Jess Erickson of 500 Startups: “To See It is to Believe It and Then to Become It”

Jess Erickson, 500 Startups & Geekettes
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Jess Erickson of 500 Startups: “To See It is to Believe It and Then to Become It”
Jess Erickson, Program Director at 500 Startups

Jess Erickson of 500 Startups: “To See It is to Believe It and Then to Become It”
Berlin Geekettes Roundtable with Sheryl Sandberg & Lean In

Jess Erickson of 500 Startups: “To See It is to Believe It and Then to Become It”
Berlin Geekettes Lean In Workshop

Jess Erickson of 500 Startups: “To See It is to Believe It and Then to Become It”
500 Startups Team Shot

Jess Erickson of 500 Startups: “To See It is to Believe It and Then to Become It”
500 Startups Diversity

Jess Erickson is Program Director at 500 Startups and the Founder of Geekettes, a global women in tech organisation. We spoke to her about startups, diversity, and the power of community.

They say that life’s a journey, and Jess Erickson is taking that adage quite seriously. Though she currently finds herself in Silicon Valley, her life and work have taken her around the globe, including stints in cities like London, Seoul, and Berlin.

Many people will know Erickson as the founder of Geekettes, a women in tech community that grew from one Berlin-based Facebook group to an organisation that now operates in nine hubs worldwide – the most recent of which is Gaza. Though still heavily involved with the community, she now devotes most of her time to her role as Program Director with 500 Startups, a leading venture capital seed fund and accelerator.

While she fervently believes that tech is a driving force for innovation and change, Erickson acknowledges that the industry is plagued by the same problem affecting the rest of the world – namely, that it is chiefly run by rich, white guys! So in true startup style, it’s time for a little disruption. We sat down with her a few months ago to talk about the value of fomenting diversity, how companies can fight the homogenous status quo, and where all the women are at in tech!

You were originally planning to get into the music business, but fell for startups pretty early on. How did you fall in love with tech?

I always wanted to work for a label. I moved to New York after I finished my master’s in London and quickly realised that it [the industry] was on its last legs. I joined a tech startup in New York right after the label and it was just like love at first sight! I was in a small team of five, crammed into a shoebox of a room in midtown Manhattan and we were building a platform called SpeakLike. Through that I realised how powerful technology really is, how limitless it is, and how you can meet people from all over the world working at a young technology company.

I joined a tech startup in New York right […] and it was just like love at first sight! … I realised how powerful technology really is, how limitless it is, and how you can meet people from all over the world working at a young technology company.

But what really brought me to the startup world was pretty much Berlin. That elevated me to the next level where I was helping build startups, building an education startup, building Geekettes, and then eventually that led me to 500 Startups.

You moved to San Francisco when you joined 500 Startups. What are the main differences you’ve noticed between the tech scene in the Valley and the one in Berlin?

It’s hard to compare because it’s like comparing oranges to apples. Silicon Valley’s been around for many decades now and I don’t think think any ecosystem should completely replicate it. Berlin has its own unique DNA, identity and different ways of doing things but certainly there are things that I think Berlin could lead up to that maybe Silicon Valley has already established.

Obviously, in Berlin there are less exits. There’s less VC or downstream capital. However, there are really hardworking individuals who bootstrap. And to me, that energy and way of doing things doesn’t exist in the Valley. I think founders have it a little more safe in Silicon Valley than Berliners do, because if their startup fails they can just join Google or Apple. There are tons of jobs! So, I think maybe it’s arguable that Berlin founders might work a little harder.

But Silicon Valley’s pros are that it has world-class accelerator programmes, a really powerful ecosystem, strong integration with Stanford which produces a really powerful alumni base that’s connected to a business network, as well as hundreds of investors all over that area. All of that basically leads up to a perfect and premier startup ecosystem. There’s nothing really wrong with it, other than the rent!

So, the Valley is still a better ecosystem than Berlin?

I don’t know if better is the right word, but there’s more volume and density. I think everyone understands that tech entrepreneurship is important for innovation and building new jobs and new talent. When you see success stories around you all the time, you realise it is possible to try. But there is also a strong culture of equity and having options in a company which I think is not as robust here. If I had turned back the hands of time, I would have asked for more equity at companies I worked at in Berlin. I didn’t know any better. I was naive back then. But now, it’s like any time you join a company in the Valley and it’s early-stage, you ask for equity.

How do you negotiate that into your contract if you’ve never worked for a startup before?

