The student/entrepreneur cheat sheet: Balancing school and entrepreneurship

I’ve written in the past about the challenges of being an academic and an entrepreneur (here, here, here and here), and it’s one of the more common topics I get asked about. Many students come to me with questions on balance – how do they get their entrepreneur career started while still in school?

Here are three key insights my mentor gave me early on that really helped me as a student-entrepreneur:

1.    Synergy is king

Try to find work/study activities that “count twice”. For example, my research also happened to be the core technology work for my startup. Many of the marketing white papers for my startup were later turned into publications. And so forth. This requires a bit of forethought, but the impact can be tremendous. This usually also means that you need to cut activities that are not synergistic (e.g. I was the CTI of my first startup because fundraising and other business activities had no synergy effect with my academic work).

2.    Find a supervisor that embraces synergy

When working with a supervisor, you need to find one who gets that your principal goal is *your* career development, not cranking out papers for them. This is important because the synergy aspect above needs to work both ways, and a “needy” supervisor can mess everything up. Ironically, the most successful supervisors are often the ones who get this idea. They’ve had successful careers themselves and know that you will generate a lot more value for them doing “your thing” at 10x efficiency than slaving away at “their thing” at 0.5x efficiency.

3.    Focus on goals to optimize your schedule

The big risk with doing two things at the same time is that you get scattered. 50% of two goals is usually worth nothing. So you need to be very disciplined with schedules and goals. I used to write down quarterly and annual goals for myself – sort of a self-enforced performance review. To make this “stick” a bit more, I went out of my way to publicly declare these goals to create social pressure that would keep me focused (e.g. declare them to supervisor, co-workers, co-founders, put things on a whiteboard in a public space, etc.).

In terms of “hacking” the system, there are really only two parts to a graduate degree:

Papers: You want to generate lots of these, at high quality journals if possible. The best way to do this is to force yourself to write at least one paper per quarter. Even if only half get accepted, that’s still a lot more than most grad students achieve (typically one or two during a 4 year degree). Focus on tactical objectives rather than trying to create one giant master piece at the end.

Courses: Look for courses that are light on regular homework (weekly small stuff) and heavy on end-of-year papers, then use those for your startup objectives (synergy!). The other thing is to find courses that are compact (e.g. 3 hours in one session once per week) as this greatly reduces the “overhead” of course work (travel to campus, etc.). If you are doing a business on the side, you’ll really appreciate the blocks of uninterrupted time this will afford you.

If you do the above right, you also get one of the most valuable insurance policies available to technology entrepreneurs: academic credentials. We all read about the drop-outs who go on to create giant companies but that’s just survivor bias. Most startups fail. A good foundation of education, publications and credentials ensures that you get significant value out of your student-entrepreneur years even if your venture doesn’t become the next Facebook.

Balancing two full-time endeavours is never easy, but by optimizing your time and aligning your goals & interests, you’ll have a much greater chance of succeeding as both a student AND an entrepreneur.

3 simple steps for pitching your technology

One of the pitfalls of many tech entrepreneurs is pitching their solution simply and clearly. What is it? What does it do? Is it actually useful? Often, we’ll get stuck either trying to explain it all at once or getting too technical for our audience.

We recently had an open house to celebrate TandemLaunch‘s anniversary, and I had to pitch a handful of technologies to guests, including potential investors. I needed to know what my pitch was, and how to deliver it quickly and simply. Throughout the room’s bustle, the constantly-running slideshows, the questions and the waves of people coming in, I stuck to a few basic principles:

1. Focus on a real-life problem

Talking about “motion-path” and “deconvolution” might push listeners away. Rather, focus on a problem they’re likely to encounter. For example, with a photo deblurring technology, I spoke of taking pictures with family at a restaurant, or at night in low light conditions, and how these pics often come out blurry. This is a problem everyone understands and relates to.

2. Show the “after” right away

This step is crucial. You’re selling a solution, not a product. Read that sentence again. Often, after outlining the problem, we have a tendency to explain how the tech works, and THEN show the result. Flip these two steps. By showing your result right away, you’ll benefit from a straight before/after comparison and a “wow” factor that you might not get otherwise.

