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How Smart Women Win in the New Economy
Foreword by Marc Benioff
With Sara Grace
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Pioneering Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor Magdalena Yesil came to the United States in 1976 with two suitcases and $43, blind to the challenges she would face as a woman and immigrant in Silicon Valley. Today, she is best known as the first investor and a founding board member of Salesforce, the now-multibillion dollar company that ushered in the era of cloud-based computing.
In Power Up: How Smart Women Win in the New Economy, Yesil urges women to look beyond the alarming gender statistics of the workplace and feel confident entering tech or any field-but also to be prepared to deal with the challenges. She shares what she experienced as a woman in Silicon Valley with surprising candor and heart, relying not just on her insight but that of more than a dozen top women entrepreneurs to offer pragmatic takeaways on topics such as:
Â· Owning career choices while managing risk
Â· Getting credit for your work
Â· Managing sexual dynamics
Â· Recruiting allies in the movement toward a supportive workplace for everyone
Pragmatic, incisive, and full of highly actionable advice, Yesil prepares ambitious women to break glass ceilings and rise to the top in the New Silicon Valley — and beyond.
THERE’S A WOMAN IN THE MEN’S ROOM
In the fall of 2015 I chaired the Innovation Summit at the G20 conference in Antalya, Turkey, where presidents, prime ministers, finance and labor ministers, and leading research and policy institutions from the top twenty economies in the world had gathered to discuss global financial problems. This was the first time the G20 had put innovation and technology on the agenda, so there was a lot of attention focused on the Innovation Summit.
In addition to chairing the summit I was also asked to participate on a panel exploring how to help small and medium enterprises (SMEs) experience faster growth in a slowing global new economy.
After the panel discussion was over, the moderator invited questions from the audience. The first question was directed at me, and it did not have anything to do with SME; instead, someone asked whether I had faced difficulties and challenges in Silicon Valley because I was a woman.
I wasn’t surprised. This wasn’t the first time in my thirty-year career I had been on stage to discuss a business issue and immediately gotten a question about my gender.
I responded with a somewhat contrarian take, saying that I couldn’t think of a single door that was permanently shut to me because I was a woman—and that in fact being a woman in the predominantly male technology world had opened many doors to me. Although that’s entirely true, it’s also true that being a woman created many painful challenges for me to navigate, often alone. But that was never where I focused my attention, and a forum on increasing growth in the global economy didn’t seem the moment to start.
Another woman on the panel, a leading researcher from a German think tank, chimed in next. She had just completed a multiyear study of small and medium enterprises around the world and recited a litany of depressing statistics about the very real barriers holding women back: limited access to initial and growth capital, limited representation in the corporate executive suite, limited networking capability because of exclusion from gendered social activities, and on and on.
After the panel the German researcher immediately approached me. “You know what?” she said. “Listening to you, I couldn’t help but think that the reason you were successful as a woman in a men’s world was because you didn’t focus at all on the statistics and facts I was quoting. In fact, you ignored them completely. You proceeded in your career as though you had as much chance at success as anybody else—or maybe even more.”
She was right, and what she said perfectly summarized what I now see as the key to my path to power as a woman in Silicon Valley. If I had stopped to think about being in the minority—with the numbers against me, at risk of discrimination—I might have lost the courage to go out and compete with the best. Like a motorcyclist, I’ve never ignored the rocks and debris that could send me skidding, but I’ve never focused on them either. I set my sights then and now on the smooth ground that allows me to move ahead. Otherwise the fear of crashing might overwhelm me. My background was no doubt a major influence. Growing up as a Christian kid in a 99 percent Muslim country had taught me to focus not on my differences but rather on my strengths.
That day at the Summit I realized something important that sometimes gets lost in the conversation about gender: gender still matters, but we can’t let it matter too much. In doing so, we risk shifting too much of our focus—and others’—from our achievements to our gender. I believe that’s part of why many successful, pioneering women in Silicon Valley whom I asked to be a part of this book declined. Some gave elaborate reasons, others kept it brief, but I often heard the same message in their responses: “I got where I am because I did not focus on being a woman but rather on being the best I could. I won because of my talent, hard work, and determination. I never let my gender define me, and I don’t want to start doing that now.”
