I met Kathryn Gould longer ago than either of us want to admit. Kathryn has been the founding VP of Marketing ofOracle, a successful recruiter, a world class Venture Capitalist, a co-founder of a Venture Capitalfirm, a great board member, one of my mentors and most importantly a wonderful friend. During her career she made a big point ofnottelling you: she was one of the first women Venture Capitalists in Silicon Valley (along withM.J. ElmoreandAnn Winblad) Im just a VC. Or one of the first women co-founders of a VC firm I co-founded a great firm. She was twice as smart and just as tough as the guys. She has been a mentor and role model not just for a generation of women VCs and CEOs but forallVCs and CEOs and Im honored to have been one of them.
One of the reasons I took up teaching is my strong belief thatits incumbent on all of us to make those who come after us smarter than we were. So when I heard Kathryn gave the University of Chicago commencement speech I suggested that she reach out to a larger audience and share her decades of experience.
Her response? The last thing I want is a bunch of people bugging me while Im growing my grapes, flying, painting, playing music, and generally goofing off. I pointed out that, Now that you retired, what happens to all the knowledge and experience youve acquired? She still demurred so I gave it one last shot. I sent her an email saying, When youre gone everything you learned goes with you. This really is bigger than you. I have two daughters starting careers and nothing could be more inspiring than hearing your story. You really ought to share your journey.
So for the first time ever, she has. Heres Kathryns story.
Why Give a Commencement speechOne of the more fun things Ive been asked to do lately was give the commencement speech at the University of ChicagoBooth School of Businessin June 2014. What I didnt tell them before, during, or after the talk was that Id never gone to my own University of Chicago MBA graduation, nor had I gone to my BSc in physics graduation at University of Toronto. Ive never been big on pomp, and I had fun jobs I wanted to go to right away after each of them. And to be fair, I wasntsumma cum laudein either case. I was merely respectable, so there was no appealing ego trip involved. Anyway it was high time I went to a graduation.
The most personally interesting part of writing this speech was thinking about what I could say to the young women that I wish Id heard at their age. (I heard nothing).
So, for the first time, I thought hard about what it was like to be a woman in a mans business. Not thinking about it earlier was a survival strategybecause if Id thought about it, Id have wanted toTALKabout it, and that would have been stupid. I was working and competing with men daily. And successfully. And the truth is, I like working with men. Being a physicist-turned-engineer, I have very little experience working with anythingbutmen. So when members of the press or militant feminist types would question me about this stuff, I would avoid and be annoyed. Now that Im retired I can speak out and let the chips fall. Still, a nod to Sheryl Sandbergfor saying her piecewhile in the thick of it.
In the aftermath of the speech, I got the most resonance in two areas:
1) make unconventional choices that fitYOUR OWNaspirations
2) from women appreciating the advice to go around obstacles, and enjoying hearing from a fellow dragon lady
Actually it wasnt dragon lady, it was a stronger, less feminine term Ball Buster but, hey, I couldnt say that in a speech. Reason I know is that Im still very close to most of the former CEOs from my boards. I ran this speech by a couple of them. Over time they had heard me referred to as that other term. They would jump to my defense and they report that the people who said this had never met me it was just the word on the street. Insidious, yes?
Anyway, mine is a study in making unconventional career choices (not that I recommend everybody go be a recruiter for a few years!), and searching for what youre great at, and meant to encourage women to go right through those walls.
So they call you a dragon lady; so what?!
Heres the speech:
2014 University of Chicago Commencement speech Your Great AdventureIm so happy to be here today: First, to help you celebrate your success thus far, and more important: to celebrate your last day of doing what is expected of you now each of you embark on your own great adventurethere is no expected path from here on. You get to create your own history. No more tests, get into this school, get into that class, get this degreenow the real adventure begins. The second reason Im glad to be here today is that 2 years ago, whenDean Kumarfirst asked me to do this speech, I wasnt sure Id even be alive, so I had to pass. More on that later.
So, about your adventure: should you have a plan? Maybe. But dont follow it. Planning prepares the mind, and chance favors the prepared mind, but chance usually messes up plans! When I was where you are, 36 years ago (can ya believe it) I didnt have a planbut Ididhave an aspiration: I wanted to go toSilicon Valleyand I wanted to work instartups. I had no idea how I was going to get from here to there. I was completely unprepared! We had literally one entrepreneurship course here in the mid 70staught by a guy who commuted in from Silicon Valley. Compare that to nowwith our superb entrepreneurship curriculum, and I understand 70% of this class has either an interest or focus in entrepreneurship.
Chance Favors the Prepared MindSo heres how it happened for me. I had had a love affair with computers since I was 18 and a freshman physics major.
Computers were so different from nowarcane, annoyingly difficult and interesting. But they werent really in Silicon Valley at the timethey were in Boston, Minneapolis, New York. So going to Silicon Valley wasnt an obvious move at the time. It was the invention of the microprocessor that made it obvious for me. I quit my good job here and moved to the valley. Most people thought I was nuts. I had no idea what I was doingjust that I had to be there, and in a startupso I took a job with the smallest company that made me an offer (passing up Intel, Tandem and Apple). It wasnt a great choice, but I wasTHERE.But then, one our customers was Larry Ellison, with this little company that wasnt even called Oracle at the time. I loved what he was working on (thanks to perspective in data management from my large company experience herethat prepared mind thing). So I joined Oracle when it was about 20 people, eventually becoming VP Marketing. And it was an amazing time. Larry was the best entrepreneur Ive ever known, and completely unconventional
What can you learn from this story so far?:
Put yourself in the way of successget in front of an important wave and ride it.
Gravitate to whats new.
