Blind Auditions: Can it Change the Ratio of Women in Tech Journalism?

Backstage getting ready to pitch APPCityLife at the first MobileBeat conference held in San Francisco, July, 2010.

Backstage getting ready to pitch APPCityLife at the first MobileBeat conference held in San Francisco, July, 2010.

I am a huge fan of The Voice, especially the early episodes when a celebrity judge chooses a contestant based on talent and then discovers the person on stage looks nothing like what they expected. Sometimes the contestant isn’t even the same gender as what was assumed. So it was with great interest that I read a post by Dylan Tweney, the Editor-in-Chief at VentureBeat announcing Blind Auditions for his publication. He first noted the results of a study in which more women were added to top orchestras when blind auditions were instituted. Tweney went on to say that VentureBeat was implementing a similar approach for hiring new tech journalists. Based in the center of the Silicon Valley tech startup scene, VentureBeat’s new leader is hoping that his new approach will lead to more women journalists covering tech, but even he admits that only time will tell.

I am heartened by Twenty’s public commitment to finding ways to change the ratio of women tech journalists, if only at his publication. My first interaction with VentureBeat came when I was invited to pitch my brand new startup, APPCityLife, at the company’s first mobile event, MobileBeat 2010. Twenty startups were selected from the applications, and of those twenty startups, I was the only female involved. Among the rest of the teams, the judges, even the staff from VentureBeat – I was the only female to be found on stage.

I learned two very important lessons at that event. The first was that if I was to be successful as a female tech founder, I would have to be more resilient, more persistent – and willing to create an independent voice for our company, because I couldn’t count on coverage by the press if I was in such a minority. That realization created a sense of urgency for me, and over time, I’ve learned that having that kind of fire to your back gives you an edge. Sure, it’s higher stress, but it also is a great motivator. The second thing I learned is that being a woman in a male-dominated field has its advantages. When you’re in a field where women are scarce, I’ve found that some – definitely not all – women gravitate to you, want to create alliances and find ways to do business to help even up the playing field a little bit. Women also have the advantage of approaching their industry through a different filter than most of her competition, and the results are sometimes innovative solutions that meet a need in the marketplace in a very different way, setting her company apart from the competition. Female founders also have the ability to lead differently. I certainly found this to be the case for me. I was a mom tasked with raising toddlers before I became a CEO tasked with leading a team, and my years as a mother definitely shaped me into a different kind of tech founder. I’d like to think it’s for the better.

The lessons learned raising my children changed the way I approach the challenges of being a CEO.

The lessons learned raising my children changed the way I approach the challenges of being a CEO.

And, thus, I find it encouraging that one of today’s leading online tech and venture publications is taking a new approach to hiring that may possibly more women writing about tech and venture capital in the publishing industry today. I am hoping the results are promising, because I believe if the final outcome is more women on the VentureBeat staff, it may become a catalyst for changing hiring practices at other publications as well. I believe with more women journalists contributing, we could find more women founders getting a fair shot at coverage in the media. We’ll likely find that the topics covered change as well, since women journalists usually have different experiences which lead to different reference points and even interests when approaching the same story as a male colleague. I think it will even lead to different water cooler conversations and debates among the staff which may reveal biases and provide an opportunity for growth.

The changes at VentureBeat are an exciting first step in the right direction. Whatever the outcome, I’m hoping this isn’t the last thing VentureBeat or other publishers try. While print may reach far smaller circulations today than ever expected, online journalism has the potential to capturing a world-wide audience. The written word holds the power to change perceptions, reveal biases and bad behavior, drive the conversation and, sometimes, change the future of those who manage to gain the attention and interest of journalists. I, for one, am rooting for more of those moments in the public eye to be about women doing great things – not only for the sake of the women gaining coveted time in the public eye, but mostly for the barriers it will remove for younger generations.

