Creating a culture that you want to be a part of takes work. — Culture doesn’t come for free. It’s not an if-you-build-it-they-will-come kind of situation. You need to take an active role in nurturing the attitudes and behaviors that embody the spirit of the company that you want to create. I knew this from working in healthy and toxic cultures alike, but I’d never built it from scratch before.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Beth Porter, CEO and co-founder of Riff Analytics, and the co-founder and Managing Director at Esme Learning Solutions. Formerly, Beth was the VP of Higher Education Platform at Pearson Education and VP of Product at edX. Beth has led research and development of products that seek to transform online teaching and learning, including driving the Open edX initiative at edX and architecting the original Texas OnCourse program. Her roles in higher education include lecturer at Boston University Questrom School of Business and a researcher at MIT Media Lab.
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?
In college and for a few years after, I worked as a math instructor, teaching calculus, statistics, and geometry. I could never understand why all the work was done alone. Mathematicians, scientists, and software developers always work collaboratively, but schools really frowned on peer learning at that time. It made no sense. That was the start of a career-long pursuit around collaboration and collective intelligence — studying how to make learning meaningful in group settings and convincing people of the value of sharing and shared knowledge. When I met my co-founders in the MIT Media Lab, who were studying teams and collaboration in the workplace, we realized that we were looking at the same problem through different lenses, and Riff was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
During a client visit to Toronto, I unwittingly reserved an AirBnb in downtown across the street from the “Jurassic Park” Fan Zone on the night of game 6 of the NBA finals between the Raptors and the Warriors. As I was heading out to meet with some local entrepreneurs I met through CDL (Creative Destruction Lab), I passed a trio of fans carrying giant printed heads of two of the players and Drake. The entire town was bristling with anticipation of the big event. If you’re a basketball fan, you’ll remember that Toronto won and the entire town went completely bonkers. I was there trying to win a new account at a health care company, but nobody had the least interest in anything other than the Raptors. I really wanted to talk about Riff; they really wanted to talk about basketball. The whole visit made me realize how important it is to pay attention to context and circumstance.
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?
I haven’t made any mistakes. It’s all gone perfectly since the beginning… Seriously though, that same trip to Toronto… I booked it for the wrong week. I was able to scramble and get them to meet with me a week early, and honestly, the whole thing was a bit of a mess. However, the silver lining was that I met someone completely by accident who ended up being a great mentor to me in the coming months.
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 believe in a work culture that embraces transparency and allows people to be honest with each other in the spirit of productive criticism. Early on at Riff, I was able to lure a former colleague back into the workforce after a long gap due to having and caring for her children. Because of our long history together, we had a very open way of relating to one another, and I thought that meant we could take shortcuts with each other all the time. But, she taught me that you can’t take people or situations for granted, that the shortest, most efficient path might not be the right way forward. She often forced me to slow down, be more deliberate and pay more attention to what was happening. It helped me make better decisions and fewer mistakes.
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?
It’s a catch-22. Because there are so few women founders and successful long-term entrepreneurs, who have built their companies in their vision from the ground up, women are less inclined to believe that they can be successful, and it leads to fewer women electing to found companies. I worked on a project funded by the state of Texas a few years ago that sought to address dropout rates and other career-limiting factors among youth in middle and high school. A key finding was that students were most affected by their own perceptions about whether they would or could be successful after high school, typically influenced by whether other members of their family had been successful. I think similarly vicious cycles of self opt-out and undervaluation exist in entrepreneurship. Women don’t see themselves as entrepreneurs and thus don’t elect to become founders; investors don’t see many women entrepreneurs and thus don’t appropriately value women-founded and run businesses.
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?
Everyone has to be part of the solution by supporting women-owned businesses, actively seeking out those companies with diverse founding teams, and activating more women to participate in business creation through development, mentorship, promotion and capital investment. I believe that we collectively have the habit of supporting people from our own “tribe” because it’s easy and familiar. Every investor, buyer, and collaborator needs more awareness, which will lead to more participation by everyone in creating better representation and more equity.
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?
