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Teaching Entrepreneurship: Educational Boondoggle or Brilliant Innovation?

Dollars funnel.

Everywhere you turn today, it seems there is an event, program or class teaching you how to become an entrepreneur. And everyone wants in on the action, from government agencies, nonprofits, foundations, incubators, and accelerators to new programs like the brief immersion experiences such as Startup Weekend. A wide variety of certificate programs, bootcamps and elective courses are also cropping up at both accredited institutions as well as community centers. Entrepreneurship is today’s cool kid on the block.

But, for me, the question is this: is it even possible to teach someone to become a successful entrepreneur in a classroom setting? I’m not convinced, especially in the case where the student has little or no on-the-job experience developing the leadership, business acumen, and marketing skills required to run a startup.

I’m not sure anyone has all of the answers, but why it is worth pursuing the answers is pretty clear. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that almost half of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product comes from small businesses, but according to the Brookings Institution, new startups have dropped by 28% over, roughly, the past thirty years. If small businesses are the backbone of the American economy but fewer are willing to join the ranks of small business owners, that trend must change if we are to prevent further havoc on the economy. Thus there has arisen this implicit imperative to somehow churn out individuals who are capable of launching a startup, possess the creativity to dream up innovative solutions – not to mention also having the right characteristics to scale those startups into thriving businesses which can employ others within the community.

Character Traits Can’t Be Taught in Seminar or Lecture

As someone who is entering my sixth year as a founder of a civic tech startup and who has also lived for over two decades in the startup world as my spouse and his cofounders launched, grew and successfully exited tech companies, I have a hard time believing that the character traits needed to become a successful startup founder can be taught in a classroom. There is no way to simulate the roller coaster of emotions or to train someone to have the drive they’ll need to overcome obstacles threatening a startup’s success. And while I believe it is vital to seek out mentors and role models – sitting in a classroom with twenty other individuals while listening to a guest speaker, especially if that speaker doesn’t have an impressive history as a successful entrepreneur? I’m just not convinced that a parade of personalities can prepare a student for much of anything beyond adding a few new war stories to the mix and gaining new contacts for future networking.

The Problem With Partypreneurs

It also concerns me that some of today’s very well-intentioned initiatives may be feeding the wrong ideas and even attracting the wrong demographic altogether. For startup groupies who go from event to event, it is so easy to gloss over the loneliness and isolation that often happens as founders focus on building their startup. Instead, those I’ll call the Partypreneurs thrive on the sense of belonging and excitement they feel events and mistake those emotions as an indication of success. Partypreneurs want the lifestyle without paying the dues. Entrepreneurship is far more about sacrifice and personal cost than any kind of hip lifestyle, glory or fun. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that building a startup isn’t exciting or fun. It is. But entrepreneurship is not a lifestyle; it is a calling that often requires deep sacrifice to build a better future not only for oneself but for those the startup serves.

The Challenge With Teaching Entrepreneurship

I recently had an interesting conversation with Stacy Sacco, who currently serves as the Director of the Small Business Institute and Parker Center for Family Business as well as a lecturer for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management. He expressed concern that such a small segment of the university’s population were currently enrolled in the entrepreneurship program. “Our schools, several economic development agencies, etcetera, are creating an extensive infrastructure for start-ups, but only about 150 students out of over 28,000 students at UNM are enrolled in the entrepreneurial studies track.”

Despite my contention that the traits of a successful entrepreneur cannot be taught, I do believe there are a few things we can do to make entrepreneurship programs more useful and relevant to those currently enrolled and to attract higher attendance in the future.

Require Internships and Mentoring

Just as many other programs require internships and student-immersed, hands-on learning, it should also be a requirement for entrepreneurship programs. If a student is working at a local startup, the relevancy of the curriculum will immediately increase. And for startup founders, the opportunity to use the coursework within their own business will be seen as a bonus, not a burden. Because of the skill sets required to run a startup are so diverse, entrepreneurship programs must also deliver a curriculum with a broad knowledge base to attract the serious entrepreneurs or produce students properly equipped to launch a startup. As one student recently told me, “I have no plans to start a company, and I’m not sure I even want to work at a startup. I just took the entrepreneurship track because it looked like the easiest coursework.” We need to raise the bar not only of coursework offerings but in requiring hands-on experience if we are going avoid setting up founders for failure.

