Career Advice

So you want to raise money – chose your investor carefully

At least once a week I take a call, or a coffee, with an entrepreneur who wants advice on how to raise money. We talk about her product and market, the stage of her business, how good is her story and what her vision is. And then we talk about the tactics of raising money. How to get a warm intro to reputable investors, how to think about angel vs. seed vs. venture, how much to raise, what a strong pitch looks like – the usual tactical coaching.

Yesterday I was delighted that the entrepreneur I was coaching also brought up how to assess the quality of the investors. The quality of the firm and the individual. She’d had a bad experience in the past and simply did not want to have a poor quality individual in her deal.

Many entrepreneurs never realize how important this question is: all money is green but it is not all equally valuable. Investors, like human beings, come in all styles and since building a company is a marathon not a sprint you want to be running with someone who is enjoyable to be with and who will help you win the race.

First, pick someone who has the same vision and values as you. You are (hopefully) in your venture because you believe you can change the world (if you are doing it to get rich stop now because you don’t get rich in the startup world by trying to get rich, you get rich by building something) and it’s very important that your investors want you to change the world too. There are many, many tough moments of truth when building a company, and none more so than when you get an offer for your company before you think you are ready – before you have built the strategy and value that you believe is possible. That moment is when you find out whether your investor truly shared your vision on how to change the world or was just telling you he did.

It’s also important to pick a partner who can do heavy lifting for you when you need it. Great venture firms have a rich, deep network to help you recruit, develop partnerships, manage sticky HR issues and even find office space.

Avoid the money based VC (often a former investment banker) who’s motivated by running a portfolio, who wants to tell you what to do but has never done it himself. Find someone who walks the talk and builds great companies. Find a former entrepreneur who has really done it him or herself. If you can, find a VC who has been doing it for more than 10 years and has a great track record – and talk to their CEOs – or find one who’s been a CEO, built a good company and taken it public. All this is visible on their web bios.

And pick someone you enjoy being with. Most companies take many years to mature and if you are going to meet with your board a couple of times a quarter for 5 years it certainly makes the journey more fun if you enjoy interacting with them.

Sadly there are many entitled, think-their-shit-doesn’t-stink VCs in Silicon Valley. I could fill a book of stories of men who think they are rich because they are smart and that they don’t have to be courteous or helpful. Who are openly rude, dismissive and condescending. For comic relief – one of my most bizarre meetings was with a young VC whose firm had been in early at Google and he spent the whole meeting behind his desk checking the Google stock price and telling me how much money he had made. He was not the partner in the deal, just in the partnership, and yet he still thought it was all about him and I should be impressed!

But at the same time there are plenty of men, and women, who truly love working with entrepreneurs and have a very healthy respect for how hard building a company is. The challenge is you may have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your investing prince or princess. So manage your time and do your research up front.

Of course, in the end, you do need to get funded and you may need to take what you can get, but if you have the chance to be selective, the right investor is more important than the highest valuation because you’ll build a better company, have a stronger chance to change the world and make more money in the long run with the right partner.

Photo: Valetta, Malta © 2018 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

There’s no dishonor in being fired (most of the time)

So you “get fired” – what does that really mean? And should you feel bad, or is it an opportunity to review where you really belong.

Let’s start with the word. Fired. The web has a variety of etymologies for the word fired being applied to losing ones job but the version I grew up with is that when a craftsman was very bad at his job (say… working on a Medieval cathedral) and he was kicked off the crew his tools would be thrown into the fire (so he could not continue), as opposed to the craftsman who loses his job because times are slow in which case he is given the “sack” – he put his tools into his sack and left.

People get “fired” for a whole variety of reasons and in the majority of the cases it has little, if anything, to do with how good they actually are. They may lose their job because a company is downsizing, or reducing a group because a project is over, or the team/task is being moved to a cheaper location. I know a fantastic Bay Area VP who lost her job because the team was moved to Denver by the acquiring PE firm and she said no thank you (even though the severance was pathetically small).

A person may lose their job because they were in the wrong job in the first place: the job was simply not a good fit for their skills and it’s a shame they, and the hiring manager, did not figure that out up front. This is a great opportunity to get feedback, get coaching about where the fit would be better, maybe make an inventory of skills and satisfaction and figure out a slightly different career (see my blog post on this here).

I’ve seen great sales people fail, and get fired, because they switched industry and, without a deep knowledge of the product they are selling, they never quite grok the new sales process well enough to make quota, but they are still great sales people.

