Why Give Back? Reflections from delta v Board Members

At MIT delta v, the capstone educational accelerator for MIT students run by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, our board members are a very special part of the entrepreneurial mix. Each summer, the student teams work extremely hard to identify their beachhead market, build the right product, and secure initial customers as they form and grow their startup companies. On a daily basis, they receive mentorship and coaching from the Trust Center staff and the Entrepreneurs in Residence, but the rubber really meets the road when it’s time for the board of directors meetings. The board members bring in their real life, outside perspectives as the teams prepare to formally present their startups at the culmination of the program on Demo Day.

The delta v students live and breathe each detail of their startups every day, and interactions with their board members gives the students a chance to step back, look at the big picture, and convince others of their vision. They must rise to the challenge of communicating their business plan clearly and succinctly. There is a huge opportunity to learn from people on the board, who know a great deal about business fundamentals and have tremendous networks that can help an entrepreneur.

Our board members are incredible! Each of them is assigned to a startup team based on their industry interest, and they dedicate a minimum of 90 minutes per month during the summer to these meetings, not even counting preparation and follow up. The board’s specific role is to evaluate a team’s progress based upon rubrics and metrics focusing on customer and market understanding in month one, product development in month two, and the readiness of the business to launch in month three. In each meeting, the board evaluates how successful the team has been in meeting benchmarks and then awards the team an associated amount of equity-free funding. As a result, both the teams and the members of the board take these meetings very seriously.

But what’s in it for these volunteer board members?

Each of these people are highly successful, incredibly busy business executives, entrepreneurs, faculty, or domain experts. I’m sure each and every one could use a little extra downtime in their lives – especially over the summer – but instead they choose to engage with us at delta v. None do so passively; they come prepared and are tough graders for these student teams. Since delta v is an education accelerator, none of them have an equity stake in the companies they advise.

So why give back? I reached out and asked board members why they chose to do this. Their answers are truly amazing and inspiring.

Why have you chosen to give of your time, talent, and wisdom?

“Entrepreneurship requires a support network. It is almost impossible to do it alone. I have received so much support from the MIT ecosystem (that) I want to do whatever I can to help provide the same support for others in the community.” Adam Blake, entrepreneur and investor, Board Member for Viridis

“To me, the energy that radiates from the MIT community is like no other in the world. The ‘pay-it-forward’ mindset is so intrinsic to the culture at MIT; thus, I feel honored to be able to share anything I have learned so far, which might be helpful to others.” Amanda von Goetz, FERMATA Profiling,
Board Member for
Season Three

“My brain finds all this engaging. The board members and the structure help these [students] move along on their developmental path, which in turn contributes to the world’s ‘good’ business karma.”
Antoinette Russell, Eaton Vance, Board Member for
CaroCare

“I have received a lot of help and encouragement in my career to take on tasks that seemed impossible (sort of like starting a company!), and this is my way of paying it forward.” Chris Zannetos, Covered Security, Board Member for Quantifai

“All the time I invest in it is well spent, for it’s equally inspiring and enriching to hear new ideas, thought processes, and extract so much from all this talented and diverse melting pot.” Jerome Selva, IBM Watson Customer Engagement, Board Member for Quantifai

“Entrepreneurship matters! It drives our society forward and helps us solve the world’s greatest problems. Giving our time and sharing our experience is how we keep the startup fire alive.” Max Faingezicht. Entrepreneur, Board Member for Precavida

“Servant leadership is very important to me – it’s all about enriching the lives of others, building better organizations and ultimately creating a world that is more caring and equitable.” Rita B. Allen, Rita B. Allen Associates, Board Member for CaroCare

With all the worthy causes, why delta v?

“It’s always as much of a learning experience for me to be a part of a team on the ground floor of some amazing ventures. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to network with students in the program, as well as colleagues and business professionals/executives throughout different disciplines and industries within the Boston community.” – Rita B. Allen

 “delta v is the program that I wish existed when I was a student. I believe it epitomizes the ‘manus’ part of the MIT motto ‘mens et manus’ and serves as one of the most important mechanisms for enabling MIT technology and talent to create value for the world.” Adam Blake

“It is an incredible opportunity to connect and reconnect with out-of-this-world alumni from all corners of the MIT community, to problem solve alongside diverse minds, and to continue learning and growing through the experiences of others.” – Amanda von Goetz

“delta v is a driving force of the entrepreneurial ecosystem where you mix talent with motivation to go out and change the world.” Max Faingezicht

What is one thing that you can look back on during this summer’s program that makes you say, “This was worthwhile”?

