"My life philosophy is that you don't get what you don't ask for."
San Francisco transplant, born and raised in NYC, Ellen graduated from Harvard Business School in 2017. While at HBS, Ellen was a Partner at Rough Draft Ventures, an arm of General Catalyst, investing in student teams from the Boston area. Prior to business school, she managed a unit of the Business Operations team at Twitter, which found and targeted strategic revenue opportunities for the company. After graduation, Ellen joined OpenGov as a Director of Business Development.
Ellen’s passion for entrepreneurship and launching business has led her to co-write the book Pitching & Closing: Everything You Need To Know About Business Development, Partnerships, and Making Deals that Matter. In her spare time, she advises several startups in San Francisco and is the founder and leader of the Super Women at Twitter organization, a group focusing on the advancement of women in technology.
We sat down to chat with Ellen about student entrepreneurship, women in the workplace, and the importance of a great mentor.
Tell us about yourself and how you were able to successfully make the jump from Finance to Tech?
I studied English in school, and I get a lot of questions around why English and not something more concrete or more vocational. But I am very happy that I chose an English concentration- it taught me how to be analytical. Writing is a very underrated skill in business and something that has served me well.
I admire my mother. She works in private equity and spent most of her career in banking where she was in the first analyst class at Goldman Sachs. She had been such an inspiration to me in cracking that glass ceiling that I gave banking a try. I knew pretty quickly that banking was not the right thing- it was a cultural mismatch but I also wasn't passionate about it.
I knew that whatever I did, I needed to have some kind of fire in my belly. I needed to wake up every day thinking that it was having a material impact on the world or a subset of the population. That I was really making a difference in the universe.
Through an amazing friend and mentor, I was connected to somebody at Twitter. I ended up getting a job on the sales operations team - the whole process took ten days from my first conversation to my job offer. I did not really want to move to the West Coast but something about it just felt right. So I dove in headfirst without looking back.
You started a women’s group - Super Women at Twitter. That's awesome! Why did you start it and what were your goals for the group?
This was my passion project. When I arrived at Twitter in 2012, I was very impressed by the openness of the culture. One of the core values of Twitter is to communicate fearlessly to build trust. I took that very literally. I started noticing that there were things I wanted to change, either about the scope of my role or the way a team was organized. Six months in, I realized that there were very few women in senior leadership positions - there were women at the junior levels and there were a couple amazing women at the super senior levels but not enough to be adequately representative of the population.
There was this big leadership gender gap and so I did what I know how to do best- I asked a question at our company-wide all-hands.
I was dissatisfied with the answer and it felt like there was a lot more that we could do. I started by sending an email to the company and I said, "if anyone's interested, I'm going to be sitting in a conference room at this time, come by and challenge me about this." About ten women showed up to the first meeting and I had one-on-one conversations with them. That cascaded for a couple months and there were two women, both VPs, who helped me launch it. They ultimately have served as incredibly close mentors and advisers to me. These women committed to making this solution a really meaningful part of the culture at the company. This ended up turning into a multifaceted organization that, by the time I left Twitter in late August of 2015, had over 700 employees who were regularly attending events, receiving emails, and engaging in some way in the Super Women at Twitter group.
You have mentioned mentorship a few times, chat more about that. Who is a meaningful mentor in your life and how have you fostered that relationship?
There's this whole phenomenon of the strength of weak ties, which comes from the book, The Defining Decade. That aspect of the book has really stuck with me, we get some of our best opportunities and relationships from people who are one degree separated from us, and that's called a weak tie. A family friend of mine connected me to a guy in New York who was pretty active in the New York tech scene, Alex Taub. I met Alex and we started talking and we jived in a way that I think is so rare for people - I just knew in my gut that this was going to be a very important person in my life.
Flash forward and we maintained a close friendship and professional relationship. Alex started writing articles for Forbes. He had a blog, I had a blog, thanks to him because he had asked me to guest post which led me to keep one for myself. We even ended up writing a book together.
It takes a special kind of person to not only be a mentor but to really be a sponsor for you and say I'm going up and I'm pulling you up with me.
I would say in a lot of ways I credit him with catapulting my career. I have said thank you to him, but I don’t even think he realizes how instrumental he was in a lot of the successes I've had so far. I feel so grateful.
