I’ve always been inspired by those who have faced real adversity on their way to achieving great success.
As a visible minority raised by an unemployed single mother, this hits very close to home.
I decided to write this blog entry after two recent events: 1) London Breed being elected the first African-American female mayor of San Francisco, and 2) a recent conversation with a close friend—the incredibly successful founder of one of the country’s top financial institutions. She took the company from startup to its current near-$17 billion market capitalization.
Many of these women’s struggles paralleled my own. They grew up in some of the most challenging circumstances, but leveraged their experiences to make history and become incredibly successful. They overcame obstacles in being a minority, female, and underprivileged. Nothing was handed to them, and they had to pry open the doors of opportunity to get ahead.
Both London Breed and my founder friend have pushed me to reflect on what made them successful, and why these traits and experiences are ideal for founders.
You’re Used to Adversity
In a recent lecture, Dustin Moskovitz spoke about the “right reasons” to be a founder. He explained that if you’re in it for the money—or to be your own boss, set your own schedule, etc.—then you’re in it for the wrong reasons.
These “perks” tend to get old, fast.
Every founder I’ve worked with has described how starting and building a company was tougher and more strenuous than they ever could have imagined. In many cases, they had to scratch and claw for every inch of early growth the company achieved.
Reflecting on my own experiences as a founder—and after growing up as an underprivileged minority—this sounded familiar. Having teachers tell me I’d never make it quickly became the norm when I was a kid. My mom was an unemployed, immigrant, single, visible minority female, and as such, the school’s PTA never let her in the door. I stuck out at hockey practice like a sore thumb.
Entrepreneurship is similarly painful and awkward—although learning these lessons on a deep, personal level certainly makes you tougher—and provides great muscle memory in building a company. If you’re diverse, you likely stand out. Warm introductions to investors or partners aren’t always possible (i.e., you didn’t go to prep school with their kids). You’ll need to grow thicker skin and cope with pitches going poorly, or critics telling you your business will never fly.
If you’ve grown accustomed to adversity along the way, this will not deter you. Instead it will seem like mere bumps in the road.
You’ve Become Scrappy
Many founders I’ve advised who grew up underprivileged have benefited from being more resourceful. They’ve created their own opportunities instead of having doors opened on their behalf.
I completely bootstrapped my first company—and it really didn’t seem that hard—because I’d been bootstrapping my entire life. Before the days of Google or smartphones, carving out time to clip coupons and flyer shop was part of my weekly routine. My family had no choice but to make do with very little.
As founders, this can be a great skill. Honing your bootstrapping skills will push you to be cash flow positive and build profitable unit economics from the early days of the company. You won’t need the distractions—or the dilution—of having to chase investor money.
Founders from economically diverse backgrounds have never known the benefit of getting a cash infusion from investors (or their parents). They’re already good at working independently through similar situations.
The two women I mentioned at the beginning of this article? They grew up under pretty rough circumstances. The founder explained that she made ends meet and built a great foundation for her company by not feeling the need to have a fancy office early on. She was fiscally prudent because that was all she knew until that point.
Resourcefulness Is Second Nature
One of my “favorite” stories to tell from childhood is about our family car. We had one car that worked only some of the time—and rarely when we needed it. One day, both windshield wipers stopped working, and a front headlight popped out, so we used duct tape to hold it in.
It was the only way I could get to where I needed to go, and I was willing to do whatever it took to arrive at my destination—no matter the dark and rainy weather.
This resourcefulness came in handy with many of my ventures thereafter, and while helping startups navigate parallel challenges.
Some of the most successful startup stories have key elements of resourcefulness. In the early days of Pinterest and Eventbrite, these companies’ founders would spend all day in Bay Area coffee shops, offering to pay for customers’ coffee in exchange for feedback on their respective apps. There are tales of Ben Silbermann going to the Apple Stores in Palo Alto and preloading Pinterest’s website on all of the display computers—to get the platform in front of customers—before being chased out by store employees. Y Combinator has coined this practice “doing things that don’t scale.”
You’re Obsessed & Driven to Achieve Your Goals
A common trait among great founders is that they’re obsessed with building their companies and addressing a market opportunity. They’re driven and relentless.
During my recent discussion with the financial institution’s founder, we talked about growing up underprivileged, and how it became a powerful motivator. Both she and I were driven to create something from scratch, and we never intend to let our feet off the gas, so to speak, because we don’t ever want to experience that economic hardship again.
You become obsessed with it, and it carries you through all the ups and downs of your company. It stays with you when you’re attacking your to-do list at 3 a.m. It haunts you on a cramped red-eye flight, when you’re on your way to meet game-changing partners and customers, and you have it on the brain while rushing to morning pitches after an all-nighter.
Being fixated on these experiences is to this day a powerful motivator for me, the founder, and many others. It’s stronger than being notionally motivated to “carry on the family tradition” of entrepreneurship, or to get attention or visibility.
For those founders who have grown up in economic hardship, being in control of your own destiny is a powerful way to ensure you’ll never go back to the adversity from your childhood.
I used to be guarded and ashamed of my background—now I believe it’s my greatest asset. For London Breed and most of the successful founders I’ve worked with, the adversity they faced early on might have been a function of their economic or ethnic diversity. That said, their diversity turned out to be one of their greatest assets.