“The common passion and conviction embodied by the participants – alumni, faculty, and board of directors – to seek ways to make the world a better place.” – Jérôme Selva

“The team I worked with is moving to India to start the company that they worked on. I’d like to think that we helped them to refine their approach over the summer and seeing the team follow through with real action is very gratifying.” – Adam Blake

“To be able to be a part of the launch and initial pilots of CaroCare, a new venture founded by two visionary young women.” – Rita B. Allen

 “I have found the teams to be tremendously open to feedback and re-assessing their assumptions; seeing them not just take our advice on face value, but really evaluating the feedback and exploring whether it should impact their plans. That makes it worthwhile.” – Chris Zannetos

“Seeing the progress of the teams is humbling. The amount of work that happens in just a few weeks gives us a glimpse of what is possible when we are focused and determined.” Max Faingezicht

“The team’s energy, their passion, their pure and unbridled excitement for what they do, is contagious in the best possible way. This is positive energy that reinvigorates and re-inspires you, which you can then take back with you into your own respective spheres.” – Amanda von Goetz

If you could share one piece of advice with students as they launch their startups, what would it be?

“You need to lead. Never forget that pivoting – and communicating the pivots – is an integral component of building.  You cannot build this on your own – you need those teammates – but you also need to lead.” – Antoinette Russell

 “Try to get as far as you can with as little capital as you can before scaling up.” – Adam Blake

“Get physically fit and work as hard as possible to stay that way. Being a founder is not an easy job, and it comes with a pretty hefty amount of stress. For that reason, it is really important that you stay as strong and healthy as possible. Get into ‘fighting shape,’ not just for yourself, but also for your team, and for all of the people who believe in you.” – Amanda von Goetz

“Be intellectually honest about your assumptions and challenge them constantly.” – Chris Zannetos

“Follow your passion, fuel your conviction, focus on outcomes to succeed together! The results will come!” – Jérôme Selva

“It’s always about people. Don’t get lost in the minutia and forget about your team, your customers, your partners, or your investors. In the end, people make up the journey, and that will determine the breadth of your impact.” Max Faingezicht

“Stay humble, honest, paranoid, and ALWAYS hustle.” – Rita B. Allen

One final note …

I’d like to give a big thank you to Martin Trust and his family; without him there would be no platform for delta v. Marty Trust passed away recently, and he will be fondly remembered by all of us at the center that bears his name. To learn more about Marty and his legacy, read this tribute by our Managing Director, Bill Aulet.

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Women and Work: Intentional Invisibility?

Be seen. Speak up. Make your voice heard. These are lessons we are taught as we enter the workforce and climb the ladder to corporate success. Yet, many women are uncomfortable with this advice, even though they want to succeed

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review titled, “Why Women Stay out of the Spotlight at Work,” explores the concept of “intentional invisibility” and why some women use this as a strategy to navigate the workplace. Immersed in a women’s professional development program, the HBR authors learned how this cloak of invisibility enabled women to “get stuff done” and quietly move things forward without drawing attention to themselves. The drawback? Although these women were well-liked, they were underappreciated, (probably underpaid), and often overlooked for promotions.

Women tend to choose intentional invisibility for three reasons:

  1. to avoid conflict,
  2. to be authentic to their personalities, and
  3. to seek personal and professional balance.

The term intentional invisibility really clicked with me. I believe that looking at this issue more closely can help C-level executives and managers value and encourage leadership qualities in women they work with, even if those women may not lead in the same way as their male colleagues. Here are some examples I’ve encountered in my own life.