Sometimes people get fired because they challenge their boss to a point where the boss feels threatened. If you work for a weak manager this is always a risk, so find a strong person to work for. This happens to senior executives who go over their bosses heads to the CEO, or even to the board. If you find yourself in this situation don’t be naïve. Know that if you lose faith in your boss (or know they are doing something really wrong and won’t listen to you) and go over his or her head there is a 90% probability you’ll lose your job. Even bona fide whistle blowers lose their jobs in most cases.

You can even sometimes see executives lose their jobs because someone has to be sacrificed (to the SEC, or major investors) and the board is not willing to let the CEO take the fall. Yes, this happens.

And then we have the whole recent crop of media moguls, executives and CEOs who have been fired for breaching some part of the sexual harassment code of the company. What’s fascinating, and worrying, about this trend is we have the whole spectrum from the ghastly Harvey Weinstein to CEOs being fired for having a relationship which breaches the company’s rule for relationships within the company, to  “code of conduct” reasons where the company does not say why (but they say in their press release that it is unrelated to the business). My biggest worry about boards acting as judge and jury on sexual harassment cases (oversight of which is loooooong overdue, trust me) is that we could get a backlash and future serious cases of harassment will get ignored. If the #metoo movement sticks and creates permanent change that’s a good thing, but with most board members still being male (and too often not wanting to deal with harassment issues that come up) I do hope boards don’t get bored and stop paying attention because too many marginal cases come up.

So how to think about it if you have been let go? Unless you have done something really wrong like steal from the company or sexually harass a coworker or let a customer down through your own negligence or missed days of work and then shown up high as a kite (all of which I have fired people for) then your “firing” has little to do with your worth as a professional or a human being. It has to do with your fit in the job you found yourself in, or the circumstances of the company. So you are still great. Don’t let being fired cause you to doubt it.

Photo: Musée de Cluny, Paris © 2018 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

How does your investor make money?

So you want someone to give you $100,000? $1,000,000? How does that person or firm make money?

Too often I review business plans which have a great idea, a huge market, but no viable business plan that explains how the investor makes a return. I saw two this week like this (one in the US, one in Israel). Terrific technology ideas, potentially large markets, enthusiastic smart young teams but no P&L, no future financial plan and no discussion of current valuation, or even readiness to discuss it.

Before someone other than your friends and family will give you a useful amount of money they are going to want to know how much return they are going to make, and over what period of time. Unless you are a former founder with an amazing track record, or flat out lucky (and you can’t plan for luck) you will need to be able to explain the following:

  • what the size of the market is for your idea – who buys what/when/why
  • how you bring your idea to that market and how much money you make over time (your best stab at your P&L over the next 3-5 years)
  • what your idea/prototype/beta is worth now (i.e. if you want to raise $1M and you only want to give away 10% of your company then you have to justify why your current company is worth $10M today)
  • how the value of your company grows over time and possible exits – why is it IPOable at some future date or who might buy it?

You don’t necessarily have to have slides for all of this because the first thing you need to do is hook an investor on your idea but if they bite and start to ask how you see your revenue and value developing you’d better have enough of an answer to get into a good discussion. Don’t be intimidated. Remember the investor does not know more than you do about your idea (even if they act as if they do), and whatever you say will not be what happens (reality has a way of messing with even the very best of plans) but you need to have thought about how you’ll make money and be able to engage the potential investor in a discussion.

Eventually you’ll need to be able to make the argument for how revenue grows, how much cash you need to get to cash flow breakeven (i.e. self sustainable) and what the company will be worth in the future when you do. And the great VCs, if they are intrigued, will then dig in and help you figure out your first business plan and how to value your initial round.

Photo: Dante’s tomb, Ravenna Italy © 2018 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

Managing the switchbacks of your career

A successful career is rarely a straight line up the slope. It is so often a weaving up through experiences and it’s important to recognize how and when to weave.

I did a coaching session yesterday where just this question came up. This time the individual had years of engineering, both as a stellar software engineer and also as a manager and can feel he wants to do more – can do more – and knows he needs to broaden his skillset.

