My Startup Journey and the Power Moves that Defined It

It’s an interesting coincidence to be writing this post at the end of 2016. As much as I want to share my experiences with making power moves, I’m taking advantage of this reflective exercise that will help me prepare for 2017. I hope it will help you too.

Background

After finishing graduate school in 2014 I started bouncing business ideas around with friends. I attended a couple introduction to tech in Los Angeles events, but that was the extent of my startup exploration. January 2015 is when the story really begins.

2015

In 2015, I set out to get serious about submerging myself into the Los Angeles tech community. The first step for me was to attend General Assembly (GA) events. Serendipitously, the downtown Los Angeles GA campus close to my house was celebrating its launch in January so I attended and the rest is history.

Power moves of 2015

Move 1: I introduced myself to Miki Reynolds, city manager of downtown Los Angeles GA campus at the launch event and offered to volunteer sometime. Little did I know, meeting Miki would be one of the most important connections I’ve made in Los Angeles. We kept in touch after we met and she even took me up on volunteering for a couple events. I was also job searching all of 2015 and she was helpful during my search as well. In the Spring, she told me about a new project she was working on with six other people called GRID110. When the opportunity arose, I applied to be the Internal Program & Culture Fellow of the inaugural fashion tech cohort.

Move 2: During the GRID110 interview, Megan Sette (founder of M Collaborative), asked what I would like to see executed in the program if obstacles were non-existent. I pitched Megan a fashion-tech hackathon as a community outreach initiative. I was appointed as a fellow, but doing a hackathon was tentative. About four months into my six month term we decided to do the hackathon. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that I would actually have to execute on the hackathon idea. How was I going to pull this off? Who am I to even put on such an event? Before producing a hackathon, I had never attended or been invited to one. In the end, I helped produce a 24 hour event at The Standard Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. There were nine teams, eight fashion/tech judges, and about 15 mentors/volunteers with the support of 10 community partners.

Move 3: In the Fall, one of the GRID110 board members, Audrey Bellis, launched the Worthy Women initiative. At this point I was working with a couple friends researching a beginner fitness app targeted towards women. I asked Audrey if we could set up a table at one of her events and have attendees fill out a survey for our user research. It was wonderful connecting with other women and learning about their fitness and wellness practices, but more importantly, what we learned helped us pivot our idea.

2016

I had a feeling 2016 would be a great year, but I had no idea I would be where I am now. What has transpired this year I could have never imagined. However, at the top of 2016 I decided on a couple mantras to help propel my goals:

  • “Closed mouths don’t get fed” (an oldie but goodie)
  • I have to do what is best for me.

In essence, I deemed 2016 the year to focus on me, my goals, and seizing opportunities. This was not the year to play small.

Power moves of 2016

Move 1: At the end of 2015 I took a full time job where I interned during graduate school. Although the job is not in the tech field I have to support myself and family. It’s been a tough balancing act as far as not always having a lot of time to focus on startup matters, but I was not going to let that deter me from advancing towards my goals. GRID110 board member, Prashant Samant of Akido Labs, told me about the Y Combinator Female Founders Conference (FFC), which took place in April, in San Francisco…during the week. I really wanted to go, but what was I going to do about work? I decided to take time off to attend the conference and take advantage of a great opportunity. Once I applied for FFC and was accepted I reached out to one of the panelists, Liz Wessel of WayUp. Actually my friend shared this article about Liz and how she encourages her employees to cold email their idols. As I was reading the article it hit me that I saw her name on the panelist list for FFC and my mind was blown! I HAD to reach out, what were the odds? I cold emailed her referencing the article and that I would be at FFC. She replied promptly and we agreed to meet at the conference. We missed each other during the break, but eventually connected during the cocktail party. As someone with a goal to become a CEO it was critical for me to connect with someone who is already doing what I’m striving for.

Move 2: This next move is another pivotal moment in my journey. Around early 2016 I came across articles about Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital and immediately connected with her mission and drive to establish a venture capital fund focused on minority, female, and LGBT led startups. After reading the first article, I went straight to LinkedIn to connect with her and followed all her social media accounts so I wouldn’t miss any of her content. Besides her venture capital crusade, we had something else in common — the music industry, particularly tour life. My husband Maurice Ellis is a professional bass player and tours with some big ticket artists. I’m not sure what came over me, but it wasn’t until early Summer that I decided to reach out to Arlan for a meeting. I did not go to the meeting with an ask, but to genuinely connect with her and have her in my network. We hit it off talking startup life and sharing stories about musician/tour life. Honestly it was a lot of fun, but again I had no idea as to what that meeting would manifest.

Move 3: Late in the summer, while I kept in touch with Arlan, I also applied to The Mill VC Idea Lab program with my friend (that’s a story all on its own). By the end of August we found out we were accepted into The Mill. We were so excited to gain mentorship and a sounding board as we continued with user research. On Labor Day weekend, I had a call with Arlan to touch base. On that call the unexpected happened. She offered me an opportunity to be an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) with Backstage Capital. I was speechless and so honored! I’m sure she thought I was crazy because I said I would think about it. Honestly I needed to think about it because it shook up my whole plan — I had a lot to consider. Up to that point my plan was to continue working full-time while in the two-month long Idea Lab program, but now I could be an EIR. I didn’t want to continue my habit of cramming my schedule, but to be intentional about how I want to achieve my goals. After all, one my mantras for the year is “I have to do what is best for me.” I decided to muster up the courage and ask my full time employer if I could do a reduced work schedule to help me take advantage of being an EIR. I could have continued working full time, but then my situation would not have changed and being an EIR wouldn’t mean anything different. With the synergy of getting into The Mill and the offer of an EIR role I had to make a sacrifice by devoting more time to exploring and building a business. With those two opportunities happening at the same time how could I not take the chance on myself when two other organizations have taken a chance on me — truly a humbling realization.

Lessons learned

Despite being an introvert, I’ve always pushed myself beyond my comfort zone because I know things won’t just fall into my lap. Nobody will provide agency and advocacy for me better than myself. So over the years I’ve had to develop and define what power means to me. Although this post is titled ‘Power Moves’ I urge you to define what power means to you and how you execute your personal strategy. For me, a power move could be offering to volunteer, cold emailing someone I look up to, or asking my boss for a reduced work schedule to pursue my dream. I didn’t just learn how to do these things in 2015 and 2016, but they are a way of life for me.

I’m not sure what power moves will present themselves in 2017, but I urge you to find out your personal power strategy by figuring out your goals and the methods you want to achieve them. However, it’s not always that easy. Remember that power moves often involve

  1. A confrontation of some sort — Power moves you need to make may not always be well received by others. Not that you should be mean and run over people, but you can’t always worry about how others will view your decisions if they are truly for your benefit and goals.
  2. Recognition of your potential — When others see something in you let that encourage and propel you towards your goals instead of dismissing what you are capable of achieving.
  3. Facing your fears — Take advantage of the opportunities you have to face your fears as they often lead to growth.

I’d love to hear about your goals and how you want to achieve them in 2017!

_____

Special thank you to Arlan Hamilton, Miki Reynolds, Megan Sette, Audrey Bellis, Prashant Samant, Liz Wessel, The Mill VC, my husband Maurice Ellis, and my current employer. Your support is greatly appreciated!