Are you a woman in NYC Tech and interested in participating in this series? Make sure to read the whole article…
Much has been said and written about the lack of women in the tech sector, be it as investors (or associates), founders, or in management positions at major companies. Is the problem the old boys network – or that success in technology is seen as a young man’s game? In this series, we speak with some of the top women in tech in New York as they discuss the challenges they face, the perceptions that need to be changed and the work that’s being done – or not – to help to promote women in tech.
Today we speak with Sarah Sheehan, cofounder of Bravely, the coaching platform for employees to navigate complex issues in the workplace. An early employee at Gilt, Sarah spearheaded the launch of Gilt City, the city-specific lifestyle destination, scaling it to a 65 person team with $60M in revenue. From there, Sarah went on cofound a 500 Startups-basked edtech startup. Presently, Sarah is at Bravely, which she cofounded and Bravely raised its first round of funding within 5 months of founding. With a keen understanding of how important company culture is, Sarah uses her expertise to shift the way we run business on a global scale and at a personal level, Sarah is extremely active in one-on-one mentoring.
Sarah Sheehan, Bravely
What’s your background and how did you develop your career as a female entrepreneur in the NYC tech ecosystem?
I was bitten by the Startup bug while working during the early days at the Gilt Groupe. I actually started at the company in an HR role and pitched myself to our Founder and Chairman at the time, Kevin Ryan, to give me a shot at launching a new vertical that was in the works, Gilt City. He took a chance on me and a few years later I was responsible for leading a 65-person sales team and driving $60M in revenue. From there, I cofounded a company in the edtech space that was accepted into the 500 Startups Accelerator before moving on to launch Bravely with my close friend and former Gilt colleague, Toby Hervey. My journey to becoming an entrepreneur has definitely not been a straight line and I often refer to myself as a late bloomer. At some point, I lost my fear of asking people to take a chance on me and I’ve been busy building things ever since.
What is diversity to you and do you see it evolving in tech?
Diversity is more than color and gender. It’s diversity of thought and experience. Female and diverse founding teams deliver better ROI for investors because they bring new perspectives to the table, seeing opportunities and solving problems through a completely different lens. If you care about the bottom line you should start caring more about funding and hiring not only women but also people of color and LGBTQ founders. The most exciting thing for me as we have built Bravely is to see how our product supports these groups and helps them gain confidence to take risks and ask for what they deserve.
I think the recent events around #MeToo and #TimesUp have led companies to have an “aha moment” and realize they need to be doing more to support their employees. Even with the incredible movements happening, it is still not easy for people to initiate conversations about sensitive issues that inevitably come up at work, which is what we are solving for at Bravely. We are definitely seeing more people come forward to talk about issues around gender and inclusion in general. Getting employees to talk about tough topics early is what helps companies avoid becoming the next disastrous headline.
What are the advantages of being a woman in tech?
You have to work twice as hard to get the same amount of credit so by default it makes you think more creatively in terms of problem-solving and it cultivates an enormous amount of perseverance. You also have the advantage of being a part of a community of fellow female founders who are incredibly generous. Women I know in tech have made key intros to investors, offered impactful fundraising guidance, and given me shots of confidence when I needed it the most.
What can be done to further promote female entrepreneurs and women in tech in New York?
You’re doing one of the things I would suggest right now…write about them. Hearing their stories can only help the cause. We obviously need more investment in female entrepreneurs and as I recently said to one of our investors, not just white ones. The obvious other answer is: hire more women. Taking it a step further, companies need to design their recruiting strategies around more than just identifying experience level and pedigree. They need to also look for and recognize potential transferable skill sets. If I hadn’t raised my hand at Gilt and had someone willing to take a chance on me because they saw my potential, where would I be today?
Why do you think it’s important that women retain, grow, and develop into senior roles within their organizations?
We need role models. I keep going back to Gilt, but it was there that I saw many women in senior level roles, which made me believe that I too could reach that level. If you don’t see your gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation represented in leadership roles it’s hard to imagine that level of achievement for yourself.
You’ve successfully raised funding for your business from investors. What tips do you have for fellow female founders?
First, as cliché as it sounds, be yourself. The process is rigorous and you need to walk into every room confident in yourself. You can’t accomplish that trying to conform to someone else’s idea of who you should be. Second, get comfortable talking about your accomplishments. This one was hard for me and I suspect many women, but I kept reminding myself “men have no problem doing this, Sarah, so suck it up.” Finally, do your research before every pitch and know your audience. There are benefits to pitching a female-centric product to female investors: they can relate personally as users. But all investors speak the same language around market size, traction and opportunity. If you’re pitching an all-male investor team, make sure you show data around your users and the universal themes, and don’t rely on them to intuitively get it.
Do you think fundraising for your business would be more difficult if you did not have a male cofounder?
Who knows. What I do believe is that we would not have raised money without me. I brought relationships to the table that resulted in warm intros to investors and I don’t know if the story would have been nearly as compelling if I were not one of the founders. Toby and I are a really strong team and I think people decided to invest in us because we brought completely different strengths and skill sets to the table that complemented one another and together made total sense.
It’s statically proven that women-led companies are more successful than their male counterparts. Why do you think they still only get 2% of funding available for new ideas?
I would say first and foremost, unconscious bias. It’s a big one and hard to overcome. We also simply need more female founders pitching their ideas. To get there we need more female mentors, more supporting communities and safe spaces like The Wing for women to network, and more men willing to act as allies and advocate on our behalf. It takes a village to help women undo all the socialization that has led us to this moment in time.
How much do you think casual sexual harassment and misconduct affects a woman’s career?
I think it depends on the circumstances but most women have experienced it on some level. I often talk about how the smaller unconscious micro-aggressions we experience at work can have just as negative of an impact as larger more egregious acts. Over time, these experiences and the enormous amounts of mansplaining we are subjected to chip away at our confidence and sense of self which absolutely affects the choices we make and the trajectory of our careers.
Please tell us about a few organizations that you are involved with or respect that are promoting women in tech.
I do a lot of 1:1 mentoring as I find that it is the most impactful way I can offer my time. I am also a member of the group Dreamers//Doers and love the community Women in Innovation is building. I’m also a big fan of female VCs like Trail Mix, Built by Girls, and Female Founders Fund who are doing their part in bringing women in tech together through various events to tell their stories.
What can men do to support this movement and/or participate in this discussion?
They can stop saying they are now afraid to talk to women at work for starters! Men have to find the courage to speak up on our behalf and give credit where credit is due. Every woman has a story about her idea being repeated in a meeting by a man and the idea no longer being hers. Most of the time men don’t realize they are doing this which is why their understanding of unconscious bias and serving as an ally to us is so important. I remember a guy I used to work with standing up for me in a meeting where I was being labeled “difficult” for disagreeing with another guy’s ideas. He pointed out how I was only trying to share a different perspective and that he didn’t think I was being difficult at all. This guy standing up for me, unsolicited, immediately changed how I was treated in that meeting. It’s a moment I will never forget.
The team at AlleyWatch believes it’s important to have an inclusive discussion around the challenges facing women in tech along with highlighting the work of the female entrepreneurs that have made NYC one of the best places for women in tech according to some recent studies. That’s why we are running this series that showcases women in tech in New York.
If you are a female founder in NYC working in tech and interested in participating in the series please visit this link or click on the image above.
Please feel free to pass this on to any women in NYC that you feel should be considered for the series. Thank you.