I have a handful of principles which can be helpful when you are wanting to grow and create more upward momentum in your career:

  1. Make sure you are in a critical path for the company (and this will vary by industry). For tech companies success hinges on sales (revenue and cash) and product. In, and in-between, these functions there will be a number of critical roles and projects. These could be supporting the top customers, could be developing a handful of critical new relationships, could be bringing a new product to market. Learn what these are and which would be i) new to you, ii) challenging for you and iii) valuable to the company.
  2. Make sure you advocate for a new position you can be successful at if you work hard and learn fast (which I assume you would!). It’s important that you succeed in each role you take on even if it’s a bit rocky as you come up the learning curve. It’s OK to make short term tactical mistakes in your career, it’s not OK to make strategic ones.
  3. Stay visible. In some companies a tour away from HQ is truly valued but in others it may be the kiss of death for future promotion because you are out of sight and out of mind. If you do decide to step away from HQ to stretch yourself – for example to China or DC – agree on a time frame with your management (e.g. 2 years) and be sure to discuss what you would be eligible for when you come back, but before you go.
  4. Be aggressive – that you are very focused on personal growth – but humble  – that you know you have a lot to learn. I’ve had too many engineers tell me they know they’d be good in sales while massively underestimating how truly skilled great sales people are, and too many sales people sure they can do marketing (better than marketing is doing it) with no comprehension of what it takes. If you have not worked in a job I guarantee you underestimate it, so be humble.
  5. Be direct. It’s rare, especially in small companies, that your executives are sitting around thinking about taking risk with you to broaden your career outside of what’s immediately expedient for them so don’t beat around the bush.

If you’ve been in the same role for 3 years look up, and across, and consider stretching yourself in to a new role – unless this is truly what you want to do for the rest of your working life.

Photo: From the garden of La Foce in Tuscany © 2012 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

Management screws up – what do you do?

Something is wrong and management has messed up again, how do you react?

One of the ways people react and hurt themselves in the process is by being immediately negative. Cynically: “well this is just the norm for this effed-up company” or “yet again we are going to screw our customers”. Maybe with resignation: “I’ll have to work more hours now to correct their mistakes”.  Maybe as a victim: “I have no power and I can’t take the risk of saying anything”. Maybe on the attack: “We need to get rid of our VP”. You’ve heard them all I am sure, standing around the water cooler discussing how, yet again, management is no good.

How is that helpful to anyone? It’s only helpful to you for 30 seconds as you feel better venting (but it’s better to save that for your dog). It’s not helpful to your team mates because while they might pile on for a moment they will be left feeling worse.

But most of all it is not helpful to your management. When there is a problem usually everyone knows it, including management who, though they may not show it, are probably worrying too.  Quality issues, high turnover, bad process – it’s probably a known issue that is languishing or not being solved for whatever reason. Or maybe you’ve identified a problem. Either way piling on to complain or roll your eyes does not contribute to the solution.

What most leaders long for is for the people on their team to describe the problem constructively and offer solutions. Pragmatic or harebrained, cheap or expensive, start the conversation and you become part of the solution.

If you are not sure how to do this maybe role-play with a friend. Practice describing what you see without being negative, cynical or frustrated. Don’t be a Pollyanna either. Focus on facts, process, unconscious culture – whatever is contributing but in a pragmatic tone. Make sure you are clear up front that your objective is to bring a new idea or solution so you don’t get derailed in the description of the problem before your audience knows your intent (so he can keep listening and not stop listening and start composing his response in his head before you get to your idea). For example, first sentence “I have been thinking about the quality issue on the latest release and I have an idea” or “I’m concerned about the turnover in our department and I have an idea as to how we could reduce it”.

There is a mind game you can play with yourself. Imagine you are the CEO listening to you. You are busy and burdened with the challenges of the job. You (the CEO you) may know the problem you (the employee you) is about to bring up, you may not. Either way, what is the best way to quickly describe the problem/your observation and your idea? Practice that – without being negative or sycophantic.

If you get skilled at this you will become part of the solution and you will be recognized and appreciated by your management. It will create opportunity for you. Early in my career I was not as skilled at this as I wish I could have been, but I was good at pointing out the problems and offering to fix them. Taking on broken programs, developing new programs from scratch to solve a problem or develop an untapped opportunity and this definitely accelerated my career.

Now you may say this would not work in your company. That’s not the culture. Management doesn’t want to hear, HR doesn’t listen etc. etc. To that I say get out. Find a better company that is worthy of your talent. And when you do, chalk it up to experience, or if you think it’s really egregious maybe write a blog like Susan Fowler did and bring down leadership. You are never powerless.

Photo: At the wall in Bethlehem, Palestine © 2018 Penny Herscher

Leadership

Winning as a CEO takes courage – does your CEO have it?

It takes courage to be a great CEO and yet our world is populated with mediocre ones so how do you assess a company CEO before you chose to join his company, or whether you have the mettle to be one yourself?

