There’s a motto that hikers use on the Appalachian trail: “hike your own hike.” They use it to resist the urge to compare their miles covered in a day with the miles of other hikers on the trail. It’s an important concept that women in technology should embrace as well. Because women have conventionally been a group excluded from these roles, comparison is a beast that is only perpetuating this cycle.
When I founded Plum in 2012, I felt like I was doing something wrong because no one around me looked like me, talked like me, or acted like me. The tech leadership examples I had to go on were people like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs. As a woman, I didn’t feel like I fit the mold, and that was very isolating. The stories of multi-billion-dollar valuations and unicorn statuses weren’t led by people who were like me, and the more I compared myself to them, the more alone I felt.
Now that I’m on the other side of successfully raising venture capital, I’ve come to realize that comparison isn’t how you become successful as a woman in tech. In fact, it’s probably your biggest hurdle to success because it distracts you from investing in the right things. For me, I was running the risk of doing things the way other tech entrepreneurs were doing it—like focusing on fast growth—instead of investing in our company’s foundation and people. I’m so glad I was able to turn my comparison mentality around to embrace my role as a woman tech leader and build our company right the first time.
Throughout this career, I’ve learned a few lessons about overcoming comparison. I hope you can use these to feel less like an outcast in an industry traditionally dominated by men, and instead gain confidence and success.
Lesson 1: Embrace the Ways You Lead
Women’s leadership styles tend to come under more scrutiny than men’s. Ironically, there is a lot of research coming out stating that traits that have conventionally been marked as more “feminine” are actually the most sought-after leadership qualities today—traits like kindness, supportiveness, trustworthiness, and integrity. Although both men and women can demonstrate these traits, we as women should see this as an encouragement to embrace these qualities that have been traditionally viewed as more feminine.
In fact, the CEOs of more than 180 companies—including J.P. Morgan and Amazon—recently signed a pledge committing to conscious leadership principles that include delivering value to customers, investing in employees, dealing ethically with suppliers, and supporting the communities where they work. When women’s voices are brought to the table, so are these types of priorities.
Don’t compromise who you are to try and fit in with the crowd. Don’t lean into a more masculine style of leadership if that doesn’t sit right with you. Embrace your strengths—bringing a diversity of thought, opinion, and behavior to your job will only make your workplace more innovative.
Lesson 2: Build Your Network
Whenever other female leaders ask me for advice, I always emphasize the importance of relationships. So much success in the tech industry comes from people believing in your potential and advocating for you. That starts by building a strong network.
As women, we enter the tech space at a disadvantage because our networks tend to be a fraction of the size of our male counterparts’ networks. We need to intentionally spend the time building a network that can support us, connect us, and advocate for us. And as we do, we’ll hear more and more stories of people just like us finding success in the tech industry, leading us to feel less isolated and alone.
Lesson 3: Seek Examples
While the goal is to avoid comparing ourselves to others, we ultimately need people to look up to and help us strive to do better. Then, it’s about having the right people as examples—both within and outside of our networks.
When I was striving to be a better leader, I felt different from the examples presented before me. That felt very lonely. It was when I was introduced to the concept of conscious leadership that I discovered examples like Whole Foods and Patagonia, which are committed to their impact on their people and the planet—just like me. I learned that striving to go beyond the status quo in my leadership style didn’t make me wrong; I just had to surround myself with the right examples that I could learn from and strive to be like.
Lesson 4: Be the Example
The cycle of women in tech feeling isolated will only end if we each make the intentional decisions to become examples ourselves.
Personally, I take the opportunity to speak to women in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) and women in leadership to prove that there isn’t just one limited definition of what “success” looks like. And when we see more diverse examples of success, our cultural understanding of success will change. Success has always been seen as this narrow filter; only a few people can fit the mold. But success is not a limited resource! When we as women lead by example, we open the door to allow other women to conceptualize that they, too, can find success.
Whenever I’m asked the question, “What would you tell your younger self to do differently in your journey?” my response is always the same—give up the comparison game. Comparison made me feel like an imposter for so many years. My greatest hope is that you don’t let it do the same for you!
Register for the ASUG webcast with Caitlin MacGregor, “Building Your Own Success: How the CEO of Plum Adapted to COVID-19" taking place on Thursday, May 21, 2020 at 1 p.m. CDT.