I recently interviewed dozens of midlevel and senior executives at startups to identify keys to success. My focus was on joiners rather than founders. While there are many books for founders, I was surprised to discover that very few books helped guide joiners — typically employee number 2 to 2,000 — how to navigate and thrive in startupland.
As part of my research, I intentionally interviewed and profiled both women and men. That may seem like an obvious approach, but it turns out to be a relatively novel one in the male-dominated world of startups. My research revealed ways in which inherent gender biases often hinder the professional development of women in startupland.
One recurring theme was the emphasis on technical backgrounds. The prevailing wisdom is that the best entrepreneurs are former product leaders, and, further, that only experienced coders or those with a deep technical background can become great product leaders. If you accept this, you’re limiting your talent funnel to a narrow pool of (mostly male) candidates, since 88% of engineers are men. That’s not just wrong, it’s bad business.
The women I spoke to navigated the often male-dominated world of startups, rising to senior roles at leading companies like Fitbit, Hubspot, Pinterest, Twilio, Twitter and Zenefits. The women ranged in backgrounds and roles from product managers, marketing executives, growth managers and business development leaders. I asked them about their experiences and what they learned along the way. Here is what they told me:
Edit out caveats and apologies
Speaking up and putting forward your point of view can be intimidating for anyone, but particularly for women in male-dominated startups, especially for those just starting out in their careers. One woman realized that when she did speak up or write emails to weigh in, she would add so many caveats and apologies that it would water down the impact of the message. When a mentor pointed it out to her, she began to speak more directly and forcefully. “I realized that I actually was just as smart as everyone else in the room (if not smarter!)”. The lesson: don’t doubt yourself or let your nerves hold you back from contributing.
Research the company’s culture
Many of the women I spoke to acknowledged a gender bias in the startup workplace, but emphasized the importance of not giving it too much attention. “Enter a startup with the mind-set that you bring talent to the table and your gender doesn’t matter,” encouraged one woman. Seek out startups that have a positive culture and avoid those that are “more oriented to the locker room.”
That cultural bias can be determined pretty quickly through the interview process but also by conducting your own due diligence with others at the company or checking the references of the founders and senior executives as to the cultures they created at their previous companies.
Act like the restaurant owner, not the waitstaff
heard from both men and women that the essence of being successful in a startup is to have an ownership mind-set. When the owner of a restaurant sees a customer that needs attention, they head directly to the table rather than wait for someone else to do it. Similarly, startup executives can position themselves for success if they step up to address issues that no one else in the company is addressing.
The women I spoke to felt this opportunity was particularly available to women who are more likely to have the social and emotional savvy to know when it was appropriate to lend a hand. One woman executive felt it was particularly important to “reach beyond your job description into areas where you can jump in and add value.” By doing so, you will be seen as a valued contributor who grabs hold of opportunities rather than avoids them.
Having more control and autonomy, seeing how your work links directly to a larger goal and feeling a greater sense of ownership were all benefits cited again and again by the women I spoke with. While there is clearly room for improvement in the culture of particular companies, the opportunities for women to succeed, lead and change the way things are done at startups are vast. Like any industry, startupland will evolve into a more robust and successful ecosystem if it can successfully integrate the experience and views of a more diverse talent pool.