I recently participated in a twitter chat for young women and girls. Within a few minutes of jumping in, I got this question:
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing young women today?
I immediately responded with this:
As an entrepreneur, I’ve had my share of self-doubt. As a woman working in tech, I’ve also had my share of doubts. The thing is, we all do. But the truth is, self-doubt kills. It kills dreams, ambitious and great ideas.
How do we work through it?
n US Startups, less than 2% of funding goes to women-led companies. Many of us are struggling with how to be who we are, raise families, run our businesses and still find funding for the work we do. All of this can lead to extreme self-doubt. I know this story all too well. In January of 2017, I closed the doors on my startup and refocused my energy towards my software development company.
I want to share a few strategies that have helped me along the way.
I do believe there is something you can do about it.
1. Use it as an ally
What are you doubting? Are you wondering if you’re smart enough, vocal enough, CEO enough?
Figure out exactly what you doubt about yourself, and turn it into something you can use as an ally. Ask your doubt to have your back.
What does this look like?: When I performed as a poet, I was often terrified to share my whole story with the audience. Would I be judged? Would I be perceived as weak? Would people want to pay their hard earned money to hear me share my really difficult experiences? The doubt didn’t go away, but my relationship to it did. I started looking to my experiences as a strength instead of a negative.
2. Be jealous with a purpose
Jealousy is a big part of self-doubt. We have to think about the fact that there’s someone else out who’s crushing it or someone who got the promotion that you didn’t get. It sucks! Yes, but what are you going to do about i. Hate them? Fester? Beat yourself up about what you are lacking? You could, and then you’d waste a lot more time and be even less likely to achieve that goal you were jealous of in the first place.
Be jealous with a purpose.
When I was growing up, my sister and I would fight over clothes. One day, we went at it over this really cool yellow shirt. Don’t ask me what brand it was or why we were fighting about it, but I do know that my mother had had enough. An hour or so into our yellow shirt fiasco, my mother sent us to our room, shut the door, and said we couldn’t come out until we had resolved the issue. What the hell was this? My sister and I looked at each other and started laughing. Here we were, middle school girls fighting over some yellow shirt. And, now the shirt was ripped and neither of us could wear it.
After we agreed to makeup, my mother sat us down and gave us these tips
- If you’re going to be jealous, use it to get where you want to go.
- There will always be someone who dresses better, looks prettier or has a better body. If you spend your life comparing yourself, you’ll be miserable.
- But, if someone has something (a skill, a strength) you seem jealous of, only put your energy into being jealous if you can use it to learn from them.
- So, next time you see a CEO killing it much better than you are, take a minute to feel horrible and then learn from them. Read the blogs they write, strike up a conversation at the next startup mixer or just email them and strike up a conversation.
- Learn how they became successful. Want to be more confident? Seek someone out who you feel is confident, use the jealousy to learn from them and that will make it worth your time.
- If you don’t use your jealousy to learn from others, you’ll end up using all this energy to feel shitty about yourself. And, that takes away from the time you already don’t have.
3. Realize that your gifts do not belong to you
Your gifts are not yours to hold back.
That might sound counter-intuitive, but I’ve learned this lesson and want to share it with as many people as I can.
I figured this out in my early twenties. I was working as a professional poet and writing teacher and I was scared to publish my work in anthologies and online publications. I loved giving readings, but I did not know if I could put myself out there even more and publish.
Then I realized that even though this was my work and my words, I was being used to tell a story. I started seeing myself as a “vessel” and understanding that my work in the world was bigger than me and was not really about me. This had a profound shift in my thinking and allowed me to get out there and out of my own way. I still struggle with it, but knowing that I had a higher purpose pushed me to submit my work each and every time.
Worried what people will think of your not so perfect blog post?
Want to publish that book but feeling self-doubt creep in?
Asking myself these questions always helps me put doubt in the rear view:
- Why are you doing your work in the world?
- Are you trying to change the way people do something for the better?
- Do you want to help people get healthy?
- Do you believe there’s a better and smarter way to do something?
- Well, guess what? If you hold back that blog post, comment, book or tweet that supports your mission, you’ll be holding back your mission. And, your talents are meant to be shared so we all learn and grow.
Your life’s work is not yours to hold back.
