It is with fond memories that I watched this year’s MIT delta v Demo Day presentations. Even though I was traveling out of the country, Demo Day generates the kind of enthusiasm and excitement that had me tuning in and watching the passion of these student entrepreneurs. (You can catch the replay of the Cambridge presentation here. The group also presented in San Francisco and New York City.)
MIT delta v Demo Day
Demo Day is an annual event that showcases the culmination of three months of work with the intensive delta v capstone educational accelerator program. Why am I so passionate about delta v? For five years I served as the director of this MIT program – a full immersion into a wide variety of innovative technologies and startups.
This year, watching from abroad, I saw a new cohort of entrepreneurs pitch their innovative and potentially world-changing companies to an audience of MIT students, mentors, friends, investors, and perhaps even customers. Kudos to Executive Director Paul Cheek, Jenny Larios Berlin, and Ben Soltoff, along with the entire Martin Trust Center staff for a successful Demo Day! Like any successful performance, there is an immense amount of hard work and preparation that goes into the final production. Like a proud parent, it was gratifying to pass the torch and see the program grow and move forward.
delta v 10-year Impact Study
In addition to celebrating this year’s delta v entrepreneurs, MIT just released an in-depth longitudinal study of the impact of delta v. I’d like to highlight some of the findings here to show how much this program has meant to the students and their startup companies, the MIT community, and to demonstrate the overall economic impact of the program.
The study was based on 10 cohorts of delta v students who comprised 181 teams. There were 692 participants during that time (67% were MIT students), and 322 of them (47%) responded to the survey. Some of the highlights include:
Survival Rate: Since its inception, 61% of delta v projects have become real companies that either continue to exist to this day or have been acquired. (For companies from the past five years of delta v, that number increases to 69%.)
Attractiveness to Investors: 63% of all the projects have resulted in companies that raised money.
Funding Attracted: The companies that have raised funding to date have totaled over $1 billion, and that continues to grow.
Founding Other Companies: Over 130 new additional companies have been created and raised an additional $2 billion beyond the companies started from the projects worked on in delta v.
Broader Entrepreneurship Communities: 68 (37.5%) of delta v startups were accepted into external, private/for-profit accelerators, including Y Combinator, TechStars, and Mass Challenge.
Connected Community: 83% of survey respondents say they are still in touch with their delta v cohort.
What’s Next for Me?
So, how can we help the next generation of entrepreneurs around the world be successful in their endeavors? Now that I’m working on the “fourth act” of my career, I’m working one-on-one with entrepreneurs and their startups in a consulting and coaching role.
These days I’m also traveling more for both pleasure and business. And, I’m working on an e-book resource on Global Entrepreneurship and Accelerator Programs around the World.
Interested in the e-book? Sign up here and I’ll send you a copy once it’s completed.
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!
This slightly scary piece of encouragement might leave you with a bit of trepidation. But, an alum of MIT’s week-long Entrepreneurship Development Program (EDP) vows this program changed her business completely.
So, what is MIT’s Entrepreneurship Development Program? Let me offer a peek inside the program from the view of a faculty member and coach. I personally find it fascinating part to witness professionals experience their “Aha!” moment during the program – that sudden moment of realization, inspiration, and insight in their entrepreneurial journey.
For the third year in a row I recently assisted in teaching and facilitating this MIT Executive Education program with Bill Aulet. The group of people who attend EDP are highly motivated, driven, and want to make a positive impact in the world. These individuals are seasoned professionals who are used to delivering results, so we needed to provide the material in a way so that it can be applied to their real world. The MIT style of learning “mens et manus” (which translates from Latin to mind and hand) is a good match for the EDP cohorts. MIT provides the theory and reinforces it with the practical.
The global life experiences in the class make for such a vibrant community. They ask questions to deepen their understanding, and by doing so, we become better educators. The 2020 week-long program had 104 participants from 27 countries and six continents. The participants listen to a MIT fire hose of information during the day and apply the lessons in teams during the evening by going through simulations with coaching from experienced entrepreneurs.
