“The only way to grow is to listen.” with Penny Bauder & Libby Fischer

The only way to grow your business is to listen. If you reject constructive criticism, you’ll never be able to advance their businesses. Recognize your customers and staff as experts, and let them inform you where the market is going and where any rough spots are. Surround yourself with people who know what you don’t know […]

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The only way to grow your business is to listen. If you reject constructive criticism, you’ll never be able to advance their businesses. Recognize your customers and staff as experts, and let them inform you where the market is going and where any rough spots are. Surround yourself with people who know what you don’t know — and take their advice when you need it. I’ve found that being able to listen has given me confidence in my leadership and set up Whetstone for success.

I had the pleasure to interview Libby Fischer of Whetstone Education. In 2014, Libby, a Teach For America alumna, took the helm of Whetstone Education, a then-struggling technology company with a clunky teacher evaluation platform used by 30 schools. Within 9 months, Libby led her two-person team to turn the company around by evolving the product with tools for daily teacher coaching, fast-tracking a UI/UX overhaul that led to a 90% user retention rate, and securing a 50-school contract with the pioneers of instructional coaching, Uncommon Schools in New York City. Since then, Whetstone has grown from 30 schools to over 950 schools worldwide, with flagship partnerships at Denver Public Schools, DC Public Schools, Tulsa Public Schools, and over half of all public schools in New Orleans. Libby has firsthand knowledge, both as a former educator and current leader in the education field, about the power that proper teaching can bring to a school and its community. Whetstone’s revenue has grown beyond $2 million annually — a difference of 28x from 2014 — and Whetstone has created 10 new jobs in New Orleans. All of this was accomplished while bootstrapped.

Libby’s ability to lead Whetstone through uncertain waters with no business background led to her being named one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in Education in both 2016 and 2017 as well as a Silicon Bayou Top 100 in Tech and Entrepreneurship. Libby was a founding member of the governing board of Elan Elementary in New Orleans, and she currently sits on the regional council of STAR (Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response).

Libby has done more than just turn around a struggling business. She has transformed the way school leaders train teachers across the country and influenced countless teachers and students in the process. Whetstone’s success creates an immeasurable ripple effect that can dramatically reshape the way educators grow and learn.

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

Ihad never planned to get into tech. I studied Spanish in school, and afterward, I worked with Teach for America in the Mississippi Delta. In 2014, I moved to New Orleans to join Whetstone Education at the Director of Growth. Not much later, I moved into the role of CEO because, honestly, no one else wanted to take the job. The company was struggling, and I was young — and willing to learn how to operate Whetstone and become a leader really fast. I fell in love with the work, and I’ve been doing this ever since.

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

One of the first big struggles I had at Whetstone was right after I took the job. I had moved across the country to take this job, and when I got here, I realized that our product wasn’t solving our clients’ problems. I was inundated with complaints that our software was making user’s lives more difficult, not easier, which felt like a big blow.

At a certain point, I decided to get away from my desk and go school-to-school, observing principals in action, coaching their teachers and giving them feedback. They were purportedly using our software for teacher evaluations, but instead, I found principals were often relying on sticky notes, spreadsheets, and stacks of paper.

I took this lesson back to our team, and we reworked our product based on these observations and responses from school administrators and teachers. We relaunched and now work with over 1000 schools across the country.

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?

In 2015, my Director of Marketing and I were attempting a re-brand, and we decided, because we live in Louisiana, that Whetstone’s new logo should be an alligator. We thought it would be a fun way to tie our business to our specific location without ever thinking that a teacher software company should not have a deadly animal as its logo! When we showed the new logo to people, we quickly learned that what we thought was cute, others found aggressive. From that experience, I learned how important it is to have input from a variety of viewpoints for big decisions because there’s always something you don’t see. Hopefully we can still use the alligator logo on a t-shirt one day.

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

I’ve often joked that if the founders of Whetstone had done research before starting the company, we wouldn’t even exist, because there are so many other data management companies out there that can be used to manage teacher evaluations. After we relaunched the software, we evolved into more than a system for recording evaluations. We grew into a comprehensive platform that offers individualized feedback and coaching for teachers. Whetstone offers school leaders the ability to create personalized professional development for teachers. It’s not a new concept, but we’ve made it possible for schools that don’t have a large internal data team.

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

I’m really excited about adding video to Whetstone! We’ve seen our most successful partners use video to enhance teacher coaching through processes like recording lessons and then reflecting on it afterward. This is a way for teachers to analyze their own strategies and identify small changes they want to make. This self-reflection protocol then becomes a tool for coming up with ways to implement change in the classroom and across the school. This school year is the first that we’re offering this feature, and I’m looking forward to hearing how it’s worked for school leaders and teachers.

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?

In a word, no. The fact that there’s even a special article about “Women in STEM” is an indication of the problem. You never hear the phrase, “Men in STEM,” because it’s just assumed that men will go into the field. Don’t get me wrong, I think increased coverage of the issue is super important; what needs to shift are the mindsets in our society that cause parents/teachers/leaders/etc to act in such a way that make young children — boys and girls alike — think that science and math are in some way gendered; that science and math are for boys and not for girls. I know that’s a really big thing to change, and some specific things that help with that are highlighting female scientists and mathematicians at an equal frequency as their male counterparts.

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?

