An open letter to women and men in tech

Maria Christopoulos Katris

To all women and men in tech,

For those who know me well I am not one to come out publicly on many issues, yet given the commentary, articles and actions of both sides regarding the Techweek email sent earlier this week I honestly felt it was my obligation as a mother, entrepreneur and female CEO to respond and share my personal experience and advice with other female and male entrepreneurs. The below may not be what you expected but I do hope it resonates and helps to move everyone forward. Everyone is responsible.  

Why I am writing this? I am a mom to two (soon-to-be three) girls, a wife to a successful husband raised by a single, working mother and grandmother, sister to a female plastic surgeon and a daughter to immigrant parents who are both pharmacists and entrepreneurs. In our family, male or female, we were taught to work hard, stay humble, pay our dues and reach for the stars - regardless of sex. So yes, it does start with parenting and how you choose to raise your kids from a young age. Nothing matters more and this is why I feel strongly about the below.

 

What Works (to promote female entrepreneurs)

1. At Home...

  • Raising daughters to believe they can be anything they want to be and pushing them in this direction.
  • Raising sons who respect their mothers, sisters, aunts and female friends as equals.
  • Having fathers and mothers alike co-parent their kids and get as involved regardless if one parent stays home (because let's be honest here, being a stay-at-home parent is a fulltime career). 

2. And In The Workplace...

As investors, invest in entrepreneurs regardless of sex-actually write a check!

I recently went through the fundraising process (consider this the most formal announcement but yes, we raised a seed round from some awesome investors including Joe Mansueto, Dundee VC, The Pritzker Group, David Cohen, Ellen Carnahan and Jumpstart Ventures) and look forward to growing the Built In network) and feel confident I can speak intelligently on this one as I encountered it all. 

I was fortunate to have Ellen Carnahan, a female investor, be the first "yes" to invest in our round before even seeing a full deck. Why? Because Ellen has known me personally for over three years, has watched me grow Built In and immediately saw the vision for the company. This wasn't philanthropy and this wasn't Ellen being nice. She saw the potential and could see my passion. She had a successful career in Venture Capital and now spends all of her time investing in, and mentoring, the next generation. And she was willing to write a check.

On the other end, both Joe Mansueto (Founder & CEO of Morningstar) and Mark Hasebroock (Partner, Dundee VC) said "yes" after meeting and hearing the Built In story, progress and vision because of the business, our team and the metrics - not because they knew me well personally-they judged the business on its merits. Joe has been following Built In through quarterly updates provided by Matt Moog (Built In Founder and Chairman). Once, at an event, Matt Moog shared with me that Joe stood in a boardroom of mostly male CEOs and said how every business should be built like "Built In".  Now, that works. Joe looks at metrics, is humble and hardworking. Joe did not care nor did he comment on the fact that I am the CEO - he was commenting on the success of the company. It is these discreet moments that help to define a company and propel female CEOs forward.  It is a highly respected male CEO publicly touting the success of a female-run company. Needless to say, Joe led our round and I will never be able to fully articulate the incredible amount of respect I have for him. 

As a female, surround yourself with males and females who support your career and steer away from those who don't

So it's been written about before, but as a female it is super important to surround yourself with males who view you as an equal, and women who are not threatened by your success.  Let me elaborate...

Matt Moog hired me to run something he started after knowing me for less than six months. Matt saw my passion for Built In and took a chance.  Why? I personally believe it has a lot to do with Matt's innate respect for successful females and mothers. Matt's wife, Lucy, is incredibly bright and had an amazing career in politics before choosing to stay at home and raise their three boys. Matt also has a track record of working with successful women and mothers as he had Jolie Fleming as his right hand for years at both CoolSavings and Viewpoints.  

But why I have an incredible amount of respect for Matt's support of my career is in the details: 

  • He gave me the title of CEO because he wanted everyone else to understand that I ran the company, not him.
  • When a certain reporter in town kept referring to Matt as "running Built In Chicago" Matt was the first to correct him and say, actually "Maria is the CEO."
  • When male CEOs in the community sent emails introducing Matt as the CEO of Built In Matt would quickly correct them and bring me into the conversation..it took about a year for everyone to accept this fact but had it not been for Matt, all would continue to view me as an event planner or Matt's assistant:)
  • When Matt was invited to moderate a panel of Governors and could not attend, he volunteered me into this role. 
  • When Matt could not participate in a panel event with the Mayor, he volunteered me again. 

And this is why I have a tremendous amount of respect and gratitude for Matt and why more males need to take cues from his actions.  

On the flipside, I surround myself with other successful female entrepreneurs and leaders such as Amanda Lannert and Desiree Vargas Wrigley.  Why? Because they are mothers, wives and CEOs who have built successful businesses and I admire them because we talk about our respective businesses, challenges, etc.  We don't sit around and discuss how it sucks to be a female CEO and how we got the short end of the stick.  We all had the same opportunities (albeit a lot of inappropriate comments along the way) as our male counterparts and are all facing the same challenges (with some additional challenges like being pregnant while fundraising).

So here you have concrete examples of what works.  It is not about having conversations, isolating women, establishing all-women groups, panels, forums, incubators, etc.  It's about treating women as equals and SHOWING it by investing in them, inviting them to attend events mostly male-dominated, supporting their careers, etc.

 

What doesn't work and the challenges we have...

1. Segregation

I've heard multiple points of views throughout the years on "women in tech" and promoting female entrepreneurs and to be honest, each time, I roll my eyes and stay far away from the conversation.  It's not because I don't think women need to be supported it's because these tactics DO NOT work.  I have once in my career sat on an all-female panel and vowed to never do it again.  Why? Because it doesn't help, it actually hurts.  Separating out women and men further perpetuates the issue.  The whole point is to treat us as equals. Have you ever seen a panel titled "men in tech". 