Showing the BEFORE and AFTER of your technology is a great way to grab someone’s attention.

Showing the BEFORE and AFTER of your technology is a great way to grab someone’s attention.


3. Briefly explain your solution

Whatever you’re pitching, this is the meat in the hamburger – the substance. You need to explain in 15 seconds how your technology works and, if you have slides, explain it in 2 slides or less. Field questions simply and offer to follow-up in person or on the phone at a later time for more technical answers. At this stage of the game there are likely aspects of the technology that are still confidential, and the people you’re pitching to will understand that.  This also gives you an additional touch point with potential partners!

Practice makes perfect

Admittedly, some of us might not be so comfortable pitching or speaking in public. It’s a skill to be worked on, and it can greatly improve with a bit of time and effort. In my case, I found it very helpful to join a public-speaking group like Toastmasters, and even to get up on stage for karaoke every now and then!

Additional questions might arise sometimes (for example, who you are and where your expertise lies, or how your technology differentiates itself from alternative solutions), but work on the three steps outlined above and you’ll be pitching your solution quickly, simply and clearly in no time.

Have some more tips and resources for pitching? Share them in the comments below!

Take your Late Nights Early in the Game

I was reflecting over the holidays about my university days working on grant applications after an email from an inventor about a team grant that “was much less straight forward than hoped.”  The second I read the word ‘team’ visions of last minute faxes, conference calls, and strategically timed document revisions came to mind.

There is something truly magical about a team coalescing on a vision of what they wish to achieve, and downright chaotic about the planning of it. No matter how far ahead of the game you may believe yourself to be, all it takes is one good idea (or overlooked expectation within the team) to cascade into an application revision.  Sure it’s all ‘make believe’ at this stage, but the hypothetical scenario that you describe will have very real implications for your probability of success and the resources you are granted… not to mention what you will have buy-in from your team to do once there are real dollars on the table.  Partnership and team grants are the worst for these kinds of changes, because there are so many players involved.

Anyone who thinks that researcher’s don’t understand what a sales pitch is, is sadly mistaken.  They just have a different audience with different expectations. They are perhaps even more subject to political whims.  And just like in the startup world, most grants will not succeed.  While the odd program has an exceptionally high success rate (~ 50%), in North America the majority fall somewhere between 10-20%, and success rates under 10% are common for the most competitive programs.  That’s right up there with the ‘9 out of 10 startups’ will fail statistic.  And while as faculty most researchers have some baseline stability, they are dependent on grant monies to enable their most ambitious and impactful academic pursuits through reduced teaching load, materials, equipment, and staff: Staff who only continue to exist so long as the money keeps coming in, and their job descriptions match a funder’s allowable expenses.

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the chaos of the grant application process means that planning plays a less critical role.  In fact, it’s the reverse.  One of the most impactful moments in my career was the first grant application I helped bring to completion ahead of time.  I remember vividly four of us standing around our meeting table, looking down at the hard copies of the application, and the PI saying something like, ‘We must have forgotten something.  Can we really be done?’ We did a double check to confirm that it was, and instead of going out for a celebratory drink, we all went home early feeling a bit stunned from the lack of adrenaline.

The bottom line though, is that we had all nearly killed ourselves enough over past grant applications to have been committed to avoid doing so this time around.  To ensure we managed to do this, we took the time to scope out the work, dependencies, and milestones as soon as we had determined the grant target.  It’s worth noting that developing this map took relatively little time, but allowed us to appreciate the work and the critical timelines. This allowed us to flip the ‘mission critical’ switch early in the game, and put our late nights in early.  This accomplished three things: 1) Work was completed at a stage early enough that there was limited temptation to cut corners, sacrificing quality, 2) We managed to avoid hitting any blind spots in the application process by effectively managing communication about the critical timelines to everyone involved, and 3) We kept ourselves ahead enough of the game that we had the breathing room to handle the unexpected and last minute (in other words, the inevitable) more effectively.

Let’s face it, it’s thrilling to get things done just under the wire, but a huge risk to bank on your ability to do so. And despite the best planning and foresight, the unpredictable may always make ‘crunch time’ a crunch.  Understanding the work, and taking your late nights early in the game will help shelter you from the worst case scenario.

