The Entrepreneur Podcast
The Entrepreneur Podcast

Episode · 1 year ago

18. Mobilizing networks and community building is key for women’s venture creation

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Mona Sabet is a technology sector deal maker, an entrepreneur, a diversity advocate, and a community builder.

With over 20 years of experience in driving inorganic growth for technology businesses from startup to public company, Mona has cultivated an expertise in formulating, structuring and negotiating strategic initiatives that power corporate growth. She has negotiated hundreds of technology deals and nearly 50 acquisitions from $10M to $500M in valuation.

Mona joins Ivey professor Janice Byrne to talk about challenges women entrepreneurs still face in the world of startups, the importance of community and networks, and what men and women need to do better to bring balance to entrepreneurship.

Listening to the Ibby entrepreneur podcast bythe Pierrel Morrisse at Institute for Entrepreneurship at the Abbey Business School. In thisseries I'd be facing the member Janis Burn, will anchor the session. Okay,so, Mona, I am delighted to have you here at me todayand you have an extremely impressive professional trajectory. I have to say a quick lookat your profile on linkedin really like impressive qualifications. You've a background inlaw and engineering, you've had many rich and varied work experiences and you've gota whole lot of a whole host of accolades from a truly diverse set ofpeople with whom you've worked. People referring to his dynamic eloquence, amazing accomplished. You've been called an outstanding leader, Strategy just entrepreneur, community builder.You really have an impressive resume. And before we kind of get into themeat, I guess, of some of the things that you're actively involved inright now, I guess I'd love to know. So you're apparently originally fromlike Tilsenburg. Just do the road here from what's in the road and you'veended up in California. So how did that happen? Well, my parentswere they retired, both doctors, and they moved around a lot, takingthese two year locoms in different, different cities. And so we moved toCanada when I was perhaps eight years old. Okay, lived in Winnipeg, UhHuh, Newfoundland, finally moved to Ontario and then settled until some Burg, which is pretty much where most people who moved to Canada will eventually wantto settle into. Right. Yeah, and so I guess I got alittle bit of the moving bug and me as a result of that. Andwhen I graduated from High School I went to the University of Toronto for,as you said, engineering, then came to Western and did my law degreehere, worked in Toronto for a little bit and then felt the need tosort of explore more. Yeah, so after I worked in Toronto, Idecided to move out to Calgary, work there for a few years and thenmoved made my way all the way to Vancouver. Worked there for five years. Wow, really following, I would say, start up tech. SoI couldn't have even told you that. I knew that this was my passionback then, but it just sort of drew me. When I graduated andwas working in Toronto. I was working with large banks and very large institutions. Calgary at the time was start up land, yeah, and so Iwas just attracted to that. And then, after having lived in Calgary for awhile, Vancouver was this was back when Vancouver was really starting to comeinto the tech startup world, and so there were really interesting opportunities to workwith tech startups, their biotech also. Yeah, back then, although Ihad a very small little period of time whereas involved in by at tech andso that's what drew me to all those different places. And then, afterworking in Vancouver for five years, I guess I must have loved the WestCoast enough. And it was one thousand nine hundred and ninety nine and theoppertunities in California were just it was the...