Provide Cross-Discipline Electives

Most of the entrepreneurship programs I’ve seen that are attached to university curriculum seem to be imbedded as an optional component towards a business degree. Because entrepreneurs come from every field of study and background, entrepreneurship programs would likely enjoy higher enrollment if relevant elective options were available within other fields of study, such as engineering, science, or medicine. With the background knowledge acquired through entrepreneurial-focused electives, scientists, engineers and even those in the medical profession would be far better equipped to launch their own startup long after graduating from college.

Bootcamp, Certificate and Not For Credit Courses

While the more conventional higher education institutions might benefit by extending entrepreneurship electives to a broader sector of the student body, there are many individuals who have no intention of enrolling in a degreed program. Recently, some of our team met with leaders from the University of Phoenix and the Apollo Group to explore opportunities to foster a more inviting environment for underrepresented groups such as women and minorities within technology-based programs as well ways to present real-world, hands-on experiences within current course offerings. Because most current student loan programs and grants do not cover these more unconventional programs which are often much shorter in duration and more focused in content to serve specific needs within the entrepreneurial community, it is often difficult to find an affordable model to reach these more unconventional learners. It is a challenge our team has begun to explore because we have seen such a positive response to our platform among these very groups at our civic hacking events.

Communities Must Foster Cooperative Ecosystems

If entrepreneurs are to have the best chance for success, it is vital that any entrepreneurship program be tied into the rest of the community’s ecosystem so that there is a contiguous line of support from the classroom to the real world. When competing support entities become territorial and make it difficult for the founder to move in and out of segments of support as the need arises, it makes it far more difficult for the entrepreneur to engage in the wide variety of support and training that might be needed for success. When universities, alternative higher education private institutions, accelerators, incubators, investors and business centers all work together as a cohesive ecosystem, everyone comes out the winner.

While I am still not certain anyone can actually be taught the character traits required for entrepreneurship as an academic exercise, I do believe it is important to continue finding ways to empower more within the community to launch their own business. There is also much that can be done to make technology less intimidating, more accessible and affordable to those who are disenfranchised by the current options. There is much about entrepreneurship that cannot be taught, but we can focus on these opportunities to improve to better prepare entrepreneurs to be able to face the real work that will begin the day they launch their own company.

This post is also available on Huffington Post.


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Finding Closure: How a Gravestone Helped Me Say Goodbye

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Just by chance, the grave plots my parents purchased happen to be near my home, so it only made sense that after my father’s death that I would be the one to drive to the cemetery to meet the funeral home’s representative to determine the exact location of their plots. When I arrived, an older man climbed out of the funeral home van parked alongside a grassy area. I waited nearby as he and his assistant tromped about the grass with a measuring tape and clip board, arguing back and forth about where the grave was located. As I stood there listening to their bickering, a sense of indignity swelled up inside. This might be just a  job for them, but it was my father they were talking about, and their callous attitude was painful to witness. I kept up a brave face, but the little girl inside wanted to kick one of them in the shins and tell them to shape up and show some respect. (I’m really glad the little girl inside didn’t win that particular inner battle.)

After the coworkers finally agreed upon the exact location of the plots my parents purchased some forty-odd years ago, the gentleman used his foot to push aside the grass and uncover a small metal plate marking their eventual final resting places. After verifying the location imprinted on the metal place, he kicked the grass back in place and bent over to press a thin wire in the ground with a white flag attached. The name Sasser was scrawled in black sharpie across the attached thin square of fabric.  It was all so matter of fact, just another day, another coffin to bury in the ground with only a last name on a piece of fabric to give that coffin any identity of the life that was buried inside.

