How to Leapfrog to Entrepreneurial Success

Photo credit Tanya Malott

As published on LinkedIn Influencers on September 4th, 2018.

I met the amazing Nathalie Molina Niño a couple of years ago when a mutual friend made an introduction, and we immediately bonded over our shared passion for supporting women entrepreneurs. This passion led Nathalie to found BRAVA Investments in 2016, a company that invests in start-ups that disproportionately benefit women. Their goal is not to create the next billionaire woman, but rather, BRAVA aims to put more wealth into the pockets of as many women as possible, and to this end, Nathalie has a pragmatic, no-nonsense insistence on results. In fact, BRAVA goes so far as to define the kind of investing they do as “outcomes over optics” rather than impact, which can mean so many things to different people. For Nathalie, it is all about real, measurable results.

Needless to say, Nathalie and I hit it off immediately, and I recently became a member of the leadership council at the Athena Center for Leadership studies at Barnard College, of which she is also a member. Nathalie also co-founded [email protected] in 2012 with the express purpose of supporting the next generation of women entrepreneurs. When my daughter Allie was going through the college application process last year, this program was one that really stood out for her as a true differentiator for Barnard. There are countless studies that show that the deck is stacked against women entrepreneurs from the outset, so I’m happy to support any initiative that is working to level the playing field. Which bring us to last week, when Nathalie released her first book for women entrepreneurs, and one which I was eagerly awaiting.

LEAPFROG: The New Revolution for Women Entrepreneurs is the result of Nathalie’s over 20 years of experience working with start-ups. In fact, Nathalie launched her first tech start-up when she was just 20 years old, and in the years since she has grown multiple companies into $100M+ operations. Along the way she’s picked up numerous hacks for entrepreneurs to get ahead, which is exactly what LEAPFROG is all about. This book is packed with wisdom from her 20 years in startups, as well as interviews with nearly 50 amazing entrepreneurs who share real, pragmatic hacks for growing businesses that they themselves used on their own paths to success. After reading LEAPFROG, I had some questions for Nathalie, which she graciously took the time to answer. If you are as inspired as I was after reading her answers below, be sure to pick up your own copy and leapfrog away! As an active angle investor with over ten portfolio companies, you can be sure I will be sharing this book with all of their founders.

Jacki Zehner: You are quick to dispel the notion that leapfrog hacks aren’t cheating, but rather advantages that everyone can and should use when the system is already stacked against them. Why do you think people have such a negative reaction to the idea of taking ethical shortcuts when (as you point out) successful entrepreneurs do it all the time?

Nathalie Molina Niño: Women and men of color have good reason to worry about not doing things exactly by the book. We have a history of being intentionally locked out for any variation from the norm and let’s be honest, some of that idiocy is still happening, just look at this example from recent headlines in Japan. As a result, we put pressure on ourselves (and our kids) to be perfect and follow the rules. We worry about being singled out as the “affirmative action” candidate, of people thinking we’re only in the room because of our race or gender and not on merit. Those fears are not unfounded. But the way we win is to get beyond that and understand that what got us here isn’t going to help us where we’re going next. Anyone who has achieved success did it by taking some short cut, even if they don’t realize it. Being born in the right neighborhood is a shortcut when you consider what your prospects are, statistically speaking, when compared to someone born in the south side of Chicago. Luck is a shortcut too. As underrepresented communities, we – more than anyone else – need to use every shortcut we can possibly learn about because we have ground to make up. The World Economic Forum says that it will take 170 years to get to gender parity at the rate we’re going. That’s unacceptable, I’m sure everyone will agree. So, however uncomfortable it might make us, we owe it to the next generation to find every hack we can for winning at business, faster, cheaper, and more efficiently than anyone who came before us!

JZ: You return over and over again to the importance of storytelling throughout the book. Why do you think this is such an overlooked aspect of entrepreneurship?

