Women

The Power of She: Carol Vercellino, Founder of Oak City Labs

Who starts a tech company when she’s six months pregnant with her second child? Carol Vercellino, of course. What better time to create a new “baby” with one on the way and one already at home?

Although that wasn’t exactly Carol’s thought process, she certainly didn’t let her pregnancy deter her when she started Oak City Labs, a mobile software development company that builds scalable solutions for iOS and Android for growing technology companies. Carol knew that the timing and team were right, and she didn’t want to miss the opportunity to build an amazing company with her two fantastic cofounders (both male). She also thought it was the perfect opportunity to set an example for her daughters, showing them “what is possible as they grow up” and teaching them that they “can be successful without someone else telling them what success is supposed to look like.”

The fact that Carol’s career started with a BS in business administration, not engineering or computer science, tells you even more about the kind of person she is. While interning for a lending cooperative in college, Carol taught herself Visual Basic in college after getting frustrated with the inefficiencies of manual processes like bank reconciliations. Using her newfound Visual Basic skills, she automated a number of spreadsheets and databases for the company. She then moved into an IT role that she stayed in until graduation.

After graduating, Carol worked as an IT systems administrator for a SaaS company before joining their engineering team. She went on to manage a number of engineering teams at other software companies. Carol earned an MBA with a concentration in technology and entrepreneurship commercialization focused on startups and high-growth technology from North Carolina State University. She and her cofounders started Oak City Labs in August 2014.

I spoke to Carol about her career in engineering, her path to entrepreneurism and more. Her answers are below.

Q: Engineering is often considered a male-dominated field. Did that factor into your career decisions at all?

A: Not at all. During my college internship, I reported to a female CFO, which was fairly rare to see within the agricultural lending industry. When I transitioned to full time, my manager was also female. I just focused on doing what I found interesting, which I thought would be finance technology.

Q: What are some of the unique challenges you think female entrepreneurs face, particularly in the technology industry?

A: Hands down, the most unique challenge was starting Oak City Labs while pregnant. I would go to networking events and you could tell that people were awkwardly trying to figure out if I was 1) pregnant and 2) a legitimate entrepreneur. I kind of wish I could have polled people to see how many thought I would still be in business after kid number two was born. With that said, I am clearly very fortunate to have cofounders that shouldered more responsibility during that time.

Q: How can women overcome the challenges female entrepreneurs face? 

A: We all need to figure out what our strengths are and focus on those. Gary Vaynerchuk talks a lot about betting on your strengths, and he’s right. We’re taught that being a leader fits into a certain style, that being a mother looks a certain way and that being a tech entrepreneur fits a specific stereotype. We have to start breaking away from that mentality—and to a certain extent, what we’re taught in school—and figure out who you are as an individual. When you focus on your strengths and put yourself in situations where that can shine, you’ll overcome anything. I took a job at a large company and had to learn that it wasn’t part of my strengths to be in that environment. I did my worst work there and learned that’s not a good situation for me personally. But I had to be in that situation to learn and wouldn’t trade that learning experience for anything.

Q: Do you feel that you and other women entrepreneurs have a responsibility to serve as role models and to help pave the way for future female leaders? What can we do better to support these women?

A: Yes, things will get better with each generation. We learn and adapt. I think the STEM efforts are great, but we also need to help young women understand their strengths and then help them figure out where they’re needed. Giving future generations the opportunity to explore and figure out the best path for them is what’s important, not necessarily trying to herd them all into STEM programs.

Q: Why do you think more women don’t follow the entrepreneurial path and/or pursue leadership positions?

A: Probably two reasons: 1) They don’t know that they can, meaning they don’t even know it’s an option or they haven’t thought about it before, and 2) it’s really tough if you’re going to have kids.

Q: What are some of the unique opportunities you believe female entrepreneurs have or can create?

A: Females tend to make up the buying power in the country, whether in the consumer markets or occupations like education and nursing. I think we’re already seeing more female entrepreneurs, but it’s in markets that don’t typically get a lot of press coverage (like tech). Or they’re not out trying to raise venture capital, which also seems to get press coverage. I wish that would change, too. It would be nice to highlight companies that are growing debt free or based on customer growth instead of just celebrating companies raising debt.

Q: How do you measure success? Do you feel you’ve reached that point yet?