Conflict Avoidance when Choosing a Startup CEO
At MIT’s delta v, student venture accelerator program, I mentor entrepreneurs. During the program, student teams form startup companies and choose a management team. Although women are well-represented in delta v overall, we still have more male CEOs than female CEOs. Often, the most extroverted person in the group is rewarded with leadership responsibility, and more reserved women on the team defer and don’t put forth an argument as to why they should be considered as CEO. Later, I’ve had female team members share with me that it just wasn’t worth the fight, or that it doesn’t matter who has the CEO title, they will all work together. This conflict avoidance lets the team initially move forward more quickly, but hidden resentment sometimes bubbles up to cause problems later. Ultimately, if the company succeeds, it is important who is the CEO. I’m encouraged that a lot of women in the delta v program this year took advantage of the personal coaching sessions we offer to address imposter syndrome. As leaders, we should ensure employees are evaluated on several different, varied criteria because the person who speaks up the loudest is not always the best for the job.

Self-Identified in a Helper Role
In another example, many women I know (myself included) often end up in the job of the indispensable helper or chief assistant, the so-called right-hand man … only in this case, it’s a woman. Whether it’s as a COO, vice president, or research assistant, the right-hand woman makes it easy for her boss (usually a man) to be successful while she stays in the background. This role may be more aligned with her authentic sense of self, or it may be how she has been guided through the organization. When we meet these women, we wonder if their bosses could ever survive without them. In my opinion, many of these women would make excellent top executives themselves, but they may gravitate toward these roles because they define themselves as helpers. I’d encourage women to think about what they really enjoy in this role and find a voice. They should strive to shine independently and get credit for their accomplishments, not just enable their boss’ success. If they realize they’ve been hiding in their bosses’ shadow and would rather be the boss themselves, they should take the steps to grow into that position. I was fortunate enough to work with an executive coach who told me, “You don’t need a seat at the table, you already have it. Now, act like it.” No one had ever told me that before and it really re-framed the way I thought about my job.

The Balancing Act and the Second Shift
Finally, women tend to choose invisibility over face time when they need to balance responsibilities at work with those at home. However, what women really need is flexibility, not invisibility. Although the dynamic is changing, most of the women I know are still responsible for the lion’s share of household duties, our so called second shift – especially when it comes to parenting and elder care. While face time is important to get ahead in an organization, it becomes deprioritized for women who need the flexibility to bring a sick child or parent to the doctor, assist with after-school activities, or even to be the one who works from home when the cable guy is coming. Jobs that involve travel for work, networking events outside of regular work hours, or even casual after-work drinks often deliver undue stress for women. They know it’s good for their careers, but they either decline to attend or need to do a lot of juggling to make it happen. While the boss is getting chummy with the guys over a beer, often the female colleague is rushing home to pick up the kids, get dinner on the table, throw in a load of laundry, and get everyone ready to do it all over again tomorrow. When it comes time to pick someone for that plum assignment, Tom gets chosen because he’s a good guy and the project leader got to know him socially after work. This is a tough one, because it’s an implicit bias. I believe things will only change when both partners at home equally share responsibilities and both must deal with juggling the needs of a demanding job and home life. Of course, this is even trickier for single parents and caretakers.

Reality Check

As the HBR article explains, organizations value leaders who stand up, are visible, and take credit. But, this definition of leadership can leave women out in the cold because their behind-the-scenes contributions are overlooked or undervalued. It suggests that organizations value unconventional forms of leadership, fight implicit bias, and balance women’s second-shift responsibilities in order to make it easier for them to be seen and promoted. I wholeheartedly agree that today’s leaders must dig deeper to recognize and value the contributions and leadership qualities of women who are intentionally invisible in our workplaces. Most of these women truly don’t want to be invisible, so as leaders we need to see them, encourage their input, recognize their contributions, and offer flexibility. We need to make it OK to succeed by following a different path.

If you feel like you gravitate toward an intentionally invisible role at work, what can you do? Be mindful to push yourself out of your comfort zone and step in the spotlight. Find your voice and own your career, rather an allowing other people to do so. There are a lot of paths – you are allowed to do things your way and own your success!

Necessity vs. Innovation-Based Entrepreneurs

This article originally appeared in Xconomy.

What makes someone an entrepreneur? Most simply defined, an entrepreneur is a person who identifies a need and starts a business to fill that void. But others will argue that a “true” entrepreneur must come up with an innovative new product or service and then operates their business to sell and profit from that innovation.

