I’ve watched from the sidelines for years as the debate has played out about race and gender in Silicon Valley, and tech at large. Recently, I read an article shaming Facebook, Google and others about their “diversity numbers,” and felt compelled to weigh in; if it were early in my career and I saw those numbers, it would make me run the other way. And fast.
My goal here is very simple — to offer another perspective — one that might encourage a different cohort to fearlessly embrace Silicon Valley (and tech, for that matter) for the incredible opportunity it is, AND to point out that it might actually be an ideal place for them to crush it.
I’m a black female, non-technical, venture-backed CEO and serial entrepreneur. I’ve been playing in the 408, 415 and 650 universe for nearly 15 years: I’ve been part of companies where people of color represented less than 2 percent of the population, raised venture and private capital from people who didn’t look like me and, like most tech entrepreneurs, I’ve failed and succeeded on this journey.
Grit is a gift that circumstances and life give you.
I didn’t go to Stanford, and there’s no trust fund in my name. And my mother, who went on to have a great career, was a single parent who got her undergraduate and master’s degrees the same years as me. She raised me and my two brothers in the face of adversity. I’m certainly not a poster child of privilege.
But this story isn’t about me. It’s about anyone who doesn’t fit the 25-year-old white-boy Ivy League dropout archetype. I have news for you. Not only can you weave your way through the tech industry, but you are better equipped to win.
Get In For The Glory, Stay For The Struggle
Silicon Valley is the holy land of the entrepreneur — where you get to build something from nothing, create millions, or billions in value and manifest your dreams of changing the world.
If you’ve read Ben Horowitz’s amazing article The Struggle or his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, you know that regardless of the shiny profiles in Inc. Magazine, being an entrepreneur is a constant exercise in survival and sustaining enthusiasm through great tumult and massive, continuous challenges.
If you are willing to stick out the 10,000 hours it takes to be accepted into the circle of trust of investors, senior team members and the influencers of Silicon Valley, you can change your life and change the world. Your desire to build and create value for customers, employees, shareholders and for yourself has to be what wakes you up in the morning and, quite frankly, keeps you up at night.
The ability to thrive despite innumerable and seemingly insurmountable obstacles is the reason most entrepreneurs I know stay in the game. It’s not a place for the faint of heart.
Realize That Your Decelerators Are Accelerators
Your set of experiences can be viewed as disadvantages or entrepreneurial “decelerators” — things that slow you down or make you less attractive to investors. I submit that decelerators in this game can easily be turned into accelerators. Which one is true for you is your choice, not Silicon Valley’s.
The most important characteristics you need as an entrepreneur — regardless of race or class — are resilience, grit and the ability to persevere under intense pressure and in uncomfortable situations.
Being an entrepreneur is a constant exercise in survival and sustaining enthusiasm through great tumult and massive, continuous challenges.
You need to be your own force. Whether that shows up as being high energy through (constant) fundraising, surviving competitive threats or bad hiring decisions, dealing with the ever-present threat of failure, running out of money, pivoting your business model or the exhaustion that comes with the job, know that all serious entrepreneurs have been there.
The more grit, the easier it is to power through because, as crazy as it may sound, there will be people watching and waiting for you to fail — and you can’t let them rattle you.
Shit Happens to Every Entrepreneur … Cash In On Your Grit
A close friend recently shared that the summer after third grade he read just about every library book in his town, and spent a month at “away” camp. He asked me what I did that summer. All I could recall was that my mother and stepfather had just broken up. The day that school got out, my mother said, “grab a box, we’re moving.” That summer was stressful, and yet it was not the last time.
You need to find your source of power, and trust that you can get yourself through pretty much anything. Those experiences were painful, but they prepared me for when, as a solo founder of a tech company, I had to pitch to more than 400 investors to raise the money my company needed to thrive. Of those meetings, 99 percent ended in rejection — it wasn’t easy.
Or when I was running a company I’d started and we were happily growing at 300 percent per year when our largest customer changed their payment terms from net 90 to net 200 and, simultaneously, we lost our second-largest customer.
Those two events nearly bankrupted the company. This shit happens to every entrepreneur, and the longer it takes to emotionally recover from those events, the shorter the window of opportunity. If you let it, grit is a gift that circumstances and life give you. Pay attention and cash in on it.
Decelerators in this game can easily be turned into accelerators.
We’re all reading the studies that state that Silicon Valley isn’t a good place for people of color, women or anyone who doesn’t fit the prevailing archetype. And it’s true — there is bias. There are people who will never, ever invest in you because of your race or gender; they may not give you the time of day or will waste your time as they try to get over their biases.
But, if you want the experience, the struggle, the pain, the rewards of building companies, creating world-changing and disruptive technology — and doing it in Silicon Valley — know that it is possible … and believe that it’s a great place where you can put to work gifts you didn’t realize you had.
Coming from a privileged background with access to money or fitting a certain mold are not the accelerators that will sustain a real advantage for an entire career.
It’s grit, determination, passion and the ability to power through — shaped by your individual experiences — that truly matter when you’re playing the long game.