Since We’re Living in a Material World, Uplift and Encourage Your Material Girl
Two things happened this past week, seemingly unrelated, that sent me into a tailspin of memories and provided a stunning realization about a subconscious, but potentially debilitating challenge faced by certain entrepreneurs.
First, Bill Gross, founder and chairman of Idealab, shared his fascinating entrepreneurial journey during his keynote at the First Look Showcase of the Alliance for SoCal Innovation. Bill is one of the most influential people in the startup ecosystem, and a true entrepreneur since early childhood, when he bought candy bars at the store, three for a quarter, and sold them at his elementary school for nine cents each. What a margin!
He shared that story, along with how he paid for his tuition at Cal Tech by creating and selling plans for a solar energy solution while in high school. Once at Cal tech, he designed and built custom stereo speakers, since he couldn’t afford the nice speakers the rich kids had, eventually turning those same rich kids into his customers. After that, he created a set of software solutions to improve the UI/UX for Lotus 123, which he sold for $10 million at the age of 24.
It was so inspiring.
And for me, so heartbreaking.
His childhood was very much like mine. I was entrepreneurial and driven and had great ideas from the earliest days I can remember. But the responses I got were a bit different than Bill’s.
One day when I was six, I decided that I had too many toys, most of which I didn’t play with anymore, so I dragged my parents’ card table out to the end of our driveway, made a sign (“Toys for Sale”), got an empty jewelry box to use as a till, and lined up everything I didn’t want.
Neighbor kids started coming around, and the prices were good (nothing more than a quarter, most stuff for a dime), and it was fun. In fact, some kids started bringing their own toys to my table to sell, which I really loved. If only I’d known back then that I was supposed to charge them for the use of my sales channel!
Then my friend, Holly, who was a few months younger than me, bought a plastic horse for a nickel and proceeded to sit down on the curb next to my table and break its leg off. I don’t know what she was trying to do, but the toy was not defective and the break was not an accident. She stood up, handed me the horse and the leg and told me to give back her money. Being a savvy businesswoman, I refused.
I told her I saw her break the leg and that buying something doesn’t work that way. She then threw a massive tantrum. That had no effect on me, and all the other kids were on my side, but her screaming attracted our next door neighbor, Mrs. Bailey.
She came out the front door and yelled at us all for giving her a headache. Then she asked Holly why she was crying. Holly said that she bought the horse from me and it was broken and now I wouldn’t give back her nickel.
I said, “She broke it.”
Mrs. Bailey exclaimed, “Oh, for God’s sake!” And she proceeded to pick up my jewelry box, take a nickel out of it and hand it to Holly, then gave me back the broken horse. She then said to me, “Don’t be so greedy.”
I wasn’t upset then about that comment, as I didn’t fully understand its underlying message, but I could not believe my money was taken away like that. At that point, I had made almost two dollars (big money for a six-year-old back then), and yet, I felt like I had done something really bad. I remember putting all my toys into a box and dragging it into our garage and then taking down the card table and putting it back in the house.
This memory is so vivid, tears are welling up as I type, because I’m realizing just now, for the first time, this was the first of many, many times I was told that there was something wrong with me because I wanted to make money.
This happens to little girls all the time.
And big girls…and young women…and old women.
At every stage of our lives, we’re told that our interest in money is ugly and detrimental.
One of the key components in male-female salary disparity is that women don’t ask for as much, but when we do, often it’s held against us. I’m in a Facebook group for Women in Technology and you would not believe the number of times women share that they tried to negotiate for more salary and had their offer rescinded. Yes — rescinded! And the ones brave enough to reveal who the employer is are often talking about tech companies, both large and small. The main reason given is, “We thought you’d be more enthusiastic about the job.” When was the last time a man was accused of not being enthusiastic because he wanted to be paid what he feels he’s worth?
The one time I negotiated “aggressively,” it was to take the Assistant Dean job running a 4-year business degree program at a local film school. Having been a corporate lawyer, an investment banker, a visiting law professor at Berkeley and a successful screenwriter, there was no other candidate even close to my qualifications for this job. The Dean of the program made a below-market offer and I countered at 15% higher, which was just about market rate for the position.
I never heard from him again. He completely ghosted.
Didn’t answer a single call or email after that.