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Resisting the Seduction of Inadequacy

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For a week now, I have fretted over an answer I gave recently during a taped interview for our local PBS television station. I was invited to join a roundtable discussion that would air during Women’s History Month (March), and the other women invited carried impressive resumes and careers; all seemed so much more eloquent, poised and lovely than me. When I was asked whether what I was doing now was something I had always dreamed of doing, I answered honestly. And ever since, I’ve been kicking myself for not being more eloquent, for not having a better answer, for not saying something that might inspire a new generation of girls to pursue tech.

I don’t know. Maybe my answer could have been better; it probably could have been more poised. In fact, I’m sure of that.

But after listening to an amazing speech by the lovely actress Lupita Nyong’o (shared in its entirety at the end of this post), I am reminded that even at my age, I am still doing exactly what she describes – giving in to the seduction of inadequacy. There is great temptation in focusing on our inadequacies, in tearing ourselves apart over the things we want to change about ourselves. We can’t possibly challenge ourselves to move forward, to face our fears, to try even scarier things if we can convince ourselves that we couldn’t even handle the challenges we’ve already faced. We can fall into complacency with the “truth” that we tried but just weren’t good enough, and then who can blame us for not changing the world if we can’t even change one little thing about ourselves?

NMTCWIT Honorees Roundtable Interview on KNME PBS.

NMTCWIT Honorees Roundtable Interview on KNME PBS.

Who knows – maybe I could have found a more polished answer, but the truth still has value in its unvarnished form. The truth is that I never once dreamed of living the life I am. I never thought it was possible. I wanted to be a mom. It is all I ever wanted, and I embraced motherhood wholeheartedly. I have absolutely no regrets for the time I spent raising my children. It was time well spent. So, no, this new journey I’m on is not one I dreamed of. I didn’t think girls who weren’t really smart (I didn’t think I was), who couldn’t do math in my head (unless it’s calculating the discount on a dress I want to buy, I still can’t), and who didn’t get started on a career until their forties – I never, ever thought my journey was even possible for a girl like me.

That does not mean I am not pursuing passionately and whole-heartedly this new journey. I’ve stretched myself so far since I launched APPCityLife in 2009 that I could give Gumby a run for his money. I’ve learned (and learned and learned some more) every time I find something else I need to understand to meet a new challenge or obstacle. There are still times I wake up at 3 AM and wonder what kind of a crazy person launches out into a new industry with the goal of changing the way cities communicate with the people who live there, but then I get up and go look in the mirror to affirm that this is the kind of crazy person who does that – who actually does that. We have already started to change the way cities interact with the people who live there, and I couldn’t be more excited for the future of our team at APPCityLife.

So when you listen to my answer on the upcoming PBS interview with a few of the New Mexico Technology Council’s Women In Tech 2014 honorees, I may not be the most polished. But I’m ok with that. I was invited to have a seat at the table with some pretty amazing women, and for a girl who thought this kind of opportunity could never come in her lifetime – who still has to resist the seduction of inadequacy, that’s enough for me.

Note: the PBS In Focus interview will air on KNME at 7 PM MST, March 6, 2014. View Details and link for online video

My Mother’s Sacrifice

Made with Repix (http://repix.it)So I’ve known my mom my entire life. You’d think I’d know all of the really important things that happened to her after spending this long getting to know her. But today she dropped a bombshell right in the middle of breakfast.

I had just finished commenting on how much of a role model she was for me – choosing to start her own business cleaning houses, making a career that fit the needs of her family. She didn’t work for someone else – she placed ads in local newspapers and slowly built up her own thriving business with loyal clientele. It took courage, and she was really good at it. She was happy – I remember her constantly whistling while she cleaned the homes of her clients. She had others who worked for her, too – including, at times, me – a very unwilling teenage daughter. She never complained that she cleaned homes – she embraced the opportunity where she found it, jumped in with both feet and grew it into a business with steady customers for over twenty years.