The evidence is there if you know where to look. It’s not just about a CEO who can give a rallying speech (although it’s fun to watch a CEO like Marc Benioff do it). It’s not just about a brilliant technical founder CEO who can talk product and vision. Once the company is off the ground courage is needed for the big moves that set the future, and because they are big moves they are inherently risky.

Take a look at your company, or the company you are thinking of joining, and look for the signs of courage in the CEO. For example:

Buying a large company, spending a billion dollars or more takes real guts. It has to be for strategic reasons, product reasons, and make sense to the shareholder. But no matter how compelling the strategic and financial argument the CEO knows so many things can go wrong during or after the transaction and in the end it is the CEO who will take the blame if they do. The board will question (that’s their job) and weak boards won’t want to take the risk – it’s easier to do nothing. So they will look to the CEO for the final courage to make the move. I do, however, think M&A of small companies doesn’t take much courage. “Tuck-ins” as corp dev teams like to call them can be justified on financial terms and, unless you greatly over pay, don’t incur much risk. But the big ones take courage and conviction.

Changing  the business model – for example moving software to the cloud. The courageous CEO takes a stand and makes it happen. He tells the shareholders what he’s doing and how many quarters it is going to take and then he leads the organization to make the change happen fast. Transitioning a software business from a perpetual, on-premise licensing model to a subscription model in the cloud is really hard because it always causes the stock to drop in the near term (although it will recover and be stronger if you execute). There are always a thousand reasons why to wait – “customers are not asking, we’re not ready, our shareholders won’t tolerate it” – and it’s true that revenue drops and margins take a hit for 8-12 quarters. It takes courage to lead your employees and shareholders through the transition and to stay the course as your stock suffers – but in the end you have much more resilient revenue and higher multiples.

When an industry is going through a major transition does the CEO face it with courage and double down to get ahead of the change or stick her head in the sand? The automotive industry is facing its biggest challenge ever with the rapid adoption of electric vehicles, ride-sharing and with Level 4 autonomous driving only a few years away. Ten years from now we’ll look back and see which CEOs had the vision and courage to lead their auto companies into the new world and which didn’t, because some car companies will no longer exist. But in the short term pouring investment into new technologies to get and stay ahead of the rapid rate of change is a huge decision. At Faurecia (a $20B auto company where I am on the board) the employees are not confused. The CEO is direct with them about the need for tremendous change and he is showing significant courage investing and leading them through it.

Firing non-performing executives is another area that takes courage. When an executive is weak the employees know it. But so often CEOs are slow to act. There is an old adage that by the time you know you should fire someone you are probably already 6 months too late. So why then will a CEO know he has an executive that is not cutting it and yet wait? Because firing people is hard and carries the risk that you will not hire well – maybe you’ll make a mistake and hire someone who is no better? Or maybe you are just so busy you can’t face putting the time in to do the search for a replacement? Firing a B-player senior executive is risky but so necessary because their department/group/division will be populated with B players, not A players and so probably not as competitive or effective as they need to be.

And finally a more subtle one. The courageous CEO is accessible. He will answer emails directly from employees rather than hiding behind an admin. He’ll walk the halls and factory floor to really listen to what employees think. He won’t stay behind glass in mahogany row and limousines, he’ll make sure his customers and his managers can find him, talk to him, and most importantly bring him bad news without him shooting the messenger. It’s a subtle form of courage to truly listen, but it’s courage none the less.

Can you put yourself in your CEOs shoes? Do you see courage and the willingness to take risk to grow the company, to listen, to make the big moves? Take a good look and then make your own assessment of whether your CEO is going to win. And whether you want to be one yourself one day.

Photo: Florence © 2018 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

Why being kind as a leader trumps yelling every time

Are you conscious of how you react as a leader when someone makes you angry? With an attack or with kindness?

I once worked with a head of sales who, when things were not going his way, would curse out anyone not on his team who he thought didn’t appreciate how hard his job was. Unkind, unnecessary accusations of incompetence or intentionally obstructing sales. Engineering, customer success, marketing – you name it – they all got yelled at instead of constructively engaged. But unpredictably so everyone walked on egg shells around him.

I recently saw a situation where an employee disappointed a startup CEO and the CEO chose to call her up and scream at her. Profanity laden, unfounded accusations of mal intent. The employee had resigned at an inopportune time and the CEOs reaction was to attack. Not give the employee the benefit of the doubt, or quietly share her disappointment.

