Female Founders: Kaitlyn Knopp of Pequity On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Focus on a topic that continues to motivate you. Working in compensation I’ve always felt motivated to provide equal pay to anyone I paid. That drives me. Our software helps speed up time to offer, reduces errors for companies, and gives greater analytics — but to me, I see it as a way to ensure consistency in pay. Which is how I keep going.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kaitlyn Knopp.
Kaitlyn Knopp, is a former Googler and current co-founder of Pequity, a software company that automates compensation workflows and ensures better pay decisions.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve always been ambitious, but honestly most of my career was a happy accident. To start, I didn’t want to go to college; I grew up in a family business that was built by my grandparents, and thought I would follow in their footsteps. When I told my plans to my grandfather though, he said “you should want more” and insisted I go to college. So I did, with no idea what I wanted to study — until I took a labor studies course and fell in love with the intersection of human and business. I then took all the courses I could and left at the end of my 4 years with a Masters of Science in Human Resources, a BS in Labor Studies and a BA in Visual Communication. Upon graduation I started at Google, on the Compensation & Benefits team, where I learned so much about data driven decisions, strong processes, and the complexities of how compensation can drive behavior. Taking that knowledge, I left after 4 years to build the Compensation & People Analytics team at Cruise Automation; I loved the building of new programs, but still wanted more from my careers. So I began to consult companies on their HR and pay programs. It was fascinating to me how difficult it was for companies to create equitable compensation programs, despite how important it was. Around this time I was recruited by Instacart to lead their compensation efforts, and I had already formed the idea for Pequity — combining my love for business and my expertise in compensation. I got to experiment with some of my theories through the programs I was running at Instacart, and was fortunate that the team there was also willing to partner with me when I started building my platform. When I began building this company and team it hit me; this was what I wanted to do.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the most interesting things was when one of our competitors sent an engineer to interview us. It’s unclear if they were sent by the company, or if this person was just a vigilante seeking information — but they asked all sorts of questions, asked to see our code base, tried to get details on early customers. It was uncomfortable, so we cut off communication pretty quickly, then the next week they changed their LinkedIn to this competitor company.
Was a weird, rude awakening to how cut-throat others can be — but also was cool to see how our team rallied and decided that if another company has to send in their employees to see what we’re up to, we must be doing something right!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This may not count as a mistake, but early on, our product mainly held company’s third-party compensation data surveys to easily look up data. Then an early customer asked us if we could do the same for ranges, with permissions.
Knowing it was on the roadmap, and that I wanted this customer, I said “absolutely.” I went back to my team (3 engineers, myself and Warren my cofounder) and found out it was nowhere near built. So I asked if we could do it in a week, but we all were worried it was too difficult with the permissioning; luckily I had just come off of binging the Great British Bake Off, and said “it can be ugly as long as it’s delicious,” (and now “Ugly But Delicious” has become a phrase our team uses to describe early builds).
Running with that value, we built and launched the product over a weekend, and it worked! This quickly became how we onboarded the majority of our early customers, all who have helped us expand our offerings to include offer workflows, promo & merit, analytics. This taught me that you need to launch early, and that the best builds come from pressured moments. But it also taught me that your early customers need to understand the bugs; selling a product as if it’s already built has expectations with it. Our first launch wasn’t perfect and that sometimes shakes up trust.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are many people I would want to list, but the person I’ll call out is my husband, who is also my cofounder. We always joke Warren was my long-game recruit; he was hesitant at first to found a company with me because we were married. For me, growing up in a family business, I had no doubt we could navigate it. His background was the perfect complement to my own; he had built HR focused tech products at LinkedIn and Jumpstart, and had always been able to translate my ideas. I truly wouldn’t be here without him.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I once was at a meeting about debunking bias for a company. The moderator asked the room, has anyone here experienced bias at this company? Minutes of silence followed, until one shaky hand raised and the person stood up. This brave soul’s words have stuck with me; they said “I feel like everywhere I go I hear people say ‘we care so much about diversity’ and ‘we ensure discrimination doesn’t happen here,’ so when I experience something that feels wrong, I feel like I’m the only one. I think I’ve felt biased against; but I don’t know if it’s just me.”
This statement stuck with me, because this person thought, “I don’t want to be the sore thumb, and look, they say they care about bias — so it’s probably just me. I caused the bias.”
We frame so many issues in conversation as the women’s issue. We say “women should negotiate more,” or “women need more confidence,” — when we should say “companies should treat all negotiations equally” or “society should stop bullying women.”
To be blunt, even this question — “more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies.” and “what is currently holding back women from founding companies?” — this puts the responsibility on me as a woman to address the industry’s problems. Women are creating companies, and we are taking risks; I think the question should be “more work still has to be done to empower investors to back women-created companies” and “what is currently holding back society from supporting women-founded companies?”
