“Become an avid listener” With Penny Bauder & Masha Sharma

Become an avid listener — talk less and listen more. Why? Because, when you let others speak their mind and come up with solutions to solve the problems, you are empowering them to become autonomous and independent. You are building trust and helping them grow their skills and gain experience. In return, you may get some […]

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Become an avid listener — talk less and listen more. Why? Because, when you let others speak their mind and come up with solutions to solve the problems, you are empowering them to become autonomous and independent. You are building trust and helping them grow their skills and gain experience. In return, you may get some of the best ideas that you may have missed on otherwise.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Masha Sharma.

Masha has 20 years of professional experience as an entrepreneur focused on building and operating start-ups in the technology space. Together with Yulia Yaani, she co-founded RealAtom in 2016, where she serves as the company’s Chief Technology Officer. She launched the company to combine the best user experience and product development into a digital model that moves the analogue Commercial Real Estate lending process to digital, and completely transforming the process from end to end.

Prior to founding RealAtom, Masha co-founded InteractiveShares, an online hard money lender where she led product and development. She has also directed engineering at Millennial Media and held senior positions at SIRIUSXM Satellite Radio, M23, DOD, and other technology-oriented organizations in the DC area.

Masha holds a CIO University Certificate from Offices of the GSA and an Executive Masters of Science in Information Systems from George Washington University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve spent the majority of my adult life in entrepreneurship. Even going as far back as my graduate school days, I created an HR platform to help women returning from maternity leave reenter the workforce. In short order I followed that up with creating a geo-locational, contextual advertising platform for golfers, boaters, and rv-drivers using GPS devices (this was pre-smart phone era), and then the launch of a company that designed software for startups and SMBs nationwide. I even launched MALEN, an interior design platform using VR.

I’d say the most emblematic story of my entrepreneurial spirit was back in 2014 when I attended a conference featuring a startup accelerator hosting a pitch competition. The very next day, I hopped on a plane and flew to Europe, prepping my pitch on the plane, and presented a day later (I ultimately received an offer to join the accelerator, though I had to decline due the fact that I was a first-time mom with a young son). Regardless, I did ultimately connect, post-conference, with two friends who were building a mobile-wallet startup in Europe. For months I helped them research the US market and eventually became the CEO of that company here in the US. What followed was a startup incubator and an acceleration program followed by DEMO day. As luck would have it, the very day that I was to pitch at DEMO day was the day I delivered my second son. I was in NICU with him for 10 days, and continued to work and make calls while trying to take care of my own recovery. All these things essentially made me reevaluate my priorities and take a break to cherry-pick interesting consulting projects that allowed me to move at a different pace. And, of course, one of those projects led me to meet my eventual cofounder, Yulia Yaani. Together, we have been building RealAtom for the last 3 years and moving mountains along the way.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

The most interesting story — if that’s the appropriate way to frame it — is actually unfolding right in front of our eyes. As a company, we reacted to the pandemic really quickly by moving all of our operations remotely, even before the stay-at-home order was imposed. Given my extensive experience in managing remote product development teams, our entire business team became remote and agile essentially overnight.

By using hacks common to product development, like scrum meetings to begin and end the day and using our internal wiki to document progress and issues, we saw quickly how our technology background really saved the day and allowed us to stay responsive and productive without missing a beat. We have even gotten closer to each other, given that we start and end the day with stories, jokes and occasional (unplanned!) appearances from our children.

The other thing that I wasn’t expecting was how the dynamic of being two women in a male-dominated industry would actually bring us close to our (predominantly male) clients. But given that, these days, everyone is now working from home and balancing family and business, we found a new common ground for us and prospective clients. In the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, I even found myself counseling clients who were either panicking over the slow-down within the capital markets, worried about loved ones, or stressed out about making it as a business overall. Throughout the last two months I have encountered many dads on these calls and watched as their own kids have crashed our meetings. It has actually created a really warm dynamic that really surprised me (especially when we mutually agree to involve the kids in the discussion and have a laugh about it later).

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?

