Lean into your natural leadership style — A woman’s leadership style is usually different from a man’s and that’s not a bad thing! Women tend to be more collaborative, compassionate and intuitive. It’s a waste to fight your natural strengths, instead I’d encourage you to embrace it because it enables you to open doors your male counterparts are not capable of doing — while making you happier!
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anahita Dalmia.
Anahita Dalmia recently graduated with a B.A. in Narrative Studies at the University of Southern California. She is a two-time published author and co-founder of Alterea (Yes, it’s a play on Alternate Reality). Alterea (www.altereainc.com) creates large-scale immersive experiences allowing participants to enter a different world in which they have agency and impact within an unfolding story. They are currently working on Agents of Influence, a digital spy adventure that will teach middle schoolers to identify and combat misinformation. In Anahita’s free time, you’re equally likely to find her at a Forbes conference or exploring secret underground tunnels.
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?
Oh, that’s a tough question. I’ve always been a little preoccupied with fantasy. I was the kind of child who would read a book a day; I was glued to the television or some kind of gaming device; and later, I took theatre for 4 years in high school. My favourite pastime was imagining how things would play out if I was in those incredible situations myself — I remember sitting and spending hours in the bus to and from school staring out of the window and envisioning the first Pokemon I would pick and which friends I would take with me on my adventure.
I started by using writing as a way to explore the different worlds of my imagination and then went into theatre, which was an interesting transition of bringing my imagination to life in a live, visceral sense. I became interested in ‘Theatre of The Oppressed’ which is one of the earlier examples of immersive theatre and allowed people to make decisions as characters to educate them and drive change. This evolved into an obsession with creating a living story which people can be a part of and where their decisions matter. I soon discovered the answer was always in game design. That’s the only form of narrative in which you, the participant or player, has full agency and decision making in ways that matter.
After trying to create a Halloween themed maze with characters hosting games in highschool, I tried to improve my idea in USC and now I’m founding a company that specializes in creating live, large scale narrative experiences that give each person an opportunity to be a hero.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the most memorable moments for me was when I was walking around my last event, a mythological themed experience called Ascend. My actor playing Hepheastus ushered me whispering, “This group of demigods are hellbent on having me adopted by Mother Fate. They came up to me sympathizing with my rough childhood, because Hera threw me off the cliff, and said they want to fix it. I recently sent them on a quest but I don’t know what to do!” I looked at him, both confused and amused. I shrugged and said, “Does it prevent the larger story arc from taking place?” And he’s like, “No….” so I said, “Set your parameters, decide your tasks and if they fulfil it… let Mother Fate adopt you. Unless you feel like your character would never be okay with that.” Soon, he got adopted.
It was such an odd experience, but it was really exciting because we were now facing emergent play. That means the players were discovering things and creating things in our world we had not planned for them to. But it spoke volumes that our game worlds could support it and incite it — it’s a sign that the participants are compelled by the story and the world and they’re taking active ownership of it leading to true co-authorship.
It also drove home the idea of trusting your players and actors. When you’re building a large complex world, the people on the top can’t do justice to every minutia — we must trust the people engaging with those details to develop them and make decisions which will be true to the larger story. Players are also so imaginative, which is why they can sometimes do things we hadn’t anticipated and add complexity and richness to our games and worlds. Don’t try to micro-manage and prevent this phenomenon, instead actively encourage, support and provide opportunities for it.
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?
The first time we were building my Halloween Maze in highschool we didn’t try building the structure before that day and we turned up day-of with plenty of cloth and paint — but no way of hanging the cloth. We were missing nuts, bolts, hammers and all the other connective materials. Luckily, we managed to run to the market and grab everything we needed. But that moment still carries a lot of metaphorical significance.
The bigger elements can’t stand without the smaller ones. It’s crucial to get into the details of building something. It is also necessary to prepare appropriately and test beforehand to catch problems before the final date.
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?
I’m very grateful to my mother who actively made efforts to remove any roadblocks I have encountered. But I would also like to call out to my friend Lillianne John. During the first event I ever did, the Halloween Maze which turned into Bizarre Carnival in high school, she encountered me sitting on the field and trying to draw a maze by eyeballing dimensions of the venue. She then helped me draw the space and sent me 3 computer-generated plans that evening with the games marked.
