Only a Few Female CEOs? Doesn’t Mean Women Aren’t Successful
Re-posted from Forbes.
In a recent post, I discussed the dearth of women in venture capital and returned to the question of which industry “power seats” need more women. To help steer the conversation in this direction, I’m pleased to introduce you to Donna Wells, the president and CEO of Mindflash.com. She knows first-hand what it takes to be a successful woman in the tech sector, and has spent a lot of time thinking about how the absence of women leaders in venture capital impacts female entrepreneurs and startups. I’ve admired her various leadership roles from afar, but haven’t yet had the opportunity to meet her, still she was gracious enough to share some of her time and insight with me.
This March she’s scheduled to appear on the SXSW panel Becoming a CEO: Lessons From Four Techette Leaders,(and a quick, related plug for my panel on Tech Superwomen: Mentors and Mentees, FTW) but if a trip to Austin isn’t in your near future, read on! Below, she shares why women are naturally primed to be successful in today’s business world, how we should really gauge the success of women in the workforce and what we can do about the lack of female entrepreneurs. Without further ado…
LB: If you were to name a sector or two in which you believe women need more seats, which would they be and why?
DW: Women need more seats in venture capital. But I’m really suggesting this as a means to the end of getting more female entrepreneurs funded. A recent study by Global Insight, a leading economic analysis and forecasting firm confirmed what I’ve always believed: VC firms with (at least) one woman partner are 75% more likely to invest in a female founder.
Frankly though, I’ve found female entrepreneurs to be an incredibly resourceful and persistent group. So much so that, until there are more female VC’s, they will simply continue to work around the industry. I see a disproportionate percentage of female founders opting out of the VC route. They’re getting funding from angels and private equity firms or bootstrapping their businesses. Lisa Stone and her co-founders bootstrapped BlogHer, Gina Bianchini bootstrapped Ning, as did Victoria Ransom at Wildfire. Wendy Lea, CEO of GetSatisfaction, bootstrapped her first few startups.
LB: What, if any, distinct traits have you seen fellow female coworkers bring to the workplace? Do you yourself exhibit them? (Why or why not?)
DW: Neuroscientists tell us that women’s brains are wired differently than men’s, and I believe that. Women are network thinkers, they see patterns and connect the dots more readily than men. I think I do that, and I think the women I work with do that. Those skills are very helpful in the world of software. If you’re thinking holistically about your product experience you say, “Hey, we could change our product in this way, but then the second-order effect is X – it will change our marketing, customer service, cost of goods sold in these ways.” I think women are uniquely great at this type of network thinking.
LB: Did you make assumptions when you first started your career that subsequently proved to be wrong? What sort of insights did you gain?
DW: In my twenties, it literally never would have occurred to me that I’d be CEO of a startup software company. Starting out in my career, I assumed that I’d work for one, maybe two, large companies in my entire career.
Growing up, my role models were men who had worked in very large organizations over very long periods of time. My father and grandfather were successful and senior guys at AT&T and Sears Roebuck, respectively. For people of their generation, success meant leading larger and larger teams and budgets. My first job out of business school was with American Express (150,000 employees) and I thought I’d make a career there. What I learned at AmEx, and at the large companies I’ve worked for since (like Charles Schwab and Expedia) is that the challenges that interest me – creating and launching new products – were typically found in the small, out-of-the-main-stream departments. Probably not surprising, then, that I’ve been able to move between large and small companies throughout my career. I’ve been employee #4 and I was employee #9 at Mint.com. So, early in my career, I thought success would be defined by having a huge staff and budget. But my personal experience has been the opposite. I’ve learned more, done more and had more fun while working in small teams with limited resources … and tackling big challenges.
LB: How do you give credit where credit is due?
DW: I think everyone knows the management adage that you should praise publicly. I definitely agree. I’ll give you an example: We recently promoted one of our remote employees. When she became a remote worker nine months ago it wasn’t clear how well she was going to make the transition. She ended up doing a brilliant job. When we decided to promote her I made sure we announced this news to the whole company. Doing so sent several clear messages to the whole team, remote and local, in a way that people really hear and internalize. 1. Watch what she’s doing, that’s what we’re looking for. 2. People who perform at her level get recognized and rewarded. 3. Whether you are working at HQ or remotely, you have the same opportunities at this organization.
And with public recognition, management also gets the benefit of seeing how others react. Whether, after the fact, a manager is approached by someone complaining “It should have been me”, or announcing that they’ll be upping their game to “Be the next one promoted”, s/he now has a unique opportunity to understand that employee’s job satisfaction and career vision … and a rapt audience for a discussion on how their performance could be improved to get to the next level.
LB: Only 6% of Fortune 100 CEOs are women. Have you ever encountered the “Glass Ceiling”? Was it possible to overcome it? How?
DW: I can’t say that I have encountered the glass ceiling in my career. But I’d challenge the assumption that the number of female CEO’s is the right measure of women’s success in the workforce.
There’s a ton of attention paid to who occupies the CEO seat. In part, rightfully so – it’s a tough job. But a significant part of our national focus on who occupies the big chair is just cultural. Americans put an outsized premium on individual achievements. My favorite recent example? The American media’s reaction to the team of Navy Seals who killed Osama Bin Laden.
Here’s a team of 24 men who were on the ground on the day of the operation, supported by hundreds of military and intelligence professionals working over a decade to flush this guy out. Epic, quintessential, and successful teamwork, in anyone’s estimation. What does the American media want to know when President Obama meets with the Seal Team? “Which guy actually shot Osama?” and ”Did the President get to shake his hand?” That is the American bias – we see individuals as heroes, not teams.