Is your Startup Ready for Titles?

In a startup things move constantly, roles change and within a few months people swing from one side of the spectrum to the other depending on their immediate needs. This works well when the team is small and people feel ownership of the whole project.

I’ve had multiple roles in Mirametrix, being the product manager a marketing manager and a sales manager when needed. The same happens with my sales team, who sometimes gets stuck creating landing pages or doing technical support. My engineers don’t only develop products, but do customer support and social media networking.

This creates a perfect balance of tasks for each person, which keeps their job interesting. It also adds a lot of value during discussions because everyone is involved and understands what’s happening. The feedback loop is much richer in ideas and suggestions.

So what happens when there are major organizational shifts and titles are assigned?

Spoiler alert: Potential synergy crashes ahead.

Titles are roles that come with expectations and meanings that vary between people and organizations. And they can cause stress and friction in places it didn’t exist before, getting in the way of your team’s interactions. If software developers are told that they should focus on product development for the next few months and that the product manager will be supervising the execution and deadlines, that can translate into something like: screw all the social media work that I’ve been doing!; if I’m going to get asked about every task I’m doing, I will just code from 9 to 5!

OOPS! Now that official titles are assigned, people are Googling titles and only doing the tasks that are listed under them. This will kill your startup energy!

This happens in relationships too! Transitions between dating, to serious relationships, to moving in together, to marriage can makes things and people behave in an entirely different way because of their notions and definitions of what these things are. I’ve been in relationships for years where everything was working perfectly, and we both took our share of responsibilities, while being very flexible with the other person and what they wanted to do.  It was like we understood each other without even talking and things just happened (this is the same feeling you want to have in your startup!). And then for some reason when ‘marriage’ comes into the picture, you start hearing job descriptions like: “As my husband you should be paying for the house” and “as my wife you should be doing the dishes”. You know this relationship is in for trouble!

But titles are given for a reason (they provide a communication roadmap), and especially as a company grows, it is something your team will need to deal with.  How do you navigate through this?

Communicate. Don’t be so naïve as to believe that your team won’t be affected by this shift.   This is where communication is critical to keep your startup alive and successful. Make sure you carefully chose your words and instead of ordering things to be done as a dictator, engage in a discussion where everyone is welcome to bring their ideas and opinions to the table. It’s important to also listen to others and make decisions that are informed by your team’s experience on the ground. The most effective problem solving starts with a clear understanding and analysis of the current situation, followed by a single question “What can we all do to achieve our objectives.”

Don’t let titles define your team. Titles don’t define who you are or what you can do, and they don’t define other people either. You might think that a specific person should do a specific task because of their title, but that may not be the best way to get things done. Don’t forget that every member of the team ultimately has the same goal in mind “building a successful company.” Be clear about what needs to be done and let the synergy happen.

Recognize that roles change. Titles may not change often, but roles do. Even if responsibilities change, act under the same principle that you did before: when you see a problem, fix it, as you always did. Encourage your team to do the same. If you have a good team, you can trust that people will want the business as a whole to be successful. They will take on the tasks they are more comfortable doing, but they will also do what needs to be done even if it’s less appealing to them. They did before, so there’s no reason they can’t now.

Take the time for team building.  Find a way to remove the stress and electricity from the situation. Before being titles, you are people and need to remember that not that long ago, everyone got along. Do something that will allow people to connect again on a personal level. Not everyone needs to be best friends, but people need to see the human in each other. It will help your internal communication when you are speaking to a person, not a title.

Oh and you might get requests to hand out new titles now that people realize that they’ve been doing more than what their Googled job description includes. Avoid doing it. Inflated titles become a danger to your startup. Do make sure every job description includes: ‘Additional tasks and responsibilities as determined by the company’s needs.’

The Future of Gaming

This guest post comes from Simon Cave, one of our project leaders, and one of the driving forces behind Mirametrix Gaming

Lennart Nacke on Biometrics

As part of the Mirametrix Gaming team, I recently attended the Montreal International Game Summit (MIGS) to get the pulse of what’s next in gaming. There were tons of great sessions on video game production (how to write scripts, how to make a story realistic, how to create texture and realistic faces and so on), but what I was really interested in was the future of gameplay itself. What technologies can we expect to change gaming in the next 5 to 10 years?

