Canadian geek in Myanmar

The psychological toll of entrepreneurship

I woke up this morning to one of those nasty, horrible days every entrepreneur goes through. The one where it’s all too much and you just want to huddle in the shower and never emerge.  But this time it wasn’t about the current venture I’m working on. As a matter of fact, that is going very well and I am incredibly excited about the idea and the team executing against it.  What got me this time was looking at last year and thinking that everything I touched in 2014 was a huge, fat fail.  This is exactly why I don’t look in the rearview mirror! I sat around this morning wondering why the hell I am even considering doing this again. Surely I was the world’s biggest masochist to open myself to the same kind of betrayal and heartbreak from 2014.

A few hours into my day and several chats with friends and family later, I’m feeling a lot more balanced.  I’ve been reminded that while i don’t have anything physically to show for my efforts on 2014, I do have a lot more experience and strength. I also have a fuller life with hobbies I enjoy. Besides all of that, and the most important thing of all, I have amazing friends and family who are there to catch me, remind me that I’m great and nudge me on my way again.

I met a young girl earlier this week who is interested in becoming an entrepreneur and I told her to go find some entrepreneur friends. Surround herself with people who will understand what she’s going to go through. Entrepreneurship is truly the loneliest journey you can take so you need to make sure that you build pit stops along the way with people who will nudge you on, no matter how much you want to wallow, who high five you at the wins and hug you at the fails.  This is especially true if you’re doing this while single.  There’s no one there at the end of the day to catch you when you want to fall so you need to make sure that you build a strong safety net you can rely on.

On the reverse note of all the above, being an entrepreneur is also one of the funnest and most rewarding things you can do too.  The roller coaster ride is intense, which is probably why some of us do this more than once.  I am a huge supporter of people who want to join this journey.  Just do it safely. Find some outlets for stress relief. Build your pit stops. Surround yourself with your champions.  And remember, it’s okay to wallow every once in a while too. And if all this fails, read the “forgive yourself” lesson from the previous post :)

Now I’m going to just fucking get on with it.

The Secret Sauce of Startups

“So, tell me everything I need to know to start a tech company in Vietnam”

That was a question I was asked last week. And the guy was totally serious.  Even worse, he was an overseas Vietnamese or (VK as we are more commonly known here), in his 40’s and had just joined a tech startup as an ‘advisor’.

I had breakfast with a lovely female entrepreneur today and she told me she gets many similar kinds of enquiries. Either that or ‘how do you balance entrepreneurship with life/kids/etc’.  We had a good laugh over this supposed secret sauce of entrepreneurship, as if there was a silver bullet of some kind that made you brave (or crazy) enough to take the leap into this world.  If I had this sauce, I’d be rich and taking a helicopter to breakfast not a beat up, hot and run down Yangon taxi.

But after a couple of hours mulling this conversation, I realized that there actually is an answer.  The next time a want-erpreneur asks me, I’m going to say just fucking get on with it. Or I guess the more common vernacular is JFDI – just fucking do it.  Here’s the big secret: not one of us has all the answers and if we’re doing it right, we start with way more questions than answers. Every single entrepreneur I know goes through patches of faking it because that’s just what needs to happen.

Someone asked me today what my biggest lesson from last year was and I said that I learned to forgive myself.  Just fucking get on with it but give yourself room to fail.  Just fucking get on with it but forgive yourself when you make mistakes. Just fucking get on with it and when you fall, pick yourself up and move on.  So just fucking get on with it.  What’s the worse that can happen? Well, I guess a whole lot actually. But take it from someone who has gone through the worse possible first “exit”, it’s all survivable.

The Big Moments

Those of you who know me know how much I love Joss Whedon of Buffy and Avengers fame. I’m unabashedly a follower of all his work, the dude is flat out brilliant. That said, his stuff is not exactly deep and meaningful so I was quite surprised when I came across this quote from him: “Bottom line is, even if you see ‘em coming, you’re not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So what are we, helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come. You can’t help that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.”

I’ve spend the better part of this year dealing with some pretty big moments. First as an entrepreneur then losing the company and even attempting my first real relationship – 2014 certainly wasn’t dull.  I was saying to a friend last night how I can not wait until this year to be over as I’d like the psychological “break” that comes with a new year.  His response is that one day I will look at this year as one of the best of my life, even if it was shitty overall.  And he’s right. There are only a few times as an adult when life tests and changes you so dramatically in a small period of time. When the trauma is so great that there is a distinct “before” and “after” picture. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I am a different person today than I was a year ago, and that’s not a bad thing.  I’d like to think that the me of today is more patient and stronger, though maybe a little more cautious and perhaps less trusting too.