Participants come together on their first day, and we put them through an introduction, then they jump right into entrepreneurial speed dating, pitching ideas, and form teams before they leave that evening. The balance of the rest of the week consists of the Disciplined Entrepreneurship (DE) framework, coaching, and ecosystem tours. The program is not for the faint of heart. It truly is a constant fire hose of content. EDP is more than an entrepreneurial mindset as these folks are building out ecosystems, starting companies, and came to the Entrepreneurship Development Program specifically to learn Disciplined Entrepreneurship.
These entrepreneurs see the effect they can have in the world through entrepreneurship. After recovery from the week, one participant said, “I am already working on the social enterprise that I have been wanting to build for 10 years, but I didn’t know how to make it into a business.” I appreciate the opportunity to teach and coach in such a results-based program.
During the school year, 90% of my day to day is made up of teaching, leading programs, and supporting current MIT Students. About 10% of my day is working in Executive Education and community building. EDP is such an essential part of our ecosystem as it brings frameworks, application, and experience to people from all over the globe who are experienced executives but are looking to take their entrepreneurial initiatives to the next level.
However, our MIT educators are not the only ones teaching about the entrepreneurial ecosystem. In EDP, we bring entrepreneurs who have launched after participating in our various entrepreneurship programs. Companies like AirWorks, Floating Point Group, CaroCare, and Ministry of Supply. We also introduce non-MIT related support like Greentown Labs and the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC).
No one program can claim the success of any MIT startup, as it is the collective ecosystem that encourages those at MIT to reach back into the community to help others rise up. Many of the people who come to the Entrepreneurship Development Program are already active in their entrepreneurship ecosystems, bringing the Disciplined Entrepreneurship lessons to others. This is the impact of EDP. We continue to foster the community.
Here is some of the feedback from participants:
Dale Cree, CEO, 3EN Cloud ltd “At the end of the day, it was absolute proof, you need to complete the 24 steps to have any chance at all. Greatest foundation for any business journey. MIT EDP.”
Kasper Juul, Director, External Innovation at LEO Science & Tech Hub “The combination of inspiring lectures and practical exercises, with the support of experienced entrepreneurial mentors is simply invaluable. This makes for a very intense course with a steep learning curve that will push you to your limit while having lots of fun. Most importantly EPD makes you feel part of a community that will continue to support you on the entrepreneurial journey.”
Mariam AlEissa, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Research Fellow at MIT “I’m so grateful to be part of the Entrepreneurship Development Program where I learned innovative ideas can’t be delivered without entrepreneurial skills. As a Saudi woman, I’m fortunate to live in a time where women empowered as part of 2030 vision and I’m trying my best to be ready to play an active role in my community at all levels.”
Dr. Dani Abu Ghaida, Technology Leader working with Middle East organizations to create, build and launch new ventures “What particularly attracted me [to EDP] is to find answers on what I did wrong in the ventures I have led and that failed prior to EDP. EDP not only answered this question but gave me the motivation to move ahead and pursue multiple programs at MIT leading to the ACE [Advanced Executive Certificate] qualification I have now. This journey has equipped me with the tools that I need to answer all the management, strategy, innovation, operations, and supply chain challenges I can face as a venture leader, business executive, and a person who wants to change the world.”
Mary Rodgers, Innovation Community Manager, PorterShed (past participant) “Since returning to Galway, MIT EDP has become an integral part of our daily working lives. Managing a co-working Tech Hub, I regularly meet with entrepreneurs at different stages of their life cycle. I used the DE [Disciplined Entrepreneurship] roadmap to refocus the companies, and provide an objective, practical, advice and actions to progress.”
Heading into a new decade is a time for both reflection and predictions. What have we learned about entrepreneurship? And what do we see as trends moving forward?
2019 marked the tenth summer that MIT’s Martin Trust Center has hosted an accelerator and the eighth year of our formal MIT delta v program. I’ve had the pleasure of leading delta v for the past five years, and I’ve seen tremendous growth during that time. The summer-long bootcamp works with entrepreneurs who enter with an idea for their business and progress to product creation and new venture launch. The program is based on the Disciplined Entrepreneurship framework with the philosophy that entrepreneurship can be taught; you don’t have to be born an entrepreneur.
