I’ve finally gotten my act together to write my first real blog post ever, in honor of International Women’s Day, today, March 8.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a serial entrepreneur, co-founding Eve.com (the first online cosmetics retailer) in 1998, and then founding Minted in 2007. Minted is a design marketplace and a pioneer in crowdsourcing. Artists and designers from around the world submit work into our competitions and you, the consumer, votes to tell us what to sell. We then make the winning designs into framed wall art, stationery, fabrics, home decor and more. When you place an order with us, we make the product on demand for you and we pay the designer a percentage of sales we generate. In founding Minted, I wanted to create a company that empowered men and women to be independent while earning an income.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to Reid Hoffman’s “Masters of Scale” podcast interview with one of his guests, and I was struck by the male interviewee’s statement: “I was incredibly competitive in elementary school, junior high school. I remember eighth grade one of my friends wrote in my eighth grade yearbook, ‘I know you’re going to get into Stanford four years from now.’ Four years later I went to Stanford, then I got into Stanford Law School, and I ended up at a top law firm in Manhattan, and it was sort of winning one competition after another.”
My reaction was an inner yawn accompanied by an eye-roll: Does he actually think this is special? I could literally feel this interviewee bolstering the mythology that he has built around the fact that his current success is a natural outgrowth of who he was as a child and that there aren’t many like him.
It dawned on me that I don’t hear this type of statement from any women. I myself could tell this story, along with many women. I don’t mean to pick on this man in particular, as I actually believe this is a widespread feeling among many accomplished men in Silicon Valley, but the reality is that there are likely many people, especially women, who had the same or higher intellectual capability than he did as a child. American women have actually been outperforming men at every level of education for a while now (read this piece from 60 Minutes for more detail on what’s happening).
So why is it that the average talented woman doesn’t engage in the same truth-amplifying braggadocio that the average man does? I have been surrounded by gifted and talented women my entire life, but I see a disproportionate percentage of men boldly articulating their personal mythology based on capabilities and competence that are equivalent to those of their female peers.
Why does the average man feel more comfortable pushing the truth of their genius to or beyond the edge of truth, while the average woman stops short of that edge?
In general, it is considered repulsive for anyone to brag, no matter how eminent the person is or how nicely they wrap it in elegance and erudition. But there also seems to be evidence that women especially are likely to not promote themselves. In general, they tend to downplay their contributions relative to their male counterparts.
And this lack of female self-promotion and the of lack of mythologizing the female genius does both men and women a disservice. Female humility is an accomplice to the male ego, falsely helping men believe that they are actually smarter as a gender. Female humility deceives men into not working with more women as partners, friends, colleagues, which in the end hurts men and our collective ability to accomplish goals. Female humility is an accomplice to very few women being celebrated — which deprives girls of role models they can aspire to.
Maybe we as women need to share some accountability here. Let me put myself in an uncomfortable place by making a brag statement of my own, which I wish I heard more from other women.
As my mom dropped me off on my first day of first grade, she gave me a clear directive: “I want you to beat all of the boys”. I bought into that personal storyline, and sailed academically through school. I skipped two grades and graduated from high school when I was 16, then attended Williams College and Stanford Business School. I started my first company when I was 27 and sold it at 29 for over $100 million in cash. My second startup, Minted, has raised $90 million, generates hundreds of millions of dollars in sales per year, is profitable, and is growing quickly. It’s been a process of moving from one success and victory to the next, and deep down I’ve had confidence that it would be, nearly from the beginning.
That felt really uncomfortable to say and is likely uncomfortable for you to read. But because I did that, a young girl reading this might see herself and her future differently. Now, let me go on and brag on behalf of other females.
I asked my genius co-founder, Melissa Kim, what her undergrad GPA was, and told her I was writing a blog post. Here is her unedited response.
[2:57 PM] Melissa Kim: Michigan had a wonky system where an A+ earned a 4.4, and I had a bunch of A+’s
[2:57 PM] Melissa Kim: it was 4.1 or 4.2
[2:57 PM] Melissa Kim: but you can just say 4.0 (:
So I pulled out of Melissa today that she graduated from the University of Michigan in Finance & Accounting with a 4.0+ (earning an A+ in nearly 40% of her college courses) and subsequently earned the distinction of being an Arjay Miller Scholar at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (reserved for the top 10% of the graduating class). She has been instrumental to guiding Minted’s strategy and is one of the strongest strategic and financial thinkers that I have had the privilege of working with. Yes, compared to all of the men I’ve worked with in finance.
