The Best Advice For Women In Startups And STEM17 November, 2017 / Articles
“What do I do next?” Many entrepreneurs find themselves asking this question at least once in their career. Wary of jumping into the unknown, or trying to balance too many spinning plates at once, it is easy to get lost in a maze of decisions. But there is one key element that can help you your way through the chaos: mentorship.
At a time when true leadership seems absent, from gridlocked governments to growing global conflicts, the concept of finding and working with mentors can seem challenging, to say the least. What does a mentor look like, and what metrics can you use to decide if the person’s advice would be truly helpful? Mentorship means something different to nearly everyone you ask. At its core, however, it is a unique type of bond based on growth, shared knowledge, compassion, and -often- raw and real honesty.
To explore the ideas of mentorship and leadership in relation to women in today’s business environment, I recently spoke with Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle. With an undergraduate degree from MIT and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Boston University, she is currently the CEO at Ixcela, Inc. (a biotech company focused on specialized gut health treatment). She is also the Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit Science from Scientists, focused on getting students grades 4-8 excited about STEM education.
When we spoke, Dr. Angle shared how mentorship played a key role in helping her become the successful business leader she is today. Growing up, her parents were always supportive of her interest in the sciences. Her mother, a nurse, and her father, a lawyer, were often whom she turned to for advice and suggestions, trusting them to be both supportive and straightforward with her. She jokes that if she could explain the topic to her dad, she could explain it to anyone. While they formed a strong support network for her, at some point challenges arose that were outside of their collective realm of knowledge. She had to go out and find mentors, those with the specific skill sets to help her.
“I think mentorship is everything,” she says. “It is the fundamental foundation of everything.” She advises women to go out and find people who are more talented than you are to help in areas that you don’t have a strong skill set. In her experience, and I agree, as long you are motivated and willing to work hard, skills can be taught. All throughout her life, Dr. Angle has surrounded herself with people who have been willing to mentor her. Their advice, guidance, and openly candid feedback was vital as she worked to build her companies.
A few years ago, I went through my hardest – and most beneficial – mentoring experience. I had been pouring my “blood, sweat, and tears” into GoHero – a project I am zealously passionate about. Like many other entrepreneurs, I felt as if the startup was my baby (and ok, yes, still feel that way). In my desire for everything to be perfect, and in truth, over-protectiveness, I was micro-managing everyone and everything. Control freak didn’t even begin to describe me. The problem was, despite giving it my all, day in and day out, we weren’t making any real progress.
My mentor and very close friend had been trying to help GoHero move forward with his energy, time, ideas, introductions, and more. Having successfully built many companies before, he could see what I was doing wrong – inadvertently suffocating the life out of the startup with my micro-managing and insanely controlling approach. My mentor told me -bluntly- that my desire to control everything was holding the project down, and that if I continued down that path it was 100% certain that I would fail. He shared how passionate he himself was for the idea, and how my approach was de-motivating him from even being involved at all. As evidence, he highlighted examples of when I would shoot down ideas from my team that didn’t exactly match the picture in my head – during brainstorming sessions. Elaborating, he told me that when you don’t let anyone else have emotional ownership of the project or a sense of leadership, their passion can quickly evaporate. It physically hurt to receive his feedback, but I knew that he was right. What I was doing was draining my fellow team members’ motivation, and harming GoHero.
Taking his words fully to heart, I made radical changes to my mindset, approach, and behavior. I started to let people in, sharing aspects of GoHero that were better handled by those with the right skills. The effect was evident almost immediately. Pieces started falling into place, and the new energy brought in the right people at the right time. While we cannot claim IPO level success yet, the velocity of progress between then and now is night and day. By working with my mentor, I could put aside the fear of imperfection and focus my energy on building something amazing.
Fear, of success, or failure, and of everything in between, is a common factor when it comes to the kinds of major decisions that necessitate a mentor relationship. “For women who are interested, there can be a failure to launch. Typically, women want everything to be 99% perfect. If not, they might not launch,” says Dr. Angle. “It all comes down to not being afraid. Courage is everything.” Speaking with a mentor and listening to their advice can provide valuable perspective on any issues you are facing, and help you get your company to the next level.
While some may be wary of a leap of faith to launch or take the next big step, others leap constantly for fear of missing something great, and spread themselves too thin in the process. Women tend to be socialized more often than men to say “yes” and please others, potentially at their own expense, for fear of disappointing people. A sense of pragmatism is also important, making sure to add “what kind of life do I want to have?,” a question Dr. Angle asked herself, into the equation. When you do the math, you only have 20-25 days per month available to do work-related things. You can’t be afraid to say “no”, as it is “very rare when someone is exhausted and overwhelmed [for them] to do their best.” Dr. Angle’s words, and I and many I know can relate to this.
Like Dr. Angle, I’ve fallen into the “yes, yes, yes” trap before. Some time ago, I had the chance to work directly with the leadership of a major company to create a new program. It was exciting, and had great potential. The more I worked on it, though, the more I realized that it was taking my focus away from my company’s product development – which we couldn’t afford to have happen at that time. By learning how to say “no” to everything except what will advance my core priorities, I have been able to better perform on the things I said “yes” to.
Whether it is holding back for fear of failure or saying yes to everything for fear of missing out, the spectrum of anxiety can hold traps for every entrepreneur. A good mentor can help you navigate through the challenges and opportunities to find the right balance for you and your company. There’s really nothing that you can’t figure out how to do if you’re willing to try, and willing to accept and execute on wise guidance and help. “No one teaches what it takes to inspire people and be a leader,” notes Dr. Angle, “you have to seek it out.” I couldn’t agree more.