Do not be afraid to speak up. We all ask questions, and the phrase “there is no such thing as a stupid question” rings true. If you don’t understand, ask. If someone speaks ill of you because you don’t understand, ask someone else. Don’t waste your breath on someone who refuses to answer your questions and gives you a roundabout response. A guy friend said to me once, my female peers always must justify their job by reciting their entire resume. Why? You were hired for a reason, so speak up when you feel the need.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Min Kyriannis.
Min Kyriannis brings 25+ years in converged, global, information technology, cybersecurity, physical security, as well as risk management on an international scale. She is a pioneer developer of industry-leading cyber programs for building systems and is now CEO of Amyna Systems, which looks to advance the industry with revolutionary, patent-pending technologies.
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?
My family immigrated to the United States in 1977 when I was an infant. Even though I came to the US at such an early age, English was still a second language. My parents did not have much money, my father was a carpenter by trade and my mother was a stay-at-home mom who did factory work on the side. I remember her working on the knitting machine provided by the factory (for which she had to pay). She would make clothes in bulk. She did not get paid much for the work, in fact the pay was minimal and per finished piece. We were the typical immigrant family, working hard to make ends meet to support the family.
I do not remember having the luxuries given to many of the kids in our neighborhood. At that time, Flushing, NY was predominantly Italian and Polish. It was not the Chinatown we know today. Since my parents did not speak English, beginning in elementary school, I was asked to negotiate and translate all their business transactions. It was an interesting time — I was such a tomboy, preferring to do things atypical of a “girl”. By junior high, there were more Chinese immigrants and even then, I still did not fit in and was ostracized. Even though I spoke both English and Chinese, I was never accepted into any of the cliques in school. The library became my hide out for solace. I remember heading to the library 2–3 times a week to get books to read, return them and then grab another stack to go home and read. I always felt that our extended family and even our friends looked down on our family, and frankly, it made me angry. Funny thing — the anger made me work harder.
In High School, we got our first computer, and I remember how that was so novel. It made me fall in love with technology and it seemed natural to me. By the time I reached college, things shifted a bit. I made it to NYU and saw a different world. In fact, I was hired at NYU to begin working full-time starting as a computer technician — which paid for my tuition at the university! I did not have much of a college life since I worked and pursued my degrees, but the journey provided a huge amount of experience in the technology world. At one point, I decided to leave technology and go into catering and modeling, but then technology pulled me back again. I can’t complain much since I met my husband because of technology — we’ve been together for 20+ years.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
People seem amazed that I own the company. I find it funny but also find it scary because of the comments I receive. “How do you manage it all?” “Where do you find the time?” “Do you have time for your family?” It’s sad, but also enlightening to see how to this day, people are still taken aback by a female founder. I typically laugh it off, but I always tell people the same story. As a professional, when I tell someone to do something, they do it. At home, when I yell at my kids, I get the puppy eyes and the tears. I’m typically the tough mommy at home, but it is so much easier to manage adults than to manage children.
There’s a stereotype about women and their positions at home, so it’s amazing to be asked by many of my peers on how I manage everything. There are those days (when I’m being a smart aleck) that I would tell people I have clones of myself! The reply I use is from my mother-in-law, Mary Kyriannis, “you put one foot forward and you keep on going. You just move, because you are doing this to show your kids that no matter what, you will succeed when you put your mind to it.” Our children look at us as role models, I want my children to succeed and as long as I include them in the process, they will learn the at same time.
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 speak multiple languages and juggle many tasks at once, so I’m constantly on the move. I am notorious for speaking and then continuing the sentence in another language without thinking about it. People get a chuckle out of it, but there are times I realize that it may not be appropriate, and I need to slow down my pace a bit.
It’s interesting to see people’s faces when you begin finishing your sentences in a different language, but then there are times I would do it intentionally to lighten the mood.
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 husband, Jimmy Kyriannis, has always been by my side and believed in my goals. We’ve been together for 20+ years and he always laughed and asked if I remembered our first date. He remembered that I said with such conviction that I was going to take over the world and he never doubted my words. He’s been with me through every step of this journey, and I could not thank him enough for being by my side. He’s my sounding board and confidant. I always go to him for advice and vice versa.
