Kathryn Minshew is a female cofounder and CEO of The Muse, a popular online job search destination for millennials. She doesn’t have a technical degree, although she was a top computer science student who aced the advanced placement exam for computer science when she was in the tenth grade at Thomas Jefferson High, a prestigious math and science magnet school in northern Virginia. For fun she and her friends used to pass notes in class that they’d written in computer programming languages, but she never saw herself going into tech as a career. That was something for guys who lived in their parents’ basements.
She opted to study French and political science at Duke and planned to join the Foreign Service. With her wideset green eyes and long brown hair, Kathryn could easily be mistaken for the actress Katie Holmes. You can just imagine the reaction when she first approached a roomful of investors more accustomed to being hit up for funding by guys in hoodies, especially at a time when so few women were bringing on startups. She was almost a curiosity. She had to play down her moviestar looks while coming off as assertive but not bossy, whipsmart but not arrogant. Talk about a tightrope.
“The bar for a woman’s behavior to be [deemed] unpleasant or difficult to work with is very low in Silicon Valley,” she told us as we took in The Muse’s eighteen thousand square feet of office space in Manhattan’s Garment District just a week after the firm moved in. The light-filled space has a whimsical vibe—it features an outdoor-indoor feel with potted plants hanging from the ceiling, a cozy wellness room for nursing mothers and employees making use of the “baby-atwork” policy, which allows parents to bring babies to the office until they are either six months old or crawling, and an accent wall covered in ivy in the sleek cafeteria. But it’s not fancy. And Kathryn assured us the company was still running lean and mean. The furniture was just a step up from Ikea, and the founders had to barter for some of the decor, which includes an array of standing desks and sofas and a “quiet room” to appeal to people with a wide variety of work styles.
We met at 7 p.m. on a Friday night, and the youthful staff was still unpacking boxes from the move, but they seemed to already feel at home, kicking back with beers and indie music to usher in the weekend. On some Fridays, The Muse has a whiskey tasting, and for a recent epic guacamole competition, the teams got twenty bucks to buy ingredients before going head to head. But the lights were turned off promptly at eight—an effort to remind people to go home and have a life. Culture is key for The Muse, since its business is based on matching ambitious millennials with cool companies that care about their employees. The company leadership has to walk the walk.
Kathryn, who said she always was confident in the business idea and the problem she and her team wanted to solve—to create a more personalized and engaging way for young people to find jobs early in their careers and for companies to recruit them—told us that in the four years after she first started raising money, she grew more aggressive when facing prospective investors who raise sexist or uninformed questions. Instead of arguing she goes into a dead stare, looking across the table with a straight face for one second longer than necessary, and then smoothly steers the conversation to another topic.
“It’s a nice boundary because, in general, the risk that somebody will react badly to a young woman telling them off is not worth it. So usually, that sort of stare, [and] silence and chang[ing] the subject, is both very authoritative and a subtly aggressive move without actually making them lose face,” she said. “It was just the most natural way of balancing the fact that I needed to show them that I couldn’t be pushed around but also didn’t want to come off as overly unpleasant.”
The technique worked. The Muse secured $16 million in its third round of financing from institutional investors in the spring of 2016, capital that will allow the company to double its workforce to two hundred people. The Muse took over the entire twentieth floor of the new building and may take the floor above in the near future. This was no small feat, given the chill in the market—venture capitalists were pulling back in the last quarter of 2015, just as The Muse founders were going out for funding again. But it helped that The Muse had fifty million people using its site per year by the summer of 2016, its revenue was multiplying fivefold year over year, and it was hit ting the benchmarks that proved the business was taking off. Kathryn and her partner and COO, Alex Cavoulacos, both former consultants at McKinsey & Company, the international management consulting firm, raised $28.7 million over five years from firms that included Aspect, which was founded by two women venture capitalists, as well as boldface names like Tyra Banks and Cathie Black, the former chief of Hearst Magazines. Adam Quinton was also an early backer.
“I invested in The Muse in fall 2012,” Adam told us. “It was early days for them, but there was an energy, drive, commitment, and professionalism to everything they did that was very impressive. And of course their business seemed like a great idea at a great time and potentially very big. So [it was] a very compelling package.”
But for Kathryn, it was a long hard slog, including lots of awkward drinks with self-styled investors who really just wanted a date, and rude exchanges with venture capitalist firms about whether she was being too aggressive in following up. And then there were all the times she and Alex were patronized by investors who said the pair were just “too nice” to run a big company and wanted to know if they understood just how hard starting a business would be. They actually asked why she and her cofounder didn’t just go get nice cushy jobs and call it a day.
Even after they moved to Mountain View, California, from New York in January 2012 to participate in Y Combinator, the prestigious twelve-year-old boot camp for startups that incubated Airbnb, Reddit, and Dropbox by investing $120,000 in each company in exchange for an average 7 percent equity, Kathryn and Alex faced lots of sexist comments about the product itself. They initially pitched The Muse, built on the learning from their first business, PYP (Pretty Young Professionals), as the ultimate online destination for young female job seekers looking for both career advice and a peek behind the scenes of companies. Many male investors just couldn’t relate to the target audience: young professional women.
