Within your business, ask for help! You can’t do it alone. You don’t have the time to do it alone. And be honest with yourself, because there are things that you don’t do well. Build your team around that, and acknowledge their expertise. Build your team early! I like to say, work with people smarter than you. We’ve brought in two interns who have the programming and machine learning skills that we don’t, and not only are they smarter than we are, but they are also bringing such beautiful ideas!
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Siran Cao and Mel Faxon, co-founders of Mirza.
Siran Cao is the Co-Founder/CEO of Mirza, a femtech meets fintech company on a mission to close the gender pay gap. She firmly believes in the potential in business to be a force for good, and with the right match for bottom line and positive social impact, to plant the seeds for structural change.
Mel Faxon is the Co-Founder/COO of Mirza. After graduating from UVA, Mel launched a career focused on building fast growth companies. From launching and scaling sales territories in Europe, to making college education more accessible, to managing a luxury real estate portfolio, Mel fell in love with the process of building a concept from the ground up.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Siran: Well, I didn’t plan on this founder life. I was a Gender Studies major and thought I’d spend my life working on policy from the nonprofit and public sectors, but thought after graduation that learning some skills from the private sector would be beneficial. My Chinese mother was also not the biggest fan of the Gender Studies choice, so I think that decision to take a “real job” was in part to prove that I could get hired. Turns out, I’m still here in the private sector, but with this company, I think we’ve wound up finding a way to blend public and private — and in the service of creating policy, no less. So much of my career path has been shaped by my experience growing up. My family moved to the US when I was 8, where my parents divorced, and my single mother had to learn a new profession in a new language. She went to school at night, and worked during the day. Suffice to say, we weren’t exactly well off, but I never felt it as a kid. Looking back, I don’t know how she did it. My mother was a biochemist in China, and today, she’s a financial executive in America. There’s so much dignity tied into our careers, and for me, my career has been part of my identity.
Mel: I am a bit of the opposite! I grew up with two self-employed parents, and have always had that flexibility and autonomy as a standard for the way that I saw work. I honestly don’t even think I’d heard of consulting until my fourth year of college when my friends were applying for jobs. I’ve had a very non-linear career path, working in sports marketing, travel, hospitality, and education, in a range of roles but almost all for startups. I also always had a side hustle going — I started a pop-up supper club and a local speaker series while living in Denver. Going to London Business School was an attempt for me to “build a career” for myself — I spent my summer internship working for Amazon, and really thought that I would join a corporate and stay there for a while after graduation. Clearly that didn’t happen.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
One of the interesting things about the way that we’re building our product is that we’re taking a ton of academic research and actually putting that research into actionable information for users. A lot of academics write papers that they hope will be influential, but building out products doesn’t normally happen. We recently spoke to a leading gender equity researcher about what we’re building, and he immediately started formulating the experiments he would want to run using our app. There is a lot of research around the causes of the gender pay gap, but not a lot of data available on solutions to solve it, especially on an individual level. The intersection of research and implementation is fascinating, and we are so excited about the data that we can collect using our product to then influence change from the bottom up as well as the top down.
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?
Mel: So, when we first started talking about Mirza, we originally wanted to build an app for women only to learn what happens to their bodies as they go through life changes (pregnancy, menopause) and then how those changes interact with our careers and the workplace. All of the feedback that we were getting from our friends and focus groups was immensely positive because women really need this information! And most of us are not taught that in sex ed. I was chatting about my idea with a professor at LBS and was so excited to chat through it with her, as she does a lot of research into the gender pay gap. However, when I told her about it, she looked me dead in the face and said, “I hate it.”
I remember being so taken aback and disheartened, but today I am beyond grateful for her follow- up comments on unintended consequences, and the fact that we cannot keep putting the onus on women to change things that are out of their control. We have to involve men, too.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Starting a company in a remote world, during a pandemic, has not been easy. There were times that one of us doubted what we were doing, but neither of us got to the point of wanting to throw in the towel. It helps to have a cofounder in those times, to have someone to talk through your doubts, and we were lucky to have known each other and worked together on Mirza for a few weeks before going entirely remote. If we hadn’t built that relationship ahead of time, there’s a good chance there would be a towel in the ring. Ultimately, what has helped us to persevere has been to go back to the mission. We started this company to close the gender pay gap, and the knowledge of that — at the very least — has been a key driver in how we’ve kept going.
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?
Siran: I’ve been a manager for my entire career — side note: how weird to have a new college graduate as a manager! — and one thing I learned early on is that a leader will only be as successful as my team. In my first job, I was new to managing a support team, and one week, we were having some really tough operational days. We were understaffed, but also abnormally busy. I found it personally embarrassing, because I had built a reputation as a strong operational leader by that time. One day that week, we had to roll over support work from the previous day, and that just spells disaster.