We were at breakfast this morning at a local restaurant – a date we keep regularly – and in the middle of our reminiscing over the “good old days” she shared something I never knew about her.

“You know one of my clients once offered to set me up in my own business – I could have been the first Molly Maids?”

No. Not, actually I did not know that.

“Yes,” she said, “He used to say, ‘Pat, you shouldn’t be cleaning houses. You could be running a bigger company doing this. I have money. Why don’t you let me set you up in business?’ She stopped for a moment. “But, well…” her voice trailed off into silence.

“Why didn’t you take him up on it?” I asked. I had no idea she’d been offered such an amazing opportunity. I knew the client who she was referring to. He was wealthy, grounded and a kind man. He was always so respectful to us when were in his home – treating us as guests instead of “the help”.

My mother was quiet. I could see the memories, the conversations of a different life than the one she had now. Sadness washed over her face as she resurrected a memory of lost opportunities, broken dreams. Finally she spoke. “It was different then. It would have meant a lot of changes for our family, and it would have been asking a lot of your father. It didn’t … it didn’t work out.”

Made with Repix (http://repix.it)There was so much more said in what she didn’t say. She was a ‘fifties wife, part of a generation of women who were expected to be at home serving the needs of husband and family – a stereotype that held so many women back from dreams and opportunities just because of being born into a different generation. I was reminded in that moment of a friend whose mother had recently passed away. The obituary, in its stated facts of her life, told the same story – a woman who, in the middle of her pursuit of her PhD, walked away from it all to raise her family.

Please don’t get me wrong. There is nothing – nothing at all – wrong with that choice. There is a lot that is right in it. Love of family, the joy of raising children, of making life easier for one’s spouse – all excellent reasons to choose a certain way of life. There was a time in my own life when it was all I wanted for myself. I have deep respect and admiration for women who choose that path.

But in that conversation, it became so very real – the price that almost an entire generation of women have paid so that our generation can be the women we are – forging new ground as more and more of us become founders of our own companies, CEO’s, leaders of major corporations and in government. Gender bias is still rampant, and I’ve seen more than my share of men behaving like schoolyard bullies towards women who are breaking down barriers. But things are changing, and momentum is growing.

My mother was the first person who invested in my company. “Because we believe in you,” she said the first time she handed me a check written out to APPCityLife, Inc. I wasn’t sure I deserved her faith back then. And after today, I realize that this is not just my dream. I am in this for her, too – for the dreams my mom chose to forsake for the peace and stability of our family, for the price she paid as a 50’s wife. That’s a lot of responsibility, but she’s taught me well. She had the courage to take something that could have been a drudgery and turned it into a thriving business. I have a great role model to follow.

When Did Princess Become a Bad Word?

I’ve seen the following advice recently shared on a few of the sites that focus on women’s issues, and my reaction is the same every time, “Why? Why can’t I call my daughter a princess? When did princess become a bad word?”

My opinion is probably not going to be all that popular and is likely going to sit wrong with some of the folks with whom I usually agree. But if it takes me not calling my daughter a princess in order for her to be a successful woman in life, well, there’s a lot riding on that one word, don’t you think?

I was recently invited to sit on a panel at the National Association of Business Women of New Mexico. The topic was how women succeed in male-dominated fields, and my two companions on the panel were Susan Zubiate Grace, who owns a local running store, and Jessica Eaves Mathews, a lawyer and serial entrepreneur. Jessica is also the author of a soon-to-be-released book, Wonder Women: How Western Women Will Save The World. One topic that took up a great portion of the time during our panel discussion was the idea that up until now, women have been expected to and have had to be willing to leave a good portion of themselves at the door of their office every morning in order to succeed and have an equal playing field with their male counterparts – no blatant femininity, no conversations about worrying about sick children or about changing diapers, no mention of dieting or an appointment to visit a colorist or manicurist.

