The Entrepreneur Podcast
The Entrepreneur Podcast

Episode · 2 years 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 by the Pierrel Morrisse at Institute for Entrepreneurship at the Abbey Business School. In this series I'd be facing the member Janis Burn, will anchor the session. Okay, so, Mona, I am delighted to have you here at me today and you have an extremely impressive professional trajectory. I have to say a quick look at your profile on linkedin really like impressive qualifications. You've a background in law and engineering, you've had many rich and varied work experiences and you've got a whole lot of a whole host of accolades from a truly diverse set of people 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 the meat, I guess, of some of the things that you're actively involved in right now, I guess I'd love to know. So you're apparently originally from like Tilsenburg. Just do the road here from what's in the road and you've ended up in California. So how did that happen? Well, my parents were they retired, both doctors, and they moved around a lot, taking these two year locoms in different, different cities. And so we moved to Canada when I was perhaps eight years old. Okay, lived in Winnipeg, Uh Huh, Newfoundland, finally moved to Ontario and then settled until some Burg, which is pretty much where most people who moved to Canada will eventually want to settle into. Right. Yeah, and so I guess I got a little bit of the moving bug and me as a result of that. And when 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 degree here, worked in Toronto for a little bit and then felt the need to sort of explore more. Yeah, so after I worked in Toronto, I decided to move out to Calgary, work there for a few years and then moved made my way all the way to Vancouver. Worked there for five years. Wow, really following, I would say, start up tech. So I couldn't have even told you that. I knew that this was my passion back then, but it just sort of drew me. When I graduated and was working in Toronto. I was working with large banks and very large institutions. Calgary at the time was start up land, yeah, and so I was just attracted to that. And then, after having lived in Calgary for a while, Vancouver was this was back when Vancouver was really starting to come into the tech startup world, and so there were really interesting opportunities to work with tech startups, their biotech also. Yeah, back then, although I had a very small little period of time whereas involved in by at tech and so that's what drew me to all those different places. And then, after working in Vancouver for five years, I guess I must have loved the West Coast enough. And it was one thousand nine hundred and ninety nine and the oppertunities in California were just it was the...

...bubble times. Yeah, fifty. Yeah, it was shocking. I thought when I moved to California that I was just it wasn't really going to be a new country. It didn't feel like the United States was really that much different from Canada. Yeah, but it was a culture shock for me. Yeah, especially moving right in the middle of the Internet bubble. I thought I would be there for maybe two or three years, but I've been there for twenty. Great Life is what happens when we're busy making plans right, we don't always know where we're going to end up totally. Yeah, two things that really strike me in particular when I look at your bio is your open, unrelentless support, I guess, for nurturing women and diversity, and your parallel emphasis on on delivering value and in business and technology. So, given your background, given soulthless to my research interests and, guess, the current economic and social climate that we operate in today, I'd love to talk to you more today about your thoughts and 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 venture capital 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 men when it comes to garnering funds. Can acting to mentors and role models accessing networks. 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 the US statistics. Yet yeah, I mean the statistics show that women founded companies get funded to a lesser extent than all male companies founded companies do. The women founded companies don't grow as large as male founded companies do. And you know, when you get faced with all of these statistics, and I ask men this, sometimes you have to ask one of two questions. I mean there's only two things that you can believe. You either believe that women just aren't as 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 a bias in the system. I think I've been thinking about this for a long time and, as you said, I've been involved in building organizations and communities focused on women and women professionals and women in Tuch for a long time and I think that at the core of it, also, when I think about my experience as a businessperson and on the business side, with business development and all the things that I've been, you know, working on as part of my professional life. What I think this stems from is that business is actually about relationships, and so we often go to school and we learn a lot of technical skills and perhaps we graduate believing...

