatever job you’re hiring them for.
  7. Be a mentor to an awesome woman.  Women need encouragement and support, from both men AND women.  So support  your local badass lady and help get her to the top.