My reputation and ego aside, operational metrics for response times exist for a reason. This company provided supplies that large research laboratories, medical facilities, aerospace companies, and others rely on; and my department in particular was the pinch hitter when the companies needed something hard to find, unique, and often needed it urgently. “Carrying” work and delaying responses have consequences for our customers, and in these fields, real world consequences beyond dollars and cents. I had somehow made up my mind that day, we needed to dig out of the hole and get back on track, so I spent my entire day actively in the operation: not just looking at the wait time metrics, the queues, and so on, but checking in constantly with my team and helping with the work. Miraculously to me, we started hitting our metrics in the afternoon and finished the day without carrying over anything. Miraculous, because mathematically, it didn’t add up. Given the sheer number of issues in our inbox, we didn’t have enough people or enough time. Normally, if each person can resolve 20 requests a day, you do the math. When I ran the data, though, I saw one person, Heather, had somehow completed 40 requests, double what we thought reasonable as the metric or expectation, and the numbers were staggering from everyone else, too. I stopped by Heather’s desk, shocked, and she told me, “We did it for you.” I cried in the car on the way home. That’s the lesson for successful leadership. If your team isn’t bought in, if they don’t support you, it’s not going to happen.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The quote that has been resonating with us in 2020 is the quote from Angela Davis, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” A recent report said that we’re 208 years away from truly achieving gender equity, and new studies are showing that COVID has likely set us back 30 years. We aren’t ok with waiting that long! Everything that we’re doing at Mirza is because we refuse to accept the status quo, and we can envision a world where all genders truly are treated equally.
COVID has underscored so many things that need changing now — climate change, racial justice, gender inequality — and while it can be overwhelming, every little action that we take individually can have a huge impact collectively. So, for us — our company is inherently changing things we can no longer accept. Individually — take the extra step to rinse out your plastic jars before you recycle. Set aside an hour a week to call your reps and send some emails and stand up for the causes you believe in. Stop being complacent.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
We started Mirza on a mission to close the gender pay gap and ensure women’s financial empowerment. The current narrative is that women can have it all — careers, families, you name it. The reality is that structures in place don’t actually support families. Three years after having children, only 36% of women work full time, due predominantly to the exorbitant cost of childcare and the rigid structure of the traditional workplace.
For countless women, we fundamentally know this. We have this lingering anxiety around what happens when we start a family. Having children is really when our personal and professional lives collide, and the anxiety comes in not knowing exactly how. We know there’s mounting evidence that the pay gap can be attributed to the motherhood penalty, and there’s plenty of research and frequent articles to remind us of that. But what does it mean for me? What can I do about it? What are the best decisions for me to meet my goals, to have those aspects of my identity — as a driven professional, as a parent — coincide and both remain intact? We’ve taken the decades and volumes of academic research, and distilled it into technology that helps you make informed decisions that’s bespoke to you.
Our solution centers around providing both parents the information they need to be proactive about the decisions surrounding having children while growing a career. By planning ahead and budgeting for upcoming costs, individuals can feel confident and prepared for their new life goals. We’re the modern parent’s digital financial strategist and enabler — providing support especially where relevant to career aspirations. It’s what you want in your life, at work and at home, and how to make it possible, and it’s all in your pocket.
We’re designing solutions for this modern world, and we’re on a mission to make it a truly inclusive one. Right now, our workplaces and policies are designed as if we have a sole male breadwinner, and that’s just not reality. With so many algorithms simply reinforcing disparities — we’re talking from hiring to banking to policing — we’re building tech and AI that does the opposite: close the gender pay gap and create equitable futures.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Siran: We’re tackling a structural issue and filling a very real need. There’s no arguing about it: the data is all there; the stories are all there; we all feel it; we know it. I like to think, as a company, we were compelling enough to spark an entire fund! David Dziekanski of Foursight Capital has been a close friend for years. We were catching up a few months ago, and I gave him the full download on Mirza. A few days later, he called me on a Saturday afternoon to propose starting a fund for women’s health and financial health. He’d launch the fund with an investment in us, in Dame, another company he’s been an investor, and some other investments — and what did I think? Fast forward to today, David started FourSight Capital, launched this Women’s Health & Wealth Fund, and even invested in a company that’s a Mirza partner!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
There are two spheres in which the gender pay gap manifests and operates. One is structurally — things such as the exorbitant cost of child care, maternity instead of parental leave, rigid workplaces all contribute to why the motherhood penalty exists. The other sphere is culturally; the belief in the nuclear family, with men as breadwinners and women as caretakers, toxic masculinity, etc. A huge part of what we believe we can accomplish with Mirza is what we’re calling social lobbying; content that changes the conversation around what it means to be a modern parent. We’re currently working on a podcast that we’ll release in November on Fatherhood, and we’ll be tackling a lot of these cultural themes! The idea that “boys don’t cry,” how to raise strong daughters, the intersection of race and fatherhood — there’s so much here that we hope we can explore and help men and parents start to ask themselves what their values are and how they want to convey those to their children.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Absolutely not. Without getting into a slew of stats about pay parity, the huge gaps for Black women in tech, the lack of women in senior leadership, let’s even just look at products that are designed “for everyone.” It’s abundantly clear that women still aren’t part of and influencing design conversations: do you think an environment that empowered women designers would build Amazon Halo, so we can see what our bodies would look like with a different body fat percentage? The implications for body dysmorphia are HUGE! Changing the status quo requires a top-down and bottoms-up approach. We need hiring as part of that top-down approach, but I’m also talking about male leaders demonstrating the values and taking the actions that make real change — setting targets for pay equity, taking parental leave, as just two specifics. And in that bottoms-up approach, I’d like to see the industry start with education and empowerment for young girls. Invest in education and programs that create an environment inclusive, accessible, and welcoming for women in STEAM.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Mel: I had a friend who is also a founder recently got feedback that her co-founder, as the mother of three children, was too big of a “risk” for investors. When she replied that she had no children, she was told that she was a bigger risk because she might have children. It’s this. I can guarantee that not a single man ever was told that his potential to become a father posed a risk to his business.
