Friday, June 22, 2007
I was privileged to be honored with an award from the Women's Venture Fund in New York this morning. The Women's Venture Fund is a non-profit helping women get their ventures off the ground by providing mentoring, micro-loans and encouragement. The honorees were an amazing group of women with a common thread of taking risk, supporting and growing other women and achieving business success as a result.
As a silicon valley geek it was scary and humbling to be in the company of so many smart, accomplished and sleek New York women and their stories were truly inspirational.
I was impressed in particular by Ileana de Dios Muniz who owns and publishes FAMA Magazine and has built it from the ground up herself. Also, by Stacy Gray who, as an African American law student overcame her anger at the racism and sexism she experienced to found her own independent law practice in New York.
All the women honored were spectacular in their fields and shared personal stories, challenges and joys they had experienced along the way. The event re-confirmed for me that women can do anything when they set their minds to it.
Here are my remarks:
Thank you for this award – it is terrific and I am honored and humbled to be in the company of this group of honorees.
There have been many ingredients to my success, and I am grateful to the many people who have helped me along the way. When I think back over the last 25 years one common theme to the decisions I made was having an appetite for risk – and so I decided to share a couple of stories about risk with you today.
I became CEO of a venture backed software company when I was 36. I worked in the male dominated semiconductor industry and I was the first female CEO in the field. I felt I had to become a CEO because I couldn’t stand not to. As I did it I was very scared of failure. Not only because 9 out of 10 startups fail in silicon valley but also because I felt if I failed everyone would say “see, we knew a woman could not do it”.
But I was also very excited about my company, Simplex, and I decided to channel the fear into my work. I was driven, and I know I was hard to live with at times, but when my company did well and went public I was as much motivated by showing all the doubters around me as I was by the achievement for my team and my investors, and it was very sweet. Without the adrenalin of the risk I don’t know that I would have been as focused on getting the company successful.
My tolerance and acceptance of risk also shows up in the interface between my personal and professional lives. I have two children – now 13 and 15 and both taller than me. When my youngest was 4 weeks old I was VP marketing at Synopsys and my boss – who was and is CEO of Synopsys– called me up and asked me to come in and help with a total reorganization of the company. I had not weaned my son by then, but my boss communicated that it was important, although he understood I was on maternity leave.
This was a moment of truth for me. Just how ambitious was I? Well, the answer was very and I took what – at that time – felt like a very risky and non-obvious path. I packed the diaper bag, picked up my son and went to work. Now, remember I said he was not weaned. So, when he got hungry in the middle of an executive staff planning meeting (all men but me of course) I did the most natural thing in the world – I breast fed him. You could have heard a pin drop at the shock in the room. I did this for a week and we got the company reorganized, including me leading a discussion with a hundred of my employees while feeding my son. I definitely broke some kind of glass that day!
If you are pushing your self to the limit to contribute you will face risks every day. It’s part of the fun - and the challenge is how to channel the fear.
Let me close with one more story. I had 20 years of increasing success and had been blessed financially. At 43 at the top of my earning power in a big executive job I had 2 strokes. Not from over work, just from bad luck blood chemistry and they were probably not my first. After a few weeks of denial, I retired but was losing my mind a year later - consulting and doing some work with a VC - when I was recruited into the CEO job at FirstRain. The company had terrific talent and technology but was out of money and needed to be restarted. I knew nothing about search engine technology and the job was in New York but my family is in California. Very risky and my parents were horrified that I was going back to work. But 2 years later FirstRain provides research from the web to institutional investors, is now successful and growing rapidly.
I love what I do. I love the joy of accomplishment, working with talent and friends and I now know I love the risk. Risk is good and you need to embrace it.
Thank you again to the Women’s Venture Fund for this award. I am very honored to be in such great company.