Attending the biofeedback talk by Lennart Nacke, assistant professor at UOIT and head of their HCI and Game Science Group, was a no brainer for me. His talk explored the potential of biofeedback (using instruments that provide feedback on physiological functions) to improve game design and, in some cases, add new forms of interaction.

The main issue with biofeedback is that it mostly measures physiological states that are not easily controllable (e.g. EEG, pulse rate).  For these things, biofeedback can give game designers valuable insight into how users respond to their game experience, but would most likely be an ineffective way to interact directly with the game itself.  And yes, most of these technologies are too invasive at this point to expect the average gamer to use (captors placed on the cheeks and between the eyebrows, for example).  But I still believe that breakthroughs in these areas may very well broaden our definition of what gameplay is at some point.

Gaze tracking is an example of a technology making the transition from an analysis tool to an interaction technology. Emotional analysis doesn’t look like it may be that far behind.  The advantage these technologies have is that people have found ways to collect and analyse this information without any form of physical contact with users.  Emotion is also already tied to what is considered an important part of the gaming experience.  As one audiophile noted, composers are paid to put emotion into games (Apologies, we can’t remember who it was!); What if games could also adjust audio or other content to your current emotional state in addition to your point in the game? It remains to be seen what kind of benefit this will have for gamers, but who knows, the analysis tools of today might turn out to be the game changers of tomorrow. It’s something worth following.

And what of today’s game changers? They seem to have taken their cue from Halting State. Ingress and Canadian based Clandestine Anomaly promise to bring gaming to the everyday.  With the growth in mobile technologies, expect more on the social gaming and augmented reality front.

Being the non-techie in the room

When I started at TandemLaunch, I came straight out of university and the closest thing I’ve ever came to an engineer was the plumber at my parent’s house. I had no idea what an FPGA was, never heard about C++ and only had a vague idea how computers work. Applying for a job at a tech start-up seemed kind of ballsy, but that’s how I am.

But I’m realizing more and more that a lot of project managers don’t have a clue what their engineers are doing (or are supposed to be doing.) The number of project managers who have a background in engineering is declining steadily – thanks to specialized degrees in project management and the flood of MBAs who think project management is “no big deal” because they took a class in it.

So how do you deal with this lack of knowledge? How do you get the engineers to respect you, even though they know much more than you about the work? Here are a couple of things that I found useful.

Be honest. Don’t pretend to know something you don’t. People with domain expertise will figure you out in a second. Pretending is never a good idea – and can destroy your credibility when you are called out on it. So just admit you don’t know. This is generally a good piece of advice – if you don’t know something, just admit it. Use your project management skills to gain credibility within your team instead.  Don’t make the fatal mistake of building a project plan in isolation of the project team that will be executing on it. Draw on your team (that’s why they’re there).

Be open. One of the things I love about the engineering team at TandemLaunch is that every single one of them is completely passionate about what they do. They just love their job. And as soon as you show interest in it and ask questions, they will love to teach you. Remember you are a part of a project team: a group of people with different skill sets working together towards a common objective.  Take the time to appreciate their contribution as much as you hope they will appreciate yours.

Learn. This is not just for your job, but for your life in general – why not learn coding? Sure, I’ll never be a software engineer, but at least I am able to understand what the engineers are talking about. The great thing is that there’s tons of free stuff out there. The standard sites are codeacademy, codeschool and udacity. There are also python classes over at kahnacademy. Which one is the best depends on what you want to do with your code. For web, JavaScript, HTML, Ruby and CSS are the ones to choose. For a more “hardware” approach (computing and the like), C/C++, Java and python. You could also look into some scripting language like perl, which is more for text/file processing. For something more UI oriented, C# and VB are the way to go.

Show your value. There are a couple of things that engineers – as a whole- are not really keen on or are not in a position to do. That’s why your role exists! So demonstrate your value here. In general, this seems to boil down to exact specifications. Nothing drives engineers crazier than ever-changing specs.

And if you want to hear this story from the other side, there’s an excellent blog post on the care and feeding of software engineers by Nicholas Zakas.

