Startups and Sororities: The Blog Post I Never Expected to Write

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about ritual.

I’m a former sociology student so it’s got a few meanings to me. From a cultural standpoint:

Ritual is a formalized mode of behavior in which the members of a group or community regularly engage.

From a Greek standpoint, I quote Lauren Kummer:

Rituals are history. They hold all the secrets of each individual organization that are near and dear to our hearts. They tell stories and show us who we are as people. Rituals teach us the values that our founders wanted to instill in our hearts and minds forever.
‘Reveals’ are a ritual for Delta Phi Lambda to showcase new members

So what does this all have to do with startups? Every startup is an emotional rollercoaster. You get funding, you lose team members, your product sells well, something goes wrong, something goes right, etc. It’s a familiar and exhilarating ride to some, and an unstable and chaotic mess to others.

I started thinking about the similarities between my life as a sorority woman and my life as a member of a young and exciting tech startup. As any member of Greek life will tell you, active life is one that is filled with frustration, joys, and tears of both happiness and sadness. There have been times when I felt that my chapter and my organization were breaking my heart. There were moments when I wanted to quit and walk away for a fresh start. There was a time when I focused on the tension and problems my chapter had and forgot what the bigger picture was all about.

Founders of Delta Phi Lambda Sorority, Inc.

When I was buried in turmoil, it was easy for me to forget that I joined my sorority because of its seven values: loyalty, honesty, respect, dedication, integrity, discipline & academic excellence. Our founders believed that they could create an organization that represented and served Asian American women and empowered them to be their strongest and best selves and yet, I lost sight of all of that.

Similarly, I think that startup companies see a similar kind of culture and behavior. Especially when there’s a period where there just aren’t enough wins to keep morale high, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture and why we’re all still here. Whether it’s the loss of a mentor or a project that ended up falling through — it’s tough to sell the dream when you stop believing in it.

It took going to a talk featuring the CEO of my company for all the pieces to fall into place in my head. To be successful at a startup or a sorority takes a certain amount of blind faith and idealism. We have to believe in the mythos and history that led us to where we are today. To have a clear idea of where we can go and how large we can grow, we need to closely examine and understand our roots. To appreciate our present, we need to thoroughly know the story of how the dream came to be.

Dave and Sheridan on their way to San Francisco to activate Karma Gos

Karma is filled with rituals. It might not have the decade-long history or secrecy of Greek rituals, but habits have molded a unique culture and sense of family among the company.

Every single day we eat lunch together and every Friday we have Happy Hour. Conversation topics range from teeth to Trump, but there’s one guarantee: I will always go back for a 2nd or 3rd plate of food.

Kidding. The one guarantee is that it happens, plain and simple. To many people, the idea that an entire company could put its operations on pause for an hour or so each day to share a meal together at a single table is inconceivable. And yet, we manage to do it day after day.

Ankur and Steven at JFK with the test devices

The story at Karma is one that is filled with unbelievable feats and unimaginable journeys. For those who started after Karma Classic, we missed out on some of the most magical moments in Karma history. Handwritten notes thanking customers for choosing us. Picking up devices from JFK using a U-Haul truck. Flying to California to manually activate devices to get them to work after a 10 month shipping delay. Making a “day trip” to Hong Kong to pick up 3 test devices from a Haagen-Dazs.

Somewhere along that flight path from New York City to Hong Kong, Karma’s story became a legend. We tell these stories over and over again because they are truly amazing, and that’s a major part of our ritual.

To hear the full story, check out Karma’s CEO Steven Van Wel at Startup Grind 2016:

Be transparent.

To improve, we need to be real with ourselves and with our peers. We need to be transparent about what problems exist and what solutions are in the works.

Don’t rush.

A good solution will never come to fruition within a day or two. It takes time and patience — two things that are a little rare in both startups and sororities.

Deliver something worth sharing.

Someday, I want to be able to look back at this time and think: ah yes, this was before things got really, really good. Hopefully this will be a process and story that we’ll want to share so that others can deal with their own struggles a little better.

There have been arguments, reconciliations, welcome parties, goodbye dinners. Though I haven’t been at Karma for too long, I know that the future is bright and built on a strong foundation. Now is the best (and only) time to acknowledge the raw reality of our situation and create a new foundation. One that is built on ritual, but also upon the acknowledgment that we are not invincible.

After all, no one could ever fix our issues for us…