...that we're building businesses based on our technical 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's mostly about the technical thing. Sure, and I think when you've been around for long enough, you start realizing that, just like anything else, businesses about relationships. That's fine, except for the fact that relationships in business are largely maldominated historically, and so women haven't built up those strategic network relationships to the same extent that men have. And that might be changing, but the majority of power is still consolidated within the men who have built up these strategic relationships. Sure, and so how does this translate? It translates into if you're looking for funding. Let's say you're a woman who has started a company and you decide you're looking for funding. If you don't have those close relationships with funders, then you're going in cold and trying to convince someone to invest in 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 based on who they're investing in. And if they know that person over there who happens to be a guy and they don't know you, then they tend to be swayed to invest more towards, you know, the person that they know and they feel fall familiar with. If you really want to get into, you know, gender research, it's, you know, in group bias versus outgroup bias, and so those kinds of things all pile up, in my opinion, to limit a woman founders ability to be able to do the same things as men can do with the same product, or even maybe even better products. Not just investing, I mean finding customers, same thing. I've seen amazing work done by very talented men, I mean, I don't want to understell how talented they are, and being able to do this, sure, but who are able to be able to make connections with potential customers and very 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 and if women just don't have the same tentacles into those strategic buyers, it's just harder. Yeah, and there's a lot of, I think, cognitive biases that also get in the way on top of the fact that you know you're starting 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 cognitive biases of others, I think cognitive biases of humans. Studies have shown that, you know, men have biases with respect to women. Studies have also shown that women have biases with respect to women. So I just think it's a human thing. Yeah, in fact, I've often said to people that if this was a matriarchy instead of Patriarchy and women held all the power in the world, there's a good chance that we would have the same bias as towards men as men do today. So I don't think it's a male female thing, I think it's a human thing. Yeah, and we just have to be 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 disadvantage in terms of garnering phones and also in terms of connecting to an access accessing networks. For you, these two things are essentially are linked. There's a strong link between the two. Yeah, my perspective is that there is a very strong link with between networks, relationships and business. Sure, so, I share your thoughts on that and you have obviously seen this also in terms of your experience and the community building that you're involved and I imagine, stems from from this conviction that you that you have. So how do we? How do we, and have you gone about tackling this? What can we do to change it? Well, I think that there's there's a number of things. I just sort of tend to split how to think about this into two separate things. One is there are things that women can do to play in the sandbox in a different way and, since this is a sandbox that we have to play in, we can choose either not to play or to play on the way the sandbox is currently constructed. Yeah, and then there's a thing we can do to try and make society just more aware of the value of being a little more meritocratic and a little less, you know, biased. Yeah, lack of a better word. So I think that some of the things that there was a point about two or three years ago when I was actively focused on this area and focused particularly on why women aren't getting funded to the same extent as men, and we did this very non statistical survey where we went online and we just searched for any startup that had a woman co founder who that hadn't raised a series a yet. And this was in the United States. So most of it was US research, and we found maybe about three hundred or so. It was just completely random. Hey, where can I find anything on the web? Yeah, wasn't trying to go in one particular direction or another.