A: The definition of success is very personal, and it changes. It's a combination of goals, combined with general happiness and well-being. My goals are slightly different now that I have kids and a family. I feel successful if the journey to achieving my goal was fulfilling. I've always wanted to be in a position to create jobs and help people, and we're doing that right now at Oak City Labs. At this very moment, I feel some level of success, but I don't feel done. In running, there's always another race to run, another course to tackle or more distance to conquer. For me, success is very similar.

Q: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started your company?

A: I wouldn't change anything that we've gone through as a company because we've learned so much and met so many people along the way. Part of the process is learning and adjusting. If I have to choose something, I would have told myself to learn sales early on. 

Q: What are you proudest of in your career so far?

A: The people I've had the opportunity to meet, work with and learn from.

Q: What advice would you give other female entrepreneurs? What can they take away from your experiences?

A: Spend time figuring out your strengths and put yourself into situations that allow you to continue growing those strengths. I’ve lucked into a lot of opportunities, but I do wish I had spent more time focusing on my strengths and ignoring people that focused on my weaknesses. Also, as a mom and entrepreneur, there isn’t really “balance.” If you stop trying to achieve it, you will figure out how to adapt. My idea of making things work would probably drive some people crazy, and that’s okay.

Know an amazing woman entrepreneur whom you think should be considered for this series? Send Shawn an email.

The Power of She: MaryAnne Gucciardi, Founder of Dragonwing girlgear

Welcome to The Power of She, a blog series dedicated to featuring women entrepreneurs and leaders. With this series, we hope to create a platform to help readers better understand the unique challenges that women entrepreneurs face, the opportunities they have created and the lessons they can share with other women who are interested in following the same path.

MaryAnne Gucciardi is no stranger to entrepreneurship. Early in her career, she founded and spent 14 years as managing partner of a Hong Kong-based textile trading company. But this time around, her entrepreneurial adventure is personal. She founded Chapel Hill-based Dragonwing girlgear in 2010 out of a dream that her daughter and girls everywhere would be empowered to play sports with confidence, comfort and joy—free from distraction and constraint.

When her daughter was a preteen, she was a serious athlete in need of performance clothing. They were forced to shop in the boys’ department because the girls’ department’s so-called “athletic wear” was fashion-oriented and made out of lower-quality fabrics. There was nothing meant for serious girl athletes.

Shopping trips were awkward and sent the subliminal message that athletic girls weren’t feminine. When other mothers of female athletes shared similar frustrations with MaryAnne, she was inspired to change that message by starting a line of athletic wear designed just for girls.  

 

MaryAnne sees a lot of similarities between the perceptions many have of women business leaders and the perceptions many have of women who play sports.

“It’s not enough for female athletes to play well; they’re also supposed to be pretty, to look good,” said MaryAnne. She references comments made by FIFA itself last year about US Women’s National Team player Alex Morgan—the organization wrote that she was “a talented goalscorer with a style that is very easy on the eye and good looks to match.”

“We don’t put that kind of expectation on boys to look a certain way and be a star athlete,” MaryAnne said. “Boys can be good at their sport, and that is enough. I want that for girls, too.”

I asked MaryAnne for her thoughts on women entrepreneurs, some of the unique challenges they might face and the unique opportunities they can create. Her answers are below.

Q: What are some of the unique challenges that you think female entrepreneurs face?

A: Raising funds is difficult, especially in the consumer product field. It is estimated that only four to nine percent of all VC funding goes to women. Most of the angels and venture capitalists are men. Imagine presenting to a group of 90 men and one woman, talking about adolescent girls and underwear.

Q: Do you think women face more unique challenges than their male counterparts based on societal expectations of leaders, women, etc.?

A: Every entrepreneur faces a range of challenges. No matter what you imagine the norm to be, don’t try to act in a way that is not natural to you just to conform to those self-perceived societal expectations.  Every entrepreneur faces societal or market expectations, but they’re different in different situations. I encourage every woman who’s starting or running a business to stay firm in her values. If things don’t go your way in one situation, re-evaluate, pivot (if necessary), stay positive and persevere.

Q: Have you personally faced discrimination as a female leader in your industry? 