A Decade of Success at MIT’s delta v Accelerator
We’ve studied the path of the companies coming out of delta v; as of January 2018, 101 teams made up of 316 students had taken part, and a full 75% of these startups were either still in business or had been acquired – far above the average for new ventures. These delta v alumni companies employ more than 500 workers across the globe, and 25% of our teams have ten or more employees. According to figures on Crunchbase, as of November 2019, delta v teams have raised more than $215 million from 375+ investments. One-third of the companies raised at least $1M+, and six teams have exceeded $10M+ in funding rounds.
In the words of one of our board members, Max Faingezicht, “delta v is a driving force of the entrepreneurial ecosystem where you mix talent with motivation to go out and change the world.”
So, what changes do we anticipate in the next decade of entrepreneurship? Some of the broader trends we see are ones reflected in delta v.
A Rise in Women Entrepreneurs is Impacting the Economy
It is a fact that women entrepreneurs are driving economic growth. According to an article in Forbes on 10 Stats that Build the Case for Investing in Women-Led Startups, women were the sole or majority owners of an estimated 12.3 million U.S. businesses at the beginning of 2018, and are starting businesses at a rate of more than 1,800 per day. The number of women-owned companies is growing at a faster rate than all businesses and women of color are driving this. In addition, companies founded by women deliver higher revenue – more than 2 times as much per dollar invested – than those founded by men.
Four out of every ten businesses in the U.S. are owned by women, according to The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). These businesses tend to be smaller in terms of revenue and employment. In fact, 88% of women-owned businesses generate less than $100,000 in annual revenue, while 1.7% generated more than $1 million in revenue – although both segments are growing.
At MIT’s delta v we see more women taking leadership roles in the startups. With each cohort, we strive for diverse gender and ethnic backgrounds plus a worldwide perspective, and we proactively aim to neutralize gender bias for entrepreneurs. Diverse teams offer a tremendous benefit in terms of networking and help each other solve challenges, supporting our philosophy that diversity fuels innovation. We’ve also seen that the rate of our successful women-led startups is even higher than the delta v average.
Mentorship Lays the Foundation for Entrepreneurial Success
An article in VentureBeat explains that people with access to a mentor are five times more likely to be interested in starting a business than those without a mentor. Mentorship is linked with business success, and business owners who receive three-plus hours of counseling report higher revenues and employment growth rates. The article also states nearly half of women entrepreneurs say one of the top challenges they face is finding a mentor who can direct them to the resources and organizations that can help them launch their businesses.
At delta v, our Entrepreneurs-in-Residence and board members are built-in mentors for our student teams. Both bring resources and experience to guide the new entrepreneurs on their journey. We also encourage student entrepreneurs to find their voice. This requires mentees to speak up and be active participants in the process. They need to own their narrative, identify what is of value to them, and speak up to find a mentor or sponsor and make that relationship fruitful.
Gen Z’s Vision of Entrepreneurship
Although we work with a lot of Millennials in delta v, it’s interesting to keep an eye on the upcoming generation of entrepreneurs. (Pew Research considers anyone born between 1981 and 1996 a Millennial, and anyone born from 1997 onward is part of Generation Z.)
Gen Z has different priorities and different frames of reference than the entrepreneurs who preceded them. Amazon’s next-day delivery has always been a thing for them. They never went to Blockbuster to rent a movie and social media permeates their lives. As a result, internet-based business models are second nature; “Uberize” is even a verb used to describe a business model. Entrepreneur states that 41% of Gen Z-ers plan to become entrepreneurs.
Interestingly, Millennials are less likely to become entrepreneurs, according to a study from the U.S. Small Business Administration. It revealed that fewer than 4 percent of 30-year-olds are actively engaged in entrepreneurship, compared with 5.4 percent of Generation X-ers and 6.7 percent of Baby Boomers who were entrepreneurs at the same age. Coming of age during a time of recession and burdened with student debt, many Millennials turned to side gigs to make money. I explored the gig economy in my Xconomy article on Necessity vs. Innovation-based Entrepreneurs. Interestingly, necessity entrepreneurship is strongly counter-cyclical – that is, recessions drive necessity-based entrepreneurs to start their businesses.
