"If you truly want to become an entrepreneur, you have to do it with a sense of conviction, of passion, but most importantly, you [have to] want to solve the problem."
The American statistics on women in tech are depressing, so I can only imagine the percentages of women in Tech in Australia, and other Western countries are even worse. But the real value for budding entrepreneurs, or anyone who wants to encourage female tech entrepreneurs, is the personal stories in this fascinating book.
What’s different is that many of the stories in Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech are about failure, as well as success, and perhaps this is where women have an edge—we are more used to confiding our successes and our fears to our friends—so the book comes across as both inspiring and realistic about what is required to succeed.
Are you in the pain or pleasure business?
"Ask yourself: Are you starting this business because you’re in the pain business that is solving consumer problems? Or are you in the pleasure business because you want to be part of [a ‘hot startup’]?"
Many of the women in the book share stories and examples of coming up with ideas to solve pressing problems that they or their friends were facing, but then being worried about others’ opinions of the worthiness of their ventures. This seemed especially true of start-ups that are addressing women’s issues.
The front cover gives it away—too many people are building tech start-ups—but, as many of the stories admit, there’s still a long way to go from a start-up with potential to a business generating an ongoing repeatable income stream.
There’s also a cautionary tale for start-up founders—“don’t drink the ‘start-up Kool Aid’. One founder explained that she had a really important mission to make mental health services more affordable online. But she was seduced into spending her first round of funding on the trappings she thought were required to be a successful start-up—the trendy office, the new branding, the beautiful website, the overseas freelance team—until she found that the beautiful website didn’t have functionality and she had paid for expensive garbage code.
Nobody is as good as they are now when they first started
"You can’t give up on your goal because it didn’t work out the first time."
There are many important messages here for girls and women, and men as well. Just because you aren’t good at something initially, doesn’t mean you can’t like it. And just because you don’t understand something quickly, doesn’t mean you will never get it. I especially liked the story of Microsoft engineer Dona Sarkar, who failed her first computer science class but repeated it and found that she had learned a lot the second time round. As she saw it, her male colleagues had three to five years of practice in high school, which she missed out on, so she was realistic about the time it would take for her to learn the basic lessons. As a bonus, she now has a much better grasp on the frustration of normal users, who don’t understand the power or limitations of their computer system.
The reality is that most start-ups fail, so part of the message of the book is to normalize failure by “failing forward”—encouraging us all to recognise that innovation is inherently about trial and error but success comes from taking some learning and insights that informs your next effort.
However, some of the research indicates that there may be a difference in how many women are raised to strive for perfection (an unrealistic first goal) rather than to strive to get better over time. As one engineer said, “I wish more women knew that you don’t have to be the best engineer, or even an engineer, to start or work with a [tech] company.” We can start with “good enough” and then get better.
Are you prepared to use your networks?
"Men are six times more likely to ask their personal network of family and friends for money and nearly three times more likely to ask their business acquaintances for capital."
As someone who’s always kept business and personal lives separate, this one was an eye opener. While the stories that explained the importance of really connecting and building a community, so that you understand your customers, really resonated, I hadn’t thought to involve them in the success of the venture.
Others reinforced that no matter where you are on the learning curve, there is always something you’ve learned that you could teach to others—for example, by writing a blog or creating a video clip. And if you are doing it because you understand and want to connect with your community, as Michelle Phan, CEO of a digital beauty lifestyle empire, has done, then you get free feedback all the time about what your community (not audience, because that implies passively waiting) wants and needs.
There’s also advice on how to deal with sexist or uninformed prospective investors, when you do start asking people to invest in your idea. Kathryn Minshew, CEO of the Muse advises young women to learn the “stare and steer” technique. This involves a dead stare, with a straight face, for one second longer than necessary at the person, then learning to steer the conversation to another topic. This technique avoids the risk of an older male reacting badly to being told off by a young woman, and it sends an authoritative message that you can’t be pushed around.
The overall message of this book is that just about anyone can participate in the tech revolution. It’s a rallying call to all of us who see problems in the world that we care about. One key thing that really resonated is to encourage all of us to shift from consumers to creators, and we can start as early or as late as we like.
The message is that promoting diversity in the tech world (and in all areas of society) is not charity, it’s a smart bet. Girls can learn that it is OK to be a princess and to build their own online castles too. All it requires is a meaningful problem, time, and persistence, and a bit of encouragement from your family and friends.