We take a lot of things for granted in this life … like walking.
Last winter I had some pretty extensive foot surgery. Sure, I expected some recovery time, but it was longer and involved more rehabilitation than I had counted on – I essentially needed to learn to walk again after being in a cast, and then a boot for three months.
Although this isn’t the heroic story of someone who learns to walk again after losing a limb or being in a severe accident, it certainly was humbling for me. This setback made me reflect on how, in life, sometimes you need to stop, assess, and start again from the beginning. When you can’t walk, it is certainly a wake-up call – and you put yourself in the hands of experts.
At some point in our lives, we all need to reach out for help and lean on other people (sometimes literally!). Taking those “baby steps” again as I re-learned the basics of balance, stability, and moving my body in the correct way made me think of the parallels to coaching. The physical shifts and the mental shifts involved mirror each other.
In my energy coaching practice, I am the one telling others to start at the beginning, work from the ground up, and lean on me for support. Just like my physical therapists, I am trying to help people get from one place to another. It’s not always easy, and often, it takes a lot of hard work over a period of time to get there.
I am now through the worst of it and walking several miles each day. I’ve realized the surgery and all the physical therapy were worth the end result. Here are the lessons I’ll try to hold on to and embed in my coaching practice:
Don’t take things for granted. Easy to say … hard to do. Be grateful for what you have and try not to be resentful when you no longer have those things.
It’s OK to start all over again. We are all starting from different places, and sometimes you need to regroup and go back to square one.
You will get discouraged. And angry. And furious. It’s natural to get discouraged but remember you are learning and perfecting the process.
Reach out for help. What resources do you have? Although it might not be in your nature, take stock of the people or organizations that are there to help and lean on them. When you lose hope, those folks can help lift you to the next milestone.
Take baby steps. It’s natural to want to hurry up and do all the things necessary to get better. But sometimes slow is good. If you can trust your guide (therapist/coach/mentor), learning each new step can end in a better result.
Be realistic. Be realistic with yourself that change is going to take time. Also be realistic about the milestones that will get you there.
Gain new perspectives. Sitting on the sidelines gives you a new appreciation, and also time to look at things with fresh eyes. Shifting your perspective may help you understand situations better
Be aware of your blind spots. Sometimes you don’t see the bumps in the road that may trip you up. When reassessing your goals, try to be consciously aware of your blind spots. Believe me, I have a new appreciation of physical accessibility issues, something that I had not considered much in the past.
Keep your skills current. This is always a good practice, but my forced slow-down gave me a chance to do some research and work on some new skills as I was recuperating.
Just keep swimming. As Dory tells Nemo, in Finding Nemo, “just keep swimming” or walking! Try to make forward progress each day. . Keep moving and you will regain strength, whether it is physical or mental.
Life may throw us curveballs, but we need to gain wisdom and knowledge from those experiences in order to forge ahead.
Hiring struggles endure as companies try to employ and retain the talent needed to grow their businesses. The Great Resignation (or Great Reshuffle) continues in many industries as people consider new post-pandemic options. While nearly 4.3 million people in the U.S. quit their jobs in January (2022), there were also 11.3 million job openings, according to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Labor. What does this mean for hiring?
In my last blog post, I wrote about how to lead with empathy in hiring and recruitment practices. Part of leading with empathy is to make sure our workplaces are representative of the society we live in by implementing effective diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) hiring practices. This post will explore how companies and hiring managers can help make an impact, even when talent may be scarce.
There is much lip service given to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and some companies are making strides, but many companies are not. This quote resonated with me as a goal for DEI initiatives:
“As a society, if we begin to shape our practices around how we treat people, how our work environments are structured, the Great Reshuffle will end,” states Gina Ganesh, VP of People and Culture at Florence Healthcare. Treating all people well is the right thing to do. And hiring diverse candidates drives real progress, including bottom-line business results.
Diversity Drives Business Results
It has been proven that ethnically diverse companies perform 36% better than companies that are not. We’ll dive into that stat in a minute, but first, some important definitions and distinctions when thinking about a DEI recruiting strategy.
Diversity is the range of differences that make people unique, both seen and unseen. (Be mindful that diversity includes not only race and gender, but age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical disabilities, and neurodiversity).
Inclusion is an environment that engages multiple perspectives, different ideas, and individuals to define organizational policy and culture.
Remember, when you hire for diversity, you get the benefits of inclusion.
An important point according to Janet Stovall, Executive Communications Manager at UPS, in her TED talk. “Let’s be clear: diversity and inclusion are not the same things. Diversity is a numbers game. Inclusion is about impact. Companies can mandate diversity, but they have to cultivate inclusion.” Stovall is also clear that businesses can be a key force to dismantle racism.
McKinsey has done a series of studies on the topic of DEI and the latest study encompasses 15 countries and more than 1,000 large companies. This latest report, titled Diversity Wins shows that the relationship between diversity on executive teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance has strengthened over time.
McKinsey explored how different approaches to inclusion and diversity could have shaped the trajectories of the companies in their data set and found two critical factors: a systematic business-led approach to inclusion and diversity, and bold action on inclusion.
One Leader’s Story on Building a Diverse Organization
The business case for DEI is there, but it’s not always easy. I’d like to (anonymously) share the story of a friend of mine who was trying to increase diverse hiring his organization.
He was the head of AI software for products at a Fortune 500 company and specifically set out to hire more female engineers. He met with his managers and discussed ideas. He challenged his staff to look through LinkedIn for candidates. He spent one morning combing through LinkedIn and personally wrote 100 cold/semi-cold emails to prospects.
I think it’s important to note that he didn’t delegate it out. From this initial outreach, he received 35 responses, and he reached out personally to all. Then he interviewed and hired several of these women. After a period of one year, 20% of his team were women – from less than 5% – and the percentages were still climbing.
A couple of things had to happen to make this work. He told his staff that they needed to get involved and invest in their networks – both college alumni networks and other networks of friends and past colleagues. He made it clear that hiring for diversity is key in jobs at every level. He also made sure that candidates met a diverse group of people within the company during interviews. His staff was taught to follow up with every candidate personally. These may seem like small things, but they were game changers for both the new employees and the organization’s depth.
Unfortunately, there is bad news here. Two years after this initiative, there was a full reorganization and my friend parted ways with this company. The commitment to hiring for diversity was not sustained, the DEI focus faded within the organization, and progress was lost. I believe that the moral of this story is that enabling real change takes both time and commitment, and awareness is only the first step.
Beyond the Rooney Rule
The “Rooney Rule” – a diversity initiative started by the National Football League that calls for interviewing minority candidates for top jobs – has been adopted by corporate America, but experts believe it hasn’t made much of an impact.
As companies release detailed information about the diversity of their workforces, the data shows that women and people of color are well-represented in the lowest rungs of many company workforces, but there’s often little representation in leadership roles and board positions. When companies adopt a Rooney Rule, they’re pledging to add at least one candidate to their interview pool to increase gender and racial diversity, but that’s usually not enough to foster real change.
To make a meaningful impact, hiring managers should aim to interview a slate of candidates that’s 30% diverse, according to Alina Polonskaia, global leader of the D&I practice at executive recruiter Korn Ferry. Companies could also set a standard of having their executive ranks mirror the gender and race breakdown of the usually much-more-diverse entry-level workforce. In addition, employers should also use the same diversity standards they are applying for new hires to people being considered for promotions.