A: Every time someone hears my business’s target audience is girls, they think it’s a “hobby” or “lifestyle business.” There’s a stereotype or assumption that a business for girls can’t be serious, that it must be a small niche business. But 52 to 69 percent of all girls in the US play a sport; that’s not a niche.    

Q: Do you feel that you have good role models and a good support infrastructure as a female leader in your industry?  

A: Yes, we do have good role models. Missy Park of Title Nine, Barbara Corcoran and Lori Greiner of Shark Tank, Meg Whitman of HP, Tory Johnson of GMA. My best role models and inspirations are Joanne Domeniconi and Jules Pieri, cofounders of the buy-differently ecommerce site The Grommet.  I’m also grateful to them for helping to launch Dragonwing girlgear.

I’m also inspired by today’s young women entrepreneurs. The girls coming up, especially our athletic girls, will have a huge advantage. Two local examples are Stephanie Santistevan-Swett, who launched Eva Jo Rompers while getting her Ph.D., and Tatiana Birgisson of MATI, which she started as an undergrad at Duke.  

Think of what this generation of 8- to 17-year-old girls will be doing in 10 to 15 years. Right now, there are only 21 female CEOs running Fortune 500 companies. In the future, we won’t have only 21 female CEOs – we will have 250 female CEOs!  I can’t wait to see how the coming generation of girls and women use their voices and power. I’ll be cheering them on.

Q: What are some of the unique opportunities that female entrepreneurs have and can create? 

A: The Internet is a meritocracy, a vast learning tool and a boon for entrepreneurs. You can start selling on Amazon or start an ecommerce business very quickly and inexpensively.  One thing I recommend to young women is to take programming and bookkeeping courses. There is also the opportunity to do good through a successful business, so don’t be afraid to use your voice and your business for something you believe in.

Q: What advice would you give other women entrepreneurs?

A: You matter! We need you, your unique talents and your unique solutions to problems big and small. Just because there is someone else out there doing the same thing you want to do doesn’t mean you can’t do it too. Just because no one is out there doing what you want to do doesn’t mean it is not possible, needed or valued.  You can do anything. Don’t let anybody make you feel that you can’t.

Develop some mental Teflon. Let comments about things that aren’t important to you roll off.

Fight the urge to downplay your achievements and to suffer over a negative experience or perceived bad decision. 

Choose to be happy and positive. Every day is a gift. Do something every day that is fun, makes you smile or feeds your soul. Even better, do all three every day!

Know an amazing woman entrepreneur whom you think should be considered for this series? Send Shawn an email.

                                

The Power of She: Melissa Kennedy, Founder of 48 Innovate

Welcome to The Power of She, a blog series dedicated to featuring women entrepreneurs and leaders. With this series, we hope to create a platform to help readers better understand the unique challenges that women entrepreneurs face, the opportunities they have created and the lessons they can share with other women who are interested in following the same path.

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When Melissa Kennedy left a career at Cisco Systems five years ago and set out on her own, she didn’t have a plan. What she did have was a strong desire to create something of her own, as well as passion, tenacity and stamina.

For Melissa (and many others), the decision to become an entrepreneur did not happen overnight; it was an evolution. By most standards, she was successful in her career, having earned a number of promotions and bonuses for her work. However, according to Melissa, her work just never fit. She tried switching jobs, industries and companies, but she was always left feeling frustrated and unfulfilled.

Finally, something snapped, and Melissa decided she had had enough. She couldn’t keep pretending that working for a prestigious tech company and having a lucrative career was enough for her.

“Once I started doing freelance work, working on my own concepts and working the way I wanted to work, it became clear,” Melissa said. “I wasn't crazy. I was just an entrepreneur!”

Melissa’s entrepreneurial spirit has expressed itself in a few different forms since leaving Cisco but most recently resulted in the creation of 48 Innovate, a consulting firm dedicated to helping corporations generate employee-driven innovation. Now she pulls from her own experience to help others find their “intrapreneurial” spirit by leading innovation events and consulting activities within organizations of all sizes and industries.

I talked with Melissa about her advice for women entrepreneurs, the challenges of being a woman entrepreneur and more.

Q: What unique challenges do women entrepreneurs face (that their male counterparts may not)?

A: Ugh… I hate this question because I am an entrepreneur who happens to be female. I never wanted to admit that it was harder for a woman to be an entrepreneur, although all the data suggests that to be the case. Philosophically, I believe that women have to work “in the wild with men” in the current environment in order to be successful, no matter how fair or unfair the situation.