Yea. And then we categorized the three hundred that we found and what we found out is that over seventy five percent, I don't know, this was a while back, so I don't have the exact numbers off the top of my head, but over seventy five percent of those businesses were focused on beauty, fashion, education, early childhood education specifically, and a few of them on women's health. And so one of the things that that does, so you know, these are all prototypically female focus topics. Yeah, and one of the thing the effects of that is you've got to look at those industries and say, well, are those kinds of industries that get lots of funding or not? Yeah, and by and large they're not. Yeah, in today's world, where we are right now in our current hyper cycle, these are not the industries where a ton of the money goes towards. Yeah, and so, to the extent that women start up companies and businesses in for really, lack of a better word, prototypically female focused, you know, topics sure, that aren't necessarily very well funded, it makes a ton of sense that you're not seeing a lot of funding going to women led businesses. Yeah. So if we want to play in larger funding rounds, we should look towards thinking about businesses that are in different spheres. And you know, these women, when you look in their background, their engineers, their scientists, they have like backgrounds and artificial intelligence and they're using AI to create better makeup, and so it's not like they don't have a lot of deep technical skill and innovation. Yeah, we are just choosing to apply it into industries that arguably aren't funded to the same extent as some other industries are, and so that, I think that's one thing that we can think about. As you know, we build the next generation of women entrepreneurs, trying to encourage us to think about investing our time and our business document and areas that that the world demands more of. I guess, yeah, it makes me think of it comes back to your point of the two options, right, so that we can play, we can play in the sand box that's there, right, or or we can redesign the sand box. And I guess it speaks to a lot of also there's there's current, current thinking, you know. So we had the kind of the lean in the idea that you know, which puts a lot of the responsibility on the woman herself and what she needs to do. And there's also the thinking of that we can change the way. So you change the way you network, you change the way you do things. You know, this is research looking at how women network a man. When network, we use those 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 so much about what women need to do and I want to get back and I do want to get back to that, but I got a whole bunch of money. 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's really the much harder question. Yeah, and I think that that's why you see a lot of focus on what women should do to fit within the current Sundbox, because to change, you know, human habits is a much harder thing. I've read a study that said that in the United States, maybe a couple of years ago or three years ago, corporate America spent eight billion dollars on antibias training with you know, the study suggested nothing to show for it 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 end of the day, if we're trying to change how people interact with each other so that we're getting rid of it is a biased discussion. Yeah, that's what 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 talk about it more in terms of just that this is, you know, how this is how the human brain works. And if this is how the human brain works, how can we be aware of that and start consciously using our new or Cortex to to change how we're thinking? Yeah, for the benefit not 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 lot of things. They just, you know, the salespeople complain about the product and development teams all the time and the product and development teams complain about the sales teams all the time. They don't speak the same language. Speak the same language and there's that create some serious strife and companies. It actually can limit growth if you don't address this right. Sure. Well, when you think about the personality types, and I'm again you have to overgeneralize when you talk about things like this, the overgeneralized personality types of someone in product and development versus the overgeneralized personality type of someone in sales, you can see that there's a lot of cognitive bias going on between those two groups. And if you 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 with that person is because they approach things a different way than you do and you see them in a different way then you...

...see the person next to you who's just like you. Yeah, but if everybody was just like you, we wouldn't sell any products or we wouldn't build any product, because you need both kinds of personalities to make this business to success. That starts opening a dialog between those two groups and if you talk about that in business, then it becomes much easier and less defensive, I think, to also then start talking about it in terms of gender. Yeah, as a second step, sure, and so it's all the same underlying issues, but I think the reason why a billion dollars has been feutally spent in corporate America and diversities training is because we start with gender and that puts men in sort of a position of defensiveness from the beginning. When if we start with something else and then draw the analogy and connect them to gender, then I think it opens us up for a different kind of discussion. Sure, and I think in terms of the positive 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 one thing that you that really strikes me, as the said, from from from looking your resume, I guess. Can you tell us a little bit about where 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 that I've built up. So I've I've built probably two or three women's focused business type organizations over the course of my career. The latest one is an executive women's group. We call it high power. It started in Silicon Valley and we're starting to slowly expand into other geographies now. But I love telling the story about how this came about, so I'll tell you the story about how this came about. It started the Aha moment that I had was I was at a start up myself. It was, you know, not too bad sized startup. We had just done a series a round, so we're flying high. We had our new board members. They were VC's, they were men, they were everything that, if you wanted to paint what you imagine about us, the Silicon Valley. They were exactly like that and we were looking at a potential small acquisition and so we brought that to the board and we presented it and they approved the acquisition. And then I got asked by one of the board members. He sat back in his chair and we're on a podcast, so you can't see me, the audience can't see me, but imagine me sitting back in my chair, my arms stretched out wide, my legs crossed, my head thrown back, you know, like I'm taking up maximum space. And in my deep booming voice I say, well, who are we going to use for outside council, for Ma Count sold for this acquisition? And I think to myself,...