How Diversity can be Your Superpower
Let’s take a look at a study focused on hiring for B2B sales roles. This study by Forrester, commissioned by Outreach, confirms it is time for us all to commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Since sellers are the first point of contact for a company, sales reps must represent the world around them, and organizations must commit to DEI or risk losing revenue and talent.
Sales leaders understand the need for diverse teams; 67% of respondents say it’s important for their team to represent the world around them. However, although sales respondents in North America say DEI is important, they are not ranking DEI efforts over other priorities. Respondents ranked almost every other sales leadership skill before DEI. Yet, customers are demanding diversity now.
60% of respondents stated that diversity within their sales team has contributed to their teams’ success.
82% predict that the racial or ethnic diversity of their sales team will be equally or more important in the next two years.
72% believe that DEI will play an equally important or more important role in business decisions in the next two years.
They conclude that companies with strong DEI practices have better-performing sales teams, including higher forecasts, higher conversion rates, and higher sales attainment.
How to Walk the Walk
The Inclusion Solution blog points out, “it’s not just about introducing shiny new initiatives and hiring the first head of DEIBJ (diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice) — it’s about displaying a real, sustainable commitment to these efforts through financial and human resources deployed over time… not just when the cameras are rolling and the topic is trending.”
To that end, here are some strategies and ideas on how to walk the walk and incorporated diversity in your hiring to reap the benefits of inclusivity. Some are tactical tips, others are broader, more strategic initiatives gathered from the reports, experts, and sources mentioned in this blog.
Focus on developing an equitable talent process, purposely create diverse and inclusive teams, and create development programs for under-represented groups. (Korn Ferry)
When conducting campus recruiting, think beyond Ivy League schools and schools you may be personally connected to, and consider Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) (Excelencia in Education)
A “work from anywhere” environment can foster diversity hires. In an all-virtual environment, there are very few limitations in terms of where to find talent. (Bloomberg)
Challenge your definitions of “professionalism” and “leadership” within your organization – and then hire and promote diverse leaders. (Mac’s List)
Broaden your lens on DE&I, including embracing neurodiversity. One big benefit of an inclusive work culture is that it fosters diversity of thought, different approaches to work, innovation, and creativity. (Deloitte)
Provide education around and try to use inclusive language. (Mac’s List)
Training is a good start, but mature organizations do more. Leaders need to model inclusive behavior, and the organization as a whole needs to value and measure progress toward DEI goals. (Forrester)
Strengthen leadership accountability and capabilities for inclusion and diversity (I&D). Companies should place their core-business leaders and managers at the heart of the I&D effort—beyond the HR function or employee resource-group leaders. (McKinsey)
Enable equality of opportunity through fairness and transparency. Deploy analytics tools to show that promotions, pay processes, and the criteria behind them, are transparent and fair. (McKinsey)
If companies want to do a better job of retaining diverse talent, they can’t go back to “business as usual.” It’s time to make work more equitable, and while flexibility is not the panacea, it is a step in the right direction. (Harvard Business Review)
Workers overall want to feel like their boss cares about them. Gen Z wants a culture built on mental health and wellness. (LinkedIn)
Flexibility is increasingly prized, particularly by underrepresented groups. Leaders who hope to retain top talent and maintain diversity must act swiftly and deliberately to counter the forces of proximity bias. (i.e., if managers spend most of their time working in the office, that is likely to lead to a double standard of valuing employees who also come into the office). (Future Forum)
Continue pushing the conversation forward, even if you don’t have all the answers. DEI strategy is an essential element of building a strong business that is able to attract and retain great talent and connect with a diverse customer base. (Forrester)
As you search out new talent, there are a lot of nuances that you need to consider. Your HR team may have guidelines, and you may want to “go with your gut” in terms of what is right, but there are many factors and issues involved. Educate yourself and become an agent for change, dedicating the time and commitment necessary to foster inclusivity for all.
As we enter the new year, HR managers and CEOs face a wake-up call. Employee recruitment and retention are major priorities for so many businesses this year, with companies unable to fill positions as we face continued uncertainty with COVID and the Great Resignation – now also being termed the Great Reshuffle.
The most recent statistics from the U.S. labor department said there were 10.6 million job openings at the end of November 2021 and 6.9 million unemployed people – 1.5 jobs per unemployed person. The number of “quits” hit a new high of 4.5 million in November. An article in The Guardian explains, “Quitting, most economists will tell you, is usually an expression of optimism. And yet, 2021’s quits happened against a larger economic picture that remains difficult to interpret with confidence.”
Retirement – Most of the 5 million people who have left the labor force since the start of the pandemic are over 55 and have retired – early or naturally.
Career or industry switching – Others are switching careers or industries, for example, from restaurants and hotels to technology and warehousing, leaving some sectors with lots of openings and fewer candidates to fill them. Not surprisingly, given the stress on educators over the past two years, teachers are most likely to leave the labor force as compared to their counterparts in other industries.
Work-life balance – Thirteen percent of workers said they quit because their jobs didn’t provide work-life balance.
Care insecurity – Related to work-life balance, mothers with college degrees and telework-compatible jobs were more likely to exit the labor force and more likely to be on leave than women without children. One of the underlying reasons is an unequal distribution of labor at home and a critical degree of burnout contributing to “care insecurity.” Care insecurity is defined as uncertainty about daycare and school schedules that are unpredictably interrupted by periods of quarantine prompted by exposure to COVID.
The short-term outlook for the labor market suggests workers are likely to continue to have considerable bargaining power in 2022, says Indeed in its 2022 Labor Market Outlook report. But interestingly, job seekers remain hesitant. Active job search – that is, people taking specific steps to land work, like responding to job ads – hasn’t budged since the summer.
Where does all of this leave employers as they seek to recruit solid candidates to fill open positions?
Recruiting During a Time of Resentment
From the conversations I’ve had with friends, family, and colleagues recently, businesses that are hiring aren’t doing themselves any favors. Too many companies are approaching recruiting without empathy making it difficult to recruit good people. At the same time, prospective employees are hesitant and may have negative experiences with previous employers. Maybe it’s time for HR Managers to take a step back and look at their hiring processes.
You’re essentially recruiting during a time of resentment. People are disheartened, they’re tired, they’re sick of COVID, and at times sick from COVID. They may be working in an industry, such as healthcare, teaching, hospitality, or retail, where they are on the front lines every day and are looking for something different and less stressful. On the other hand, many office workers have the advantage of being able to work remotely, but that has its challenges as well. Are they being supported and mentored? Are they learning and growing? If this is going to be the new normal – rather than just a phase to get through – are you fully invested in making it successful?
New recruits will be precious resources in your company. Do you understand how to communicate effectively and listen to their thoughts and ideas?
5 Tips forHiring and Retaining Employees with Empathy
Here’s a collection of tips for hiring with empathy. I believe that companies who approach their hiring process this way demonstrate to recruits that they support their employees and provide a positive work environment. Empathy then needs to be reflected in the workplace to retain your talent.
Stop Ghosting Prospects
Maybe this should be common sense, but it’s not. If a candidate has taken the time to interview with you, they at least deserve a response – positive or negative. And a candidate who may not be right for a specific position today may be worth connecting with in the future, so keep that door open. Although many companies are using recruiting technology to automate the hiring process, we need to remember that there are real people behind each resume.