So, if you’re right out of college and you’re just looking for experience, you probably don’t have as much bargaining power in negotiation because you’re lucky to even get experience. But if you’re someone who’s a skilled engineer or you’re really good at your craft, whatever that is… If you bring something valuable and you are taking a pay-hit, you should definitely ask for equity! Let’s say in 5 years that company does well and they get acquired or they IPO, you get stake in it, and you could come out a millionaire! If you’re going to put all those hours and that hard work into building a company, you definitely should feel like you own it. And I actually think that makes you more productive and driven because you feel like you’re a founder in a way.

Given that you’ve travelled so much and have lived in several different cities, do you think the place that you’re in influences how you work?

It’s so interesting how different I am as a person from city to city. It’s almost like my identity transforms into something completely different. With Berlin, it feels so laid-back to me. I think it’s like home-away-from-home. I lived here for three and a half years and I have many old friends here. I feel like people appreciated a lot of the work I did even more a lot more now that I’ve left. Like the success of Geekettes! Now, there’s all these new women who are building our mentorship programme and doing cool, neat things! I’m still involved with Geekettes but more a global level than hands-on in Berlin.

I remember scanning the room – I was a n00b, totally new to the tech scene – and there were like, five women in a room of 200 men. And I thought, ‘this is so fucked up! Where are the ladies at?’

How did Geekettes come about in the first place?

About 6 months into my first year in Berlin, I was working at 6Wunderkinder and went to a tech conference. I remember scanning the room – I was a n00b, totally new to the tech scene – and there were like, five women in a room of 200 men. And I thought, ‘this is so fucked up! Where are the ladies at?’

After I started networking I met about eight women and invited them out to dinner where I pitched them this idea of doing a women in tech group – as a means to attract more women, and to support each other because we were a minority – and they were all really into the idea. So I said, okay, tonight I’m going to create a private Facebook group, a logo – designed by a woman! We ended up hosting our first meetup at Zoe Adamovicz’s house who would later then become my mentor. This ended up inspiring me to start the mentorship programme which is now running on its own.

So it’s funny how it works but it just started off as a simple meetup, and then it turned into a workshop series, and then crazy hackathons, and then we had a demo day! I think in the beginning there were a lot of sceptics but once we showed all the positive outcomes and that we were attracting women – and even just maintaining and keeping them in tech – that was huge and we got a really good response from the community.

What was it that struck a chord with other women in tech that made them want to join something like Geekettes?

I think it was just a feeling of not fitting in. By seeing other women in the community they realised they weren’t alone and they were almost embracing solidarity in that regard. The fact that they could talk about some issues at work, if there were any issues about gender in the workplace we could talk that out privately…

I want to focus more on solutions and how we can elevate ourselves, empower each other and yeah, make a huge dent in tech! Just like Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace and all these women we idolise from the past, we need to continue to do that and push and have momentum to create the change.

At the end of the day, women are always going to have an upward battle, and they’re going to face discrimination and they are going to be minorities but I don’t want to focus too much on all the negatives. I want to focus more on solutions and how we can elevate ourselves, empower each other and yeah, make a huge dent in tech! Just like Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace and all these women we idolise from the past, we need to continue to do that and push and have momentum to create the change.

Honestly, I don’t understand why people don’t get that. Even in the Valley, you’ll meet people who are like “why do you do women in tech groups?” and I say, “because we’re still such a small minority.” In venture capital, we make up less than 6% of the whole VC community so these topics need to be discussed and different approaches need to be tried out. Until we get there I probably won’t stop.

Do societal expectations have much to do with how few women there are in tech, particularly as coders?

I think media really shaped the way a lot of women in my generation, or even younger generations think about tech. There needs to be a whole re-brand of it. I loved the #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign! Little exercises like that show that you don’t need to be a white privileged male that graduated from Stanford to be a successful programmer! And to be honest, I think really anyone can learn to do it now online. You don’t really need to go to university. You can teach yourself.

There is that view that there aren’t so many female engineers but you can go to Grace Hopper Conference and notice that there are thousands around, they’re just not that easy to find! They seem to all come together once or twice a year for some conference and they’re like ‘whoa, we do exist!’

So you do get elements of that [societal pressures]. But I think, to see it is to believe it and then to become it. I always say that phrase because if I had seen powerful women ahead of me building great careers, I might have thought to myself, oh, maybe I should take computer programming in university. It was offered but all the other women around me were not taking that and you tend to match and follow patterns.

