A View from the Heights

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Credit where credit is due

One of the incredibly smart hard working people on my team today remarked that I seem to do a lot between work, family, the meetups and non profits I’m involved in etc.  

Firstly - I thought - “boy, what nice recognition - yes, I do seem to be pretty involved in things and fired up about my job and commitments!” As background I’ve always been somewhat industrious even as a little kid, when on weekends I would often try and sell all my toys to the neighborhood kids (well below cost - no knowledge of COGS / margins) or categorize all my books and open a library out of my bedroom.  I was the wrong kind of nerd. Boy do I wish I was one of those kids who was coding or buying domain names in 1997- oh well.

Anyways, my point is that I am one of those types of people who actually does recharge by starting a new meetup or blogging or harassing the fine folks at my alma maters about career related programing they could be doing.  However, I am a working mom, I have massive limitations on my time and as I was listening to this person in their late 20s remark on my pace - I realized perhaps that things might look different and somewhat terrifying from his perspective.  I realized he might think that I might have some sort of ability that he does not.  Some trick to working endlessly and be renewed by it. How else would I be able to show up at work in a clean outfit and matching shoes every day while managing a household with two kids under two?

In the interest of demystifying how these plates are spinning I would like to reiterate what is the most widely known tactic of all busy working moms - I have a TON of help.

A few years ago Amy Poehler thanked her nannies when she accepted a Time 100 award and I think nothing could have been a more honest tribute to what actually enabled her success.  I also thought it was shockingly refreshing to see someone pull back the curtain on the somewhat mundane but oh so critical infrastructure that keeps the whole endeavor (read: her career that I am so enjoying be an audience of) afloat.

Before I go further I just want to explain my motivations for sharing this - I’m not trying to suggest that my way is the best way or even a successful or sustainable way, but it’s working well for me this year.  And I also think that a discussion about being a working mom without getting really into the tactics reads as disingenuous.  I admit I didn’t finish all of Lean In while I was on maternity leave - but I don’t recall her spelling out in great detail how her husband stopped working for several years while she was on that rocket ship. If that’s what’s required or even just what happened - let’s talk turkey!  I find the best way to really help people is to tell your story and frankly - vagaries contribute to everyone’s innate insecurity that everyone else has this more figured out and don’t need the details spelled out.  

So let me be more explicit and spell out my details - I have a terrific full time nanny from 8-6:30pm, and I also have a wonderful mother’s help who lives with us.  The mother’s help role is a staffed by a recent college grad who is getting ready to apply for grad school and like an au pair has committed to be with us for a year.  We modeled the arrangement off of some friends who had the same sort of situation after we went on vacation with them and saw how well it worked.  

The mothers help lives in our apt and we pay her a weekly stipend and room and board and cover all her living costs.  There is of course the capital costs of having a free bedroom to consider  - which is no small feat - but I would even consider subletting my apt and moving into something with an extra room for a few years to make this arrangement work.  We have kept our girls together in one small room to make the room available.  

She works for us 20 hours a week mostly managing early mornings and late nights and occasional time on weekends.  My husband and I both travel for work and the person remaining during those weeks may still have a big week at work themselves - this arrangement makes that possible.  

To make life easier for us she also manages a list of regular chores - letting in a repairman, picking up packages at the post office, dry cleaning etc.  We live in the city where if you don’t have a doorman these things take up precious time that I just don’t have.  I found this lovely woman through Vassar where I posted a listing with career development and interviewed about five women, two of whom came down to spend an afternoon with us.  It’s a very intimate relationship - after all she lives with us in an NYC apt, but I grew up with au pairs so I was up for it.  I’m happy to share the boiler plate of the contract if it would be helpful.  It was a little more touchy feely than a normal nanny contract given the living arrangement - but it set expectations well.

It is no doubt a financial investment, however, at this phase in my life and career it is some of the best money I can spend.  We are not taking luxurious long vacations, I am not really shopping for sport like I may have once done, or even going out to eat like I used to pre-kids.  And what it enables is phenomenal.

The week I went back to work my nanny of 9 months fell apart under the stress of a 2.5 month old and a 14 month old (lessons in nanny hiring is another post) and overnight I had no nanny.  Because I had the mothers help to jump in and assist supervise and on board the temporary nanny we hired overnight (who happily worked out) I didn’t need to skip even an hour of work. My mom also came in that first week back at work to just hang out in my apt supervise both of them for a few hours each day since the mothers help herself had only been with us two weeks.  I realize that was also a huge luxury as many people live far from their mothers.

