When people imagine a tech startup entrepreneur, a Hispanic woman with an accent is not what comes to mind. The tech world is diverse, but women — especially black and Hispanic women — are underrepresented. It takes extra persistence for us to break into the industry.
In 2013, when I founded Phone2Action, the leading digital advocacy platform powering movements like the Women’s March, I knew I was not a tech insider. Today, I see which experiences and skills helped me succeed despite being an outsider. They might serve you too.
My first boss managed a Department of Education grant for the Washington D.C. public schools. She was unapologetic, firm and honest. I didn’t think of her as a mentor, but I now realize that observing her leadership shaped my career.
My boss noticed who responded well to challenges and gave those people opportunities. I saw first hand how hard work led to advancement.
While that sounds naïve, most work environments teach the opposite message — that politics trump merit. I grew up in Chile where family connections determined your prospects and zip code is destiny. I watched how the politics played out so I left for the land of opportunity, the United States. However, even here there are too many women who build their careers under mediocre bosses.
Don’t settle for that. If you want to start a company or break into a top tech firm, work for strong women and men. They won’t tell you how to shape your career (no one can). However, they will model effective behaviors, take you under their wing (if you work for it) and condition you to equate opportunity with persistence.
Learn to separate your emotions from critique. If you act angry, sad or offended at feedback, you will stop receiving it.
When I was assistant principal at a D.C. public school, I had a situation with a teacher. She forgot to fill out a field trip form, so I completed one for her. The principal had already reprimanded the teacher. I told the principal that was unfair. The teacher had 45 kids and one girl in a wheelchair. She was stressed and forgot the form. Not a big deal, I wanted to support the teacher.
The principal, another strong woman, said, “She didn’t follow the process, and you need to learn to follow the process too.”
I wanted to defend the decision, but I realized that as a leader, breaking the rules is destructive. I had to model our rules (or change them). Otherwise, important processes would break down. The critique was invaluable.
Feedback means that someone cares enough to stop you from repeating your mistakes. Critique from tough bosses prepared me for the harsh feedback I would get when pitching Phone2Action. If you’re not receiving critical feedback, ask for it — and restrain the emotions.
When you start a tech company, you will go into challenging meetings with investors who will ask you tough questions. One way to prepare for those moments now is by improving how you negotiate wages and promotions.
Women chronically undersell themselves. At Phone2Action, I once offered a candidate a salary, and she asked for less because she wanted room for growth. No man would do that. I insisted that she take the higher salary.
If you are frustrated because you feel overworked and underpaid or overlooked for promotions, I have a suggestion for you. At your next performance review, negotiate a raise. Before the meeting, decide what percent increase in compensation you want and bring data showing why you’re that valuable. “I would like a five percent raise and here’s why…” is great practice for tech entrepreneurship. If you can negotiate a raise, you are on a good path to learn how to negotiate investments in your company.
If you are already a tech entrepreneur you already know that preparation is key when meeting with investors. You need to know your market size, your business model, your P&L. Don’t forget your cap table! I hear women say, “I am bad at math,” to excuse themselves from knowing the numbers. That’s inexcusable. If you want to be taken seriously, take yourself seriously and learn. You may have a great product, but your investors want data, so know your numbers.
If you’re a minority woman, you’re not the conventional image of a tech entrepreneur. Thankfully, that’s changing.
The new entrepreneur is not a white male Harvard graduate but rather a team of male and female co-founders from different corners of the country with different upbringings and perspectives. The new entrepreneur is not limited to dating apps or social networks, but tackling difficult problems in healthcare, education and government.