I didn’t want to start a company. I wanted to write a book for parents, to help them help their children build the kinds of skills that are needed to read well and succeed in school — and life. But a software developer daughter, and the 21st century tech realities, propelled me toward a digital plan and aboundparenting.com.
Fast forward through the next almost two years, and picture this unlikely entrepreneur working side-by-side with a first year MIT MBA student who “gets” my idea, who has been a consultant and in the edtech world, and who actually wants to start a company. Imagine the hours of customer research and beta tests and writing content over those twenty-two months, and picture the energy hanging around those second-floor Sloan School of Management conference room tables during our twice-weekly whiteboard sessions, where he and I thoughtfully strategized and planned and drove the idea forward.
With that in mind, you can see how I found myself June 11 in the delta v accelerator.
I walked into the MIT start-up space feeling lots of things, but mostly awkward. Standing amidst the 17-company cohort, I stood out in my own head exponentially more for my age than for my gender. And while I believe in adult development, just 8 weeks later I am stunned at how transformative this experience has been for me.
We all walk around with our own narratives playing loudly in our heads. Mine focused on myself as a person who teaches — kids, educational leaders, and teachers. I confidently stand in front of a room filled with any number of people and talk about reading development. I love to, actually. But this entrepreneurial space wasn’t in my mind movie, and as I look back, I wasn’t capable of envisioning a CEO in this body. So how is it that after a relatively short time in this start-up accelerator I feel such a palpable change?
Standing amidst the 17-company cohort, I stood out in my own head exponentially more for my age than for my gender.
It’s this particular setting, delta v. Bill Aulett and his team, led by Trish Cotter, have created a program that focuses on people first, making entrepreneurs and not just creating companies. It is growth-oriented for all and blends the entrepreneurial and the academic in a way that surely everyone new to the start-up world needs — I most certainly did.
But it’s more than the program. In the Martin Trust Center, gender and age and race and culture, and even hierarchy, are invisible. It is the only space I’ve ever walked into where all that baggage was truly left at the door. There aren’t any formal, and therefore artificial, norms enforcing it, just leadership behaviors. So when the executive director is scooping and handing out Italian ices to everyone before our “mock” board meetings, and the managing director/professor & visionary introduces every person who walks in the door the same way regardless of pedigree or background, age or talent, equality dominates. It feels as close to non-hierarchical as any space I have been in, but there is structure and direction enough to steer the summertime ship while elevating the crew.
This almost disorienting sense of equality allows for a re-imagining of identity. For me, the debriefing after our first board meeting helped in this effort at redefining. When the 70 of us were listening to Bill Aulett candidly talk about what we should take away from the often-harsh criticism that came our way, a cohort member publicly and sweetly described my experience, a particularly rough one, to note how unwarranted it seemed to him. The collective sigh from the other delta v members was the second step in my healing process, and together with Bill’s and Trish’s comments, reframed my response. They made sure I walked out of that room feeling as if I should toughen up, but wear the CEO hat without apology.
But now I know it’s only about pursuing this important mission: I want to help parents help their children become strong readers, and together with my diverse and talented team, we are making that idea a reality.
It shouldn’t matter that I’m a 56-year old woman on this mission, but society sees a different image when entrepreneur is described, and I admit that I always did, too. Sure, when I take out the Clorox wipes to clean the table, or put random unclaimed glasses in the communal kitchen dishwasher, I am acutely aware that I am old enough to be almost every other start-up team member’s mother. But no one else seems to notice my age at delta v. It makes sense, really. The genius team at InSanirator, sitting at the table next to ours, is focused on designing a way to process fecal sludge, saving urban residents in developing countries from the hazards of untreated sewage. On the other side of us, a group of experienced former tire salespeople are enthusiastically finding partners and creating a platform, TireTutor, where anyone can buy honestly-priced tires from trusted local garages. People here are too busy to notice superficial difference.
It took me a while to take myself seriously as an entrepreneur. But now I know it’s only about pursuing this important mission: I want to help parents help their children become strong readers, and together with my diverse and talented team, we are making that idea a reality. There is work to do before we launch the Abound Parenting app in late September, but this experience at delta v has equipped me to lead the charge.