A couple of days later, we buried my father with our family and dear friends gathered together to remember the man who had loved me from the day he and my mother brought me home. It was a hard day, but it helped to be surrounded by those who loved and respected him. After the last visitor said their goodbyes and went home, I drove the few blocks back down to the cemetery to make sure the workers had finished their work. As I walked among the pots of flowers strewn over the newly laid patch of grass, it somehow felt as if my dad had just disappeared. Even as the edges of the grass grew back and blended in over the following weeks, I would find myself driving out to his grave just to make sure things were okay. Sometimes on really hard days, I would go and simply sit nearby the tiny patch of grass where he was buried. It made the ache a little less, the worry a little less heavy, just to sit there in the quiet.

And finally today when I visited my father’s grave, his marker was in place. As I approached and saw the bronze and marble marker, I expected to experience a new wave of grief. Instead I felt relief. When I saw his name emblazoned on the bronze plate along with the words reminding the world for generations to come that this man, Charles Paul Sasser, this soldier who served his country, this man buried in this place, this man was a beloved husband and father. With his marker in place, I finally found closure.

Today I found a moment in which I could rest. My father’s grave is no longer a place where he has simply disappeared from this earth but instead a place of acknowledgment. And that marker on the ground? It is simply an extension of the permanent mark he left on my own heart and in those who he loved, and I can finally be at peace with that.

 


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5 Keys to Out-Shining the Competition in an Interview

Job ApplicationEvery year, I participate in mock interviews with college students who are getting ready to graduate. It’s an excellent program that provides students with an opportunity to polish up their skills and gain valuable insight before beginning their job search. Here are five useful tips for anyone who might be prepping for that big interview.

Authenticity is Key

A few years ago, I interviewed a student I’ll call Mark. His handshake was firm and practiced, and he looked me in the eye while he spoke. It was obvious he’d taken seriously the coaching he’d received. I began our mock interview, not with one of the prep questions provided to me by the professor, but with a question of my own.

“Do you like Girl Scout Cookies? Have you ever noticed how Girl Scout cookies are such a coveted item since they’re only available once a year?” I asked. “It’s kind of genius marketing.”

There was a long pause before he replied, and when he did, his tone was angry. “What are you talking about? I’ve spent hours preparing for the questions you’re supposed to be asking me, and that isn’t one of them.”

And with that answer, he told me everything I needed to know about what kind of employee he would be. I didn’t need any of the pages of questions in front of me; I’d found out what I needed to know only one minute into our interview.

If you’re prepping for a job interview, practicing typical questions is a good exercise. But as a prospective employer, I don’t want to hear your canned, practiced answers that have been carefully constructed to share a story about some ‘failure’ which eventually turns out to be a good thing which magically saves the day. What I really want to see is authenticity, how you think and who you are when you’re speaking off the cuff. An employer will value someone who can quickly recover from an unexpected curve ball and continue playing as if nothing unexpected happened.

I start many of my interviews with seemingly random questions, especially when it is for a role that is going to require a great deal of improvising or thinking on one’s feet. I well remember another such interview with this same line of questions with a young lady we’ll call Sherry. She impressed me with her response. Not only did she share her favorite cookie, but Sherry seized the opportunity to demonstrate her own understanding of marketing by providing her thoughts about using limited supply as a marketing tactic. She took the curve ball I threw at her and hit a home run.

Filter. Filter. Filter.

Of all the mock interviews I’ve conducted, I think one of the most memorable was with a young man I’ll call Joel. He was brilliant, but his arrogance made it difficult to conduct the interview. Joel interrupted me halfway through several of my questions, too impatient for me to get to the question mark at the end of my sentence before sharing his wealth of knowledge. He stated strong negative opinions about several topics, and he even went so far as to tell me that he was too smart to take an entry level job that would be boring. Whether you are applying for a position where you will be the face of a company or for a role with a large amount of solo work, you still need to be sensitive to what you share in an interview. While I have come to highly value the traits of honesty and transparency, being honest is not the same thing as being brutally honest. After sitting through intense design sessions that resulted in a higher quality end product, I most definitely value being direct and not letting feelings get in the way of the integrity of a project. But when advocating for a specific outcome or sharing opinions, be careful that your opinions don’t come off as insults. An arrogant employee will destroy a team’s ability to be collaborative or creative, so make very sure you don’t give a future employer cause for concern by how you share your thoughts during an interview.

