Work with women entrepreneurs, and you hear the same stories: roundtables where women couldn’t get a word in, investor meetings that became all about appearance, developer calls that left the women in the room feeling like ghosts.
Situations like these led me to found Her Big Idea Fund, in partnership with Brown University’s Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, to fund women’s business ideas and to combat the funding gap. Through the female entrepreneurs I’ve counseled over the years, I saw just how hard women in tech have to work. But after talking with Tracey Grace, Founder and CEO of IBEX IT Business Experts, I realized I’d only scratched the surface of the struggles women entrepreneurs in the industry face.
The women I worked with were just starting their careers. Grace has spent decades leading a tech company. Although she learned entrepreneurial skills earlier than most, she’s still had to claw her way to places many of her male counterparts waltzed into.
It’s not merely a matter of standing taller, becoming a subject matter expert, or investing in overtime networking. To succeed, particularly in tech, women entrepreneurs need all those things and more. Grace showed me that, and I want other women — and men, frankly — to see it, too.
Haley Hoffman Smith: Were you raised around entrepreneurs, or did you always know you wanted to be a businesswoman?
Tracey Grace: My father was an entrepreneur. He owned the largest minority-owned carpet store in the state of New Jersey. He got me involved very early in life, answering phones and helping to tabulate quotes. I worked with him when I was off school for summer. By age 12, I was helping to install carpet in the small closets on job sites. As a reward, he’d let me drive his car around the neighborhood during lunchtime. He knew how to get me to the job site!
My husband is also an entrepreneur of 30 years. He’d encouraged me for years to start my own company. It wasn’t until the stars aligned and I’d had enough of “climbing the corporate ladder” that I knew the time was right.
HHS: How did you find yourself working in the male-dominated tech industry, and what kept you there?
TG: The majority of my corporate experience is in information technology, particularly in training and consulting. I started from the bottom, just doing sales, but I learned quickly how to close deals with tech leaders. I’d ask open-ended questions to understand their problems, propose the appropriate training solutions, and consult on how to improve their operations.
Eventually, my success got me promoted to management. My responsibilities kept growing until I was facing C-level leaders — who were mostly men, of course. I had to adapt. I love sports, and I learned how to play golf. Once I figured out how to have fun with them, I realized we had a lot in common. My drive to succeed helped me relate as well.
HHS: Many women report feeling they have to “prove themselves” or work harder than their male counterparts to get ahead. What approach did you take?
TG: That is absolutely true. Without the support of my husband when our children were young, it would have been tough to dedicate the time needed to get ahead. I was always one of the first to arrive in the office and one of the last to leave. I volunteered for every new assignment. Any time a manager went on vacation, I agreed to be their backup. My goal was to learn every function of the company. I wanted to know what made the organization tick. My sense of curiosity has served me well. The more I learn, the more I want to know.
HHS: How have relationships played a part in your success as a businesswoman?
TG: Relationships are essential for entrepreneurs. Networking has helped me build so many partnerships and close millions of dollars in business deals. It may feel awkward at first, but keep with it.
When I decided to start IBEX, I committed to spending my first year going to networking and industry events. I tried different industries and different verticals. I went to different meetings each month and finally narrowed it down to three. With those three, I decided to go deep.
Today, I continue to network with and learn from those groups. Being an entrepreneur is a way of life. You have to find ways of doing business that you enjoy. That’s why so many businesspeople close business deals on the golf course. Learn how to incorporate what you enjoy doing into your business life, and it will no longer feel like work. Later this month, for instance, I’ll attend a chamber event on a tennis course.
HHS: What do you advise women to do when they constantly feel undermined or in the shadow of their male counterparts in the business world?
TG: A situation early in my career taught me just how important it is for women to fight for themselves. I’d been promoted to senior sales manager, which put me in a position overseeing two male counterparts. Both vice presidents, both male, came in from corporate during a week when I was on vacation.
After I returned from vacation, they called me into a meeting. They told me that they’d decided the company would no longer use senior titles for sales managers, which would put us all on equal ground. I later found out that this decision was made following an evening out at a bar.
I was young, and I didn’t know how to fight back. I hung in there, though, and resisted the change. I took my case to the highest level of the company, and I was eventually allowed to keep my title. It was a battle, and it really shouldn’t have been. Be true to yourself, and know your value. When it comes time to negotiate, do your homework and be prepared. Be able to back up your request for more money with facts about your job performance and your impact on the company. Don’t assume anything, ask questions, and find a mentor, as well as a sponsor. Know the difference. A sponsor is an active player on your path to success, and that’s essential in corporate America.
Most importantly, always have a side hustle. Start a small business doing something you enjoy. Always have something to fall back on. That way, if everything goes wrong in your day job, you never feel hung out to dry. And you never know — one day, your side hustle may very well become your million-dollar main hustle.