Fifty-two percent of job hunters say a lack of response from employers is their biggest frustration, according to Websolutions. In the current hiring environment, candidates have higher expectations for proactive, transparent, and frequent communications from employers. This needs to be communicated from the heads of HR to all the hiring managers involved in the process. If your current screening process is handled by a bot, you could be losing out to great people including referrals from current employees.
2. Prioritize Soft Skills
LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends survey shows that bad hires are almost never a matter of hard skills alone. Prioritize soft skills – such as creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and time management – in your hiring process. Although hard skills certainly matter, most hiring and firing decisions come down to soft skills.
Part of the issue is that soft skills are more difficult to evaluate than hard skills. You can reasonably determine if a programmer has the right coding skills, or a translator has the right language skills, to perform adequately in their jobs. However, identifying poor soft skills is much harder, which is why this is often discovered too late, after a hire has been made.
3. Fully support Flexibility and Remote Work
Pre-pandemic, businesses expected that in five years 38% of their remote workforce would be fully remote, while today they expect 58% to be fully remote in five years, says Upwork in its Future Workforce report.
Career Builder adds that 35% of job seekers say they will turn down an offer if the employer does not offer a remote work option. The pandemic has forced the issue of remote work and flexible work schedules, making it a priority for employees. As companies consider return-to-the-office policies, they must realize there has been a mindset shift for many employees, and flexibility is now valued more than ever. It may be better for business too.
An Airtasker survey shows on average, remote employees work 1.4 more days every month, or 16.8 more days every year, than those who work in an office – and on workdays, they spend more time getting things done. Many workers are more productive and less stressed in a work-from-home environment since there is no commute, less water cooler talk, and more opportunity to fit exercise into their daily routine.
4. Hire People You want to Coach
As a certified, professional coach, I spend time coaching people on energy leadership, and how you “show up” truly matters. Are you hiring people who will show up with an positive attitude and a mindset to think out of the box, bring all their creative skills, and work as a team?
Companies need to look at their interviewing process in a couple of ways. Are they looking to find the perfect candidate, or can they hire for aptitude and attitude? If they can identify the right aptitude and attitude, will the company culture embrace that and provide the training to help them grow? You may want to map out your hiring process from the humanistic viewpoint.
5. Listen to People to Retain Them
Once you’ve hired good people, you need to work hard to keep them. According to a recent Fast Company article, 2022 will be a key year for companies to live up to their promises to employees, or risk losing them. The best way to retain workers includes listening to their needs, accommodating their different work styles, and addressing inequities.
One member of the Fast Company Impact Council, Angie Klein, CEO of Visible, predicts, “We’re going to see a pretty big shift from talking about The Great Resignation to ‘The Great Retention,’ with [companies] focused on doing what it takes to keep talent. Employees aren’t really leaving because they’re unsatisfied—some are—but because they want to see what’s out there at a time when it seems far less risky to do so. Putting in proactive-retention measures while ensuring that we manage to drive meaning and purpose—there will be a heavy focus in retention like we have never seen before in corporate America.”
One employee retention tool that is gaining popularity is the “Stay Interview,” where a manager sits down with an employee to explore what it takes them to stay at the company. Ideally, these are regularly occurring conversations, built on a foundation of trust, where the employer doesn’t only focus on the job, but the individual’s professional and life goals.
Recruiting and retention are always challenging, but our current environment makes it even more so. However, I don’t believe the number of jobs out there is the reason you can’t find good people. I believe the primary issue is that companies are not putting the proper emphasis on recruiting and retaining talent, including a humanistic approach.
To find the right people, you may want to look at your processes and see if you can create a more empathetic way to attract and keep the best people.
As a coach and a mentor, I’m often asked for advice from job seekers. We are in a unique job market right now, a recent survey by Bankrate shows that 55% of Americans anticipate looking for a new job over the next year. This phenomenon has been nicknamed the Great Resignation by media outlets.
In response to the pandemic, “there have been a lot of epiphanies and reckonings that have occurred … with respect with how we’re prioritizing ultimately our values, and of course how work fits into that,” says Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate, the company that conducted the research. Americans are prioritizing flexible work arrangements, higher pay, and job security in their search.
Flexibility is now the fastest-rising job priority in the U.S., according to a poll of more than 5,000 LinkedIn members. Working parents want to adjust their hours to suit their parenting schedules, single people want the freedom to change cities, while still keeping the same employer. Freedom and personal control within a job feel like much more vital priorities.
And yet, there hasn’t been much change in the hiring and recruiting process. As companies look to fill roles, there are too few people for open positions. Hiring managers and staff are investing more of their own time and paying recruiters, but jobs remain open. It’s time to shake up the process and hire for aptitude and then invest in training good people.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job openings surged to an all-time high of 10.1 million at the end of June, outnumbering the 8.7 million unemployed individuals. Given these stats, you would think that companies would be trying hard to connect with job seekers and make the right fit to fill these open positions. But companies and hiring managers need to think outside the box and expand their horizons. Are you actively looking to recruit women who have taken a break from the workforce with flexibility and daycare options? Are you proactively reaching out to diverse talent sourcing and recruiting associations? Have you considered making your educational requirements less stringent to open the pool of candidates to those with relevant life experience? Are you considering the value of older candidates who can bring years of knowledge and mentorship to the position?
Rather than stick to the way your company has always done things, focus on aptitude, empathy, and coachability. Here are some insightful questions that should prompt real conversations about success that can be accomplished if the company and candidate end up working together.
Tell me about an achievement that you are proud of – either personal or professional – and what you did to make that happen. This is very open ended and lets the candidate demonstrate goals and success.
In your research on our company, what is something you found that we could change or do differently to be more successful? This will let the candidate know you are open to their input and will may uncover some new ideas from a fresh perspective.
How do you think you can make a difference in our organization? Again, it gives the candidate a chance to show big picture thinking and define what success could look like.
What skills are you working on improving, and how do you plan to get there? The opposite of the “weakness” question, this is a positive spin on skill development and opportunities, and shows if someone is a lifelong learner.
Do you feel that you would be a good cultural fit here? If not, what could we do differently? This can start discussions on diversity and supporting all employees. Although some candidates may not feel comfortable opening up, if the interviewer lets the candidate know they are striving to be inclusive, it may go a long way.
An interview shouldn’t be an interrogation or include tricks or puzzles to solve to make it to the next level. Adam Grant, organizational psychologist at Wharton, recently wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal, titled, The Real Meaning of Freedom at Work, in which he states, “For several generations, we’ve organized our lives around our work. Our jobs have determined where we make our homes, when we see our families and what we can squeeze in during our downtime. It might be time to start planning our work around our lives.”
As you are recruiting to fill open roles in your organization, do so with the goal of truly assessing the fit of this person for this role and your organization – and do so with an open mind toward hiring for aptitude.
Recently, I left my job at MIT, and I don’t have another job. As the Executive Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, my days (and many nights) were filled with activity – working with students, teaching, and shaping entrepreneurship education programs. All that has stopped, and I’ve taken time to be still, breathe, take stock, and think.
This time of reflection is providing me a much clearer view of what is possible—and realizing the big picture is even bigger than I thought. Quitting your job is not for everyone (and I am very fortunate that I’m in a position where I could do that), however, taking time to make room for other activities is something I highly recommend to everyone. Creating space to see that there are other opportunities, different ways to work, new skills to learn, and passions to embrace is enlightening. (My new passion is tennis! Who knew?)