The nanny arrangement is your standard NYC nanny situation which I found great guidance on from the Park Slope Parents group.  They have a terrific research report on average employment agreements, salaries etc - very useful!

There’s probably another post to follow about how I choose what non profits/ meetups to be involved with to maximize my time.  Let’s see if I can carve time out to write that on an upcoming business trip….Happy plate spinning till then.

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Getting an MBA after an undergrad degree in liberal arts

I get asked this question about once a week so wanted to share my usual response.

I decided to get a MBA to take my career in tech to the next level, expand my network and give myself hard skills I never got as an undergrad. 
I think liberal arts are terrific and a great way to learn about the world, culture, history, creativity and expression etc, but they shy away from any hard skills.
Whether liberal arts faculty like it or not the world does operate through the language of business and to really understand how companies/people/ industries/ markets/ even politicians behave - you have to understand business.  Even if you want to spend your entire career at an NGO or non profit (or even academia) - to make something be successful and sustainable - you have to understand business.  This was clear to me pretty quickly once I entered the working world.
When I graduated Vassar I was working at Ogilvy Interactive and on the side I was running Studio 42, a production company I started with some Vassar friends. It was a terrific trial by fire entrance to real business - signing contracts, getting sponsors, hiring people (firing people), managing our small budgets, dealing with HR issues etc.  Though we had great success for an organization run by a bunch of rag tag 22 year olds I kept feeling like I didn’t have the chops to really take it to the next level from a business standpoint. I knew very little about really raising money or the end to end of running a business beyond the tasks that kept flying in my face. So I decided to finally apply to business school.
I chose Columbia for obvious reasons (top ten program, world class students/ faculty, emphasis on tech/ media, in NYC) and it absolutely exceeded my expectations.   
I went in feeling as though I would have more to learn than my colleagues who had undergrad business degrees (I am still not totally clear why someone needs two business degrees!) but what surprised me was how much my creative thinking and liberal arts background equipped me in ways that those business/ quant minds were not. I definitely learned some incredible hard skills (stats being one of them that I use all the time) but in some instances getting the MBA demystified all the areas of business for me that I previously put on a pedestal - which is in itself very valuable. 
My hands on experience running a business was a huge bonus and I think overall the more experience you bring to the table to reflect on and draw from the more you will get from and contribute to the experience.
It’s a huge expense from an outlay and opportunity cost perspective but even if you go into something mainstream before jumping off and doing something entrepreneurial for just a few years - you can pay your debt back and be off to the races on whatever you want to do next.  Not many grad schools (even law school) can promise that level of return (MFA programs are the worse offenders in this regard).
Once you get in - take a peek at this for how to make the most of it.
One thought I do have now is that if Venture for America has existed when I came out of undergrad and I had been lucky enough to get in - a program like that might have taught me a lot of what I was hungry to know on the job and given me a world class network as well. 
That being said I have never thought twice about my MBA, I’m very grateful for all the wonderful people I met there and continue to meet through the network and I don’t know anyone (at least from CBS) who wouldn’t do it again.

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How I can connect you to [insert name]

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When I get emails from people asking me to introduce them to my Linkedin contacts I’m generally happy to oblige.  This is an easy way to help other people, many times the contact is pleased to get the intro and its the type of help I’ve asked for countless times before.  Exceptions to this are when I really feel like it’s not the right fit, if I’ve pinged this person too many times recently, or if I have no idea how I met them IRL.

I do have a specific way that I introduce people which I’ve found over time is the most effective way to make this happen.  Here’s an example:

Richard emails me and wants to connect with a VC named Peter.

I will ask Richard to send an email to me, addressed to me, in a form that is ready to be forwarded directly to Peter.

This email should be ideally 5 sentences or less with all supporting points ideally as links (no attachments).  Here’s a repurposed example of one that I recently received.

Hi Alison,

As you know, I left my role at Hooli last December to start work on Pied Piper.  Pied Piper is a multi-platform technology based on a proprietary universal compression algorithm that has consistently fielded high Weisman Scores™ that approach the theoretical limit of lossless compression.

We have been working in an incubator for the past 6 months and are ready to raise an A round of $2.2MM to hire more dev ops.  I was wondering if you could introduce me to Peter Gregory to see if he would be interested in investing.  I thought he might be interested given his prior investment in Compression.com and FileStack.com.  Here’s our executive summary of our pitch deck to give more background.

Thanks!