It may have your name attached or your particular story, but you are out there telling a story for all of us, and we all want to learn from it. Are you writing about lessons learned as an entrepreneur? This is not your story. This is one of many stories in the human tapestry of entrepreneurship. If you don’t share it with the rest of us, we won’t have that information or experience to make better choices in the future.
When you struggle with self-doubt, what helps you move on and get things done?
In April, I celebrated National Poetry Month by participating in the #NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Month) challenge. While you may know me as a tech entrepreneur, my professional journey started as a poet, performer and educator. The goal is to write a poem a day and share it. I chose to share my poems on Instagram and Facebook. I also learned a lot about how I work as an entrepreneur, and wanted to share those and want to share those lessons with you.
7 Entrepreneur Lesssons I Learned From Doing #NaPoWriMo 2017
1. Every day as an entrepreneur will not be perfect, but it’s important to show up.
This was a big lesson. Each morning, I would sit with a cup of coffee and write a poem. It sounds easy, but sometimes I sat there and waited and nothing happened. Other times, I just started writing and was open to what I created. The point for me was to not worry so much about how good (or not so good) the poem was, but to actually show up.
For many of us who run our own businesses, there will be good days and horrible days. There will be days when we feel like quitting, but what I realized is this: If you don’t show up, you can’t create anything.
I started understanding how to show up and commit to doing a poem a day even when i didn’t feel like it. Eventually the not so great poems balance out with the really creative and exciting work.
2. Put It Out There And See What Happens
This was humbling. To keep myself accountable, I shared each poem on my IG and FB pages. The great lesson of #NaPoWriMo is that you’re not focused on how great the work is. You’re not submitting it to a writing contest or publishing it professionally. You are simply showing up and doing it.
Putting it out there kept me accountable (your followers will start wanting to see those poems daily), allowed me to focus on doing the work and not on perfecting the work. It also allowed me to get out of a headspace that says the best creativity comes from the best work. Sometimes just doing it sparks something else in your that can help you along the way.
Entrepreneur Lesson: Put it out there and see what happens. Every idea will not be brilliant and ever poem will not be perfect. If you don’t risk, you don’t know or gain.
3. Every Great Blog Post Starts With A Shitty First Draft
Although blogging and poetry are different, they share one very important thing: all writing often starts with the shitty first draft. I first heard of this concept via Natalie, author of Writing Down The Bones.
She encourages writers to write the shitty stuff because that’s what comes out at first. But eventually, we find a phrase, a line or a stanza that calls us and gives us clarity.
As an entrepreneur, I’ve struggled with finding my blogging voice and understanding my audience, but I’ve decided to just keep going and writing those shitty first drafts.
Eventually, something will spark and idea and give you a sense of direction.
4. Social Media Can Be Your Best Research Tool To Validate Your Idea
Sharing my poems on social not only made me accountable, but in doing so I learned a lot about which what my audience liked and didn’t like. As a UX Desiginer, I’m always studying people and creating personas and thinking about the kinds kind of experiences that engage the human heart.
By putting my poems out there, I got some good information. I realized that my poems about women got a lot of attention. I also realized that my followers really connected with poems about immigration and what it means to be an immigrant.
I’m guesssing that some of that interest comes from the conversations happening in our country right now, but nevertheless it was useful information for me.
Entrepreneur Lesson: Find Use social media to help you understand your audience and create content that they actually feel compelled to read and share.
5. Language Matters. Figure Our How To Say More With Less
In college, I had the amaxing opportunity to study with the late poet June Jordan. She always taught us to “trim the fat” and focus on “maximum impact with minimal words.” Sometimes it’s easier to do that with poetry because of the shorter length, but it’s a take away that helps me in all the writing I do.
How do we learn to say more with less? Doing this challenge allowed me to be very intentional with my language. I had to ask myself if I really need a word or a stanza,
Entrepreneur Lesson: Be intentional with language. How you speak to your customers matters whether you’re blogging, managing a social media account or creating copy for your website. Try to do more with less.
6. There’s A Good Idea In There Somewhere
If you’re a startup tech entrepreneur, you know what it’s like to go from idea to MVP and wonder if you’re really solving the right problem. Sometimes you want to put every feature in, but you know you can’t and you know you need to first validate your idea.
Sometimes you find that you’re trying to solve too many problems and it’s hard to focus.