Attitude Outweighs Grades

This may come as a surprise to some, but employers are sometimes far more interested in your hands-on experience and attitude than whether you graduated with every award possible. I interviewed one young man who, on paper, looked like the best candidate to land the job after the interview. He had an impressive GPA as well as a long list of honors and awards he’d accumulated over his eleven year stay at the university. He’d taken a heavy load of course work and collected several degrees in the process. I scanned through his entire work history and couldn’t find evidence of a single job outside of the academic world. When I mentioned this, he brushed it off as unimportant. As the founder of a startup, I rarely check a student’s GPA, because it is only an indication of how well a student has learned to “color inside the lines” of academia. I’m not saying grades don’t matter, but when given the choice between an individual with no work history and stellar grades and an individual who can do a great job at several things and is willing for some of the more menial tasks required? The latter will likely win when they come up against someone who does a superior job at one thing and one thing alone.

Aim Higher. A Lot Higher.

Another question I often ask interviewees is about their vision of the future. “If every ideal opportunity presented itself to you over the next five years, and every door opened that you could dream of opening, what would you be doing if I met you five years from now?” I am amazed at how often the responses are so limited. Not every individual, or position, for that matter, requires someone who has the drive and ambition to want to be the next leader of the free world, but when I interview a potential employee who doesn’t see the possibility or who doesn’t have the desire for growth, there is a good chance that the individual will be complacent and unmotivated in their position. Employers want to hire individuals who are motivated to improve, so don’t be afraid to dream a bit bigger if you tend to play it very safe.

Do Your Research. It Matters.

While it is to be expected in a mock interview setting that students will likely not know anything about what I do or what my company does, it is surprising how often a potential employee walks into an actual interview with little or no knowledge of what our company does. It takes a matter of a few minutes to look up a company, browse their website, and read up on the bios of the leading members of that company – and particularly the details of the person with whom you are interviewing. LinkedIn is another excellent resource to gain a bit of background about the person who will be deciding your fate during a job interview. If someone can’t be bothered to take a half hour to learn more about our company and about the position they are seeking, it is quite likely that this same lack of effort will follow on any project they’re given as an employee. When a potential employer gives you the opportunity to ask any questions you might have about their company, make sure you’re prepared. It matters.

Acing the interview, especially when there are numerous applicants for the position you want, is about far more than just your qualifications on paper. After you’ve polished your resume and submitted your application, your work is just beginning. Do your research, keep the negativity in check, be ready for the unexpected and display good attitude – and you’re sure to out-shine the competition.

Also published on Huffington Post and LinkedIn Pulse


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Scrappy, Dogged and Just the Right Dose of Crazy: What it Takes to be an Entrepreneur

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At a recent Startup Weekend, one of the attendees asked me what I thought were the most important traits for an entrepreneur to posses to be successful. I’ve thought about it some since, and while I don’t pretend to be an expert on whether any of these are true or not since I only know my own experience, these are the traits I think best prepared me for the life of an entrepreneur:

Scrappy

It never occurred to me as a kid that my parents owed me anything, and if I wanted something badly enough, it was my job to figure out how to make that happen. That mindset stayed with me when my husband and I were newlyweds. He was finishing up his electrical engineering degree while I worked at the public school. We couldn’t afford new storage containers, so I started thinking of ways to get some. Looking back on it now, it was rather an insane decision, but instead of asking for a few containers, I asked my grandma for help getting started selling Tupperware. Even after paying her back the money I’d borrowed for my starter kit, I still earned more money that year selling Tupperware than I did working at the school. And the containers I needed? I’m still using them after more than 25 years of marriage.

I honestly think one of the most important things I discovered over the years was the value of being scrappy. Learned helplessness and over-dependence on others have no place in the entrepreneurial mindset, and when I hear others say that something is too hard or that they deserve help, it sets off warning bells in my head. There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for help or deciding that the physical, mental, financial or emotional cost of something isn’t worth the payoff, but to give up easily because there isn’t enough from within to draw from when things get difficult – that is never going to help an entrepreneur find success.