So you came to Harvard Business School and got involved in the other side of the table, investing- can you tell us about that?
There were some assumptions I wanted to test during the school year, particularly wanting to try out investing. I was drawn to the size and nature of Rough Draft Ventures’ investments and investing philosophy. One of the greatest thing about Rough Draft is that they empower their student partnership to run the entire gamut of the process including check writing. There is nothing to me more exciting than being able to spot an idea, empathize with that concept, see a founder grow and flourish in the way they're thinking about that idea, and then being able to give them capital to do it.
What are the biggest problems that student entrepreneurs run into? Biggest hurdles?
Time is a huge constraint because you basically have this other full time thing and unlike a job where you can show up at nine and leave at five, it's bookended. School can expand to fill up as much time as you want.
To be honest I think the only thing stopping students with company ideas from starting businesses is pretty much risk and risk aversion. I really think that the world is your oyster and I know that sounds kind of cheesy but the only thing stopping people is that they are nervous to take the plunge because they're very risk averse. They want to spend their time recruiting for a full fledged company where they can make a salary rather than start something on their own.
What excites you about entrepreneurs and the student population specifically?
I am drawn to entrepreneurs in general. They have a concrete problem that they’re looking to solve that has a meaningful and material set of goals that can be reached, that are quantifiable, that are visible to people. Great entrepreneurs build empathy with a group around a cause and are unabashed about what they want to accomplish.
For students entrepreneurs specifically, there is this youth and naiveté. It can be a blessing and a curse: you don't know the industry, but you also don't know what the roadblocks are so you just plow through them in ways that industry veterans are often hindered. There are also plentiful resources for students [professors, research, funding opportunities, etc.]
Let’s turn our chat to women. How do you think more females can break into these industries- tech, investing, entrepreneurship?
My life philosophy is that you don't get what you don't ask for. I genuinely think if women are interested they should raise their hands and ask for what they want - whether it's money or a co-founder or resources.
For breaking into the industry, a lot of it is about networking, so show up to events, make yourself known, make yourself memorable. Really push those connections and don't be afraid, male or female, to keep following up, to keep showing up.
What lessons would you have for our VCGC community as you think about being a female investor?
VCs are voting with their wallet so to speak. When you're an investor you are deeming what you think is important or necessary for the market. As investors I think we have a genuine opportunity to make meaningful changes in defining the next generation of businesses. Remembering that you are really voting with your funds as a reflection of what you want to see and more importantly, who you want to see run it.
What trend are you most excited about?
There are two.
First, I am actually really geeking out right now on podcasting. There are a lot of podcasting companies popping up and some interesting and cool commercialization and monetization opportunities around that. So that's number one.
Number two is the transportation and logistics that are underlying a lot of the business starting now. Logistics and transportation are the unsung hero in startups these days and are increasingly critical to the way we think about commerce. It’s remarkable that you can order a random item on Amazon and have it delivered to your door within 48 hours. I believe there’s deeper opportunity in that category.
Who is the female entrepreneur / investor would most like to meet and chat?
I feel so fortunate that I’ve gotten to meet a lot of my “sheroes” by working at Twitter. One person I’ve always wanted to meet and speak with is Mary Meeker.
What is your spirit animal?
Truth be told, I’m not a huge animal person, so I put my sisters to a vote and they both said lion. “Lions mean business and they’re smart, a protector. But also lions are intense.”
Best piece of advice you have ever received?
The advice that my mother always gave me, that has resonated with me for whatever reason is:
“at work don't be the mom.”
If you're a woman, don't bring baked goods, don’t organize the company offsite, don’t volunteer to schedule the meeting. Don't be the mom. Let someone else be the mom. It's something that gets gendered really quickly and women tend to go above and beyond and not get compensated for it.
Another piece of advice that a mentor gave to me is: when you do a favor for somebody ask for a favor in return. Again this is sort of gendered, but I think in general people do lots of favors for others without cashing in. Don't be afraid to ask somebody to return the favor. It's great to give and there's nothing more powerful than being able to connect two people in business. But don't be afraid to ask someone in return if there is someone you want to meet, and someone else is connected. Ask.
Want to hear more from Ellen? Check out her blog, FrontSeat.