Under the broader definition are those people who become entrepreneurs out of necessity – starting their own business after losing a job, to supplement their income, or to gain the flexibility to attend to other demands in their lives.

Take Joanne, for example. Joanne started her holistic health business about eight years ago. Although she doesn’t necessarily consider herself an entrepreneur, the necessity of a family member’s health situation created both a challenge and an opportunity that shifted her path of employment. As a graduate of Boston University with a degree in math, and Syracuse with an MBA, Joanne had been working as a technical engagement director managing large-scale database development projects.

However, she was also managing the special needs of a son at home with learning differences. She was hit with a layoff from her job about the same time that her son required more services. She was doing tons of research to help him in any way possible, including alternatives to mainstream treatment, and she started an unpaid e-mail service to friends and family sharing what she learned. The response was tremendous – several people told her that she had changed their lives and she should make a career out of it. She decided to take the plunge, pursued further education, and then started JBS Holistic Nutrition where she offers health coaching and healing alternatives. The nature of her business allows her to be flexible. She is currently working part-time, which enables her to manage the needs of her family and help take care of an ailing parent. She sees her business as an opportunity to help people change their lives for the better.

Joanne is someone I’d consider a necessity-based entrepreneur. Often, necessity is financially based, but pursuing a passion and work-life balance issues also play into necessity.

One of the first references to “necessity entrepreneurship” was in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report in 2001. This third annual GEM assessment researched entrepreneurship in 29 countries. Respondents were asked to indicate whether they were starting and growing their business to take advantage of a unique market opportunity (opportunity entrepreneurship) or because it was the best option available (necessity entrepreneurship). At the time, the average opportunity entrepreneurship prevalence rate across the 29 GEM countries was about 6.5 percent, while the average for necessity entrepreneurship was 2.5 percent.

Interestingly, GEM’s most recent report for 2017-2018 looks at entrepreneurship through a few more complex lenses, but it states that most entrepreneurs around the world are opportunity-motivated. On average, three-quarters of global respondents stated that they had chosen to pursue an opportunity as a basis for their entrepreneurial motivations, with 83 percent of entrepreneurs in North America falling into this category. Women were more likely to start businesses out of necessity, compared to men, in all regions except in North America.

My guess is that necessity-based entrepreneurs may be somewhat under-represented in these numbers as they may not self-identify as entrepreneurs. Necessity-based entrepreneurs also may be less likely to respond to this type of survey.

Some of the early research on the topic discusses a push-pull analogy. “Push” (or necessity-based) entrepreneurs are those who may be faced with a job loss, dissatisfaction with their current positions, or lack of career opportunities. For these reasons – unrelated to their entrepreneurial characteristics – they are pushed to start a venture. “Pull” (or opportunity-based) entrepreneurs are those who initiate venture activity because of the attractiveness of the business idea and its personal implications. They may seek independence, increased earnings, and opportunities to carry out their own ideas.

A study out of Stanford on Opportunity versus Necessity Entrepreneurship explores the common and seemingly paradoxical finding that business creation increases in recessions. It looks at two distinct motivations, “opportunity” entrepreneurship and “necessity” entrepreneurship (with the simple definition of a necessity entrepreneur as initially unemployed before starting their business). The research found that opportunity entrepreneurship is generally pro-cyclical and necessity entrepreneurship is strongly counter-cyclical – that is, recessions drive necessity-based entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. Opportunity entrepreneurship was also found to be associated with more growth-oriented businesses.

I believe there are many profiles of the necessity-based entrepreneur, and it’s a segment of entrepreneurship that deserves more attention. Not every entrepreneur is the genius superstar with a new technology. Some forms of entrepreneurship are a bit humbler.

An example of this are gig economy entrepreneurs. These “gigs” are often short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to (or in addition to) permanent jobs – think Uber and TaskRabbit. Although this is an emerging form of entrepreneurship, is it a positive experience for the entrepreneur (and the economy)? Or, is it a necessary side hustle some people need to survive?

