Tag Archives: Poornima

How I Decided to Leave Corporate America to Join an Early Stage Startup

By Frances Advincula 

I subscribed to Inc. Magazine when I was 10. I bought the domain name BuyConvectionOvens.com because I saw an infomercial on internet businesses that said you should start a business that resonate with what you love. At the time, my dad and I spent a lot of time baking on the weekends, so to my 10-year old self, an online business selling ovens made complete total sense. (Please don’t laugh.)

That’s when I first started playing with HTML, which unfortunately didn’t get restarted until I was in undergrad.

So I always knew I wanted to be part of the startup world from a very early age, even before I was aware of the word “startup.” And even though I found myself with an amazing job as a software engineer in Corporate America, I still tried to be involved with startups (contributing to and voraciously reading Femgineer, Women2.com, etc.).

Poornima has always tried to convince me to move to the Bay, but the timing was never right. I was enjoying my job building enterprise software with smart and amazing people. In fact, we were so close that as a young female living alone in the city, I referred to my coworkers as my family.

However, last January, in a surprisingly serendipitous turn of events (like life never turning out how you planned), I decided maybe it was time for a big, risky change, and I asked Poornima to help me find opportunities in Silicon Valley. Amazingly, Poornima introduced me to several startups, and the next week, I already had interviews lined up. Poornima advised me to really take the time to get to know these companies. As an engineer, she said, the odds are in my favor, and I should really be careful about picking one that is well-aligned with my culture and values.

And then the most magical thing happened: nousDECOR — an amazing startup revolutionizing the way we curate, create, and consume interior design and household goods — offered me the opportunity to join their team.

So, like the luckiest damsel in distress, I know had a huge problem. Do I leave a very safe, prestigious job that I loved to pursue my entrepreneurial dreams?

It definitely was not an easy choice. I was definitely my company’s baby — I had started my career there as an intern, and they hired me right out of undergrad. I was on their fast-track; they were molding me be part of the next generation of leaders. And yet, and yet, although a lot of startups have courted me in the past, something with this specific one tugged at my heart strings — I believed in the product’s potential and I wanted to be part of it.

Like Sheryl Sandberg said, ‘If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, get on…”

So just like any career-minded young professional, I decided to talk to my mentors. My mentor at the big company, a celebrated software architect, who of course wanted me to stay, said that I should do what will make me happy, because only happy people perform. The astronaut told me that he has known me for a long time and this position is the very epitome of what I would want. My best friend told me I that I never shut up about startups, and this one is THE ONE.

Poornima encouraged me to think through things. She specifically told me to ponder the following:

1. Why is this a unique opportunity?
2. Do you think the founders are a good leaders?
3. Are there other engineers you can learn from?
4. Is the compensation fair?
5. What do you want to learn and how do you want to grow?

Why is this a unique opportunity?

Like Poornima mentioned, we need to be really careful about how we fit in the company’s culture. Skills can always be learned, but fit cannot. I’ve been at the position of choosing Corporate America + grad school versus a startup plenty of times. About a year ago, I wrote to Jen Dziura who started multiple business as well, (yes, that article is me), and below is her advice:

“There will be a lot of other startups. How hard would it be to get hired as a software engineer at another startup, later? Especially once you’ve finished your degree, and have even more full-time experience? What makes this the startup?”

So if you find yourself in a similar situation, think to yourself, “What makes this the startup?” For me, I’ve always, always loved interior design. I have always been looking for something that is in the intersection of the arts and technology, and anything that had a hint of democratizing something originally thought of as elite. I have tried interior design blogging back in undergrad and even had a short stint as a contributor to the first iPad Fashion Magazine, JSNQ. In fact, my favorite column at Vogue is APT with LSD.

Again, the bottom line is you really have to ask yourself if you believe in the product and if you are a good culture fit.

Do you think the founders are good leaders?

I’ve always subscribed to the idea that you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with, so always, always strive to be surrounded by great people that know more than you! The founders of nousDecor, both Heather and Dorothee, have over 30 years combined of experience in both the startup world and the Fortune 500 world. Heather was the 8th employee at Youtube, where she helped the site scale to what we know it now during its rapid growth, advising startups for the last 15 years. Dorothee, on the other hand, has vast experience with strategy and marketing from prestigious organizations such as PowerBar/Nestle, Visa, The Home Depot.

Most of my professional life has been staring at leadership boards where there are only a couple of women, so now that I am about to join a startup founded by exceptional leaders who happen to be female, I am beyond ecstatic.

Are there engineers you can learn from?

