Organizational psychologist Dr. Barbara Adams says there is transformational power for everyone in diversity and inclusivity, but initiatives like employee training days and inclusive hiring aren’t enough. What we need, says Dr. Adams, is a fundamental shift in mindset about our implicit biases and how they affect every aspect of organizations, from design to hiring practices and beyond. And the goal shouldn’t be to eliminate biases, but to acknowledge them and to do the work to ensure that there’s more than one kind of bias in the room when decisions are being made. Listen to my conversation with Dr. Barbara Adams, author of “Women, Minorities and Other Extraordinary People” to see what’s broken about current organizational diversity initiatives and what we can do to create a workplace that works for all of us.
Ask any woman who’s sat through a long meeting surrounded by men, and she could tell you how exhausting it can be: we struggle to make ourselves heard while carefully avoiding accusations of being ‘bitchy,’ ‘strident,’ or ‘shrill.’ We rarely have the kind of permission to fail that our male counterparts get. We want to take ownership of what little power is tossed our way, yet we’re always at risk of being punished for wielding such power.
Which is why Julia Rhodes Davis decided to form an all-women board for the non-profit, Vote.org. The question is, can the empowerment that takes place in an all-women board meeting translate into actual, world-changing power once they step outside the boardroom?
Find out what Julia has to say about turning empowerment into power, and also shaping the future so women and minorities don’t need to be “empowered” anymore.
Listen to my conversation with Julia Rhodes, Chair of Vote.org and Director of Partnerships at The Partnership on AI in the latest episode of Inflection Point.
Lauren Schiller: Women are banding together in ways we haven't seen since the feminist revolution of the 1970s. The Women's March, the #MeToo movement. More women than ever are running for office and actually winning elections. There are girls-only engineering camps, girls-only maker camps, girls-only afterschool clubs, and they're growing like crazy. So it would seem to be an incredibly empowering time for women. But there's the trendiness factor. The word "feminist" on every other t-shirt in yoga class, "Like a girl" and "nasty woman" have become marketable catchphrases on Nike ads and sanitary pads and coffee mugs. I mean, I love it, but is that mug really going to get you promoted? Because there's one question that has been bothering me: "Does all this empowerment equal power?"
Lauren Schiller: I thought one good place to start to understand this would be to look at the boardroom. That's a consolidation of power if ever there were one. As the chair of the board of Vote.org, Julia Rhodes Davis was empowered to decide who to include on that board. With her CEO, also a woman, they made a conscious decision to only appoint women. I wanted to know why and what it was actually doing for them.
Lauren Schiller: But first, let's take a closer look at this trend of all-girl and all-women spaces.
Julia R Davis: I think that all-women spaces could be seen as sort of incubators. In other words, incubators or startups or whatever are these places that foster early-stage ideas and provide extra resourcing around the things that are most vulnerable at startups like infrastructure and funding and access to networks and access to know-how. I think that when you think about all-women spaces in a similar way, it's not that we're going to stay in all-women spaces, to your point, but I think especially for younger women and girls there's so much risk taking and failure that comes with learning, especially in sort of the early pursuit of anything. When the world is conditioning young women to be afraid of failure because our worth is attached to our achievement and, by the way, also our appearance and so forth and so on, it's really existentially unsafe for us to fail. I think that that's a huge loss.
Julia R Davis: There's actually an amazing ... the founder of Girls Who Code, Reshma Saujani gives a beautiful TED Talk to this idea that we need to create spaces that are safe for girls to fail, because that's actually how you become an entrepreneur and how you become successful.
Lauren Schiller: She's actually been a guest on this show.
Julia R Davis: Oh, amazing. Well done.
Lauren Schiller: Yeah, and we do talk about that. So it sounds like you're in the camp of, "Women-only spaces can be a place where we can learn to navigate the "real-word" having gathered our strength and gone out there to make things happen." But do you think it actually is a way of solving gender inequality?
Julia R Davis: I think it depends on your timeframe. Here I would really sort of look at how power operates. Right? Let's take a few examples. There are right now, or actually I guess this stat is from 2016 from Time Magazine. 77% of all elected officials in the US are mail, 23% are female. So until we're starting to approach parity in terms of a representative government, I am all for as many organizations as possible working on the issue of bringing more women into public office. I think, similarly, if we look at who's writing political checks right now, 80% of political donors, 80% of all dollars political donations are written by men. That means that essentially ... I mean, that just points to how power is going to operate. So I would push for getting as many women to become political donors as possible to shift that power dynamic.