Women and minority entrepreneurs are often necessity-based entrepreneurs. The startup rate for businesses created by both women and minorities exceeds the overall rate for new startups. The Minority 2018 Small Business Trends survey by Guidant Financial surveyed 2,600 business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs, and found that 45 percent of small business in the country were owned by minority ethnic groups and 26 percent were owned by women in 2018. What is driving these business owners, and are we measuring their contributions effectively?

While economic gain is certainly one component of necessity-based entrepreneurship, a broader definition includes entrepreneurs who are motivated by their belief that the traditional labor options available are insufficient to meet their non-economic needs and goals as well.

At MIT, we foster entrepreneurship through programs like our delta v student venture accelerator where our students are out to change the world with their innovations. But, entrepreneurship has many forms and there is no one right model or best way to measure success. Necessity-based entrepreneurs are shaping their own success in a way that works and should be included in the broader study of entrepreneurs.

This article was published in Xconomy on November 26, 2018.

Giving Thanks for the Essence of Entrepreneurship

Recently, I spent time in Zurich, Munich and Milan meeting with MIT alumni, in the hopes of gaining philanthropic support for the programs run by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. As I talked with our alumni in these cities, it made me think of the Entrepreneurial Philanthropy practice put forward by lifelong entrepreneur and philanthropist, Naveen Jain. His promise is that philanthropy is at its best when it is founded on entrepreneurial zest and agility.

Naveen Jain states in a Huffington Post article, “True philanthropy requires a disruptive mindset, innovative thinking, and philosophy driven by entrepreneurial insights and creative opportunities. To disrupt the status quo, drive philanthropy at tremendous scale, and develop long-term economic vitality through giving, we must apply the same models for success in our philanthropic endeavors as we do in business.” I could not agree more.

MIT students are fortunate because they are encouraged to work on problems, projects, and ventures that will positively impact the world. During their journey, they are provided support through tailored classes, mentorship, access to Makerspaces, extracurricular programming, and competitions that offer opportunities for the application of learning and assessments. MIT alumni play a significant role in student support whether it is through mentoring, episodic coaching, programmatic support, introductions, or financial support.

Martin trust centerThe Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship continuously finds new ways to encourage, advise, and champion aspiring entrepreneurs as they take new ventures from idea to reality. The Center’s goals are high, as are its needs; it provides the most innovative opportunities for learning and expands MIT’s global entrepreneurship ecosystem, but it depends on the support of philanthropic partners.

However, as I visited these cities, I had to ask myself – how do you raise funds to sustain entrepreneurship programs in a global environment that does not embrace it as a serious area of study, or in cultures where education is not necessarily the place you would direct your philanthropic funds, or where risk is not rewarded? Although entrepreneurship is part of our culture of innovation here in the States, it is viewed through a different lens in different cultures, as I learned in the Nordics earlier this year.

MIT alums think broadly. The people with whom I spoke on this trip are thinking about how to attract talent, innovate companies, inspire creativity – and they want out-of-the-box ideas for their communities. We had some spirited debates during our discussions as to the benefits of entrepreneurship to their particular ecosystems. The most common misconception was that entrepreneurship is about embracing repeated failure. However, I would argue that at the Trust Center, we try to mentor and guide students so that they are not repeating the failure of others. Our measure of success is that the student learns the skills to start their own businesses and that they self-identify as entrepreneurs. This lets them take risks while they’re here – ahead of the VC stage.

When I started in business out of college, it was a different time. Companies like Honeywell, IBM, HP, etc. all had training programs that cross-trained new graduates. That experience is not as prevalent today, and startups are a great way to get hands-on experience across multiple disciplines. As my expertise moved from engineering to manufacturing to service to sales operations to logistics to senior leadership etc. there mitsealwere always a willing set of mentors who helped me at critical points – for this, I am very thankful. At MIT, we teach a Disciplined Entrepreneurship approach – an approach I have seen work in practice. We have over 60 courses that provide the MIT “mens et manus” approach of mind and hand. Like my apprentice programs years ago, MIT offers hands-on programming to help students understand what working in a new business venture is like and teaches skills of finance, legal, marketing, sales, etc. with industry experience in biotech, healthcare, energy, fin-tech, and other industries.