During the month of April, I learned that although the poem might be a shitty first draft, there’s a good idea in there somewhere. Maybe it’s one line, word, phrase, etc.
Regardless of what it The same is true for your work as an entrepreneur. Even if you pivot, fail and realize that you aren’t solving the right problem, there’s a good idea in there somewhere.
It’s important to remember that!
7. Vulnerability Is An Invaluable Entrepreneur Asset
Be Vulnerable, especially if you’re leading a team of people.
In some ways, we’re taught to focus on how much we’re “crushing it” or “killing it” in our businesses, but sometimes we’re having a really hard time getting our businesses to work for us.
What if we took a break from the perfect image of the successful entrepreneur and shared our hard moments.
While writing these poems, I shared some of the painful truths of my life. I went there and chose to be vulnerable. I told my mother’s immigrant story through the lens of a passport. I talked about my concern for women and girls and I just gave my audience permission to see another side of me.
I wasn’t just showing the polished entrepreneur. I was also showing up as the human story. And I beleive they appreciated this.
Entrepreneur Lesson: Vulnerability is key. Sometimes having it all together does not paint the complete picture of your journey. Take time to share the hard truths of your work. Your audience will appreciate you even more.
The month of April was a challenging month for me, and taking on the National Poetry Writing Month Challenge enabled me to face some of the difficulties. As I’ve been trying to figure out how to grow my business, I realized that taking on a daily practice of writing inspired me to bring those lessons to my work as a software development CEO. I learned the importance of just showing up, making each word count, being vulnerable and taking on a daily practice. Althought Although these lessons may not seem connected to thriving in business, I believe they are actually at the heart of the work that we do. We deal with people and we need to learn how to talk to them, work with them, show up for ourselves in order for our work to show up for us. I hope you found these lessons helpful.
What entrepreneur lessons have helped you be a better business owner?
Let’s connect in the comments.
No One Owes You Anything, But You Deserve Everything
No one owes your startup VC funding.
No one owes you a meeting. No one owes you a dinner date to talk about your brilliant idea.
No one has to cancel one meeting to schedule another one with you.
No one has to give you anything. It’s not anyones job.
No one owes you food, a roof over your head. No one owes you a win, a confirmation that your startup idea is a good one.
But, you deserve everything.
You deserve to talk about your idea as much as you want.
You deserve to learn how to code, if you committ to showing up every day.
You deserve the support of a mentor, especially once you call them several times and choose not to take no for an answer.
You deserve what you’re willing to accept as your capacity.
You deserve every moment you can stretch into and claim as yours.
You deserve every tech conference you sign up for even when the list of qualifications doesn’t necessarily include you.
You deserve to write shitty first drafts of blog posts, if only to convince you that shitty first drafts are better than never starting at all.
You deserve the world, and everything it has to offer. But to get there you can’t ask for permission to be yourself. You jsut havve to take your right to be here.
You just have to know that you, yes you, got this.
My mother is my role model, especially when it comes to hustling to make a dream into a reality. The fact that she left her Nigerian village to study abroad has always inspired me. She is a risk taker, a trailblazer and she embodies the qualities I strive for as I run my technology startup. When I was in high school, my mother, a full time teacher, also had a side gig to help her pay the bills.
Every day, despite her full time job, she ran her ice cream truck business she was all about the hustle: Going after what you need to do to get to where you want to go. She wanted to be able to go to Nigeria every summer to see her family.Oh, and to raise 5 kids!
These are the business lessons I learned from my mom. Even though I was embarrassed when she picked me up in the ice cream truck, and even more embarrassed when she asked me to stop hiding and get up to sell ice cream to my classmates before she’d leave the school parking lot, I still think back on those lessons as I get my own hustle on every day.
My mother (on the left with me in her arms) , aunt, twin sister and older brother in Nigeria, 1979.
Lesson #1: Respect your entrepreneur and know what goals you’re working towards
Being a hustler isn’t about always trying to make more money. It’s about understanding your goal and knowing what you need to get there. My mom’s goal was to have extra money so she could visit family in Nigeria. So after teaching all day, she drove around town playing that sometimes-annoying ice cream truck song, and sold ice cream.
