What happened when 10 female entrepreneurs hit Silicon Valley

“Big. Silicon. Balls.” This was the unofficial mantra of the Women in Focus study tour, as we travelled around Silicon Valley learning about its ecosystem.

So how is it that a group of 10 women, each with their own businesses, led ably and fearlessly by Katie Mihell, arrives at the conclusion that this is the secret sauce to being successful in ‘the Valley’? On the surface, we were quite a diverse group when we all congregated in the lobby of the Westin St Francis on Union Square. Many of the women were already successful, with their businesses turning over several millions of dollars a year. Others were at the beginning of their journey, either with products that were being developed, being tested, or early in the business life cycle. The range of sectors was quite diverse too, spanning retail to research. The focus of the tour had been technology and most of us were pretty tech-enabled, in a social media kind of way. But for a few, their lack of tech was their reason for being here; they recognized that the need to embrace it, in order to move their business forward.

We were united, however, by a shared excitement of having such an opportunity in front of us. All of us had similar goals with regards to learning about the Silicon Valley ecosystem and soaking up whatever we could, so we could apply it to our businesses and a US strategy.

The agenda of the next 5 days can only be described as….busy. Certainly, none of us thought that we’d be sitting around filing our nails (although we did all end up in a nail salon at one point), but Women in Focus had ensured our schedule was jam-packed. First top on the agenda was Ideo, a company that brings ideas and concepts to market, through design, testing and iteration. These might be physical products, such as developing low-cost, highly efficient portable stoves for developing countries. At the other end of the spectrum was a financial services product, where bank customers could elect to return the change from a purchase directly back into their bank account rather than having change in their pocket. Certainly, they had one of the most interesting quotes of the week; they described their jobs and roles at Ideo as ‘A life spent in perpetual beta’, demonstrating that the startup principles of design/test/iterate, design/test/iterate are constant. For some of us entrepreneurs in the room, we felt that encapsulated our lives perfectly! An afternoon session at Embarcadero Partners saw us learning about the value of culture and change – and managing both at the same time. They kindly hosted drinks and nibbles afterwards, during which we had an opportunity to ask them about where we could find nightclubs for hot, slightly old people.

Tuesday saw us start the morning in San Francisco at a NSW Trade & Investment breakfast, hosted by the Commissioner Jason Seed and with a panel that included a successful US female entrepreneur, and an Australian entrepreneur rolling out her business in the US – Kate Kendall of The Fetch, seen here in this picture:

It was at this point that many of us started asking about their experiences regarding raising money in the US as a female business owner. The statistics are pretty daunting: only 3% of capital raised is by women. They hastened to add that this figure seems to be increasing…albeit slowly! Then it was on to Jive Software, who provided insights not only into their products but on how the Valley has changed over the last 15 years; the driving forces, the attitudes within in, even the types of people the Valley now attracts.

Back to San Francisco for dinner in the Mission district with some Australian entrepreneurs for their insights. My favourite learning was from Alasdair Faulkner who described life as ‘Building a company is like making a pancake; you always mess the first one up.’ Some of the group stayed on but most went home early (ish) because…

…we had a 6am start on the bus the next morning! Well, most of us did. There was one notable absence who had to make her own way down to the Valley; Cisco expected us at 8am and we couldn’t be late. A 4 hour session at Cisco – during which we had the red-carpet treatment rolled out for us – saw us learning about their merger and acquisition strategies, integration of cultures and see some cool new technology, not to mention their social media listening centre.

Next stop? 1 Hacker Way. (Now say it aloud – clever, right?) Facebook. Yes, we Liked it. A lot! As you can see from this photo here:

The Facebook tour was really interesting: it’s like a really big campus equipped with everything you could want. There’s free food EVERYWHERE – an ice cream store was a favourite among our group. Facebook have even brought a whole lot of services on campus – hairdresser, butcher etc – so that your daily life can be as efficient as possible. As you’d expect, everyone at FB is quite young and walking around in jeans and t-shirts; the exception being the rather glamorous Bess, seen here with some lovely gold jewellery (obviously it caught my eye):

But of all the companies we met – the Facebookers were the most cagey – our session was very much monitored in terms of what could/couldn’t be said. The irony of this – a company that knows everything about us but we couldn’t know too much about them – wasn’t lost on us. Nor the fact that when we got to Facebook and I tried to ‘friend’ Mark Zuckerberg, I received a message saying that he had restricted privacy settings. Go figure?! But they certainly had some inspirational wall artwork:

Back to San Francisco for a session with Linda Jenkinson of Les Concierges, a business providing services to clients and staff of big companies. “Experiences are the new luxury goods,” said Linda – and we agreed. It completely echoed some of the other thoughts and values we’d heard at other companies, particularly in reference to internal culture and change. Off to dinner – and for some us, that meant hitching a ride in Linda’s Porsche. Certainly, fanging it up and down the hills of San Francisco was an experience I won’t forget quickly!