I immediately understood their response, as I have always taken that same stance. I always acted as though—and in fact believed— my gender did not matter and I belonged in every room, no matter what anybody else might think. And yet the fact that three decades after I started my own career the conditions for women pursuing careers in technology have hardly changed tells me it’s time that we who have been successful step up and explicitly, publicly support the next generation making their way in this tough field. That means owning that being a woman in the new economy is different from being a man in the new economy, with its own set of challenges to overcome.
That said, when I say I thought I belonged in every room, I mean it. Once I was the only woman serving on a company’s board of directors that had convened to discuss a particularly heated issue, one of those “bet the company”–level decisions. The conversation was fast and furious and lasted a good part of the day. At one point one of the gentlemen called for a break.
We walked down the hallway together while I wrapped up a passionate point. Then the men opened a door, and we all walked through it.
The door shut behind us, and suddenly all eyes were wide on me. For a split second I wondered if what I was saying was completely off the wall or somehow too complicated for them to follow. Then I took in our surroundings: Florescent lighting. Tiled floors. Urinals. Men using urinals.
I had walked into the men’s bathroom.
Without stopping to comment on our whereabouts, I finished my sentence, gave a casual nod, and walked out. On my way to the women’s bathroom I considered whether to be embarrassed. But mostly I felt annoyed because I was sure they were continuing the conversation without me, and I didn’t want to miss out or have to catch up.
When we reconvened in the boardroom, the mood was more relaxed. Great, I thought, they already came to a decision.
“So did you guys finish the discussion?” I asked.
They all smiled.
“Magdalena, we didn’t talk about the company at all,” one of them said. “All we could talk about was that you had walked into the bathroom! We were shocked, but not you—you didn’t even react. All you cared about was finishing your point! You’re completely unflappable.”
His tone was admiring, and we all laughed. Then we got back to the business at hand, which was actually much more productive now that everyone’s mood had lightened.
With this book I want to help the next generation of women look blithely past the poor odds to power UP and command the right to be in any room. I want to help you look beyond the gender statistics of the workplace and feel confident entering any of the technology-related fields—but also prepared to deal with the challenges.
Although I urge women to focus on the smooth road to ride fast and fearless, I will also talk about some of the tough circumstances we do face. It’s not talked about enough, particularly among women who have made it. I want women to have tools to manage the people who, consciously or unconsciously, act to take away their power. I’m sharing these stories for men as well because I believe the next big push forward shouldn’t be a women’s movement—it’ll take all of us.
This is not a research book or a political platform but a field guide for women who want to have successful careers in the new economy at large. I don’t want women to have illusions about the tradeoffs inherent in a hard-driving career. High-growth business means cultures that don’t coddle people. They’re not particularly attentive to work-life balance. They’re high risk.
Those are the downsides. The upsides are work that is intellectually stimulating, relationships that feed off the shared thrill of creating something new, and a shot at wealth and opportunity way beyond what’s readily available in most other fields.
THE TIME IS NOW
Technology is the driving force of the New Economy. With the creative use of technology, established industries are being transformed, creating new competitors who are emerging as leaders. Great examples of new-economy companies are AirBnB, ZipCar, and Facebook, three companies that are changing the way people vacation, get from one place to another, and create and consume information. The new economy is coming to an industry and an office near you, opening the floodgates for mainstream participation.
All this suggests a unique opportunity for women to power UP, changing both the face and the future of technology. High-growth startups create lots of jobs and typically make their employees owners. Even the company cook can become a millionaire, as we witnessed when Google went public. These companies are more willing to break rules than are legacy firms because they have little to protect. With good ideas, courage, and hard work, workers in the new economy can leap hierarchies, bypass gatekeepers, and upend traditional expectations around success. And because these companies will be breaking a lot of established norms and redefining processes, they are by nature open to new ideas, both from men and from women.
Furthermore, to succeed in the new economy, you don’t need to be an engineer or a person enthralled by technology for technology’s sake. Think about a company like Rent the Runway, which is using sophisticated logistics and distribution to make couture fashion accessible to women who can’t afford to buy it. Underneath all the sparkling gowns, it’s an impressive technology company.
