Sandberg tells us to find a rocket ship and cling on for dear life. Here’s why I did the exact opposite.
By Nathalie Miller (Co-founder, Doxa)
I was long gone from Harvard on the day Sheryl Sandberg gave her famous career advice to graduating business students. But the rocket ship metaphor seems to have followed me, popularizing with Lean In to permeate the tech sector, where I’ve ended up. With local success stories like Uber ($41 billion valuation), Instagram (10k users just hours after launch), and Zuck (duh), around here Sandberg’s logic is pretty much taken for granted as truth: we should find a rocket ship, claw our way on, and cling on for dear life.
So why did I jump off my rocket ship?
Let’s start at the beginning. Last year I was following Sandberg’s advice to the T. Freshly off of a previous startup and tired of two straight weeks of mimosa mornings, I poked Instacart on AngelList. The next day they invited me in for an interview and, as soon as I walked into the office, sparks flew. I loved everyone and I loved the idea of coming aboard to figure out clever ways to build a new team responsible for something innovative (i.e. manage the world’s largest, growing grocery database). My allotted interview time crept from 45 minutes to one, two, three, and then four hours. By 9 pm the job was mine. We signed along the dotted line with a hug and a Fernet shot. I was Instacart’s twentieth hire.
It was an exciting time. In late 2013, Instacart was YC-anointed and widely seen as a promising, hot new player in the startup game. But it wasn’t until months later, with Instacart’s epic $44 million Series B round, that we entered hyper growth. In the span of several months, Instacart went from operating in two cities to dozens and our team grew to over 100 employees. We upgraded from our beloved SOMA Victorian to a three story, 4,000-square foot office. Friends and acquaintances started coming out of the woodwork, hoping I’d pass their CV to hiring managers. We were working hard and sleeping little. It became pretty clear that I was on one of Sandberg’s rocket ships. And loving the people I worked with and the projects I owned, from databases to running SF ops (where I eventually moved), I was perfectly poised to follow Sandberg’s advice to cling on.
Except for that I didn’t.
September 12, 2014 was my last day at Instacart. The decision to leave shocked a lot of people. With hundreds clawing to get in, it was basically unheard of to leave of your own volition. And to tell the truth it was hard! I loved going to work every day. It felt exciting to be part of a winning team of people that I loved spending long days and nights with, solving problems and being silly together. I distinctly remember my abs were stronger after my first week there because the office manager was killing me with her jokes (see her in selfie below wearing glasses). Even now I still get teary thinking about our little family. There was the stress and the crazy fun that bonds, of course, but I get most sentimental thinking of our quiet moments. Sipping wine in a dark office, clinking glasses over our monitors at the moment we beat an all-time sales record. Early morning yoga on the roof. Walks around the park. Hot tubs at dusk. Late nights in the ball pit, talking about nonsense and life and everything.
So why did I leave a rocket ship job where I worked with wonderful friends, where I had a solid position in a rising company that gave me valuable equity?
Why was I ignoring Sandberg’s wise words?
The thing is this: Sandberg’s advice fundamentally doesn’t fit me. Maybe it makes sense to those HBS graduates. And maybe it makes sense to the Lean In circles. I imagine it makes sense to people who are financially motivated and who have very, very supportive partners (or no partner to answer to about how much you’re working).
My career motivations, I suppose, are different. I was never searching for the next rocket ship or chasing dollars. I stumbled upon opportunities at Instacart while following a trail of work adventures, friends and curiosity. No lie, it would be great to still have those Instacart shares. But when it comes to jobs, I’m mainly motivated by three things: innovation, problem solving and social impact (which I understand in varying ways depending upon how much Bourdieu I’ve been reading). If I’m going to work myself to the bone, which I am prone to do, then I want to focus on something that truly inspires me.
Unexpectedly, that opportunity came up. So, defying all Sandberg logic, I packed up and decided to start a new company called Doxa with two pals, Jordan Mendelson and Kyla Fullenwider. Doxa uses multi-dimensional data analysis to provide a dynamic, accurate window into what it’s like to work at a company at a given moment. Why is this important? Because the one-size-fits-all career prescriptions and company policies simply don’t work anymore. To put it visually:
We live in an age where people have radically diverse and nuanced motivations and professional needs, which change from person to person as well as over time. Doxa measures this — and then uses algorithms to match people to companies based on skills, experience and also that individual’s professional, social and economic needs.
My mission is to start at home, where I work and know there are problems to be solved: women in tech. Figuring out how to make women stay in this sector is hugely important. Harvard Business Review research shows that over half of highly qualified women are dropping out from working in science and technology jobs at the same time that these fields are suffering labor shortages. This is absolutely unsustainable. We’re hemorrhaging money to hire, but then losing some of the best talent because we don’t understand how to keep them. It’s economically wasteful and also ethically infuriating that so many talented women are being underutilized. I want our sector to be on the forefront of female friendliness, rather than where we are now (e.g. large swaths of feminists deleting the Uber app).
Doxa is well on our way and every minute feels vital to solving these looming work problems. Yet I still get many questions about why I took the plunge and, especially with whispers about Instacart’s upcoming $100 million Series C and $2 billion valuation, whether I regret jumping off the ship. Maybe others would. But I can honestly say that for what I want and need to be doing in the world, where I am is exactly right.
This post originally appeared on Medium.