Gee, that's not a very board level strategic question to ask, but you're my board member. I need to respond and I tell them who are outside law firm is and you know their credentials. And he says, and I swear this is exactly word for it, we should use Jimmy. Jimmy is the best emana lawyer in the valley. So we you have to go find Jimmy. And in the back of my mind I'm thinking, Geez, you know. I mean we're a small little company that's buying a smaller little company and I'm not quite sure I need the best eman a lawyer in the valley. And I went home and I thought about this and what I realized was I can't think of many times when I've heard a person in power who has control say in a room I think 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. But I do hear that about men. So what I came to think about is that we women, I mean I know no shortage of brilliant women who are incredibly 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 we leave that title or that company, everybody that wanted to talk to us no longer want to talk to us. Are Everything that is about us is tied up to the title and men don't again over generalizing, not all men are like that. There's a lot more men that I hear about who are just tied to what they are known for and not and it doesn't matter this this board member did not know where this Jimmy Guy worked right now. He just knew that Jimmy had to be the guy right and that's probably from a deep relationship. Back to the relationship issue that we talked about earlier, I mean, you know, nobody's kidding themselves there. They go golfing or something. That is the connection, but he's obviously close enough to want to bring him on board, but not close enough to know where he works. Sure. Yeah, we need women to step up and become more aware of building a brand around who they are and what they are personally known for, and less reliance on the titles and the companies that define their brand essentially. And that's when I thought we need a different kind of executive women's group, a group that is focused on making sure that we're all challenging each other to do that and invest in our own selves rather than invest in continuing to be excellent at the work we do in the company itself, because that's how you build the relation ships and that's how you start becoming...

...referred to when you're not there in the 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 paradigm for women in Business. I think that's fascinating and I think what I hear in that those is two things, and correct me if I'm wrong. Our misinterpreted, 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 that you 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 and then when I'm in the room and somebody asks who can be I can recommend somebody on that. That is absolutely so. There's two parts of this high power organization. One part is focused on us changing how we play in the sandbox, Yep, by focusing on being known for something specific in and of ourselves. But the other part of it it is continuing to build an incredibly strong network of women who perhaps think differently from other professional women in that were solidly focused on being aware of who else is in this network and what else we can do for each other so that more and more people are known for that thing. So community has been a big part in community building has been a big part of how I have spent over the years thinking about solving this diversity challenge. Yeah, I think that there are really important roles for women's groups to play as we're trying to level the playing field, and I know that 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 and you know, everything else, and that's fine too. I also think that it's important to be able to play in a broader group of people, and you'd have to know how to interact and navigate that. But there's in a world where you're always in the minority, having a group of people who, again, are like you, get you, you know, still that in group thing, but then support you and make you feel like you've got that extra 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 just trying to replicate that. Sure sure going on from that, I guess you in this kind of sphere or community women that you that you create, in this community that you build, I guess we can have informal mentors or role models that that we come that we that we meet when we're in this type of environment. What is often in the women's when we talk about women entrepreneurs or when we talk about women in management or gender issues, we talk about this need for more mentors, need for...