THE CULTURE OF TECHNOLOGY IS CHANGING. New-economy leaders are now owning the ways that privilege, gender, and race have shut people out of otherwise healthy meritocracies. There’s a lot of work to do. You have only to look at my own Valley network, from which the women in this book were drawn, to see this is true. They are brilliant, driven, and deserving of their opportunities. They are also predominantly white or from privileged educational backgrounds. By and large this is still the face of Silicon Valley. But change is coming, with leaders recognizing that diversity leads to better results: stronger, more innovative teams, and better products and services for customers.
At the time I came of age in high tech there were so few women that we weren’t thinking about a political movement. We were doing what we needed to get work done in a man’s world. We were not thinking about whether we had it hard—and we certainly weren’t thinking about whether there might be others who had it even harder. Essentially I ignored my gender and focused on my success. Other women took the same approach. When Kate Mitchell, the cofounder of Scale Ventures and board member of the National Venture Capital Association, recently told an audience of women in San Francisco that she had finally decided “to come out as a woman” after years of doing whatever she could do to minimize her gender differences to fit into the male-dominated technology world, many women nodded their heads.
Today women and men have much higher expectations for how workplaces address bias, recruit talent, and create an environment that makes everybody feel comfortable and confident. We’re also seeing the fruit of many decades of politics and formal advocacy. The numbers may still weigh against women, but major companies such as Salesforce and Amazon have publicly set goals and announced they’ve achieved pay parity, a victory that third-party salary surveys have confirmed. More companies and victories for equal pay and opportunity will surely follow. Academics, politicians, and entrepreneurs are all working to increase the number of women working in high-tech and STEM fields more broadly.
But let’s put all that back in our peripheral vision. I was compelled to write this book because I believe that there’s another, much more powerful reason that every woman reading is poised to power UP:
Within each of us lies 100 percent of the capability needed to overcome the obstacles to any goal we set for ourselves. You are much more powerful than you think.
Powering UP, as I see it, requires you to own your power. Powered-UP women:
BECOME THEIR OWN PRIMARY ENERGY SOURCE. You can’t rely on someone else to boost your confidence, elevate your mood, or set your agenda. Everyone has days when that’s easy, but those who succeed are the ones who can find ways to sustain their self-confidence on the days that are incredibly hard. When your confidence comes from within you, you gain the ability to face difficult people and situations without shutting down, losing control, or becoming bitter or resentful.
REFUSE TO ACCEPT THE RULES AS THEY ARE WRITTEN. Note that I didn’t call this book Level Up. Leveling up suggests climbing an existing hierarchy. Its focus is outward, deferring to the rules by which power and influence are currently distributed. Powering UP is about being so strongly grounded in your sense of self and what you have to offer that people rewrite those rules for you—and when they don’t, you build spaces in which you have the authority to rewrite them yourself. You create new opportunity rather than scramble to get your piece of what’s already there.
NEVER DEFINE THEMSELVES BY GENDER OR ANY OTHER EXCLUSION PARAMETER OR ALLOW ANYONE ELSE TO DO THE SAME. The moment you see yourself as a victim is the moment you become one. But believe in yourself as a winner and prove it to others around you, and soon others will be competing to have you on their team.
This book has been made possible by the many brave women founders and technology leaders who have joined me in putting out their hands to pull other women up. This is the final level of powering UP: finding ways to help others who have never gotten a fair shake—not just women but everyone who has been either overlooked or judged inadequate by the reigning gatekeepers.
We can all power UP, no matter how low our beginnings or how big our challenges. Powering UP beats all other alternatives. And when enough of us have powered up, we’ll just knock down the gates.
The Power to Flow
I’ve come to believe that powering UP in business isn’t about smarts or even about the desire to succeed. Particularly in the high-stakes game of entrepreneurship, power comes from having the courage to fail. It may feel counterintuitive to talk about failure before we’ve even addressed success, but actually that’s the order that mirrors the real world: you often fail ten times so you can succeed once. Although most people think of me as a Silicon Valley success story, I can’t tell you how many times I hit a wall over the course of my life and my career, making terrible mistakes and failing miserably, often because I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
In Turkey, where I’m from, we have a tradition: when someone embarks on a major journey the whole neighborhood shows up to throw buckets of water behind them as they walk or drive away. It’s a way of saying, “May you be like water—easily flowing past any obstacle.” I have often thought of that ritual as I have moved forward on my life journey. There are no failures, only obstacles. Whatever the obstacles, I find a way to flow. And even as water can be gentle, it can also have great power. Instead of the stream, imagine the thundering, disruptive power of a waterfall.