For many of the alumni, these programs did not exist when they were at MIT. However, in speaking with them, they are confident in the educational and hands-on experiences that are available now to MIT students. Several alums said they would love to go back and be a student now. (Wouldn’t we all!?) Although the world is a different place now than even five years ago, the Trust Center keeps abreast of these changes as evidenced by the success of our MIT delta v teams. Our students are the pulse of change in the world.

Supporting an institution like MIT – and centers such as the Martin Trust Center that provide entrepreneurial programming – creates a workforce that has cross-disciplinary experience.

Demand for delta v has grown, while our budget has not increased for the program. We need funds to support these deserving student teams. As our success becomes public, so does the demand for our product, and increased resources enable us to teach others to become entrepreneurs wherever they are located. We cannot do it without a community and the philanthropy that will plant the seeds, so our students can positively impact the world.

 

How the MIT Ecosystem is Supporting Entrepreneurs

0044_8788 copyAnother MIT delta v Demo Day is in the books! Our 2018 cohort was the biggest yet, with 25 teams presenting, and for the first time, we had a program in New York City in addition to our Cambridge team.

With all our preparation for Demo Day and the excitement of the day itself, sometimes it’s tough to step back and look at the big picture – but, it’s important. In this case, the big picture is the MIT ecosystem for entrepreneurs, and how it works to support our startups.

As our Managing Director Bill Aulet said in his introductory presentation, the mission of MIT is that we DO things, and that’s what this is all about. We are driven to bring knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges. Our entrepreneurship program at delta v is about trying to solve some of these great challenges – and we do it by creating an environment and an ecosystem where these entrepreneurs can thrive and flourish.

An Inspiring Environment for Diverse Ideas

Delta v is the most inspiring environment I can think of for an entrepreneur. There’s an energy here that propels each of our teams forward. For 90 days, the delta v teams eat, sleep, and breathe their companies. They are guided through a process that makes them really think through the realities of starting an actual business. It’s not just chasing a cool idea – the fundamentals and bedrock of the business must be in place, including a solid business plan, working collaboratively with a board of directors, and testing their concepts with customers. The mentors, Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, our board of directors and the customer community are all part of the ecosystem.

This year, I was really impressed by the diverse industries in which the students worked. We had students with business ideas in crypto-currency, social, agriculture, mental health, financial, construction. And despite these wildly different spaces, the students still managed to find common ground and problem solve together. Three big themes stood out this year:

  • Inclusion – such as financial and societal inclusion
  • Human isolation – people are more connected today, but there is a lack of real relationships
  • Machine learning & AI – technologies with strong MIT foundations

A Strong Entrepreneurial Community

At delta v, we realize that a startup is only as strong as its community. So, we really focused on building more support systems for our students. We brought back delta v alums, like our keynote Spyce, a 2015 delta v alum who just closed on a $21 million series A round. We did consistent one-on-one counseling with founders and hosted outside advisors and speakers to provide novel perspectives for our students. In addition, this area provides an unparalleled innovation ecosystem access. The MIT campus and Kendall Square area is the densest innovation cluster in the world, with its concentration of startups, high-tech companies, and venture capital firms. This enriches the lives of our student entrepreneurs and expands the ecosystem where our they can grow and learn.

Personal Development as Leaders

A lot of this summer was about personal development for our entrepreneurs. I never worry about these students when it comes to technology. But it takes intentional entrepreneurship education – through many different teaching methods and technologies – to help create leaders that can rise to the challenge of starting a business. That’s something we hope to continue to grow at delta v in the coming years. Because really, anyone can raise money for their startup. But it takes better leaders and teams to know how to use that money and tech knowledge more effectively to continue generating revenue and try to solve some of the world’s great challenges.

If you want to get the full experience (and have 3+ hours), watch the video of the entire Boston Demo Day 2018 program:

To learn a little about each of the teams and view the startup videos (about 5 minutes each).

Also, see what BostInno and the MIT Sloan Newsroom have to say about Demo Day 2018!

 

How Imposter Syndrome Affects Our Best and Brightest

psychology-1957264_1920I heard a statistic the other day that 70% of people admit to feeling like an impostor at some point in their lives.* I work with students at MIT – one of the most prestigious universities in the world – and although it attracts the best and the brightest, college students at institutions like this are even more prone to suffering from insecurity.