NMM: I don’t think it is, I just think we call it different things and make it all seem magical and unattainable, which serves no one but those already in power and circles of high influence. We call it charm, we say someone is a natural born salesperson, we say a leader is charismatic. When the truth is that the thing that these people all have are just storytelling skills. I think de-mystifying that is important because it’s not magic; it’s a skill that you can develop and a muscle that simply needs to be exercised and often. Making something teachable into something magical only serves to alienate, and it’s time to put an end to that tired, old entrepreneurship culture. Storytelling is one of the most important skills in business and what’s great is that it’s eminently learnable.

JZ: One thing that I love about this book is that even though the hacks are organized consecutively for the process of starting and growing a business, you don’t offer a detailed step by step guide on how to start a successful business. Was this a conscious decision on your part to encourage readers to think outside the book and recognize that there is no one size fits all business model? What would you say to readers looking for easy answers and who might be frustrated with this approach?

NMM: Yes! It’s also the reason the book is launching as a paperback first. I wanted the book to be as hardworking and scrappy as your typical woman entrepreneur. Not fancy, not lofty, but practical and easy to jump into from the front, middle, or end. The kind of book you don’t think twice about scribbling in the margins of, the sort of book you’ll roll up and throw in your diaper bag without a care in the world. I end the book with a quote from poet and writer Yrsa Daley-Ward, “My destiny is louder than my comfort,” which is probably my best answer to anyone who finds the structure a little unorthodox. Starting and growing your own business will never be linear, the way most business books are written. If anything, I wrote the book because after 20 years at it, it was clear to me that most business books don’t reflect the messy, flexible, and far more artful ways that real businesses are built. I wanted to be sure LEAPFROG provided the tools to pave your own path, and the confidence to know that your way is just as good as any!

JZ: So many of these hacks seem counterintuitive at first glance, but once explained they’re so ingenious and you have to wonder why they are not the current status quo. Where are all these misconceptions in business coming from? Are they simply holdovers from an older system that no longer apply? Or is something else at play?

NMM: Yes, definitely something else is at play! I think hacks like these are the reality for most women entrepreneurs, because we’ve had to learn to be ingenious with limited resources. The problem is our stories aren’t being told, and our strategies for surviving against all odds have been relegated to the margins rather than celebrated and normalized. The legendary Marie Wilson, the founder of the White House Project, Take Your Daughters To Work Day, and the longtime head of the MS Foundation founded by Gloria Steinem, who developed some of the very early programs to seed and support women entrepreneurs in the US, said this after reading LEAPFROG, “It feels so familiar to me and the choices I made. It reminded me of the people who didn’t understand the leaps you could make, those who predicted failure and the times when I doubted myself, and much more. I’m grateful for a book that authorizes those decisions, even in retrospect.” I could have written a book of hacks based entirely on my own experience, and it would have positioned me as exceptional and as a thought leader. But I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew that there was wisdom and scrappy entrepreneurial genius all around me, and that’s why LEAPFROG is primarily packed with the stories of entrepreneurs I love and ideas that might seem unorthodox at first. But I hope they take hold and help redefine the tired old dominant startup narratives that rarely reflect women’s experiences.

JZ: I love your emphasis on social entrepreneurship, because as you discuss, any business can have social impact on their community or the world at large. With all of your experience in this area, why do you think women are uniquely suited for social entrepreneurship?

NMM: Frankly I don’t necessarily think they are! I think women are uniquely suited for any kind of business, and the data backs that. But I think that the times we live in demand of us a higher calling, one that uses business as a vehicle for social change and economic justice. So for me, it’s more of a higher calling, a hope and deep wish for us to join forces and use business to solve the intractable problems of our generation. I also think that to galvanize and mobilize anyone, you have to inspire them with something bigger than a pay check. People don’t work for money, people work for things they believe in. And starting and growing a company is hard work. So my hope is that the more we equate growing our businesses with growing our impact on the world, the more brilliant entrepreneurial women will step up and answer my call to play big!

JZ: The lessons from this book can benefit anyone looking to start a business anywhere in the world, but a lot of the specific resources and examples you give are based in the US market. Do you have any plans to expand LEAPFROG into a more international movement?