That last part is sad but the overall tradeoff works for me because when you are forced to put yourself back together, you will find gaps and spaces that can be filled.  You also get the opportunity to discard the things that no longer make sense. In the past 12 months alone I have quit smoking, started baking, cooking, running, golf, yoga and French lessons.  I’ve shed friends and “trusted” advisors and opened myself up to romance, better mentors and stronger friendships.  I’ve relocated to a new country where I knew almost no one and have taken the time to build new friendships and forge new relationships.  My life, though dramatically different from the corporate ladder-climbing of my EA days or pitching-entrepreneur days of last year, is much richer and fuller for all that.

There have been no shortage of lessons learned this year but hands down, the most important thing I’ve learned is to prioritize my bucket list over my to-do list.  I don’t claim to have the answer to the ever-elusive work/life balance question but I do know this – startups take a whole lot out of you and are easily all-consuming.  I’ve spent the past six months trying to figure out who the hell I was outside of work and that’s because I never protected the part of myself that didn’t self-identify as a career woman. Once that was ripped away, the parts that were left didn’t have a whole lot to cling to.  The battle this year was hard-fought but the lessons learned were important and not something easily forgotten.

So my plan is to blow out 2014 in the most over-the-top, bucket-check-list, creating-big-moments way I can and kick off 2015 properly.  This past year has been full of shocks, betrayals and heartbreak but also firsts, lessons and growth and while I can already see that it was a pivotal and important year for me, the psychological fresh start is welcome and I can’t help but get giddy as I look ahead to 2015. Whedon is right, no one really wants their life to change but if it has to then I’d rather create my own Big Moments, thank you very much.

One final word as this has been my first post since shit went pear-shaped – I owe my sanity to a few key people this year and you probably know who you are. I don’t know how I would have made it through without you and I will be eternally grateful and indebted to you. You taught me the importance and power of building a strong support system and the characteristics I need to foster to be that for others in my life.  Thank you and I look forward to an amazing 2015 together!

Leaning in with Sandberg

I had mentioned in a previous blog that I had written a very long, in-depth blog about my views on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and then promptly lost it to the fickle Draft Gods.  And now that it’s been over two months since I read the book, I don’t really remember a lot of the nuances of the book any longer.  Still, this book, and it’s messages have come up in a lot of conversations recently and has prompted me to write this blog even though I don’t recall all the points I had originally wanted to talk about.

First off it should be noted that I had no desire to read this book as I was firmly in the haters camp, figuring that a billionaire wasn’t going to “get it”.  I got through the first few chapters of the book with a lot of scoffing and eye rolling. I was always one of those people who thought that if you wanted to play the game then you put on your big girl panties and played by the rules…no whining, no asking for a time out or pressing the pause button.  Sandberg talks about that scene in the movie A League of Their Own where Tom Hanks says “there’s no crying in baseball!” and that’s exactly how I felt about the career thing.  What I didn’t really understand, or care about is that the rules were what was wrong in the first place.  As a woman who really didn’t have any burning desire for a family or kids, it really didn’t occur to me to care about the feminist movement or take up the sword for a cause that I didn’t care about.

Having discussed this book so many times over the past few months, I came to realize that all the women who I talked to took different messages from the book.  One poor girl even decided that if she didn’t forsake everything in her life, she’d never be a manager….though God knows how she may have gotten that since it’s counter to absolutely everything Sandberg says in her book.  In any case, here’s where it got interesting for me…it took me about half the book to finally get to the part that resonated for me, and it was even in the title!  “The Will to Lead”.  As one of the very few female CEO’s of a tech startup in Asia, my indifference to encouraging girls to want leadership roles or tech careers was not acceptable.  She’s absolutely right when she notes that our generation is failing those before us by falling into complacency.  Feminism is not a dirty word and this book finally taught me to embrace it and understand that this does not make me less of a professional or leader.

