An Evening with Thought Leader Robin Chase, Founder of Zipcar

Last night I had the chance to re-connect with Robin Chase, Co-Founder of ZIpcar and Buzzcar (and a fellow Wellesley alum) at the opening night reception of the Springboard Annual Forum. There we had a half-hour fireside chat discussing her past, present and future initiatives and the change she would like to see in the world.

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You’re Fired! When An Entrepreneur SHOULD Fire A Client

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I fired a client this week.

I cannot remember the last time I had to do this, but it was for MY own good.

Usually, when I have new clients, I can’t wait to begin our work together and I look forward to each of our conversations and the work that I can do to move them forward. Occasionally, however, I override my good sense and instincts and select an individual to work with that I think has big opportunities ahead but may not resonate with me individually. In this case, I should have listened to my gut.

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Where Are All the Women Entrepreneurs?

Sure women start lots of companies. But where are the big, world-changing businesses run by women?

I get this question all the time: Where are all the women entrepreneurs? I guess the people who ask figure that I should know: I’m the co-founder of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs and co-founder of the Springboard Venture Forums, and I’ve helped women raise over $5 billion for their businesses.

Where are all the women entrepreneurs

My response is simple: Statistics show that women in the U.S. start companies at a very brisk pace compared to their male counterparts. The question that remains interesting–and is less-frequently asked–is why are so few women starting big companies? Even women who have started businesses that get outside funding do not tend to end up with businesses as large as those run by men.

After more than 20 years meeting with, advising, and learning from women entrepreneurs, I believe that women either do not like or not feel comfortable spinning a big vision.

An Incremental Business Will Not Change the World

If you are seeking outside funding, you are asking potential investors to put money into your idea above all others. To do that, you need a big vision. Most people are inspired to invest in big ideas that can change the world instead of small, incremental ideas that will likely happen without their help. If you have dollars to put to work, wouldn’t you be more excited to be able to say you are funding the next SpaceX or iRobot or Zipcar (the latter two were co-founded by women, incidentally) rather than another small services firm? I would.

But something happens when women put together their investor pitch or think critically about their businesses. They actually want to understand exactly how they are going to get from Point A to Point Z and they want to explain to an investor the steps (B, C, D) they will take and exactly how they will spend the money they raise.

This sounds like a good thing, but it pushes the entrepreneur to think small, and to designate their Point Z as only a few steps into the future and on a path that is clearly visible to all. In most cases, this is neither exciting nor inspiring. It is just an incremental business that will not change the world.

Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar, tells the story of her meeting with the dean of MIT’s Sloan School of Management (of which she is an alumna) to get his input on her business idea. After he saw her pitch, he got very excited, but he immediately pushed her to think much bigger. She recalls sitting down with her co-founder in a coffee shop at the meeting. The two just looked at each other …shocked and a bit scared. Could they do it? Should they do it? After a lot of soul searching, they did, and Zipcar was born.

Work Backwards From the Future

If we’re going to see a change in the number of big businesses founded by women, they will have to get comfortable spinning a much bigger story. They’ll have to ask themselves questions like:

•    What if I had 10 times the amount of money I am asking for, what would I do with it?’
•    If we could really dream big about changing this industry/niche, what would we do?
•    What’s the “What If?” future we’d like to bring about?

Then, work backwards from those possibilities to clarify the broad strokes and milestones that need to be met to get there. It isn’t about smoke and mirrors. It is about admitting that you don’t know every step that lies ahead of you, and trusting that you’ll figure it out.

Get Help From Those Who Have Come Before You

There is a funny dance in this start-up process that often feels very uncomfortable. We have to push ourselves to think big and then not become so overwhelmed by the big idea that we get stopped in our tracks. It is important to ask for help, to surround yourself with big thinkers and others who are ahead of you on the start-up path, and to constantly test and verify your assumptions. And, as women, don’t just talk to other women. Find some men who can serve as advisors, too.

Women are the key drivers of the economy. We should also be the leaders that create the solutions to the world’s big problems and lead the companies that bring those solutions to market. If we can conquer this big vision challenge, I believe we are poised to do just that, and to change the world forever.

This post first appeared on Inc.com.

Are You a Boundary Setter?

How do you become a thought leader? Become a boundary setter. That is the advice from four thought leaders who joined my panel at the Grace Hopper Celebration in October 2012.

The panelists included Janet Murray of Georgia Tech, Candice Brown Elliott, CEO of Nouvoyance, Inc., Shelley Evenson, formerly with Facebook now Executive Director Organizational Evolution at Fjord, and Nina Bhatti, formerly of HP now doing a new start-up.

GraceHopper

There are two somewhat opposing contexts of thought leadership – thought leaders are both at the ‘center’ of things in their respective fields but they are also ‘boundary-setters’.

To me, that dichotomy is what makes thought leadership both challenging and exciting. Being at the center means you need to understand where your industry niche is today and engage people who want to talk about and learn about today’s key issues, while being at the boundary means understanding where things need to move in the future and getting people to head in that direction. I invited each of these women to participate in the panel because they are all clearly exploring and pushing boundaries and have been their entire careers.

One of the people who really understood this idea of exploring boundaries was the scientist Stuart Kauffman who described the Adjacent Possible – a kind of shadow future that hovers on the edges of the present state of things and includes a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. That space is not infinite nor is it a totally open playing field. At any moment, as he described it in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain things can happen.

“Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.”

Using Kauffman’s analogy of the palace, which I love, as a thought leader we have to both be in the room where everyone else is presently hanging out – probably the family room in front of the TV – while also opening new doors for people to help them see the possibilities ahead.