...bubble times. Yeah, fifty.Yeah, it was shocking. I thought when I moved to California that Iwas just it wasn't really going to be a new country. It didn't feellike the United States was really that much different from Canada. Yeah, butit was a culture shock for me. Yeah, especially moving right in themiddle of the Internet bubble. I thought I would be there for maybe twoor three years, but I've been there for twenty. Great Life is whathappens when we're busy making plans right, we don't always know where we're goingto end up totally. Yeah, two things that really strike me in particularwhen I look at your bio is your open, unrelentless support, I guess, for nurturing women and diversity, and your parallel emphasis on on delivering valueand in business and technology. So, given your background, given soulthless tomy research interests and, guess, the current economic and social climate that weoperate in today, I'd love to talk to you more today about your thoughtsand experiences of supporting women entrepreneurs in INTAC one of my favorite subjects. Grace, we're in the right place. So brilliant. Okay, so I guess. So. The a long tradition of we talked about Silicon Valley startups.Like this long tradition of male dominance there in silicon valley startups in the venturecapital scene as well. I guess I'd love to know. You know,we research ass that women entrepreneurs are at a disadvantage relative to to to menwhen it comes to garnering funds. Can acting to mentors and role models accessingnetworks. What are your thoughts and experiences on Women Entrepreneurs intach? I mean, the statistics definitely show that, and I'm more familiar these days with theUS statistics. Yet yeah, I mean the statistics show that women founded companiesget funded to a lesser extent than all male companies founded companies do. Thewomen founded companies don't grow as large as male founded companies do. And youknow, when you get faced with all of these statistics, and I askmen this, sometimes you have to ask one of two questions. I meanthere's only two things that you can believe. You either believe that women just aren'tas good are you believe that there's a bias in the system somewhere,and obviously I don't believe that women aren't is good. So there is abias in the system. I think I've been thinking about this for a longtime and, as you said, I've been involved in building organizations and communitiesfocused on women and women professionals and women in Tuch for a long time andI think that at the core of it, also, when I think about myexperience as a businessperson and on the business side, with business development andall the things that I've been, you know, working on as part ofmy professional life. What I think this stems from is that business is actuallyabout relationships, and so we often go to school and we learn a lotof technical skills and perhaps we graduate believing...

...that we're building businesses based on ourtechnical skills and as long as we build the technical thing, you know,everything else sort of fits in place. Sure, it's hard, but it'smostly about the technical thing. Sure, and I think when you've been aroundfor long enough, you start realizing that, just like anything else, businesses aboutrelationships. That's fine, except for the fact that relationships in business arelargely maldominated historically, and so women haven't built up those strategic network relationships tothe same extent that men have. And that might be changing, but themajority of power is still consolidated within the men who have built up these strategicrelationships. Sure, and so how does this translate? It translates into ifyou're looking for funding. Let's say you're a woman who has started a companyand you decide you're looking for funding. If you don't have those close relationshipswith funders, then you're going in cold and trying to convince someone to investin you. And no matter what investors say, they are people too,and they tend to invest at least a fair bit of their decisionmaking as basedon who they're investing in. And if they know that person over there whohappens to be a guy and they don't know you, then they tend tobe swayed to invest more towards, you know, the person that they knowand they feel fall familiar with. If you really want to get into,you know, gender research, it's, you know, in group bias versusoutgroup bias, and so those kinds of things all pile up, in myopinion, to limit a woman founders ability to be able to do the samethings as men can do with the same product, or even maybe even betterproducts. Not just investing, I mean finding customers, same thing. I'veseen amazing work done by very talented men, I mean, I don't want tounderstell how talented they are, and being able to do this, sure, but who are able to be able to make connections with potential customers andvery significant strategic roles in the kinds of companies that they need to sell into. Yeah, and be able to get that meeting because of a relationship andif women just don't have the same tentacles into those strategic buyers, it's justharder. Yeah, and there's a lot of, I think, cognitive biasesthat also get in the way on top of the fact that you know you'restarting from a disadvantage. So when you talk about those cognitive bias, biases, you're talking with the cognitive biases that...

...women themselves may have or the cognitivebiases of others, I think cognitive biases of humans. Studies have shown that, you know, men have biases with respect to women. Studies have alsoshown that women have biases with respect to women. So I just think it'sa human thing. Yeah, in fact, I've often said to people that ifthis was a matriarchy instead of Patriarchy and women held all the power inthe world, there's a good chance that we would have the same bias astowards men as men do today. So I don't think it's a male femalething, I think it's a human thing. Yeah, and we just have tobe aware of it and start working towards being mindful enough to change it. Yeah, yeah, so in terms of just in listen to your response, but respect to know if the researchers is that that women are a disadvantagein terms of garnering phones and also in terms of connecting to an access accessingnetworks. For you, these two things are essentially are linked. There's astrong link between the two. Yeah, my perspective is that there is avery strong link with between networks, relationships and business. Sure, so,I share your thoughts on that and you have obviously seen this also in termsof your experience and the community building that you're involved and I imagine, stemsfrom from this conviction that you that you have. So how do we?How do we, and have you gone about tackling this? What can wedo to change it? Well, I think that there's there's a number ofthings. I just sort of tend to split how to think about this intotwo separate things. One is there are things that women can do to playin the sandbox in a different way and, since this is a sandbox that wehave to play in, we can choose either not to play or toplay on the way the sandbox is currently constructed. Yeah, and then there'sa thing we can do to try and make society just more aware of thevalue of being a little more meritocratic and a little less, you know,biased. Yeah, lack of a better word. So I think that someof the things that there was a point about two or three years ago whenI was actively focused on this area and focused particularly on why women aren't gettingfunded to the same extent as men, and we did this very non statisticalsurvey where we went online and we just searched for any startup that had awoman co founder who that hadn't raised a series a yet. And this wasin the United States. So most of it was US research, and wefound maybe about three hundred or so. It was just completely random. Hey, where can I find anything on the web? Yeah, wasn't trying togo in one particular direction or another.