I have had three acts thus far in my career. I held roles from engineer to executive in tech companies. Then, as an entrepreneur, I navigated two startups through to IPOs, and my third act was a career in academia teaching entrepreneurship in the classroom and through hands-on programs. Each transition had its moments where I said, “What did I get myself into?!” Yet, digging in and being open to learning proved to be rewarding in every case. I’ve had great rides with successful companies, enjoyed relationships with diverse and interesting colleagues, and embarked on learning experiences I could never have imagined. I have traveled the world, thrived in new environments, and have seen colleagues soar and cheered on their success. I’ve learned so much about people and how they think, work, celebrate, and come back from setbacks. It makes you realize that the people you work with truly can make or break any job experience.
As someone with many, varied job experiences, I’ve realized that experience is double-edged sword. On the one hand, you know how to do things, and perhaps you have even forgotten what others have not yet learned. However, experience also can leave you in a lane you know too well and prevent you from taking the risk of trying—and potentially failing—at new skills. When you are starting fresh, you know there will be new risks, new failures, and new experiences.
I am extremely fortunate to have enjoyed every job I’ve had, but I do realize my enjoyment of work is dependent on my own attitude and approach. Approaching each new role as a learning experience helps you get over the hurdles and enjoy the successes. I’ve worked with folks who had deep expertise but lacked some of the skills I have, and we ended up being a terrific team. I am fortunate to have friends from my very first job and from my most recent job, and I make a concerted effort to keep in touch with these people. My network—and talent tree—is something that was built organically with people I enjoy, and it makes a career so rewarding.
In my research findings for my doctorate, it wasn’t a real surprise that matching new graduates with seasoned employees in data analytics roles was a recipe for success. The veterans could contextualize situations for the students based on experience, and the recent graduates would apply that context to achieve a much more robust analysis. Later, my work at MIT included building mentorship programs and creating networking relationships between students, alumni, and startup founders. When I was no longer running these programs, I realized I needed to apply my networking and mentorship skills to myself as well.
Although I am a certified professional coach, it’s true that even coaches need a coach. If you want to do something different and are unsure about how to get there, working with a coach is a perfect way to figure out these decisions. I needed a coach to look at why I was working so hard; although I enjoyed the work and the people, it didn’t feel like it was enough for me at the time. My coach helped me realign my values and aspirations—something that had not been done for quite some time.
I have always been curious, optimistic, and a contributor, but I needed more balance, less commuting (yes, I still commuted through most of the pandemic!), and a good challenge to be passionate about. The first two were difficult to manage in my last job, but there was no lack of challenge, in fact, there were actually too many challenges! I spread myself so thin because I wanted to do everything and for everyone—and this led to an erosion in my passion for my job.
So, as I take time to reflect, I’m betting on myself and focusing on balance. Just creating the space to reflect has let me think about of all sorts of exciting things I can do next, both professionally and personally. I am enthusiastic about the future and approaching new challenges with the renewed energy that taking a break has given me. I hope my story inspires you to give yourself some space to think, reflect and renew!
Have you ever finished a riveting book and realized that the plot, characters, and setting have left an indelible mark on your being? That is how I will always remember the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship – the people, energy, and ideas will forever imprint the fabric of my life.
When I joined the Trust Center nearly six years ago, I blogged about Disciplined Entrepreneurship – the framework we use for the entrepreneurship program at MIT’s Trust Center based on the book by Bill Aulet, the Center’s Managing Director. One of the ideas that resonated with me then, and continues to do so, is that “ideas mean nothing without execution.”
Reflecting on the past six years, I realize that my time at MIT was about more than a job, it was about the execution of entrepreneurship. It was a chance to shape the lives of aspiring entrepreneurs who had big dreams and ideas to change the world for the better and help them to shape and execute those ideas into concrete plans. At the Trust Center, we like to say that MIT’s student entrepreneurs tackle the world’s big problems, and it was exciting to help make that happen.
Here’s the synopsis of how I landed at the Trust Center, and filled many roles, ultimately becoming the Director of MIT delta v, as well as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence and a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management on entrepreneurship topics.
In 2014, I had completed my doctorate in work-based learning at the University of Pennsylvania’s Chief Learning Officer program, and I wasn’t sure what my next step should be. I had the option to get back into the corporate world and focus on business analytics, but instead decided to pursue a role in education. I was hired by MIT as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence and to help lead the student venture accelerator program, which is now known as delta v. From there, my role has expanded to teaching entrepreneurship classes, spearheading global programs, and becoming a spokesperson and thought leader representing MIT’s entrepreneurship initiatives.
This was definitely something new and different for me, and I had to push myself out of my comfort zone and embrace the challenge. The results achieved have certainly been beyond what I could have anticipated six years ago, including the expansion of the Trust Center – both physically and via online with Orbit, growing delta v both in size and in scope, partnerships with other universities, and instituting a flagship program to support the mental health of entrepreneurs. There were also many awards and accolades along the way, both personally and for the program.
But I’m not here to toot my own horn … I want to sincerely thank the whole team at the Trust Center for their support, teamwork, and camaraderie over the years – our group is quite the entrepreneurial talent tree. I’d also like to thank all the students who I was able to work with and mentor on their entrepreneurial journeys. Your enthusiasm and bright light made the hard parts of this job rewarding and worthwhile.
For those of you who are rethinking your own career situation, after the past year this may be exactly the right time to open yourself up to new experiences and find that that your next chapter was better than your last. I am leaving a job I love for the unknown – of course, this is a risk, but as an entrepreneur you bet on yourself, and make the choice to wake up with a “wow” in terms of what is going to happen today.
For me, this is the time to move beyond what has become well-loved and comfortable, and to take a leap into the next chapter – the fourth in my career. First, I was an engineer who moved up through the executive ranks. Second, I focused on startups, leading two companies to successful exits. Third, was my move into academia at MIT by leveraging my startup experience. And, for the fourth chapter, I’m not 100% sure what it will be yet, but stay tuned – that is the exciting part!
Last November, the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship celebrated Women’s Entrepreneurship Month by featuring a different female entrepreneur each day on Instagram. Accompanying each photo was a short Q&A with questions about their entrepreneurship journey, including, “What are 3 words to describe entrepreneurs who are female?”
One response, in particular, stood out to me. Sonal Singh, founder of Spatio Metrics, said, “I struggle with this one – I’m proud to represent female and minority founders because we’re tenacious, grounded, and human. But at the end of the day, I’m like every other entrepreneur. No preface, no modifier, no disclaimer.”
Do you see yourself simply as an entrepreneur? A female entrepreneur? A Black female entrepreneur? Do you use the modifier or not? Do you see yourself differently? Do you feel that others note your gender, race, or ethnicity when describing you? There is no right or wrong answer here.
Sonal’s quote made me think. Is our goal as underrepresented entrepreneurs to be evaluated on exactly the same playing field? Or, should we be thinking about equality versus equity – that is, distributing resources based on the needs of the recipients? Should women and people of color be afforded a leg up until they can catch up? How can established entrepreneurs (of any gender or race) help others who are trying to succeed in launching their own ventures?
To the entrepreneurs reading this blog, my goal is to present information, ideas, and resources as you undertake your entrepreneurial journey. Learn from those who have taken this path before you and be prepared to blaze your own trail, sharing your lessons with those who follow.