Take my first big move, from Turkey to the United States, to go to college—a fall into the unknown. Nothing about the application process was easy in those days before the Internet. I was seventeen years old. No one in my family had ever gone to college, and those I knew who did go to college went to the universities in Turkey. Most of the information I had on American education came from a single thick book in my school’s library titled Colleges and Universities of the United States.
I would have to take the SAT before I could apply, I learned. Istanbul is a city built on two continents, Europe and Asia, and a body of water called the Bosphorus divides them. The SAT exam was being offered on the European side of Istanbul at a very early hour before the ferries started running—a problem for me, as I lived on the Asian side. I figured I’d find a way. First I had to find someone who would accompany me in getting to the exam in the middle of the night, and my father, who was not keen on my going to the United States on my own, had not volunteered. I asked my boyfriend, who obliged, despite having nothing to gain from my leaving the country: I’d be leaving him behind.
Before dawn we made our way to the narrowest part of the Bosphorus and found a fisherman sleeping on his boat. We woke him up, and he motored us across the channel, where he left us to find our way to the SAT testing venue up the hill. Once in the exam room I was amazed to see that the multiple-choice test required you to color in a circle to specify your answer. I had never seen such a test before.
I asked the SAT organization to send my scores to the two schools I had applied to, chosen from the big university book: California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Shortly after, the SAT organization wrote to me, stating that they would send my scores to a third school free of charge. I went back to the big book and found a third school that rhymed with the first two, Illinois Institute of Technology. Without anything better to guide me, I chose it because I saw it was close to a big lake, and I like water.
As soon as my high SAT scores came in, Illinois Institute of Technology sent me an acceptance letter without even asking me for a complete application. I was so delighted that they liked me so much that I accepted their offer. As far as I knew, it was similar in caliber to MIT, so I was not inclined to wait to hear MIT’s reply.
This was career mistake number one.
I arrived at the O’Hare Airport in Chicago a few months later excited and hopeful. I was living a dream that had origins back when I was ten and happened to catch the Apollo 11 moon landing, broadcast on a US military radio station that I often tuned into because they played American music. I didn’t speak much English, but the excited voices of the broadcasters told me everything I needed to know: America was a place—maybe the only place—where not even the sky was the limit. And not only were they sending men to the moon, they were doing it wearing blue jeans! I was still a kid and didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew the frontier was what exhilarated me and the United States represented the edge. It was the place where the impossible became possible. From that day on, I wanted to go to America. No, from that day on, I was going to go to America. And now I had done it!
MISTAKE NUMBER ONE might not have been so bad had Illinois Institute been located in a safe part of town. But it was in South Side Chicago, right in the middle of the projects. Coming from Princes’ Islands, in the sea of Marmara outside Istanbul, where we rarely locked our doors, that was quite a transition.
I arrived at my new home, a campus dorm room, late in the evening. I was starving after the twenty-seven-hour journey from Istanbul and asked my new dorm mates when dinner would be served. They told me that the cafeteria had long closed. Panicked, I asked if there was anywhere to get food, and they suggested a McDonald’s two blocks away.
Famished, I left immediately, not bothering to change from my elegant “going to America” travel clothes—high heels, pleated skirt, and eight gold bracelets to sell if I needed emergency cash. Halfway to the restaurant a police cruiser pulled over alongside me. Was I already in trouble with the police? I had only just arrived! I wondered what I could have done wrong. I kept walking, acting as if I did not notice the police car.
The officer who was driving called out to me from his window.
“Ma’am, where are you going dressed like that?” he asked.
In my fairly heavy British accent I replied, “Sir, I am going to a restaurant named McDonalds.”
He stopped the cop car and rolled down his window all the way. “Get in the back,” he ordered. “We’ll take you—and don’t you ever go walking alone around here again. Plus, take off those gold bracelets and put them in a safe place. They could get you stabbed or killed.” The cops not only escorted me into McDonald’s, but they also helped me order my food, then delivered me back to my dorm.
That night, still in shock, I called my dad in Istanbul and told him what had happened.
“Dad,” I said, “you were correct. America is a very scary and dangerous place. The police told me I would be mugged or even killed for just walking down the street to get dinner. I’m going to change the date on my round-trip ticket and come back home right away. Obviously this was a very huge mistake.”
