Want to Build Your Startup Skills? Pitch and Pitch In

If you’re looking to develop your startup leadership skills, try volunteering for a non-profit or attending a pitch conference. 


Having spent most of my career in the corporate and nonprofit worlds, I can tell you that there isn’t much reward for risk-taking. Two of the smartest things I ever did to build my leadership were: go to a pitch conference and volunteer.

Six months ago, I attended Launch. It changed my perspective on everything about my work. Specifically, it made me more focused on profitability and more fearless about playing with the boys. (Sorry to admit it, but seeing them get up there and struggle with pitches made it seem a lot more accessible to someone like me, a working woman new to startup culture.)

Last weekend, I got to walk the talk. I pitched an idea at SF Startup Weekend Women’s Edition. Out of 41 pitches and 14 finalists, our team came in third (with a product to offer impact investing to young professionals). The experience was crazy and awesome – totally out of my comfort zone. I went into it not really knowing anything about the process; at Launch I’d only seen the final result of what happens when you join a team of strangers for 36 hours to make a dream tangible.

What was so special about this Startup Weekend? For one, it focused on women entrepreneurs. And, it created a space where we could be in the majority, doing something that we do so well naturally – collaborate and problem-solve. It also made me think about another ecosystem that has been central to my career success: nonprofits.

Nonprofits offer a safe place for women to build leadership skills. The U.S. Dept. of Labor says that in 2012, “women continued to volunteer at a higher rate than did men across all age groups, educational levels, and other major demographic characteristics.”

Let’s face it, we like to roll up our sleeves, get involved, and give back. Yet there’s another, more personal, reason for women to volunteer – it builds leadership skills that can launch our careers, especially in male-dominated professions.

No one tries to solve big problems on limited resources like a nonprofit. Volunteering – especially on a committee or board – is a great training ground for public speaking, budgeting, project management, and sales and relationship building (skills key to fundraising). Points of Light Foundation (which also has a Civic Incubator – how cool is that?) and VolunteerMatch list thousands of opportunities to get involved.

Women bring unique skills to the table. We knew that even before Lean In. If you’re not getting the leadership opportunities you want at work, get them by volunteering. And then bring them back to your company.

Your success may depend on it.

By Melanie Hamburger (CEO & Founder, Catalytic Women)


This article was originally posted on Women 2.0 on September 20, 2013.


It’s Only Natural


Editor’s Note: A Catalytic Women member shares her thoughts on altruism and skills where women are “natural” leaders. Enjoy!/MH

Chances are you’ve all heard and even embraced as true, a belief in the “survival of the fittest.” What would you think about the theory that humankind’s greatest strength (and indeed survival) is not dependent on one’s individual strength or size, but instead on one’s ability to cooperate, connect and share?

In How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything…in Business (and in Life), (2011), author Dov Seidman cites the work of Dr. Richard Joyce, a professor at the Australian National University and author of The Evolution of Morality. Joyce explains that our morality – defined as the capacity to conceive of social behavior in terms of values – germinated in our earliest caveman and cavewoman ancestors. A caveman who embraced the benefit-of-the-group model not only survived, but thrived as he shared harvests and shelters, cooperating and assisting others. His self-sacrifice for the benefit of the whole engendered trust, prompting others in his tribe to reciprocate.

This altruistic caveman also gained a reproductive advantage: cavewomen, knowing a good thing when they saw it, wanted him for a mate. The result? The propagation of cavebabies imbued with these cooperating, connecting, sharing genes. And biology was not all that this open-armed caveman had in his favor; he also had influence over others who saw and wanted what he had. Those who did as he did received similar rewards including, offspring after offspring (both male and female) “throughout the eons” who were encoded with those same altruistic values.

Tribes, on the other hand, that embraced the benefit-of-the-individual model, did not cooperate, share, or form any sort of organized, cohesive society. As a result, these self-serving individuals and their tribes suffered starvation, exposure to deadly elements, and ultimate elimination.

So what does all this have to do with our lives today? Everything, I’d say.

As mammals and as social beings, we are dependent on others, physically, mentally, and emotionally from the moment we are born. Seidman concludes that “natural altruistism” – as opposed to self-interest – is just that: natural. Given the downturn in the world’s economy, loss of jobs, homes and savings, we may be tempted to curl into ourselves, determined to protect all that we have only to find that that choice doesn’t make us or anyone else feel any better. Why? Because it isn’t natural. If our genes have anything to say about it, there is an alternative: seeking others with whom we align to share our gifts, our abilities and our resources. It’s a natural win-win.

 Untitled2Catalytic Women member, Dana Whitaker, enjoys working with seasoned and emerging leaders and is author of Transforming Lives $40 at a Time, Women + Microfinance: Upending the Status Quo. More about Dana at www.openingeyes.net.

Women’s Leadership by Investment: Drop by Drop We Can Fill a Bucket

Editor’s Note: Yesterday we gathered young women funding social impact for a Catalytic Women event. I’m continually energized to see how women in their 20s and 30s either don’t perceive gender barriers or, simply, aren’t deterred by them. Our guest blogger Suzanne Sheuerman offers a terrific step that any woman can take to use her wealth with a gender lens for greater impact. [MH]

As a woman in Corporate America, I have come to realize that women must collaborate to bring about change. As you can guess, the change to which I am referring is related to women and their role in Corporate America. Having been the highest ranking woman in a Fortune 100 company with no real chance of ever becoming the CEO, my story may be relatively typical of a 58-year-old woman. I can get close, but no cigar. In my view, close just isn’t good enough anymore.

After studying the facts, one would come to the rational decision that women at very senior levels of business are vital to operational excellence. A Credit Suisse study conducted in August of 2012 demonstrated that companies with a woman on the board performed better in most metrics than comparable companies. [And Catalyst has done fascinating reports on gender roles, with similar findings.] Having read the article with great interest, I suddenly had an “ah ha” moment: Why can’t we build a “portfolio” of women-led companies?

As I began my research I was (sadly, not) surprised to find there are not even enough women CEO’s in the Fortune 500 screen to create a sector-diverse portfolio. Looking more broadly to the Fortune 1,000, I was able to find more women-led companies.

Then I looked at my definition of “woman-led” and reflected that one woman on a Board is simply not adequate. Why reward that? A woman-led portfolio deserves a more robust standard. So I screened for companies with boards that had three or more women, or were comprised of at least 30% women. Delightfully, I had a very nice list of potential publicly traded companies.

When asked by one of my friends if I had included companies that may not have a woman CEO, but did have “C Level” women at the top, such as a COO or CTO, my answer was an emphatic “no.” I felt the CEO designation for leadership was critical for the purposes of the portfolio I wanted to create, and I just couldn’t find enough women in that role. While there were lots of companies who had women in “second best” roles, in my view they were not as deserving of my investment.

This is my one small step as a woman to support other women. Adding an element to my own investments that includes women-owned companies is my drop in the bucket. It is my personal, happy drop in the bucket that, I hope, we will work together to fill.

As you think about where you can make an impact, I ask you to join me. Think about the companies where you invest as a tool to support women’s leadership. Help fill our bucket.

Suzanne Sheuerman is a First Vice President, Portfolio Management Director and Financial Advisor at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management in San Jose, CA. Formerly she was a Managing Director at Household International where she worked for 18 years. The views expressed herein are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect the views of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC, Member SIPC, or its affiliates. We are very pleased that Suzanne is a Professional Member of Catalytic Women.