“Some actually said, ‘I am just worried you will lose all your users when they turn thirty—implying that all of our users would stop being users when they turned thirty because they would be having babies and not care about their careers,” Kathryn said. Pitching was exasperating at times. “We got to see a lot more sexism because we were pitching a product about women and their careers.”
At one point Kathryn, who had previously worked in Rwanda to implement a national strategic plan for the human papillomavirus vaccine, got so frustrated with dealing with investors who were either dismissive or flirty that she A/B tested the outfits she wore to pitch—just to get more insight into how she could tinker with her presentation and appearance to be more successful. As she tried to persuade investors that the $124 billion job-and-career-search market was a hot prospect, what she learned is that conservative sheath dresses didn’t make much impact. But leather pants did. Now she dresses like a warrior for her meetings: an all-black, take-noprisoners approach.
Not only does it make her feel strong, she thinks it bolsters the belief of her audience in her ability to deliver as CEO. “I dress like a knight to kick somebody’s ass. It is mostly a joke to us—but there certainly seems to be something to it,” she laughed. “I wear all black to almost every pitch meeting. I look at my calendar every single morning to see whom I’m meeting with and then decide whether I can wear my more-like-tiger outfits or my more chill outfits,” she said.
Some investors really were angling for nothing but a date. Kathryn, who was single when she and Alex were first raising money, could tell within minutes if the investor had an ulterior motive for a meeting. She mostly said nothing about those experiences, until 2013, when an acquaintance from the close-knit startup scene broke down in tears as she shared a sickening story about an investor on the make: he was thirty years her senior, promised her the world, and then disappeared after confessing he was in love with her and could no longer invest in her business. The woman had wasted four precious months engaging with the man, who was championing her startup, “saying all the right things,” and supposedly was rounding up big money from other investors. The company eventually went under. The woman confided to Kathryn that she thought it was her fault. That bothered Kathryn—so much that she decided to go public with her own stories of would-be investors who had come on to her, including the man who rescheduled their pitch meeting to a bar at his hotel and started asking her personal questions as he leaned into her space.
“I was sitting with my arm in a blocking position because he was so close. I was basically pushing his chest off me. So after not long, I said, ‘I have to leave,’ and left,” she told Wired.
She knew telling her story to the world was risky, and many people warned her it could be detrimental. Now that the business is flourishing, and the company estimates one in three millennials visits The Muse, she feels being open about the struggles can only help others. All her experiences taught her a lot about finding the right investors and gave her the fortitude to hang in there for the next generation of women entrepreneurs. Kathryn and Alex even turned down an attractive acquisition offer from a big corporation, opting instead to play the long game. As this book went to press, nearly seven million people were visiting their site each month. As they forged ahead—recruiting like crazy and working late into the night—they zeroed in on their goal of creating the most trusted and beloved career resource, bar none.
“It doesn’t happen overnight. I think that’s why it is so important for people to share more honest stories about how you build businesses, because it is really, really hard, and there’s some luck involved, but very few companies are sort of like a magic—you know: ‘We came up with this brilliant idea and then immediately we had millions of users and became an overnight success,’ ” Kathryn said. “I think that the more companies that are founded by women that go farther, the more it will be obvious to people that don’t take women founders seriously that they’re missing out on money.”
More women are jumping in. Since we first met Kathryn and Alex, when The Muse participated in Y Combinator as one of the first female-founded companies accepted by the program, the number of businesses started by women has grown tremendously. An analysis by the open data platform Crunch base, which crowdsources information about tech startups, revealed that the number of companies with at least one female founder nearly doubled between 2009 and 2014—rising to 18 percent of all companies in its database.
A December 2015 report by the National Women’s Business Council says women-owned businesses are growing three times faster than their male-owned counterparts. The boom has coincided with an explosion of entrepreneurial activity across the United States since the real estate market crashed in 2008.
But so many more women could be starting businesses, if only they change their mindset, according to Yunha Kim. Yunha is the cofounder of Locket, a company that transformed the way Android mobile phone users engage with the screen of their device. She told us that, despite the deeply embedded sexism of the tech industry (which she has experienced first hand), sometimes women stand in their own way.
“I would say that the number-one obstacle to being female in startups or in the tech industry is believing that being female is a disadvantage. Instead of listening to that voice, think more about the fact that there are plenty of other women who have all succeeded,” she advised. She practices what she preaches. In 2014 Yunha wrote an essay for Medium in which she bravely called out all the things that stink about being a female tech CEO, like being called a bitch for being aggressive and getting asked out by engineers she is recruiting (she even published an email from one especially frisky candidate).
But at the same time she challenged female founders to embrace how being different from the average dude in a hoodie can work to their advantage. “The lesson here is that it is all about how you frame your perspective. If you are committed to believing that it sucks to be a female CEO, you will be right, and it will suck to be you. If you are committed to believing it’s awesome to be a female CEO, you will be happier and confident to be you,” Yunha wrote about a year into her journey as a startup founder and CEO in the viral post. It featured a photo of her in a t-shirt given to her by one of her high-profile investors, Tyra Banks. The t-shirt says, I’m an entrepreneur, bitch. In other words, deal with it.
From GEEK GIRL RISING by Heather Cabot and Samantha Walravens. Copyright © 2017 by the authors and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.