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.




Important Messages from Mary Robinson (a Rock Star on the Fight for Human Rights, Climate Change and Gender Equality)

By Ludovica Martella

Mary Robinson (right) with the co-founder of Company (left). Picture: Ludovica Martella

Mary Robinson (right) with the co-founder of Company (left). Picture: Ludovica Martella

On February 26th, Mary Robinson, former first female (!) president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner of Human Rights and UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, engaged in a conversation about her latest book, Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future, at Company, a space that hosts tech start ups, but also, conversations, like this one. Throughout this conversation, Robinson not only dug into the obstacles that she faced and overcame during her impressive career in human rights, but also gave important advice to individuals, companies and tech start-ups on how to tackle climate change solutions. Climate Justice is a story book about the injustice of climate change. Most often, climate change effects are more severe for women and poor developing countries and communities all over the world (the worst effects are seen in developing countries closer to the equator). The 11 short stories in the book are evidence of these injustices. They tell the stories of women (and men) tackling the conditions of the changing climate they live in which is truly inspirational.

First of all, it’s important to provide a bit of a background on this inspirational woman and her formative years. Mrs. Robinson opened the conversation at Company explaining how she became a human rights expert from a very young age. She grew up West Ireland, which is know to be the poorest part of Ireland, “in a household with four brothers, all younger than me, a very interesting human rights situation” she laughs. “At that time, women were supposed to know their place, EVEN THE CONSTITUTION placed the women in the home. My parents who were both medical doctors ASSURED ME that I had the same opportunities as my brothers”. Apart from the rage that many of us could have by reading the sad reality about discrimination against women embedded in the constitution, I’d like to focus for a second on the fact that Robinson’s parents encouraged her to believe that she was EQUAL, despite the law and despite what the general cultural circumstances of the time were. This is not a detail to undermine. More often than not, people who have a strong support system that includes their parents or the people who raised them, are more likely to survive societal pressures that automatically tries to put them in a box. This happens through a process that is called neuroplasticity, and the work of mirror neurons (because this is not a mental health/psychology post, I will keep it brief but I will link some interesting information about these). How does this work? As author Mark Matousek explains in his amazing book Ethical Wisdom, “the role of mirror neurons is to match up our inner reality with the world around us” aka, our brains’ “plastic” adjusts to the environment around us, continuously, but most strongly in children. This is a mechanism that is at the root of our moral beliefs and attitudes. So, would Mary Robinson not be Mary Robinson today if it weren’t for her parents? It’s honestly hard to tell because, honestly, she is pretty awesome. But neuroplasticity is a real thing. That said, let us continue.

Mary Robison engaging in the conversation on her book “Climate Justice”. Picture: Ludovica Martella

Mary Robison engaging in the conversation on her book “Climate Justice”. Picture: Ludovica Martella

Similarly to what we are experiencing nowadays during this sad part of history, Robinson grew up during a wave of global violence. In 1967 she was a young law student at Harvard. Despite the terrible currents of violence of those times, Robinson recognizes that many of her contemporaries were starting to speak out, of all things, about the immoral Vietnam War. As a result, many of them were killed because of their civil rights work. “In April of that same year, Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated, and just after not long, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.” She claims that “desperate times bring the best out of people. Young people were doing great things, they were taking leadership and making a difference.” As she makes this point, she takes a moment to praise the young students in the US who are mobilizing for climate justice and who are organizing a major walk out of schools around the country on March 15th 2019. Mary was brave herself. After she graduated from Harvard Law School she went back to Ireland and started teaching and practicing law with this new activist wave as her motivating force. Through a combination of things, she ended up getting elected to the senate at the age of 25 (mainly because her elderly professors didn’t want to take the lead and push for radical ideas themselves). Between the many topics she had at hearth, she called for the legalization of family planning because women in Ireland at the time couldn’t use contraceptives unless they had a medical note stating they needed them to regulate their menstrual cycle. Despite getting numerous hate mail and being “barely able to walk down the street,” while having her bill called by the Bishop of Ireland “a curse on the country,” Robinson kept on going because change, in her eyes, was the only option. One of her favorite quotes from former UN Secretary general Kofi Annan is (rest in peace,) “you are never too young to lead, you are never too old to learn”. Amen.

Fast-forward through her presidency and to her role of Human Rights Commissioner of the UN, she realized the incredible connection between human rights and climate justice. This was only after her five-year term had ended. At this stage, she created a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Realizing Rights out of her frustration for the still very apparent lack of human rights around the world. The mission behind this organization was to support the ability of African countries to build capacity to provide basic human rights to their populations. This includes holding governments accountable for providing things such as health, sanitation, food, water, education and shelter. During her time in Africa, in 2002, she kept hearing laments from people there about the climatic conditions worsening. She recalls speaking to a climate-wise woman from a small village in Uganda who said “we thought God was punishing us, and then I learned, no it wasn’t God, it was the lives of rich people.” The greenhouse gasses  (GHGs) produced by developed countries for the purpose of industry and luxury were having devastating repercussions on her village. “That brought me to be aware of the injustice of climate change. (Climate change) is disproportionately affecting the poorest countries and the poorest communities” even if it is the richer countries who are majorly contributing to the mess. And obviously, poor communities in climate-delicate areas here in the US are being affected as well.

So, should we conceptualize the issue of climate change as a civil rights issue or keep it purely scientific? “It’s not either or” answered Robinson. “We have to try and make the discourse on climate change and climate justice people centered,” because the decline of our environment has increasing negative repercussions on humans as well. Sometimes people seem to not understand that until they are directly affected by it. Robinson concluded that what we should do is to take the climate problem to a personal level. Whether that means avoiding single use plastic and bringing your reusable bottle or/and mug everywhere (you can save money and even get discounts at some cafes if you ask them to use your bottle) or changing your diet to one with less or no animal products, for starters. (There is a wonderful tool by the BBC where you can track the green house emission of the food we consume, here). Also, she invites individuals to get angry with those who have the power to make change and are not doing their best to take action. For businesses and especially for tech, she invites them to think about the world we envision for ourselves.

The cover of the book by Mary Robinson. Picture: Ludovica Martella

The cover of the book by Mary Robinson. Picture: Ludovica Martella

Mary Robinson’s book Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future is a fast read and a small book that won’t add significant weight to your bag. I advise you to give it a read since it tells stories from people around the world that can be truly inspirational and give you a wider vision on the realities of climate change and how we can act on them.