In our research work at Riff (and previously in the Media Lab), we have proven over and over again that diverse teams are more successful than those with uniform membership — whether you’re looking at performance, persistence or perception. For example, a 2015 McKinsey study found that companies with the greatest ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those with the most gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean (as reported by David Rock and Heidi Grant in their piece “Why Diverse Teams are Smarter,” in the Harvard Business Review). That’s why. It’s not just moral or fair or socially responsible. It’s also fiscally responsible.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?
It’s not glorious. Most founders fail multiple times before they are successful. And, work rate does not cause success, not least because so many of the practices of the startup industry still favor investing in people who are already successful and that the investors already know. Founders, especially at the early stage, probably work harder than anyone else you know because they have to do everything — literally all the jobs of the company — representing the company to the world, garnering resources by building relationships with investors, conducting research and writing grants, maintaining business operations, helping employees be successful, developing a client base through creative selling, delivering excellent service to keep early customers happy, etc., etc. BUT, those efforts can still fail. Yeah, not glorious.
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?
So, even though work rate does not guarantee success. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. What you need is what people often call hustle, which for me is work times creativity, the ability to be malleable, adaptive, unflappable… all those soft skills that allow you to operate like a chameleon as you take on the unexpected and constantly switch contexts. You also need discipline, which sounds like it might be in conflict with hustle, and it is to some degree. The discipline is what drives you to get up everyday and do it again, without burning out.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Being a CEO is mostly about raising money. — I am a product person and my passion and motivation come from interacting with customers and building a product that they will love. I love the exploration and the negotiation, digging in with end-users and finding that balance between their requests and my vision. As a CEO, I’m still able to do that, but at the early stages, you typically can’t survive on the revenue of your early adopting customers alone. You need capital, and the CEO needs to raise it. As I’ve worked with more and more investors, however, I’ve realized that fundraising is not that different from talking to customers. Investors are your customers, too!
- Products don’t sell themselves. — We have been slow to bring on a Sales resource to help build a pipeline and drive revenue. We’ve been successfully leveraging the connections of the founding team, but that will only take you so far. If I had to do it all over again, I would build the Sales function much, much sooner the next time.
- It’s a longer game than you think. — I remember going through a rough patch with Riff when I thought we were going to have to shut down the company. We had enough revenue to keep going with a reduced budget, but it meant I had to let two people go, and they were great people. It taught me that I needed to be looking much farther ahead in terms of the balance sheet, raising money earlier and driving revenue more aggressively and that you can control that much more than you think you can through planning.
- Being your own boss means that you don’t have a boss. — When things get tough and you need support, you can rely on board members, co-founders, and advisors for some things, but in the end, the CEO has to make all the daily decisions and then take responsibility for the consequences. I have worked in many large organizations, with many more people to manage and much larger budgets, but I always had the ability to manage up and could often push big decisions to the next rung of the hierarchy. Even after you bring on investors, much of their faith in you is based on how well you manage daily operational risks, and make the decisions that will lead to the best outcomes for the company. That’s on you.
- Creating a culture that you want to be a part of takes work. — Culture doesn’t come for free. It’s not an if-you-build-it-they-will-come kind of situation. You need to take an active role in nurturing the attitudes and behaviors that embody the spirit of the company that you want to create. I knew this from working in healthy and toxic cultures alike, but I’d never built it from scratch before.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Since we work in education and education technologies, I like to think that our daily work contributes to making the world a better place. Our aim as an organization is to develop better interactions among learners and working professionals in order to help them be more collectively successful. While most measurement products focus on productivity, we look at behaviors, which is a huge driver of people’s ability to perform well on shared tasks.
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.
I would address the global underachievement problem in education. In the past several decades, many more students have gained access to schools and schooling, but due to lack of consistent measurement and tracking of outcomes, many students fail to achieve even basic skills because their teachers don’t know what their students don’t know. Perhaps in my next startup, I will create a way for all schools to easily implement regular formative assessments and intervention mechanisms for all students.
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.
Melinda Gates. In 2019, she committed 1B dollars to promote gender equity in the workplace, not just by working to increase opportunities for women, but by supporting organizations that hold companies accountable for fostering gender equality. Inspired by the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, which reported that at the current rate of change it would take more than 200 years to close the inequality gap, she made a bold commitment. I’d love to learn more about how the last year has changed her thinking and approach to this problem, especially with women bearing an unusual amount of the burden of child care, homeschooling, and eldercare.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.