Instead of getting sympathy and support from the man who had warned me not to go to America, my dad said what I least expected.
“This was your idea,” he said. “You were excited to go. Trust in yourself. Have confidence that you can handle anything. Do not get intimidated so easily. You should stick with the decision you made for at least a year to let it play out. It is way too early to quit on your lifelong ambition.”
And after telling me he had no doubt I could learn to live safely in my new environment if I did what the police told me to do, he hung up.
Without knowing it, my father had just told me to power UP.
When I went home for summer break at the end of the school year my father confessed to me that he could not sleep for months, sick with worry about my safety. But he never let me feel that during my yearlong stay in Chicago. All I heard from him while I was at IIT was how much he trusted my judgment and maturity to endure any situation. He wanted me to power UP and make the best of my first year in America.
Meanwhile he had been right to worry. IIT was truly in one of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods. Every day we heard a story of someone getting mugged on his or her way to class. I was never one of these victims, possibly because I took the police officers’ advice and changed the way I dressed, became aware of my surroundings, and locked my jewelry away. Newly street-smart, I turned my attention to my professors, fellow students, and the exciting business of learning—what I had come all this way to do.
AS FALL TURNED into winter, another big mistake became clear. I had arrived in Chicago with two suitcases of clothes perfect for the modest Mediterranean winter in Turkey but completely inappropriate for the subzero climes of Chicago. My work-study job was to deliver mail between the different departments, and as I hustled around the frigid campus I really believed I might die or, at the very least, lose my nose. Even though I was relatively happy with my classes at IIT and had already made the Dean’s List, I decided very quickly that Chicago’s winter was not for me. Every gust of wind as I walked the campus made it seem even more a matter of survival.
One day I heard two students in the cafeteria talking about how they missed the warm weather in California. I got their attention.
“Are there good schools in California?” I asked.
It turned out they were from Northern California, so they mentioned Stanford and Berkeley. Soon I was knee-deep in the application process to become a transfer student.
Still, it wasn’t easy. The night before my applications were due I had my roommate read my application essay. She shook her head at the handwritten pages.
“You can’t send this,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked.
She stared at me, completely bewildered. “You can’t tell them that the reason you want to attend Stanford University is because you want to be where the weather is warm! That’s ridiculous! It’s one of the best schools in the country.”
“But that’s the truth!” I said. “What else am I supposed to say?”
She was exasperated with me.
“And half the words are spelled wrong!” she said, pushing the paper back at me.
Later I’d learn that this lifelong struggle with spelling was the result of being severely dyslexic. But in any case, I’d handwritten the application because I did not know how to type. And there was no time to get a new form and start fresh, so I sent my applications to Stanford and Berkeley without making any changes. By some miracle—and my solid academic record—both Stanford and Berkeley accepted me as a transfer student for my sophomore year. I chose Stanford.
I was much happier in California and on a much stronger path to learning what I needed to know about myself and the world around me. Still, I would go on to make many other mistakes. I chose the wrong major. (Pre-med was my father’s dream, but the cutthroat environment and rote memorization weren’t for me—I switched to engineering.) I declined a job offer to become a very early Apple employee after interviewing with both Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs and liking both of them a lot. (My master’s adviser told me not to take a job from a technology company that had a fruit for its name, so I passed on the Apple offer to work at Advanced Micro Devices.) Later in my career I failed to find investors for my first startup. (It was focused on commercializing the Internet, which at the time was such a revolutionary idea that venture capitalists didn’t get it.)
What all these moments had in common was that when I made a mistake or got stuck—a positive if sometimes painful sign that you’re entering uncharted territory—I never got discouraged; instead, I’d power UP and find the crack through which I could flow to a newer and stronger source.
And so, amid many mistakes, I gradually built a track record of successes. I dropped pre-med, where I was struggling, and switched to engineering, where I thrived in a more collaborative atmosphere. That failed startup? It folded into a company called UUNet, where we eventually had a very successful initial public offering. And two decades later, when Steve Jobs went back to Apple for the second time, he came calling again—and again I turned him down, this time with a nuanced understanding of the opportunity I was declining and with the confidence that I was making the right choice for the right reasons (more about that later).
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