Yea. And then we categorized thethree hundred that we found and what we found out is that over seventy fivepercent, I don't know, this was a while back, so I don'thave the exact numbers off the top of my head, but over seventy fivepercent of those businesses were focused on beauty, fashion, education, early childhood educationspecifically, and a few of them on women's health. And so oneof the things that that does, so you know, these are all prototypicallyfemale focus topics. Yeah, and one of the thing the effects of thatis you've got to look at those industries and say, well, are thosekinds of industries that get lots of funding or not? Yeah, and byand large they're not. Yeah, in today's world, where we are rightnow in our current hyper cycle, these are not the industries where a tonof the money goes towards. Yeah, and so, to the extent thatwomen start up companies and businesses in for really, lack of a better word, prototypically female focused, you know, topics sure, that aren't necessarily verywell funded, it makes a ton of sense that you're not seeing a lotof funding going to women led businesses. Yeah. So if we want toplay in larger funding rounds, we should look towards thinking about businesses that arein different spheres. And you know, these women, when you look intheir background, their engineers, their scientists, they have like backgrounds and artificial intelligenceand they're using AI to create better makeup, and so it's not likethey don't have a lot of deep technical skill and innovation. Yeah, weare just choosing to apply it into industries that arguably aren't funded to the sameextent as some other industries are, and so that, I think that's onething that we can think about. As you know, we build the nextgeneration of women entrepreneurs, trying to encourage us to think about investing our timeand our business document and areas that that the world demands more of. Iguess, yeah, it makes me think of it comes back to your pointof the two options, right, so that we can play, we canplay in the sand box that's there, right, or or we can redesignthe sand box. And I guess it speaks to a lot of also there'sthere's current, current thinking, you know. So we had the kind of thelean in the idea that you know, which puts a lot of the responsibilityon the woman herself and what she needs to do. And there's alsothe thinking of that we can change the way. So you change the wayyou network, you change the way you do things. You know, thisis research looking at how women network a man. When network, we usethose stronger weak ties that that are available...

...and that are important to us,particularly an entrepreneurship. I suppose what I'm thinking about is this notion of okay, well, if we say, well, maybe we need to stop talking somuch about what women need to do and I want to get back andI do want to get back to that, but I got a whole bunch ofmoney. When it needs be, we can get back to me.What can what can hey? Can we change or modify the existing system?What concrete things can we do to to change that? Yeah, and that'sreally the much harder question. Yeah, and I think that that's why yousee a lot of focus on what women should do to fit within the currentSundbox, because to change, you know, human habits is a much harder thing. I've read a study that said that in the United States, maybea couple of years ago or three years ago, corporate America spent eight billiondollars on antibias training with you know, the study suggested nothing to show forit at the end of the day. So obviously that's not working. Yeah, so when I talk about this, I talk about and at the endof the day, if we're trying to change how people interact with each otherso that we're getting rid of it is a biased discussion. Yeah, that'swhat it is. So when I think about and I talk about that,I try and remove move it from a gender orientation and I try and talkabout it more in terms of just that this is, you know, howthis is how the human brain works. And if this is how the humanbrain works, how can we be aware of that and start consciously using ournew or Cortex to to change how we're thinking? Yeah, for the benefitnot just of gender changes. So an example of this is that in business, engineers and sales people on a company tend to go headtohead on a lotof things. They just, you know, the salespeople complain about the product anddevelopment teams all the time and the product and development teams complain about thesales teams all the time. They don't speak the same language. Speak thesame language and there's that create some serious strife and companies. It actually canlimit growth if you don't address this right. Sure. Well, when you thinkabout the personality types, and I'm again you have to overgeneralize when youtalk about things like this, the overgeneralized personality types of someone in product anddevelopment versus the overgeneralized personality type of someone in sales, you can see thatthere's a lot of cognitive bias going on between those two groups. And ifyou start to peel back that onion and make it at the, you know, forefront of their thinking about the reason that you are not getting along withthat person is because they approach things a different way than you do and yousee them in a different way then you...