Susanne Althoff, the author of the book Launching While Female: Smashing the System That Holds Women Entrepreneurs Back conducted over four years of research on entrepreneurship and gender, race, ethnicity, LGBTQ status, disability status, and other identities. “The entrepreneurial path is harder than it should be [for these groups],” she states. “We’re all missing out on innovation when we do not see full entrepreneurial participation in this country.” If this topic is of interest, be sure to watch the Trust Center’s Speaker Series event featuring Susanne. She urges taking action by being a mentor or a sponsor to help underrepresented entrepreneurs.
Perhaps our differences are what set us apart and make us unique. In this Business Insider article, Simmone Taitt, founder and CEO of Poppy Seed Health, says, “I’m a Black woman in tech, and for some people that counts as being ‘different,’ but for me, it’s just me moving through the world as the person that I am. That doesn’t mean that it hasn’t come with challenges. Early in my career I would scratch my head trying to figure out if I was given opportunities or not given opportunities because of my gender, race, or both.”
As today’s underrepresented entrepreneurs try to establish themselves, it’s important to understand some of the challenges they may face.
Women started an average of 1,817 new businesses per day in the U.S.
This now represents 42% of nearly 13 million businesses overall
These businesses employ 9.4 million workers and generate revenue of $1.9 trillion
Women-owned businesses are growing 2X faster on average than all businesses nationwide
Women of color are starting businesses at 4.5X the rate of all businesses
Women of color represent 39% of the total female population in the U.S. but account for 89% of the net new women-owned businesses per day (1,625)
The greatest growth in women-owned businesses happened at the two extremes of the spectrum: low-revenue companies and million-dollar-plus businesses.
What does this mean for you? Maybe it means you are not alone in your pursuits. Underrepresented entrepreneurs are making an impact despite the challenges.
Access to Funding
One of the major challenges for underrepresented entrepreneurs is access to capital to grow their business. Although it is probably not a conscious decision, investors tend to give venture money to people that look like them – they see the potential of people who remind them of themselves. This unconscious bias and lens of exclusion keeps funding away from underrepresented groups.
Another interesting point to consider is that raising money in a “friends and family” round is often the first access to capital for entrepreneurs – but, what if your friends and family don’t have anything to spare?
A CNN Business article interviewed Serena Williams on why Black female founders are often counted out right from the start. Williams has started the venture capital firm Serena Ventures, which invests in companies that embrace diverse leadership, individual empowerment, creativity, and opportunity. Statistics from the article show the discrepancies that face some entrepreneurs.
Black women rarely have a wealthy network they can call upon for early investment. The average Black household had a net worth of $17,150 in 2016, nearly 10 times less than their white counterparts.
Only 4% of the people who work in venture capital are Black, and only 3% of the people actually leading investments are Black, according to data from the National Venture Capital Association.
In 2018 and 2019, Black women founders raised only 0.27% of venture capital according to a data report by digitalundivided.
The Tech Inclusion blog explores similar stats in the technology industry and states, “there’s a reason why the Silicon Valley investor community has been called a ‘good old boys network.’ This is also borne out in the numbers.” One of the sticking points today is that female-founder companies don’t scale to the same level as those started by men. Also, there is a rather large drop off of female founders past the Series B level. They tend to get pushed out one way or another, and this is a very real problem that nobody talks about.
The Tech Inclusion blog post is a call to the technology industry “that lives off of and trumpets disruption” and suggests “it’s time for it to disrupt its own patterns of entrenched bias and elitism.” If you are part of the VC industry, think about how you can recognize and strip away your own unconscious biases. If you are an underrepresented entrepreneur seeking funds, look at a VC firm’s record of investments to see if they support diversity. Or investigate funds and organizations run by women or people of color – such as these VC firms that are bridging the gap – who make it part of their mission to support other underrepresented entrepreneurs.
Access to Networks
In a recent Fast Company article, Shelly Bell, founder of Black Girl Ventures, says, “I experienced firsthand how relationships and introductions are essential to open doors to new opportunities as a serial entrepreneur. I can not emphasize this enough: Black and Brown entrepreneurs, especially women, need access to new networks.” She continues, “I believe in the power of building community to bring about systemic change…Everyone can play a part. Donate your time, expertise, or money to ecosystem builders. Bring diverse voices to the table and listen to what they have to say.”
A related area where women are advancing is representation on corporate boards, enabling access to the networking opportunities they provide. California was the first state to sign a Women on Boards bill into law in 2018 to advance equitable gender representation on California corporate boards. At least 11 other states have enacted or are considering board diversity legislation, according to the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance. The Forum reports, “The statutes are grounded on a large body of empirical evidence that board diversity contributes significantly to ‘good governance’ and improved financial performance. Businesses must focus on enhancing the diversity of their boards to both comply with the new statutory requirements and secure the underlying benefits to their performance.”
Despite Lack of Access, Women Entrepreneurs Deliver a Better Return
Yet, despite a lack of access to funding and networks, there is data that women-run businesses are more successful than those run by men. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) wrote an in-depth, research-based article on “Why Women-Owned Startups Are a Better Bet.” According to their research, the investment gap is real. When women business owners pitch their ideas to investors for early-stage capital, they receive on average $1 million less than men. Yet businesses founded by women ultimately deliver higher revenue – more than twice as much per dollar invested – than those founded by men, making women-owned companies better investments for financial backers.
Why? The article postulates several reasons, including that women founders and their presentations are subject to more challenges and pushback – this may ultimately mean they are more rigorously screened. Secondly, male founders are more likely to make bold projections and assumptions in their pitches – and this may backfire in the long run.
How can you use this information to your advantage? BCG’s advice is that women entrepreneurs (and by extension all underrepresented entrepreneurs) should ask for bigger investments during pitches, and also ask more frequently. They should avoid underselling their companies and focus on the positives. They should arm themselves with objective data and be prepared to deflect and defend against unwarranted criticisms.
The Issue of Scale. What Are Your Goals?
Of course, as an entrepreneur, it’s important to assess your personal goals. We hear about Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk jockeying to be the richest entrepreneur in the world with wealth measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars. But not all entrepreneurs have the same aspirations.
Almost 90% of businesses owned by women generate no more than $100,000 yearly, according to the What to Become blog. Is this because women focus more on B2C rather than B2B businesses – and often in the health and beauty industries? Half of all women-owned businesses are in the categories of personal services, healthcare and social assistance, or professional and technical services, according to the American Express State of Women-Owned Businesses Report. We also need to remember that not all entrepreneurs work full time – this may be their goal for purposes of work/life balance, or the entrepreneurship gig may be a side hustle to supplement income.
This report states that “as work trends shift towards side hustles and the gig economy, so does female entrepreneurship…part-time entrepreneurship, often referred to as ‘sidepreneurship,’ is providing additional options to traditional employment and entrepreneurship for women.” This points to the conclusion that more underrepresented entrepreneurs may be considered need-based versus innovation-based entrepreneurs. Need-based entrepreneurs may start their own business after losing a job, to supplement their income, or to gain the flexibility they need in their lives. The What to Become blog states that “flexibility related to family care is the main reason why women start their businesses…women choose to be self-employed five times more often than men because of their families.”
