#MaryToo: A Magnificat for Women Entrepreneurs

The back of the barn where I launched Cenquest, photo by Rosie McGee, http://rosiemcgee.com/

I grew up in a Mennonite community; given its agrarian roots it makes sense I would start up a company in a barn instead of the garage. I loved the social tenets of that communitarian life but have struggled greatly with literal readings of scripture to say nothing of evangelicalism. This seems to intensify over the Christmas season. By now I have lost track of how many times I have redefined the meaning of the nativity.

In this crazy political no-good #MeToo year, I find additional nuance that has taken me back to the back of the barn.

After an extensive career in business law and ethics, I launched Cenquest, an edtech startup in 1998. I created the business model of partnering with graduate schools to deliver branded, accredited degree programs, short courses, and interactive learning products online. We identified the top 10 coveted graduate degrees and secured the best-ranked school in each category as partners including NYU Stern School, Babson College, UT Austin/IC2 Institute, and London School of Economics. Our greatest technology achievement was a course development and delivery system that provided more digital assets and revenues at a fraction of the cost of all our edtech competitors.

I raised first money and signed first academic partners on the strength of a self-funded prototype. Ironically, as it would turn out, I based it on my experience as a litigator and consultant dealing with sexual harassment cases. I called it “Sex, Work, & Accountability: To promote critical thinking and ethical decision-making in the context of sexual harassment.”

This year I have been gripped by #MeToo stories of women entrepreneurs facing harassment and predatory VCs. I have applauded venture capitalists who write about this and call for a decency pledge. But, in the same way as some in Hollywood have called for restoration for actresses whose reputation was ruined and their careers derailed by spurned predators, it troubles me that we aren’t seeing more attention to inventions that were lost or may still be forgotten because of such harassment and misconduct in the tech world.

Similarly, there is much more to be examined in the role of those who are complicit in VC misconduct by failing to take supportive action in specific cases or even repeating to others vague criticisms of a female entrepreneur by a powerful man trying to cover his tracks.

With the impact of venture capital decisions on which technologies get to market coupled with outsized influence on every part of our lives — from how we prove identity and pay bills to how we vote — we need unexpected innovation from a diversity of entrepreneurs with a wide range of life experiences.

In this context, I am once again reflecting on the nativity, this time finding new symbolism in Mary’s story.

Like those of us who carry and birth an invention, there is an air of inevitability to Mary’s role. Once started, it must be born. Like us, only Mary could do the hardest work of all but it took others to both attest to and help Mary to live up to its significance. Without a visit from the angel Gabriel and her dear friend Elizabeth’s subsequent affirmation, Mary’s spirit might never have soared. The gossip and social shaming that surrounded her were powerful forces that would have overwhelmed her and caused her to retreat in silence. There would be no Magnificat.

When the baby is born in a barn — that era’s equivalent of the entrepreneur starting up in a garage or, say, back of the barn — Mary might have questioned whether this was just another ordinary creation. It was then that the second wave of support from bystanders and yes, angels, appeared to attest to the importance of her labor.

As I look toward 2018, I dream of a second wave of response to #MeToo stories. In this wave, we move beyond zero tolerance for perpetrators and call upon all who play a role in the success of any entrepreneur to participate in developing a new form of resilience in the venture capital ecosystem.

We know that bringing an invention to market is hard for everyone and always more likely to fail than succeed. But women run an additional gantlet, one in which powerful men abound. The unpredictability of great outcomes and the power of social proof make it hard if not impossible to overcome the abuse of power by even just one man.

Will you be the one to recognize the significance of these innovations? Will you help us internalize and carry this significance with us as we enter the market? Will you take note of and stand by us to overcome abuses of power that silence us, calling us to be strong even when abuse from years past still causes us to question the worth of our contributions?

This New Year’s Day, I lift a glass to all inventor goddesses. May you find your Gabriel and Elizabeth. May you be surrounded by angels who recognize and proclaim the magnificence of your creation.

May your invention, born of exquisite pain, achieve all the glory it deserves!