...see the person next to you who'sjust like you. Yeah, but if everybody was just like you, wewouldn't sell any products or we wouldn't build any product, because you need bothkinds of personalities to make this business to success. That starts opening a dialogbetween those two groups and if you talk about that in business, then itbecomes much easier and less defensive, I think, to also then start talkingabout it in terms of gender. Yeah, as a second step, sure,and so it's all the same underlying issues, but I think the reasonwhy a billion dollars has been feutally spent in corporate America and diversities training isbecause we start with gender and that puts men in sort of a position ofdefensiveness from the beginning. When if we start with something else and then drawthe analogy and connect them to gender, then I think it opens us upfor a different kind of discussion. Sure, and I think in terms of thepositive things that you have done respect to to advancing women and nurturing women, supporting women. I think that's I think that's extremely I think it's onething that you that really strikes me, as the said, from from fromlooking your resume, I guess. Can you tell us a little bit aboutwhere that came from and what exactly you do to kind of promote women?Sure. Well, I think I'll start maybe with the most recent organization thatI've built up. So I've I've built probably two or three women's focused businesstype organizations over the course of my career. The latest one is an executive women'sgroup. We call it high power. It started in Silicon Valley and we'restarting to slowly expand into other geographies now. But I love telling thestory about how this came about, so I'll tell you the story about howthis came about. It started the Aha moment that I had was I wasat a start up myself. It was, you know, not too bad sizedstartup. We had just done a series a round, so we're flyinghigh. We had our new board members. They were VC's, they were men, they were everything that, if you wanted to paint what you imagineabout us, the Silicon Valley. They were exactly like that and we werelooking at a potential small acquisition and so we brought that to the board andwe presented it and they approved the acquisition. And then I got asked by oneof the board members. He sat back in his chair and we're ona podcast, so you can't see me, the audience can't see me, butimagine me sitting back in my chair, my arms stretched out wide, mylegs crossed, my head thrown back, you know, like I'm taking upmaximum space. And in my deep booming voice I say, well,who are we going to use for outside council, for Ma Count sold forthis acquisition? And I think to myself,...

Gee, that's not a very boardlevel strategic question to ask, but you're my board member. I needto respond and I tell them who are outside law firm is and you knowtheir credentials. And he says, and I swear this is exactly word forit, we should use Jimmy. Jimmy is the best emana lawyer in thevalley. So we you have to go find Jimmy. And in the backof my mind I'm thinking, Geez, you know. I mean we're asmall little company that's buying a smaller little company and I'm not quite sure Ineed the best eman a lawyer in the valley. And I went home andI thought about this and what I realized was I can't think of many timeswhen I've heard a person in power who has control say in a room Ithink we should use best and I don't know where Beth works right now,but Beth is the best at x and so we should use her. ButI do hear that about men. So what I came to think about isthat we women, I mean I know no shortage of brilliant women who areincredibly successful in their careers, but we're tied to the title and the company, that that's where we draw our authority from, and as soon as weleave that title or that company, everybody that wanted to talk to us nolonger want to talk to us. Are Everything that is about us is tiedup to the title and men don't again over generalizing, not all men arelike that. There's a lot more men that I hear about who are justtied to what they are known for and not and it doesn't matter this thisboard member did not know where this Jimmy Guy worked right now. He justknew that Jimmy had to be the guy right and that's probably from a deeprelationship. Back to the relationship issue that we talked about earlier, I mean, you know, nobody's kidding themselves there. They go golfing or something. Thatis the connection, but he's obviously close enough to want to bring himon board, but not close enough to know where he works. Sure.Yeah, we need women to step up and become more aware of building abrand around who they are and what they are personally known for, and lessreliance on the titles and the companies that define their brand essentially. And that'swhen I thought we need a different kind of executive women's group, a groupthat is focused on making sure that we're all challenging each other to do thatand invest in our own selves rather than invest in continuing to be excellent atthe work we do in the company itself, because that's how you build the relationships and that's how you start becoming...