The funny thing is when we first met at work, we hated each other. We never talked to each other and ignored each other whenever we had a chance. However, via work, we had to communicate and through one email, we realized that hey, the other person wasn’t so bad. I will say, we are both very private about our personal lives, so we hid our relationship for many years before we told people we were together. We finally came out a year after we got married!
The reality is, I could not thank anyone else more than him. He truly is a life partner and someone who will be by my side if I fail or succeed. Obviously, we both don’t believe in failure, so he’ll be through this entire journey with me.
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?
This really is a difficult question. Personally, I see women experiencing tremendous doubt when they have a great idea. If a woman doesn’t doubt her abilities and her idea, then her peers do. I personally have been attacked (verbally) by women. However, being in an industry of male peers for so many years, I have grown a very thick skin and it did not affect me as much. However, if the attack was directed to a woman who just started her career, I’m sure this would have impacted them far more, bringing on the self-doubt and self-worth. For women to succeed, this toxicity needs to stop, and we need to evaluate why this toxicity exists. Is it worth us talking ill of others? Why are we doing this?
Although women are starting to band together to support each other, we are still far from achieving positive attitudes and equilibrium. The only way we can empower more women founders is to allow them the freedom to speak and not let them feel judged by their peers and raise them up to focus on their ideas so they can succeed. There shouldn’t be jealousy involved here; there should be support, and at the end, a supportive environment which allows everyone to succeed in their own way.
Think of it as the golden rule we all learned as a child, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. You create a support ecosystem for women to rise, and they shall do the same for the next generation.
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’s so much that we can do as an individual — we must be cognizant that we are all different. We can’t read others’ minds, nor others ours. However, we can always lend a hand and support each other when needed instead of ripping each other apart. Centuries of mansplaining has trained us to believe that there are certain “norms” to a gender, and that we need to act in a specific way. That mindset needs to change for us to excel and grow.
As a society (and even culturally), we need to stop categorizing what women’s roles are — and aren’t. As a child growing up, I was told numerous times, by my own parents, to find a husband and stay home to raise kids. Given my temperament, that was never going to happen. As I made a statement to my parents, “I’ve busted my ass working and paying for my own school while supporting them, what makes them think I will stay home and be a complacent housewife?”. Obviously, this was not taken in very well. We need to remember society is evolving at a very fast space, and with technology at our fingertips, it’s very easy to gather information or to see what’s happening in the world. This is empowerment. However, we need to allow people to speak freely without judgment. This is the only way we will grow, hopefully, for the better.
As for the government, they must begin taking a stance on equality. We keep talking about equal opportunities, but it’s taking a long time for major corporations to move towards that outcome. If the government begins to provide more opportunities for women in leadership roles, I’m sure more organizations will begin opening up additional opportunities in the C-suite.
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?
Well, we like to call them “spidey senses.” The tingling sensation that something’s wrong!! There’s the intuition that something is off, and I like to call it a gut feeling. The other reality is women tend to be able be more empathetic when they lead — an innate “motherly” instinct to read and take care of people. This is such an important skillset that others may call emotional intelligence (EQ). EQ has been raised in many conversations in recent times, and it’s been said that the people with the highest EQ are the best leaders!!
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
The myth of being a founder — I will say that it isn’t as easy as it looks to be a founder. You’re expected to lead and make sure that the decisions you make are the best choices for your business. You are now being scrutinized for everything you do and everything you say. There’s also a certain expectation of a founder, which is that you’re a leader and should know everything. It isn’t as glamorous as everyone may think; there’s a lot of hard work that goes into it as well as a lot of learning. Frankly, I will say becoming a founder has forced me to learn about other areas at a fast pace so that I can keep the pace up. Things will not land on your lap and there is no easy way to found a business. The only way to get there is by hard work.
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?