I think as long as we twist issues back onto women in our framing, phrasing, and media perspectives, we won’t make progress. With current framing of issues, it encourages women to criticize each other and themselves, rather than band together against the people doing it; it allows outsiders to say things like ‘oh well if she REALLY wanted funding, she’d not have children.’ (which for the record: I have had investors ask me when I plan to have kids). We need responsibility to be given to those behaving poorly. We need to ask the investors why they worry about a woman having children, when they could just help fund childcare (which, has traditionally been funded via women’s careers); we need to ask why so many women’s issues are considered debates (access to birth control, etc), while men’s issues are considered mainstream (do we even need to talk about the funding the government has given to Viagra?).
This issue is so convoluted and enmeshed with our societal structure there is no hard fast way to solve it; but we can start by addressing the actual actors causing it and stop framing it as the female’s issues.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
First, frame female related issues to address the bad-actors. For instance, instead of making a movement called “stop violence against women” let’s call it “stop violent men.” If that makes someone uncomfortable, I want to know why it makes them uncomfortable to put responsibility on the bad actors.
Second, the government, especially in the US, should offer better maternity benefits and parental leave. This should include investments or incentives for better childcare infrastructure. We need to support not just the women, but the men, because child raising is hard. I’m not even a parent and I know this. We know there are lasting benefits to the economy and society when children have two active parents. We also know that employers pay women less, so more women will opt out of the workforce to care for children, which then causes women to be paid less when they return to work due to lost time; it’s a vicious cycle. We need to stop assuming we’ll fund our childcare with women’s foregone wages.
Third, society has to stop assuming women are asking to be treated the same as men. I don’t want that. I, as a female, am different from men and those differences should be valued; the issue females have isn’t that we want to be “treated like a man” it’s we want to be treated as an equal despite our differences.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Because there’s no difference between men and women wanting or being able to be founders. We say men have been socialized since birth to be leaders, change makers, fighters which makes them great founders. However, from birth women are socialized to be politicians, caretakers, marketers, and creators — so we are founders too. We might just need to fight a bit harder to be paid for our skills.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
One myth is that being a founder requires you to be exceptionally intelligent or “gifted” when that’s just not the case. Most founders I know just have extreme grit and ability to withstand pressure. Yet so often I’ll see articles or social media posts celebrating the “genius” of certain founders, giving their particular skills a god-like status. You don’t need to be extraordinary to do this. There is more than one path to get there. You can do this at any age, any way, and how you want — the formulas you hear of should be inspiration, not the blueprint for your own path.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
Everyone can be a founder if they want to be. Those most suited for it, are those who already are questioning the way things are, and trying to change it. Regular employment is a great option for individuals trying to figure out the issue they want to solve; there’s also plenty of people very happy with a 9–5 and there is nothing wrong with that. If you want to be a founder though, you are able to do it too.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Preparation to go it alone until you find your people. There weren’t people directly telling me “no” or “stop”, but when I started my journey, some people no longer fit in my plans. Some stopped hanging out with me; some I stopped hanging out with. The ones who remained are the ones who are proud of my journey, who are cheering me on or finding ways to send support. No one tells you it can be lonely because you have to be lonely to change sometimes.
- Focus on a topic that continues to motivate you. Working in compensation I’ve always felt motivated to provide equal pay to anyone I paid. That drives me. Our software helps speed up time to offer, reduces errors for companies, and gives greater analytics — but to me, I see it as a way to ensure consistency in pay. Which is how I keep going.
- Ability to be inspired, not distracted by competition. I am confident in my skills; I know what my competitors do and what they do well. It sucks when a competitor takes a sale from you, but you have to ask in those moments “what would have had to be different to win that sale?” Sometimes you’ll be surprised to find that you shouldn’t be selling to the customer. Or you’ll realize your product just needs better onboarding. Every loss is a learning opportunity worth the value of the deal; you just have to be clear headed enough to see where that value is.
- There are no rules. Form your own moral compass and stick to that. I have seen individuals who use fancy meals and smooth conversations to close deals; I’ve seen them use physical attractiveness; I’ve seen them use incredible products. We all have an ideal for how to behave, or for “how this should work,” and while I personally have no patience for some paths, it’s very successful for others. You can’t blame people for using the skills they have; you just need to focus on honing your own to be better than it was yesterday.
- An algorithm for how each new effort will translate into a dollar. You are a business. You can do altruistic things, but it still needs to result in current or future cash flow. AirBnb has been a recent amazing example of this; they help refugees which maybe doesn’t make money now, but the brand loyalty it brings will bring revenue in the future. If you start making choices not around how it’ll result into money, you don’t have a business. This doesn’t mean you have to be crooked or misguided; it just means you need to defend your business so that you always have one.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
My hope is that my product makes the world a better place by creating more equitable pay. I hope that I help others see that you can grow up in a small town, go to a state school, and still move mountains. I hope to always continue making this world a better place.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Honestly there are so many individuals who I’d want to meet — Warren Buffet would be one of them — but truly when I think of figures who are fighting a similar battle I think of Taylor Swift.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.