Boost female confidence with numbers and data. Data is powerful — and so necessary to the acts of persuasion that populate a founder’s daily life. I’m not talking about going into STEM fields — just increasing overall comfort levels.
Story: One morning last spring, I asked my assistant to set up a simple spreadsheet. “I’m not good with numbers,” she claimed. She turned out to be wrong: all she needed was some training and practice, and now she’s running circles around me with her reports and formulas.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jean Tang.
One day, Jean, a then-journalist and recovering lawyer, received a corporate writing assignment that changed her life. Alerted to a pressing need for humanized writing by all businesses, she founded MarketSmiths, eventually declaring war in a TEDx talk against bland, corporate copy. A decade later, MarketSmiths stands for the rights of companies everywhere to trust that writing can be a “sure thing” — that it’ll inspire readers, spur action, and expand company value wherever it’s used. Jean holds a J.D. cum laude (University of San Diego, Oxford University), a B.S. (Cornell), and a pre-college music degree (Juilliard). But the best education she’s received has been in the 10 years since starting the company.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
It was 2007, the year of the first iPhone. I was happily hanging out in luxury hotels, interviewing celebrities and writing about travel, when a friend called to ask if I could do some corporate work for one of his agency clients. Turned out Pfizer needed to get the word out about a sensitive HR transition — and they liked my legal background and the fact that I didn’t come from healthcare or IT, so that I could write what they needed in a humanized (vs. jargon-y) way.
That work turned into a 3-year gig, which led me to understand, without a doubt, how desperate companies everywhere are to humanize their copy, content, and communications — for a better result. What I didn’t see back then was how this need would only grow with the onset of digital marketing.
In 2010, I started MarketSmiths.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There’s this uncanny thing that happens when you sell to a specific need or gap in the market; you hear a very wide-ranging population of people repeating, verbatim, the same thing that all of their counterparts say, like they’re reading from the same script. Here’s what I hear most often:
“I would write it but I don’t have the time.” (mostly small businesses)
“I know I can’t write it and we need professional writing help, but I don’t know where to find it.” (mid-sized businesses)
“We know we need professional writers, and we know where we can find them, but we really need your special touch. You’re hired!” (mature startups, corporate marketers)
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Years ago, I gave a presentation to some business owners at Vistage, a CEO community. I decided at the last minute to walk around the table rather than staying at the front of the room. The thing was, the table was way longer and narrower than I’d estimated, and when I started making my way around, I realized my mistake…but it’s not the kind of thing where you can backtrack. Since I’d opened up the floor to questions, I kept pausing to answer them, often while standing in a listener’s personal space and compelling them all into awkward angles to face me. It took me the bulk of the 3 hours to make it all the way around; in retrospect, it was a creepy approach and I wouldn’t do it again!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My partner, Daniel DiGriz, holds the vision of what we can be at times that I need it most — when I’m lost in the weeds of the day-to-day. In addition to being my life partner, Daniel has been our “external” marketing consultant for 7 years — and is the reason behind our longstanding online traction (primary source of new business). He’s more compassionate when it’s not in me to be — and more relentless when I lack the nerve: it’s a great dichotomy of synergies that buttresses me at either end of the compassion spectrum.
He also owns his own companies and sometimes, we’ll be working in different rooms till 2am. It’s done wonders to support my work ethic and sense of camaraderie!
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Fiction is what led me down my path, and a few years ago, I made a resolution to go back to it. This year my goal is to read 80 books — mostly novels, speckled with a few business books and memoirs.
An all-time favorite is Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog, a memoir by the founder of Nike. It’s an absolutely satisfying story of a kid who loved to run, never wanted to stop, and enrolled others on a journey of driving ambition and narrow escapes that reads like an absorbing suspense novel. A second favorite is a perfectly concocted fairy tale called Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King. Finally, there’s a diverse and ever-growing list of women authors I will always return to, including Delia Owens, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sally Rooney, Daphne du Maurier.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Every day, I’m reminded that growing a company is often synonymous with internal growth: that, so long as I’m the one driving us forward, we’re limited by how quickly I can remove my own blinders, keep myself in the moment (but still looking ahead), accept reality, learn everyday lessons (many uncomfortable), evaluate ourselves honestly, listen better, and support others in the ways they prefer. I didn’t come with leadership experience or an MBA — my only qualifications really were an abiding love for my craft, a driving belief in our value, and a hunger to grow.
