I started this weeks’ accelerator class excited. My idea for Care Better is becoming tangible. Research with caregivers through support groups, emails and calls are helping me define what I hear is needed. Connecting with caregivers is so rewarding and I even learn what my Mom’s diagnosis might have been, had she ever cooperated with an assessment. Revenue models, marketing plans, competitive analysis are moving me forward.
As predicted, my class is dwindling and we’re down to 15 from the original 40 students. The pace is brutal, and for some, work, families, cultural misfits and bad ideas have forced 25 to drop out. We’ve sacrificed holidays, weekends, exercise and families. This is intentional to prepare us for the life of a startup. Stamina rules.
Our group is connecting like freshmen in college or Moms with newborns under the steep learning curve of the experience. Mandatory meetings in smaller groups happen two to three times during the week at night, both online and in person before evening class time.
“Let’s meet at 11pm. I’ve got to put kids to bed,” a classmate requests.
“Sounds good,” a twenty something, without a job, replies during our video google hangout on a Sunday afternoon. I agree, hesitant to show my age and fear of judgement for lack of stamina.
“Where should we meet in person this weekend when we are so spread out around the Bay Area?” I ask. “How about the library in Pleasanton?”
“The library!!!!” they respond in a chorus. “Do they still exist?” I watch the shock across their faces on my laptop.
“Yes. And they have free rooms to reserve and great wifi.”
“Holy shit! Who knew?” they respond. “I don’t think I ever went to a library when I was in college.” another 25 year old adds. I schedule a recurring meeting there for us every Sunday morning for the next 6 weeks.
Back in the bar at midnight after class, the 15 of us circle this evenings mentors, trying to hear what’s being said as well as wait to ask our specific questions.
One big shot CEO mentor, founder of a software cloud platform making gazillions, barely looks at me when I step up for my turn. I had pitched that night and my finger ratings still stunk with mostly two fingers in the air, (not three fingers, too wimpy, take a stand), but I got a couple of four fingers, out of five, so I was improving. His critique of my pitch was “jesus. What is that? Power point? God. At least use Create Space or Keynote and make it look beautiful.” It's part of the litany of constructive criticism. Some delivered better than others. Now in the bar, he knew my idea and was giving me a passive aggressive diss like a four year old that won’t look at you.
“You have a woman as your cofounder for your company. Can you tell me about how you found each other?” He peers up at me through one eye while keeping his head down and replies, “My wife does what your idea is trying to do. It’s worthless.” He gets up and moves to another table to drink with the boys.
The punch to my gut is real. My stomach actually hurts. I watch four young girls blast shots together at the bar as my classmates follow him and move away, avoiding eye contact with me. I am left standing alone among the peanut shells.
Taking a deep breath, I notice the two, smart, interesting young women in my program grab a table and I pull up a stool.
“We heard that," they say in unison, waiting for me. “Don’t give up. You're on to something. You’re just in the wrong program. You should have found an accelerator that’s more socially conscious. What are you having? Get rid of that soda water. We’ll buy you a vodka.” I hold my drink and thank god they get it. This is hard! As my family and friends who’ve been watching me go through this say “Just take what you can from it. You have nothing to prove. Keep learning. Every day is a step forward.” The heat and redness gradually leaves my face, my stomach starts to recover and I’m grateful for the dark bar.
Our instructor calls us together after the mentors leave and asks “How’s your search for cofounders going?” Everyone takes turns and when it’s mine I reply, “Good. I’m working on it. I have two interviews, I’m on four networking sites, I have two follow ups, etc.”
“YOU’RE WORKING ON IT???? YOU’RE WORKING ON IT? ARE YOU F*@*#$%^& kidding me? YOU’RE WORKING ON IT???” He lays into me about my choice of words, leadership, ability to raise money, trust, confidence. He keeps going. “WORKING ON IT? WHAT ARE YOU? IN MIDDLE SCHOOL? WORKING ON IT?” He loses interest and moves on to someone else. I lean in and strain to hear my classmates progress over the din of the bar. They are definitive in their speech. They speak like seasoned grad students, moving in cohorts, leveraging relationships. Authoritative. Comfortable in technology with a wide breath of knowledge. It’s 1am again and I’ll fall asleep on my hour drive home if I don’t get out of here. I’ve got to go to work in the morning.
I grab my purse and head towards the door.
“HEY SUSAN.” My instructor screams from the back of the bar as I reach the front door. The entire bar goes silent and looks at me.
“THINK LIKE A FOUNDER AND SPEAK LIKE A FOUNDER.” He points and yells.
I throw my shoulder against the door and leave.
So I'm sitting in a bar....
In Palo Alto, CA. Silicon Valley. The Mecca of technology, innovation, money, risk and men. Mostly men. You’ve heard the statistics. Only 4% of Venture Capital money goes to women owned startups. Gender disparity is real and 80% of tech company employees are male with only 5% of CEO’s female. And it goes on…and on….
But I have this idea of wanting folks to find the support I couldn’t find when my Mom was alive and ill with Dementia. Technology can connect people like me to others in the same boat. I research Accelerators/Incubators (schools where they teach you how to create a startup product), find one that specializes in early stage ideas, go to a few evening meetings where I hear them plug their program and apply. I’m accepted after some crazy testing and essay. Working during the day, I drive two hours in traffic to attend my first night class and learn that all the good networking happens at the bar afterward with the mentors, teachers, classmates and former students. “It’s where the action is.”
Did I tell you I’m 57? A working, suburban Mom with three grown daughters and white as white can be. I have 25 years of sales and management experience including a cool start up but that was years ago. The world has changed. I’m surrounded by 3 women and 37 men whose average age is 28. Max! At least 20 different nationalities are represented. I steel myself, stand up and make my first pitch of my idea for a caregiving site and bomb. Four of us pitch each night and the tech CEO mentors, teachers and students all rate you, holding up five fingers for great, no fingers for horrible and three fingers are not allowed. Too wimpy. Take a stand. I get mostly twos which is generous. These people are smart, ruthless but honest.
Now 1 am and the bar is rocking. Young 20 somethings are lined up and doing shots. The floor is covered in peanut shells and the dance floor is empty. Fellow students, all with phones in their hands, stand in line to get 2 minutes with a mentor. WTF am I doing here? I get why the dropout rate is 93%.
Mohamed, another student about 25, sits down next to me. He heard my pitch and wants to tell me his story. He has a young family and his father was just diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. His parents live in Pakistan and they don’t’ have any resources for his Mom. He can’t get back because of Visa problems and the expense. His wife stays home here with his kids. He’s a wreck. We chat and I listen. I turn to leave and one of the tech CEO’s, maybe 35, is next to me. “My mother in law is in late stage Dementia and my wife has had to quit her job.” I listen longer.
I drive over the Dunbarton Bridge at 2am, blasting Drake on the radio with the windows cracked to stay awake and think “It’s not just me. Maybe this old bag is on to something.