Happy first day of 2013! I hope you all had a wonderful night celebrating the close of one year and the launch of another. I was lucky to spend it with some pretty amazing women I’ve met in the New York startup community who have become great friends over the last twelve months (Rachel Sklar, I’m looking at you babe…)
As I was reflecting on the year, I couldn’t believe how much I learned, who I met, and what I experienced in 2012. I launched a company, opened an office, raised venture capital, hired a team, got us national press in newspapers, magazines, and television shows, and helped some women feel amazing when they got dressed for work. This was a year of fitness achievements too with two half marathons and my first Olympic-distance triathlon. I also got some quality time with several girlfriends who have been in my life for over a decade, and had the opportunity to join the boards of two awesome nonprofits I adore: Interlochen Center for the Arts and Camp Interactive.
On July 8 I am going to willingly jump into the Hudson River. It gets worse, I’m going to get up before dawn, pour myself into a wetsuit (in JULY, remember), and jump into the Hudson River with 2999 other New Yorkers for the first leg of the New York Triathlon: swimming 1500 meters in open water.
A few weeks ago the NYU Stern Undergraduate Women in Business board of directors participated in an improv training session, led by a former-actress-turned-communications coach. This session grew out of an ongoing conversation I’d had with the ladies following their March conference, wherein they had expressed discomfort with speaking up and asking for what they wanted. (Here’s the blog post I wrote following that conference if you’re interested in the background story.)
Life is hard.
I can say that with utmost clarity. Startups are challenging, yes, let that go on the record. And relationships take work and money can be difficult to manage and probably all of those platitudes are true.
But when you strip all of that away, when it’s just you and the people you love and you are facing uncertainty in matters of life and death — true, end-of-life death — and it just breaks your heart to play out any of the possible scenarios ahead, well, those are the moments that make you want to break a stack of plates. And then maybe jump out of an airplane from 10,000 feet. And then tell the next guy in a hoodie who is “crushing it” to just shut the f up.
Two weeks ago I spoke as part of a workshop for the Undergraduate Women in Business conference at NYU Stern School of Business. The workshop was called “Necessary Conversations” and the overall theme was how to grab a seat at the table, speak up, and have the conversations that matter — whether pitching for an investment, negotiating a raise, giving difficult feedback, asking for a mentor relationship, you name it.
It seems undergraduate women at NYU Stern are facing the same difficulties that women at many top business schools face: they are underperforming their male peers, in large part because they hold back in classroom discussions. When digging deeper they realized that female students prefer to speak only when they are absolutely confident in their answer or when they feel completely prepared to enter the debate. They tend to take longer to raise their hand, have shorter and more concise comments, and often self-edit to manage their out-of-classroom image. As a result, these totally awesome women are losing ground before the game even starts.
While I was still a student actor in Atlanta I was cast in a production of Bernard-Marie Koltes’ Roberto Zucco alongside a professional actress named Park Krausen, one of two Equity actors cast to mentor the students and anchor the Theater Emory production of what was to be a challenging and complex play. In rehearsal after rehearsal one piece of direction that nearly all students were struggling with was that we were to say our lines as declarative sentences – as emphatic statements that we believed were true – rather than in the questioning lilt so common with teenagers. It seemed a straight-forward note, yet we found it impossible to comply, until one night when Park taught us about the “violence of articulation.”
I’ve had a rough week. But before we get to that, let me tell you a story.
Two years ago I climbed Kilimanjaro. On January 9, 2010 around 6:30am local time I reached the summit, which is the highest point in Africa. If this were a movie and you started watching at 6:27am you’d see one of the biggest highs of my life over the following three minutes of film. But if you started watching at, say, 3am you’d see a very different Christina. You’d see an extraordinarily strong woman about to crumble like a pile of Girl Scout cookies.
I had dinner a few months ago with a girlfriend from college. She had been asking about my startup and recent jump from steady employment to the always-volatile world of entrepreneurship when she noted that I have a history of taking some pretty big risks and yet I “always land on my feet.”
She was both proud and a touch wistful as she made that observation, going on to note that she was in a comfortable job (at which she was quite successful), with a loving husband, and had just purchased a beautiful home, all by age 27. In contrast, I was single, had quit my job, moved into a tiny place in upper Manhattan (where I rented a couch in the middle of the living room), and poured my measly savings into a high-risk venture while deferring 6-figure student loan debt. She was living the life she wanted – 10 years from now. I was making the risky choices, which may or may not ever pay off, but are certainly anything but comfortable. Who exactly should be envious of whom here?
In the startup world there is much talk about the dangers of vanity metrics: things like registered users, page views, or downloads. These are metrics that many startups use to tout their growth or influence but are often things that are easily manipulated, and do not necessarily correlate to things that matter: active users, engagement, revenues, and profits.
Some people (often the very goal-oriented among us) are also guilty of applying vanity metrics to our lives as a measure of progress or happiness. I was particularly thinking of this today for two reasons: 1) I was supposed to run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC this Sunday and 2) I haven’t seen my girlfriends in more than three weeks.
There was an article published by Fast Company last week on “Why Education Without Creativity Isn’t Enough“. It was a fascinating look at the Indian education system with its focus on STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and learning methods like rote memorization and standardization. While the entire article is worth reading, one quotation stuck out for me:
At the top of the market are the jobs everyone wants. And guess what? These jobs require creativity, problem solving, decision making, persuasive arguing, and management skills. In this echelon, a worker’s skills are unique, not interchangeable… Workers at every level benefit from an education that emphasizes creative thinking, communication, and teamwork – the very kind of excellence already offered at top American colleges.
It was an interesting juxtaposition to the pieces being written in response to Occupy Wall Street that focus on the “useless” majors American kids are choosing like philosophy, English, or the arts, which make them “unemployable.” While I have no interest in sharing my personal politics on this blog, I do have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to the term “useless” when applied to just about anything, let alone education. Given my own “useless” education in both classical music and theater I thought I might have a bit of a soapbox to stand on.
I’d like to go on the record: Studying the arts was the best preparation for my life in entrepreneurship. Bar none.