Julia R Davis: Then, you look at nonprofit boards. 80% of nonprofit board members are men. So until we shift that dynamic I am all for going in the opposite direction and really taking an exceptional tact to get exceptional results.
Lauren Schiller: What would you see in this polarized time as the role of women-only spaces?
Julia R Davis: I'm not sure that the role has actually changed very much from the inception of at least women-created women-only spaces. What I mean by that is-
Lauren Schiller: That's such an important distinction, by the way, "women-created women-only spaces".
Julia R Davis: Yeah. I mean, the paternalism of men creating women-only spaces is a whole different topic. Right?
Lauren Schiller: I hadn't actually thought about it in different terms than "women-created". Yeah, that's so interesting.
Julia R Davis: Well, because I actually don't know the founding history of, for example ... my first attempt at college was Mount Holyoke College, which was an all-women's school. It is a very small liberal arts school in western Massachusetts. I had grown up in New York City and I showed up and there were more rules and oversight at college than I had in my parents' home in New York City.
Julia R Davis: My parents were neither really conservative in terms of minding my time, nor were they extremely permissive. They were somewhere in the middle. When I really unpacked the Mount Holyoke experience and ultimately why it was not a good fit for me, there was a paternalism that was claimed by the administration of the school, as though we as a school of young women couldn't, individually young women, couldn't possibly make decisions for ourselves that would keep us safe and happy and well, which I just reject outright.
Julia R Davis: Anyway, that's just a little bit of a tangent on that.
Lauren Schiller: Well, no, but you obviously didn't know that before you started classes. What was your expectation and hopes for why you would go to an all-women's college?
Julia R Davis: Yeah, thanks. I think people tout that there's a freedom in an all-female classroom, for example, for women to find their voice and, to be honest, in a lot of ways I didn't have much trouble finding my voice. I probably often have too loud a voice. Although, put me in a room where I feel intimidated and all of a sudden that changes a lot, or certainly when I was younger it changed a lot. So I think I went for the promise of kind of the freedom of finding my voice and not having to fight for a voice in the classroom or fight for attention of advisors to pursue special projects or whatever the case may be. Because I do think that oftentimes women and men compete differently. I think when you put a group of women together, even if it's a competitive environment, if the rules of the game are not prescribed by sort of a masculine framework of power, you often find collaboration.
Julia R Davis: You'll get a winner at the end, some woman will rise to the top, but there's probably a lot more collaboration to get to the top than if you're in a situation where the only way is to compete and dominate those around. And, you know, obviously that's an over generalization. But I think that's one of the things at play.
Lauren Schiller: So your hope was that by going to an all-women college that you would eliminate all of those variables?
Julia R Davis: Yeah, totally. Because, I will say I went to an all-girl summer camp for 10 years, first as a camper and then as a staff member. It was so liberating. I mean, it was an extraordinary experience of finding myself and figuring out how to be in the world in a way that I could feel good about. Yeah, there were no men there, no boys there. It was a really free experience.
Lauren Schiller: Mount Holyoke, where Julia Rhodes Davis went to school briefly, was the first of the Seven Sisters All-Women's Colleges, which have collectively produced some of the most influential women of our time. Here's seven of them: Emily Dickinson, Grace Hopper, Jane Fonda, Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Helen Keller, and Zora Neale Hurston. I myself went to Vassar, but as one school t-shirt proclaims, 1969 was the year Vassar switched position, meaning they let guys in by the time I went there.
Lauren Schiller: But before that, in 1837, starting with Mount Holyoke, women's colleges were created because women weren't allowed to learn or be leaders in the same spaces as men. Since the founding of the Seven Sisters, families whose names were on buildings and museums sent their daughters to these schools, not necessarily to empower them, but to wrap them in the safety of high society. The plan was for white women who had means to go to school, meet well-connected friends and find a suitable husband from Harvard or Yale, you know, that MRS degree.
Lauren Schiller: It took 181 years to get from Mount Holyoke to the first female presidential candidate to be nominated by a major party. And, well, you know how that turned out. Julia Rhodes Davis, as chair of the board at Vote.org, is working to ensure that everyone is being represented at the ballot box and in the boardroom.
Lauren Schiller: Tell me about Vote.org. What do they do? Then let's talk about their board.
Julia R Davis: Vote.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization that seeks to bring about reflective democracy wherein the electorate matches the population. We do that through making it easier to vote, period. We have programs that are focused on leveraging technology as much as possible to do really high-impact Get Out the Vote campaigns and have a number of other programs that are sort of longer-lead focused.