2. Oh, the inappropriate comments.

While running Built In and also going through the fundraising process I encountered a lot of interesting comments which included the following:

"Is this a hobby?"

"Where do you want to be in 3 years, personally?"

"This is going to be hard, you will have to travel a lot"

"I really like you, and want to be supportive...."

"Hey hottie"

"You look good"

So what do I do? I stay far away from the males who treat me as their girlfriend or daughter (you will figure this out quickly as a female) and instead stay close to those who treat me as an equal and have productive conversations with me regarding business, life, investments, etc. 

Now, do these comments offend me and/or bother me? Sure. Do they stop me from running my business, accomplishing what I want to do, etc? No. And they never will. I would rather keep my head down, build a successful company and end my career mentoring and investing in younger entrepreneurs.  I do believe these comments are a distraction and unproductive. Everyone needs to talk less and act more.  And women and men alike need to recognize that the best progress will be made by continuing to build and operate successful businesses that are inclusive and treat men and women equally.

So with that, I will get back to building Built In and helping all of you build your businesses. Let's focus on content, not parties.  Let's focus on action, not words.

Maria

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Comments

Ellen Carnahan

THANK YOU Maria for putting yourself out there to speak the obvious, common sense truth. The sad situation is that in 2014 some people still don't realize they are out of step. Keep up your sage common sense! Ellen Carnahan

Maria Christopoulos Katris

Thank you all for taking the time to read, comment and share in this dialogue. I look forward to working with you all to create the next generation of amazing technology companies.

Gary Stock

Thanks, Maria. Segregation by cause does hurt more than it helps. Some public "gnashing of teeth" may feel good to disadvantaged parties, but that rarely outweighs the subtle resentment generated in the larger community, and the growing sense that we are all "apart" from one another.

Focusing on "women in tech" also encourages new panels: sexual preference in tech, ethnicity in tech, body type in tech... right through vegans in tech, and hair color in tech. It validates every anxiety of every definable group. The eventual outcome really ~would~ be panels on "white men in tech," "straight men in tech," and so on.

The solution is simply to behave like a decent human being, and get on with life.

Melinda Kramer

Maria, I come from a very similar way of thinking. I have spent the last 30 years working in the investment/brokerage industries and technology, including 10 of those years on Wall Street. I've seen it all and have succeeded in very male dominated worlds by being treated as an equal. I never felt like I needed special treatment as a woman. Like you, my success came from desire, hard work, good mentors and good results. I'm also a mom and wife and have battled the balancing act along the way.

And I'd like to see all women succeed on their merits and passion.

However, I respectfully disagree with you on the need for women's groups or any group that is designed to help its members achieve and succeed. I believe networks are key to personal and business growth. I have seen women's networks and events that offer insights and advice that is additive to the development of careers and businesses. They can enable a stronger voice for many and should not be thought of as segregated any more than a Drupal network.

Yes we all need to surround ourselves with good mentors, challenges and diversity as that's how we grow. And we need to recognize the idiots and steer clear.

But let's not beat up on women's groups and events because there's a need and a desire for them. Let's continue to surround ourselves with the people who will support us and help us succeed in our goals and keep an open mind toward where that may come from.

J. A.  Ginsburg

You made my day. It has been thrilling to see so many say loud and clear, "No. That's just not how we do it around here." But you really nailed it. Thank you.

Jeff Carter

great post. totally endorse your views as a father to two daughters working in the Chicago startup community

Troy Henikoff

Reason #247 why there is nobody (of any sex, religion, race) better to represent Chicago and to take the BuiltIn concept (and values!) around the world. I am proud to have the privilege of knowing you, working with you and being part of this community.

That said, we all still have a lot of work to do to make it a more level playing field for EVERYONE.

Jacqueline Fisch

This - " I stay far away from the males who treat me as their girlfriend or daughter (you will figure this out quickly as a female) and instead stay close to those who treat me as an equal and have productive conversations with me regarding business, life, investments, etc."

Thanks Maria for writing this, sharing your experiences and leading by example (it's the best way!)

Julie Northcutt

Congrats on your success, Maria! Believe it or not, it is much better than it was 15 years ago and kudos to your efforts to make it better 15 years from now. Male or female, always take the high road!

Peter Kay

Kudos to you, Maria. This is clearly a blog post written by a confident woman who sees the world around her for what it is while understanding the only limitations one has are those that are placed upon oneself. It's a great perspective to add to this conversation and is, generally speaking, a message that everyone can embrace. We've all experienced some degree of pre-judgement and it's up to us to only work with those who don't have those limitations.

Sharon Schneider

I disagree with your approach. You know that about me. I think that asking people not to talk about an issue doesn't make it go away, and there have to be social and economic consequences for people who enable a sexist environment - either through their actions or simply through their lack of actions. If we don't call them out and don't create consequences, the culture will never change.

Like you, I'm increasingly torn on the focus on women in tech, instead of just great leaders in tech. I don't want this industry to need a category on "outstanding woman in tech." I hate that Built In felt the need to have such a category instead of seeing women nominated in every category.

But i want you to know I will always support you, respect you and appreciate you as a role model doing what you think is right through your actions as a CEO and thought leader.

I've got your back. I mean it, sister. I've got your back and I know you've got mine. Respect and support is definitely the foundation, even if we disagree on where to go from here.

Katie Hawking

Fantastic article!

Reva Minkoff

YES. Thank you for writing this and thank you for everything you've done for the community. I think this is a great start to a productive way to move forward and a productive blueprint for others to do the same.

April  Muller

"Have you ever seen a panel titled 'men in tech'." Brilliant. Thank you for writing this.

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