Outsider

I think to a great extent, I’ve always felt like an outsider, even if it didn’t appear that way to others. For me, feeling like an outsider had nothing to do with being an introvert or extrovert. I simply never felt like I fit in, like I belonged. In school, I had a great many friends who I liked a lot. But when I was in a group, I never quite related or felt like I was like the rest of my peers. And as much as I liked most of my classmates, having to work on a group project was far worse punishment that anything else I could imagine. I despised group projects, mostly because I would have preferred to just finish the project on my own and then d0 something else with the rest of the time.

Even now as a grown woman with grown children, when a group of girlfriends are talking about their lives, it sometimes seems so foreign to me, and I end up feeling a bit bad that I can’t relate. I just can’t get into who said what to whom or who isn’t talking to someone else anymore. I can’t understand why any of that news should be any of my business or why I should want to know.

It’s actually been an unexpected benefit as an entrepreneur that even if I don’t feel like I fit anywhere else, I am quite comfortable in this space I’ve carved out in my corner of the world. Entrepreneurship is a lonely business, and if someone constantly needs the companionship of others, it’s going to be hard to spend the solitary hours focusing on the needs of the business rather than socializing. I love an event and a party as much as anyone else, but I’m just as happy being alone building on the vision that drives me day and night. As odd as it may seem, feeling like I don’t quite fit has made it easier to adjust to the life of building something that has never existed before.

Argumentative

My mom accuses me of causing her to back into a light pole one night in a parking lot because I just wouldn’t stop arguing, and I’m pretty sure she has plenty of reason to blame me. There’s a negative connotation to being argumentative, and I actually spent quite a while looking for a more palatable word to describe this trait. But being argumentative, when it is not contentious or rude, isn’t necessarily a bad trait.

All the time I was selling newspapers to my neighbors, persuading young parents to let me babysit and working retail at the local mall, I was refining my argumentative nature into a more gentle approach. I learned that no quite often meant maybe or help me get to yes. Sometimes it meant no, and that was ok, but if I dug deeper, it sometimes meant they had doubts or fears that just needed dispelled.

Entrepreneurship is probably the longest, most unrelenting series of rejections, disappointments, closed doors, and negative feedback anyone will ever experience in such a short amount of time. If a founder doesn’t believe a yes lies beyond the litany of no’s, they will never possess enough fortitude to take all of that negative feedback and rejection to turn it into fuel needed to push forward. The very trait that frustrated my mother – and probably every teacher and boss I ever had – has also turned out to be one of the most important traits I’ve used to move forward as an entrepreneur.

Dogged

Being dogged is a bit different than simply being competitive or driven, and it’s been a trait that has helped me persevere through some of the worst moments I’ve known as an entrepreneur. Among the most difficult experiences I’ve faced has been having to show up for an investor meeting just a couple of hours after my mother, sister and brother and I held each other as we watched my father’s body being wheeled down the sidewalk of my parents’ home to the waiting hearse. That was a dark, dark day for me, when the responsibility that I carried on my shoulders was the heaviest I’ve known, because there were others depending on me to be strong enough to put my own grief aside and keep a meeting that mattered for the future of our company. It wasn’t that I wanted to win bad enough to put my company before my grief, and it wasn’t my drive to succeed that helped me get through that meeting. It was a dogged determination to keep my promises, to live up to the trust others had in me, that got me through it with the answers I needed to take back to our team.

While it is vital for entrepreneurs to possess a competitive drive, it is not enough on its own. Not to pick on Tonya Harding, but her behavior in pursuit of a gold medal so horrified me as a young girl that it imprinted on my psyche that no award, no win was ever worth harming others to get to the top. There are plenty of examples of getting to the top without losing our integrity, and remembering that it’s not only possible but better to win with our morals intact – especially when the temptation to get dirty to win is right in front of us – that is one of the most difficult challenges many entrepreneurs will face.

It isn’t just about having drive, either. We can be so driven that we lose the context of the rest of our lives. I eat, drink and sleep our company’s growth and needs, but I am also a daughter, a mother, a wife, a friend. And having that foundation keeps me human and grounded. Doggedness keeps our eyes where they’re supposed to be – not on our competition or some shiny new idea but firmly on our own goals. Being dogged means not quitting when others doubt your qualifications or the first five investors you pitch tell you no. It means not losing focus when self-doubts nibble at your confidence or begin to sway conviction of your vision. Doggedness, to me, is simply not giving up when giving up would be acceptable, because when you convinced others to quit secure jobs to join your efforts and found investors willing to back your vision with their own money, quitting just isn’t acceptable without having first tried absolutely everything to succeed.