When I hear stories like this, I rage blackout. Mostly because of the unfairness of it all, and because of this ingrained attitude that men and we as a society have that see women as lesser. Even for women who aren’t founders who are working in the tech industry; these biases have a tangible impact on women’s careers and ability to advance.
This is why we put so much emphasis on our social lobbying — we HAVE to get men on board to advocate for the changes needed within tech and across all industries. And yes, men, that will require some sacrifices on your part. It might mean being teased for taking paternity leave, or for standing up for a female colleague who’s been interrupted in a meeting. It might mean that your own career doesn’t advance at the speed you would have expected. And no one wants to hear that — but women have been facing these obstacles for decades, and the only way to truly achieve equity is for a redistribution of power.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
Well, Mirza is a pre-revenue baby, so we can’t answer that from experience. That’d be disingenuous! But, we’ll take those notes 🙂
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
People who agree and align with our mission — i.e. women
Famtech landscape as collaborators not competitors
On customer side, we’ve identified a huge need that isn’t currently being met for future parents.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
- Employees first, customers second. One of the best mentalities that we’ve come across on this is from Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table — when you put your employees first, guests second, then community, suppliers, and investors, that’s when everyone is happiest. We really believe that; if your employees feel respected and valued, and believe in what the company stands for, then that will permeate through to your clients and community. Employees have to come first; they are our first customers and we care deeply about everyone we work with.
- Never stop listening to your customers. Even if we weren’t ex-Uber/ex-Amazon, we would still say this. Customers will constantly tell you what they want, even if it’s not in a verbal or written form. The way that they use your product, interact with your brand and content (or don’t!) are all signals into what they want and how what you provide could serve them better. One of the hardest things can be when customer feedback deviates from a founder’s initial concept of what the product should be, but designing around that feedback will create success in the long run.
- Get your tech team involved in the customer experience. Have your developers use the product, have them listen to customer feedback, have them read customer surveys. When the dev team understands the pain points of the user, they’ll design in a way that alleviates rather than contributes to those frictions.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
No Applicable at this time.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Within your business, ask for help! You can’t do it alone. You don’t have the time to do it alone. And be honest with yourself, because there are things that you don’t do well. Build your team around that, and acknowledge their expertise. Build your team early! I like to say, work with people smarter than you. We’ve brought in two interns who have the programming and machine learning skills that we don’t, and not only are they smarter than we are, but they are also bringing such beautiful ideas!
- Acknowledge that you don’t know everything. Empower your team and give them ownership, the room to run. Going back to our summer interns, that’s exactly what we’ve done, and been blown away by how they’ve taken on so much more. We actually continued working with them over in the school year, and one is essentially running point on further algorithm development!
- Outside the virtual walls of your business, swallow your fear (or pride), and ask for advice. What’s the worst that can happen? You hear a no, or you don’t get a response. But on the upside, you can get great ideas, people willing to help, and your greatest supporters. Both of our advisors emerged out of this ask!
- Share your idea. This will get your great feedback and help you refine what you’re building. Entrepreneurs sometimes fear that someone else will steal the idea, build it, and leave you out of luck. But, honestly, people are busy, have their own work, and are so willing to help. We’ve found collaborators and partners out of sharing! All our partners, and we have many, have come out of doing this. Seriously.
- Communication is key. Brainstorm, ideate, ask questions, outline problems and solutions and keep the lines of communication open.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We need to value “care” work. It’s been traditionally thought of as “women’s work” and hence devalued. We need a metric for our economy that, unlike GDP, actually values care, the unpaid work. We, as Mirza, are strong advocates for government funded care — childcare, eldercare, and so on. Our economy is basically women paying other women (and not a lot) in order to work. How does that make sense? We’re also advocates for equal, “take it or leave it,” paid parental leave. The Iceland model. And for something not on brand, how about reusable water bottles?
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 🙂
Elizabeth Warren! We’ve learned so much watching Elizabeth Warren lead with empathy and listening to how she breaks down complex policy issues in a way that resonates with everyone. We can’t even begin to count the number of times she’s brought me to tears, not just with inspiration, but also with her sheer kindness and love. We want to grow Mirza into a powerhouse that assembles a coalition of companies, policy makers, and public organizations to drive deep, structural change — her phrase. We’re hoping our work can make that private breakfast or lunch happen.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!