NMM: Actually the book was purchased by a publisher in mainland China, which is home to the highest number of self-made women billionaires in the world! I’m beyond excited and as someone who has spent her life taking businesses global, I’m hoping it’s the first of many international markets that will join the LEAPFROG revolution!

JZ: I don’t know how it would be possible, but if there was someone out there who has read LEAPFROG and is still on the fence about becoming an entrepreneur, do you have one last piece of advice or motivation to help them take that final leap?

NMM: Yes, to them I’d say, you’ve already got what it takes, no jump needed. What’s next now is just to see it inside yourself, own that hidden entrepreneurial powerhouse that’s ready to come out. Whether it’s a small side hustle providing a little extra income or a full time venture, this is a muscle you can grow over time, on your schedule, in your own way. The important thing is just to start, and be impatient, because there’s a whole generation of brilliant little girls watching and waiting for us to pave the way for them!

Big thanks to Nathalie and feel free to share your hacks below.

Gender Equality in Finance? Nope. But Times Are Changing.

BloombergOriginally published on LinkedIn influencers on June 17th, 2016.

It’s been three years since I had the honour of being invited to join the LinkedIn publishing platform as an Influencer, and since then I have written nearly 80 articles on a wide range of topics, including finance, philanthropy, the film industry, and job advice. If you have been a loyal reader of mine, you know that I have written about all of these topics through the perspective of a gender lens, and more specifically shining a light on women. My purpose in life is to help our world become more gender balanced, and that work will continue until we achieve gender parity across all industries and issue areas. Ambitious, yes, but it is my passion in life and I truly love my work.

Another passion of mine is the financial services industry, and I love it when these two passions, finance and women, converge. Like many industries, women’s representation in the top levels of the world’s largest and leading financial firms leaves much to be desired, and in November of 2014, I used one of LinkedIn’s monthly topics to imagine where my life would have taken me had I not left Goldman Sachs in 2002. I let my imagination run wild, and envisioned a world where I helped to create the world’s leading financial services firm for women. I then laid out seven ways a firm could actually achieve this, and I detailed the many ways that this could become a reality as opposed to my rainbow coloured fantasy. To my surprise and delight, this article became my most read post, a position it still holds to this day by a wide margin, and I’d like to think that people working within the financial industry read my post and took its message to heart. But did it work?

Technically, no, because 18 months later, we seem no closer to having a great woman lead a global financial firm, achieving 30% female representation on corporate boards and 50% representation in senior positions, or increasing the amount of hedge fund assets under management by women to double digits at the very least. But a lot has changed in that time, namely the awareness of the issue and the growing number of tools designed specifically to address it. From the Bank of Montreal’s Women in Leadership Fund to Barclay’s Women in Leadership Index, financial firms appear to finally be taking to heart the mountain of research that proves that investing in gender equality is not just the morally right thing to do, but is in fact a good business decision for both the company and its customers.

One of the most recent of these tools to be unveiled is the new Bloomberg Financial Services Gender-Equality Index (BFGEI), which launched last month. The BFGEI operates as a measurement tool to determine how well companies treat their female employees, the policies in place to encourage a diverse set of people to succeed, and how well their products serve their female customers. This index encourages companies to be transparent with their data and workplace policies, and assigns a score based on their commitment to gender equality, with a 60 point score being the threshold to secure a positive rating on this issue. At the time of its May 3rd launch, 26 firms worldwide have achieved this rating, including JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, BNP Paribas, Bank of Montreal, HSBC, and Credit Suisse, although it should be noted that participation in this index was voluntary, and therefore a firm’s exclusion on the list at this point should not be meant to imply they have not passed the rating. That said, if they choose not to be involved in this process, one has to wonder why?

In fact, given the fact that this index is at present a voluntary measure, its effectiveness in promoting change has been questioned, but not by me. All I see from this development is that companies are finally waking up to the idea that investors want more from their financial firms than simply profits. Impact investing, the practice of investing in a manner that promotes social good, is not just the investment fad of the week. It is a growing movement that will only grow bigger with each passing year. Investors are voting for social change with their investing dollars, and more and more they have the tools to make informed decisions about where to invest their money.