Julia R Davis: One of the reasons we don't have electronic or online voter registration in most states in this country has a lot to do with sort of antiquated voter registration laws that, unlike a lot of other voter suppression activities, these are not actually insidiously antiquated, they just are literally antiquated. So over the course of the next several years we're focused on working with secretaries of state to shift those laws. But in the interim it's really about focusing on who's not getting to the polls and why, and taking a double-down effort to get them there.
Lauren Schiller: So as far as your role at Vote.org, you're the chair of the board and you had an opportunity recently to reshape what that board looks like and who was on it. Tell me what you did and why in terms of the makeup of that board.
Julia R Davis: I think at Vote.org the commitment is really to exceptional results. So we kind of look across the board at, "Well, what's the status quo or what are the norms in this space and how can we think and do differently?" So when it came to board composition, when you look at the fact that 80% of nonprofit board members are male, well, let's be exceptional there and create an all-female board.
Julia R Davis: Will this be in perpetuity? I don't know. But for right now it's working really, really well. We convene the new board in January of this year and it's a small board that are all female. We spent 10 hours in a room together doing all kinds of planning and thinking and debating and so forth, and then we had a dinner that followed on. At the end of it I reflected with a colleague, a fellow board member, "You know, normally at the end of any board meeting, whether I'm on the board or on the staff serving the board, I'm exhausted. This time I'm energized. What's the difference?" It took me a beat to realize that not having to facilitate and manage around gender politics in a boardroom was a very liberating experience.
Julia R Davis: So back to the idea of the incubator, the all-women spaces and incubator. Just having that experience and that awareness gave me tools to start looking at other boardrooms that I participate in, for example, and helping to bring some leadership to, "Let's imagine if this looked different." Because I actually don't think that mixed-gender boardrooms are the wrong way to go necessarily. I do think that in general people need more self-awareness about how they show up in a room. So whether you're a man who doesn't necessarily have self-awareness about talking over others or taking credit for other people's ideas, or you're a woman who perhaps doesn't listen very well. I think being in a space where we didn't have to spend a lot of energy making sure that all the voices were heard and so forth and so on, because there was just a more natural flow. It gave me a sense of what's possible. So experiencing the art of the possible in one space can actually help to bring examples of making that a possibility in other spaces.
Lauren Schiller: I mean, I'm trying to imagine if the chair of a board of, just pick any other organization, was like, "You know what? We're going to make this board all men." Which is happening, obviously. It's 80%.
Julia R Davis: I mean, it has been the norm forever.
Lauren Schiller: Right. Exactly. I mean, have you received any backlash for making this decision [crosstalk 00:16:56]?
Julia R Davis: I'm sure I will now that I've been on a podcast talking about it. We have not received to date any backlash, and the men that were on our board prior to this cycle were extremely supportive of the idea, so I will say that.
Julia R Davis: I think that we have to look at these things in a more global context. This sort of comes back to how I was talking about kind of the power analysis. So if men were marginalized, men would need all-men spaces, but they're not marginalized. Every system of power in place right now is still designed with the benefit of men. So until that's different, this is not a one-to-one comparison. Women need to build power to create a more equal society. Until that's not a need, I think all-women spaces are completely justified as one way towards that end.
Lauren Schiller: So thinking about the Vote.org all-female board as this sort of incubator idea, a testing ground and a place for new ideas to proliferate, both inside the board and out into the world, have you set sort of a success metric in terms of, is it working, when do you reevaluate, what happens next?
Julia R Davis: So there's a sort of goal-setting framework that's pretty common in tech or tech-inspired organizations, the OKR: Objectives and Key Results framework. So we're developing actual metrics for board performance. I think that that is the place where we'll look to first to see if we're making progress.
Julia R Davis: If you're asking is there a point at which we're going to say this all-female board thing was a success or a failure, I mean, I suppose that's an important question for us to be asking, but I think it's pretty early days for us to be framing it up that way.
Lauren Schiller: Yeah, or whether you want to ... if you have a seat open up, whether you're going to continue to look specifically for women, or-
Julia R Davis: Oh, we will. I would say for the foreseeable future, but definitely through 2020. I think it's too short a timeframe to expect to see any significant results being a two-year-old organization.