A former student and I were discussing her experience at MIT and she said she completed her degree in three years – not because she was smarter than the other students, but because she felt someone would find out she didn’t belong there. Wow. And it continued when she went to Harvard Business School and felt the same insecurities. Today, this woman is a successful entrepreneur, but taking risks has never come easy for her.

Imposter Syndrome is a real thing. Although it is not an official clinical diagnosis, Scientific American classifies it as “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It strikes smart, successful individuals. It often rears its head after an especially notable accomplishment, like admission to a prestigious university, public acclaim, winning an award, or earning a promotion.” Interestingly, minorities and women are hit the hardest. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Oscar-winning actress and Harvard alum Natalie Portman, and Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz all admit that they suffer from Imposter Syndrome and share their stories here.

Fake It Until You Make It

Those who suffer from Imposter Syndrome will probably shudder when they hear the words “fake it until you make it,” but sometimes this can be the best approach. For instance, there is a lot of research that says men will apply for a job when they typically meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women only apply if they meet 100%. This is the type of “fake it until you make it” approach that gives you a chance to level the playing field and prove yourself. The most prominent fake role, in my opinion, is parenting. You may have babysat for children and thought, “I can do this.” However, it is not until you have 100% responsibility for a child that you are aware that you are faking it. Yet we adapt, learn from our mistakes, and become better parents.

Deep Stealth Mode

My boss often talks about his first startup company being in a very “deep stealth mode” – meaning it failed. It failed, but is he a failure? Of course not. Today, Bill Aulet heads up the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and he’s an accomplished professor, speaker, and author. He learned that each risk he took – and continues to take – makes him stronger. The book Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses that although fragile things break under stress, there’s an entire class of other things that don’t simply resist stress, but actually grow, strengthen, or otherwise gain from unforeseen and otherwise unwelcome stimuli. There are some benefits from stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil that may allow us to not only survive but flourish.

If you fail at a job what is the worst that can happen? You may get fired. Yet, the sun does come up the next morning. You figure out what happened, and hopefully, what you’ve learned. Then you can address the problem and try again. The key is the reflection and the learning but also taking the risk to try again. So why do most entrepreneurs fail a few times before they get it right? It may be that they are doing things that have never been done before. In some instances, they may not have the necessary skills. But the question is, can they learn or surround themselves with the right people to move forward?

Advice for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Going back to the story of my former MIT student; she looked to her mentors when she was faced with a decision to go out on her own and start a business. I could see that it was a positive step for her and knew she would do well. She struggled to make the decision, but we helped her through the process and assured her of her strengths. Ultimately, the decision was her own, and the leap was significant. She now has a thriving business and influences many people with the work she does every day. So what did we tell her?

  1. Be open to the possibilities.
  2. Find joy in what you do.
  3. Be open to change and learn.
  4. Learn from both failure and success, and let them make you stronger.
  5. Be a disciplined entrepreneur.
  6. Surround yourself with a board of advisors.
  7. Enjoy life!

The Scientific American article suggests two of the ways to overcome Imposter Syndrome are to choose a mentor (the way she chose to work with the Entrepreneurs in Residence at the Trust Center) or become a mentor. Becoming a mentor lets you gain perspective, share what you know, and nurture others.

I have grown through the ranks at large companies, completed entrepreneurial stints at two startups, and now I’m in education, guiding new entrepreneurs. Each move was, in my opinion, a risk with challenges, new people, and new technology. However, if you are lucky, you will have a long life with lots of options. I can tell you first hand it is much more meaningful to want to learn, from mistakes or circumstances, but it’s also important to know that even if I fail … I can start again.

*Statistic attributed to the International Journal of Behavioral Science

Find Your Voice, Own Your Narrative, and Help Your Mentor Help You

In today’s society, there is an awareness that diversity is important not only as a concept, but also for real bottom line improvements. While this is good news, there is still a long way to go. I recently had the privilege of joining a panel that discussed the successes and challenges facing women in terms of equal pay, gender parity/blind bias, and upward mobility.