At the Trust Center, our focus is innovation-based entrepreneurs, and these are typically the entrepreneurs vying for venture capital. However, that doesn’t discount the efforts of need-based entrepreneurs who are seeking the benefits of being your own boss, flexibility with childcare or elder care, and providing opportunities for yourself that a company can’t. All entrepreneurs deserve a shot at the funding and networks needed to help their businesses thrive.
“Women-owned businesses are driving economic growth in the United States…Yet there is a significant size disparity between these businesses and others,” states the State of Women-Owned Business Report. “Closing the gap benefits everyone, not just women…[this] requires changes in policies, business practices and attitudes. Some changes, such as family leave and affordable childcare, impact all working women while others, such as training and access to capital and markets, are specific to particular segments of business owners.”
The economic realities of the current pandemic may serve to jump start entrepreneurial activity according to The Boston Globe. “One team of researchers estimated that if U.S. women launched high-growth firms at the same rate as men, we’d add 15 million jobs in only two years. If we hope to turn around our pandemic-ravaged economy, we’re going to need lots more entrepreneurs.”
In summary, as a community we need to recognize how much underrepresented entrepreneurs bring to the table – and how much more they could bring with the right support.
How can you find support?
Listed below are some resources, studies, and reports as a starting point.
Wisdom from the Women Who Support MIT’s Entrepreneurs
Today, November 19, is Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, a day celebrating and encouraging female entrepreneurship. Our student venture accelerator program, delta v, has launched some amazing female entrepreneurs – and our historical data show us that the women-led delta v companies surpass our very impressive overall stat that 3 of every 4 delta v startups are still operating. At MIT, our goal is to support all our entrepreneurs and make them as successful as possible. That is why we are thrilled when we hear feedback like the quote below – it shows us that we are succeeding in our support of diverse entrepreneurs, and neutralizing any implicit biases.
“In the Trust Center, gender, age, race, culture, even hierarchy, are invisible. It’s the only space I’ve ever walked into where all that baggage was truly left at the door. This almost disorienting sense of equality allows for a re-imagining of identity.” Joan Kelly, delta v entrepreneur and CEO of Abound
For the entire month of November, we’re profiling some of our women entrepreneurs, faculty, and Trust Center staff on our Instagram feed (@eshipMIT) with the tag #WEMatMIT (which stands for Women’s Entrepreneur Month at MIT). Follow the feed and be inspired!
Here is our lineup of stellar women supporting MIT’s entrepreneurship community and their responses to our questions on entrepreneurship. As I reflect on the contributions of these women, it is evident that the strong entrepreneurial ecosystems at MIT did not just materialize – they are nurtured, fostered, and improved upon by these individuals. They all bring a focused passion to their roles – with a lack of ego, they meet students where they are on their journeys to become entrepreneurs and help them flourish.
What advice can you share with aspiring entrepreneurs?
“Just start! Usually that first step is the hardest one. If you just start you will see that anyone can get started. Figure out what that first step is and do it. And if your first step was to make a PowerPoint, nice job doing that first step, but now get out of PowerPoint and talk to humans!!” – Kit Hickey
“Admit what you don’t know. Share your idea and take every opportunity to learn from those around you. This isn’t always a comfortable way for talented, high performers to operate. But it is critical. Rather than always looking for validation of your ideas, look for evidence that reveals weaknesses in your hypotheses.” – Megan Mitchell
“Seek a broad range of advisors, mentors, colleagues – diversity in terms of age, gender, experience, outlook on life and don’t limit it to people you think you align with – so that you are challenged to move beyond your comfort zone.” – Lesley Millar-Nicholson
“Follow your intuition and do what you feel is right. Women have stronger emotional intelligence, use this to make appropriate decisions and follow through with persistence.” – Karen Golmer
“Remain open-minded to what you learn through research. Approach research with curiosity, rather than an opportunity to reinforce and validate your current assumptions. Embrace surprising results and be ready to go back to the drawing board and adapt your solutions to a deeper understanding of the problem you’re looking to solve.” – Jinane Abounadi
“The outcome of any entrepreneurial endeavor is extremely uncertain, so you should be really excited about the journey. And surround yourself with people you like and respect, because you’ll be spending a lot of time together!” – Carly Chase
What do you believe female entrepreneurs need to do more of/better/differently to be successful?
“Unfortunately, we still need to have incredibly thick skin because the industry is not yet as equitable as it should be. Given the inequities, we’ve got to support and stick up for one another, in both small and big ways.” – Carly Chase
“Recognize that there are fewer female-backed startup companies, fewer women on Boards of companies, fewer patent holding female scientists – but don’t let that be a hurdle. In fact, find those who have or are those things – and learn from them, what inspires them, what tricks and tools have they created to achieve what they have achieved.” – Lesley Millar-Nicholson
“Really examine what YOU want out of your entrepreneurial journey. We spend so much of our lives being told what we should be, it is a challenge to break away from that and define what success is for you. Success for you may be completely different than what success means for your classmate, and that’s OK. By actually defining success for yourself, you can have a much more meaningful, impactful and enjoyable career.” – Kit Hickey
“Female entrepreneurs need to own their space, their knowledge, and their brilliance. Women have to be deliberate in the words they use when they speak about their experience and their ventures. Please don’t say, ‘If the pilot is successful, we will…” Come from an affirmative position. Trade that language for something more like: “Following our successful pilot, we will…” – Megan Mitchell
“Speak up more often (males don’t wait for their turn to speak ) – so don’t wait to be asked, offer up your opinions, experience, insight and do it in a thoughtful and measured way – so people are keen to listen.” – Lesley Millar-Nicholson
Female entrepreneurs need to work together and hold one another accountable when they see another not owning her own power. Women working together will elevate all.” – Megan Mitchell
“Own your ‘imposter syndrome’ and don’t let it come an excuse to demonstrate your knowledge, passion and capabilities – in fact, challenge that feeling by speaking up.” – Lesley Millar-Nicholson
“Don’t back down, instead listen with respect and learn about other perspectives. When feeling blocked or ignored, don’t speak louder to be heard – try a different approach.” – Karen Golmer
“Try not to take it personally when you hit a roadblock, or your initial ideas get rejected. Be confident in your talent and your ability to overcome hurdles and challenges. Use a network of caring mentors to get honest feedback and be open to listening and growing in the process.” – Jinane Abounadi
How do you, personally, keep inspired and moving forward?