This is a no brainer. Software development is a team sport. To be a superstar engineer, be part of a superstar team. This is best summarized by the article
“Focus on building 10x teams, not on hiring 10x developers” by Avichal Garg.

“Software development, however, is more like rowing. It’s a team sport that requires skill and synchronization. This applies at all scales. On a three-person boat, one person out of sync will stall your boat. As you get bigger, no single developer can impact your team’s performance, so again synchronization is key.

Making your team as efficient as possible is what determines long-term success. ”

Fortunately, for me, this has never been an issue with either company. However, if you are fielding offers, especially now that it is almost graduation season, keep this in mind.

Is the compensation fair?

Obviously, you would want to get paid at least market share, but I want to take this opportunity talk more about equity, which is still a fuzzy concept to me. I will just go ahead and quote Poornima’s excellent advice directly:

“Given that you are a startup you MUST ask for equity and be careful of dilution. Dilution is basically your equity percentage shrinking with subsequent rounds of funding, so your ownership percentage goes down, but the value of it goes up because the value of the company should go up with additional funding rounds. I say should because some companies will have what’s known as a down round where they take money but the valuation goes down. There should also be ways for you to receive additional equity. Typically you receive some at the beginning and it vests over 4 years, but many companies give additional equity to their veteran employees who have been there usually after 2 years. There is of course a new 4-year vesting cycle that goes with that new equity. For someone of your caliber I wouldn’t expect anything less than 2-3% equity, given your level. ”

Bottom line: know your worth and negotiate.

What do you want to learn and how do you want to grow?

I had to really think about how I would want to learn. As you can imagine, Corporate America is very different — there are more formal processes, channels, and even mentorship programs. In fact, I have grown tremendously as an engineer and as a leader because of my company’s formal mentorship program. But a startup won’t have that. You have to get things done that you don’t always know how to do. Fortunately, Poornima said everyone in the Bay is very helpful, and just because your team doesn’t know how to do it, doesn’t mean you can’t ask help from outside community.

Also, I had to think about if I wanted to focus solely on how to build great software. In the end, I knew that I not only wanted to know how to build great software end-to-end, I also wanted to know how great software teams and great software companies are built from the ground up — and that is exactly the opportunity that nousDECOR was offering me.

In Summary

This has been quite a wordy, albeit personal, post. In summary, if you too are at a crossroads, I encourage you to do the hardest thing, but don’t just jump to decisions. Safe is not always better, and be smart about the risks you decide to take. Not every opportunity is a path that should be followed.

Most importantly, if you are a young female engineer like I am, you will be most likely be scared. But that fear is a good thing; it means you are growing not just as an engineer, but as a person. It means you are doing something important and outside of your comfort zone. And as Poornima closed her email, I too encourage you by ending with this thought: “No matter what happens, know you are capable.”

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Complement Your Hard Work with Help

By Poornima Vijayashanker

You’ve spent time working hard, really hard, but you don’t always see the results you want. Even after being patient and waiting weeks, months, even years you are left wondering, “What it’s going to take to get to the next level?” This is a common question people ask themselves during the course of their careers or while they’re building a business.

The truth is you cannot get to the next level alone. You need help brainstorming and solving problems. Help that comes from a number of people: employees, partners, mentors, advisors, even friends! If you’re a social butterfly like me who seeks people out, and often lends a helping hand, then you probably already know how to ask for help. But, if you’re shy or have just been so heads down here are some suggestions for ways to ask for help.

Start by making a list of people who you’d like to mentor or advise you. Don’t discount people who are hard to reach, just know that it will take awhile, and a few different avenues to get to them. Use your favorite professional or social networking tool to see if one of your friends will make an introduction. You might be a few degrees away from people. If you see that you have a mutual friend, send them a couple short sentences on why you want the introduction.

Once that’s done, you’ll have to wait, for a week, maybe even two for a response. If you don’t hear back it’s OK to follow up! Even if things don’t work out, always, always thank your friend for making or trying to make the introduction. If they aren’t comfortable or don’t know the person well, don’t push too hard. Try another avenue, like an event, or even a cold call! While this approach can be a little scary, it is often the most authentic. Authentic?! Well it depends on how often you message someone, and the message you send. I’ve had people who have reached out to me multiple times (over the course of a few months – not every day or every week). They kept me updated on their progress, and eventually I had time and my interest increased because I saw they were focused. People also come up to me at events, it’s easier to see that someone is genuinely in need of help face to face, and who might just be trying to pick my brain.