It’s the same challenge that women face in all male-dominated fields: inherent bias. When a man is interviewing for a job as a doctor or scientist or pilot or engineer, nobody wonders if he is capable of doing the job because he is a man. An interviewer might wonder whether he’s capable of doing the job after he starts answering questions, but when he walks through the door, the fact that he is a man does not trigger a question about ability in anyone’s mind. Women don’t have this luxury.

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

Honestly, I can’t think of any myths about being a woman in STEM or tech. It’s true that you’ll face bias, and all women need to be ready for that.

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. Take advantage of critical opportunities. My life before Whetstone didn’t exactly give me the perfect CV to become a tradition tech CEO. I majored in Spanish in college, and I didn’t know how to code. However, I was in the right place at the right time, and I took advantage of opportunities that came my way. When I stepped up at CEO of Whetstone, I found that my non-traditional background was an asset and allowed me to rethink problems that the company had been grappling with. Since then, Whetstone has become a multi-million-dollar company and impacts the lives of thousands of school leaders, teachers, and students across the country.
  2. Get out from behind a desk. Working at a computer is part and parcel of life in the 21st century, but it’s impossible to completely understand the needs of your customers if you’re stuck behind a screen. When I took over as CEO, users were giving our software rough feedback. Instead of jumping in and building something new, it was important to take the time to get out of the office, talk with school leaders, and remind ourselves why our product was necessary to begin with.
  3. Practice what you preach. Whetstone provides a platform for classroom observation and teacher feedback, and we’ve built on the idea that we make this process more approachable. As the CEO of Whetstone, it’s my job to apply the values of our product to our work environment too — so that my staff is set up for achievement. Allowing time for brainstorming and regular touch-bases with employees has been integral to Whetstone’s growth and extremely low staff turnover rate. Beyond helping accomplish business objectives, I feel it’s my responsibility to help team members grow their careers.
  4. Prepare your employees for life after their job. Especially for young women entering tech, it’s important to have a network of support to help you learn and build your career step by step. As much as I’d love for everyone to stay at Whetstone forever, I know that won’t be the case. I want to be happy when my staff take on new opportunities. I see part of my job as helping my staff build a network of relationships in our industry and take advantage of chances to learn and grow. This helps Whetstone in the short term by bringing fresh ideas and perspectives to our team, and it benefits everyone in the long term. I want to make sure my employees feel like Whetstone is a place worth working at.
  5. The only way to grow your business is to listen. If you reject constructive criticism, you’ll never be able to advance their businesses. Recognize your customers and staff as experts, and let them inform you where the market is going and where any rough spots are. Surround yourself with people who know what you don’t know — and take their advice when you need it. I’ve found that being able to listen has given me confidence in my leadership and set up Whetstone for success.

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

One of the most important parts of creating an effective team is keeping everyone motivated and aligned through a shared company vision. This shared vision should be the guiding light that all other tasks stem from. By having a common goal, staff members can contextualize smaller tasks within their larger impact on the company and beyond. Make your vision clear so that every team member can work toward it independently of outside instruction. This will help you empower others without micromanagement.

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

I spent a lot of time plagued by imposter syndrome, wishing someone would tell me what to do, even though I was the CEO. To get over these feelings and gain confidence, I started using staff and mentors as sounding boards for ideas and stopped pretending like I was supposed to have all the answers already. Your team has different perspectives that can help you identify problems, problem-solve, and ultimately make informed decisions as a leader.

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?

One invaluable mentor to me has been Martin Roth, the Chief Revenue Officer of LevelSet. When I met him, I was a sales team of one, and honestly, I was afraid to call people on the phone. He helped me get over some of the hesitations I’ve had in the workplace and also assisted in making Whetstone’s partnerships more data-driven and beneficial to all parties. He’s taught me how to manage staff time at Whetstone so that we’re able to make as big of an impact as possible.

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

It’s always been important to me to use my success to help build up those around me. One way this has happened is through a partnership with Operation Spark, a New Orleans training program that focuses on helping get women and others underrepresented in tech to become full-stack software developers. Whetstone has worked with Operation Spark to jumpstart careers, and our partnership has also helped me reflect on what diversity in our company means.

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. 🙂

Aside from the educational values of my company, I hope that we can all move toward having a better work/life balance. When we were building up Whetstone, we had to figure out how to scale a high-growth tech company without working 100 hours a week. We are based in New Orleans, and it’s important to all of us that we stay connected with all that our city has to offer. We leave the office by 5 pm most workdays, and we require all employees take 10 days off each year. Though our culture tells us we need to be working 24/7, I think Whetstone’s bootstrapped growth rate, retention rate, and low turnover show that it’s possible to get excellent business outcomes while maintaining a positive company culture that values all employees.

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

I always return to this quote from Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” This quote means so much to me because it shows how learning and self-development can have a ripple effect and change the world around you. It’s felt especially relevant to me during my time at Whetstone because I had to learn how to be a CEO very quickly, and ultimately as a company, we hope our work ripples out throughout the education system.

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 have lunch with Whitney Wolfe Herd, the CEO of Bumble and co-founder of Tinder. She’s shown how women are at the forefront of creative business strategy and has been able to scale Bumble as a dating app that thinks about relationships holistically. The way she’s expanded the company’s offerings to incorporate friendships and professional relationships is ingenious because if you think about a dating company’s business model, a match results in the loss of a company’s customers. She’s found a way to expand Bumble’s offerings while retaining its core goals. Plus, she’s got great style!

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