Is there a danger of women-only organisations creating the same type of exclusivity that they’re fighting against?

The fact of the matter is that most countries are deeply rooted in bias and patterns, and we are carved out into very specific roles in life. The majority always follows one way. So I think having these women’s groups actually helps break through, and I mean you can see the power of the Lean In movement! There’s 25,000 women making these circles and discussing gender and unconscious bias in the workplace. Talking about how women can ask for a raise, and understanding power through language and body language and none of that was really being discussed a few years ago.

What can companies do to fight against the old patterns?

Looking through the lens of tech, if the CEO and the founding partners are all male, they should seriously consider hiring women at the very, very beginning, if not hire a female co-founder. I think it’s important that you have a woman in a leadership role at the very beginning because that transforms the whole identity and culture of the company from the get-go.

I don’t like this excuse: “oh well, there are no qualified people”. Well then, help get them there!

Companies that proactively try to recruit women, minorities and people who are just different from the norm – it just becomes part of who they are. So I would recommend that, and if you can’t find a qualified woman or person from a minority, you should still try to recruit and then train them internally and help them upskill. I don’t like this excuse: “oh well, there are no qualified people”.

Well then, help get them there!

I also think you should look beyond your bubble or your circle. Once you do that it’s super powerful. And you don’t have to look at it just as a pipeline issue. You also need to look at it internally and long-term within the company. If you’re telling women, hey, you’re valuable to our company, we want to keep you here long-term and we’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure you’re successful – just sending that message is super powerful.

A lot of companies don’t do that. A lot of startups have no clue! The reason I joined 500 is that I looked at the staff ratio and the co-founder is a woman, half the venture partners are women, half the managing partners are women. Obviously, I want to work with them rather than with another VC that is all men. I’m looking at that and I’m sure a lot of other women are too. The more diverse you are, the more you’re going to continue to attract other women.

If women can’t find that support internally within their company, what advice would you give them?

If you don’t have that support at work then just find a cool network – like Women 2.0, Geekettes, Rails Girls etc – that you can integrate into. And then you’re going to get that support one way or another. It doesn’t even have to be a women’s network! It can be any kind of community that you’re aligned with, that have similar principles and values. I wish I had known this in my earlier days when I was just getting started in my career because I was really lost. I didn’t know who to talk to. I didn’t have a mentor. But now, looking back over the last few years, my mentors meant everything to me.

Aside from signing up to specific programmes, how can people find mentors?

I think you’ll naturally find them. Again, if you have similar interests and it clicks. Like, I’ve been working with Courtney O’Donnell who’s the head of external affairs at Airbnb. She used to work at the White House, and I had a background working in state government in Wisconsin, so we immediately clicked and then naturally she just became a sort of mentor. It doesn’t need to be formalised. You tend to gravitate to people who have the same background and interests, but you do need to be proactive and get out there and network!

For people who are shy of networking, how would you recommend they get started?

I think when getting started you should just pick one or two people you’re going to meet in the room. Don’t overwhelm yourself and say ‘oh man, I have to meet all 20 people in this room’. Just pick one or two and use that as sort of a warm-up. And oftentimes you can find that other person who might be an introvert and then the two of you can connect and have a conversation.

I think people who are extroverted should find the people who might be alone, and then engage with them and introduce them and facilitate that. Again, it’s in looking out for each other and understanding the wants and needs for everyone that participates. And don’t ask for favours right away!

I think it’s just about being human, and being memorable and interesting. If you’re a robot like pitching your startup or talking about crap that’s not interesting, I’m not going to want to engage with you again!

Crack a joke, make light of something, don’t be serious all the time. Make people laugh! Get to know them as a person, what are their interests, hobbies, talk about everything that’s not related to tech and then that always wins in the end. At the end of the day, they’re your friend so they want to help you out. It goes with every human relationship.

Thanks so much for the fun interview, Jess!

Make it your business to find out more about 500 Startups – especially their upcoming Distro Dojo Bootcamp – and Geekettes. You can follow Jess on Twitter @Jessjerickson

Cover image courtesy of the Geekettes website

Carrie M. King

Carrie M. King

Carrie M. King is the Editor of the Journal by Jobspotting. Hailing originally from smack-bang in the middle of Ireland, she moved to Berlin in 2014 to join the gang at Jobspotting. Carrie previously worked in journalism and literature. If you want to share thoughts or ideas, get in touch: carrie@jobspotting.com