June 6, 2024 | Diversity & Access

Seat @ the Table: Big Change Comes From Small Changes

Written by

Martina Lauchengco

As much as I love tech, our industry is no panacea.  And yet it has a better chance to improve the state of women leadership than most others. Why? Its unique alchemy of fast product cycles, celebration of entrepreneurship, and a bear-hug of change. Where else are hundreds of fresh starts birthed every year? 

Then how do we enact the change we seek? Big, sweeping actions–like a sparkling new head of People or DEI–aren’t the real difference makers. Rather, it’s the collection of our little habits. Take a play out of James Clear’s Atomic Habits: the potential for a series of 1% improvements over time is what adds up to spectacular results.

That’s what our 9th annual Seat @ the Table brought: inspiration and actions all of us can take to drive women’s advancement with purpose. For women builders, it means learning to use your strengths and believing in yourself–despite organizational and social headwinds–to keep learning, growing and creating tech that makes the world better. 

This offers just some of the collective wisdom of our incredible speakers. 

Find creative ways to get women to try their first management job 

The Women in the Workplace (McKinsey & LeanIn, 2023) study reflects a comforting truth: We improve what we measure. And we’re improving the number of women in the C-suite–up from 17% to 28% in the last nine years. But not enough where it counts the most–the first rung of promotion into manager. 

Find new ways to encourage women to make that first leap. For Chaitanya, she was working on a project that took off and needed more hands-on support than she had bandwidth for. “I said, ‘I never wanna be a manager. That’s not my jam.’ But we ended up hiring 2 contractors, because that felt like low enough risk. That gave me the room to try management out. And I loved it.” Over time, she realized she loves people management because it’s fulfilling to see others on your team grow.

Your career is a jungle gym, not a ladder

Shannon went from management consulting at Deloitte to eventually being an Insurtech startup Co-founder & CEO, because she realized she wanted to be part of the building, not just advising it. She moved to San Francisco and got a job on an operations team. It was “a proverbial ship that I could find. And I learned a ton because in operations at a startup, you just do everything. That [eventually] turned into a job on the product team.”

Her career was driven by being curious, working well with others and seizing problems that needed to be solved–including the current one her startup, Noyo, is solving: improving the benefits experience by focusing on how quickly data gets to and from insurance companies.

Your traits > where you went to school.

Where someone went to school matters far less than their ability to simplify complex problems and chart a course forward. Show a point of view on what you think the right thing should be, informed by curiosity, asking questions, and then don’t be afraid to update that point of view when you learn something new. For a startup, everything is against you. You have to show the ability to keep solving whatever new problem shows up along the way and update your opinion based on the new things you learn.

Rosa wants to see someone “comfortable with ambiguity and able to persuade people. You need an army of advocates making the product happen.” 

Don’t seek mentors. Form your own ‘board’ and ask people for specific help

“I don’t believe that a manager is going to come to you and say, ‘Here’s everything you need to do.’ You need to bring what you want to a manager and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to be a CEO. Here are the skills I think I’m lacking. What is your perspective on that?” That’s how Selina’s long-time advocate, Dave Goldberg, the late CEO of SurveyMonkey, pushed for her to join a board herself. That way, when she someday became a CEO, she would know how to get the most from them. 

”Be as specific as possible with the help you’re looking for. Asking someone for mentorship is very hard, but asking ‘I’m about to raise a round, and I’d like some help reviewing my deck’ is an easier ask,” and also easier for the person you’re asking to say yes to.

Chaitanya thinks of it as having a “board” of advisors–”Having one person to solve all your problems and meet you on a recurring basis–that’s not how life works. I go to specific people for specific problems with specific expertise, who are invested in my success.” That’s what’s enabled her to take on bigger challenges, even though she’s never felt read for any of them. 

Ask who should fill your personal board? 

Sometimes failure is the path to a bigger success

We all want to believe we can always turn things around. For Rosa, she stayed in a role, wanting to protect her team. But one day, she saw her face on a Zoom meeting and didn’t recognize herself–she looked afraid. Soon after, she was bawling at a PT session. That’s when she knew she wasn’t respected in her role and had to tap out. 

In the moment, it felt like failure, but in retrospect it stood out as a great win. Sometimes we won’t recognize when the situation is something we simply can’t turn around. You’re not giving up by tapping out, you’re doing the smart thing to find a context in which your skills are truly valued. And listen to your body. It knows what your head sometimes can’t admit.

Stand out by standing by the data

People can’t argue with numbers, but they aren’t always going to go up. What matters, Selina shared “is being able to say here’s what’s gone down and here’s what I’m going to do about it. There is a myth that women are less analytical.” Knowing your data and how you manage to it can help you shine at every level. 

F*@# imposter syndrome

It’s time to reframe. Feeling uncomfortable at the start of a learning curve or having anxiety over a major challenge is you just being human. When Chaitanya was about to take on a big project she wasn’t feeling ready for, imposter syndrome was starting to kick in. Then a mentor sent her Reshma Saujani’s commencement address. Chaitanya is now officially done believing in imposter syndrome. “In reality, it’s the system and the framing that makes us feel that way.”

Leaping into startups is about maximum learning alongside great people

Startups build everything from scratch. It’s about tackling something really hard and knowing “it’s just the people in this room, we’re the only ones we can count on to figure it out,” recounted Shannon. That’s really empowering.

“The thing about starting a company is that you learn very fast,” shared Selina. “Think about if this is something you want to learn about and think about day in and day out?”

We all have agency; it’s what we do with it that counts.

Embrace your evolving self. We’re all like Russian nesting dolls, where each of us has many versions of ourselves. Take the baton from your past self with grace as you hand off to your new self. And know that each 1% improvement each of us makes adds up to meaningful change.

Watch the full recording here if you want more.

Want to join like-minded women builders? Join our community on Slack.

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