When Co-Founder Asymmetry Works

A university student professor team

I recently listed co-founder asymmetry as one of the key failure conditions for startups. While definitely a major cause of startup collapse, there is one scenario where co-founder asymmetry can work well enough: university spin-outs where you have student-professor partnership.  Students don’t have the expertise and seniority of their professors, but typically have far more hours to put into a venture.  For this kind of relationship to work it is important that the expertise provided by the faculty member truly offsets the higher workload of the student. Just being a professor of high status isn’t enough (even if many professors would like to think so). Execution is king, so the high workload student has an intrinsic advantage in the value creation “competition”.

Professors likely have higher technical skill and prestige than their students but just having those isn’t enough. They need to find a way to inject these values into the start-up. Technology-wise, the professor has to be an innovation engine for the startup to offset the often relatively modest workload impact. Similarly, the prestige of the professor needs to translate into tangible opening of doors and recruitment of advisors. Both of these contributions also need to be maintained over time. Once a startup leaves campus it takes a certain kind of professor to remain deeply involved in an innovation function. Even rarer are professors that are able to continue to have a profound impact on the business side of the startup, through strategic guidance and door-opening.  If this sounds demanding, consider the fact that the student co-founder is probably working 80-100 hours per week for her co-founding stake.

I had the privilege of founding a company with a professor who truly made all these contributions and more. Himself a serial entrepreneur and inventor of over 100 patents, he brought deep expertise to the game and had a profound impact on the company. At the same time, I have seen many student-professor founding teams that don’t balance at all. Often, those are primarily on the institutionally determined hierarchical relationship.  Even if that relationship works during the first few months of the startup, as the startup gears up the professor will ultimately become an over-compensated co-founder which is almost guaranteed to lead to trouble down the road.  University startups in particular need to be prepared in advance to for these shifts in co-founder dynamics. A good choice is to reverse-vest founding shares at specific levels of impact (e.g. full involvement, advisory services, no contribution). Alternatively, the startup can issue fixed founder shares to all but then create a large additional incentive grant to operational co-founders.

Why does hiring feel like dating?

You are managing a startup. It is growing quickly and you have personally become the entire human resources department. And admit it, you under estimated the time it takes to find the right person who will understand the business vision and fit in with your culture. Are you meeting one candidate after another? Asking the same questions over and over again? Are you wondering if you are too picky? If it would just be easier to just hire at random?

Ask yourself, would you decide to marry someone at random? At the size of a startup, finding the right employee is really like choosing a life partner.  So here are my tips for making a good choice in hiring and dating.

Advertising – Putting yourself out there

The first step is looking at your startup’s needs. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, how will you ever know when you’ve found it?  What are you willing to make concessions about and what are the deal breakers? Make sure that you can separate the skills and experience you absolutely need, and those you can train them on.

Being clear about what you want and need will help you figure out where you need to look for this person, and how you communicate about the position.  Meeting someone at a club is not like meeting them through mutual friends, just like there is a difference between getting a standard response to a kijiji ad versus a colleagues’ recommendation.  Sitting in your office and waiting for recommendations, on the other hand, won’t get you any results.

It’s also important to send the right message.  Showing cleavage might get you a one night stand, but may be a waste of your time if you’re looking for a serious relationship. If you’re recruiting for a demanding startup environment, don’t make it sound like everyone has a casual 9 to 5 workday to attract more people. Set the right expectations so that you don’t waste your time on people who aren’t interested in the opportunity you are offering.

CV review – Do I call them back?

You don’t have time to date everyone, so some pre-selection is required.  The first screening criterion is always interest in you. Check if the applicant actually made an effort to understand the position and the business, and impress you. If they don’t care enough about making a good impression, they probably don’t care enough about your company.  And if they did, they don’t know how to communicate it, which will be a problem in itself. I always fall for someone who took the time to read my blogs ;)

Does the applicant’s history and career goal make sense for the startup?  The serial large company IT employee will add little value to your startup of five if all they are interested in is a salaried job managing the company’s IT infrastructure. You are looking for someone who can meet your needs, and whose needs you can meet as well.