Lillianne took full ownership of the project even when it seemed like it was on the brink of failure — and she played an enormous part in making it happen. She took control of operations, staying with me till 3am to make pitch decks, figuring out how to make a website, sending emails, and even writing affidavits. If I was the heart of the event, she was the brain. I absolutely could not have done it without her. She taught me so much about operations which has allowed me to accomplish every single project I have after my first one. And her investment in the project held me accountable to delivering what I had initially attempted to — it was her involvement that made the matter bigger than me. Made it worth fighting for. And she armoured me, supported me and accompanied me for every battle.
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?
There’s a number of factors that prevent women from founding companies: access to education, how seriously they’re taken in business contexts, and domestic responsibilities are all contributors. One of the things that stands out is something my mother said, that today women are expected to play the role of both men and women. We now want women to start a business and earn, but they are still in the role of primary caregiver and domestically responsible in most households.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
There are a number of steps that we should be taking to overcome these obstacles.
- Educate women. This is especially relevant in 3rd world countries where many women are never given a proper education because that doesn’t seem valuable.
- Take women seriously: Women are rarely taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Interestingly enough, today women are given a lot of support for diversity and inclusion initiatives but those often also serve as disadvantages. By not giving women an opportunity to directly compete with men while they are very capable of doing so, it makes it seem like they will not advance without the separation and additional support. This isn’t to invalidate these efforts, just to be aware that there are still solutions to be found beyond quotas.
- Change expectations: I think that the most important thing to have is equal opportunity, not necessarily equal representation. Some industries tend to be male dominated, such as the military and other industries such as fashion tend to have more women. That doesn’t need to be a bad thing as long as all genders are supported in all of these environments. Even being a homemaker is a respectable choice and we need to stop disregarding the important work people are doing in every context to make our society function. And if she wants to start a company, don’t expect her to also be a homemaker.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Women are better collaborators: Women tend to be more empathetic and emphasize creating a welcoming environment where vulnerability is supported, all voices are welcome, mistakes are accepted and improvement is encouraged. While it is sometimes argued that having a very warm workspace can lead to complacency, psychological safety also enables motivated collaborators to do their best work. They are also better at emotional management and navigating social environments in a way that can bring out the best in their collaborators.
Women care more about customers: Relationships tend to be extremely important to women and they often recognize customer relationships as crucial relationships to maintain in business. They will make decisions that may not be immediately beneficial for the business to make the company profitable, but they are able to establish long term trust with customers as a result of it, which does pay off in the long term.
Women can be more resilient: Women are much more used to doing thankless work, being underestimated and mistreated. While they do also have a reputation for being more emotionally sensitive and needing more support, when they care about things they are remarkably driven to nurture an entity to its best possible version: whether it is a child or a company.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
There are a number of impressions people have about founders which are not always accurate:
- Founders always care about what they’re doing: While this is sometimes true, this is not always true. Sometimes founders start a business because they see a promising market gap and have a good solution — not because they personally care about the problem.
- Founders work like crazy: This is true for many founders, certainly true for me. However, certain founders are extremely good at finding market hacks and discover a business model and system that allows them to make a lot of money without doing a lot of work.
- Founders are good leaders: While the typical romanticized founder leads a team through large periods of uncertainty as the company proves that their idea has merit and provides value, that is not always true. Many times, founders can be lone wolves who have figured out a simple business they can run by themselves. Other times they can be good managers. In some unfortunate circumstances, they’re awful leaders. Not every startup is successful and there’s a good reason for that. Interpersonal conflict resulting from bad leadership is one of the primary reasons a business doesn’t survive. And even when it does, many founders focus on the bottom line, the product, the customers or any of the many other business facets. They don’t have to be good leaders to run a successful company (though that does also depend on your definition of success and good leadership often results in a successful company.)
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
Responsible — In our company, we often use the term ‘chain of responsibility’ instead of ‘chain of authority.’ The idea over there is that we want it to be clear who is responsible and who takes the blame when things are not going according to plan. And the founder always needs to be accountable for all the failures of their company, share credit with others when it succeeds and retain a very strong sense of control. This is essential for a successful company because unless the founder can take responsibility for the success of the company, they will never be able to drive that success and fully own that their actions will directly lead to the success or failure of the company, which will largely prevent them from taking actions which will take the company to the next level. If you don’t want that level of responsibility, where your entire team’s success is on your shoulders, you might be better off at a regular job.