We spent all of the next morning in the city, visiting B Corp and Eventbrite. Some rare spare time enabled us to have lunch in Pacific Heights – the suburb of choice for all of us when we move to the US; huge houses, beautiful neighbourhood, lovely shops, quite close to the CBD. This was then followed by some pampering at a nail salon before we visited SoftTech VC to understand the investment landscape in Silicon Valley. For some of us, this was an opportunity to really drill our host, particularly with regards to female VCs. She echoed what many of the entrepreneurs – some of whom had raised more than $50m between them, had said – “Here in the US, we don’t really care about your metrics or numbers to date – it’s about investing in the founder and the vision.” Clearly, a very different approach to Australia! We walked out of there with a number of female VC names, itching to start making contact with them.

By now it was our final day – Friday. This time we met IBM who reside in a series of ‘bunkers’ in the Valley, very similar to something out of a James Bond film! From there to LinkedIn, who were incredibly welcoming and, as it turns out, incredibly successful.

They have 250 million members on LinkedIn…and are aiming for an unbelieveable 600 million. Of all the freebies we were given over the course of the week, theirs was the coolest – a personalized ‘map’ of each of our networks and contacts, as represented on LinkedIn. Not that we were in it for the freebies of course…nor for the free music session, right Katie?

A quick stop to meet Jason again, who introduced us to the US Ambassador to Australia, Ambassador Bleich.

Then – sadly – our last meal all together. The location for this was at the Slanted Door, with this as our backdrop:

Stunning but freezing. Another phrase we heard repeated throughout the week was Mark Twain’s “The coldest winter I ever had was the summer I spent in San Francisco.” And boy, was Mr Twain on the money, as we stood there turning blue from the bitter wind coming from the Bay.

At dinner, we had to nominate our:
a) funniest moment
b) most informative moment
c) game-changing moment

There were quite a few contenders for the funniest moment…including the time one of our group admitted – publicly, in front of our hosts – that she didn’t know what a camel toe was (yes, conversation on the bus had degenerated fairly quickly!), or Catriona re-enacting her son’s newfound religious devotion. The most informative moments were business-shaping ideas to making some tough decisions. But the game-changers? This was when the reason for this trip became clear; these were the insights that were going to change us forever. These were the reasons – at the time unknown – that we had decided to take the trip. Everyone’s game-changer was personal and relating to their circumstances but certainly for me and StyleRocks, the game-changer was the realisation that we need to be in the US market. The next bit – how that happens – is the next step I have to figure out.

So it was with a heavy heart that we all said farewell after dinner. And of course it sounds clichéd but really, this trip was about the people. Not only the people we met at LinkedIn, Facebook and so on – but the people we were travelling with. There were some amazing people among them – we are all forever united by the experience that we shared. When you think about it, bringing 10 women together – most of whom, strangers to each other – had the potential to be tricky or awkward. Certainly, when you join a tour group, you really only find a few others that you actually want to talk to, right? But this group was unique in that we all got on, and we all liked each other. More than that, because everyone shares a same sense of purpose and faces similar challenges, we now all have a network and support system that we can draw on at any time.

Three of us stayed on to find out more about the Valley, having set up our own meetings: Catriona, Fiona and I. Or, our Valley aliases: Ventura, Siliconia and Disruptina. Here’s Ventura modelling her beautiful StyleRocks ring:

And now a close-up of the ring:

Ok, back from being side-tracked by jewellery! Certainly, the meetings that we had were completely facilitated by the study tour, not just by being really well informed as to the Valley landscape but because we were able to talk about our study tour; many people we spoke to were fascinated by the concept of 10 Australian female ‘en-tre-pray-noors’ doing such a thing.

And we did it because we want to learn. And Women in Focus set it up because it’s part of their mantra to inform, connect and inspire. And both parties – students and teacher – did it because we have balls (figuratively speaking); we’re determined, we’re ambitious, we’re passionate. We’re smart; the odds of success are stacked against us and yet we find a way to innovate, to be resourceful. If we heard it once, we heard it a million times from investors: “It’s about the founder, the team, the ability to execute and the vision – that’s what we’re investing in.” If you want to succeed in business or life, you need to have balls. And if you want to succeed in the Valley, you need to have big Silicon balls.

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