A friend who worked there told me the guy was really pissed at me. That was the word he used — pissed — because the Dean thought I should have been more grateful for the offer. Grateful. Again, when have you ever heard about a qualified male candidate discussed in that way?
But back to how we got here…
Just as the entrepreneurship journey of Bill Gross continued throughout his youth, so did mine. In sixth grade, everyone was buying cinnamon-flavored toothpicks at our local candy shop. They came in a little plastic wrapper containing five for fifty cents. At that point in life, I loved to cook and was a pretty decent baker and knew there was something called cinnamon oil. I thought this might be used to make toothpicks, and after buying a box of 500 toothpicks and experimenting a bit, I was able to make them better than the store-bought ones. I took them to school and sold them in a pack of ten, tied with a ribbon, for fifty cents — twice as many for the same price!
It was a great business. All of the components combined cost less than four dollars and made 50 packs of ten, which I could sell for $25.00. On the first day, the principal told me I couldn’t sell them at school, so I sold them across the street before and after school. Then he told me to stop doing that or I’d get suspended. I asked why, since I wasn’t at school, and he said, “You’re embarrassing yourself. If you cared about your classmates, you’d just give it to them instead of selling it. Nobody likes money-grubbers.”
I didn’t know whether he was right or not, but I knew I wanted to be popular, so I stopped selling the toothpicks and just gave the rest away. It was pretty disappointing.
(And in case anyone is wondering where my parents were in all of this, my dad lived in another state and my mom was working 60 hours a week to keep us fed, clothed and housed while being ridiculously sexually harassed in her job, which she could not afford to lose, so none of this was on their radar, and it had no reason to be.)
In high school, I found Junior Achievement and was in heaven. I could be an officer in a company, sell stock, make a product, compete for awards locally and nationally. There seemed to be no suggestion that this wasn’t something for girls to do. It was awesome. At the same time, I also had the drama teacher scream at me for refusing to cancel a babysitting job when he scheduled an extra rehearsal for the play I was the lead in. He told me I didn’t have my priorities straight, since I cared more about money than the show. To be honest, I cared most about keeping my word, but he didn’t want to hear that. Luckily, the family I babysat for agreed to let me bring the kids to the rehearsal, and it all worked out, but I was never cast in anything other than a minor role again.
After high school, I went to a private college on scholarship, full of kids from wealthy families and even wealthier families, and the issue of my relationship with money reared its ugly head once again. My sorority occasionally worked with a local temp agency as a way of fundraising. Whenever they needed a lot of workers for a short time, like a single day or a weekend, we would provide 40–50 women and the money would go straight to the club. We all did it together, working local festivals and big events, and it was always truly fun and very lucrative.
Sophomore year, my roommate was the one in charge of this program. The agency called one day needing 6–10 people to work in a flower warehouse helping prepare bouquets for Valentine’s Day. It would be four 8-hour shifts. My roommate declined. She didn’t think that would be something our sorority sisters would want to do. When she told me about it, I asked if she minded if my friends and I did it and she said, “Sure. Go for it.”
The work was miserable. There were five of us and we were on our feet the entire time, on an assembly line, stripping thorns off roses by hand with a small metal tool attached to our fingertips, which were quickly bloodied. We were paid minimum wage and given an envelope of cash at the end of each day. Only three of us went back the next day, and on the third and fourth days, I went back alone. What can I say? I was the only one not getting a monthly allowance from my parents.
When the president of the sorority found out, she told us we owed the money we earned to the club. My roommate completely sold us out, and said that yes, she had said we could do it, but that she assumed that meant we were doing it for the sorority (a total lie, and one I actually got her to admit to our exec council). The five of us agreed that this was ridiculous and that we were in the right. Then, quietly, the other four women gave their money to the club.
I felt so betrayed when I found out, but I still refused. I had stood on an assembly line for 32 hours to earn that money. No one else with a job was asked to turn over her wages, why should I? Pretty soon, all of my sisters found out, and for some, it changed how they viewed me, which is probably what hurt most.
My boyfriend at the time was in a fraternity and I spent a lot of time with them and when they heard the story, they thought it was ludicrous. Not one of them could ever imagine being asked to give up the money he earned. The president of their fraternity told me he’d talk to the president of my sorority if I wanted him to, but I said no. I wanted the whole thing to go away quietly. Then my boyfriend said, “Women are so stupid about money.”