Dont be afraid to take a step down(Oracle was a $1 Million business, I had been marketing manager for a $100 Million business).
Build Your Skills Not Your ResumeEventually I left Oracle, wanting to do another startup. Problem is, startups that have world changing potential are not that easy to find. I wanted another Oracle, not any old startup. So I did something completely crazy and unplannedwhich looks brilliant only in hindsight! I noticed that I loved looking for a job, even tho I didnt find a company I wanted to join. I liked meeting people, hearing the company plans, learning about their technology, figuring out if it was for realall that was fun. How could I do that for a living? The answer of course, was Venture Capital, but that was not in the cardsas yet. I had met a few exec recruiters in the process and thought what they did was similar and interesting. So I started an exec search firm as a creative way to look for a new startup. Turns out that I quickly became one of the few best recruiters in the valley for CEO and VP levels, got to work with the best VCs and their startups. And who would have guessedperfect preparation for the VC business. I ended up doing that for 5 years, and in the process saw about 80 startups in various stages of success and disarray. I developed a deadly accurate intuition on people, an unbeatable set of contacts, and loved working for myself in my little firm. By the 4thyear, VCs were asking me to join them, partly for recruiting help, but more because I kept introducing them to startup investment opportunities. As youve heard, its excruciatingly hard to get in to the VC business, and there I was. Because Id built some unique skills.
Plus, I had learned some stuff that you dont get in business school:
How to cold call adrenaline, real time, 3 seconds to grab their attentionlearn this!
Also the adage As hire As, Bs hire Csabsolutely truebe careful of the company you keep,
I also learned that the first time without a paycheck is a little scary.
Find Your ObessionI joined VC firm Merrill Pickard in 1989. My first IPO wasnt until 1995the VC business takes patience. Two companies I helped start in 1992, DCTM and Grand Junction Networks both became Stanford business school cases and very valuable, successful companies. I was on the way to my lifetime IRR of 90%. I loved the business, and I was good at it. But then, trouble. My two best partners went off to start Benchmark Capital, very successful to this day, so my firm was going to blow up. I went Boogie Boarding where I do my best thinking. I thought, gee, I could already afford to ride waves the rest of my life. That might be neat. But I couldnt do it. I loved the business, couldnt stop. So I startedFoundation Capitalin 1995. I loved starting my own firm, doing it my way. We brought in all operating guysall had done startups, all had technical backgrounds. In 5 years we were one of the top firms in the Valley by any measure. I had found my obsession.
Its Not the Calls You Take, Its the Calls You MakeOne of my sayingsYou are the creator of your destiny. In whatever business youre in, there is always so much coming at you that you can stay insanely busy just responding. Dont do that. Always think about what isyouragenda, what doyouwant to make happen, what doyouwant the future to look like. This is not so easy.
Go Where the Action Is:Its not over in the ValleyNow 35 years later, should you still move to the Valley (or Hollywood, or London, or Chicago!or wherever the action is in your area of interest?). I cant speak to the other places, but Ill tell you what, its not over in the Valley. From electric cars to drones, DNA sequencing to robotic surgery, enterprise software to social media the size and variety of these markets makes the Valley of my early days look bush league. Theres no end in sight. The valley startup culture and talent pool is unique in the world. If you think maybe you should go theremaybe you should.
I retired in 2006. My husband and I bought a vineyardso Im a beginner again! With another startup!
A Word to the Ladies HereI understand a third of the class is women. I have always said, with an annoyed attitude when people ask, that there are no obstacles to women these days, just look at me! Thats the safe way to answer, right? But its not entirely true. One of the gifts of talking to you ladies here is that I forced myself to reflect on this. Ill just mention two obstacles that hit meneither of which I even reacted to at the time, just accepted.
I wanted to go to Caltech, but they didnt take women undergrads until 1970. I wasnt mad about that; I just thought it was my fault for being interested in guy things. So I dated a Caltech student and got to use their computerfirst computer I ever met tooa monster. Structural obstacles like this are over with for you. Good riddance.
Second ObstacleRemember that business of starting Foundation Capital when my first firm blew up? I did it because I didnt have a choicecouldnt get a job. Really.I spent a couple of months talking with the few VC firms that I was willing to join.(yes, I was picky)It became clear it was going to take a long time to get into one, and I didnthavea long time. I didnt want to lose my momentum. Mind you, I was one of the top handful of VCs in the business at the time. Not on the Midas list yet, because it hadnt been invented, but anybody could see that my results were heading toward extraordinary. I have to think that a guy with my numbers would have been snapped up pretty fast. For me, starting the firm and raising the money waswayfaster. Dont you think thatsstunning? A pretty big fat obstacle. So we went from Boogie Board to money in the bank in 6 months. Not that Im sorryit turned out great. But you ambitious women will surely face something like this in your career. Just go around it! There is always a way. Note on the VC business, only 4% of senior VCs are women, according to Fortune Magazine. I dont think its changing anytime soon either.
Now to be fair, consider your advantages: youre much more memorable than most of the guys, they wont forget you,andthere is a self selection:the men who have the guts to do business with you have the extra self confidence to be more successful. The guys that wanted me on their board of directors had moxybecause of course they had heard all the crap about how I was a dragon lady (all ambitious women get called that as you know) and they still went for it. Who knowscould be why my companies were so successful
I often walk among my grapevines and think how grateful I am for my life right now. But if the vines had come first, without the adventure and hard work, it wouldnt be nearly as sweet. So thats my story so farbut its not over yet, because the cabernet is really good!
So now, for each of you, go create your own unique adventure. You are done preparinggo do it! Make a plan, but dont stick to it. Let chance favoryourprepared mind. Break rules, find your obsession, be extraordinary!
View the speech in its entiretyhere