- Richard

Richard@PeidPiper.com

@RichardPeidPiper

This email is great because it includes:

  • Concise description of the company
  • What the ultimate purpose of the connection is (raising $2.2MM)
  • Evidence that Richard did some research about why Peter might be interested
  • Link to Exec Summary
  • Richard’s contact info

I will then just forward this to Peter with a note on top and suggest that he can email Richard directly if he’s interested in connecting.

I find this method exponentially smoother (and more polite) than a cold intro.  I also can put my own touch on the note that I write about why I think this might be someone worth connecting to.  Some people misinterpret my request and write an email in my voice intending me to just copy and paste this. I appreciate the intent but I don’t like the idea of someone writing in my voice - just feels weird - and also I don’t do cold intros.

The response rate as with everything varies by the person and the quality of the fit and opportunity, but one nice side effect of this style is that the email might sit with the contact for a longer period of time and then perhaps something piques their interest weeks or months later and they already have the invite to connect. I think cold intros with no responses are kind of a belly flop, this style is more like a business card - an invite to reach out when it makes sense.

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Vassar In Tech

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This month I am proud to appear in the Vassar Quarterly issue focussed on Vassar alums working in the tech industry.  As a Vassar grad I knew about many of our esteemed alums including Gerry Laybourne (founder of Nickelodeon and Oxygen), Caterina Fake (founder of Flickr) and even Grace Hopper (widely credited as being one of the mothers of computer science) but some of these other Vassar alums in tech are less well known to the community but equally outstanding - such as Katia Beauchamp (co-founder of BirchBox), Chris Fry (SVP of Tech at Twitter) and Hunter Walk (former head of product development at YouTube). Our last Vassar in Tech meetup was also a very dynamic, fun gathering of 60+ diverse and accomplished alums in the industry many of whom I was meeting for the first time (and we even had a waitlist!)  I think we’re at a turning point with regard to galvanizing our Vassar in Tech community and really connecting with each other in meaningful was to help one another and future generations of Vassar grads forge meaningful careers in the space.  If you’re looking to get involved - join the Vassar in Tech meetup here, the Linkedin Group here or start your own local meetup by following these super easy best practices - and please reach out to let me know your thoughts on what else we can be doing to bring the community together.

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Over the summer I had the unique opportunity to support my friend Alicia, a CBS alum, working mom of two and entrepreneur, by appearing as an uncoordinated blur in the back of a TV spot about her incredibly cool pop up fitness company KiwiSweat.  It was the first time I worked out after having baby #2, so for all our sakes I’m really glad you can’t see me better, but if you freeze the frame you can see a panting hot pink blur on the left hand side. Otherwise this ad contains so many things I love (CBS mom entrepreneur whose company is based on creative healthy living being promoted by Amex/ OPEN - why yes I will take another scoop of that!)   Enjoy :)

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Venture for America Updates

Last week I went to the Christmas Party for Venture of America hoping to say hi to my favorite hard working non profit staffers ever and perhaps meet some cool people.  Instead I had my faith restored in the future of America.  Yep.  That’s right.  ”How is this possible at a Christmas party?” you ask - well Andrew Yang gave an update on what the first and second class of fellows have been up to and it was just awe inspiring.  The work they’re doing at their day jobs creating cool products, managing rapidly growing companies in cities with low job growth is impressive enough - but on top of that many are already launching side ventures.  Check out some of these incredible projects and companies and help them win $20K in seed funding from Amex OPEN.  There is no stopping these super talented fellows - I cannot wait to see which project wins and where these kids go next.  Stay tuned!

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Camp Gyno

Unless you have been under a rock you are aware of the massive internet sensation known as “Camp Gyno" from the insanely popular video for Hello Flo. 

Hello Flo is the brainchild of Naama Bloom a friend and former Amex colleague, who has been an amazing mom in tech mentor to me as well.

I’ve known about Hello Flo for several months and always thought it idea whose time was totally overdue.  Periods are literally as old as mankind.  They are inconvenient as hell and I don’t know one smart put together woman who has not totally blanked on her start date and been caught off guard with no supplies.  

Also why is it that with something literally as regular as clockwork that we *have* to purchase that no fortune 100 CPG company has successful won over our hearts and minds - like in the way men love Bonobos or 20 somethings love Toms or moms love Diapers.com.  I think that spells major market opportunity for women to turn to a brand that speaks their language and seems to really care about their menstruation experience. Yes it is a commodity product to an extent (though don’t get me started on that weird OB shortage a few years ago) but its a deeply personal one at that.  So I think they’re onto something huge.  

