women tech experts discuss succeeding as an entrepreneur

By Ludovica Martella

Matt Harrigan (left) co-founder and CEO of Company and Alexi Nazem (right) with co-founder and CEO of Nomad open the event. Picture: Nick Weinberg

Matt Harrigan (left) co-founder and CEO of Company and Alexi Nazem (right) with co-founder and CEO of Nomad open the event. Picture: Nick Weinberg

A shorter version of this article can be found through Company’s blog

On March 14, 2019, the event “Leading & Succeeding: Women in Tech” took place at Company. The event was co-hosted with Nomad Health, one of the companies curated by the former, which specializes on creating a marketplace for clinical work. Its co-founder and CEO, Alexi Nazem, introduced the panel for the night, which included three of the most successful women in tech: Shan-Lyn Ma, CEO of Zola, Alexandria Stried, CPO of Ellevest, Inc., Hayley Barna, Partner at First Round Capital, and former co-founder and co-CEO of Birchbox, and to the pleasant surprise of the audience, the host of the event, renown journalist Susie Gharib, Alexi’s mom. If for some of the audience the environment of the event didn’t feel like a family yet, it most definitely did now.

In fact, the events at Company feel exactly like that. People can come in advance and network while enjoying some refreshments, but most of all, of course, their company (you see what I did here?). The environment reflects exactly what co-founder and CEO of Company, Matt Harrigan, explained while introducing Alexi, “at Company, we believe that people that you surround your self with, are key to your success”. The space was a full house, and to my surprise, despite the topic of the night mainly involved women, the audience seemed to be filled by as many men as women. The conversation resulted in a very informational session on how women can be successful entrepreneurs in the field of tech and how men can support them. 

The engaged audience at Company’s events plays a key role in the conversations. Picture: Nick Weinberg

The engaged audience at Company’s events plays a key role in the conversations. Picture: Nick Weinberg

First of all, how do you become a successful woman entrepreneur? “No career path is perfect”

For your idea to be successful, you don’t have to know it all from the start. “Every step along the way came as a surprise to me” reassured Hayley Barna, when addressing the young women who often ask her how she had her success with Birchbox and then career as a venture capitalist, all planned out. The secret is, she didn’t. She just followed the opportunities that arose. In fact, Hayley started her career by working as a consultant, which “gave her the tool kit to start her business”. She later co-founded Birchbox as an outsider of the beauty industry, as she describes herself growing up as a tomboy. With her co-founder she found a way to package this experience in an “innovative shopping way-to-find beauty online”. Then, after six years since the launch of Birchbox she decided she “wanted to help other people create innovative experiences and business models” and followed the path of venture capitalist. 

 Both Shan-Lyn and Alexandria, also didn’t have a clear career path from the start. Shan-Lyn grew up in Australia, where she had no connections to the big tech companies of Silicon Valley, which she dreamt about. She took the courageous step of moving to California and found the opportunity to intern with Yahoo!, where she “learned to go above and beyond what everyone else was doing, and to do what needed to be done even though” she “wasn’t always told to do it”. After this incredible experience she decided she wanted to work in a smaller company and have a larger impact on people’s lives, which brought her to move to New York. There she joined the online retailer company Gilt Groupe, whose founder, Kevin Ryan, encouraged her to her later success. Alexandria terminated her career as a professional ballet dancer after undergraduate school, enrolled in a masters’ degree, ended up interning at Weight Watchers (WW) and became one of her most successful employees on the Product team. Around the time she was thinking about moving on, “I got a LinkedIn message from a recruiter which was actually very sketchy because it mentioned these two high-up people in finance, but wouldn’t mention their names, who thought I would be perfect for their new company. I have no background in finance but I didn’t want an opportunity to go by, so I called him”. Today, Alexandria is glad she took that step and left her secure job at WW to take the risk of joining the startup Ellevest, Inc. a financial investing platform for women. The takeaway of this is: never turn your back on potential opportunities, even if you might receive them in a sketchy LinkedIn message. Give it a chance (but be careful of course!)

The reality is that no process will be perfect and it is ok to explore and learn along the way, which may include failures.

