A Leap of Faith

At the 2012 HATCHfest last fall I was asked to deliver a talk. All I was given by HATCH’s brilliant founder and head curator, Yarrow Kraner, to frame the talk was the phrase: A leap of faith.

Here is my talk and I thank Yarrow, again, here, for surprising me with the topic and providing the experience that generated it.

 

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No “A” for Effort

I was thinking about elite performance today. Some people go after it, some are scared of it, some reject it, some are content to sit and watch it on TV. No matter your stance I challenge you to deny that not all people are created equal, or if we are, we sure don’t end up equal in the end.

Nature, nurture, does it matter? Each of us face a moment or maybe moments in life and choose to make something of them, or not. Our choices and opportunities are as unique as we are—they are a function of our place and time, of our different strengths, weaknesses, talents and challenges.

I’m not talking about gender, race, or any of those other easy fall-back excuses as to why one or the other of us didn’t see and take our chances, I’m talking about elite performance at the individual level, not a demographic one. Some people just explode onto the scene and define it. I’m reminded of Craig Kelly who you may not know because he died way too young in an avalanche doing what he loved. He’s a legend in snowboarding, in the NW and on Mt. Baker, his home mountain, where I learned to snowboard.

The Craig Kelly’s of the world are one in a million—although timing may be everything—the rest of us build our elite performance one training session, one life experience at a time. Call us late bloomers. We see the top and strive because to strive is to live.

I was reminded of this recently after attending a meeting where women presented their startups to an investment group focused on funding women-led businesses. Now, to start, I think it’s great that someone out there is interested in giving women a leg up. Women need to help women succeed—that’s where, in my opinion, group effort is useful and worthwhile. However, toward what level of performance? In entrepreneurship, only the elite succeed and it is important to fail when you aren’t good enough, learn from it and try again (or get out while the getting is good). I came away from the meeting disappointed that women are not holding other women to a high enough bar. The women contemplating investment were not consistent in demanding that the women presenting to them be, or be working hard to be, elite. And, that’s a problem.

I don’t think any of us really believe that we get a ticket in to every club just by having a pulse. Strapping a snowboard on my feet doesn’t make me Craig Kelly. But, wow, can I appreciate who he was! I have snowboarded at a high level and I’ve taught it. I know what elite level snowboarding is, I know the bar, and that’s how I know I haven’t achieved it even though I’ve done scarier, harder stuff on a snowboard than most. Craig Kelly was in a class of his own. In his time, he defined the sport and the experience and it was beautiful. Having him out there made me better.

We do each other and ourselves a disservice denying that there are multiple levels of performance to everything we do. While we all choose different challenges in life, we can all choose to excel at the ones we do. There is room for only a few who are the best at each pursuit, who set the bar for the rest of us, and to join that club you must, bottom line, be that good. Life is not a game where everyone wins and I do not support any program or fund for women, or anyone else for that matter, that does not paint an honest picture of what’s required to win even if its focus is to offer a stepping-stone toward that goal.

So what does that mean for women in tech, practically speaking? The list of successful female entrepreneurs in the tech world is so short it’s almost non-existent. I want to increase the number of talented women in tech; I’m tired of being the only woman in the room meeting after meeting, job after job. But, we do not help women become successful entrepreneurs by making them think they’re in the club when they aren’t. We help them by setting the bar high, communicating it clearly, recognizing those who have the potential to hit it and respectfully but firmly telling the rest to go home. I’m even sceptical of women only programs–when was the last time you trained for an event in conditions that did not mirror or exceed those you expect to encounter in competition and still expect to win? Oh, and by the way? You don’t have to have gone to math camp or be able to write code to have a job in tech but that’s a topic for another blog.

Learning is a process and there are programs out there that teach entrepreneurship in a very real way and women should compete to be accepted. Venuetastic’s recent funding by Y-Combinator is a great example. However, getting a firm “no”, particularly when it is honestly delivered by another woman who’s been there is equally if not more instructive. Women should absolutely mentor women…brutally. Let us push each other forward as we rip the scales from our eyes. This business is not for everyone, male or female. It is hard, scary, and fraught with very real danger. To compete you must be able to swim in the same pool as the men and be better, what the heck do you think they’re doing? Competition means everything will be used against you, including being a woman. Men are using everything against each other to win why should it be different for us? If you’ve ever played a team sport you know this is the rule. The difference in entrepreneurship is that the stakes are real and they don’t end with the buzzer. Use every tool you’ve got. But wait, do it with integrity—I didn’t say it would be easy.

Know this, high tech entrepreneurship is one of the most dangerous games on earth; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you are really playing the game you are bound to lose everything, at least once, as well as everything you borrowed from the friends and family that love you. Your ego will receive an extreme beating and if you can’t recreate a tougher, more balanced and self-aware version of your ego you will fail. Train! Study your competition, learn from them and then develop your own unique style based on your strengths. I don’t want to read any more posts about whether or not it’s ok to cry at work. That is irrelevant. What you need to perfect is the ability to decide the appropriateness of any emotion at any given time in the course of your day as an entrepreneur and the leader of your company—when to cry, when to tell a joke to break the tension, when to shut up, when to motivate and when to wait. If you screw up, own up and keep going. Seek out brutally honest mentors (especially men) and re-evaluate your strengths and contribution every day. Remember, you don’t have to be CEO to be an entrepreneur so be honest about whether or not that’s your best fit as founder—the success of your company depends on it.

As in life, the key to succeeding at entrepreneurship is “know thyself” and there is nothing quite like entrepreneurship to strip the extra away. Once you do, you will never again mistake mediocrity for a helping hand.

Good luck, don’t settle, fight hard.