...referred to when you're not there inthe board room and regardless of whether you still have that one job or not, and that's how I think we start building out a different kind of paradigmfor women in Business. I think that's fascinating and I think what I hearin that those is two things, and correct me if I'm wrong. Ourmisinterpreted, but the power of that is not only in so farrs saying okay, ask women to step up and build your own brand and the things thatyou can do, but I'm also hearing, I guess, the community aspect,in the solidarity aspect and so far hours. When we build this community, I become aware of those others who are really good in this area andthen when I'm in the room and somebody asks who can be I can recommendsomebody on that. That is absolutely so. There's two parts of this high powerorganization. One part is focused on us changing how we play in thesandbox, Yep, by focusing on being known for something specific in and ofourselves. But the other part of it it is continuing to build an incrediblystrong network of women who perhaps think differently from other professional women in that weresolidly focused on being aware of who else is in this network and what elsewe can do for each other so that more and more people are known forthat thing. So community has been a big part in community building has beena big part of how I have spent over the years thinking about solving thisdiversity challenge. Yeah, I think that there are really important roles for women'sgroups to play as we're trying to level the playing field, and I knowthat there's a lot of backlash on that because then there's, you know,well, how about people with five cats groups? We should have those andyou know, everything else, and that's fine too. I also think thatit's important to be able to play in a broader group of people, andyou'd have to know how to interact and navigate that. But there's in aworld where you're always in the minority, having a group of people who,again, are like you, get you, you know, still that in groupthing, but then support you and make you feel like you've got thatextra bit to be able to go forward as priceless. And by and large, people who are in the majority have that de facto. So we're justtrying to replicate that. Sure sure going on from that, I guess youin this kind of sphere or community women that you that you create, inthis community that you build, I guess we can have informal mentors or rolemodels that that we come that we that we meet when we're in this typeof environment. What is often in the women's when we talk about women entrepreneursor when we talk about women in management or gender issues, we talk aboutthis need for more mentors, need for...

...more role models. What is yourfeeling on that? What is your experience of that? I have tried toeither create or be part of mentoring organizations for, you know, a fewdecades and it just doesn't seem to move the needle enough for me for meto have stuck with it. Yeah, so I don't know yet how toleverage mentoring to significantly change gender in h entrepreneurship and in the tech world.What I do believe, and one of the things that I think we talkedabout a lot in the women's groups that I'm involved in, is that womenneed to start recommending other women much more actively than they do today. SoI don't think that that's mentoring. It's very different. My experience is thata man and business in a, you know, powerful possession might have akid on a soccer team and his buddy on the soccer team's father is lookingto sell his company and the man, because their kids play soccer suddenly startsintroducing him to his CEO friend who might want to buy that company, andthere's nothing more than that in the depth of the relationship, except for theyall like travel in the same circles and and you know, they know thatwhat comes around goes around. Women, on the other hand, my experiencesthat you could be like very close friends, but you're still not quite sure ifyou're the best person out there for this particular role that I'm this youknow your friend is looking for, and so you're very tentative about recommending otherwomen and obviously it's hard. It's harder for men to recommend women sometimes,and so if women aren't going to recommend women and men aren't going to generallyrecommend women, than women aren't being recommended. So I move away from mentorship andinto this thing if we have to start stepping up and recommending each otherfor whether it's jobs or business opportunities, ideally business opportunities, ideally connections tofunding, you know, connections to customers. There's a bunch of women's organizations thatI've been to where they have these networking events and they'll say up front, by the way, this is a networking event. It's not. Pleasedon't come and start looking for business. That will make people feel uncomfortable andI'm like, it's a networking event. The whole purpose of the networking eventis to look for business. So, yeah, if I'm not allowed tolook for business here, I don't know that this is where I should be. Yeah, so we've got to change that mentality. But also, Ihear what you're saying, is that if we build up a community, becauseI could be in a position where I'll be very afraid to recommend somebody elseif I don't know them sufficiently, because there is going to be some backlashon that if it turns out to not work out right. But I guessif we go with your model, the idea is that if we have acommunity and if we're in interaction with each...