My biggest competition in elementary school, middle school, and high school, back in the day when we could see each other’s grades, were girls. The top students were almost entirely female. Tanya Huntington and Debbie Gross, I remember you with fondness — you were among the top few students in our 6th grade class at Chevy Chase Elementary. Julie Vanneman, you were absolutely brilliant in high school — and I may have written in your yearbook that you would get into Stanford, which you did.
Jessica Lessin of The Information, Adena Friedman of NASDAQ, Tina Sharkey of Brandless, Kirsten Green of Forerunner Ventures, Katrina Lake of Stitchfix, and Gina Bianchini of Mightybell are but a few examples of brilliant business women who could and should be celebrated as such.
And then, there are the persistent, strong and brilliant women in Minted’s community of independent designers:
- Maja Cunningham, who has twice restarted her life with only one suitcase to her name. In 1992, Maja escaped war-torn Croatia to stay with her aunt and later had to emigrate to Germany by foot. In 2000, Maja, who did not speak English at the time, packed a bag for Texas to build a new life in the U.S. Trained in architecture, Maja entered her first Minted art competition in 2015 and has developed a signature artistic point of view that resonates with children and adults.
- Rachel Nanfelt of Alethea and Ruth, a brilliant designer and mom who has emerged as one of the most consistent hit-producers on Minted. Although Rachel is very modest about her design prowess, she recently achieved her 500th Minted competition win, a record and astonishing milestone.
- Susan Moyal, who has emerged recently as a leading designer on Minted. She took first place in our most competitive design challenge in 2016. Just a few years prior, Susan taught herself how to design using rudimentary design tools. Her growth trajectory is one of the most impressive I’ve seen in nearly 10 years of working with designers.
I’m guilty of complicity. I’ve tried to hide my intelligence many times. In younger days, I was coached that “boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses”. In later years, it was in order to make men just generally more comfortable with me, that I was playing a supporting role.
I was interrupted once during a company presentation and asked to “speak like a CEO” by a male venture capitalist with intelligence and knowledge less than mine — a man who didn’t understand how cost-per-click advertising worked. Rather than calling him out on this behavior or correcting him on his understanding of online advertising, I ignored his comment, continued speaking and, realizing how little he knew, protected his ego because I truly felt embarrassed for him.
I don’t really post my opinions publicly. This is my first time.
I’ve realized that my entire life, I have been worried about alarming or offending men.
Here’s my secret: I’m sure of my intelligence, and my ability to outwit, outmaneuver, and outlast others in my fields of expertise. So if a man is dismissive and demeaning, it doesn’t really affect me — it is water off my back. Honestly, it just fuels my energy and makes me more competitive. I fervently hope that one day, my daughter will feel the same way.
But, I do think it’s time to end extreme modesty among women, because it stands in the way of both women and well-intentioned men. It’s time to brag about the intellectual prowess, creativity, and determination of women and begin to build the genius perception and hero status around women, not just men. The words we say matter. Why? Stories become self-fulfilling prophecies. Each time a person tells a story, they believe it more themselves. The same thing happens to the people that hear the story repeated. It’s a powerful phenomenon that ultimately creates more opportunity for the subjects of our hero stories.
Don’t mistake me. I don’t think it’s a competition between men and women. I simply think it is time that women get equal recognition as intellectual powerhouses and go-to experts in their field. And in fact, this will only happen and have lasting impact if we do this together. It cannot just be women bragging about women. We need to teach our sons to brag about their moms, husbands to brag about their wives, brothers to brag about their sisters…you get the picture.
Let’s start now and #SheBrag together. Tweet and share a brag about a woman or girl that inspires you (and please don’t leave out yourself). C’mon, we need it to really outrageously brag about her (or your) accomplishment. Let’s create a long list of outstanding female accomplishments.
I’m starting with this one.