QA on community with 3 Omaha Startup Week featured speakers

Omaha Startup Week Powered by Cox Business is a five-day celebration from May 1-5 of the local community and its entrepreneurial identity. SPN sat down with three of Startup Week’s speakers and community leaders from around the country to talk more about building networks and our own community here in the Silicon Prairie. Sarah Bird,…

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Omaha Startup Week Powered by Cox Business is a five-day celebration from May 1-5 of the local community and its entrepreneurial identity. SPN sat down with three of Startup Week’s speakers and community leaders from around the country to talk more about building networks and our own community here in the Silicon Prairie.

Sarah Bird, CEO,

SPN: You’re very active in the Seattle startup and tech community. Talk about how you prioritize those efforts while building Why does community matter to you?

SB: I come from a long line of do-gooders. My grandma Fay was active in her community. She sat on the zoning board. My mother helped raise funds for the community library, and eventually incorporated the city and served as its Mayor.  I lived the Margaret Mead quote in action “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Growing up with the concrete results of community organizing around you, and growing up in such privilege, leaves an indelible mark. I feel a tremendous obligation to support and strengthen the community around me. Only focusing on Moz would feel selfish. It’s dangerous to exist only inside your bubble of privilege and focus on building your own wealth. I need to integrate with the communities around me in order to feel whole, to remind myself that I am not my work, and there are more important things than building marketing software.

The integrations of these two drives within me is not easy. I live in a perpetual state of guilt. Either I’m spending too much time on civic initiatives, or too much time in the company. I swing back and forth between them.
I am grateful that “generosity” is a corporate value, as well as a personal value because it allows me to enroll Mozzers in greater civic engagement through volunteering and charitable donation matching. We’ve given over half a million dollars to charities through our match program. I’m proud of that. The tech industry has tremendous power and wealth; we must never forget to use it for good.

SPN: In your Startup Week talk, you’ll share more about what the transition from Rand to you was. What advice do you have for founders questioning if it is time for them to hand over the reins?

SB: Each experience is so personal that giving highly specific advice is challenging.

If you’re thinking of leaving your highly prestigious role, I want you to know how courageous that exploration is. Most people live their lives trying to conform to social norms. Being a CEO carries a lot of cachet in our culture. How inspiring when someone has the daring to reject cultural norms in favor of discovering a different way of contributing! I applaud the creativity in self-expression and the commitment to creating personal meaning in your life. Few humans ever reach that level of introspection and openness to possibility.

Lastly, once you make the decision to change your role, embrace it fully with joy, and let go of the past. If you can’t see yourself doing that… If you can’t visualize yourself responding calmly when the company takes a direction you disagree with, then you’re probably not ready to go yet. You’re still personally attached to leading the company. You’ve got to let it go or you will drive yourself (and others!) crazy.

SPN: A few years ago, you shared strategies for working families at the White House. Moz has been recognized for its support of working families. What advice do you have for early stage founders crafting policies in this arena?

SB: When you’re just starting out, pre-revenue and pre-funding, it can be challenging to prioritize paid family leave and high-quality health insurance. Regardless, you’ve got to find a way to do it.

Build a culture of taking care of people into your company early on. Sometimes your employees take care of you (by pushing extra hard and giving up weekends to ship), and sometimes you take care of them (by giving them a paid leave to help a family member with a medical crisis). The best companies put people first, and your team will watch your reaction when a teammate’s personal crisis strikes (and it will!). How you respond in that moment will say more about you than all the policies or recruiting talk.

Families value the ability to set their schedule well in advance so they can arrange reliable childcare. While they need the predictability, they also need the ability to be flexible to take time off to care for a dependent that suddenly gets the flu. I can’t overemphasize how much arranging for childcare is going to stress out your working families. Be generous with your paid personal days, and work with them to come up with a predictable schedule that works for their childcare situation. Remember to honor father’s contribution to families by making sure your paid leave policies are gender neutral. Parental leave shouldn’t just be for moms.

Also, make sure there is at least one private room with a lock and a comfortable chair for nursing moms. At Moz, our nursing room can be booked in advance (women need to pump on a schedule) and include a sink and a refrigerator. It sends a strong signal that women are welcome here and that we support them in returning to work after their leave. You wouldn’t believe how many women across America hide away in closets to pump, with one foot against the door to (hopefully) stop someone from coming in.

Having a dedicated annual ‘bring your kid to work’ day is a fun and cheap way to make sure that people with families feel included and supported. Plan a few fun activities for the kids, like a scavenger hunt and coloring contest.

As you gain revenue and scale, you can start layering more costly perks that help demonstrate your commitment to families. Doing the above is a strong start.

SPN: The midwest is no different from the coasts in terms of the balance (or lack thereof) of females and people of color in the tech scene. Talk about what efforts you back to change that balance.

SB: I have personally put a lot of effort into this, and we still have a long way to go at Moz. Similarly, despite the visibility of this topic, the industry has remained stubbornly homogeneous.

But we’re not giving up!  We don’t shy from ambitious projects, we break them down into pieces and keep plugging away at them.

Some things we do are like planting trees along a trail we will never walk again. For example, we try and inspire middle and high school girls from underfunded districts to explore careers in tech by giving them tours of Moz, talking about our career paths, and doing a STEM-related project with them. They have a long way before they are ready to be engineers, so it probably won’t help Moz.  But we believe it *will* make a difference.

We also partner with organizations like Year Up and Ada Academy to create new paths into technology for women and people of color. Both organizations have an incredible record of changing lives through high quality, rigorous curriculum and paid internships. They bolster the program with professional skill building like giving and receiving feedback, identifying imposter syndrome, and advocating for yourself and others. The graduates are incredibly skilled, and more than that, they are bold and determined. We love them.

