In a week of inspiring commencement speeches and the passing of Maya Angelou, it made me think about what I would tell young female graduates and founders. To give you a little context, I am an entrepreneur turned newbie investor. Some may consider the road I travelled to get here a bit out of the ordinary. Unlike many of my fellow geeks, I didn’t own an Apple II, I didn’t get a perfect SAT math score and I wasn’t dreaming about data and code before I could walk.
I was born in China, then lived on an unruly farm in equatorial Mozambique until I was eight with zero schooling. Both my parents are 2nd-grade educated, don’t speak English and have never turned on a computer. I grew up in the East Boston housing projects and spent most of my teenage years working full-time while attending public school. As a family with little money, we never had any tech gadgets. We had a fuzzy 13” TV and a cassette radio. I didn’t own a computer till I was in my mid 20’s.
I shared the cliff notes version of my background to show that there are many paths to becoming an entrepreneur. You don’t have to fit into the cookie-cutter mold to be a successful founder. While being an immigrant fits the tech founder archetype, being a female from a poor uneducated family certainly doesn’t.
Through this lens, here are five pieces of advice I would give to aspiring female entrepreneurs.
1. Own your past story.
When I was younger, all the way through college, I was really embarrassed about my background. When I went to Harvard, it felt strange that my family lived in squalor just across the river. I felt like an outsider who wasn’t as smart, as well-traveled, as cosmopolitan as everyone else. But as I started to share my past more, I realized what brought me shame is now the same story that evokes resonance and empathy. We each have vibrant stories, filled with wins and tragedies; learn to embrace it versus trying to escape it. Owning it will help you connect with others in a much deeper, more meaningful way. Your story is your looking glass, both a window and a mirror.
2. Create your future story, don't live someone else’s.
I believe this is the most powerful driver behind why people leave their cushy jobs at companies like Google and Facebook to become entrepreneurs. Why else would you abandon fat paychecks, equity packages, and instant brand halos? So start creating and consciously building your own narrative, one that is diverse, rich, full and complex.
3. Don’t hide behind the excuse: “I failed because the tech world hates women.”
There are a lot of discouraging articles, blogs and stories about how women are not treated well in tech. While some of these may be true, I do feel the tech community truly values capable, intelligent, courageous women. Having been in tech for more than 15 years, I am fortunate to have rarely encountered some of the biases and discrimination others claim. In fact, I felt a lot more of that in my earlier non-tech careers. If you build the skills, are highly competent in your domain, are a strong team player and treat others well, you will have a higher likelihood of succeeding in tech. Don’t blame the community for your failures. Take responsibility and ownership of your career and choices. Shed that chip on your shoulder.
4. Don’t see VCs as your elitist enemies.
I hear these sentiments from both male and female founders-to-be. VCs are no different than other humans walking around. They come in all shapes and sizes. If you categorically typecast them, then you are probably going to have a hard time getting them to give you money. Yes, it’s hard getting funding. But it’s also hard trying to be a professional athlete. Being an entrepreneur is a privileged and selective career. To succeed, you have to learn to respect, navigate and play in the ecosystem.
5. Balance duality of achieving vs. succeeding.
People often confuse the goal of achieving versus succeeding – in fact, they are polar opposites. Achieving refers to getting to some end goal or end state while succeeding is about finding your zone or flow in the present, and not sacrificing the joy and beauty of the moment for a desired future outcome. Understand what success means to you. I look forward to supporting and funding more women - not because of your gender or your pedigree but because you’re bad ass and you are unstoppable.
Hear Eva Ho speak at our Los Angeles City Meetup this Thursday, June 5.
Which advice helped you the most?
Tell us in the comments below!
About the guest blogger: Eva currently runs an early stage tech fund called Susa Ventures. On founding teams of Factual & Applied Semantics (became Google AdSense); spent 5 years at Google & Youtube; serves on non-profit boards of First Descents & Iridescent; mentor/advisor for WebFWD, Mucker Lab, Common Crawl & newMe. Harvard BA, Cornell MBA.