So how do you find the keys to those doors? You must connect new dots, broaden your access points, and listen to what they’re resonating with.

Connect New Dots

The master at this was Steve Jobs. He crossed so many different boundaries – computers, animation, design, mobility, etc. and he took ideas from each into the other. He understood how this helped him to stand out from the others around him. “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

This means not just looking at ideas from fields that regularly overlap with yours, but also going far beyond the normal boundaries to explore completely new fields. The fact that I have worked in technology, politics, education, entrepreneurship, women’s leadership and the utility industry gives me a lot of different perspectives and allows me to draw connections far outside the norm.

The panelists, too, have regularly broadened their access to new ideas – Shelley, by designing her career to allow her to move gracefully between industry, consulting and academia. Candice joined the Springboard network of women entrepreneurs, which not only taught her how to raise money but exposed her to lots of others working in completely new arenas. Janet not only works in academia, she also started an experimental television lab. And Nina’s role as a research scientist has given her an extremely diverse set of internal and external clients that have allowed her to learn about the mobility, cloud computing and even the make-up industry.

How can you get outside the expected and what everyone else is doing? What can you do to stretch and expand your possibilities? Read, attend a conference beyond your niche, watch a TED Talk, join a professional society, take a class, say yes to a new opportunity.

Broaden Your Access Points

You can’t work in or learn about every different field – you have to sleep sometimes. Instead, create a network of people you can call on to both share your expertise and learn from theirs. Being a thought leader is both who you know and who knows you. People can’t refer you or recommend you if they’ve never heard of you.

The panelists each took a different path to making new connections: Candice nurtured connections to industry analysts and journalists in her sector providing them with inside news and information about her industry; Janet is a member of AFI and the Peabody Award boards and wrote two widely popular and ground-breaking books; Nina joined academic conference committees, professional organizations, university research groups and the Advisory Board of the Anita Borg Institute; and Shelley co-founded and is an advisory board member for the international Service Design Network. (There were many more examples from these women’s careers, but this gives you the idea…)

How can you broaden your connections and access points? Participate actively in LinkedIn Groups, MeetUps, committees, boards, events, etc. Nurture the relationships with those around you who know about things you don’t know about, as well as those who know more than you do about what you do know about. Meet the pundits, columnists and analysts in your area of expertise and become a source of ideas and quotes.
Listen to What They’re Resonating With

To be a thought leader, people have to know what you are thinking and what direction you believe the world should go in order to get on board with your ideas. As my friend Sam Horn of the Intrigue Agency would say,

“No one can get on your bandwagon if it’s parked in your garage.”

But you don’t want to start by taking your bandwagon into the middle of Central Park. Nina has some great advice – learn from the comedians and play the small venues first, then take your best material to the larger arenas. Her first speaking roles were for the internal HP community – she started by having a project open house to show off her team’s work, gave interesting talks for employee-only programs and internal conferences.

There she learned which of her ideas, stories and messages resonated with her audience. She looked at each of these as “auditions” and there was always a “scout” in the audience for the next venue. She was asked to present her “Color Match” technology to industry analysts and later for HP’s international technology events and at press events. This raised her profile and led to many more speaking invitations as well as new customers for her innovative technology.

Early in her career, Candice was invited to submit articles to an industry journal and was selected to be the editor while she was still in her 20’s. She described this as the opportunity that ‘super-charged’ her career.

Where can you find your own small venues where you can test out your ideas? Start a blog, create a LinkedIn group, convene a meeting of others in your industry or with a similar job title to yours, join a local Chamber, host a brown bag lunch. Remember there are scouts at each event if you can education, enlighten and move a room with your story, you will get invitations to new and larger opportunities.

One caveat – Testing your ideas for those that resonate doesn’t mean tossing aside ideas that are controversial or that no one agrees with. Being a thought leader does not mean watering down or abandoning your big ideas, but instead learning to craft and hone them in such a way that others will get on board.

About the Panelists:

Janet Murray Janet Murray of Georgia Tech was recently named one of the 10 top brains for the digital future and is the author of Hamlet on the Holodeck : The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, widely used as a roadmap to emerging broadband art, information, and entertainment environments. She was one of the first to create interactive video applications and was the founder of one of the world’s first PhD programs in Digital Media.

CandiceBrownElliott


Candice Brown Elliott
, CEO of Nouvoyance, Inc., is the inventor of PenTile, a set of novel color flat panel display layouts and associated digital signal processing algorithms that are now in every major smartphone brand except Apple and are improving resolution and battery life for consumers every day. She holds over 60 patents and is an internationally recognized leader, entrepreneur, manager, and technologist/inventor in the flat panel display and microelectronic industries.

Shelley Evenson

Shelley Evenson, formerly with Facebook now Executive Director Organizational Evolution of Fjord, was recently recognized by ACAD as a top Woman Innovator in Design and is known for having jumpstarted the study of service design in the U.S. while a professor at Carnegie Mellon and hosting the first international service design conference. She was a co-founder and is an advisory board member for the international Service Design Network. She was recruited from Carnegie Mellon to join Microsoft and later Facebook where she collaborated with researchers and developers of new digital social media experiences.

Nina Bhatti

Nina Bhatti, formerly with HP, now CEO of a stealth startup, is the inventor of Color Match, a highly innovative imaging based mobile cosmetics advisory service and Mobile Connect, a near-field RFID mobile device platform suitable for retail, guest services, and museum applications. She has published more than 30 different papers, has been granted more than 25 technology patents and has spoken widely about the topics of innovation, technology and women in computing.

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