This is the reason many women choose to be entrepreneurs and start their own businesses – that desire to be themselves – all of themselves, the parts beyond businesswoman – the mother, the wife, the girly-girl, the tomboy, the artist, the baker, the gardener. And if we, as women are ever going to get to the place where we create a new environment, a new way to build an economy that embraces the totality of being a woman, it seems rather counter-intuitive to begin saying that we can’t call our daughters princesses. In fact, I think the biggest thing we can do to inhibit confidence and the willingness to embrace male-dominated fields like math and science and engineering is to teach a young girl that if she is going to be good at those things, she’d better put her imagination, her whimsy away.

ballerina princessI believe that because of the experience I’ve had raising my own daughter, Rachel. I called her princess. A lot. For the longest time when she was little, she was so completely enamored with all of the Disney princesses (as well as Mickey Mouse) that it was all she wanted to talk about or pretend to be. She wanted the books read to her again and again. And when we went away with friends on a skiing vacation, they brought along the videotape (yes, I’m dating myself) of the new movie, Beauty and the Beast, and our poor friends were forced to watch that movie over and over for three solid days. Rachel cried every time when the Beast died. And then wanted to watch it again.

I didn’t just call her princess. I sewed her a Cinderella dress for Halloween one year. It was silky powder blue with white lace and took me a ridiculous number of hours to put together. But it was worth it, because she wore that dress for Halloween and to the grocery store, to the doctor’s office, to Grandma and Grandpa’s. Between her Cinderella dress and a ballerina set I found at a garage sale, Rachel spent a great deal of her time in that fantastic world of princesses, castles and dancers complete with all the whimsy and drama that goes along with it.

IMG_0216 IMG_0049And, then just as soon as her deep fascination with princesses started, it ended. She discovered rock climbing at the age of nine and begged to join the climbing team along with her brother who was two years younger. It was an unconventional sport, and she took to it with enthusiasm and a fierce drive to be the best. She not only joined the team but competed with climbers her age from across several states to earn a bid to nationals that first year she started climbing.

She went on to compete at a national level all the way through high school, earning a rank as high as sixth in the nation. She was fierce, fearless, tough, competitive, and an amazing athlete. Sponsors for several climbing gear companies approached her about sponsoring her competitions and climbing gear and trips. She definitely grew out of the princess phase, but she never lost her whimsy, she imagination, her belief in a world where better things were possible.36951_1518430328064_1453700448_31335349_6117802_n

She’s currently a senior in college earning an art degree and already supports herself as a graphic artist. She painted the art that hangs on the walls of our office, and she worked at one time for me, creating digital images for the mobile apps we were developing. It never occurred to Rachel that she might not be good enough at math or science to enter one of those fields. Instead, she did what we’d always encouraged her to do – follow her passion, and work hard.

If I remember correctly, most of those princess stories have the ladies facing down evil, running through forests, climbing towers, and they manage to do it all in a dress.

What is it actually that we want to teach our daughters? For me it is this: be brave enough to embrace and develop your entire self. Until we are okay teaching our daughters that, we’ll perpetuate women having to leave a large portion of their true selves at the door every day at the office.

My First Lesson As An Entrepreneur

(reprinted from the official APPCityLife blog)

It was the early 70’s when children were still free to roam the neighborhood without a hovering parent nearby, and I was a scrawny, pony-tailed eight-year-old with pretty big dreams. When I told my mom that I wanted a job, she never laughed or told me what a silly idea it was for a little kid.  Instead, she opened the world of entrepreneurship to me by suggesting that I sell Grit Magazine door to door.

It didn’t take a lot to get started – just a phone call to the regional representative and an address where the contract and sample papers should be delivered. When the first set arrived, I surveyed the stack of papers sitting in our garage and started to dream. I could finally buy my own Easy Bake Oven – I hadn’t quite grasped the concept that when Mom said no, it meant no even if I was spending my money – and have money to spend at the dime store and the school’s book fair. I’d fallen for the seductive entrepreneurial dream of getting rich quick without understanding the price it takes to reach that goal. I’m glad I got that out of the way early in my life, because it helped me be a lot more realistic when I decided to launch future endeavors.