I have always advocated that our money, whether it is invested, donated, or used to buy a tank of gas; our money is one of the greatest untapped potential for enacting social change, but without the tools to know which companies are deserving of our dollars, it will remain just that. Untapped potential. But not anymore. The Buy Up Index helps shoppers reward companies that make gender equality a priority in their operations, and just this week research group Ledbetter launched a Gender Equality Index and interactive tool. With this tool you can see a company’s gender ratio on its board and leadership team. A winner is Kering Group (Gucci) with 64% women on its board and 36% on their leadership team. A loser? Coty, which has no women on its board or leadership teams. None. Additionally organizations such the Global Fund for Women and the Women’s Funding Network help donors direct their giving dollars to nonprofit organizations that directly advance women and girls. Now, tools such as the BFGEI are helping investors to do the same. With all of these amazing resources at our disposal, I’m confident that the only direction we’re heading is forward, with true gender equality not far ahead on the horizon.

Are there companies that you support because they are aligned with your values? TWEET to #shopyourvalues

Men, This Is How to Become True Advocates for Women

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Originally published on LinkedIn Influencers on February 27, 2015

On the front page of yesterday’s New York Time’s Business Section was an article called “Vivek Wadhwa, Voice for Women in Silicon Valley, Is Foiled by His Tone” by Farhad Manjoo, and needless to say, the headline caught my attention. It also raised immediate concern. The fact that there was a male voice for women in Silicon Valley? Awesome. He was foiled? Decidedly less awesome. Particularly because I have been waiting for a headline like this for forever. Not the foiled part, of course, but the part about male voices standing up for gender bias. I’ve dreamed of the day when I open the newspaper and find headlines proclaiming that male CEOs are standing with women en masse as allies to fight the gender biases that are pervasive in nearly every sector of industry. If this voice was foiled, how much longer am I going to have to wait for those headlines? I read on.

The opening line states that, “Silicon Valley has lately come to the realization that it is not the meritocracy it has long pretended to be — at least not for women and most minorities.” So true. As a woman who was once a senior professional in the financial services industry, the “myth of the meritocracy” is something I have spoke about and written on a lot. You just have to look at the numbers in both sectors to know that this is fact. I continued to read.

The article immediately posits this question: “What should we make of the fact that one of the most out-spoken voices for women in tech has been — rather oddly – a man?” I think you should make two things out of it. One, isn’t it interesting that we live in a world where men’s views, even those on women, are generally held in higher regard than women’s views? Too often, credibility is simply assumed of men, while women not only have to earn credibility, but continuously justify it. This could explain how his voice is considered so important, when there are many outspoken women who continue to champion diversity in Silicon Valley. Secondly, why is it that in an industry where the overwhelming majority of the leaders are men, so few are willing to take a stand against gender bias? Most likely because of the issues brought up in this article, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The article goes on to identify the foiled man as Vivek Wadhwa, and although I have never heard of him, on the surface, it would appear that he has tried to be an advocate for women in tech. However, the article continues with this: “Men who would like to become allies in the fight for women’s equality in tech will find in this story a lesson on how to conduct themselves: Look at the way Mr. Wadhwa behaved when faced with criticism from female technologists. Then do the opposite.” Ouch. According to the article, Mr. Wadhwa’s reported transgressions include clumsily articulating women’s causes, calling women in tech “token floozies”, refusing to be held accountable for his stupid comments and blaming them on his poor English and lack of understanding of “web slang” instead, positioning himself as an expert on women in tech when he is not a woman in tech, and telling women that all they need to do to survive in tech is to act more confident, despite studies that show the detrimental effect this has on women’s careers. All of these items would definitely be on my list of what not to do as an advocate for women’s causes. Unfortunately, the article spends little time examining what he may have done right or what he could have done better, and without research on my part to read any of the dozens of articles and op-eds he has written or listen to the many interviews he has given, I’m more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that his heart was in the right place.