“I look for and accept the challenges that appear – one at a time. When I end up in a conflict or uncomfortable situation, I use humor to diffuse the tension and redirect to move forward.” – Karen Golmer
“For me, the inspiration at his phase of my career comes from stepping back and hearing about stories of other amazing women that have worked hard and persevered to make a difference. I felt so inspired when I heard that there was a woman scientist (Ozlem Tureci) behind the [COVID-19] Pfizer vaccine. In my role, I see the potential of so many of our brilliant female students (undergrad or graduate) to make significant impact in the future and I will feel proud to have been part of their journey.” – Jinane Abounadi
“I love engaging with people – the passion, diversity and new ideas at MIT keep me inspired every day. Every day I learn from a student, and I love it! Being at a place where you continue to learn, can engage with amazing people, and have the autonomy to solve hard problems you are interested in, is what I love about being an EIR at MIT.” – Kit Hickey
“It is the entrepreneurs, their individual stories and passion that inspire me and keep me moving forward. Each entrepreneur has a story that connects them to the problem they are trying to solve. Often that story is deeply personal and offers me insights not only into who they are as individuals, but also the worlds in which they come from.” – Megan Mitchell
“Recognizing that I am part of a community and my contribution (or lack of it) has impact on others and what they can or cannot achieve because of my actions.” – Lesley Millar-Nicholson
“Building businesses from scratch is an incredibly difficult, gritty, and uncomfortable experience that forces you to grow in ways you didn’t even know you needed to! I’m addicted to not only the constant growth I personally get from being an entrepreneur, but also to the people who it attracts – they are the most exciting people in the world to be working alongside.” – Carly Chase
At MIT, our definition of entrepreneurship has evolved from a focus on startups to an entrepreneurial mindset – we see entrepreneurship as a skillset and a way of operating. We need entrepreneurial attributes in all our organizations – whether it is within a big company, a small company, or a university environment. These women bring that entrepreneurial mindset to their roles in helping curious entrepreneurs in corporate environments, ready-to-go entrepreneurs, and amplifiers in their communities. They cover the developing world, emerging markets, and corporate innovation. We live in a changing world with changing needs, and students need to test and adapt their entrepreneurial skills. Thank you to Jinane, Carly, Karen, Kit, Lesley, and Megan for your invaluable guidance to MIT’s student entrepreneurs! As we all work together at MIT, we see all boats rise which is what makes the MIT community an amazing ecosystem.
The pandemic affects everyone. Today, we are all dealing with a different model for living – many people are working or attending school virtually, there is less social interaction, greater isolation, more juggling of home and work duties, and of course the anxiety and pain if loved ones become sick or die from COVID-19. A study by the CDC in June of this year reported 40% of US adults are struggling with mental health or substance abuse – substantially higher figures than in 2019.
Where does that leave our entrepreneurs? Beginning in March, the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship closed its doors until further notice. We are continuing to support MIT’s entrepreneurship community virtually, including via online resources like Orbit. This past summer, our delta v accelerator moved to a completely virtual experience, including online Demo Day presentations.
One question we continue to ask ourselves is: How has the pandemic affected the mental health of entrepreneurs?
Building Entrepreneurial Confidence
As we look to answer that question, we realize we were fortunate that MIT started the first self-awareness program for entrepreneurs last year – the Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication (ECC) Program. We piloted this program with the delta v accelerator class of 2019 to help student entrepreneurs prioritize their own individual well-being while building their businesses. The culture of entrepreneurship celebrates working 24/7 to demonstrate passion and dedication for your business. A founder’s self-identity is often tied to the success of their startup, and as a result, entrepreneurs often experience loneliness, depression, and anxiety as they work through the normal ups and downs of startup life. This has only been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic which has caused delays, roadblocks, and failures for many startups.
Traditionally, entrepreneurs have lacked the support and tools to improve their mental well-being. The ECC pilot program, created by MIT Sloan MBA alumna Kathleen Stetson, taught MIT student entrepreneurs the tools and benefits of self-awareness; they then applied their learnings – discussing key choices entrepreneurs face, such as: taking breaks vs. spending all your time on your startup, working through limiting beliefs, considering others’ perspectives, and approaching challenges with fear or curiosity. The results were impressive, after taking part in the program 93% of participants felt that a self-awareness practice could help entrepreneurs create more successful businesses.
This year, because of the additional stress due to the pandemic, and the need for teams to feel connected when working remotely, we added two simple elements to the small groups within the ECC program that startup teams could quickly and easily implement in their own team interactions:
Red/yellow/green check-in– this not only encouraged small group members to practice self-awareness during small group, but many teams took this check-in strategy back to their teams, practicing it at the beginning of each of their standups.
A more structured way to give and receive help – after a small group member expressed a challenge they were facing, small group members asked clarifying questions rather than immediately jumping into solutions and advice. This not only made the speaker feel that they were heard, but helped participants practice active listening. They then took this back to their team interactions, helping them better understand their team members’ perspectives.
In a Fast Company article, Kathleen Stetson explains, “The 24/7, hustle-till-you-drop attitude has been a problematic fixture of startup culture for years. And now, due to the pandemic, sustaining one’s health is even harder. ‘I don’t know a startup founder who’s not burned out,’ a founder friend of mine told me recently.”
The Pivot: A Key Pandemic Strategy
“Pivot” has become the go-to word for 2020. People are pivoting with career changes and businesses are pivoting with strategies, as we all try to keep moving forward dealing with the unanticipated changes brought by a global pandemic. Entrepreneurs need to realize that a startup failure can be due to external circumstances, and the founders are not marked with a scarlet “F” for failure. A change in business strategy or taking a break from trying to start your own company is a pivot that will make you stronger the next time.
One of our delta v teams faced this type of challenge recently. Easel was a startup service that matched parents with top quality centers for last-minute childcare needs. The company was a member of the delta v class of 2019 and was faced with the tough decision to wind down the business this year. With the COVID-19 pandemic, so many people have transitioned to working from home that their childcare model was no longer sustainable. Although childcare continues to be a huge need, co-founders Neha Sharma and Michael Leonard realized they would need to shelve their plans for Easel and pivot to the next chapter in their lives. However, as delta v’s Managing Director Bill Aulet stated, “I still chalk these up to success for sure. They are much stronger than when they got here.” That strength, in part, came from MIT’s ECC program.
This type of a transition is one that often tests an entrepreneur’s sense of worth and purpose. They have put blood, sweat, and tears into their business only to watch their dreams fade. As stated in the Thrive Global article I co-authored with Kathleen Stetson, startup founders “tend to connect their self-worth and identity to their start-ups, which can lead to feelings of depression if their start-up fails.” Yet, we’ve found data affirming that when entrepreneurs understand their thoughts, feelings, and biases, it is useful in managing stress – and this is a skill that can be taught. This is why MIT is proud to host the Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication program – the first comprehensive program to address mental health challenges in the start-up community and teach entrepreneurs how to effectively manage stress.
At MIT, entrepreneurship programs run wide and deep – but across the board, student entrepreneurs know they can count on the university’s Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIRs) for their wisdom, experience, and advice.
We caught up with some former EIRs who have represented the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. They have been part of a rotational program spearheaded by Bill Aulet, the Center’s Managing Director. The concept of rotating experienced entrepreneurs through the Trust Center has been extremely successful – it gives students a sounding board for their questions and benefits the EIRs as well, enabling them to recharge and rejuvenate before their next venture.
Aulet likes to call the network of EIRs part of MIT’s Entrepreneurial Talent Tree. Many of these individuals have roots at MIT – they went into the world to become entrepreneurs, then touched back down at MIT as EIRs prior to moving on to do big things as entrepreneurs again, or in the entrepreneurial education community. Through this talent tree, the lessons and skills of MIT’s entrepreneurship program are widely shared, and a strong network is formed.
Elaine Chen, a former EIR who has recently been appointed as the Director of the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center (TEC) and the Cummings Family Professor of the Practice in Entrepreneurship, sums up the MIT EIR experience as an opportunity to give back to the entrepreneurial community by helping them learn. “We draw on our own experiences to help students acquire an entrepreneurial mindset and skillset, which will help them succeed wherever they go in their careers.”
“We try to give entrepreneurs a safe, unbiased set of feedback,” comments Dip Patel, now CTO of Soluna. “In the entrepreneurship game, it’s very hard to get unbiased feedback. And it’s doubly hard to get unbiased feedback from people who have been operators or founders.”