Entrepreneurship is rarely about getting rich quick, and there really are no overnight successes – just motivated, hard-working creative people who have put their heart, soul and most of their money into a big idea they deem worthy of the effort.

I remember my first time out on my paper route.  I knocked on the door of an elderly lady and asked her if she’d like to buy the Grit Magazine in my wagon for only a quarter (already counting up the number of Tootsie Rolls I could buy with the ten cents profit I would make from her purchase).

She stopped me cold. “What’s in the newspaper, young girl?”

What was in it?  I didn’t read it.  It was for old people.  I stammered and stuttered an answer.  “I don’t really know.”

She gave me a hard look and barked, “Then you’d better learn a lesson.  If you want somebody else to buy what you’re selling, then you’d best know what you’re talking about.  You need to read that thing from cover to cover so you can get excited and tell me why I want my own copy.”

As she closed the door, she left a parting shot of hope.  “Now you go home and read that magazine, young lady, and then come back.”

I didn’t try to sell any more newspapers that day.  Instead, I fought back tears all the way home.  I grabbed one of the papers off the top of the stack, found a nice shady spot under our tree, and started reading, devouring the content that afternoon from cover to cover.

I’d learned a vital lesson that every entrepreneur must learn: eat your own dog food and do more research than your competitor, because if you can’t talk the talk and walk the walk, you shouldn’t expect anyone else to buy what you’re selling or believe what you say.

The next day after school, I loaded up my wagon. With renewed purpose, I marched up the driveway and rang the doorbell of the woman who had sent me home in tears.  She seemed a bit surprised I’d returned, and after I told her why she needed to buy one of my Grit Magazines, she tottered away from the door.  My heart sank. I almost walked away, and it would have been a big mistake that many entrepreneurs make.

Tough questions and initial resistance are not signs of rejection or failure. It is the time to be persistent and patient. Your customer will tell you with great certainty when the answer is no; until then, assume it is your job to continue respectfully engaging them in a discussion about your product or giving them time to digest the information you’ve shared.

I waited for what seemed like an eternity, staring at the faded wallpaper in her doorway. And then I heard her shuffling back and watched her long, gnarled fingers struggle with her change purse. I graciously accepted the proffered quarter held out to me, thanked her and hurried off to the next house. I continued to ring her doorbell every week, and she continued to buy my papers until we finally moved away.

Sometimes our toughest prospects turn out to be our most loyal clients. Why? Because we’ve already answered all their questions and allayed their fears. Once they’re in, they’re convinced and committed.

I sold my entire stack of magazines that afternoon and ordered more for the next issue.  And when the delivery came, I read the issue cover to cover before I left the house.  And sold out again.

It was a valuable lesson I learned that day, one that has served me well many times since then.  She seemed like such a crank at the time, but I know now that the grouchy lady down the street was doing me a favor.  And I wish I could thank her, but I think the skip in my step as I walked down her driveway was probably all the thanks she needed to know she’d done the right thing.

I still use the lessons I learned as a young girl. When I founded APPCityLife in 2009, I spent a great deal of my time talking about mobile before most even knew what it was or why it would matter in a few years. But I kept learning and talking and meeting with leaders of companies and communities, answering the tough questions and listening to what my customers were telling me about their problems that needed solved in mobile. And as I begin implementing some exciting new changes to my company, they are all due to listening to the customer and finding a Big Idea that not only meets their needs but disrupts the status quo.

We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that if we are not solving a real problems for real customers and hearing what it is they need, we won’t survive as an entrepreneur no matter how good our product or how sexy our sales pitch. In the end, it’s the same lesson I learned when I was eight years old: do your homework, be persistent and reliable, be honest and then go do something brilliant.