Female Founders: Maya Ford & Tiffany Nelson of FordMomentum On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Safety: Do you feel safe where you work? Can you speak up about your ideas, criticize others? Do you have what you need to do your best work? Safety is all about being supported enough to achieve your goals; it’s not just about getting rid of predatory bosses but also examining workplace policies that can put undue burdens on women.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing FordMomentum’s Maya Ford & Tiffany Nelson who are transforming the way we collect data and share messages. Together, they have more than 20 years of experience and are excited about solving major communication issues that keep communities from healing and contribute to gaps in the human experience.
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?
Maya: It all began with me questioning some of the major messages out there about our communities and the general framework we exist in. Why do we create the products and businesses that we do? Why do certain products get more popular? Ultimately, FordMomentum! really became about creating what’s missing in the world. Tiffany spent years in corporate sales and global marketing and so we both saw firsthand these systems that are designed to profit instead of meeting needs. This has since progressed into a very strong desire to simply understand what works and what doesn’t and ensuring people feel safe throughout the process as we collect data, share messages or engage in discussion to build better solutions. As Black women, we know how critical it is to feel safe before you can truly be a part of any conversation.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Tiffany: It’s actually pretty common in our work because we often work with communities that have been overlooked, ignored and/or misrepresented, so we sometimes expect people to “take the good.” What I mean by that is that when you listen to the people and you design a solution that you see as good, you have to be prepared for the fact they may not see it that way– sometimes because of their own mistrust and/or previous experiences. So my assumption that we’re all working from the same place isn’t true and it’s caused us to reevaluate a lot of our process and how we collect data. Ultimately, as Maya always says, “service to others is not about you.” So how do we make sure they see this as good? So when you’re working in these major communication gaps you start to truly understand how even if you do your job right, and you get the “good,” it’s not enough by itself because people need language, resources and tools. Ultimately, they need to be a part of this from the beginning until the very end- even if it makes the work harder.
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?
Maya: People tend to think of as “cute girl scientists,” which a lot of women in science already face but especially when you start to merge “harder” science with what we often, incorrectly, call soft sciences. Sometimes people get burned by that because we’re here to do the work. We’re not going to let you skate by, we’re going to dig into the message, the target audience and have a real conversation. So, sometimes people get burned with us because they’re expecting one thing and then we show up ready to produce, create and listen. I think more people are realizing what FM! is and how serious we are but it’s a common issue many women face in this industry overall.
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?
Maya: Absolutely. In addition to our growing team, we also have each other. We actually met when I was doing the behind-the-scenes work on my business and Tiffany, at the time, offered mobile notary services. We were both struggling with major career and professional crises– I actually moved to Panama for a bit– and I remember both of our cars were repossessed! At one point, we were sitting at my grandparents’ table and being so frustrated about the lack of support from officials and our government that we decided to step in, driving this old battered jeep and sharing resources like groceries. So, we’re able to take our lived experiences and produce, or convert it, into something necessary. We work well off each other and bring such different insight, skills and ideas to the table.
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?
Tiffany: Right now, so much of our world suppresses and oppresses and it’ll lead you to not trust yourself and what you know. Most women are raised in patriarchal communities that never instill in them the confidence to chase their professional dreams and/or are told they’ll have to work twice as hard for half as much. It’ll make you unsure of your abilities — and yourself. If we were all able to healthily actualize we may find that more women want to be founders (and some don’t) but what’s key is that the decision lies with them and not the systems around us.
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?
Maya: We have to stop seeing “founding a company” through a eurocentric lens, where we essentially create a business to consume or produce for consumption. Overall, we don’t discuss enough the responsibility behind creating a business and the people you will serve. Are they actually helped by you? Are you ensuring that you don’t cause harm- even decades from now– with today’s decisions? We also have to unpack much of the messaging that Tiffany mentions that can keep women from starting their own businesses and companies. Often, as founders, we have to unpack and/or undo some of the really bad lessons we’ve been taught. This happens both at the individual level so we recognize the power of our words and encouragement but also at the systemic level so we can undo some of the major barriers harming women in science and business.
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?
