By Charu Sharma
Guest blogger Charu Sharma is the editor of Go Against the Flow: Women, Entrepreneurship, and Success. She grew up in Mumbai and went on to study Economics and Physics at Mount Holyoke College in USA on a scholarship; she holds business certificates from Stanford and Dartmouth. She organized TEDxRiverNorth in Chicago, and she has spoken at two TEDx conferences on risk-taking and entrepreneurship respectively. Charu holds black-belts in Karate and Taekwondo and she has penned a travel memoir Far From Shore.
Before getting recruited by LinkedIn, I built two startups from my dorm room at Mount Holyoke College. I realized that really smart young women around me were overlooking their passions and instead seeking traditional career paths in consulting and finance, for example. These were talented women, some with great business ideas, who just did not know another option.
To help solve this, I brought together audacious female entrepreneurs and we launched the Go Against the Flow movement, and through a book, documentary film and Huffington Post interview series set out to inspire other millennial women to build their own startup companies and create economic opportunities. By telling the success stories of women entrepreneurs who have made it, my goal is to provide young women with the resources and access to mentorship to go against the flow and take the plunge in building their own businesses.
So, how do you set yourself up for success, and break into the boys’ club of entrepreneurship?
- Take a deep breath, and just do it. You have identified a gap to fill in the market, validated your business idea with a few friends, brainstormed a couple of revenue models.. but you’re still waiting for the right time? At some point, you just have to take a deep breath and take the plunge. As LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman puts it, “Starting a company is like throwing yourself off the cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down.. You’ll find plenty of people on your journey to help you put together a plane that flies, before you hit the ground.”
Meredith Perry, 27, is a good example of how being disagreeable pays off. She is an entrepreneur who is making waves in Silicon Valley. Five years ago, she walked into her college classroom with a dead laptop and no charger, and wondered: if we can use the internet on our devices wirelessly, why can’t we charge our devices wirelessly? She didn’t just wonder this and move on. She acted on it, and saw her idea through. This is how innovation happens.
So, step one is to get started.
- Do it anyway. No doubt, you’ll face rejection at every step, because you want build something that doesn’t exist yet, which is kinda cool! In a corporate job or in student life, if you take certain right steps, then you succeed. In a startup, there are no “right” steps. You’ll get mixed opinions and you’ll have to believe in yourself to decide what to do and when to do it. YOU are going to be your biggest advocate. So, don’t be afraid to disagree with the feedback you get.
Of course, when Meredith Perry was getting off the ground, there were naysayers. At first, experts and investors deemed Meredith’s idea impossible, but she chose to be disagreeable. She didn’t ask, “Can I do this?” She asked, “How can I do this?” She didn’t even have an engineering background, but she did have Google! Despite all the naysaying, she hustled, researched online, and put together a prototype by collaborating with people who could dare to be innovative. Through persistence, and by earning supporters in entrepreneurial people, Meredith found investors in Andreessen Horowitz, Peter Thiel, and Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having the right people on your team, and this brings us to the golden rule I live my life by:
- Invest in relationships early. I often remind myself of the words of John Lily: “One of the best pieces of advice I ever got, back when I was 23 and newly out of school, is this: look around and figure out who you want to work with for the rest of your life. Figure out the people who are smart and awesome, who share your values, who get things done — and maybe most important, who you like to be with and who you want to help win. And treat them right, always. Look for ways to help, to work together, to learn. Because in 20 years you’ll all be in amazing places doing amazing things.”
When I started Intervyou.me, an online interview preparation platform, I first recruited people I had met in various previous contexts. Some were friends from school with whom I had worked on projects, others I knew from internships. In fact, the first programmer I hired was someone I had met at an airport and talked about religion and philosophy with. When I met her, I knew she was someone who thought deeply about the issues she cared about and had similar interests as I did, but it wasn’t until after that I connected with her to help me on my project. When the time came to build an app that would connect young people to seasoned interviewers, I thought immediately of her because she was not only skilled, but also someone I wanted to grow with and see succeed. One thing led to another, and we soon became a team of seven and started winning entrepreneurship competitions. All this to say, meet new people everyday. You never know when you’ll meet your next business partner.
- Find female mentors you identify with and want to be like. Ilene Lang of Catalyst says that women go through a Goldilocks Syndrome: either you’re nurturing, nice, supportive and, hence, incompetent, OR you’re a strong leader and, hence, unlikable or even “bitchy”. Young women care a lot about being liked. We care too much about what people think, especially what men think. Sheryl Sandberg talked about this in her TED talk. Nobody gets up in the morning and says, “today I will go to work and discriminate against a woman.” But lots of decisions get made based on the goldilocks syndrome.=
Many women today have been able to successfully counter the goldilocks syndrome and juggle a family and a career. Family dynamics are changing, and younger women can learn from the struggles of women who came before them. Having a strong female mentor to guide you through the male-dominated field of tech is essential to creating the lifestyle that suits you, without having to sacrifice your career or your family.
- When in doubt, ask for more. Whether it be fundraising, negotiating for salary, commanding authority, women have been conditioned to pay our dues before we feel that we have earned the right to ask for more. Christina Wallace put it well: A woman will think that she needs a Ph.D, needs to have served in the military, and needs know foreign policy and constitutional law like the back of her hand before even filling out a form, but a man will think “Oh, I’m a citizen somewhere, I can run for office!”
Every year for the last thirty years, more women than men have graduated from college. Women are entering the workforce in equal numbers than men, but women still:
- Run only 4% of Fortune 500 companies
- Make up only 18% of all start-up founders
- Earn 79% of their male counterparts
- Receive less than 10% of venture capital funding
- Only 2 % of women owned firms generate more than a million dollars
Women are starting their own businesses, but not securing as much capital, and this prevents them from being competitive in the marketplace. Studies show that women start with 1/26th startup capital as compared to their male counterparts. Women tend to undervalue their own companies, and even when they start generating revenue, they’ll think that they’re an early stage venture.
As an entrepreneur, you are going to be your biggest advocate. So, have the courage to ask for more! As LinkedIn’s Engineering Director Sarah Clatterbuck says, “Remember: you rarely get what you don’t ask for.”
40 years ago, not just any 22-year-old with a dead laptop and no charger could be an entrepreneur. But times have changed. Our generation has incredible privilege and powerful resources to leverage technology to solve challenging problems, to make the world a healthier, happier, more connected, and more productive place.
So, the next time you wish there was an app to find a parking spot, or to make your crush fall in love with you, or that there was a system to allow everyone to go to college despite their financial circumstances, act on it. Be bold, be self-confident, be unafraid to ask for support. Be an entrepreneur.