Are they currently in a relationship/job? Why are they cheating?  Do some background research on the company, and try to investigate their policies. The reason they are leaving their current job can give you valuable insight into what they are looking for in their career. You don’t want someone cheating on you in a few months.

Are they stable, or have they been jumping around from one relationship/job to the other? Have they been able to keep a job for more than 6 months at a time? Red flag this as a question for the interview.

The Interview – AKA Dating

At this stage of the game, you are trying to find out where the CV description and reality meet. How much leadership experience have they had, and how much do they want? What are their ambitions and goals? Are they aligned to yours? Do they want children, how many, and when?

What personal values do they have? Do they show integrity and respect? You want your business culture to be built on the right foundation, and the people on your team, especially in a start-up, are that foundation.  Talk about your company’s objectives and values.  Do they show sincere interest, or seem disinterested or skeptical?

Can they communicate clearly?  Everyone will tell you that communication is the key to a good relationship. Believe them, it’s true! You can never over communicate things to your team and you need someone who can understand and communicate back effectively.

Will they be there through the ups and downs, or just bail out at the first obstacle? Determination is really important in a startup.  There is a lot of work, a lot of risk, and you can’t count on a short term payoff. You need someone who will be motivated by the long term vision alone and not ask you for recognition every time they pick up the dishes. Walk them through your work environment, introduce them to other members of your team, and show them in as demonstrable a way as possible what their day to day work will be like.

Are they smart and challenging? Will they teach me things? You want the business to grow, which means you want someone who can help you grow it. No one will be perfect, but it is essential that they will push you and the company to the next level.

Does my team like them? Can they work together effectively? In a startup your team is like your family, and they may spot warning flags you’ve overlooked.

So you’ve made it through your battery of questions and man, this one is a keeper! You’re both more excited by the end of the interview than you were to begin with, a clear sign that there’s some real chemistry here.

So why are they still single? Ask all the hard questions, and make sure to check their references. Did they quit or get fired? Why? Does their interpretation of their abilities match their coworkers’ perspectives? Beware of those that would accuse others for all failures and credit themselves for the successes. This is not the sign of a team player or effective leadership.

Happily Ever After

Recruit for the best, hire the best, and invest the time to build the team your startup needs to succeed.  A startup team can be like family after all, you just get to choose them ;)

Et pourquoi pas investir plus dans l’industrie de l’électronique?/ And Why Not Invest More in Electronics?

[English follows]

Au cours des dernières années, le réseau du capital de risque au Québec n’investit que très peu dans l’industrie de l’électronique et des technologies que l’on dit ‘’pures’’ et brevetées. Les investissements sont dirigés plutôt vers l’industrie du web.

Pourtant, l’industrie de l’électronique est un marché de 965 milliards et dont on prévoit une croissance de 7% par année d’ici 2015, en comparaison avec web 2.0 qui est prévu monter jusqu’à 380 milliards par 2015 entre le commerce électronique, la publicité, l’entreprise, et mobile. En plus des avantages d’un portefeuille d’investissement diversifié, je suis convaincu que le Québec pourrait faire le choix de se positionner comme chef de file dans cette industrie. Mes raisons ne sont pas seulement parce que le marché est en croissance continue, mais également parce que nous avons un bassin de main d’œuvre qualifiée au niveau de l’ingénierie (Polytechnique, Mcgill, Concordia, ETS, Sherbrooke, etc.) qui est accessible par les entrepreneurs.

Au Québec, nous avons une communauté créative, innovatrice, forte techniquement tant au niveau du logiciel et que de l’ingénierie.

Il serait également intéressant pour le Québec de ne pas tomber dans un domaine d’expertise qui pourrait entrer en compétition, par exemple, avec Silicon Valley qui se spécialise dans les technologies web et les semi-conducteurs.

TandemLaunch propose une industrie qui diffère des autres fonds québécois mais qui coïncide parfaitement avec les atouts de la main d’œuvre québécoise. Je maintienne la conviction que nous contribuent à une plus sain équilibre pour le Québec.

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And Why Not Invest More in Electronics?

In recent years, the venture capital community in Québec has invested very little in the electronics industry and core technology, focusing more on the web industry.