And sometimes it even happens with customers. But in all cases shouting and bullying is not only poor leadership – it is harassment.

It’s so easy to react emotionally and react with anger. To raise your voice and attack. To clench your fists and shake with emotion. It is so much harder to react with kindness and yet being kind is often one of the characteristics of great executives. Not soft or weak; kind.

This is because it takes extra energy and thought to manage your reaction. It takes caring about the people you are leading or working with more than yourself. You have to step back and make the mental space to think through what’s behind the employee’s action. Have they made a mistake because they did not have enough information? Or because they didn’t think their action through? And if so how should you react to help them make a different decision next time?

I had the pleasure of working for a COO once who was a master at this. He never got angry, never raised his voice. He had a staff who were strong willed and opinionated – we must have been a nightmare to manage. Several of us went on to bigger jobs as CEOs, professors, GMs but at the time we were never satisfied, always pushing for more and for change. And we were definitely not always constructive. I learned, while working for Chi-Foon Chan at Synopsys, that you never need to attack to get your way. You can listen, respond with thought and patience and still exercise tremendous power. Very, very occasionally the chief would get angry but he would go quiet and still and wait us out and then quietly corner us with intellect. Impressive and something I aspired to once I was a CEO (although not always successfully).

The net result of having the self-control to think of your employee first and be kind is that people will remember you positively, will want to work for you, and will recommend other people work for you. You will make their lives better and they will be in the foxhole with you as you grow your company. And if their own careers are growing and they want to move onto a bigger job they will talk with you about it so a) you will not be surprised and b) you can help them find their next position – thereby earning their lifelong loyalty. I worked with a first-class CFO once who had three department heads: Accounting, FP&A and Treasury and he was clear that part of his job was to groom each one of these heads to be a CFO, knowing that when they were ready they would leave him. He succeeded and inspired deep loyalty in everyone who worked for him.

So if you find yourself reacting with anger and raising your voice, or worse yet yelling at an employee, step back and count to ten. Breathe deep and find another way. It’s simply not worth the destruction of relationship that occurs when you lose your temper.

Photo: Capital in Vézelay France © 2018 Penny Herscher

Equality

Equality as an ingredient for peace: from Gaza to Ramallah to Tel Aviv

It’s hard to know if you can make a difference. Small actions, personal actions, can they in some small way change the path to peace? Who knows, but why not do them anyway just in case? Here’s the story of our efforts; the story of WE2, women for economic equality, and our mentoring mission in January 2018.

Early this year I led a delegation of Silicon Valley executive women to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank to mentor women entrepreneurs. As I posted before we left:  I am more deeply convinced now in 2018, than ever before, that the long-term path to a more sane, peaceful world is equality for women. The research is conclusive. Investing in girls and women transforms economies, and healthy, growing economies are more peaceful. We were six women from Silicon Valley with a broad set of experiences between us as entrepreneurs, leaders, engineers, lawyers, recruiters and product designers and plenty of experiences, good and bad, to share. Together we believe women achieving economic equality is essential for sustainable peace.

It was an extraordinary experience.

Tel Aviv is one of the great startup success stories with energy and intellect oozing out of every crack in the pavement and second only to Silicon Valley. But even in Tel Aviv startups need help and their statistics for women are bad as ours. Low numbers of female founders, crazy low percentages of venture capital going to women. Frustrating for Israeli women, but the norm in tech, and something we can actively change by mentoring and investing in women. I had done some business plan coaching for female Israeli founders a year earlier and so knew of the hunger for women mentors – and this time I reached out to the non-profit Startup Nation Central for help to put the delegation together – asking first if they thought there was demand.

SNC more than exceeded our expectations of what we could accomplish in a handful of days! We met with hundreds of female entrepreneurs, executives and aspirers through panels, round table coaching sessions and one on ones. We talked about the “hard knocks” of our careers and shared the experiences that we had learned from – such as grasping opportunities before you feel ready, taking risk, becoming a CEO or realizing being fired is sometimes the best thing that happened to you. We met with women board directors of Israeli companies to compare notes on the challenges of being (often the only woman) on boards and with leaders of non-profits working on the role of women in Israeli society.