I think the better metrics for us to track are:
1. The percentage of Fortune 100 management teams that are women. Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), Safra Catz (Oracle), Padmasree Warrior (Cisco), Susan Wojcicki, Marissa Mayer and Stephanie Tilenius (Google), Katie Cotton and Jen Bailey (Apple) are all drivers of their company’s strategy and success. None happen to be CEO’s, but we should not discount their impact or influence just because they don’t hold that title.
Typically, the CEO leads the company’s Vision, Strategy, Financing, Board, and serves as the public face of the company. These are key functions … but not ones that everyone wants to take on. Moreover, these roles are necessary, but not sufficient, to ensure organizational success. If the majority of our most senior female executive talent excels in executional functions (as I suspect they do), then the key metric we should be tracking is their success in rising to the top of their area of excellence and interest … be it Operations, Finance, Administration, Marketing or (dare we say it) Human Resources.
So, if only 6% of Fortune 100 CEOs are women, but 50% of their management teams are women – we’re good. I think we should be less concerned about the “glass ceiling” blocking women’s path to the CEO chair than we are about it’s blocking women from getting into top management roles that leverage their unique capabilities.
2. The percentage of technology startups that are led by women. Here, the gender of the Founder/CEO matters, as it drives the investors’ decision to invest. That number is currently just 8%, and IMO that’s a clear signal that we have barriers to entry for female entrepreneurs. Technology startups are the primordial ooze for innovation and job creation in any economy. If women are not equally represented in this critical sector, then we are sub-optimizing our national resources and dramatically under-leveraging our national capabilities. As I mentioned earlier, the single most important place where women need “more seats” is in the VC industry… in order to increase the number of gifted female entrepreneurs who are able to secure the funding necessary to bring their genius to reality
LB: What’s the worst business advice you’ve ever received?
DW: “Don’t’ join Mint” and “Don’t join Mindflash.com.” I’m delighted to say I ignored both.
Friends that advised me against joining Mint in 2007 were certain that Americans were not ready to give their online banking credentials to a website (and the eight whole employees behind it) that was neither a household name nor FDIC insured. In contrast, I thought there were enough 20- and 30-somethings stressed about their money … and comfortable sharing much more than their bank balances on the web … that we could build a large user base by simply providing them peace of mind and control via intelligent and mobile access to their finances. In this case, I was right. 2 million users registered for our free service within 2 years. We were earning $3 per user when we sold the company for $100 per user to our major competitor, Intuit, in 2009.
In 2009 a number of Sand Hill Road VC’s, Super Angels and Silicon Valley lawyers advised me to walk away from what I instinctively knew to be an extraordinary opportunity at Mindflash.com. They couldn’t get beyond the company’s unusual financing structure. Eighteen months in, the fact that the same people are coming back to me asking to invest in Mindflash.com, already tells me that I might have been right to ignore their advice.
LB: What key mistakes have you made in your career? What were some of the key lessons learned?
DW: The biggest mistakes I’ve made are in hiring and firing. And I’d challenge any exec that says otherwise.
A bad hire is not just a drain on your time and productivity, but demotivating to your best performers. It’s cancerous and a drain on the entire organization. I wish I’d fired half a dozen bad hires faster throughout my career.
Hiring too slowly is equally bad. My most painful memory? In the first year I was at Mint, content was a big part of our on-the-cheap marketing strategy and there wasn’t a blog post we put out that I didn’t write or edit. I was doing my CMO job during the day, and spending nights and weekends as our blogger. Initially, I thought that was the only solution. Heck, we even earned Webby accolades. But, after 6 months, I realized it wasn’t scalable and I started looking for a Blog Master. Once I hired Lee Sherman, it was like going from black-and-white Kansas to TechniColor Munchkinland. Overnight, the blog ran so much better and was so much more efficient. He knew how to hire writers, manage content and edit – all of which I didn’t – and he introduced infographics and tools that took the blog to a different level.
The lesson there is that if you work longer and harder you might get there, but it’s more likely that you won’t. Now I’m now always looking for opportunities where spending more money vs. more of my time will have a disproportionate effect on the success of my company.
LB: What would you do differently if you had to do it all over again?
DW: Nothing. I’m having a great ride. I’ve had bad days and jobs I wish I hadn’t taken, but looking back, it’s only because of every job and every experience I’ve had that I’m where I am right now.
LB: Only 8% of technology startups are led by women. What steps can women take to close this gap?
DW: Go to engineering school. If you can’t go to engineering school, get into product management so you’re as close to the engineers as you can be.
Whatever your passion is, be on the bleeding edge of technology in that space. If you’re into market research, get into automated usability research. If you’re into customer service, be the company’s expert on community platforms. If you’re an artist, get into web design and UX. We’re on a one-way street and we’re going 100 miles an hour. Get onboard and put your foot on the gas. Rip off the rear view mirror and throw it out the window. Commit.
Learn more about Donna:
Name: Donna Wells
Hometown: San Diego, CA
Current City: Portola Valley, CA
Employer & Job Title: President and CEO, Mindflash.com
Educational Background: BS from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business
Previous Work Experience: CMO at Mint.com, SVP of Marketing at Expedia, VP of Marketing at Intuit, CMO at myCFO, VP of Marketing at Charles Schwab, and various roles at American Express.