But the electronics industry is a $965 billion market which is expected to grow by 7% per year by 2015, compared with the web 2.0 industry which is forecasted to grow to roughly $380 Billion by 2015 between e-commerce, online advertising, enterprise, and mobile.   Apart from the benefits of more investment diversity, I am convinced that Quebec has an uncommon opportunity to position itself as a leader in this industry. This is not only because the market is constantly growing, but also because we have a highly skilled workforce in engineering (Polytechnique, McGill, Concordia, ETS, Sherbrooke, etc.) that entrepreneurs can access.

Quebec is a creative, innovative, technically adept software and engineering community.

It would be interesting to see Québec invest heavily in that community, and not focus an unbalanced number of investment dollars into market areas in direct competition with entrepreneurial powerhouses like Silicon Valley, for example.

I firmly believe that TandemLaunch is contributing to that balance by investing in core electronics technologies that are well tailored to the Québec labour market.

Building the Future of Ladies in Science

The issue of women in entrepreneurship and technology has been a bit of a preoccupation for me in the past few months, largely because despite our company’s commitment to diversity, we get very few female applicants.  Where are all the ladies who want to build businesses and work with cutting edge technology? For whatever reason, at the intersection of VC investment and tech women are underrepresented.

And so, as the academic type that I am, this weekend I had the good fortune to find myself at the McGill Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine Symposium in celebration of Carrie Derick, who became Canada’s first female professor.  The event seemed all the more a propos given the recently published US study finding that both male and female scientists rate CVs with a female name lower than the same CV with a male name on applicant’s perceived competence, hireability, and mentorability. The starting salaries respondents would be willing to offer the CVs with female names were also significantly lower. Ouch.

But I think the challenge for everyone, in and outside academia, is to understand how to tackle these largely unconscious biases we all have.  Because ultimately, in the words of NSERC President Suzanne Fortier, “The future is not for us to imagine, but for us to build.”

The female scientists who spoke at the symposium generally did not feel actively discriminated against, and all of them felt they were able to have successful personal as well as professional lives.  But, if I dare lean on the anecdotal science of Julie Payette (Astronauts are the best), the struggle is no longer for the top 10%, it is for the majority of people of average aptitude, and it is for the very definition of ‘normal’.  Our prejudices (gender or otherwise) actually have a whole lot to do with what we have learned from experience is ‘normal’. Until we approach gender parity in any group, our idea of the ‘norm’ for that group will be biased towards the dominating characteristics. The further a person is from that model of the norm, the more questions will be raised about how well they fit into that group, whether those differentiating characteristics are relevant to goodness of fit in that group or not.

Diversity has to be part of our reality before we will fully overcome our biases.  For those of us with influence over norm defining decisions (hiring, for example), that means we really need to be on our toes if we are going to create this kind of diversity. And why shouldn’t we?  There are very real benefits to diversity, from more intelligent organizations, to access larger talent pools.  We also need to prepare each other for the reality that overcoming these biases means work.

What appears to be the biggest problem for women in the more male dominated science and engineering fields right now is that while those females who make it into an undergraduate program tend to drop out along the educational trajectory at roughly the same rate as male students, very few enter into undergraduate degrees in technical fields to begin with.  You can’t help but wonder what that says about what girls are experiencing in the formative years leading up to their higher education decisions, and what inadvertent biases lead girls and boys to have very different learning experiences and opportunities. Things like recruiting boys for robotics, without approaching any girls (Don’t worry young Katie’s like me will butt in and volunteer themselves, but they’re not the only ones that could benefit from the opportunity)?

An especially poignant moment for me during the question and answer period following Payette’s talk, a young woman in the audience asked her how she dealt with self-doubt.  Payette’s response was one I never expected any human being to give; she said she never doubted herself, she just focused on her goal.  She largely credited this self-confident to very supportive parents.

Remember the stencil days?

That’s the self-confidence I want every child to grow up to have, so that they can take the risks achievement in business or academics requires, accept failure as part of the learning process, and spend their energy where it matters most – on being awesome (as an astronaut or otherwise).

Oh yeah, and make sure your daughter is proud of her grade 1 science project, even if she doesn’t get 1st place.  She was more interested in kaleidoscopes than competition anyway.