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GHC15: Lead the C-Suite: Women Entrepreneurs

The theme of this year’s conference if “Our Time to Build” which Danielle Strachman said was perfect for female entrepreneurs.

The panel of four women introduced themselves:

Danielle Strachman
Shea Tate-Di Donna
Linda Maepa
Elissa Shevinsky
Marcella Jewell (unable to attend)

Elissa’s Story:
Elissa got started coding in 1997 and joined her first startup in 1999.  She made a commitment to herself that she would never be tethered to her desk of tied to a company that lacked agency.  In short, she wanted to make things happened, and so she started her only company.Her mother said she had never seen anyone fail up quite as successfully as she as.

Linda’s Story
Linda’s first computer was an Atari.  When she showed up at Cal Tech, she got really burned out.  After she graduated, she moved into IT and Management consulting.  When Linda had her first child, she ran into some problems–specifically, severe postpartum depression.  In an effort to help herself, she started her own company.  Linda admits that that isn’t the solution for everyone, but it gave her focus.  She worked on products with her hands and it was really therapeutic.  Linda listed off a few failed ventures, including a company that didn’t survive the dot-com bust and something about the US Navy having a problem with things in Hawaii.

Shea’s Story:
Shea explains that she wasn’t thrilled with the idea of following an expected path, becoming a stay at home mom, teacher or a nurse.  Shea went to college, and eventually started working in finance.  When she moved to Boston, and after her second winter in Boston took off to San Francisco and worked in high tech venture capitalism.  Back in 2005, she wasn’t seeing the entrepreneur-friendly environment that we’re seeing today.  She eventually realized that she wanted to start her on business, Zana, to focus her work on helping start-ups succeed.

How do you know when to start a company or an organization?

Elissa – She advises that you should start when you really want to, when you feel something in your heart and you’re willing to take the risks.  Your company doesn’t need to be a multi-million dollar business to mean something to you.

Questions she asks:
– Is the problem I want to solve something I need to be in a large company for?
– Is it necessary for me to have the data access or resources of a large company?

Linda – Linda really likes to work on things with a huge impact.  That’s why she’s in energy.  If it has a big enough impact, that is something Linda knows she’s ready to go.

Shea – She doesn’t think of entrepreneurs only as founders.  Shea thinks that you can be a founder of something within a larger company, etc.  It isn’t necessary to go out and receive funding to be considered an entrepreneur,

What were some pieces of advise when you were just getting started?

Shea – When she was in VC she didn’t give advise directly because she was waiting for the magic to happen.  She viewed herself as the facilitator of making the connections happen.

How has the concept of women changed?

Elissa “Leaned Out” a lot in her twenties even if it was a rocket ship company.  She felt like she didn’t have a strong enough sense of what she wanted in her career.  This is a counter point to “Leaning In” or accommodating a man’s world.  Elissa reached a point where she wasn’t okay accommodating anyone else, and needed to step back and bring happiness into her own life.

Elissa explained that Sheryl Sandberg talked in last night’s keynote about staying in the industry for future women, but what if it’s killing you?  She doesn’t want to be the only woman in the boardroom grimacing at the culture.

That’s why Elissa makes her own companies where she can hire who she wants and creates the culture that she wants.

What has changed in the industry?  What needs change?

Linda thanks Ellen Pao.  She’s glad to see male VC’s opening themselves up to criticism and releasing diversity numbers.  Linda advocates for an honest dialog, and she believes that women have been very vocal as entrepreneurs.  Over time, Linda thinks the problem is and will continue to get better.

Shea says she things we need change.  Shea talked about the whisper network.  People talk offline, and Shea also thanked Ellen Pao for speaking openly.

Do you recommend working for someone else before starting your own thing?

Elissa feels strongly that working at a startup that is doing things right can be really useful.  She’s seen people who haven’t worked before starting companies, and she sees that as a bigger risk.  Elissa believes that you improve your chances of success by starting somewhere else first.  You’re more likely to be successful by working before, but if you have a high risk tolerance, diving in and messing up can also work.

Linda explains that sometimes you need to take some time to get to know customers.  She likes to get hands-on experience so that she can understand the problem better.  She’s constantly learning.

Do you have mentors, and if so, how did you find them?

Shea says that she has definitely had mentors, male and female, who were important in her career.  She believes that sponsorship is more important.

Elissa has so man mentors and she attributes her success to their sponsorship.  Elissa did the best job she could do at her level and it brought mentors to her.  She talked of a mentor who sponsored and cheerleader-ed her at a time when she needed it.  She’ll often approach people in higher positions than her with things that she can do for them.  Let people know what you’re looking for introductions.

What are your thoughts and ideas on starting a venture in something they don’t have an expertise in?

Danielle spoke about how it’s about building up a great team and to just be willing to put one foot in front of the other. She opened a school an had no background in education.  She was able to lean on the credibility of a friend with experience in education.  Have a great team.

Linda says she asks the question: “Why do you want to do this?” and focusing on the story, and what you’re trying to do will help you overcome what you can’t do.

Can you talk about startup ideas that you approached but chose not to pursue?

Elissa talked about a data website e-mail filter that would filter out inappropriate or unwanted e-mails  (Grammar is important.)  When Elissa started she had a passion for on-line dating, but realized that the endgame would be getting acquired by a company whose  values she did not agree with.  She had VC money and shut down the company because the criteria for success was not good.  She transformed the company into tackling another program.

Shea brought up ideas that already exists.  For example, clean drinking water is a popular problem to try to fix.  A lot of clean drinking water pumps break after a year–that’s the problem to solve.

How do you find the right team?

Linda takes a long time cultivating relationships.  She keeps people and friends around who she knows will be great in a certain type of company sometime in the future.  She takes time when networking to understand people.  The important thing is to cultivate knowing people.

Elissa has a beef with having to have a co-founder.  Co-founder drama and issues can really break up companies.  She owns all of the equity.  She has a partner with 15% of shares who is involved, but believes a single leader makes the company more stable.  You want it to be a stable relationship.  You need to have similar expectations of how ambitious you are.

Shea says that the right team is a fluid concept.  Shea agrees that co-founders can be difficult and has seen this happen.

How do you balance being a mother and doing everything?

Shea says, “Do it.”  If you need to do it part time, do it part time.  There is not one right formula.

Th women talked about how you can set an example for your children to follow.

What are the take aways form today?

If you see a problem, don’t just let it sit there.  Let it be the change.  You can too lead the C-Suite.

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This post was syndicated from Tech Girl Solutions: Finding the Female Engineer.