We learned how even hip and liberal Tel Aviv is patriarchal, of the challenges working in startups or technical jobs while holding to Orthodox rules and the lack of role models for successful female CEOs.  I had naively assumed that since young Israeli women serve in the Army alongside of men they’d both be tough (and I know a few stellar examples) and would have equality opportunity. But not the case. Everyone spoke to us about the elite intelligence Unit 8200 (famous for cyber security excellence and the best unit to be from if you want to do a startup). In 8200 we learned that while the initial numbers of boys and girls joining are equal the gender stats are that the more technical the departments and roles, the lower number of women. Is this because you sign up for more years if you join 8200? Or because the roles are more technical? I doubt it, and no one we spoke to could explain it, but the Israeli women seeking equality for the next generation of technical entrepreneurs are trying to understand the underlying reasons.

Startup Nation Central also made sure we got educated about the politics too, which we appreciated. We listened to, and learned from, community leaders – political, societal and peace makers. It is an understatement to say the politics and history is complex so we chose to listen carefully, not take a position and to simply try to understand better than we did before. Some of what we heard appalled me, some reassured me. We learned a powerful metaphor for the calamity of the peace negotiations which has stuck with me: The Israeli and Palestinian political bodies are like a traumatized divorcing couple who can chose one of two paths. They can try to mutually destroy each other, and destroy the future for their children, or they can acknowledge their trauma and work together to create a future for their children. The metaphor fits the current situation and it is unclear which path will prevail in our lifetimes.

Our experiences in Gaza and the West Bank had very different top-level issues, and yet many of the core issues of being women in business are the same. How to raise money, how to grow your career, how to balance family and work, how to challenge the traditional role of women in your society when you know you can do more!

In Gaza we were hosted by Gaza Sky Geeks which is a subsidiary of the Mercy Corps NGO who arranged our entry. The Gaza Strip is a desperate place where the borders are controlled by Israel and Egypt, you cannot enter and residents cannot leave without a permit, which often is not granted.  Unemployment is 42% in Gaza, the highest in the world and youth unemployment is close to 60%. Poverty rates are high and living conditions are bad. Little clean water, limited electrical power, issues with sanitation, medical care, infrastructure maintenance… you name it it’s hard. And yet, to the great credit of the GSG leadership, the GSG team has built a tech accelerator with its own power and a shared work space for more than 140 young people, men and women, to learn how to code and to start small businesses, taking advantage of the freedom the internet and digital skills can provide. The space is warm, light and full of optimism, like an incubator should be. Volunteers come through frequently (by far the most useful are full-stack developers or people who can teach design thinking) and, like entrepreneurs all over the world, the young people we met with wanted to tell us about their businesses and the challenges they are up against.

Here we mentored both women and men. Some of us taught small classes on early stage product design, some reviewed business plans and worked with the entrepreneurs to find ways around the unique product development and distribution challenges Gazans face (remember the borders of Gaza are closed to all but a very few). The amounts of funding in Gaza are very small, maybe $10,000 to start a business, so it impressive to see how far some entrepreneurs have come on less money than many Silicon Valley startups would spend on frivolities.

We met with young women to share our careers and while our lives in Silicon Valley are, without question, so much easier than those of the women in Gaza, we had plenty of laughter around our shared experiences. The feeling of being overwhelmed and learning how to simply survive every day while your husband, children and job compete for your time, or to survive the judgement by others as to whether you should be a leader or not. But for many of the young women at GSG they not only had all our challenges and more; they are also working two jobs. One is their startup, the other is a paying job to survive. They just do not have the luxury to only work on their startup.

One example is Amal AbuMoailqe, a young woman who is a degreed, qualified mechanical engineer and who is CEO of a Gazan product and consulting company solving engineering problems she and her team sees in Gaza. Here is her product, the Sketch wheel, designed to help get heavy loads up stairs when you have no power. It is said “necessity is the mother of invention.” It is certainly true in Gaza.

We stayed overnight in Gaza City and, unlike when I visited a year ago, we were very limited in what we could do outside the office or the hotel. Tensions are high after America’s stated intention to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and so we were not able to walk around and explore. There isn’t money for maintenance for most properties (water came in under the window and flooded my hotel room floor when there was a heavy storm overnight) but food for special occasions, even in Gaza, is delicious and our hosts took pity on us before we left and took us out for kanafeh – the heavenly Palestinian dessert made of honey and cheese. Sharing the pleasure of food with friends is important, no matter what the situation.

And while in Ramallah there is more physical freedom than in Gaza, life is still very hard for entrepreneurial young women. There we met with students studying computer science and young women in technical and product roles who had so many questions about how to grow their careers. It’s so much harder for women to take risk with their careers in a society with high unemployment. They simply cannot put their current job at risk by applying for a new job, even in the same company. Low unemployment such as we have in tech in the US is a luxury which allows a young engineer to move around and try different roles to see what she most enjoys.

