By Julia Hu (Founder & CEO, LARK) I was rushing around the country kicking off LARK’s partnership with Tumi this week when I was asked to write this blog post. The catch: they asked on if I could turn it around in one day. I kept trying to write whenever I had a free moment, but felt guilty that I didn’t have enough time to put into it. I knew I was going to let great women down. I finally decided to email and I asked if I could extend it to the weekend. Their response: "Sure!" It was that easy.
Just by asking, internal struggles were no longer necessary. And it struck me that I, and many women I know, don’t like to tell people what we need. We mostly take it upon ourselves to accommodate and take on the extra burden, and in the meantime feel guilty or stressed, perhaps even isolated or resentful.
In the high-stress, high-risk environments that all entrepreneurs put themselves in, women entrepreneurs seem to have a harder time because what we need is sometimes different and not always the norm for male audiences. It’s not good or bad, it’s just our job to explain to our male counterparts why we need different things. I believe it’s not only cathartic for us to do so, it’s actually an asset. These are uniquely female traits that will give your team an edge in building a vision, a company, and a team.
Here are some things I’ve wished I said for myself or for my female colleagues:
- To our husbands, our partners, our friends: We need to stop feeling guilty, and we need you to help us do that. Sheryl Sandberg credits much of her success to having her husband be an equal partner at home.I started LARK because of my fiancé’s sleep problems, but I was able to grow LARK as a company because he never allowed me to feel guilty when I didn't have enough time to pay attention to him while I was building LARK. I wish for all entrepreneurs to have this empathetic support.
I’m not talking about just saved dish-washing time, it’s the psychological support that we need to have: the buy-in from our partners and friends, and the knowledge that they will be happy and survive even in the times we’re not there. It doesn’t change anything fundamental between us or reflect the way we feel about them.
Emotional dependence is an asset. This guilt towards loved ones stems from women feeling a magnified sense of responsibility toward others. Because of this emotional dependence, the women on our LARK team have shaped our team to be extraordinarily team-oriented. We succeed and fail as a team because we feel responsibility towards each other, which is lovely. It’s what keeps us stable.
- To our male colleagues: We need you to be sensitive and invest more time with us in the soft parts of business from the beginning. With any expanding team, there are social dynamics and company processes to quickly build. Often they get short-changed, but it’s okay, because guys understand each other and can take some bumps and figure it out along the way. The guys on our team, however, learned some tough lessons in the beginning by trying this same tack with our peers. One new guy on our team told me, “I don’t like to treat people differently, but I just realized I have to be less confrontational and need to be more brainstormy here."
Sensitivity is an asset. Women are especially sensitive to subtleties, feelings, trends and this makes them intuitive. Use that intuition to your advantage and invest time from the beginning to articulate how to best build a culture, to feel out whether potential hires will fit the company culture, and to build teams and processes that uses the best strengths of each person- it will build a scalable foundation, not to mention a happy one.
- To our potential investors: We need you to assess our strengths, as entrepreneurs, differently. An investor pitch is 15 minutes with which to prove to someone that you are invincible and that you have a will of steel. I’ve never been able to do the former with a straight face. A colleague told me recently that whenever he heard people talk about me, it was always “Julia’s built such a great team and partnerships around LARK," not “Julia’s a superstar CEO," as he would expect to hear about successful male leaders.
Still, I was very proud of that, and I realized that I’ve found my equivalent of invincibility, our team and how differently we think, and our golden partnerships. It's an asset not to be invincible. I think I've allowed myself to doubt myself more often than my male CEO counterparts, but I am now okay with that. It gives me the agility to recognize when I’m wrong and switch course, the focus on building deep partnerships, and the interest in listening to many people.
It’s important to convince others that your best qualities are worthy leadership qualities. Your investors, and your partners, need to know that in place of invincibility, they get something just as good. Otherwise, they might just start confusing my listen-first approach with passivity or lack of confidence.
The characteristics for a great male leader have long been defined, they are judged by certain frequent metrics. The characteristics of a great female leader are still being defined. It’s a great opportunity, but one that requires speaking out.
We think differently and need different things. Don’t expect others to know that. Start articulating clearly and gracefully to your family, colleagues, and teammates, your investors, partners, and customers what you need in this challenging but deeply fulfilling journey -- for the sake of your company and your own sanity.
Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. About the guest blogger: Julia Hu is the Founder & CEO of LARK, a consumer electronics startup that helps couples sleep better together. Prior to LARK, she was National Sustainability Chair for global startup incubator Clean Tech Open, and ran international marketing in China for D.light Design. She received her Masters and Bachelors at Stanford and has half of a MBA from MIT Sloan (a dropout, but they're nice enough to include her as a case study and speaker). Follow her on Twitter at @ourlark.