Autonomous — As a founder, you’re not going to have people telling you what to do. You, independently, are making all the important decisions and you need to be involved in most aspects of the company which requires a very large degree of autonomy and initiative. If you just want to be told what to do, this lifestyle is likely to work for you.
Resilient — Things are not going to go according to plan in the entrepreneurship world. Your most valued teammates are going to quit, you’re going to lose the million dollars loaned to you in a bad deal, you’re going to lose that relationship because you spend too much time on your work — and you still need to keep going to make a successful company. If you want security above everything else, the startup life is unlikely to suit you.
Ambitious — The only limit in the entrepreneurship world is your own ability and ambition. If your ambition isn’t very high, the entrepreneurship world isn’t going to take you very far and you’ll likely be better off riding off of other people’s ambition at a better established company.
Strong Learner — In a startup, you do everything. Finance, marketing, product development, customer management, team leadership, HR and a multitude of other things. On top of that, your circumstances are constantly changing. It’s absolutely crucial for your company’s success that your attitude is ‘If I don’t know something, I’ll figure it out’ and that you’re willing to go both wide and deep to master the many skills it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. If you want to be told exactly what to do and how to do it, the entrepreneurship lifestyle will drain you.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Lean into your natural leadership style — A woman’s leadership style is usually different from a man’s and that’s not a bad thing! Women tend to be more collaborative, compassionate and intuitive. It’s a waste to fight your natural strengths, instead I’d encourage you to embrace it because it enables you to open doors your male counterparts are not capable of doing — while making you happier!
- It’s okay to need help — Everyone can’t do everything. Yet women are often expected to do everything — clean up, take care of the kids, have an artistic bend, do finance. Those expectations are unrealistic and it’s beneficial to find teammates who complement your weaknesses. The goal is to build a whole that is stronger than the parts and to find necessary emotional support to get through this extremely tough journey.
- Use your seat at the table — In this era, women are often given a seat on the table. It is also often not for the right reasons. But if you’re in the room, prove that you belong there by adding a unique perspective and value.
- It’s okay to have other priorities — As previously mentioned, women are now expected to do everything. There are times in your life when the business will not be the priority. However, as long as you’re still fulfilling your responsibility, that should be fine.
- Be adaptable — Different people, different times, different roles are all going to demand different things from you. Sometimes, it’s beneficial to be softer while dealing with people. Other times, they’re more likely to respond to firmness. It’s necessary to remain flexible to meet the needs of the circumstances to best achieve your goals.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I wouldn’t say I’ve used my ‘success’ to make the world a better place (other than perhaps my game design success) but I’m successful because I’ve brought good into this world. Every event I have about 3 participants who have life changing experiences — perspective changes, change in behaviour, anything else. Their responses always get framed on a wall.
Our experiences are very unique because we remove the “what if” from the situation and ask participants to make decisions based on available information, using their own values and goals. I’ll share two of my favourite stories. One girl in my first event, Alohomora supported the ‘villain,’ an immortal survivor of the Salem Witch Trials and realized the value of empathy and how limited information can skew your perception when she realized their group’s ultimate goal could be considered discriminatory. Another player realized the value in speaking out and exploring when they were rewarded for it in the game world. After introspection, he concluded he didn’t typically behave that way because of his mental guardrails. He said that ‘playing make-belief’ made him more aware of how his presumptions, another form of make-belief, limits him in real life. These moments of small change always start a chain reaction, bringing so much goodness into the world.
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.
Sounds super cheesy, but please pursue what calls to you and pursue it relentlessly. Each person truly is unique with values, skills, interests and personalities. There is a place that they will be useful and I would encourage people not to compromise on doing things in which they find value.
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.
This is probably an unusual choice, but somebody I’d love to chat with is Laurene Powell Jobs. I somehow found her during my research on Agents of Influence, as media literacy is so entangled with journalism which she’s very involved in. I found one comment she made in an interview particularly fascinating, “We are able, each of us, to manipulate the circumstances.” This is something apparently her late husband said to her, and it aligns very heavily with the Alterea purpose — to show how each individual’s independent story and actions impacts a collective experience. I truly find the work she does at Emerson Collective interesting as it seems to be pushing what new age education could look like and so many of our projects seem to be in the vein of rethinking the system to help people realize their individual power today.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.