But high unemployment in the West Bank is also unleashing female business creativity. Because it can be hard to get a job, young women are building their own businesses in creative ways. We were also hosted by the Palestinian Business Women Forum where we met, and listened to, a remarkable group of young, female business owners. Traditionally women are not bakers in Palestinian society, and yet we met with three who are breaking with tradition and building bakery businesses. One is even now being hosted in London because of the quality of her desserts. One 28 year old woman had built a food distribution business to get local products from farm to store efficiently and determinedly shared her samples with us to show us the quality of the cheese. Women are organizing travel, designing clothes, using the internet and social media to get their message and products out.

It’s impossible to visit the West Bank and speak with Palestinians living there without feeling the pain of the ordinary people living with check points and restricted movement. As is so often the case the individual Israelis and Palestinians we met want peace. They hold no ill will at the individual level, but politics gets in the way. The emotion is intense and I was deeply moved by a Palestinian friend who, after a dinner we hosted, said to me in shock “I have never hugged an Israeli before” – yes women hug when they are talking about intense subjects.  I do not presume to take a position on the political crisis in the Palestinian territories – I say again this is complicated – but whatever the reasons the human pain and suffering being felt on both sides, for different reasons, is real. We felt honored and humbled to listen to young women’s stories and share, in some small way, our experiences with them. The trip also confirmed for me that I can read all the books in the world, and watch films and documentaries, but I cannot begin to understand until I go on the ground, experience and listen.

So was it helpful to the women we met? We hope so but from two very different perspectives.

First, the closer an entrepreneur was to having her business plan under way, and some level of product in development the more helpful we could be at a practical level. I met with an entrepreneur with a terrific voice analytics technology to diagnose the progression of dementia who needed business presentation advice, and one who has a brilliant idea (and patent) for stroke treatment who needs to talk with VCs with FDA and medical device experience. Advice, brainstorming and connections are things we can provide. Several of us are in follow up sessions on Skype and in person now; on the ground, sharing our practical experience and Silicon Valley resources.

But the second, which we did not fully appreciate beforehand, is that we are existence proofs that women can lead. We prove, consciously or not, that it’s possible and young women told us over and over how exciting it was to hear our stories – which we did our best to make funny and self-effacing. We talked about anger, and fatigue, and lack of confidence – we did not hold back on the reality of being women in the minority swimming against the current. We appreciate, and do not take for granted, how privileged our starting points were and yet the six of us also shared how hard we had to work, how much crap we took from some men around us and how much personal and professional risk we had to be willing to take to get ahead.

Finally, on a personal note, it is so clear to me that it’s time for women to take an equal role in business. It’s unacceptable that company after company, in Israel, in the West Bank, in the United States has all male leadership or maybe one token female executive or female board member. Women are half the population, they are highly educated in many cases, and we now know that when economically empowered they create a more peaceful society. It’s time for women to have economic power, economic opportunity, economic equality. And no more so than in places where peace is so elusive.

Thank you to the Startup National Central, to Gaza Sky Geeks, to the Palestinian Business Women Forum and the Ramallah executives (you know who you are) for organizing and hosting us, and to Indagare for arranging our travel. We self-funded our trip. If you’d like to help the women on the ground come with us next time and/or invest in women led startups in the region.

Here’s my TV interview on our delegation on i24 while in Tel Aviv:

A delegation of female Silicon Valley tech executives & entrepreneurs are helping empower their Israeli & Palestinian counterparts; Penny Herscher & Start-Up Nation Central's Ayelet Tako on i24NEWS English's #TheRundown, with Calev Ben-David & Nurit Ben

Posted by Calev Ben-David on Tuesday, January 16, 2018

 

Our delegation with Israeli community leaders who are advocating for equal opportunities for women

Three of us on a panel in Tel Aviv sharing “hard knocks”

With young women who are building their own businesses in Ramallah

Selfies are a big deal in Gaza Sky Geeks

Two types (Gaza and Nablus styles) of amazing kanafeh. We were hooked!

Photos: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Gaza City © 2018 Penny Herscher

Equality, Leadership

It’s time for economic equality for women: WE2

Sometimes it’s just time. I am more deeply convinced now in 2018, than ever before, that the long-term path to a more sane, peaceful world is equality for women in society. The research is conclusive. Investing in girls and women transforms economies, and healthy, growing economies are more peaceful. But I am not a politician, I am not a Sociologist, I am a tech executive and so I need to practice what I know in order to do my part.