As each new generation makes its way in the world, it is fascinating to see how they view entrepreneurship and the new types of businesses they create.
What’s Ahead for delta v?
With the data we have gathered on the delta v teams over the past decade, one of our next steps is to develop a more scalable playbook so that we can extend our reach even further. At MIT, we rely on observations, research, and experimentation. Our motto, mens et manus (which translates from Latin to “mind and hand”), is present in everything we do. In entrepreneurship classes and programs, this approach is vital. Our students don’t automatically have a higher success rate; they learn the fundamentals of becoming an entrepreneur hands-on. At the Martin Trust Center, we have integrated the mechanics of new venture creation in curriculum, programming, community support, and we have validated them on a world stage.
As the collective knowledge of entrepreneurship improves, we continue to move forward to meet the needs of the entire entrepreneur. However, like any discovery, it takes several experiments and iterations to fully understand aspects of the problem you are trying to solve. We realize that mental fortitude and self-awareness are crucial to moving forward and are implementing some exciting new programming in this area.
As we prepare to lead entrepreneurs into the next decade, there are some “big rocks” to address. We need to prepare students for financial discussions and mental stamina for the funding process. We need to focus on establishing a culture and nurturing it, supported by our team. A business reflects the character of the founding and growing team, so the journey starts with an individual and builds to a long-term game.
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.
Another 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:
I 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?
Be open to the possibilities.
Find joy in what you do.
Be open to change and learn.
Learn from both failure and success, and let them make you stronger.
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
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.
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.
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.
On June 12, we’ll open the doors to this summer’s delta v cohort, beginning an intensive 3-month entrepreneurial “boot camp” for MIT student entrepreneurs. This post looks at the culture of delta v and how this environment helps to grow entrepreneurs.
The saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is attributed to management guru Peter Drucker and was made famous by Mark Fields, president at Ford Motor Company. It speaks to how vital culture is in an organizational setting. At MIT, Professor Bill Aulet has written an article that explains why, as an organization, we believe culture is essential for entrepreneurs.
For delta v, MIT’s capstone student venture accelerator, we create a culture of entrepreneurship that is all about risk-taking and the freedom to make mistakes. Although delta v operates out of a cool space with a startup feel, it’s about more than the free coffee and ramen noodles or the walls you can write on. The vibe of delta v is different because of the people inside it and the meaningful work they do. If you’re one of the fortunate student teams accepted into the summer-long “entrepreneurship boot camp,” you’ll be surrounded by smart people all working on new companies with big goals. During the summer, the teams will be working in small cohorts in similar fields and will also participate in being part of a greater cohort, where a true sense of teamwork and collaboration is established.
The staff at delta v know they are assisting students who are making a positive impact in the world. In this experimental culture, failure is expected because students are encouraged to take risks and stretch to their full potential. This is a safe zone to try new ideas and the disciplined entrepreneurship framework provides a basis and common language for the staff to work with students. The framework isn’t a hard and fast set of rules, but it’s more like a common operating system that guides all of the teams.
As part of the culture of delta v, we also bring in the outside community to meet and assess the student teams from an educational perspective – not to look for deal flow but to participate in the students’ learning experience. A key milestone for MIT delta v teams is meeting with their board of directors and gaining valuable input from these advisors. This year we are also starting a delta v cohort in New York City to expose students to a network that is relevant for their company, for example, fintech, real estate, fashion, media, the arts – but, again, with a common operating system. As students gain experiences throughout the summer, they also build trust and respect within the greater Boston and New York communities that will be important as they launch their companies.
Six elements of the delta v culture are shaped by our principles at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship:
MIT Standard of Excellence and Rigor – The delta v teams receive not only the highest quality education, but also the highest quality advising, and practical experiences as well.
Collaboration – By partnering with various departments and centers within MIT and the greater community these startups will be prepared to collaborate for the success of their businesses.