Q: But you can’t deny there are double standards and expectations when it comes to gender, many of which are very subtle.

A: I have faced my own challenges gaining access to decision makers, having to prove myself and my business at a different standard than male counterparts and not getting the deal because of the bigger perceived risk in hiring a nontraditional choice. And the innovation industry itself presents some unique challenges, because the number one obstacle to innovation is fear—fear of change, fear of failure, etc. I not only have to help decision makers get over the fear of innovation, but also the fear of hiring a woman to lead those efforts.

 

Q: What are some of the unique qualities that female entrepreneurs have?

A: Collaboration: Women are masterful collaborators. This is the era of collaboration; there has never been a time in history where collaboration is so important. Leveraging this powerful skill is one of the keys to creating opportunities for females in the future.

Perspective: Perspective is another advantage I think females have to stand out in innovation. Since men have dominated business throughout history, things are done from that lens. Females have a different experience and perspective, and that is what it takes to drive innovation and deliver change.

Hunger: It hasn’t been that long since females where denied access to college, work, etc., and because of that lack of opportunity, [women have] an innate hunger to participate, prove, achieve. That hunger fuels the chase, the creativity and the gratitude to overcome the inevitable challenges of driving innovation and change. 

Q: What advice would you offer to other women entrepreneurs?

A: Letting go is the most incredible superpower you can cultivate. Nothing is fair, and sometimes that lands in your favor, and sometimes not. Letting go of the stories you make up in your head about yourself, the environment, the industry, or men [and] women is key to sanity and success. Letting go of someone else’s idea of success, so you can find yours. I [also] must be vigilant in the pursuit of mastering [letting go]. And some days letting go is easier than others, but it is a constant. It’s a choice, but it is a hard one.

Words of wisdom for other women entrepreneurs (or anyone, really):

“Find your passion and pursue it relentlessly.”

“Learn to say ‘no,’ or in my case, since I am southern and all, ‘no, thank you.’”

“Ditch the guilt; it’s a waste of energy.” 

Know an amazing woman entrepreneur whom you think should be considered for this series? Send Shawn an email.

Introducing The Power of She

If you follow me on Twitter (@shawnmoxie), you already know I enjoy reading and sharing content about women in business. As a woman, entrepreneur, mentor, leader and business owner, these issues are near and dear to my heart.

While some of these articles share stories of inspiration, all too many of them tend to paint a picture of doom and gloom, sharing depressing statistics about the state of women in business and leadership. For example, a recent Fast Company article compared the strong female leads in Star Wars’ “galaxy far, far away” to the state of women here in our world and found some disheartening facts:

·      Only five major tech firms are headed by women.

·      There are only 21 female CEOs in the entire Fortune 500.

·      Only 15 percent of the companies who received venture capital funding between 2011 and 2013 had women on their executive teams, and only 2.7 percent of the funded companies had a woman CEO.

·      The share of new entrepreneurs who are women dropped from 43.7 percent in 1996 to 36.8 percent in 2014.

While those statistics are not necessarily surprising, they are definitely depressing and are in no way inspiring. While entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart, I know that there has to be a better way to inspire and support women entrepreneurs. They do exist!

I think one of the best ways to inspire women considering entrepreneurship is to share stories of women who have already blazed that trail and not only survived, but succeeded. I have been well aware of the lack of women in leadership in the B2B tech industry; In my 13 years here at Crossroads and my 20+ years working in this industry, I have had very few opportunities to work with other women entrepreneurs. However, I knew they existed, so I set out to find them and to share their stories with you.

Introducing The Power of She

I am excited to introduce a new series on the Crossroads blog called The Power of She. This series will be dedicated to featuring women entrepreneurs and leaders. I wanted to create a platform to help readers better understand the unique challenges that women entrepreneurs face, the opportunities they have created and the lessons they can share with other women who are interested in following the same path.

Connecting with and learning about so many amazing, strong, smart women has inspired and motivated me, which is a great way to start the new year. Whether you are female or male, a seasoned business veteran or an emerging entrepreneur, I think we can all learn something from these women and their stories. I hope you feel the same way.

If you know an amazing woman entrepreneur who you think I should consider for this series, please drop me an email.