Like Sheryl, I’ve been called a diva, bossy, bitchy and many other things throughout my career simply for doing my job – oftentimes better than the men around me.   And unbelievably, it’s usually the women who are doing the name calling.  I have a little 2 and a half year old niece who is feisty, opinionated and frankly, awesome.  I head someone call her bossy the other day and promptly corrected them…she’s a leader and delegator.  I no longer use the word bossy as Sandberg rightly points out that only little girls are called bossy because the behaviours that lead to that word are expected and accepted of little boys.

For those who haven’t read the book, I highly encourage you to do so – and make your partners.  It’s not long – 240 pages – and very easy to read.  At the very least, watch Sandberg’s TED talk - it’s 15 minutes of your time.  Watch it and I hope that you too come out realizing that “Women can not be half the population and a special interest group at the same time”.  That quote is from Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in this awesome TED talk.

Lessons from my Dad: Vietnam War veteran, refugee, awesome human being

Today marks the fifth anniversary of my father’s death so of course he’s been on my mind all day.  My dad was an incredible man – he grew up poor in Vietnam then our family came into some wealth before losing everything in the Vietnam War.  On the surface, our story is like so many others who survived the war and fled the ensuing punishments after the fall of Saigon and while I could write a whole novel about our escape and early days in Canada, that’s not what I’m thinking of right now.

Today I’ve been missing my dad and reflecting on what an incredible man he was and everything that he taught me.  This is a man who for all intents and purposes lost everything but picked up the pieces and kept going.  Not only did he make a new life in a country that was half way around the world where he did not speak the language nor understand the customs, he did it with a wife, three young children under the age of 5 and three siblings all in their teen years.  He raised five children who by any standard are successful. We are all educated, financially secure and (mostly) sane. Not one criminal record in sight.

But the part that I’m most grateful for is that my dad absolutely insisted upon his girls being educated and career-oriented.  Let’s be clear here, he was an Asian man of a certain generation so this was seriously bucking the trend. Throughout my life I heard people tell my parents that they shouldn’t allow me to read so much, be so educated, be so career focused, etc because no man was going to want me.  Not only did my dad ignore all that foolishness, he staunchly stood in the way of match-making efforts or anything else that would have distracted me from my ambitions and for that I will be eternally grateful.  I don’t know if I would be the same person I am today if my dad were different but I do know that the road I chose would have been astronomically more difficult.

My dad continues to be my role model when it comes to overcoming obstacles and adversity and coming through the other side as a happy, kind and generous human being.  He set a great example for me as I go through the startup madness. Yes, I can build something from nothing. Yes, I should stop listening to the negative voices around me who tell me to follow the crowd. Yes, I can pick myself up again and keep going when I hit a bump – or when someone knocks me down. Most of all, he taught me that just plain old hard work can overcome a hell of a lot of barriers.

Thank you Dad. I love you and I miss you.

Women in tech in Myanmar

So recently I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In…actually, I wrote a fairly extensive blog post on it, which was lost and instead of rewriting it, I’ve decided to write this one first.  I will still write one on my thoughts of Lean In but suffice it to say, it’s been fairly motivating, which was surprising to me.

One of the things I’ve always been fairly passionate about is girls in tech, especially in developing markets like Vietnam and Myanmar.  Study after study shows that connecting women to the Internet has profound benefits to their lives, that of their families and even provides a significant boost to the national income.  And yet it’s estimated that women in developing worlds are between 25-40% less connected then men.  I believe that there are two major reasons for this:

1. There are not enough women working in technology therefore not enough representation of a female’s viewpoint

2. One fallout of the above is that there is not enough digital content catered to women

Myanmar presents such a unique opportunity in that it is a nation that is coming online all at once and if we can ensure the voice of the women are heard just as loudly, there’s a good chance that Myanmar connectivity is balanced fairly evenly between genders as it comes online.  What’s even more interesting is that in Myanmar, it’s estimated that 95% of the teachers in post-secondary STEM classes are female and over half of the students are girls.  

Even though more girls graduate with Computer Science degrees than boys in Myanmar, the fledgling tech scene in Myanmar is still dominated by men, especially at the higher levels of the organization. Even at the budding entrepreneur level, I have only ever met one girl but countless boys who are in various stages of launching a tech start up. I think one of the biggest factors that is causing the high drop off rate of girls with STEM educations versus women in tech leadership is that the girls are simply not aware of the career choices available to them with their degree – I noticed a similar trend in Vietnam.  Basically, girls graduate with a CompSci degree and think that they either need to become a software programmer or network engineer. Entrepreneurship isn’t as culturally accepted as it is in more developed nations, especially for young women who would be expected to be settling down with a family in a few years.  Meaning, it would be much easier to tell mom and dad they work at a big company (even as an admin) than to try to explain that they are building something that fewer than 10% of the nation could even use, let alone want to try. So these girls abandon a possible career in technology very early on, which is a real tragedy.