Meet people IRL (in real life) and use the smile sandwich. If you need an icebreaker start with something simple like (smile), “Hi I’m Poornima. I’ve been a startup junkie now for 7 years, but when I’m not building I love going to yoga. What are you into?” (Smile!) The smile sandwich is the key! It eases people into a conversation. Try coming up with your own icebreakers, and testing them out the next time you’re stuck in an elevator or line. The good news is that even if you don’t hit it off with the other person, it’s a short enough time frame to make a getaway!

Now do realize that someone you just met might be highly opposed to working with you, and that’s OK too. It’s up to you to show that you are reputable, credible, and serious about getting help, sometimes that just takes time. Follow up as you make progress or hit certain milestones.

Most people are open to mentoring and advising others for free, but those who are in high demand are just hard to reach, and no amount of compensation can get you some of their time. If you’re stuck and really need help try seeking out career or business coaches. While you have to pay these people (and their rates will vary) most coaches will get you to the next level, because that is their job! Good ones have strong networks that they can leverage to help you out too.

No matter who or how you reach out to someone, prepare your ASK. Stay away from things like: “I just wanna pick your brain.” This is a clear sign that you don’t know what you want, and it will make it even harder for someone to help you. Instead keep the ASK focused. What do you need help with, and how much time will it take? e.g. “I’m reaching out because I know you’ve done a fabulous job recruiting some top technical talent. Could I get an hour of your time to come in and analyze what my startup team might be doing wrong when it comes to sourcing a candidate?” OR “I’d like to apply for the product manager position at XYZ Inc. I see that you’ve been working there for X years. Could I get 15 minutes of your time to understand the role, and what the hiring manager is looking for in a potential candidates?”

Like any good relationship, it’s up to you to follow up after the initial interaction, and keep building upon it if you think the person was helpful.

I’m curious to know what techniques you’ve tried and have worked for you? Please let me know in the comments below!

Femgineer Forum: Because Knowing How to Code Isn’t Always Enough

By Sujata Menon

If you have ever been in a bind to figure out how to ASK – for a raise, change in role, work life balance, or anything that affects your work life, Poornima Vijayashanker has some simple, well thought out strategies and solutions. Her forums are in the format of a workshop; it is not just all talk. You get to practice what you just heard and receive instant feedback from a group that gets it. This is what makes Poornima’s forums unique!

Poornima’s upcoming Forum at CoverHound in San Francisco, is about Fostering Female Friendly Companies. Here’s the agenda:

  • Strategies on how to build up the confidence you to need to approach supervisors regarding sensitive topics
  • Provide you with effective communication techniques for dealing with difficult teammates and supervisors
  • Give you a guide to building a culture that attracts and retains females, and is known for being female friendly organization

I have attended both of Poornima’s past forums and left with some great usable tips. Poornima’s first forum on Compelling Communication aka how to craft an ASK helped me out a ton! I took a break after I had my first child. 6 months into the motherhood, I started interviewing. I wasn’t sure if I could tell my interviewer that I had a child, and if I should cover up an important aspect of my life. I didn’t know that I could seek out specific jobs based on how supportive the workplace would be, and accepting of the fact that I am a new mother.  I constantly wondered the following: Are startups ruled out for me? Or am I destined for a boring job? I had so many questions and I was not even sure if these were valid questions. After meeting the femgineers, I got a lot of feedback and ideas to approach my job hunt which proved very helpful.

The second forum covered yet another important topic of how to change roles at workplace. Poornima had ideas as how one can build up an experience even without the title, look for a job internally or externally with experience and portfolio to prove that you have the experience for the new role.

A typical forum is structured like this:

  • Poornima will discuss her strategies about the topic at hand like how to craft an ASK.
  • The participants pair up and discuss, practice the solution to their problem based on Poornima’s ideas.
  • A few of the chosen participants will get to present to the entire audience for feedback and more ideas to solve the issue.

You will leave the workshop with many tips and ideas to apply at your workplace. Plus, you get to network with fellow femgineers! And, dinner is covered. What’s not to like?

To sum up, here are 6 reasons why you should attend femgineer forums:

  1. Network with fellow femgineers.
  2. Get help from other professionals with similar workplace challenges.
  3. Hear tested solutions about the chosen topic.
  4. Get feedback about your specific issue from a supportive audience which gets it.
  5. Propose new forum topics that Poornima will think about and help you solve.
  6. Enjoy free food.

Even though this event is primarily focused on women in STEM, men are welcome to join.  In fact, we had an amazing event at iSocket, where many of the men on the team participated, because they too wanted to know how to change roles in their career!

Hope to see you at the next Femgineer Forum!

Sujata Menon holds a Masters in Computer Science from National Institute of Technology Karnataka, India and works as a developer in SF Bay Area.

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