Once again, I didn’t fully understand what was being said, but in hindsight, I see what it was all about: Men are respected for earning money, and would not be asked to simply give it away. Women are looked down on for doing the same.
That reality has affected me my whole career, whether it was practicing law, or negotiating my salary as an investment banker, or what I earned as a screenwriter. I never held out for more, and more importantly, for what my male counterparts were getting. The messages had been too ingrained — when you’re a girl and you make money a priority, people don’t like you and don’t want to be around you. In fact, they may turn against you.
The second thing that happened this week to trigger these memories (and this realization about the reality of being a woman seeking to maximize her earnings) is that a video went viral of a San Francisco woman calling the police on an eight-year-old girl for selling bottled water in front of her own home without a permit. Her chief complaint was that the girl was making too much noise. Although there was likely a racial component to the call, it also once again showed a little girl that she was going to be shut down for trying to earn her own way.
Reading the story took me right back to the end of my driveway and Mrs. Bailey taking my money and handing it to Holly. To my grade school principal telling me if I really cared about my friends, I’d give them what I make, not sell it to them. To my sorority sisters accusing me of taking what was rightfully theirs, even though I had been the one who worked for it, and my friends capitulating, giving their earnings up, and not telling me.
It reminded me that simultaneously having a desire for money and a uterus somehow makes me a bad person in the eyes of a lot of people.
This has got to stop.
If a girl is interested in making money, congratulate her. Buy her a piggy bank. Better yet, open an E*TRADE account for her and deposit the money she earns there and let her learn how to make it grow. We must commit to giving her the same encouragement that boys get for the same activity, and be aware when she might be inadvertently getting the wrong messages about it.
There are a multitude of factors that go into the experiences women have as entrepreneurs that are vastly different from those of our male counterparts. Some of them are external, such as access to capital from people who don’t look like us, and the requirement to prove our competence at every turn, rather than have it assumed until something goes wrong, and the much lower tolerance we get for when things do go wrong.
But some factors are the result of years of conditioning. How many times can you tell someone that no one will like her if she tries to get rich before she starts hiding and qualifying and apologizing for her desire to get rich? How many opportunities did I miss to build a company and sell it for $10 million when I was 24 because I had internalized the notion that attempting that was unseemly for someone like me?
At the age of five, Bill Gross and I were exactly the same. By the time we graduated from high school, he was a successful businessman, less than six years from being a multi-millionaire, and I was working a summer job earning minimum wage and saving as much as I could for books and gas and pizza in college.
So now, I’ve returned to entrepreneurship. My company is in a great place. We’ve run two private betas and are about to launch our third, and the team (a co-founder and two programmers) and I have decided to hold off on trying to raise institutional money until we have the MVP in the market, at which point, we’ll look to our strategic partners to come in and help us go from launch to growth. That means I’m doing another Friends & Family round to have enough runway to get there. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I’m not a founder who can call my friends’ parents and my parents’ friends and get six or seven figures committed in a few weeks. I don’t come from that sort of background. These are people I’ve built relationships with over years, either working together, or just being someone in their lives. Taking their money to build my company, knowing the potential upside, but also the insane risks of this type of investment, is a heavy weight. I’m immensely grateful to everyone who says yes…and everyone who says no, since I have faith that it won’t change how they feel about me. And if it does, that wasn’t a relationship that was going to survive what the next 3–5 years will require anyway (however, I do hope they’ll come to regret that decision someday…).
But the hardest part by far is ignoring that stupid voice in the back of my head that says if I care about money, people won’t like me. That voice needs to be silenced once and for all.
Bill’s incredible success inspires me, and the eight-year-old water-seller’s ludicrous treatment by her neighbor reminds me how much harder I have to work as a female founder to make sure that the opportunities I’ve had are available to all women, and, more over, that the opportunities I was not given become available to those who might follow.
Most importantly, I have to succeed as an entrepreneur. I have to be the message that it’s okay for a girl to want money, and be good at earning it, and keep what she’s built, grow it into even more, and negotiate for what she’s worth.
And if anyone’s telling her otherwise, I hope she’ll let me know.
I might have some pent up anger at Mrs. Bailey that I’d be willing to take out on the next jerk who tries to limit an ambitious child’s potential.
On second thought, I’ll just channel that into kicking ass at running a company, get very rich in the process, and never apologize for either.
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