I am humbled all the time by blind spots. Like the time a staff writer accused me of micromanaging — and once we unpacked it, it turned out that failing to give people complete instructions in advance — then asking poignant questions after the fact — looks exactly like micromanaging, minus the intent. Or times I’ve been lazy with hiring — thinking that a certain candidate would be good enough to get the job done. Now I realize what an art hiring really is.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
MarketSmiths exists to empower companies to communicate clearly, so that our clients can serve effectively and expand their value to the world. And we do this by generating decisive action through the crisp, incisive strategy of words. On the supply side, we offer promising full-time careers to writers, a profession that is historically undervalued.
In short, we help companies to grow, writers to thrive, and writing to shine.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Women still care too much about what others think — and this includes our own families. Coming from a Chinese-American immigrant family, I had to battle my way a bit out of my original path (lawyering) to enter a creative, entrepreneurial field rife with unknowns. Luckily, the ability to buck societal/family expectations brings a sort of rocket fuel all its own — which carries over well into the marketplace.
Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?
My current staff is 85% women. In general, I seek to inspire women to give themselves agency and write their own ticket. I also take opportunities to bond with fellow female founders and leaders — we’ll form partnerships, share resources, and swap stories.
This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
I will give a gender neutral take on this. Being a founder entails spotting and closing a viable gap in the market, thus offering much-needed value. As I mentioned before, growing a business calls for a measure of internal growth. Neither of these things are gender specific. Thus, there are millions of women who deprive the world — and deprive themselves — by withholding their natural talents and drive toward entrepreneurialism.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.
For me, the disparity starts from a really early age, with family/schoolyard socialization, education, and popular media. Here are 5 things we can do to raise women up.
- Boost female confidence with numbers and data. Data is powerful — and so necessary to the acts of persuasion that populate a founder’s daily life. I’m not talking about going into STEM fields — just increasing overall comfort levels.
- Story: One morning last spring, I asked my assistant to set up a simple spreadsheet. “I’m not good with numbers,” she claimed. She turned out to be wrong: all she needed was some training and practice, and now she’s running circles around me with her reports and formulas.
2. Solidify cognitive reasoning — with a de-emphasis on emotions and superficiality. Again, these are key for making your case — whether to co-founders, a board, investors, partners and customers.
- Story: We may never know a time when women aren’t prized for our looks — or judged by our ability to be soft, nurturing, and empathetic. Regardless, every woman can increase her standing and agency by taking facts into account and making clear-headed evaluations. The more this becomes the norm, the more the other stuff can safely fade into the background.
3. Educate girls and young women to stop apologizing — unless warranted and actually intended. Maybe ban the word “like” (yes, an uphill battle). For founders, intentionality and precision are powerful weapons in speech.
- Story: In our society, “sorry” often replaces words like “please” and “excuse me” or “I want something” in ways that I worry have long-term implications. When a woman who needs access to the gym locker next to mine says “Sorry, can I just squeeze by here? I’m so sorry,” it makes me wonder about how she would ask for something really important. It’s also just insincere.
4. Lift assertive women in the culture. Spotlight them. Make niceness optional.
- Story: For anyone that watches Netflix’s “Call My Agent” (Dix Percent in French), the character Andrea Martel, played by Camille Cottin, has been a revelation. She’s bold and unapologetic; as the series progresses, we get to see additional dimensions of maturity, empathy, and love. She’s decidedly not “nice” — and never once do I hold that against her. Let’s see more of these characters on TV and in film! To me, they reflect real women — and we need more role models to aspire to.
5. Normalize women helping other women. Eliminate shows that depict “catfighting” in popular media. Relatedly, stop using the word “bitch.” I don’t think this word adds any value whatsoever. Do you?
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Writers have amazing things to say, and readers will always benefit from a great book, beautifully told. So: pick up a book today. Also: read it (vs. listening to it). Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I do think the original written form sticks best.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Director Chloe Zhao and/or actress Frances McDormand — because Frances’ performance in Nomadland has left me breathless with its inner strength and agency. How did they do that? Why is it so resonant? What happens to Fern next?
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Watch my first TEDx talk (a second talk is in the works).
Join the Growth Marketing Content Collective.
Follow our IG channel.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.