Back in 2000, one of my first technical projects was building a scheduling system for BBCAmerica. I was still learning the ropes of software development and had just finished testing out the hot fix I had done, and I was really eager to deploy to production. In those days, there weren’t many fail safes in case of error — we simply had three environments: development, staging, and production. To get our code from one environment to the other we had to literally execute a copy/paste command. Deploying a major system change put my 24-year-old self under a lot of pressure and — unsurprisingly — I screwed up. Somehow, I deleted one of the directories where all of our configuration files were held and I broke the entire production website. Of course, a co-worker had to rescue me and deal with my chagrin. I laugh about it now, but in all seriousness, that experience taught me to document all execution steps and lean on a structured process.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

First off a note about the industry we serve. We’re in Commercial Real Estate finance — a space persistently governed by old-school habits from analog (phone calls and paper-pushing) to old-school “tech” (Outlook and Excel) that eschews the more collaborative, modern tools of today — cloud-based collaboration and platforms. The big stretch for our industry is manual data entry into Salesforce (that is, if you are fortunate enough to be a giant mortgage brokerage — if you aren’t, even a CRM is out of reach for you). Given our extensive track record in other industries that were much quicker to embrace technology, it wasn’t a giant leap of logic to see that the billions of dollars in commercial real estate funding transactions were ripe for disruption — and, thus, RealAtom was born.

I wish I could share an interesting story, but honestly, the chasm that existed between CRE and other industries was so gaping that it made our vision relatively easy because it was so obvious — creating a transparent platform that allows for real-time collaboration between parties to push financial transactions forward — just like they do in other industries. Launching RealAtom led us to become one of the few market network platforms out there, and definitely the first in the Commercial Real Estate vertical. The other quality that makes us stand out is that we’re women — immigrant women in fact — and moms with small children who are building a tech empire in an otherwise almost entirely male dominated industry. We think that’s a pretty standout characteristic!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Right now we have expanded our platform to the lending side of the RealAtom ecosystem. Despite the pandemic, we’re proud to say we just launched the first SaaS product for Commercial Real Estate lenders. We think this will be a game-changer for them, putting in real speed and efficiency into processing loan applications. Our value is our testing mentality and our relentless focus on methodically changing variables to find out what works, and we think this latest release really captures that spirit.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Not one bit. There is a lot of PR about addressing the status quo, but it pretty much stops there. I see two main challenges: lack of representation in STEM jobs, the inequities in pay that exist when we do land those jobs, and the dismal lack of startup funding (still under 3%) for women-led companies.

Regarding women in STEM in general, the catalyst for rectifying this can only happen in early education and, while I do see improvements there, it’s really too early to judge what the change will actually yield for women in STEM.

Income inequality, however, is a tougher nut to crack. It’s 2020, and women still make only $.81 to the dollar that men make. Studies show that it will be 50 years until women earn the same as men, and that’s a persistent embarrassment for all of us. I do think solutions exist, like putting transparency into salaries and promotions. Regarding increasing funding for women-led companies, we still face a predominantly male-led VC community with an underlying gender bias. That said, the responsibility for this can be spread out — as women, we do need to invest more in networking and building up trust with our male counterparts. But that’s only part of the solution. It’s not a secret that VC funds need to attract more women partners who, in turn, can help increase the ratio of funded women-led startups.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

In general, the biggest challenge is trust and credibility. When I am working on a critical production issue or feature, there is no room for error; there is only the right answer that is going to keep the system running without a fail. But for me to get my voice to the table to be heard, takes time and experience.

In my career, speaking up to be heard — sometimes loudly and more than once — is par for the course. I simply have to work harder to get access to the trust and credibility of my male peers. And, for introverted women like me, that burden is doubly hard. That said, knowing that I have a valuable contribution to the mission at hand does make it easier. So that validation — our own validation — is very important for us to always keep that top-of-mind. I have worked on countless engineering projects as the only woman on the team. Not only have I made friends with my male counterparts, but I have also had their respect. I know that change is possible, but it does need to start with you. My advice is to not give up, keep moving forward and keep speaking up by remembering that you earned your place on that team. It’s also important to be selective when choosing new work by interviewing the team as much as they interview you to make sure that it’s a mutually good fit.