WOW! Curve ball — anyone can be a founder, but a founder may not need to be the head of the company, leading the company. In my mind, the founder is an individual with a great idea. However, the founder can put a team together who can successfully run the business. Which leads me to something I will talk about, which is to surround yourself with great people and ensure your team is smarter than you. You can be the founder of the company and be the brains behind the idea, but you should retain others who have the business acumen to make the idea successful.
In my mind, anyone driven enough to have a growth mindset will be successful as a founder. If they’re willing to learn and keep up, then they should be fine. If they’re going to sit back and think that things will fall in their lap, then they are better off seeking a job as an employee. The founder(s) should be driven and have the same end goal in mind. They need to know where their strengths and weaknesses are, as well as the willingness to approach those who have a skillset they do not.
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.)
- As a woman, ignore the negativity, especially as expressed by other women. We are our own worst enemies. We’ve been ostracized by other women because we are not the norm. I’m a working mother as well as a parent. I see many parents look at me differently when they find out that I work. However, I’ve learned to ignore their side glances and comments. It isn’t worth my time. I’ve also been ostracized by other women, and at this stage of my career, I just brush it off my shoulder. This is no need to heed this negativity.
- Do not be afraid to speak up. We all ask questions, and the phrase “there is no such thing as a stupid question” rings true. If you don’t understand, ask. If someone speaks ill of you because you don’t understand, ask someone else. Don’t waste your breath on someone who refuses to answer your questions and gives you a roundabout response. A guy friend said to me once, my female peers always must justify their job by reciting their entire resume. Why? You were hired for a reason, so speak up when you feel the need.
- Hold yourself with integrity and empower others, as well as be supportive of others — this is so important. Not only does this show that you are a true leader, but it also shows that you know how to feel happy for others who have succeeded. This will only provide you with allies as you grow on with your business.
- Learn from your experiences. This will help you grow and move you further in your journey. This mindset also helps you learn about others. I am by no means an expert at all things, but I want to learn, and I am willing to learn. The more you learn, the more you can succeed in your business because you will ask intelligent questions and make the right business decisions.
- Most importantly, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. People who have succeeded have always surrounded themselves with people who are smarter than themselves. You have your strengths and your weaknesses, and no one expects you to know everything. You just need to find people you trust who can fill that missing part of you so you can make the business successful. If you can’t find them, ask someone you trust for recommendations. You never know where that question will lead!
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Coming from a childhood where I had to work, I feel that it’s important to give back and ensure that children who are in similar circumstances can have an opportunity for success later in their lives. Being told to stay home because of cultural ideals or what is seen as normal for my gender has made me fight harder to succeed. There are so many brilliant and bright young minds that just have not had the opportunity and if I can help to provide them with the opportunity to decide what’s best for themselves, in my mind, creating an environment where people believe that they can succeed will help make this world better.
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.
This is such a challenging question — for me it’s to ensure people are empowered to speak without fearing others’ judgment. We all have different opinions, but I have seen that if your opinion differs from the majority, you are ostracized by the community. Kindness and acceptance. Let’s listen to each other and hear each other out. There may be reasons why we haven’t looked at a question from the other person’s perspective and expanding our viewpoint can make a huge difference or change the world for good. Unfortunately, nowadays everyone is rigid with their views and quick to judge. Sadly, it’s divided us all. To be better, we have to be united. There’s a movement called “The Kindness Games”, started by three amazing people, Tim Wenzel, Lee Oughton, and Kehkasha Dadwani. The started this movement to call out folks that have impacted them with kindness and thank them for it. We never hear about the kind things, done by others, so this practice is so needed. I truly commend them for their dedication to this movement. The best thing we all can do is to continue their work and to bring more kindness forward without judgement.
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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Being of Taiwanese descent, I would love to speak to Tsai In-Wen of Taiwan, but there’s so many people with whom I would love to sit down and speak. Initially, I spoke of Oprah since she has significant influence on Americans, but really the ones I want to speak to are other women leaders. Vice President Kamala Harris is one as she is someone of colored descent who could help shed light on her struggles as a woman in power. In pop culture, I’d be interested to speak to people such as Taylor Swift to see how their star power can influence young minds. There’s so many amazing people out there that it is difficult to simply name a few since we can always learn from each other.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.