Crazy

One of my first jobs after getting married was working with a psychologist testing students with limited cognitive abilities. I remember one particularly sweet young man who, when asked what he wanted to do when he graduated, quickly said, “I want to be an astronaut and walk on the moon. But I’ll probably just do yard work.” My heart broke a little bit at his pragmatism, of understanding his dreams weren’t within reach but still worth holding on to.

I felt a little like that when I first expressed out loud to another person this idea that had been percolating for several weeks in my mind, a really big idea. I wondered if they would think I was a bit crazy, reaching well beyond what my dreams should be. And then I realized that it didn’t matter, because it was a little crazy to think about launching out into the unknown, to take incredible risk, all to pursue an idea that could change possibilities for others all over the world. When someone believes their idea has the power to affect the lives of people all over the globe, does that make them visionary or a wee bit crazy?  I think it likely takes a little bit of crazy, at least in the world’s eyes, to walk away from security and a steady paycheck to set about building a concept into reality because of a belief that one day it can and should change the world as we know it.

For me, I cannot believe an entrepreneur’s success is determined by whether they were a straight-A student or struggled in school or whether they were popular enough to be on the homecoming court or got through childhood with two good friends. I’m not even sure it matters if someone went to an Ivy League university or skipped college altogether. At least from my experience, the true drivers of success are at the inner core of a person – their depth of character and integrity, resilience in the face of adversity and the unrelenting pursuit of a vision, especially if that includes just the right dose of crazy.


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Thanksgiving Musings

It’s been a long, long time since the celebration of the colonists, Lincoln’s many national Thanksgivings during the Civil War or the hubbub caused by FDR declaring the third Thursday of November Thanksgiving to add one more week of shopping to the holiday season in hopes of stimulating more spending during the Great Depression – and the subsequent law passed that split the difference by naming the fourth Thursday of each November as a national holiday, which sometimes meant it was the last and sometimes next to last Thursday in the month.

Thanksgiving has changed over the years, but at the heart of it is the message that remembering the good, what has gone right, what brings us comfort and hope – that is worth remembering and celebrating.

I woke up on this Thanksgiving thinking of a good friend who is saying goodbye to her father. From this day forward, Thanksgiving and the loss of her father will be intermingled. I thought of my own father and how much I would like to spend today sitting beside him in comfortable silence. And I thought of all the blessings I’ve known this year – a roof over my head, a family that loves me, friends who enrich my life in so many ways.

Gratitude doesn’t take away the difficulties, but it most certainly changes how our circumstances affect us. I find myself filled with gratitude today for all the blessings I’ve known and continue to enjoy, and so, despite the loss of this past year or the difficulties it held, I am grateful for all of it.


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The Real Reason Girls Don’t Want to Code

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I recently sat down for a visit with friend who is running a program focused on STEM, and his insights into the boy/girl ratio were discouraging. “We offer coding camps and courses and work hard to get the word out to everyone. We send invitations to all of the girl-focused organizations. But last time, we only had one girl show up.  This time? None.”

A study released by Google indicated that when girls aren’t familiar with technology, they view STEM as hard, difficult and boring. But here’s the thing: I honestly don’t believe that girls are turned off by STEM because it’s hard or simply because girls think they’re bad at math. Girls aren’t wimps or wilting flowers; they don’t shrink from challenges just because something isn’t a strength. When girls are inspired, when they believe the payoff is worth the risk, discomfort, fear or effort, they can be unrelenting in the pursuit of a goal. Self-doubt doesn’t stop a girl when she wants something bad enough.

