( Presented March 24, 2016 as the keynote speaker of JP Morgans Women’s History Month)
Good evening, and thank you Kathy, for the kind introduction! I’m so glad to join you all tonight and I’m very grateful to the WIN Global Multicultural Women Committee, the Global Technology Diversity Council, and the Black Organization for Leadership Development for hosting this event.
Just seeing all of those words together, all at the same time… global, multicultural, diversity, women, technology, and leadership – it is fantastic to be connected to an organization that is carving out time to promote those ideas all in the same breath.
And thanks to all of you for coming tonight. I know there is a lot of hard-won wisdom in this room, and many different perspectives. Some of you are moms taking on the incredible challenge of raising children. All of you have study countless hours, you’ve got to bed early instead of going to the party with friends and stayed up way past a productive hour to get our presentations done for the big meeting. And if you’re anything like Kathy you do all these things and answer emails with in five mins of receiving them. Seriously I don’t know what they teach you here a JP Morgan, but based on Kathy’s response time, I need to know so I can train my staff. Seriously.
Looking out at this room, I am at once both intimidated and inspired by you. Any one of you could come up here and tell your story and it would be wildly interesting and powerful and inspiring. I’m glad to contribute my story tonight – I’ll keep it short and honest, and I hope it will add to the collective wisdom in this group.
In 2011, after years of working as an architect in an industry that is dominated by men, I founded my company – Sweeten. We help people find the best general contractors for residential renovations. If the construction world felt heavily skewed toward men, I found a new way to make things more complicated for myself: I should start a tech company AND take on the construction industry AND raise venture capital for it!
So now I spend every waking moment working to thrive in an eco-system where race and gender can feel like constant obstacles. My team is doing fantastic work – people have come to us with more than $300 million dollars in renovation deals and we’re scaling our system to help small and independent businesses find great work. And as we grow, I’m constantly learning and reflecting on the quiet ways that gender and race can obstruct the path, and finding things to help along the way.
So here are a few thoughts on how I’m fighting to move beyond these obstacles. I’ve got five things to share and then I’d love to open it up for questions and thoughts.
I’ve learned to stop the tape that plays when someone pushes my buttons.
When I first started raising money for the tech company that I founded, I walked into a meeting at a venture-capital firm. I was nervous, but ready, and proud to represent the work we were doing. The first thing one of the partners said to me was “Do we call you Tyra or Naomi?” I’m sure it was intended as a compliment, but it really hurt to have the momentum turned on my gender, my height, and my skin, instead of my brain.
It pushed all of my buttons. I wish I could say that I stopped the tape that plays right after someone pushes my buttons, but I couldn’t. I think my quick response was to shoot back and ask if I could call him “Colonel Sanders,” which might sound funny, but it wasn’t graceful, and it made me guilty of the same behavior I’d seen in him. And worse, it just further derailed the really important conversation we were supposed to be kicking off.
It took years of effort to identify the pattern and stop it from happening. Now, I know that feeling the second it starts and I can slow it down. I can feel that little rush inside my ears and I can have the moment of internal fury before I respond. Now I know to ask myself, “Why did this person need to press the button? What threat did I represent to them?” It helps me limit that kind of behavior and those funny-in-the-moment-but-regretful-down-the-road comments. Now, it’s a reaction that I can recognize and reconcile, without letting it get the best of me.
We probably all have different tapes that play at different moments, and so we all need different ways to hit stop, but do everything in your power to recognize that beat and stop it from derailing your plan.
I’ve learned to steal mentorship
I learned early on in my childhood to take mentorship even when someone is unwilling to give it. Sometimes that means “fragmentoring” – meaning you take fragments of the best things you see all around you. Sometimes it means taking a mentee approach with someone who isn’t even aware that you’re doing it, especially when that person has access to resources or points of view that might be out of reach for you in that moment.
I have many male mentors who might be surprised to learn that I have been their mentee all along, and some of the men who report to me right now are actually colleagues who I consider to be my mentors. The single most important thing that I’ve learned from them is that they know what they are good at and they stick to it. They don’t front. If they don’t know how to do something, they will tell you and they will work to find someone who is good at it.
I’ve learned to remember that being a good human being is hard for everyone
Kind of funny this is my third point, after I just told you to steal…
It’s hard for everyone, no matter how rich you were born and how much privilege you have, what gender you are, or what country of origin you’re from. Living a life of integrity, kindness, empathy and connection – it’s hard for every one of us. Finding time to do the things you care about and take care of the things that have to get done – everyone has to work hard at that. Recognizing that things are hard for everyone doesn’t diminish the things that might be harder for me, and it helps me acknowledge my challenges and then focus on finding a way around them. I don’t know any other way to be successful.
I say it often to myself: “Being a good human is hard.”
When I first started out, I hired a very young and very inexperienced African American coder on my tech team. I was over the moon happy to help this young man develop the skills he needed in his new career. I felt personal pride in helping to change the number of African American in engineering and tech. Six months after hiring him, he was in my office telling me he was leaving, going to a much bigger company that was willing to pay him double what he currently made. It felt like an actual kick in my stomach.
I had to work hard to remember that this decision made sense for him, even if it felt momentarily like a betrayal to me. And I had to remember that this decision was hard on him too. It’s not easy to navigate a career for anyone, and for someone who is just starting out, there are so many competing priorities.
Remembering that being a good human is hard helped me be more gracious and supportive in that tough conversation, and it has helped me manage and support a diverse team. Attracting and keeping talent is hard for every company. We have an awesome team of about 30 employees from Google, American Express, Bank of New York, ZocDoc, and the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations, and I am a better leader and manager when I take a moment to remind myself that everyone is working hard on their own path.
