Monday, August 27, 2012

Startup Weekend, Women's Edition

As I stepped into the Perkins Coie conference room in downtown Seattle, I felt a sudden rush of self-conscientiousness. I was in the minority in a room with about 85% women. This was Startup Weekend Seattle: Women's Edition, a special Startup Weekend event focused on women in technology and entrepreneurship and I was one of a small number of men at this event. I immediately thought "this must be what it feels like for women who come to the majority of startup events that are predominantly male." I normally have no problem engaging in conversation with entrepreneurs and engineers, but this felt different. My mind flooded with questions. Would I be the annoying guy who came to participate in this women's event? Would I say something stupid and embarrass myself?

Walking through the room, I eased up a bit when I ran into someone I had met in the street only a few minutes prior, where I had helped her get a handle on parking in Seattle. She was a business professor teaching in southern Asia, who had just arrived from a Startup Weekend event in Australia. It was fascinating to hear about her experience teaching outside the United States and her thoughts about entrepreneurship. I moved on, a bit more comfortable with myself, shortly joining a conversation with a pair of women who had been exchanging backgrounds. I tried to learn more about them and told them a bit about myself. And with that, my fears came true - complete disinterest in speaking with me. One of the women excused herself right away and the other was fairly quick to distance herself conversationally. It's funny how this would go nearly unnoticed in the circumstances I'm used to, but how in this situation it felt incredibly acute. Fortunately, I then ran into a friend, Irena Menn, with whom conversation helped me to regain my composure.

Transitioning into the event kickoff, we all took seats as Julie Sandler of Madrona Vetnures and Shauna Causey of Decide.com, introduced us to the event and laid out what to expect from the weekend. Dalia Al Said followed with an inspiring story of her involvement in entrepreneurship in Egypt and how she organized the country's first-ever Startup Weekend. Next came Dawn Lepore, CEO of drugstore.com and one of the top businesswomen in America. These were remarkable speakers and I hope we'll continue to see such exceptional female leaders inspiring us in this way.

After hearing some fantastic pitches, we broke out and formed teams. With discussions ensuing, I quickly noticed that the style of communication and interaction was markedly different from what I was used to. Rather than giving quick bios and jumping into tasks involved in putting the project together, the team and I spent more time getting to know one another through casual conversation. I found it interesting how conscientious I was about this and how deliberately I had to resist the urge to push things forward prematurely.

The team and I shared some incredible experiences and it was really amazing getting to know my five female partners over the course of the weekend. Highlights for me included going out to the Pike Place Market to interview people in our target market, trekking around town for hours looking for a color inkjet printer to make iron-on t-shirts, seeing the pitch deck come together, and really getting to know the others over lunch. The exceptional ladies I worked with included Adriana Moscatelli, Bonnie Mattson, Karmin Mauritz, Hema Natarajan, and Nnenna John. Each was smart, fun to work with, and brought valuable unique skills and experience to the team. And most fortunate for me, they were completely accepting and kind to the "odd man out".

Something that always shines during Startup Weekend events is the mentors, and this was no exception. In fact, I would say the things were really stepped up a notch for this event with lots of leaders and great role models coming out to show their support. Kate Matsudaira made a critical contribution, giving us some early advice as the first mentor we talked to and setting us down the right path from the outset. We also got valuable advice from Janis Machala, Susan Sigl, and Jean Brittingham. And special shout-outs go to Bob Crimmins and Julie Sandler, each of whom spoke with us multiple times throughout the weekend to provide feedback and to help us refine our pitch.

As the weekend wrapped up, Adriana delivered a flawless pitch despite fretting over it during the run-up to our allotted time. As we waited for the results, the team was beaming with anticipation. At that moment, I distinctly recalled my first couple of Startup Weekend events and the uncontrollable excitement right before hearing who the judges had deemed "winners". I had decided to participate in this event to experience the diversity and to meet people who I hadn't had to opportunity to meet at typical startup and tech events. Although we didn't end up placing among the top three, I got so much more out of the weekend, even with the high expectations I had going into it, that I was nothing less than ecstatic. Though my teammates were disappointed with the results, we nonetheless regrouped in a mini-celebration, donning our custom-made t-shirts and sharing hugs before heading home for some much-needed sleep.

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