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.”

Thirteen Inspirations for Women Entrepreneurs: My Takeaways From WE4

20140115-221729.jpgA year ago I sat in the Going To Scale panel at the Women Entrepreneurs Festival and asked panelist Limor Fried, founder of Adafruit, how I, a creative, could best interact with a highly technical team. Her response still rings in my ears today. “Sometimes you just have to get in the cage and wrestle with engineers. Sometimes that is what it takes for them to respect you.” I was in the middle of negotiating an acquisition, and I very much wanted to make sure I had the right tools to not only make the transition smooth but the new team culture one that would foster creativity, respect and teamwork.

Fried’s advice as well as that of her co-panelists Alexis Juneja, cofounder of Curbed Network, and Emily Hickey, COO of Lolly Wolly Doodle, helped bolster my courage. I left WE3 a changed woman. I no longer saw myself as a fledgling, most likely unqualified entrepeneur but as a someone with a valuable set of skills and a vision worth pursuing. Drawing from the inspiration I found listening to the stories of my fellow attendees, I began to believe that it was really possible to see my vision to fruition. I went back home to what many of those I met in New York declared to be the middle of nowhere and threw myself wholeheartedly into building the right team, creating attainable but ambitious milestones and finding new investors to help us ready our national launch.

20140115-221921.jpgThis year I found myself taking stock of whether I’d met the goals I’d set for myself a year earlier, and not only have we met the goals, we’ve blown past them.

And because last year’s nuggets from WE3 sewed seeds of inspiration that carried me further than I thought possible, here are some of this year’s nuggets so that we can all be inspired to blow past the goals we set for ourselves. The following are the ideas that I’ll be carrying with me this year:

Sometimes we need to create a new narrative that is different from the current propaganda, the current conventional wisdom.

The thing about climbing the ladder of success is that it suggests that there is only one bottom place to start and one place to end on top; let’s think instead that there are several bottoms and several tops, and it is unique and different for each of us.

We are likely a lot more bold than we think we are. We make bold choices that we may not see as bold. Saying no to demands that drain us without any purpose is bold. Saying yes to opportunities that challenge us is bold. Not fearing failure is a type of boldness.

Don’t ask that the rules be changed for us. If we don’t want to play within the current rules, start a new game. That is the foundation of being an entrepreneur.

When we find ourselves hurt and devastated, see it as a lesson to be learned. Discover if you’ve dreamed too small or been decked by something in the middle of dreaming big. We often tell ourselves something that gets us off the hook for giving up on a dream. If you’ve been decked pursuing a dream, let yourself be scared to death and then promise yourself you’re going to be bold.

Make sure you invent a dream big enough for yourself. If you find yourself jealous or bored or unhappy, you probably need to dream bigger, think bigger. If you dream too small, you will eventually be unhappy.

When raising capital, it isn’t just about raising money. It is about finding the right partners that share your vision.

Investors are always going to want more proof before they invest. It is our job to figure out how to make sure they believe they are going to miss out on something big if they don’t invest in us now.

When we’re successful, people assume what we created was easy. It’s not. It’s painful. It’s difficult. It’s plain hard work. Don’t be afraid of what it will take to be successful.

Don’t aim for a life of balance. Strive for a wonderful life of imbalance. The only career that demands balance is a yoga instructor.

If you haven’t already encountered one, you will eventually have to deal with a bully. Don’t ignore them. It’s really important that you deal with bullies, or it will paralyze you.

Trust our intuition. We don’t have to wait or hesitate if we don’t have all our ducks in a row before we leap.

And the one that inspires me most to push myself to grow even more this year:

The paths we forge now will make it easier for the next generation of women entrepreneurs.