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The entrepreneurial mystique
Alumnae return to tout the quest for the next new thing
When Sophie Miller crossed the path of a driverless, two-ton SUV one day in Santa Clara, California, she was perched on nothing sturdier than a bicycle. It was a “gut check” moment, Miller ’07 says later. She works at Google’s secretive R&D lab, Google X, whose self-proclaimed business is “moonshot ideas”—products that will “change the momentum of the world,” as she puts it. Still, the encounter with the self-driving Lexus on the company’s Mountain View campus gave Miller pause. “Do I trust the product?” she wondered.
Then she decided, “You might as well believe.” Sure enough, as she approached, the vehicle stopped, let her pass, and continued on its way. The Minnesota native found herself waving “thanks,” before thinking, “Now I look like an idiot.”
“It’s moments like that when I feel grateful to be around people who have the audacity to [even] talk about ideas like that,” Miller told an audience of 120 Boston College students and a smattering of alumni in the Fulton Honors Library in early September. Even if some of those moonshot projects fail, she said, “The important thing is the willingness to go there and to start the conversation and to want to create something.”
It was one of many tales of Silicon Valley told by four visiting alumnae on a muggy Thursday night. The event called “Silicon Valley Comes to the Heights” was cosponsored by alumni groups (the Boston College Technology Council, Boston College Women in Business) and a pair of undergraduate organizations, the student-run Information Systems Academy and the Boston College Venture Competition (BCVC), organizer of the annual, University-wide entrepreneurship tournament.
Collectively, the panelists have worked in most aspects of technology entrepreneurship across the size spectrum of companies, from brand-new startups to, well, Google. Describing their journeys from Chestnut Hill to Palo Alto, the four women spoke freely about the adrenaline rush of helping to create the next new thing, as well as the grind of 14-hour workdays and the disappointment of startup failure.
Moderator Elizabeth Bagnani, a lecturer in accounting in the Carroll School of Management (CSOM), joked about imposing a no-modesty rule as panelists sometimes undersold their successes. Sophie Monroe of WePay nearly made herself sound like a college dropout who answers the phone. Monroe did defer her 2012 graduation to work full-time for the company that has become a growing rival to PayPal (and was launched in 2008 by William Clerico and Richard Aberman, both ’07), but Bagnani had to draw out of the Palo Alto native that she in fact manages WePay’s customer support team, which earned the 2013 gold Stevie award as the number-one customer support team in the country for businesses of 100 or fewer employees. (The actual award was made by the same goldsmiths who produce the Oscar statues.)
Similarly, Shahbano Imran ’09 had to be prodded to disclose that her company, LocalOn, a web-marketing platform for small businesses that she cofounded with David Tolioupov ’10, was selected this past summer for financing by the elite startup accelerator Y Combinator and is growing by 30 percent a month. Imran was not generally reticent, however. She almost breathlessly related her evolution from a Boston College freshman who complained that there was no tech scene at the Heights (“I should have gone to Stanford,” she once pined) to a convert in the TechTrek class of CSOM associate professor of information systems John Gallaugher, to a BCVC winner, to a failed startup founder—”Oh my God, we just wasted this guy’s [seed investor’s] $150,000″—and finally to a successful businesswoman today. “Everyone should go and start a company . . . it’s really awesome to work in tech, and why would you work anywhere else?” Imran concluded to appreciative laughter.
Amy Gips ’04 shared her perspective from the other end of the equation, that of an investor in startups. A venture capitalist, Gips is the founding managing partner of the Astia Angel Network, which seeks out and funds women entrepreneurs not unlike Imran.
The crowd—mostly clad in business casual, some in shorts and Google or Tumblr T-shirts—was about evenly split by gender. That’s not the ratio in the Valley, according to Gips and the other women of the panel. “Only five percent of companies with VC [venture capital] backing have women on the management team,” said Gips, who has made it her business to try to change that.
The panelists fielded several questions from male students—What do investors look for in a startup? Are we in a startup bubble?—before a young woman asked why there weren’t more females in management in the Valley.
“Hot button!” chimed Miller.
“Half of our developers are women, and I don’t know how many companies can say that,” Imran said. “But we only have four developers.”
“We’re one of the first generations where it’s just expected that everyone—[including] women—goes to work,” said Monroe. “There’s a lot of uncharted territory. . . . Some of my friends have said to me, ‘I don’t want to be the next [Yahoo! CEO] Marissa Mayer. I want to be home with my kids.’ And I think that’s a really brave choice, too.”
Students had a host of questions for Miller in her capacity as product marketing manager for Google Glass, essentially a computer one wears like a pair of glasses. Though it will not be widely available until next year, select consumers are already wearing prototypes of the expensive device as part of the “explorer” phase of the product’s rollout. Pundits have invented a derisive term for such early adopters (two syllables, it begins with “Glass” and rhymes with “roles”), and one student wondered how Miller felt about it.
“When you bring an idea or a product to the world that is different,” Miller answered once the laughter subsided, “there’s a social evolution around how people take to it, and I think we’re watching that happen with Glass. We watched it with the iPhone. I mean, as you go back, each piece of technology at one point was unnecessary, ridiculous, and the people who had it were ‘stupid’. . . . It’s a kneejerk reaction to something people haven’t seen before.”
At the end of the evening, Miller added this thought, for students mulling what tech niche to pursue professionally: Whether it’s a big, established company or a nimble startup with a great idea, she said, “There’s always going to be power in the hands of the people who want to create new and exciting things.”
Patrick L. Kennedy ’99 is a writer in Boston.
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