Tiffany: There’s a lot of data that shows why women should be founders and how they are different as leaders. Women display more empathy and more collaboration. Women are also more likely to consider generous paid time off opportunities and better workplace balance. Also, while women certainly face a number of external challenges, founding a company can be great because you’re able to build the workplace you want to see internally, which is why I think we see so many women leaders implementing kinder policies.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
Maya: I would dispel the myth that someone has to “create and lead.” First and foremost, many have created products and brands that didn’t help and actually caused harm. So creating and leading isn’t enough by itself unless you’re working on services/products that help/heal. Otherwise, you are creating simply for consumption’s sake. We also get caught up in the cycle of consumption and before we’re even done with one thing, we’re thinking of the next product. From art to services, this cycle demands so much yet if you only create one amazing thing in your life, are you somehow less than the person who created several? When you create something that is meant to truly disrupt, or change systems, you can’t get caught up in the cycle of “producing something.”
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?
Tiffany & Maya: I think we need to change the idea of a “regular” job, first and foremost. Not everyone wants to lead- even if they are able to or skilled enough to. Some people want to save that energy for their families, their communities or even themselves. The term “regular job” simply isn’t fair because you are still spending time and energy. Everyone has a role in making change, and if we have too many leaders it puts an undue focus on the leaders, and not the everyday people working to bring this change to fruition.
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.)
-Safety: Do you feel safe where you work? Can you speak up about your ideas, criticize others? Do you have what you need to do your best work? Safety is all about being supported enough to achieve your goals; it’s not just about getting rid of predatory bosses but also examining workplace policies that can put undue burdens on women.
-Language: Language allows you to express yourself and shared language helps so that people truly understand your message. Do you have the language for that “off-feeling” in your gut? Do you have the language for why this product can cause harm? Language is a major part of communication and, in the workplace, can make all of the difference as teams brainstorm and work together.
- Values: This is key because articulating your values can keep you from joining harmful brands and creating detrimental products. On our side, for example, one of our values is to improve something exponentially. It ensures we give every project the focus it deserves but also keeps us from aligning with projects that aren’t designed to maximize our impact.
-Economic power: Put simply, we need to be paid fairly, accurately and on time. We also need investment. We need capital and the opportunities to prove our products, brands and services work. When women face constraints in the workplace and across society, it puts undue criticisms on their output. The product isn’t actually less than; it’s simply given less support. That’s key to growing brands and businesses founded by women.
-Justice: We need justice and we need equity– not just equality. Justice ensures that women are being treated fairly in the workplace and have the resources they need to start that billion-dollar brand idea.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Maya: We work every single day to ensure people are heard and that what they say matters. Across our campaigns in Houston, Las Vegas, and a number of cities, we worked with underrepresented populations to get their input. Overall, when I wake up in the morning, I always think about my impact and what I can do that day. Sometimes it’s telling people they can do that amazing thing in their head. We can push through, we can create new things, and even though it’s scary to build, we have to because so many voices and experiences are missing from our landscape.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Maya & Tiffany: I believe our system STOLO which prioritizes literacy, self-esteem, values, economic power and justice can be used for everything from community development to self-reflection and healing. For example, the scientific method doesn’t give you any answers. It gives you a process to go from theory, to being able to prove or disprove your theory, then you can move on and test further. STOLO is the same exact methodology, but for communications. So what STOLO does is it allows people to go through the theory of what do you want, need, love to be the best human you can be for yourself, for your community, and for the world at large. When we ask these questions, we remove ourselves from the capitalist framework to focus on what is truly needed. I firmly believe that STOLO gives us the tools to finally have these major conversations in a way we’ve never had them before.
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.
Maya: First and foremost, bell hooks. We’ve based a lot of our work on her research and STOLO is short for Style of Love, her term. She gave me language and that’s a lot of why I do this work. Next is Oprah Winfrey, one of the most dynamic communicators that we’ve ever seen in the 20th century. She understood scaling, the human connection and still seeing ethnicity and allowing it to add to the conversation without undermining the universality of the human experience. Finally, Serena and Venus. Serena is doing critical venture capitalism work and she’s getting her voice in tech and seeing how we use these tools to catapult women into equitable spaces. I get it because I have the same questions. There are a ton of people I’d like to meet but this is the start.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.