July Meeting | Project “Initiate”: A Conversation on Inclusivity in Entrepreneurship

This month, we joined forces with Dana Wheeles of CoshX labs to host the first public event for Project “Initiate”, a project whose goal is to bring more diversity and inclusivity to conversations about entrepreneurship.

Dana has been a member of the tech community in Charlottesville for over a decade – first in the digital humanities world at UVA, then as a business and content analyst more generally. She is the project lead for “Initiate”, and enjoys thinking about entrepreneurship and how to make it a kinder, more inclusive space. Dana moderated a discussion on inclusivity in entrepreneurship with the following panelists:

  • Katrina Shah: Katrina Shah is a 2015 graduate from the University of Virginia where she studied Nanomedicine Engineering. Having taken a couple of design courses in the architecture school, she expanded her lifelong love of 2D drawing into the world of 3D modeling and started to explore product design and development. She will be going to Northwestern for her Masters in Engineering Design Innovation where she will further develop her passion for art, design, and engineering.
  • Sarah Rumbaugh: Sarah is the CEO and Cofounder of RelishMBA, the marketplace for MBA hiring, which she started as an MBA student at the Darden School of Business. Prior to Darden, she worked in consulting as an Information Security Engineer at Booz Allen Hamilton where she helped clients implement cyber security solutions. Sarah is from the Washington, DC area.
  • Chiedo: Chiedo is the President, CEO & Co-founder of Chiedo, Inc. Chiedo graduated from James Madison University in 2013 with a Computer Science degree. He’s been writing code and working on computers since the third grade and running business ventures since middle school. Not only is he a big dreamer, he is also a big dream initiator. If it sounds challenging, you’ve got his attention.

 

What is a stereotype or misconception about entrepreneurship that you encountered and how did you overcome it?

Chiedo has experienced surprise when he meets clients for the first time–surprise that he is African-American. (A common stereotype is that entrepreneurs are all white men.) He will receive offhand remarks from people who feel inclined to express surprise that he is not white, but he brushes them off.

Sarah described the misconception that starting a new business it is all about having a great idea. In reality, she says, a lot of hard work goes into making companies grow–and having a great idea will not automatically lead to success. The moral of dropping this misconception: start with an idea that you are passionate about and willing to work hard for, and don’t worry about whether it is “good enough.”

For her lesson learned, Katrina told us about how she used to believe that entrepreneurship was an inborn trait. It was only after working with other students that she learned the importance of having a dynamic, collaborative team. Now she knows that partnerships are key in entrepreneurship, requiring teamwork as well as individual skill and ambition.

 

Can you share your experience with mentorship in your own life and if you have any insight on ways companies can make mentoring a priority in their environment?

In her previous work, Katrina experienced mentoring relationships where it felt like there was a hierarchy, and received criticism — the mentors just tell you what to do. But at KiraKira it has been more of a reciprocal relationship, a change she appreciates.

At Sarah’s previous corporate job, her mentor took on the mentoring role to fulfill a requirement for promotion. However, in the context of startups, the mentoring relationship is more mutual, because the company needs the help. In either case, though, it is important to define the relationship from the beginning and figure out what the mentor and mentee want to gain from it.

Chiedo describes his father as his earliest and most significant mentor. His dad got him interested in computers and code, and when he wanted to get a job, his father told him to start a business instead–as a middle schooler! Now, he feels a responsibility to mentor others. His approach is to keep things casual with mentees in order to get to know them on a personal level and not just a professional level.

 

How has your working experience changed in the last five years?

Chiedo: “My work environment has become more collaborative.” This increase in collaboration reflects his transition from being a mentee/beginner/learner (often self-taught), to being a mentor and expert leading a team of developers.

Sarah has experienced many changes in her own career: “I went from testing computers on Navy aircraft carriers to business school to starting and running a company.” Of all those changes, the biggest change was her move from “bureaucratic corporate world” to the startup scene. “Throughout all of this, you should know that I’ve remained a non-technical person.” When she deals with the tech people who work with and for her, she focuses on understanding their priorities and what makes them happy. “I need to know what they need in order to do the job that I need them to do.”

Katrina, on the other hand, began in the biosciences field, having studied nanomedicine. For her, the biggest change that she noticed was the different attitude toward sharing between the scientific research field and the tech industry. Whereas in the sciences there is a perceived need to keep discoveries secret, the tech community depends on open sharing of ideas and technologies. Consider as an example the community around 3D printing, in which people want to help each other learn as much as possible.

 

Entrepreneurs have to really put themselves out there to give pitches, raise funding, etc. Do you ever feel like you have to put on a persona to succeed?

Chiedo: “No.” As an introvert, he does recognize the importance of taking the time to be more  personable and outgoing on certain occasions, but he does not feel like he is assuming a different persona.

Sarah: “In business school, they talk about stereotypes about women in the workplace. I was concerned that people would stereotype me as ‘abrasive’ for being a loud, confident woman. So, yes, I think about how people may perceive me, but I don’t feel like I need to put on a different persona.”

Katrina: “I think there is a difference between making an effort to impress and appeal to people in a group setting–and I often feel that pressure, whether it’s about how to dress or what to say–but that is not necessarily a different persona.”

 

Finally, what do you think about failure?

For Sarah, failure is a process rather than an event: “Put something out there and if it doesn’t work, do something else. Developing a business from an idea is a series of small tests. Fail quickly and move on–or succeed and move on to the next pass/fail test.” While Sarah is worried about failure and does not want to fail, she knows that she has already done so much and no one instance of failure can take that away.

Chiedo has plenty of experience with failure, which he takes in stride. “I failed miserably at a business in high school after getting too arrogant.” After he made a large gamble which resulted in a large and public failure, he learned to only take risks he can afford. “I go for the small wins and small failures versus the huge wins and potentially huge failures.”

 

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Charlottesville Women in Tech