...other on a regular basis, orat least we have contact each other, that we we know, we havea better knowledge of each other and what we can and can do, sothat we have more confidence when we recommend or when we sponsor others. Ithink that that's possible. I prefer to build a community where we say wewill just recommend. Okay, well, yeah, and yeah, sure,in order to get into this community there was probably some sort of minimum criteriato get there. But let's just go out on a limb and do it. Let's just go out on them. You know, there's not really alot of backlash in my experience when men have recommended men. That haven't workedout well, and I think that we're just a little too worried about that. I think it's okay. Yeah, yeah, in terms of because you'vebeen involved and you've been in Silicon Valley, in this world or the business womenin business and technology for the last ten years, have you seen anevolution? Have you? For you, do you say things going changing orgoing in and right the right direction, or stalling? Or what is yourpersonal feeding on? I mean it's been a long time. So yes,I have seen an evolution. I'm glad because it has been a long time. There are more funds now dedicated to funding women compared to, you know, twenty years ago when I when I came to Silicon Valley. Yeah,and so that's good news. There's not the next growth stage for us isto have funds that spend larger amounts of dollars on women led businesses. Rightnow the dollars still are fairly small. Yeah, but that's better than itwas before, and so I'm hopeful. There's a California law that got pastwhich is creating all kinds of strife that says that public boards are going tohave to have female directors and that has, in anticipation of that, has ledto a lot of even private boards starting to realize that they have toput some females on the board, and that I think is personally, obviouslyI think it's very good for a number of reasons, not the least ofwhich is just gender parody. But you're starting to see it not being okayto just have a group of anything that all looks the same. Yeah,of any sort of the same. I've even seen some all women led companiesthat are saying, well, that's not right either. We need to itworks both ways. So I am seeing a lot of different thinking as aresult, and sometimes the behavior HAP has to happen after the forced regulatory change, right, but then it does happen. Yeah, yeah, absolutely, it'sa trigger, exactly. Yeah, I'm finally one question to ask.I don't know this a challenging question, but began from a salvage point ofview, for professors in a business school like IV business school, they shouldall be women. Take that back,...

...kidding. What what should what shouldwe do? What? What can we do for the women in the programfor our students in general, if we want to change the the landscape asit currently stands in terms of maybe women into women in technology and diversity ingeneral and improving the landscape, what, what should we be doing or whatcan we be doing? I was involved in a really what I thought wasa very innovative program at the University of Berkeley and they had what was it? It was like a pitch session or pitch but they got people together,that the students, and they the first hour I got to present was explainedcognitive bias and then they broke out into groups and the groups had to comeup with a business plan or a product idea that would actually sell in themarketplace that would help reduce bias and increase diversity. And it was a combinationof men and women. And so it was really interesting because when they bothstarted working together to create a real business that happened to have this as thegoal of the business and they presented they only had three hours to come upwith a high level pitch and they present and and come up with five orsix slides and then they presented a to panel of judges at the end andthey picked a winner and they've got money. The ideas that came out of thatwere largely real businesses that operated today, some of which were funded. Sothey were good ideas, yeah, really good ideas. But more thananything else, I just thought it was a really unique way of engaging menin the conversation and thinking about it from a business perspective rather than just asocial perspective. That was the most innovative, I think, thing that I've seen. Yeah, that might help in a way to get everybody on boardand everybody going in the same direction, like a yeah, yeah, cool, brilliant. Thank you very much. It's been a serious pleasure to talkto you and to hear your ideas. I think we could probably talk allday. Yes, as I said, one of my favorite step jobs,but thank you very much for inviting me. Thank you. You've been listening tothe IVY Entwinnur podcast. To ensure that you never miss an episode,subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player or visit IV dot c aforward slash entrepreneurship. Thank you so much for listening, until next time.

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