Finding My Wings: How I Learned to Lead

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It is odd when epiphanies come. Mine happened while I was standing on a busy New York City street corner with my husband as taxis sped by and sirens wailed somewhere nearby. My roots are in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I absolutely love living there. So for me, this sense of belonging, of coming home, when I visit New York has always been a bit confusing for me. But in that moment standing beside my husband, who has not only shared the past 26 years of my life but has also been my biggest champion, I finally understood.

“This is where I learned I had wings. This is where I finally believed I could do this, that I had what I needed inside to grow into the kind of CEO I needed to become,” I said.

And, no, it wasn’t anything magical about the city that helped me find my confidence. I can clearly pinpoint it back to what I learned about myself when I attended my first Women Entrepreneurs Festival at NYU. The fifth annual WE Festival just wrapped up this week, featuring a stellar lineup of women investors from some of the biggest firms in the country and women entrepreneurs building some of the fastest growing, most successful companies around today. Attendees had the privilege of not only listening to the powerful story and asking their own questions of fashion icon Diane Von Furstenberg, but also gaining insight and direct advice from successful entrepreneurs like Debbie Sterling, founder of GoldieBlox and Susan Gregg Koger, founder of ModCloth. This year’s event delivered, just as it has every year since I first attended.

In fact, I credit the beginning of my metamorphosis to Joanne Wilson, angel investor, advocate, blogger and cofounder of WE Festival. I had a chance to talk with Joanne recently and share with her the impact that her festival had on my own journey. When I applied to attend my first WE Festival in 2013, I’d already been in business for two years and had lived through the initial learning curve — my first hire, my first employee quitting, my first pivot, my first pitch as the only woman on stage in front of 500 total strangers. But when I arrived at WE Festival 2013, I was in the middle of an acquisition offer to bring on an entire team, one of whom was my spouse. It was terrifying, and I felt completely out of my league. My spouse and his cofounders were very successful serial entrepreneurs, highly trained engineers, and had worked together over two decades. I knew that the combined teams would be a winning combination, but I was filled with self-doubt and worry that I wouldn’t be able to lead the team the way they deserved.

That first conference I attended changed how I saw myself. That year, Joanne Wilson talked about the dangers of the toxic self-talk women conduct that diminishes our confidence without anyone else saying or doing anything. I realized that if a woman as put-together as Joanne had that same challenge, there was nothing wrong with me for the self-doubts I felt. It was normal, and I could combat that inner voice because it was poisoning the well of my creativity and confidence. It was a landmark moment when I learned to stop apologizing for whatever lacks there were in my past and to embrace my skills. We can all do that – we simply have to decide we’re going to stop accepting self-doubt as valid fact and get busy doing the things we are afraid we cannot do.

Limor Fried, founder of Adafruit, was one of the panelists at that year’s conference, and it was her advice to me that empowered me with the tools to be a more effective leader. After sharing a bit about my acquisition plans, I asked the rockstar CEO and engineer what advice she had for me becoming an effective leader of engineers who were more experienced, more intelligent and more degreed than I would ever be.

“You get in the cage and wrestle with them, and you don’t come out until you’re the winner. They won’t respect you if you can’t do that,” she told me.

I realized that if this very successful technical CEO had to ‘wrestle’ with her engineering team, there wasn’t anything wrong with me. Ironically, I’ve come to learn that this particular trait that is common among engineers is actually one I have come to highly value from our team, because their challenges vet our path and help avoid pitfalls. I’ve also come to learn that I really can lead, and believe my willingness to grow into this role is what allowed our team to focus on the difficult challenge of inventing the technology we needed to bring our vision to reality.

This year’s WE Festival was just as wonderful as I expected, with fresh insights, advice, and solid feedback that will help me be better prepared for this year’s challenges of expanding into new markets. Each year, I find that I’m in a different stage and still manage to gain what I need as takeaways from peers in the trenches and role models who are paving the way for those who follow. But I’m not sure any conference will ever have as powerful impact as that first year. It changed everything for me.

When I shared my epiphany with my husband as we stood on that busy New York City street, I was reminded why he’s still my best friend after all these years. “It may have taken a conference in New York to help you see you had wings to fly, but it didn’t for me. I’ve known it all along.”

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