But there’s more to this story than a great product with a killer video (made for $6,000!!!!) that has run away with the zeitgeist.  There’s a story about a mom entrepreneur who left her successful career in corporate America to do something more entrepreneurial with major skin in the game because she was passionate about doing something meaningful with her career (read: also her time on the planet).  

This is not just respectable and inspirational - its super risky.  Her equally awesome husband is also an entrepreneur and they have two kids and that equals lots of bills to pay.  She’s not a 21 year old kid right out of school who can move home if techstars doesn’t make her famous.  And what is so refreshing about Naama is she’s been super transparent about this dynamic in all of her press.  Check out this great piece in the WSJ where she ends it with this brilliant quote: 

I‘ve spent my life doing the “responsible” thing and while it had its rewards, it also had limitations. I wanted to feel passionate. And I want my children to learn, like I did, that being happy in what you do is worth a little struggle. Looking forward into this year, I don’t know how we’ll keep our heads financially above water. I guess I’ll just have to sell a lot of tampons.

Everything worth having/ doing/ being/ experiencing is worth a struggle which makes it all the sweeter when you attain it.  I am so impressed with what Naama is doing because she’s putting herself out there to pursue something she’s passionate about but isn’t spinning some silver lining story about how hardcore it is to be an entrepreneur.  

This follows a nice trend in authenticity from several high profile startup vets in tech speaking honestly about the pitfalls of this space (including my personal fave by the amazing Shane Reiser). It is not all boozy open bars in Austin and accolades at meetups.  It’s shipping products and getting paid and that takes a ton of effort, experience, determination and who knows what else.  

Clearly the authenticity Naama brings to the business she’s building has resonated into the video which has put Hello Flo to firmly on the map - this is only going to be the first you hear about them I’m sure.  

Let’s help her sell some tampons!

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John’s Jobs

A few months ago I did an interview with John Gannon, a friend and classmate from CBS who has terrific startup/ VC/ big tech company experience.  We discussed post MBA careers and tactical tips.  I get asked about this stuff from current MBAs quite often so hopefully you’ll find it interesting.  Also I highly recommend signing up for John’s emails - they are excellent if you’re interested in working at a startup. 

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Back in business

I have been terrible about keeping up with this blog but not for lack of overall productivity.  In fact speaking of things I have produced - welcome baby Charlotte :)   On July 12th I gave birth to my second daughter who even though she was three days late, arrived with such haste we almost didn’t make it to the hospital in time.  More on life as a working mom in tech to follow, but first a few immediate thoughts.

In the lead up to her arrival I was incredibly busy with work.  We’ve had a great few months and I am just loving being a part of this terrific team, working with such awesome clients on truly break through email marketing campaigns.  Our team has been expanding at a nice clip and in addition to the regular busy-ness of work we were on boarding some wonderful new team members which as anyone knows takes care and time.  But somehow the tasks at hand adjusted to the space allotted and even though I felt this intense time pressure as my due date approached everything got done.  In fact my personal to do list also got done pretty effectively as well (minus the blogging of course).  

So what is this?  Was I some new 24 hour workaholic?  Not at all (see: mother of adorable 14 month old).  But out of necessity I came to embody that principle that done is better than perfect.  I also had this intense dread that something urgent would be left in my in box unattended to while I was up all night and incoherent with a crying baby and that fear of not wanting to let my colleagues down gave me that weird laser like focus that people speak about when all their priorities become clear.  I’ve read a few pieces related to this lately - like this one about saying no (just a brash way of saying - this is not a priority) and this one about how few hours we have left on the earth.  (Terrifying!)  

Focus requires that you are able to prioritize your own objectives so to that end I’m going to be recalibrating what some of my specific personal and professional goals are and sharing them here (a la the terrific Scott Britton). 

It was notable that this focus and its subsequent productivity was so driven by not letting other people down - and I think going forward I want to approach everything with this urgency but add myself to the list of people whose life I want to make easier.  Being on maternity leave without the anxiety of leaving things half finished was ultimately the biggest gift to myself and my peace of mind, but I didn’t see it like that while I was racing around like a mad woman and I think that’s a missed opportunity.

Bottom line is - short of the important business of recharging for the most part there is no reason to ever not have that sense of urgency and focus.  Life is fleeting!  What the heck are we twiddling our thumbs for?!  Why are you wasting time reading the internet?!  Let’s get busy! :)