Another place where trust and credibility play a major role, for startup founders in particular, is in fundraising. In fact, in 2019 less than 3% of funding went to female-led companies (and that was considered a record year!) One of the obvious solutions of course is to employ more women at VC firms. Interestingly however (disconcertingly so, in fact) is the problem that having a female VC does not automatically equate with more funding for female founders. The gender bias is as strong with women as it is with men. [ Source: TechCrunch]

Aside from trust and credibility, the other big challenge for women in STEM and tech is socio-economic. Just to survive as an early-stage founder is extremely difficult without a strong financial foundation. And for women who lack the pedigree of an elite school, family wealth, and the strong networks that result, it’s nearly impossible. Many of us give up without fully executing on our startup idea. I don’t have an easy answer for this. I can only point to encouraging more women to launch start-ups, join VC communities, and be tenacious about creating more networking groups.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

I call it the “gendered brain” myth — which starts with a notion that boys are better at math while girls are better at verbal skills. Being good at math is not a genetic trait. Rather, it’s a learned skill that’s honed and cultivated initially by both a child’s innate curiosity and the support and opportunities that parents and teachers provide in early childhood through the school years. While, admittedly, math and science can be intimidating to tackle, with regular practice and encouragement girls can and do persevere without falling into the false notion that they are just “not good” at it.

By way of an analogous example, when I immigrated to the US, I was a 15-year-old who didn’t speak English. Having to learn a new language and get good grades was a daunting task. During my first semester of 10th grade I took Algebra I, Algebra II and Geometry all in the same year because I did not speak much English and I figured math should be easier. I was right, I got A’s in all 3 classes. My teachers thought I was a genius. The truth was that back in Russia, our math subjects were simply more advanced and my teachers had the same standards for me as a girl as they did for boys.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Be your authentic self — Be true to who you are, there is no need to pretend to be powerful, or authoritarian, just be you. People will see through the facade anyways, and its super stressful to “maintain” the image of the external self. Instead, become self-aware and lead from an understanding of who you are at the core.
  2. Do not get complacent — Stagnation is boring and unmotivating. Instead, move forward with continuous self-assessment and improvement, learn to keep up with technological advances, get inspired to change the world.
  3. Motivate others and inspire them to execute on their vision — When you figure out what motivates others and how to help them connect their mission with their purpose, you empower them to do great things.
  4. Become an avid listener — talk less and listen more. Why? Because, when you let others speak their mind and come up with solutions to solve the problems, you are empowering them to become autonomous and independent. You are building trust and helping them grow their skills and gain experience. In return, you may get some of the best ideas that you may have missed on otherwise.
  5. Build systems and processes — Reduce chaos by building a system of repeatable processes. I am a big believer in creating a process for testing every aspect of my business. Set out a hypothesis, execute on predefined steps, measure the outcomes and decide the course of action. Keep what’s working and tweak or discard what’s not.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Ensure that the team rallies around you and your vision:

  1. Be very clear on the target mission and how the team will be evaluated along the way.
  2. Play to the motivations of the team and keep open communication.
  3. Do not micromanage, but set processes and procedures with transparency and accountability.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Hire well, build a culture of trust, put in place operational processes that bring transparency from bottom up and top down, delegate, and set measurable goals.

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 have been fortunate enough to have several people in my life who mentored me and helped me along the way. In answering this question, I happily pay my dues to my first employer and mentor, Scott Mendenhall. When he first hired me, he gave me the huge assignment of moving data from one big Oracle database to another stack. I was terrified, but he steadfastly believed that I was the person to execute on his plan, and he let me know it. He reassured me and guided me when I got stuck. As he always said, “Go big or go home. What do you have to lose?” And he made me live it — big risk, big reward. I conquered that challenge and many more.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I mentor teenagers who are interested in entrepreneurship and technology. It is my goal to open a school of innovation which will combine studies in art, media, technology and communication. I sincerely believe that channeling one’s energy during adolescence creates a foundation for a successful adulthood, because I have lived it.

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. 🙂

If I could start a movement it would be to revamp our public education system. I would channel funding to schools and educational organizations while also increasing the salaries of our educators. I would want early education to focus more on STEM, liberal arts, and personal development (such as emotional intelligence and self-awareness). And let’s not forget adding mediation to a daily curriculum as a practical tool to help children cope with the stress of growing up.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” C.S. Lewis

I am not your typical Silicon Valley founder, I co-founded RealAtom at the age of 40 with an infant on my hands. I have no plans to stop innovating, to build up new ideas to learn and to evolve.

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 🙂

I would love to meet Melinda Gates for an informal conversation.She is involved in amazing projects that have a long lasting impact on the world. I would love to share ideas and draw upon her feedback and inspiration for my long term vision.

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