The problem isn’t that girls don’t think they can code; the problem is that they don’t want to code badly enough to get past any of their doubts or weaknesses. If you think about it, why shouldn’t girls be turned off? Think of what we see in movies, television – or in the news. The entertainment industry rarely portrays ‘tech’ characters with anyone young girls easily identity with; far too often those characters are either bad boy bro-culture or awkward misfits – neither of which are stereotypes that inspire girls to imagine themselves enjoying a career spent coding. And if you read tech news at all, you know how often it is filled with stories of badly behaving executives, unequal pay for women, and limited opportunities for funding for women in tech. We, as a culture, really aren’t doing a very good job of selling tech to girls.

If we are going to get more girls into STEM and have them like it, I firmly believe we need to change the “why” of these programs and events. Consider that have girls have flocked to Girl Scouts for over a century, in large part, because Girl Scouts play to girls’ natural strengths of leadership and social problem solving.

We need to stop telling an entire gender they need to embrace STEM because it’s good for their brain or if they don’t, boys will get all the good, high-paying jobs. It’s not working, and I’m kind of glad, because it means girls aren’t buying the logic that they need to do something just because boys do. We need to play to girls’ strengths and invite them to participate in projects that create solutions for social issues or problems that they care about – and then offer accessible tech which empowers girls to stop thinking about doing STEM and just use the technology, developing skills along the way as a means to an end. When STEM is simply a set of skills and tools to help solve problems we care about, it takes the scary out of tech.

Besides, girls most definitely embrace tech – think of the evolution of selfies since the introduction of camera phones, of instagram videos and photos with powerful storytelling in the unique framing and juxtaposition of images, and even the storyboarding on Pinterest – all predominantly female audiences using tech as the background for their creative expression.

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Our team at APPCityLife recently flew out to California as a technical sponsor for a local weekend challenge focused on solving congestion problems. When I asked one of the attendees, what motivated her and her companion to come to the event, she said, “We don’t either one of us know how to develop apps, so we just showed up hoping someone else here would like our idea enough to take it for their own project and run with it.”

I should add that she told me this as she stood next to me moments after she and her team were named the winners. She stood there smiling at her other two team members, shaking her head in dismay. “We won. We won,” she said. She paused and then said again, “We won!”

Imagine that.

Imagine waking up early on a rainy Saturday morning to attend a local hackathon – and being willing to do that without any hope of participating in any meaningful way beyond attempting to convince someone else with the right skills to take your idea and run with it. But when she and her companion heard the announcement that our platform was available to attendees, they wanted to learn more. We initially developed our platform for our own needs of robust app development and management, but its user-friendly interface makes it more easily accessible for those without prior coding experience. The need for such a gateway platform in the civic space inspired us to begin opening it up to the public through events like that weekend’s hackathon.

The couple attended our brief bootcamp and eventually teamed up with another attendee. For the rest of the weekend, the three worked under the mentoring of our team to build out their prototype mobile application and test the viability of the original ideas of a woman who believed her solution could improve the experience of riders while helping stimulate the local economy. She showed up with an idea and left with the understanding that she didn’t have to give her idea away to someone else with the right skills; she and her team could own it themselves and create their own solution.

It has been one of my proudest moments in my company when we were able to celebrate the success of her team. It was something to realize we were able to offer a portal into this incredibly rich world of tech, and our team of mentors made that experience a positive, rewarding one.

The response since the hackathon has been more than I expected. I was happy with an early win and validation, but I wasn’t expecting what followed. Invitations are starting to roll in for our team to bring our platform to civic and tech events across the U.S as well as Mexico City. We’ve entered very early conversations with a few educational institutions about launching gateway STEM programs. And we have already forged exciting new partnerships with inspiring groups like the Geek Girls Club of the YWCA of the City of New York, which, by the way, is also the oldest women’s organization in the U.S.. In fact, our team will host our first bootcamp of the year this coming January in the heart of New York City for high school girls who are actively exploring this rich, exciting world of STEM, whether by traditional means or something else in-between.

The demand is high and growing rapidly. We’re a small startup, but we’ve already imagined great things that we simply got busy and made happen. I am committed to push forward with one of our more lofty goals – to empower those who have had little or no access or enough valid reasons to enter the world of STEM. I am hoping others will be inspired by our early wins – like when our civic bootcamp ended up with over 50% women in attendance – and that others will be inspired to support and join our efforts so we can begin to change the ‘why’ for more girls and help shift the metrics just a bit more every time in the right direction. Together, I firmly believe that we erase the real and imagined barriers into tech by creating easier access to gateway platforms which lower the barrier of entry for so many groups who have believed themselves a poor fit for whatever reason within this world of STEM.