“Press for Progress” was sponsored by The Boston Club and held at the offices of Ernst & Young. First, my thanks to our moderator, Tara Alex, an Insurance Partner at E&Y, and my fellow panelists: Linda Rossetti, social entrepreneur and board member; Agnes Bundy Scanlan, who is on multiple boards and an advisor at Treliant Risk Advisors; and Jane Steinmetz, the Managing Principal for E&Y’s Boston office.

The overall feedback from this panel is positive – there is more focus on improving gender parity today, and sponsorship is key to that improvement. When you have a sponsor, someone is advocating for you; they have your best interests in mind and can recommend you for important assignments. The other key takeaway is the importance of having multiple women and minorities in the candidate pool for new hires.

Gender Parity and Sponsorship

The panel provided actionable advice both for women trying to get ahead and for their mentors. It was clear from the panel’s experience, as well as the audience’s, that each individual’s journey is personal and gender parity mandates don’t work. Because each experience is different, the power is shifted to the employee to own their experience and make the most of it. Employees need to leave “breadcrumbs” along the way so that when opportunities arise, the managers making the decision know what you have accomplished. Whether it is seeking a board seat or a new career path, if no one knows what you want (and you have not networked to get the message out) then it will be difficult for the hiring folks to find you.

An interesting Harvard Business Review article by Stefanie K. Johnson, David R. Hekman, and Elsa T. Chan delves into the statistics around the number of diverse candidates presented and its impact on selection. Titled “If There’s Only One Woman in Your Candidate Pool, There’s Statistically No Chance She’ll Be Hired,” the article’s premise is that people are invested in maintaining the status quo. That means if two men and one woman are presented as equally qualified, employers tend to hire a male. The panel discussed making the candidate pool richer with more women and minority candidates, and how this could shift the odds.

The women on my panel have all played a sponsor role in their organizations. They talked about looking at a slate of candidates and finding opportunities to position them, so they are ready for the next opportunity. But this can only be done if the sponsor is aware of what you want and desire as a potential job candidate. This requires you as an employee to own your narrative, find your voice, identify what is of value to you, and link it to the organizational purpose.

Taking Risks

It is also clear that women often wait until they are fully qualified for a job before they apply for it, whereas men are more likely to take a risk and sell the vision of what they can/will do. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty states, “I learned to always take on things I’d never done before. Growth and comfort do not co-exist.”

With each risk you take, you build confidence. The first risk is the toughest, and if you’re successful, each subsequent risk is easier. Changing jobs is scary, but this lets others perceive you in a different light and provides momentum to your career. Even if you fail, you will realize what the issue was – wrong organizational fit, skills mismatch, more travel than you understood it to be, etc. – but by taking the risk you’ll be better prepared for when you make the next decision.

Upward Mobility

Pay parity and advancement were topics of particular interest to women who take an extended parenting leave and then return to the workforce. The panel’s advice was that you need to align yourself to market value, not your former salary. Do the work, find the data, and present your case. Today there is more transparency in salaries with sites like Glassdoor, so use this to your advantage. Remember, it is much costlier for your employer to lose you as an employee than to provide you a market-value salary. Also, step back and look at patterns. If you have seen other people’s careers go off track, this is where you must convey your own narrative to decision makers and voice your expectations about what you need to make it work.

Another point women should consider as they negotiate salary and benefits, is that silence is OK. In fact, it is often a powerful negotiation tool, so use it to your advantage. One final point is that you don’t have to do a job the way your predecessor did. Make it your own. If your family obligations don’t allow you to be out every night of the week, then figure out what does work for you and own it.

Further Diversity Research

I looked further at the research and the Harvard Business Review has a series of articles on the latest studies in diversity. One article by Evan Apfelbaum, titled “Why Your Diversity Program may be Helping Women but not Minorities (or Vice Versa),” looks at the problem of lumping women and minorities into one bucket. “The fact is that 40% of women make up all employees in a professional setting, whereas black women and men by contrast rarely comprise more than 5% of employees in these same settings.” These statistical differences affect how concerned people are with “sticking out” as representatives of their group. While the “value in difference” approach may energize groups, like white women, the very same message may, ironically, undermine groups who are represented in smaller numbers, like black women and men.

In the end, business is conducted by people and the way to enhance performance and decrease turnover is to provide all groups the same opportunity to succeed.