Lauren Schiller: Julia's feeling optimistic about her all-female board and I can see why. More women-only spaces are popping up so fast it's hard to keep tracking: women's coworking spaces, event spaces, gyms, networking organizations. In New York The Wing and [Cubby 00:19:44] Club, in San Francisco The Ruby and The Assembly. And while some are quietly growing their member base, others are getting admonished. The Wing for not being in compliance with New York's public accommodation law; a law ironically created to further gender equality. And remember when the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin announced it would host two Wonder Woman screenings where no men were allowed at its downtown location? They were accused of violating city equality laws. But as Glynnis MacNicol, cofounder of The List, a network and visibility platform for professional women from all industries, told the male host of the Story in a Bottle podcast, "As a man that has access to every place, why is it a problem to allow women a safe space?"
Lauren Schiller: I brought Julia in to talk with me about the Vote.org all-female board and women-only spaces in general. But she also recently took a job at the Partnership on AI for the Benefit of the People and Society. That's the full name of the organization.
Lauren Schiller: We've all heard that insidious things like bias and tribalism can be perpetuated by artificial intelligence, but if you've got someone like Julia empowered who applies an equity lens to everything she does, could that actually shift the power dynamic?
Lauren Schiller: But first, don't forget to hit that subscribe button. I'm Lauren Schiller. This is Inflection Point. We'll be right back.
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Lauren Schiller: I'm Lauren Schiller and this is inflection point. I'm talking with Julia Rhodes Davis, the chair of the board of Vote.org and director of partnerships at the Partnership on AI.
Lauren Schiller: So, Julia, what is the Partnership on AI?
Julia R Davis: The organization is really ... it's a multi-stakeholder membership organization, which really means that it has representatives from corporations and from civil society, from academic research institutions and others, all of whom are working together to really shape the future of artificial intelligence. From my perspective, this is really the frontier of society. There's so much we don't know, and I think early indications of the impact that technology can have on society suggests that we're in for a ride and we really do need to play a more proactive role in informing and designing technology so that it does benefit people and does as little harm as possible, I guess is the way I can say that.
Lauren Schiller: So when you said there's already been some indications that there could potentially be harm, are you thinking of a specific example?
Julia R Davis: I mean, you could really point to our current democracy in the United States as an example of at least technology broadly that is in some ways supported by aspects of AI technology. I mean, Facebook was used as a platform and by a foreign power to influence our Democratic election in 2016. That is a pretty significant thing that's happened.
Julia R Davis: I think that there are a lot of questions in general right now about, you know, for an organization or company who has previously thought of itself as this neutral utility of being a platform to connect people when it can be used for such insidious ends, what is the responsibility of that company to mitigate that risk? I think that's an extremely important question that should be extrapolated to the entire technology industry and to those of us in and around it. What are our responsibilities to society at large?
Lauren Schiller: Can you define artificial intelligence? I mean, is it always some sort of human manifestation or human impersonation? What is it?
Julia R Davis: That's a great question and you'll get a million different answers to it depending on who you ask. I think first of all it's worth noting I don't have a technical background. I came into this sort of intersection of technology and society in my career about five years ago and have increased my knowledge hundredsfold as a result of working closely with technologists. So I have a different answer than someone who, say, got a PhD in computer science. But in general, this is a very broad term that I think now media has even further muddied the waters generally, because a lot of folks don't understand the technology, so they're trying to put words to it that don't necessarily get us very far in terms of understanding.
Julia R Davis: I think it's an umbrella term that really speaks to sort of making machines more intelligent. What I mean by that is, I think in its very basic sense, a computer that can run a program that has some similarities to a decision-making process could be considered artificial intelligence. So, in fact, your entire smartphone runs on all kinds of "artificial intelligence". Really what that means is there are a number of decision trees that are programmed into the different applications on your phone. The thing that supercharges this technology is that much of these formulas or algorithms as they're known in technical parlance actually adapt over time.
Julia R Davis: I think one thing for everyone to understand about AI is this is not a fixed too. So unlike a hammer and a nail, they are a hammer and a nail and you really can't change their form very easily. When you're a user of a smartphone or a user of any kind of AI technology at all, your use of that technology actually changes how that technology operates. So we have this iterative relationship with technology that I think few users understand. I think we should all feel more empowered by that, actually.
Julia R Davis: When you choose to use Facebook in a particular way to click on an ad or not, you're actually informing Facebook in the future of how it should relate to you. That can sound scary, but I also think it can sound really empowering and I think that the latter is a better relationship that we should start to cultivate with our technology if we're going to have a better future around it.