(From left to right) Alexandria Stried, Shan-Lyn Ma, Hayley Barna and Susie Gharib. Picture: Nick Weinberg

(From left to right) Alexandria Stried, Shan-Lyn Ma, Hayley Barna and Susie Gharib. Picture: Nick Weinberg

Role models, Mentors and Sponsors. “I don’t think I would have ever became a founder if there weren’t female role models that showed me I could do it too” 

“I don’t think I would have ever became a founder if there weren’t female role models that showed me I could do it too” Hayley explained. She highlighted the importance of establishing relationships with people who you can call or meet for coffee, when an issue arises. For Shan-Lyn it was her boss Kevin, who, when she suggested she might have a good idea for a product, he said, “don’t wait too long to share it, don’t wait until it’s perfect, just come to me”. So she did and then kept on working on it along the way. Kevin acted as a sponsor, meaning, “someone who supports you even when you are not in the room,” as Alexandria put it. In fact, before Shan-Lyn knew it, Kevin had spoken to the board about Shan-Lyn’s idea and called her up to ask her to start realizing it. That is how she became the Creator and General Manager of Gilt Taste, the brand’s food and wine division. It’s crucial to surround yourself with people who support you.

Gaining confidence in your startup idea. “As women, we tend to shy away from negative feedback because we want to be perfect, but we don’t have to be”.

The key of coming up with a successful idea for a new business is to first ask yourself if you really believe in your cause. Once you believe it, ask yourself, “do I want to be investing the next 7 to 10 years of my life in this?” Shan-Lyn explained. If the answer is yes, “talk to everyone about it” Hayley said. The more you put your idea out there, the more feedback you will get. Curiously enough, Alexandria seeks negative feedback all the time. “As women, we tend to shy away from negative feedback because we want to be perfect, but we don’t have to be. The only way you can grow up professionally is to ask people what you could better next time. I would also ask myself when I came back home every day, how did I do today? And really reflect on that so I can make better decisions and get better at my craft”. As Hayley put it, “ask yourself, what is the worse it could happen?” 

Family and work: yes, we can do it all (but “make sure you pick the right partner”)

Of course, as women, we get this question a lot. How do you balance the private life with work, especially as an entrepreneur? “In my late 20s I was very focused on my career and not on who I wanted to marry and only later I realized, the person that I marry could enable my career success!” exclaimed Hayley. Thankfully though, she is happy to report that she did choose a good partner, with whom she can share responsibilities. The latter is key, confirmed Alexandria, who also has a young daughter. Additionally, asking for help, (something else that women tend to stay away from), even if it means hiring someone, it is necessary for both you and your partner. (This is why we need equal parental leave! Just look at how well the Scandinavian countries are doing on the quality of life indexes. But I digress.)

Role of men in supporting women rinsing in tech (or any other industry)

 Making sure you share equal responsibilities with your partner in the household is not the only way men can support female entrepreneurs. In the work environment, men can do loads too. For instance, “in meetings, giving credit to the ideas of women without letting other men taking credit for it,” which is something that happens often, even if we only base it on the raise of hands of the women in the room who said they experienced it. In general, it is the responsibility of men in leadership roles to believe in gender equality and act on that belief. According to Hayley, “if this is one of the core values of the company, recruiters should make it clear in the job descriptions and in the recruiting process.” Only this way, can a company can have a fair balance of men and women.  

What to do when talking to investors? What if you are a woman addressing a group of men?

According to Shan-Lyn, whether you are men or a woman, you should be ready to answer these three questions:

1.     Why you, and what is your story? 

2.     Why now?

3.     How is your proposal going to be a multi-billion dollars category-defining project?

In the case you are addressing a group of men, Alexandria suggests to base it on the research in order to really make your point. To which Hayley added, “if it is a product for women, make a comparison with something that would appeal to men and can grasp their attention”.

The three panelists concluded the discussion with a few pieces of advice:

1.     Go outside of your comfort zone and do something “scary” every day. If that means wanting to pick up an extra project because you might want to switch to a different job, do it! You will start feeling comfortable with the uncomfortable.

2.     Figure out who you want to be, figure out who is doing it, and learn from them. 

3.     Don’t compare what you do behind the scenes with that of someone else. Stop comparing yourself. Do your own thing.

A lot of info, right? Because of the density of topics that need to discussed in order to perpetuate girls and women in STEM, Company and Nomad Health might transform these kind of events in a series. For more information you can always visit Company’s site.