Diversity is a persistent challenge across engineering disciplines and industries, but nowhere is the challenge more prominent than in tech. Years after tech giants promised to solve their diversity problems, there have been few signs of progress for women and people of color.
Masha Sedova, co-founder and chief product officer of Elevate Security, is among the women in tech tackling diversity head-on. They’re starting at the top, asking what engineering and industry can do to cultivate startup leaders.
We asked Sedova about her experience as a tech-company founder and why she’s committed to helping women take the leap into entrepreneurship.
E100: What was the origin of your panel at the Grace Hopper Celebration this year, “The Journey from Women Engineers to Startup Founders”? Is it a topic you’ve talked about often with other women?
MS: I know that when I was looking to start a company, I didn’t really have many resources to turn to for guidance. In fact, one of the few things I did have was this very panel at GHC in 2015 that I attended. It was one of the many boosts that gave me the confidence to take the leap into entrepreneurship. I wanted to share my experiences with anyone who was even thinking about starting a company to begin to demystify the process. Getting more female founders out there is so critical!
E100: What structural roadblocks have you encountered for women entrepreneurs? How can we overcome them?
MS: There are many biases that exist in venture capital. The traditional model of what a “successful entrepreneur” looks like is a white male Stanford grad in his 30’s living in the Bay Area with experience working in a Fortune 500 company. If you fall outside the bucket in any of these descriptions, you’ll have to spend extra time and effort proving why you and your idea are worth investing in.
Being able to pitch to female VC’s helps with some of these biases. However, it’s also worth remembering that each of these women are fighting their own battles for a seat at their own table! My experience is that you need both female and male allies to help with your journey. Finding a supportive male co-founder who cares about diversity in start-ups as you do is one way to do it, and this is part of my story. Additionally, finding a strong network who can refer you, vouch for you, and help mentor you can open many doors that would be closed if we knock on them head on.
E100: Tell us a little about your own journey from an employee at Salesforce to founder of Elevate Security. What were the key turning points along the way?
MS: In an early-stage company, investors look for a few key things before investing. I didn’t know this at the time but my key turning points were aligned with what investors were looking for. Here are the four pillars.
Product: What are you building? Why is it different from what is on the market already? How difficult is it build and for others to copy it (and do it better)?
When I started at Salesforce as the director of the security engagement team, I was so disappointed in the products on the market. There was nothing available to me that would help me measurably change security behaviors across the company, a task I was responsible for. I set out to create my own approach, methodology and tools to do this by applying behavioral science to security. Within two years of starting this program, the results were obvious not only to myself but to others on my team and eventually outside of Salesforce. This work would later by the foundation of what I knew I wanted to build at Elevate.
Market: Is this a pain point for a large enough group of people that they are willing to try it. Remember, especially in the early days, you’ll be putting out MVPs (minimum viable products) that barely work. People are going to have to want it really, really badly to sustain you through early growth as you get more momentum under you. If the need is just a “nice to have” it’ll be tricky to get the idea off the ground.
While I was still at Salesforce, I had the opportunity to speak at conferences and write papers about my approach to security awareness and training. Pretty soon I had Salesforce customers calling me monthly to ask if I could help consult on their programs. It was this and the questions I was getting from the rest of the security community about my approach that were a key indicator that there was a demand for a new approach. I also saw that while there were hundreds of security startups, no one was tackling the people-centric security problem.
Team: Finding a co-founder to help build it with me. Get together a founding team with complementary skill sets to yours. The resume of your team should yell “there is no one better to solve this problem.”
Partnering with my co-founder Robert Fly was the last puzzle piece for me in this equation. Robert had more experience building engineering teams, running large-scale organizations, and was more connected to the VC community than I was. He was also one of the best people I had a chance to work with while at Salesforce. When we started seriously talking about co-founding a company together, having him onboard was the final step for me to take the leap.
Drive: Startups are a rollercoaster ride and aren’t for the faint of heart. It’s also the most rewarding work experience I’ve ever had in my life. After I had put together an idea of the product, feel for the market, and began conversations with my co-founder, I had to take a serious look at myself and the commitment this would take. What I realized at the end that put it all into perspective for me is the concept of regret. I knew that if I did not take this chance and see what could become of it, I would wonder for the rest of my life “what if.” The pain of that regret seemed so much greater than the potential failure of the company, and I realized I had to start Elevate Security.
E100: How do you make the business case for more diversity among company founders?
MS: I think about this question with three dimensions. First, studies have shown that women make more calculated risk decisions then men and lead to better outcomes. So diverse founding teams have better returns. Second, diversity in company founders means you can attract a wider pool of talent who are attracted to people like them in leadership positions. Great talent on a cohesive team can tackle the toughest of problems. Lastly, whether you build for consumer or enterprise, building with diversity in mind ensures a wider adoption of your products across a larger population. The more diversity you have in the team building the products, the more thoughtful you’ll be in your design.
E100: What can the engineering profession do to support more women as entrepreneurs?
MS: Networking: Help women entrepreneurs expand their network: you need it to raise money, hire talent, and lean on advisors and mentors to answer the 100s of questions that come up regularly in running a company that you have no idea how to approach.
Management experience: As a company grows, business operations is critical to the success of a company is a good idea. Getting experience like hiring, firing, and running a team is key.
Practice failing: Entrepreneurship is all about trying many things, seeing what doesn’t work, dusting yourself off, and doing it again until you get it right. If you’ve grown up in an environment where failure is taboo and not an option, it becomes a terrifying monster to avoid at all costs. Whereas, if you adopt a growth mindset, fail fast, and replace “I can’t” with “Not yet” you’ll have the foundation to tackle any problem.
– Melissa Mathews, The Engineering 100