We’re also constantly working on raising our awareness on the subtle things we do each day that can inadvertently make underrepresented folks feel disempowered and overlooked. Microaggressions are an important part of identifying why diverse talent sometimes leaves. We constantly work on listening skills, assuming good intent, owning your rank and power, and feedback skills. We’re not perfect. I don’t know any humans who are. But I believe people at Mozzers are trying hard to be the kind of colleague that genuinely supports diverse approaches, and everyone can do their best work. Because our listening, cognition, and communication happens subconsciously, it’s hard to change these behaviors. They are automatic and have been forming since infancy. Being a great colleague requires forgiveness, courage, empathy, and optimism. You can practice those and get better.

We do many other things too, but I can’t list them all here! We look at our job descriptions and ask “who does it seem to be written for?” We offer unconscious bias training. We review salaries regularly to make sure people are being paid fairly. We offer professional coaching for everyone so that they can own their growth and development and get a neutral coach. We do harassment training. We donate money. We mentor.

This problem is complicated, and the solutions are myriad. With time and persistence, we’ll make a difference.

Kelly Hoey, investor, mentor and author of Build Your Dream Network

Kelly Hoey, photo by Lisa Tanner Photography

SPN: Your recent book is all about crafting a meaningful network, talk about why that is important especially when our readers are primarily in “flyover country.”

KH: Networks are important regardless of where you live or where you are currently in your career or business venture. We get things done with the help of other people – from customers who buy our products to users who download our apps to volunteers who contribute to the well-being of our communities – so building and maintaining a diverse network should be a priority. And focus on diverse! Being in flyover country, you may need to expand the geographic range of your networking to build that diverse network, as the insights, talent, experience, guidance and/or advice you need to move forward may not be right at hand. This is where digital tools (blogs, social networking sites, live streaming, Skype etc.) level the playing field: regardless of where you are located, you can access and tap into communities of shared interest,  the insights being shared and not only make but maintain powerful connections.

SPN: For nearly 5 years, you’ve kept your eye on the Silicon Prairie. Talk about what you’ve seen and how that relates to other markets you’re engaged in.

KH: It has been great to watch Silicon Prairie evolve and find its own growth path (or grove), rather than trying to emulate Silicon Valley or Alley. Each community is different and while watching/learning from other successful startup communities is valuable, to be successful it needs to be true to its unique dynamic and local attributes.

SPN: Events, meetups and the like are important elements in startup communities. Why do you think these activities matter? For companies and individuals?

KH: Meetups, events, co-working and collaborative spaces are signs of energy and growth in an entrepreneurial ecosystem.  They are fulfilling the needs of the entrepreneurs – from affordable workplaces to finding talent to connecting with peers. Watch how people organize and come together, it is a good indicator of what is going on, what’s needed and where you can get involved.

SPN: Your career path is unique and connected, but not necessarily the most obvious journey. Talk to us about that and how community played a role.

KH: Every opportunity I’ve had has come about as a result of a network – from board seats to co-founding a startup accelerator to changing careers. I’ve learned along the way the power and necessity of having a diverse network (my very Wall Street network back in 2001, was too narrow to help me make a career shift and I had to build an entirely new network) and of looking after my network – by being an active participant, helping others and sharing information (yes, digital tools help with this!). As I say in my book, the economic era we live in now is not who you know or what you know but who knows what you know. Staying connected, sharing insights, networking the skills and experience I want to be found or known for, is the formula I follow – and so far, so good!

And, one more thought on community: pay attention to what your community sees in you. Your network may see more in you than you do for yourself! My community strongly encouraged me to write and I can promise you, I never imagined a career where I would say ‘I am a published author’.

Adam Wilson, creator and cofounder, Sphero

SPN: It’s been nearly 5 years since we first heard the Sphero story. A lot has changed. Talk about the vision you had in 2013 and the vision you have for Sphero now.

AW: Interestingly enough my vision for Sphero back in 2013 is still very much what we are doing right now.  We wanted to make robots with more personality, make products that spark emotion and lead the world of connected play. The only thing that has changed is that we can make more than one thing at a time now!

SPN: During Startup Week, you’ll talk in-depth about landing Disney and developing the BB8. Can you share more details about how your community led to that partnership?

AW: Everything Sphero does is with the users in mind and we aim to make products that can take on the vision of the people using them.  This is why Sphero is a ball that can be defined by software.   Our community has showed us that we can turn Sphero technology into just about anything.  As we started to embark on this journey with Disney, they saw that our products were different.  Users could bring something new to life, bring this droid to life, program it, and it really helped differentiate our products.

SPN: Sphero is now a global brand. What is your best advice for startups working toward global scale?

AW: Of course start small, make sure to think about localization during the product development.  Make icons that are simple, if it is a physical product make sure you use a sleeve over a basic package (so you can change the language on the box easier).  And get global business and PR partners that live in each area.  That’s critical.

SPN: It’s clear that you very much embody the Techstars “give first” mentality, how does that play out in Sphero’s culture?

AW: Sphero embodies a culture where people are willing to give their opinions, time and effort to help any group at the company.  We love going to events, our engineers, artists, ops, managers, designers, execs and everyone else at Sphero all attend events and give back to kids, fans, teachers and future Jedi as much as we can.  Although we probably get more out of it than we give no matter how hard we try.  The moment you see someone’s jaw drop watching a BB-8 being driven by force-band, it’s truly gratifying.

Hear more from Sarah Bird, Kelly Hoey and Adam Wilson at Omaha’s Startup Week Powered by Cox Business. To view the week’s complete schedule or to register, visit the Omaha Startup Week website.


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