I’ve learned to own my story
You may or may not need to tell your story all the time, but you have to own it all the time. I went to high school in Uncasville Ct at St Bernard High School. My Mom a devote atheist was determined to have my go to the catholic high near our town because above any god or gods my mother believes in education and she thought the catholics other a supreme envormient for learning. What my mother didn’t know was that out side of any discipline or motivation that the nuns could provide, I had a secret motivation each morning. The school was 45 mins drive away from my house. Each morning I boarded the bus or my car poor. And headed north. The last 10 mins of the trip were where ….
I stand up here before you as a well-educated and successful entrepreneur. I have raised millions of dollars, and I lead a team of 30. People ask me to make speeches like this one and they interview me for magazines.
I am also an almost 40-year-old inter-racial dyslexic woman who is currently going through a divorce. I have had childhood and adult sexual trauma, and I grew up well below the poverty line.
I am also an outgoing introvert that spends most of her weekends reading books and playing with her dog. I’m a best friend, a sister, and a daughter and these aren’t even my front teeth — my front teeth were knocked out in a roller blading accident in college. That’s all part of my story.
Too often on my path to this place, I have denied my story because I was the only black woman in the classroom or on a job site or in the boardroom. I didn’t want to bring attention to myself or separate myself or demand that things be different for me. But these things don’t detract from the story, they are the story, and owning it all makes for an even better story. (I mean the teeth thing is funny, right? After multiple surgeries…!)
I’ve learned to forget the numbers
The statistics on women in tech, and women in leadership roles, and African Americans in tech and leadership roles — can feel disheartening. It can make it seem like the doors are closed. But instead of feeling disheartened in front of the door, I try to stay focused and keep motivated to deal with the numbers once I’m behind the door. As I pass milestones in my career and in my life, the numbers that I have worked hard to ignore on the way become wildly important because I can turn around and fight backwards.
Get into a good school, and then fight for more students of color to be admitted, as I did when I co-founded the African American Student Union at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Start a tech company, and then hire women and people of all colors and build great opportunities with them, as I’m doing with my awesome team here on the Lower East Side.
But it doesn’t come easy on either side of the door, and you have to be intentional about propping the door open. In fact, my company almost did the exact opposite a year ago after a new round of funding came in. We finally had the funding we’d worked so hard to get and we were desperate to ramp up right away. We had more good ideas than people to execute them, and we to reverse that math, fast.
And we ran right down a path that has become familiar for too many companies: after an early and fast hiring push, I was caught off-guard by the realization that our progressive little company had hired eight guys in a row. My director of communications, Kerry, rattled off the count on her fingers, and we paused. Our entire first foray into hiring post Series A funding gave us a bunch of great people, but a really lopsided outcome.
And this wasn’t a PR issue or an attempt to be politically correct. Our business reflects an intersection of tech and design and management, so we had to find people who reflect that mix, in a huge city that demands that mix. It’s not just the right thing to do to hire inclusively, it’s a critical part of the relevance of our brand and the success of our business.
So we did a few things.
* We invited job applicants to tell us about their non-work interests in job postings and interviews — which you might assume is fairly standard — but I was surprised to learn how many applicants were intrigued by the invitation and willing to share unexpected talents and side projects that helped us understand where they might best contribute.
* We re-structured our interviews so that candidates would meet with both male and female employees and we talked with employees running interviews about how they needed to be more engaging with candidates to bring out the best on both sides of the table.
* We’ve cultivated a relationship with a fantastic local organization that provides programming for underserved Asian American students in New York City, Apex for Youth, and we’ve offered 3 years of summer internships to students connected to Apex. Two of those summer interns are now on our full-time staff and contributing big time to our team.
* We were also influenced by a piece in the New York Times that pushed employers to be wary of hiding behind words like “culture” and “fit” when those words mean hiring comfortably similar people. Inclusivity in hiring came up at team meetings, in happy hours, and in our content marketing strategy. Now, we’re back at a more even 50 / 50 balance of male and female employees, a full 75% of our team falls into a category other than Caucasian male
We’ve also had to be intentional about keeping the door open for customers. When we put pictures of our happy clients up on our website, we make sure that people and families in all forms are represented. My team works hard to make sure that our clients are really represented – and that means highlighting and sharing happy clients who are single and married and straight and gay and black and white and brown and old and young. It is a particular point of pride and motivation for us to make renovation work better for everyone, and we love that it looks different for everyone.
I share this to highlight that even for someone who thinks a lot about equity and access, I had to prioritize this in very tactical ways and demand that my senior team do the same, both in internal hiring and in more public ways. And it is paying off.
So I encourage you to look at the big and small doors in your role. Whether you’re hiring a summer intern or staffing a huge team for a new city, look for ways to make sure the door is wide open for the best candidates. And if you’re in a leadership role, make sure your team knows that you need them to do the same in very specific ways.
There are definitely people who fight forward, and their work is vital, too, it’s just not my style. And for me, this has worked. My grandmother was an extremely poor black woman from Hope Sound, Florida. Her name was Virginia Brown and she was as tough as they come. She also was the descendant of poor black southerners and because of this legacy, she never went to school. She signed her name with an X because she couldn’t read or write. There are so many doors that were closed to her, and yet as her grand-daughter, two generations away, I went to Harvard, started a business, and am now in a position to open so many doors for others. At so many points in my life, I’ve had the chance to fight forward or fight backward, and the numbers mean a lot less when you’re the one holding the door open.
Thank you so much for the invitation and opportunity to talk with you tonight. I hope there are pieces of my story that resonate in some small way for you, and I look forward to hearing your questions and thoughts. Thank you.