Girls Deserve to See Themselves as Heroes: Kudos to GoldieBlox

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I first met Debra Sterling, founder of GoldieBlox, when she spoke at the Women Entrepreneurs Festival in New York City a few years ago. Her vision of a toy company for girls that fostered engineering concepts inspired me then, and her continued push to bring new role models and break down stereotypes continues to inspire. Her company’s newest video reminds us of how few heroes in media are female.

For those of you who think this is a tired, worn out mantra, I encourage you to watch this video of Jimmy Kimmel asking boys and girls about what would happen if a woman was president.

We need more women running for office, running companies, and we definitely need more Debra Sterlings creating companies like Goldieblox. It is why I was so excited to see Akamee Baca Malta, founder of As Girls Grow, an Albuquerque-based startup, at our national conference for women entrepreneurs and leaders, HauteCon 2015. Like the founder of GoldieBlox, Akamee is using her talents and expertise as an engineer to create play-based, STEM-friendly products for young girls. She attended the conference thanks to a scholarship from Nusenda, a New Mexico-based credit union which recently won a national award for their creative approach to delivering wider access to capital to those with no or poor credit scores through peer-based lending. Nusenda covered the cost of attendance to HauteCon 2015 for ten entrepreneurs, including Akamee, to ensure that cash-strapped startup founders were provided access to both the content and the networking opportunities available at an event created specifically to empower women leaders and entrepreneurs to achieve a higher level of success.

Students from Sandia Preparatory School take the stage with Hautepreneurs Cofounder Jessica Eaves Mathews to talk about their STEAM project. The students worked with Mathews, their school, and Central New Mexico Community College Makerspace to design flowers in Corel Draw, print them using the CNM 3-D Printer, and attach the flowers to the HauteCon banner hanging behind the girls in this photo.

Students from Sandia Preparatory School take the stage with Hautepreneurs Cofounder Jessica Eaves Mathews to talk about their STEAM project. The students worked with Mathews, their school, and Central New Mexico Community College Makerspace to design flowers in Corel Draw, print them using the CNM 3-D Printer, and attach the flowers to the HauteCon banner hanging behind the girls in this photo.

 

Until there is more gender balance among leading roles in entertainment, government and corporate leadership, our sons and daughters will continue to believe the stereotypes perpetuated in the news,  media, and their everyday lives. Until more women hold leadership positions – including the White House – and the toy aisles in our department stores provide more options for girls that defy cultural stereotypes, we need to see more videos like GoldieBlox reminding us that yes, indeed, girls deserve to see themselves as heroes.

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Why I Participated in Bizwomen Mentoring Monday

I can’t remember exactly when it started, but at some point this last year, I started receiving emails from complete strangers who hoped that somehow a few moments of my time might help them with the next step towards their own dreams and goals. At first, I replied to every single email that arrived, but it didn’t take long to no longer had the bandwidth to answer every question or to volunteer my time for every invitation.

I was in the midst of determining what to turn down and what to say yes to when I attended this year’s Women Entrepreneurs Festival. I posed the question to a group of women entrepreneurs, and Debra Sterling, the founder of GoldieBlox, offered up some advice that helped me gain clarity. “That is the question,” she said. “What I do is come up with strategic goals for the company. Then every month I come up with what are my goals towards those greater goals and use that as a filter. So when any opportunity comes in, if it is not hitting those goals that I decided on, I’m going to tuck it away.”

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I’ve used that principal to make several decisions since that conference, and it’s worked well for me. And when I was asked if I would be willing to serve as a mentor for the upcoming Mentoring Monday, a national initiative spearheaded by Bizwomen, I again used this filter to decide. The event pairs women business leaders with women in their own community through speed-dating style sessions, and this year’s event was expected to encompass over 10,000 participants at 40 locations throughout the U.S. Because the local event in my city would host 150 attendees, I saw it as an opportunity to spend a morning sharing whatever insight might be useful with anyone who wanted to talk with me. I will admit I was a bit skeptical that anything of real value could come out of 7-minute conversations that were started and ended by the ringing of a cowbell, but I was willing to try.

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What actually happened – at least for me – was profound. When the speed mentoring session kicked off, a woman who was maybe in her forties hurried up and sat down across from me. She wasted no time getting to her point. “Here is where I am,” she said. “I’m good at my job and like it, but I’ve been at it for a long time now. I have this thing I think I really want to do, but I don’t know how to get started or whether I should give up my current security to try to pursue it.” I was expecting softball questions and, instead, ended up with someone facing a life-changing crossroads. For the next six and a half minutes we talked about life’s scary decisions – weighing worst case scenarios against the payoff, how to explore new possibilities without destroying what was currently working. We discussed the need to gain enough reference points to understand if something was a passing interest or a burning passion as well as the option of taking baby steps – and the struggle of knowing when to go all-in and risk our security for the chance to do something that really matters. I have no idea if our talk helped or not, but it certainly inspired me to see someone seriously weighing the cost of pursuing her dream.

The procession over the next hour included women of all ages from college students to retirees, all with unique issues and perspectives. Some wanted advice or access to insights based on my own journey. One woman waited in line for her turn because she thought the event would be the perfect time to sell her product to me.  I spent the remainder of her seven minutes talking about strategic sales and customer validation. I’m pretty sure my response wasn’t what she wanted, but I’m really hoping she was listening.

I found as I walked back to my car to make my next appointment, that I was energized and inspired by the dreams and goals of the women who had spent their morning talking to me. It’s a good thing to remember when our lives get so incredibly busy in the midst of growing our own companies – that while it becomes vital to protect our time to reserve the  necessary bandwidth needed for priorities, it is also important to carve out time to give back. Even when we give, we still get. For me, that takeaway was well worth my time.

 

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.”