By Carol Latham
When I quit my job at British Petroleum, I learned a handful of very important lessons. Coming from a (degrading) male-dominated work environment in the early 90s, where success did not seem possible for someone like me, I dared to set out on my own — creating a company based on a technology I discovered for cooling silicon chips in computers and the like. The scenario could best be described as building a business in the face of the five no’s: No products. No employees. No customers. No physical facility. No money.
My value proposition was to provide the electronics industry with a means of miniaturizing while increasing speed and functionality without the limitations of heat. I didn’t think of myself as a feminist, out to break through the glass ceiling — I was simply determined to take my technology to market, based on my own merits and on my own terms. I had something valuable to bring to the table, not just my technology but my presence in the industry. I never let on that I was operating in survival mode (which I was). In the process, I learned many lessons, not the least of which were the following:
Focus on what you bring to the table.
As the only woman in the boardroom, I never concerned myself with the demographics of my audience. Even though I was always surrounded by men, I did not let it change my demeanor or my mission. My business interactions, whether with colleagues or competitors, rested purely on my own merits. I let my presence and my product speak for itself.
We all bring a unique perspective to the table — each one enhancing the other. It has been my experience (and subsequent success) not to focus on who is in the boardroom, so much as my purpose for being in that boardroom. Demographics will change from boardroom to boardroom and operation to operation. Mind your purpose, respect and appreciate your people, and remember that the rest is just details.
Don’t worry about titles.
Rather than tout myself as the “founder” and “CEO,” I traveled the world as the “technical director” of my own company. It worked like a charm. Think about it: What product design engineer wants to talk to the CEO?
In other words, don’t get hung up on business titles.
Funny story: One day two young technicians walked into my office. They needed to order business cards for an upcoming business trip, so they asked, “What title should we give ourselves?”
To which I replied, “Whatever title you would like.”
Both men stared at me in disbelief. The truth is it did not matter to me what they called themselves. I trusted their judgement. Titles are lost on me. In my opinion, they inhibit creativity and often get in the way of genuine collaboration. What matters more than what you call yourself, is how you present yourself.
Be wary of people bearing gifts.
In the early days of Thermagon, I was offered workspace in a small testing laboratory. In exchange, I cleaned bathrooms. I later discovered that the owner, who I assumed was a good Samaritan, had ulterior motives. I learned to use discretion when people offered me an investment of time, money and/or other resources.
These sorts of business deals and arrangements must always be “win-win,” not one side taking advantage of the other. Most off-the-cuff financial offers are designed for the benefit of the donor. Therefore, only accept financial investment into your company using carefully drafted legal documents, so as to protect both parties. Even conversations with competitors can’t hurt. In fact, they often provide valuable information and knowledge about the competitors themselves. Just don’t give away too much of your business in the process.
Just be yourself.
Being authentic is the secret sauce to success. As a woman operating in a predominantly male environment, I never tried blending into the background. I set myself apart, projecting confidence and power. I wore a red flannel skirt suit to meetings. I told blonde jokes. I laughed at myself, and they laughed with me.
Just be yourself. Let your presence stand apart based on who you are at your core. Go confidently into the boardroom on your own terms. And don’t forget to have fun! The whole point of taking your product to market is to stand apart from the herd, lest you got lost in it. Shakespeare said it best, “Above all things, to thine own self be true!” That was Hamlet giving advice to his young student. Suffice it to say, stay true to you!