Takeaways from Ada’s List Conference 2017

Saturday was Ada’s Lists second annual conference, and as I think back to conversations about the difficult choice Anjali and Steph had in selecting the speakers from the speaker submissions following a strict culling process, I don’t envy them at all. They definitely got it right though.

The overarching message that came through was be unapologetically female. Unapologetic in your approach, your tendency to go with your gut instinct, your tendency to question the norm or the status quo and undoubtedly unapologetic for finding your voice.

For me personally, the conference timing couldn’t be more apt as I’m embarking on the crazy journey of being a startup Founder (again). I’ve failed miserably at one already. And as a mother three, there was always a reason/excuse to halt/scrap things just before stepping over the threshold or the point of no return with all attempts since then. However, I’ve run out of excuses and my time is now.

The first thing that resonated with me was Shefali Roy’s idea of kindness. It is such a small thing but one often overlooked as we go about our daily business relentlessly pursuing our careers and ambitions. It’s all too easy to forget that a moment of kindness to our fellow team members may be just that lift that he or she needed at that moment to stop them falling over the edge, making a poor judgement call or just feeling desperate.

Shefali’s theme of risk was continued by Rebecca Kemp in her workshop on Being A Feminist At Work. A seamless tie to Yasmine Boudiaf’s demonstration of using VR to address unconscious bias. No, this is not about bra beating or constantly pointing out the misogynistic ways of males colleagues or bitchiness of female colleagues who want to see you suffer just because they had to. Every single one of us (yes, including men) must be consciously aware of our actions and their consequences on our colleagues, team members and the workplace overall. Whilst it may seem that sticking your head above the parapet is risky if not dumb, it’s all about how you do it. To make change you have to be part of the system. It is the subtle gestures we make, things we do and say that force others to subconsciously self-reflect and acknowledge something is amiss. This is what ultimately brings change. Imagine hosting an Africans in AI meetup at an all white tech company or deflecting tech questions to a fellow female software engineer in a meeting. Subtle but effective.

Now ladies, whilst you are been unapologetically female, Mary McKenna reminded us in no uncertain terms that that doesn’t mean been poor in our vision, focus or execution. Her list of reasons for not investing in businesses were far too long to recollect here. Just because she’s a woman investing in female-led businesses doesn’t mean she expects less of you in terms of commercial nous, drive, persistence and ability to deal with the rollercoaster that is life running a startup. If you’re an early stage UK or Irish business looking for smart money, you couldn’t far wrong approaching her but know that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

This brings me to our keynote who wrapped up the day, Debbie Wosskow. Now admittedly, I’d only come across her when All Bright launched and was making the rounds in the press. The nature of the business that I’m building means I take little notice of such ventures beyond this point. But when she took to the floor, I thought ‘hold up, is it me or she is a…?’ Lord and behold, turns she’s a fellow boxer. That in itself means she had my undivided attention.

There was one particular thing she said that will stick with me. Grace been one of the three G’s for succeeding as an entrepreneur. It’s funny because this is something I’ve been pondering of late. For me, grace means two things. There is grace in how you handle yourself, come across to and interact with other people. This art of grace is often lost in the strive to prove we are just as good, if not better than our male counterparts. And there is the other grace, as in been graceful, humility. This, again, was something Shefali touched on. Holding your ups when you don’t know rather than pretend you do. You know that moment when you nod vigorously even though you haven’t got a clue what the other person is talking about or people break into acronyms and you’re like “que?” in your mind. Just admit that you don’t know, ask and go discover more. Believe me, it’s better for you in the long run.

I remember when I first got into online advertising having been in magazines for a number of years. I knew absolutely nada. Not only did I have to get to know a new business, a different side to the industry but a whole new language. After three days of going through past revenue info, account data and reading a book, which I can only remember as been yellow, that basically made the correlation between traditional media and online advertising. Things like CPT was CPM or impressions were the same as readership, you get the drift. I went to my first online ad agency meeting. I remember saying to the guy

I know nothing about online advertising so I’m going to be spend a lot of time asking you, what does that mean?

This was the first time in my career I had to really practice and embrace humility or grace. It has been my default mode ever since (or at least I’ve tried to make sure it is). This is what’s allowing me to start a business that is not in my domain of expertise but I give a damn about. It gives me permission to ask dumb questions and question the way things are done.

My key takeaways from the conference are..

  • Be bold, don’t follow convention for the sake of it
  • Take a risk, it’s worth
  • Admit you’re scared and feel vulnerable
  • Practice graft, grace and grit

Things are going to get tough, seriously tough. You’ll need all the above to keep making those small strides forward.

Until next year!