Lauren Schiller: The thing that I'm trying to understand about the role of AI in the human world and how humans are already interacting with each other is how whoever is sort of setting this technology loose influences the way that it interacts with the world and how that might either magnify or reduce the bias that is already in the world, be it racial, gender, pick one.
Julia R Davis: Yeah. So this is a huge topic and a really important one.
Lauren Schiller: We're going to solve it today, Julia.
Julia R Davis: Yes, please. There are a lot of efforts in the technical community to mitigate and solve for the ways in which data carries bias and can further bias algorithms and therefore technology systems. There are unbelievable examples of early apps that were ... I think there was a health app that was put out early on that had been built entirely by a male engineering team and had zero acknowledgement of menstruation as a regular part of the health that women experience on a monthly, daily basis. So those oversights are sort of the most obvious examples of the ways in which who builds the technology and how they think and who's around the table really informs society.
Julia R Davis: I think that we have to think about it in a number of different ways. I actually am really excited about my work at Partnership on AI, because there is a deep recognition on the part of the organization that we have to have a diverse set of voices and stakeholders around the table when we are making decisions about what this technology is going to do and how it's built and designed and so forth.
Julia R Davis: I think that there's a long way to go in terms of being able to sort of have more practical ways that engineers in a room can kind of have a checklist that helps them recognize where their own biases might be and how to mitigate them in a technical capacity.
Julia R Davis: Then, there's a whole body of work around the pipeline issue and the fact that you have far fewer women in STEM, and though that's changing over time, I think it's a slow process. You have a far fewer number of people of color in STEM as well for all kinds of reasons. So there are many, many efforts to address these different ways in which bias can show up in technology. I think it's important for technology creators to bridge the gap, to sort of shift the systemic issues that contribute to the fact that most technologists are male, for example. That's going to take time. So what do we do in the interim and what are the incentives that we have at our fingertips to kind of shift that landscape?
Lauren Schiller: Man. It seems like with every new innovation it's an opportunity to get ahead, but it's also just this opportunity to just make it worse.
Julia R Davis: Yeah. I heard a really compelling conversation between Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, partner at Greylock, et cetera, I think most people know who he is, and Kara Swisher, who's a really fantastic media editor, I guess, and host of the Recode podcast. They were in a public conversation at a conference in San Francisco and they ... Kara was really pressing Reid on, "Why is it that tech companies so often fail to identify unintended consequences and address them before they become the problematic unintended consequences of, say, an intervened election or something like that?"
Julia R Davis: Reid's response, it's on the record, is, "When you have a homogenous group of young, largely white, regularly affluently-raised men around a table building a product, this is a group of people who haven't lost very much in their lives, so they're not all that familiar with what it looks like to be on the losing end of an unintended consequence." I mean, that has just sat with me at the front of my mind ever since I heard that conversation. I mean, it certainly speaks to something I've believed for a long time, but to hear it from Reid Hoffman sort of put some teeth to it in a way.
Julia R Davis: I think that that should be reason enough to really push for more diverse rooms, whether it's the engineering room as it were, or the boardroom.
Lauren Schiller: We need AI to recognize all different kinds of people right now, but we don't have people working on AI that recognize all kinds of different people right now. So how do we get where we need to be, given where we are in this moment? How does your equity lens that you put on everything you see tie into the work that you're doing with Partnership on AI?
Julia R Davis: I think that there's two angles to an answer, or there are two different kinds of answers here, one of which I can speak to more directly and one of which is worth mentioning that it's worthy work that other people are doing.
Julia R Davis: Representation among engineers matters tremendously if we are going to solve for a more, both inclusively designed and inclusively executed, if you will, technology. The issues of getting more women into technology spaces is huge and I think that there are a number of incredible organizations focused on that and we need to proliferate those efforts across the board. This has to be a serious focus of every technology company, of every academic institution, of ever undergraduate program, et cetera. So that's a huge undertaking that I fully support and I'm so grateful for people who dedicate their work to that.
Julia R Davis: At Partnership on AI, I am looking at this question right now in terms of who is our current membership. We have just over 70 members currently and they represent corporations, they represent think tanks, they represent academic labs, research labs, also human rights organizations, advocacy organizations. There's more representation from some parts of sectors and less from others. There are certain constituents who are more and less represented. So I'm very actively trying to understand whose voice is at the table and whose voice is missing and how do we balance who's around the table. That's really at the forefront of my mind in day eight of my job as the director of partnerships.