That’s a pretty powerful ‘why’, don’t you think?

Also published on Huffington Post.

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Katie Szczepaniak Rice: Watch New Mexico Rise

Katie Szczepaniak Rice

 

The first time I met Katie Szczepaniak Rice, I was more than a little intimidated. She is trained as an engineer – a graduate of MIT with an MBA from the University of Chicago, no less – and is head of the New Mexico office of one of the largest venture capital firms with a presence in New Mexico. It didn’t take long for me to compare my own background with hers and come to the conclusion that we were not at all on equal footing. I’m pretty sure I stammered through much of our first meeting when I met with her to talk about our tech company.  It didn’t take long, however, to discover that along with her incredible drive and accomplishments, Katie is also one of the most approachable women leaders within our community.

Katie’s background is nothing short of inspirational. She is a first-generation immigrant, arriving in the United States as a young girl who had already spent time moving from one country to the next as her family made their way to their eventual home in America. She spoke no English when she showed up for her first day of third grade and credits one of the first girls she met at her new school for helping ease her assimilation into a new culture. Katie says she has remained close with this childhood friend and that their families sometimes vacation together all these years later.

After graduating from MIT, Katie worked in the field as an engineer in an industry which was predominantly male. She not only held her own but quickly rose to the challenge. She then transitioned from engineering to management consulting and gained early experience which allowed her to eventually shift her career to assessing high tech firms for a venture capital firm. In 2004, she jumped at a career opportunity to move to New Mexico and work for a startup, and in 2005, she started her career in venture capital.

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Katie Rice and Lisa Abeyta talking about Women in Tech and Investing on the Morning Brew with Larry Ahrens.

As part of the investment community, she is an industry that is even more male-dominated than her first career. In fact, Bloomberg Businessweek reported in September of 2014 that the number of women partners in Venture Capital Firms actually dropped to a paltry 6% nationally, down from 10% in 1999. Katie brings a rare and refreshing perspective to the investment community in New Mexico – as well as serving as an inspiring role model to other women following in her footsteps. In addition to her role as a venture capitalist, she also serves as president of the Coronado Ventures Forum and as a board member for ABQid, an Albuquerque-based incubator focused on high-growth early startups. One of the initiatives she’s working on ABQid is a Ski Lift Pitch Contest in an effort to showcase the beauty of New Mexico, encourage young entrepreneurs to dream big and connect startup founders with investors and industry leaders in an environment conducive to making a lasting connection.

Despite the demands of her busy life, she still manages to volunteer her time mentoring and advising several tech startup founders within the community. It is not uncommon to receive an email or phone call from her when she is in search of a solution or connection for one of the founders she is mentoring. And while the capital she has helped invest into New Mexico through her venture firm is deeply needed, the less noticeable, but highly valuable, contribution she makes on a regular basis is that of her own time and knowledge to help others become successful – whether they are a company she has invested in or not.

Beyond this more public side of her career, Katie is also a devoted mother to two young toddlers as well as an outdoor enthusiast who loves taking advantage of New Mexico’s phenomenal access to the outdoors. An avid skier and hiker, she also enjoys running frequently in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. She’s lived, worked and traveled all over the world but says she found her true home right here in New Mexico.

“After living in ten different cities,” Katie says, “I will proudly tell you that there’s no place I’d rather live than Albuquerque.” She adds that her passion about the expansion of the entrepreneurial ecosystem within her adopted home is not only driven by the desire to give promising young people a reason to stay and be successful here in New Mexico but because she wants those opportunities available someday for her own children.

I have to admit that there are still moments when I am completely blown away by Katie’s brilliant mind, but as I’ve grown to know her better, it is her curiosity and visible joy when learning something new as well as her generosity and passion for helping others that has caused me to grow to deeply respect her. Katie is doing more than her part to help watch New Mexico rise.

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