Lesson #2: Shame has no place in your vocabulary
I admit I was embarrassed and ashamed in the ice cream truck, and I sometimes felt the same way when she showed up in her traditional Nigerian outfit at our all-white suburban school. This was before it was cool to be ethnic. My mother felt that shame has no place in your world (unless you’ve done something horrible), and you can and should get up in any room or any crowd and show who you are.
Lesson #3: Differentiate yourself
Tuesday was free bubble gum day. All the kids knew this, and they would show up because her sales pitch was: reliable product and they gave out something for free. Here in New Orleans they call that lagniappe.
Lesson #4: There’s nothing wrong with a freebie, as long as it’s not your core product
My mother sold ice cream and she gave out free bubble gum, but she didn’t give out her core product which was her ice cream. By giving a little something for free and letting her users have a taste, they always came back and actually wanted to buy more.
Lesson #5: Make your product accessible
Other than free gum Tuesday, she always had some ice cream that was a bit damaged. She reserved these and sold them for half to 75 percent off. She had kids who didn’t have a dollar, but they had some money. She always found something for them, and made them feel they could be part of her club.
Lesson #6: Make your uniqueness work for you
My mother allowed herself to be who she needed to be. She was the woman who gave out free bubble gum, sold not so perfect ice creams instead of throwing them away, and embraced her cultural differences. She had her Nigerian accent and her broad laugh and she didn’t try to change it.
Lesson #7: Jealousy is a waste of time, unless you can use it to your benefit
I remember one day when my sister and I were fighting over a yellow shirt, and we both wanted it. My mom said we couldn’t come out of our room until we worked it out. After that she said “Jealousy has no point unless you can use it.” There will always be somebody prettier, smarter, more accomplished. Ask yourself why you’re jealous. Instead of hating them, become a friend and ask them how they did it.
Lesson #8: Sometimes, you’ve got to champion yourself
Sometimes there won’t be anyone who understands what you’re doing or what it’s like to run a business, so you have to champion yourself. Go out and buy yourself flowers, chocolate and champagne to celebrate your successes and acknowledge how far you’ve come.
Lesson #9: Don’t sweat the small stuff
Some days, you’ve just got to laugh it off and keep going. Don’t get weighed down by every wrong move. Just keep going.
Lesson #10: Go for success, but don’t take yourself so seriously
I remember laughing with my mother. It was the serious knees collapse, tears-start-flowing and I-think-I-peed-my-pants kind of laughter. That taught me to take time and laugh, enjoy and let things go. Tomorrow brings another opportunity.
Lesson #11: Tomorrow brings another opportunity
When I failed at something, my mom always said: That’s alright honey, tomorrow is another opportunity.
Being an entrepreneur isn’t east, and being successful is even more difficult, but I’ve learned to keep my mother’s lessons in mind. While you can’t control the fact that most startups fail, you can focus on making your product accessible, knowing what your hustling for (what are you trying to acheive?) and differentiating yourself (and your product) by making your uniqueness work for you.
What business lessons did you learn from your mom? I’d love to know. Hit me up in the comments!
#NaPoWriMo Day 30
I can’t believe I made it to day 30. It’s an amazing feeling. My mom has been visiting me and this poem was inspired by her and all the wisdom she shares with me on a daily basis.
i pretend to take her picture
but this game will play is pointless
she knows that I’m recording her
but my mother doesn’t mind
something tells me to document it all
something tells me to do more than see her
to do my best to hear her
to encapsulate the wisdom of an African woman
my African woman
my mother has lost two sons and buried dreams
she had to let go of
coming to America was not always easy
she just says things that everyone else is thinking
but pulls you in close rests your head on her shoulder
when she has difficult news for you
we call her the 5 foot mountain
she just is
one day i know i will cry myself to sleep
just missing my mother
but i will play her voice
and for now keep
© Uchechi Kalu 2017
#NaPoWriMo Day 28
she brought me a plant
said it was meant to usher in new beginnings
we all are
and there we both stood
women who just by looking at each other
no we really knew
that now we had truly lived
the disappointment muddled with our knowledge
of just how powerful we both could be
welled could be bathed us both in my tears
i couldn’t stop crying
maybe this is what grace is
the understanding of what the moment we are each seen
in our less than perfect states
and told that yes we too
will always be loved
and guess what?
there’s enough of the love to cover all of our
Copyright 2017 Uchechi Kalu