...more role models. What is your feeling on that? What is your experience of that? I have tried to either create or be part of mentoring organizations for, you know, a few decades and it just doesn't seem to move the needle enough for me for me to have stuck with it. Yeah, so I don't know yet how to leverage 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 talked about a lot in the women's groups that I'm involved in, is that women need to start recommending other women much more actively than they do today. So I don't think that that's mentoring. It's very different. My experience is that a man and business in a, you know, powerful possession might have a kid on a soccer team and his buddy on the soccer team's father is looking to sell his company and the man, because their kids play soccer suddenly starts introducing him to his CEO friend who might want to buy that company, and there's nothing more than that in the depth of the relationship, except for they all like travel in the same circles and and you know, they know that what comes around goes around. Women, on the other hand, my experiences that you could be like very close friends, but you're still not quite sure if you're the best person out there for this particular role that I'm this you know your friend is looking for, and so you're very tentative about recommending other women 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 generally recommend women, than women aren't being recommended. So I move away from mentorship and into this thing if we have to start stepping up and recommending each other for whether it's jobs or business opportunities, ideally business opportunities, ideally connections to funding, you know, connections to customers. There's a bunch of women's organizations that I'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. Please don't come and start looking for business. That will make people feel uncomfortable and I'm like, it's a networking event. The whole purpose of the networking event is to look for business. So, yeah, if I'm not allowed to look 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, I hear what you're saying, is that if we build up a community, because I could be in a position where I'll be very afraid to recommend somebody else if I don't know them sufficiently, because there is going to be some backlash on that if it turns out to not work out right. But I guess if we go with your model, the idea is that if we have a community and if we're in interaction with each...

...other on a regular basis, or at least we have contact each other, that we we know, we have a better knowledge of each other and what we can and can do, so that we have more confidence when we recommend or when we sponsor others. I think that that's possible. I prefer to build a community where we say we will just recommend. Okay, well, yeah, and yeah, sure, in order to get into this community there was probably some sort of minimum criteria to 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 a lot of backlash in my experience when men have recommended men. That haven't worked out 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've been involved and you've been in Silicon Valley, in this world or the business women in business and technology for the last ten years, have you seen an evolution? Have you? For you, do you say things going changing or going in and right the right direction, or stalling? Or what is your personal 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 is to have funds that spend larger amounts of dollars on women led businesses. Right now the dollars still are fairly small. Yeah, but that's better than it was before, and so I'm hopeful. There's a California law that got past which is creating all kinds of strife that says that public boards are going to have to have female directors and that has, in anticipation of that, has led to a lot of even private boards starting to realize that they have to put some females on the board, and that I think is personally, obviously I think it's very good for a number of reasons, not the least of which is just gender parody. But you're starting to see it not being okay to 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 companies that are saying, well, that's not right either. We need to it works both ways. So I am seeing a lot of different thinking as a result, and sometimes the behavior HAP has to happen after the forced regulatory change, right, but then it does happen. Yeah, yeah, absolutely, it's a trigger, exactly. Yeah, I'm finally one question to ask. I don't know this a challenging question, but began from a salvage point of view, for professors in a business school like IV business school, they should all be women. Take that back,...

...kidding. What what should what should we do? What? What can we do for the women in the program for our students in general, if we want to change the the landscape as it currently stands in terms of maybe women into women in technology and diversity in general and improving the landscape, what, what should we be doing or what can we be doing? I was involved in a really what I thought was a 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 explained cognitive bias and then they broke out into groups and the groups had to come up with a business plan or a product idea that would actually sell in the marketplace that would help reduce bias and increase diversity. And it was a combination of men and women. And so it was really interesting because when they both started working together to create a real business that happened to have this as the goal of the business and they presented they only had three hours to come up with a high level pitch and they present and and come up with five or six slides and then they presented a to panel of judges at the end and they picked a winner and they've got money. The ideas that came out of that were largely real businesses that operated today, some of which were funded. So they were good ideas, yeah, really good ideas. But more than anything else, I just thought it was a really unique way of engaging men in the conversation and thinking about it from a business perspective rather than just a social perspective. That was the most innovative, I think, thing that I've seen. Yeah, that might help in a way to get everybody on board and everybody going in the same direction, like a yeah, yeah, cool, brilliant. Thank you very much. It's been a serious pleasure to talk to you and to hear your ideas. I think we could probably talk all day. Yes, as I said, one of my favorite step jobs, but thank you very much for inviting me. Thank you. You've been listening to the 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 a forward slash entrepreneurship. Thank you so much for listening, until next time.

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