Here’s a story that Thaung Su Nyein from Information Matrix recently shared with me…

The ICT committee at the UMFCCI (basically Myanmar’s chamber of commerce) was hiring and received 12 candidates – 11 females and only 1 male.  Of those 12 candidates, only 3 (the male and two females) were interested in an actual tech role, the remaining 9 wanted to apply for secretarial / clerical jobs.  This hurts my head and of course motivates me to try to change the tide here before these behaviours become too ingrained like in other developing countries.

Back to the book Lean In, there many parts of that book, especially early on where I rolled my eyes…and yet as I completed it, I realized that the real message that I got is that the few women leaders out there need to start speaking up and helping to create a new generation of female leaders.  Until there’s more representation at the top, we will continue to struggle with the gender divide.  Oh..the other message I got loud and clear is that “feminist” isn’t a dirty word :)  In any case, I realized after reading that book that I needed to step up.  Not only am I a female CEO for a tech company, I am also in a market where the gender divide is even greater than what Sandberg deals with.  So, over the next few months, I hope to gather women in technology leadership roles in Myanmar together to help. These young girls need role models and mentors. They need to see a viable career in technology, one that can be highly rewarding for men and women.  More to come as we start to roll out some of our programs…

2013 Lessons

I love this time of year. In the first week of January I’ve finished my annual allocated week of self-reflection and am now looking forward to all the possibilities and opportunities ahead. While we could (and should) live every day like this, there’s something about January 1st that brings to mind clean slates and white canvasses. The year ahead is still so full of hope and possibilities and I for one can’t wait to see what it brings.

I’d like to say that I’ll get better at writing more regularly but let’s get real, that’s probably not going to happen.

This past year was amazing for me on so many different fronts but it also came with its fair share of punches too. With that said, here are a few lessons I learned in 2013.

Lesson: give everything your best shot and learn from it but move on when it’s done.
I’ve never had to do as much media in my whole life as I did in the second half of this year. On one hand it definitely confirmed that I was right to not go into PR. It also taught me to appreciate how difficult it is to control messaging – this from someone who has been in marketing for over a decade. I don’t think that there was one story that came out of the dozens of interviews I did that I was actually happy with – or even got all the details right. But it is something that you can’t dwell on. Once the story is out, there’s little that can be done unless you want or need to go into full crisis management mode. The other lesson here is to not trust everything you read.

Lesson: Negatively has no place in your life so it needs to be let go.
I have always told my community staff that haters hate and there’s little to be done about that. While this holds true with entrepreneurship, people aren’t really hating on a product but usually on you, which makes things really personal. I’ve always been pretty blasé about what other people think of me, which served me well this year but it’s still much harder to not take offence at some of the things that are being said by perfect strangers who see your world through a small straw. I’ve learned to stop reading comments on the media coverage – some things are just not worth reading.

Lesson: Life as an entrepreneur is hard enough, find the right support system.
Perhaps what is more shocking and difficult to come to grips with is how your friends and acquaintances react. The reality is that some people will always be either jealous or envious of another’s successes. Some also view our world as a zero sum game, which is just foolish. Luckily I have also found a couple of friends who are amazing. As entrepreneurs themselves, they understand the crazy. They listen, don’t judge and certainly don’t try to ‘solve’ my problems.

Lesson: Your time as an entrepreneur is highly valuable so don’t waste it.
I’ve had to be much more protective of my time this year. It’s amazing how many people want just a few minutes of my time to ‘explore’ opportunities. Even more incredible are the people I knew who crawled out of the woodwork to get a piece of the action. I spent far too much time earlier this year in meetings trying to put together partnerships. Amazingly, or maybe not, there are way too many people out there who really don’t want to add anything but their dubious ‘consulting’ skills for astronomical amounts of money, time and equity.

Okay so now that the venting is over, time to refocus on the important things – building as awesome team and having a blast along the way!

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