Diversity – Encouraging a wide variety of perspectives, people, and ways of doing things mean that new ideas and concepts are examined from many angles and the diverse contributions make each company stronger.
Experimentation – delta v is the place to “fail forward” and try everything in a supportive environment.
Honest Broker – Since MIT does not take a financial stake in the delta v startups, our focus is solely on nurturing and assisting the education of the entrepreneur.
Mens et Manus – MIT’s motto, “mind and hand,” fuses academic and practitioner perspectives for a well-rounded entrepreneur.
The way the Martin Trust Center shapes the culture within delta v will be reflected by each of the entrepreneurs and their ventures. Good or bad, all our past experiences come into play as we create something new. Sometimes we choose aspects of a culture we want to emulate. Other times, we actively realize that a certain way of doing things is something we want to avoid. Many of the delta v teams will go on to become successful entrepreneurs that help to solve some of the world’s toughest problems. (Read about some of them in the news here.)
We hope that each student and team carries forth the culture of delta v.
I had lunch the other day with a friend and former colleague; he had been the CEO of a successful company that we worked together to build. As usual, we caught up and reminisced, but what struck me about our conversation was our discussion around leadership, and how much truly good leadership contributed to the company’s success, culture, and camaraderie.
He shared that as he visits companies that have been built by previous employees – and staffed by a lot of talent from his previous companies – and he is greeted with such warmth. He said folks tell him that being a part of the company he led was one of the best experiences of their lives. I agreed. We had a great team, a great product, and built a company of significant value that positively impacted customers’ businesses.
He chuckled at my recollection, said he kept emails from his staff telling him how badly things were going, how people disagreed with decisions that were being made, and that working with “so and so” was painful. In hindsight, that is true. So, is it the halo effect, where you remember only the positive and time fades the rest? Or, were we really accomplishing something as a team? I believe it is a bit of both.
Certainly, there were some low points – like when we blew a presentation, a product launch, hired the wrong people and took too long to recognize it, failed a customer, or failed to deliver as a team. We scaled fast but not fast enough, we forecasted sales but sold different models, we worked ridiculous hours. But, at the end of the day, we delivered it together. If we didn’t deliver on a customer commitment, it was “all hands on deck” to get that issue corrected, and that was a core value of the company. However, we also did a lot right. We focused on organic growth, so there was an opportunity to grow and learn. We took risks and learned from what worked and what didn’t.
I also talked to a former colleague who was just 21 when she joined the company. She remembers feeling personally responsible for making customers happy and making the company successful … and, everyone felt that way. If we weren’t passionate about the company, we wouldn’t care so much, and we wouldn’t have told the CEO all the things that we thought were wrong.
As a leader, how do you get employees to think like this? Part of it is to be transparent, celebrate successes, and think ahead to what is next. Communication of both successes and failures is essential, as is laying down the challenge to do better. I remember every day, as I left my office, I saw a sign that read, “Did I move the company forward today?” It was simple, yet meaningful. It was personal for me, and it was personal for others.
We had a mantra of: Performance; Simplicity; and to Be easy to do business with. It was a simple, yet consistent message of expectations – the expectations of our customers (who called us on it), and the expectations of our employees who focused on it internally and externally by communicating in an authentic way (rather than with charts or PowerPoint). This shared set of beliefs and living the culture every day became the guide rails we used to make decisions.
Leadership in building an enterprise is fraught with strife. How you show up everyday matters. It matters how you lead by example through good times and bad, the signals you send to the employees, prospective employees, customers, and investors. It matters what you say, and how you say it. People see how you carry yourself, and how you treat others. The CEO job is lonely, and all paths lead there, so it is vital that CEOs have their support network to provide perspective.
Maybe I have been lucky (or wise) in choosing the companies I have worked with, but I have experienced terrific leadership at a variety of companies, including employees that challenge those leaders to be better, and customers who depend on that. So, at the end of the day, I am pleased to hear that my former CEO is treated well – as he should be. There might be a bit halo effect as we reminisce, but in my experience, creating something special for others creates its own halo.