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Starting up for the First Time

What year one taught me about mold breaking, path forging, and empowering a diverse network

In “Late Bloomers,” Rich Karlgaard details how our cultural obsession for manufacturing wunderkind success conditions children to conform to a singular mold of excellence, overlooking hidden talents and the different growth rates of different minds. Growing at your own pace rings true for my experience as a first time founder – where leaning out of a W2 structure, leans you into learning opportunities – from the mundanely operational like filing for incorporation to the creative and philosophical like defining your brand and adapting to market feedback.  

Breaking the perception mold

My venturing out aligns with the 18 percent increase from 2017 to 2018 in women-owned businesses, part of the 114 percent up-trend in women entrepreneurs over the last two decades. Despite the uptick, female founders face a tougher path due to external perception issues stemming from historically low representation in the field and choice of building businesses in lower “growth potential” sectors, which contribute to 63% less likelihood of securing venture funding. Then on the internal front, millennial women are often conflicted about our mold breaking status as the first generation of women graduating college at a higher rate than male counterparts and earning bigger paychecks. Left uninspired, these strides could rein in risk-taking out of self-protection, compounding breakthrough barriers.

For example, one of my earliest encouragements to venture on my own came externally during my PR agency days, when a Fortune 500 client, in the immediate aftermath of a well-received project, said to count him in if I ever started my own consultancy. That a seasoned communications executive thought so highly of my work was heartening, but I immediately dismissed the idea as too risky and abstract to entertain. Years later, I found myself advising an ex-colleague turned CEO on his PR strategy in between similar discussions with two investment banks. A realization hit that helping brands grow feels like home. By then, I had notched more than a decade in establishing brands and owning global strategy, content creation, and crisis navigation – which gave me confidence to lean into my unique value add for startups and bellwethers. Despite early external support, overcoming internal objections took time. But once that spark of self-motivation lined up with external agreement, the idea caught fire and a forged a business from the flames.

Forging flexible paths to serve brands

As VCs advise their entrepreneurs, innovate to problem solve, not for innovation’s sake. I started up because I saw a gap in the communications sector that the breadth of my brand building work in corporate and agency land could fill. Young startups need branding guidance and execution support ranging from setting and retooling strategy to the trench work of creating content that connects with their desired audiences. But, they frequently lack the budget for a full-time in-house or agency resource let alone hire both. And better resourced companies can benefit from an outside perspective to surface new considerations that complement existing programs – like what an independent director brings to boards. As interim director of communications for a startup that’s since been acquired for north of half a billion dollars, I revised the strategy, spearheaded its most covered launch ever, and led an agency search with its incoming CMO.

Additionally, a project-based model builds in flexibility for clients from specifying short project durations to smaller scopes of work. This helps budget-constrained companies take move communications forward a la carte – make a PR plan, do executive speaking training or a strategy review session – without on-boarding a dedicated resource. Later stage companies, including multinationals with internal and agency teams, can get a different perspective and an outside perspective and extra pair of hands to build out PR framework, executive communications, speaking, and other thought leadership programs.  

Drawing from and empowering a diverse network  

As an older millennial, I’ve seen a gradual groundswell of support over the last decade for inclusion. Most major tech companies run mentorship initiatives for under-represented candidates made possible by women and men in senior leadership roles making time to grow the next crop of female executives. While lines outside the men’s bathrooms at tech trade events are still longer, I see a higher proportion of female attendees than at my first show.

Both genders seem to be heeding Madeleine Albright’s assertion that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” a call for community action made more urgent by the ugliness of #MeToo accusations. Teaming up to boost diverse representation has produced a modest uptick in female partners at VC firms, several funds earmarked for investing in female founders, and change-inducing conditions like banning all-male panels and racy booth attire at industry events, all of which pave the way for sharing diverse perspectives that enrich the tech and startup sectors.

Similarly, having a diverse network of acquaintances in different industries and job functions created a plethora of opportunities spanning cybersecurity, Kubernetes, mobile apps, and finance inside a year. In turn, contributing to a diverse ecosystem gave me a broader view of innovation and trends with spillover factors. For example, Kubernetes’ broad adoption by DevOps bubbles up to business level priorities like digital transformation and connects to adjacent considerations like information protection and risk management for the updated infrastructure. Seeing the forest where a given tree grows opens up more ideas.

Connecting the dots in retrospect

Looking back, starting up finally gave me the fulfillment that I couldn’t find ladder climbing at a 9-5 Silicon Valley job, no matter how buzzy the brand or cushy the perks. The endeavor is fundamentally risky because starting up means signing up for the unknown. It’s equally terrifying and exciting to stake your future on an endeavor with unfathomable results, pinning hopes of success on a hypothesis that you are a missing element the market needs and or wants.

I’m profoundly grateful for the interactions that have opened corridors for growth that I would never have encountered on the W2 route. I feel incredibly fortunate for the ongoing opportunity to explore green pastures with clients who chose me as their partner. Together in year one, we’ve created signature stories that drove industry and customer buzz, elevated a young startup to exit, and landed women in tech wins including a “Woman of Influence” award to help a new VC establish credibility. That process has transformed my view of risk – from a mindset of fear to one of abundance. Turns out, the business of starting up is the most personal work of all and for me, the most rewarding.

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