I recently shared this story (of several!) at the Anita Borg Scholarship’s inspiring gathering of female tech leaders in Hyderabad, India. I thought others might enjoy it as well, so I’ve written it up below with slight edits for context and clarity.
When I was a little girl, long before I could read or count, I knew exactly what I was going to be to be when I grew up. I was going to be Cinderella. I had a Cinderella Halloween costume, a fairy godmother bear (“Bear-y Godmother”), and a well-worn copy of Disney’s Cinderella picture book that I asked my mom to read to me every night before bed.
Each night, I’d snuggle into bed and pore over the illustrations as my mom told and retold the popular fairy tale — I imagine most of you are familiar, right?
The story, of course, starts with the evil stepmother and cruel stepsisters and Cinderella’s fairy godmother stepping in to help her go to the ball. At the ball, Cinderella dances the night away with the Prince and then runs from the castle at the stroke of midnight, abandoning a single glass slipper on the palace steps. Frustrated at losing the magic glass slipper, Cinderella has an idea for a non-slip shoe business — an opportunity to save men and women around the world from similar fate!
I have to pause here to remind you that as I couldn’t yet read, I had no idea that my mom was going “off script.” My mom would flip the picture book’s pages as she continued, and I would laugh at Cinderella’s early failed prototypes (glue-y insoles! duct-tape shoelaces!) and clap when her extra-cushion suction-fit slippers earned rave reviews, granting Cinderella the chance to travel the world meeting many enthusiastic customers while expanding her non-slip shoe empire.
The final illustration in my Disney Cinderella picture book depicted Cinderella in a voluminous wedding gown riding away in a carriage with her handsome new husband and my mom would conclude, “While traveling the world, Cinderella quickly tired of the Prince valuing only her beauty and fell deeply in love with an adventurous and caring fellow entrepreneur who loved her wild spirit, wit and bravery. Needless to say….they lived happily ever after.”
Every time I’ve told this story the audience always laughs and asks similar questions including, “Didn’t you realize there were no photos about her shoe business?” or “Weren’t you surprised that her final husband looked an awful lot like the Prince?” Maybe I should have noticed these inconsistencies, and perhaps I was overly trusting, but the honest answer to these questions is no. My mom was a master storyteller, and it was actually many years until I realized what she’d done. By then it was too late. Her version of the story had original cemented itself in my mind as the “original.”
I lost my mom suddenly and unexpectedly to a brain aneurysm in 2007, in the midst of my sophomore year at Brown University. I miss her every day, but I can only laugh when I think of what a kick she’d get out of my own Cinderella, Entrepreneur story.
I’ve eaten grubs in the Ecuadorian Amazon while launching Runa.org, a tea and clean energy drink company. I’ve lived in London, traveled all over the world, and worked on science-fiction sounding projects like self-driving cars, delivery drones, and smart contact lenses as an early PM at X, Google’s moonshot factory. I haven’t yet found my own handsome entrepreneur to live happily ever after with, but I’m confident he’s out there and I’m in no rush.
You never know what adventures await when you ignore what’s expected of you in order to write your own story. For women, the need to write our story is even more acute. Even today, we live in a world in which women make up 60% of college graduates but only 26% of college presidents, 52% of the workforce, but only 23 of the Fortune 500 CEOs. Clearly we have a lot of work to do to bring the incredible diversity of the world into our upper ranks, despite numerous studies that demonstrate it improves (often dramatically!) creativity, team success, and the bottom line.
I ask each of you to take a moment during your journey and share stories about your adventures and about the world you hope you create with the people around you, as my mom shared hers with me.
Because a single story can be more powerful than you realize…