Women, and men, need to invest in women. Invest in education, opportunity, and advice. Put the time, focus and effort in to help women build businesses and careers that give them independence and equality so they can themselves invest in their society. And no more so than in the places where peace and hope and dignity are a daily challenge. Even in Israel, second only to Silicon Valley in startup funding, the statistics for women entrepreneurs are crushingly low.

I held a Salon at our home in the heart of Silicon Valley last Summer on Women Led Startups in Israel and Palestine (I choose different topics of interest to my  network of  SV women 3-4 times a year). The evening was a panel of four women in our garden: two entrepreneurs from Israel, one from Gaza and a Mercy Corps board member who has been focused on Palestine – followed by a discussion and Q&A. It was dramatic, inspiring and very thought provoking. The challenges of building a business as a woman in Silicon Valley have nothing on doing it in the Near East!

WE2 – Women for Economic Equality – was born from that evening. In a moment of passion I asked for volunteers to come with me to mentor women in Palestine and Israel and as a result we now have a delegation of Silicon Valley executive women visiting Tel Aviv, Gaza, Jerusalem and Ramallah in January.

It’s a mentoring delegation. We have a broad set of experiences between us as entrepreneurs, leaders, engineers, lawyers, recruiters and product designers and plenty of experiences, good and bad, to share. Together we believe women achieving economic equality is essential for sustainable peace. We’ll be meeting with female entrepreneurs, executives, VCs, board directors and business leaders, and supported by partners on the ground in each location. We’ll hold panels and small group mentoring sessions, one-on-one coaching and business plan reviews; we’ll share our career learnings and listen to the experiences and resource needs of the women we meet. And we’ll do it in the three, very different, regions of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. We are not political, we just want to invest in women.

Hopefully this is the first of many to different parts of the world where women want to build economic independence (so ping me if you want to participate in the future). And if you want to follow us you’ll find updates on this blog, and on my social media.

Career Advice

When to apologize and when not to

I recently got a question in email from a woman (who is early in her career) which I answered, but then as a few weeks passed, I began to think about all the times I wish my coworkers had apologized and when they did it too much.

The question was:

“Should I apologize when I make a mistake at work, and if so, how? If not, what should I do instead? I notice I am apologizing for mistakes that are mostly my responsibility, but not only, and that nobody else is apologizing.”

The hard thing about apology is some people do it, and some don’t. Some are comfortable making mistakes and being imperfect, others are not. But done thoughtfully apology is a powerful way to build trust.

So first – why not to apologize unless absolutely necessary

– Some men (and some women, although fewer) see it as a sign of weakness and will use it against you, bringing up your ownership of a mistake to weaken you in the future. Be conscious of when, where and to whom you apologize.

– If you are trying to manipulate or being insincere to achieve some other end then you will erode trust because most people can tell when you are insincere.

– If you are not the one who made the mistake. Again, not dealing in the truth erodes trust, even if you are trying to show you will own problems. Don’t throw someone else under the bus, but don’t step in and apologize if it is not your mistake because it may also be used to undermine you in the future as someone who can themselves be thrown under the bus.

The bottom line is mistakes are a normal part of learning. If you make a mistake admit it, see if you need to fix it, and move on. Don’t apologize unless someone else is hurt by your mistake. Don’t apologize unnecessarily, or profusely.

But then again, why apology is powerful

– Owning your mistakes openly builds trust, so if you have hurt or inconvenienced someone then take the time to apologize and try to do it one-on-one so you can be sincere and open.

– It takes courage to apologize which is why so many people don’t. You make yourself vulnerable when you do, but being strong enough to admit your imperfections (within reason) will make you a more compelling leader. Being authentic is a very powerful way to lead.

– The people who can’t admit their mistakes have a huge issue building trust as leaders. Too many times I have heard the comment “well s/he can’t admit when s/he’s wrong so s/he’ll make it someone else’s problem.”

These examples are all internal, but the one area where you need to be courageous and ready to take ownership is with customers. Your customers often need to hear from someone senior that you recognize a mistake has been made and you are going to fix it or make sure it gets fixed. If you are the senior person in the room and your company has made an error or let a customer down then own it, whether or not you are directly responsible.

In the end it is important to be thoughtful about how and when you apologize so your apology is both authentic and appropriate for your level of ownership of the issue. And make sure you do apologize when you own a problem and you don’t become one of those people who can never admit their mistakes.

 © 2011 Penny Herscher