Unfortunately, it would seem that Mr. Wadhwa has called it quits on his campaign for more diversity in Silicon Valley, in part because of the criticism he has received from feminists in the industry. Criticisms that if the above list is any indication, were well deserved. However, instead of listening to the criticism, learning from it, reaching out to women leaders in an effort to be better in his campaign, and adjusting his approach, he’s simply walking away, claiming that he’s “not needed anymore.” Apparently, when it comes to gender equality in Silicon Valley, Mr. Wadhwa adheres to the “my way or the highway” approach, which is certainly not conducive to achieving any form of long lasting change on any issue. We all have to be willing to listen to each other, to hear all of the unique voices at play, and be willing to learn from them. I don’t have all the answers for how to solve Silicon Valley’s diversity problem, nor does Mr. Wadhwa, but if we all work together, we just might have a chance.

Looking at the bigger picture, I deeply worry that by highlighting Mr. Wadhwa’s story in the way it was done, the message to any man waiting in the wings to help champion women is, “Don’t go there!” People, ladies, we need men to go there. We need to encourage and support males leaders to come forward to help uncover the inequities that exist not just in the tech world but everywhere, and we need everyone’s help to work to find solutions that will level the playing field. So while we absolutely have the right to respectfully criticize statements/voices that don’t help our cause, our efforts should be centered on helping men to be better as allies, and hopefully, unlike Mr. Wadhwa, they will be receptive to listen.

So what does that help look like? The leading researcher on the topic of engaging men is Catalyst, a leading nonprofit organization with the mission to expand opportunities for women and business. When I searched “engaging men”, there were 47 reports and tools that popped up. I have included a “list of actions men can take” below from their tool, First Steps to Engaging Men. I also invite you to check out the organization Men Advocating Real Change (MARC), a community created especially for men committed to making real change in the workplace.

So men. If you are genuinely interested in helping to create a more inclusive work environment for you, for your female friends and colleagues, for your mothers, and for your daughters, please engage. Below are some tips to get you started. And please tell us what we can do to be champions for you.

  1. Listen to women colleagues when they attribute certain work experiences to sexism without being defensive, offering alternative explanations, or otherwise invalidating what they say.
  2. Pay attention to the subtle ways in which some men may unconsciously cause women colleagues to feel diminished. Avoid these behaviors, and encourage male peers to do so as well.
  3. Be attentive to whether and how men and women colleagues are judged by different standards. Speak up if you observe gender bias.
  4. Use work-life flexibility benefits, if you have them (e.g., paternity leave, family leave, and telecommuting), to manage your work and personal responsibilities, and communicate your support for male colleagues who use these policies/benefits.
  5. Don’t interrupt women when they speak, control their space, or assume they need your protection. Focus on the effect of your actions, rather than on the intent.
  6. Be the kind of father you always wanted to have.
  7. Listen, believe, and be accountable to women and their stories. When confronted about your own sexism (or racism, homophobia, etc.), listen instead of getting defensive.
  8. Don’t condone, laugh at, or tell sexist, racist, or homophobic jokes or stories.

A few selected reports from Catalyst and other sources:

  1. Engaging Men in Gender Initiatives: Stacking the Deck for Success (Catalyst)
  2. Engaging Men in Gender Initiatives: What Change Agents Need to Know (Catalyst)
  3. Moving Mindsets on Gender Diversity: McKinsey Global Survey Results
  4. Bringing Men on Board with Gender Equality (Business Digest)

If you are looking for other organizations that convene male champions of women’s rights and gender issues, please visit the National Organization for Men Against Sexism, MenEngage, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Men Stopping Violence, Oxfam GB’s Gender Equality and Men Project, EuroPRO-Fem, Fostering Caring Masculinities (FOCUS), and Men For Change.

Finally, please consider attending a conference, coming soon in New York City, on men and masculinity, running March 5-8th. Details can be found here.