Friday, December 7, 2012

Startup Girl Survival Guide

This is a guest post I wrote for VeloCity's guest blog. When Kim asked me to write about being a startup girl back in September, I wasn't awfully thrilled about the idea. There were many of themes that I was only beginning to come to term with, so it look a lot of thinking. By far this was the hardest blog posts I've ever written. (Yes, even harder than the blog post about Galois Theory.) You can also read the post at, and check out my startup Polychart when you're done! Enjoy!

It feels like I’m doing a disservice talking about being a startup girl. True, I’m one of the few female technical founders in the VeloCity program, and as a pure & applied math grad, a programmer, data scientist, entrepreneur and a go player, there are many facets of my life where I’ve felt a distinct lack of the double-x chromosome. Despite all of that, I was fortunate to have a very supportive (and female) programming teacher in high school, and really awesome co-op and VeloCity mentors. They helped me make it through without feeling like a startup girl is all that different from any other startup founders.

But are we really that different? We face the same challenges as anyone else, balancing between getting the product out, talking to users, innovating, shipping, selling, building, and marketing. We go through the same emotional roller coaster ride as everyone else.

I don’t think that we are really different. I do think, though, that there are challenges we face that our male counterparts do not. That’s what this guide is about, advice from one startup girl to another.

1. Be confident. Confidence is crucial for all startup founders, and especially key when you could be mistaken for the secretary or the supportive girlfriend who’s helping out her co-founder boyfriend. It should be your priority to take the lead to introduce yourself, and to take a more assertive role in conversations. Confidence building is very personal, but there are tools out there that can help, rejection therapy being a great one (that I haven’t, but should have, finished). Understanding the imposter syndrome helped me a lot personally.

2. Build a Reputation. Just by having a female name, women are perceived to be less competent. How, then, can we build trust and make sure we are heard? One solution for this is to build a reputation by being outspoken about your work. Keeping a blog is a great way of doing that. Writing about projects you’re working on, sharing insights, and contributing to the community gives people a chance to understand what you’re capable of. It also gives a chance for people you meet to do “background checks” on you, and see the best of your talents.

3. Find Mentors. Lack of mentors is a frequent complaint from women in technology. Entire blog posts have been written about why this is the case, and the most interesting one hypothesizes the following: older and more experienced men don’t want to be seen as the “dirty old man” that is helping a young woman for a less than altruistic reason. This is a difficult stereotype to overcome. One way around it is to join a program with a mentorship component. VeloCity is one, as are other incubators and accelerators.

4. Find Peers. I don’t necessarily mean being in a community of other startup girls, but I do find it important to be amongst peers — people who are in similar positions, with whom there is mutual respect. This should happen naturally as you gravitate towards people with similar interests, but in a male dominated industry, groups can be difficult to break into. Like in any situation, confidence is key. The culture of the group may change because you’re a female, but let your confidence and actions speak for themselves. As with all social groups there are always challenges to entry, look at this as an opportunity, not a problem.

5. Affirmative Action. There, I said the “A” words. I used to get very worked up about affirmative action and how unfair it is to men, and even pondered whether my team won the VVF because I am a startup girl. Not any more. While affirmative action programs are right in our faces, the subtle ways we are discouraged are not. It’s a fair compensation.

6. Don’t think about being a startup girl. If you look for discrimination, you’ll find it everywhere. As a startup girl, you’re better off spending the emotional energy on the startup itself.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that as a society, we need to understand and eliminate the extra barriers that prevent startup girls from succeeding. There are a number of characteristics that women must have that men don’t need to be successful in this business, and it’s not fair. For now though, I think the best way for women to be successful is to be confident, be relentless, and break through those barriers.