30 Sep 5 Female Founders Agree: A Learning Curve is Never a Reason to Quit
By Karlie Frank
On Tuesday, September 27, LaunchSquad partnered with Microsoft to host Boston’s top female leaders in the innovation economy at our 4th annual Women in Innovation Story Slam. Five inspiring women shared their personal “Aha moments,” times of realization and discovery in their careers.
The common thread throughout the night? If you’re facing a steep learning curve, don’t let it stop you from succeeding. When faced with a challenge, be it a language barrier or the opportunity to quit a job and start a company, these women closed their eyes, hoped for the best and dove in. And the payoff has been huge.
Below are five of the “aha moments” that left lasting impressions for the audience.
Learning a new language
Yuly Fuentes-Mendel was born and raised in Chile, with a passion for science. When she moved with her boyfriend to Boston, she was stunned by the language barrier. This may seem silly, but growing up, all of the American movies she watched were translated to Spanish, leading her to believe all Americans spoke Spanish – including Brad Pitt! So now, she had to learn English in a new country, where she didn’t know anyone. But because she had to, she did, all while earning her PhD in biomedical sciences from the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Her next challenge was learning yet another language in her postdoctoral program at MIT Sloan School: the language of business. Everyone saw her as the scientist in the room, but she didn’t let this judgement stop her from absorbing everything she could to learn what it takes to run a business.
After attending a friend’s graduation from fashion design school, Yuly decided she would learn a third language, one she found to be universal: fashion. It dawned on her that everyone can relate to getting dressed in the morning, and forming their own personal style, no matter what language they spoke. Her passion for design grew, and she founded DeScience, a collaboration between designers and scientists that brings research to the runway.
Taking the plunge
Tanya Bakalov, a native of Bulgaria, has faced an ever-growing list of challenges. She always knew she wanted to go to college in the States, so she studied hard to gain admittance to one of the only English schools in Bulgaria. Cue more studying, this time for the SAT and other American college entry requirements, until she was finally rewarded with admission to the University of Delaware. Of course she didn’t know anyone, but learned to navigate the new cultural norms, along with all of the other tasks associated with moving to a new country, like buying a car and getting her license.
She excelled in her accounting studies and received an offer to be an IT auditor at Deloitte after graduation, where she had to become an expert on rack servers and mainframe network security – things she has never even heard of before. But she tackled it, and even earned herself the nickname “bulldog,” for her fierceness and her knowledge. The next unknown for Tanya came when her husband quit his job and asked her to join him in starting a company, SevOne, as head of sales. SevOne provides digital infrastructure management – another area Tanya had no experience with. But she rolled up her sleeves, bought a “sales book for dummies,” and cold called day in, and day out. As if cold calling isn’t nerve-wracking enough, she had no contacts or rolodex to start from. She found a website that allowed her to purchase phone numbers, and started there. To her, this outreach was even more terrifying than learning about IT, but she knew a good challenge when she saw one, and took it on head-on. She has never had an easy path, but she never ever quits.
Hiring (and firing) a team
Melissa James was the first person in her family to go to college, a daunting task with an even more daunting price tag. She didn’t let this stop her, paying for her education by working two jobs. When it came time to find a full-time job, she interviewed at startup Sample6, working to improve food safety through pathogen control. Not exactly her area of expertise, and given the coldness of her interviewer, she wasn’t so sure about taking the job. But she knew it was an opportunity to grow, so she did, and came across many more “firsts” because of it. She was put in charge of hiring, and when she told her manager she’d never done this before, his response was, “So what?” She did her research, and proceeded to lead hiring efforts at the company during a period of massive growth, which also meant firing people 15 years her senior at times. This took resilience and confidence in the face of responsibilities she’d never had before.
When she got a call from Google about a year later to come to California and join their recruiting team, she knew she had to take the leap, though she didn’t have any experience with software recruiting. This role ended up leading her to one of the biggest “aha” moments of her life, when she realized her true passion was helping minority candidates prepare for technical interviews, after seeing some promising candidates fail during Google’s process. Now, she runs The Tech Connection to help Boston’s diverse workforce do just that.
Competing against the big guys
Jules Pieri is used to bucking the trend. She was the first girl to wear pants to her school in Detroit, the first in her family to go to college, and the first industrial designer to attend Harvard Business School. You may think Jules has never been told “no” in her life, but you’d be wrong. She faced a lot of rejection. The most transformative “no” she got was while working at Playskool. She was discouraged by the number of amazing toys that were discarded, just because the big toy companies didn’t want to sell them. So she did what she’s always done. She prepared to change the status quo, only this time, she was up against giants like Target, Kmart, Walmart and Toy R Us. She knew it would be tough, but she also knew she had a great idea. There was a true need for more of these unique consumer products to get in the hands of more people. So she took the plunge and started The Grommet, an online marketplace for unlaunched products. The first four years of starting this company were admittedly the toughest of her life – her mom had just passed and she was keeping the company alive on fumes. That’s because The Grommet launched in 2007, right before the market crashed and one of America’s worst recessions began, making it near impossible to raise VC funding. But she soldiered on, motivated by her passion, and turned it into the thriving marketplace it is today.
Stepping up to the plate
Elizabeth Lawler realized her biggest “aha” moments have gone hand in hand with risk-taking. A data scientist and epidemiologist by training, not to mention a faculty member at Harvard Medical School and Boston College, she took the calculated risk of leaving those positions to start Conjur, an enterprise security platform, with her husband. As CEO, she was doing something she’d never done before – building a business. It wasn’t until three years into this position that she realized she wasn’t actually taking the risks needed to lead the company, she was deferring to others. She had to learn how to become the sole figurehead for the business, even if it was something she’d never done before.
The big takeaway: Don’t be afraid to dive into a challenge. And if you fail, take the advice of Elizabeth’s mentor, who also happens to be a rugby coach – brush your knees off and get back on the field. Do it again, until you get it right. That’s how you grow as an individual, and make something special.
For more from the panel and this week’s activities, check out #HUBWeek on Twitter. You can also follow each of these inspirational female founders – @ElizabethLawler, @MissJames126, @tanyabakalov, @ValueofScience and @julespieri.