“It’s better to give than to receive,” adds Will Sanchez, now at Gradient, his fourth startup. “But as MIT EIRs, we certainly receive a lot from the students as well. And we are doing this in a serving way.”
Donna Levin adds, “The EIR role enabled me to help provide students with actionable skills, proven frameworks, and a sense of urgency – what we called moving at founder speed.” Levin has moved on to head up Babson’s entrepreneurship program.
Nick Meyer, now a co-founder of Relativity6, remarks on the bond between the EIR group at the Trust Center. “Everyone’s always trying to help each other out and make introductions, and we still talk all the time.”
Introducing MIT EIRs: What they’re doing Now
As a brief introduction, here’s a quick snapshot of the former EIRs interviewed for this article and what they are doing now. Each EIR explains what they felt they were able to share with the student entrepreneurs, and what they received in return.
Elaine Chen continues to expand entrepreneurial education in the Boston area as the Director of the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center and the Cummings Family Professor of the Practice in Entrepreneurship, following her nine years at MIT as an EIR and Senior Lecturer. Chen will work with students in all majors – including liberal arts, medical, dental, etc. Building on her MIT experience, this was a fantastic career opportunity and Chen looks forward to the year ahead.
Nick Meyer is now a co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Relativity6, a company that uses AI to increase customer retention and lifetime value, currently focusing on the insurance broker industry. Key to Relativity6’s success is how to be predictive, without using personal information. The company looks at patterns developing over the course of people’s lives.
Will Sanchez is now The VP of Business and Customer Development and a founding advisor at Gradient, a cybersecurity company that is working to reimagine digital trust from the very beginning. The 14-person, Boston-based startup is still very much in the jungle stage – no paved roads – and he’s learning tons of new things to satisfy his infinite curiosity.
Dip Patel, is now the CTO at Soluna, a company launched in 2018 that is building a new type of data center that combines with renewable power plants – grid operators can plug into and turn on and off whenever they want. The company’s mission is to make renewable energy the primary power source, using computing as a catalyst.
Giving to, and Gaining from, MIT’s Student Entrepreneurs
It’s evident that this is a smart and talented group. We are fortunate each of them shared their time and talents with the student entrepreneurs at MIT. Here’s how they felt they gave back to the entrepreneurship community, and what they gained in return.
Elaine Chen comments she was known as a “hardware person” at the Trust Center and was able to leverage her background at Rethink Robotics, Zeemote, SensAble Technologies, and other hardware-related startups, to help guide students with startups in that sector. She feels that she was able to share her experience having seen a lot of different scenarios and give students a dose of reality.
Working with the students, she learned a lot about different businesses – from bitcoin to chip design – because they researched it and learned it together. She also worked with current EIR Paul Cheek as product manager for MIT Orbit, and helped build up the knowledge base with over 600 unique articles for entrepreneurs.
Donna Levin explains, “We were able to create a safe environment and meet students wherever they were on their entrepreneurial journey. From ideation, market selection, to product market fit – early stage entrepreneurs craved the ability to have a conversation about the problem they were trying to tackle today or this week.”
She was constantly inspired by the societal problems the students are tackling in the world and learning about new technology and scientific discoveries. Levin says serving as an EIR was one of the most rewarding experiences of her career.
Nick Meyer believes he helped students navigate the MIT culture and break out of the mental blocks that can come from overthinking things. Many students at MIT have such confidence in their ability to build things, and build things quickly, that they default to building instead of first figuring out what should be built. Meyer was able to aid students by sharing a lot of stories of what’s practical and what has worked at his startups.
In turn, he reports that telling his stories to the students helped him created a narrative of what happened in his career, as opposed to how the startup made him feel. “You can build up this narrative that’s not the healthiest because there aren’t that many levels of success in startups. There is kind of ‘billionaire or bust’ mentality, so, most of your time is spent dealing in failure and not reflecting on everything you’ve learned, what you’re good at, and being helpful. I’ve learned from the students how valuable all my startup experiences really were, and just who I am and what I’ve learned, and how to approach things.”
Will Sanchez sayson the first day of the delta v kickoff, he introduced himself to the cohort as, “I’m Will, New York City kid. I don’t know how I can help you, but I will ask you the tough questions – the more awkward, the better.” He reports that seemed to have resonated well not only with the delta v team but with the cohort and students in general.
What he learned from the students was that there’s so much he had to offer. “Going into it, I didn’t know what I could possibly offer these brilliant students and faculty, I just ran a small start-up that was somewhat successful. It was surprising to me how much I could add as a generalist.”
Dip Patel explains he was always extremely candid about his past and showing his vulnerability to the students – from sharing what it was like to fire his best friend to landing a million-dollar deal. “I think that what I brought as an EIR is candid vulnerability, plus realism as to what they are signing up for. And the energy, I think I brought energy.”
In terms of learning from the students, he comments, “It is extremely motivating that I get to meet students who share their dreams with me. The fact that I’m able to help them achieve their dreams, and they are grateful for that, motivates me as an entrepreneur.”
Keeping it Fresh
In other businesses, employee churn is generally seen as a negative. However, at MIT, the EIR position is designed to be part of a rotational model that keeps things fresh for both the students and the experienced entrepreneurs. EIRs find that the role of being an advisor to students lets them recharge their entrepreneurial batteries and unwind after the stress of starting a new company – and, the Trust Center gets the benefit of new and different experiences with each EIR.
Patel comments, “When you sell a company, even if you make millions of dollars, you’re losing a big piece of who you are. A lot of people say you shouldn’t connect your professional life with who you are, but it’s really hard for an entrepreneur to do that – damn near impossible. So, when that company ends, for whatever reason, it really takes a toll.” The beauty of the EIR role is that it lets entrepreneurs decompress and figure out what’s next. However, he continues, “After we started Soluna, I missed the Trust Center and wanted to get back involved, so now I’ve come back as a lecturer, co-teaching one entrepreneurship class each semester.”
Meyer says that when he was first approached for the EIR position, he was in the middle of a starting a new company, so he declined. “About three months later, I realized that I was in no mental space to be doing another start-up, because it was like my seventh or something, starting from when I was in high school,” comments Meyer. “I knew I did not have the grit or energy built up to last for another three, four, or five years working at another startup. I just needed a break.” After a short stint as a ski instructor in Switzerland, he joined MIT as an EIR for about two years. Along with helping students, it let him reflect on the best way to move forward. “I’d say MIT encourages people to move on after spending some time as an EIR. Very few people camp out for a long time.”
“MIT is a special place. It’s a place where people truly believe the impossible can work,” explains Patel, and this belief resonates in the discussions with all of the EIRs. Chen adds, “Being an EIR in MIT’s strong entrepreneurial ecosystem was an amazing opportunity.”
Sanchez reflects, “As EIRs, we’re all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors, but we all want to add the human dynamic to entrepreneurship – the stuff you can’t just Google or read about in a class.” Patel continues, “The EIRs are truly there to help, but the entrepreneurs have to ask. And you have to get comfortable asking for help – that’s another piece of advice. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help.”
As this group of EIRs blazes new trails, they are each still inextricably tied to their EIR cohort and the student entrepreneurs they advised while at MIT’s Trust Center. This network runs deep, and the talent tree continues to grow.