Julia R Davis: We have an institutional commitment, both in terms of our executive director, Terah Lyons, who comes out of the Obama White House, as well as our board to really make sure that our multi-stakeholder organization is representative of and represented by a diverse set of stakeholders, and more to come on that. I think we're doing a good job and I think there's more improvements that we can make in terms of, you know, to get back to sort of the impetus for the question, "How do we make sure that AI is built for and by everyone?"
Lauren Schiller: Most of us move through the world with blind spots. Those blind spots are typically created where we grew up and by the stories we were told. Julie Rhodes Davis seems to be called to make places of power blind-spot-free so everyone's story is represented. Where did her obsession with representation come from?
Julia R Davis: I come from a long line of change-makers, especially on my mother's side of the family. My mother's family is from North Carolina. Back in the turn of the 20th Century, my great grandfather was one of the leaders around opening the first school for black children in Pender County, North Carolina. And as a result, my grandmother, his daughter, grew up with the Ku Klux Klan regularly visiting the house to intimidate the family, my family, and to try to get them to close the school down.
Julia R Davis: Family story goes, you know, hard to fact check this one, but my great-grandfather would regularly go out and meet the Klan and just stand there with actually a shotgun in his hand and just acknowledge them but not kowtow. The line was, "I'll see you in church on Sunday."
Julia R Davis: That translated to my grandmother and grandfather participating a lot in Civil Rights marches in Louisville, Kentucky where they raised their family and where my mother grew up. My mother has gone on to build a really impressive institution that trains progressive religious leaders to help bring about a more just and equitable society.
Lauren Schiller: What's it called?
Julia R Davis: Auburn Seminary. So with that background, you wonder where does technology fit in.
Lauren Schiller: Well, even before we get to where does technology fit in ... I mean, as far as you growing up, and that's obviously ... it's sort of baked into your growing up experience and the stories of your family and stuff like that, but have you personally experienced your own ... I mean, you're a white woman, but have you experienced your own inequity or anything you'd care to share that might also have influenced your trajectory? Like the first time you were like, "Hey, that's not fair."
Julia R Davis: I wish I could remember the first time. I mean, I think the most ... I mean, first of all, I remember seeing a movie, I think I was probably seven or eight years old, I can't really remember. It was called Class Action. I said to my parents, "I want to be a litigator," once I saw that movie. So I think very early on I kind of understood that there was a way in which standing up for what's right and being a precocious young person and girl was somehow subversive.
Julia R Davis: I was really politicized really early. I mean, I remember Clinton and Bush running against each other and really feeling very strongly that Bill Clinton should win the election, and I was relatively young. So certainly I was aware of politics, I felt sort of engaged by politics, I was writing current even articles in the seventh grade about politics. I think abortion actually ... abortion access was the first issue that really hit home for me, just in that I remember hearing male relatives speaking about abortion access as though they had any right to any opinion whatsoever. I remember being at a family function and I was probably 16 or 17 years old, talking to 10 fully grown male uncles and grandfather, all of whom were anti-choice, and basically just holding the line and arguing sort of every angle of the point, but ultimately, not willing to see ground around reproductive rights.
Lauren Schiller: How did you handle that?
Julia R Davis: You know, righteous anger is a good thing, Lauren. I mean, I think on some level I do feel in my bones what is right. Bodily autonomy is something that we all need. It is a human right. The fact that there are women in this country and around this globe who literally every day do not have full control over their bodies is unreal. It's a horrifying thing.
Lauren Schiller: Since you brought up abortion and pro-choice/anti-choice, are your parents ... are you guys in the same camp?
Julia R Davis: Oh hell yeah.
Lauren Schiller: Okay. It's just the uncles. It's always the uncles.
Julia R Davis: Exactly. Again this is why I sort of put it in the frame of bodily autonomy. The my mind, the political issue is about controlling women. It has nothing to do, really, with the individual case or what is claimed.
Lauren Schiller: I probably should know what this means, but what does it mean to pray with your feet?
Julia R Davis: Oh, it's shorthand, I think, for the behaviors we engage in. How we show up in the world I think is the evidence for our beliefs. So if you believe in justice and equality for all, what are you doing to, in the real world, to bring those beliefs about? Quite frankly, if you are pro-life, what are you doing to live that value?
Julia R Davis: I mean, this is where I think language really matters. The religious right, the conservative right that sort of started in the Reagan era and built power through Jerry Falwell's church and so forth, they did a masterful job of claiming language. But if you don't stand up for people on death row who have not gotten a fair trial and who are there because of racism and because of xenophobia, that is not pro-life to me. If you put the life of a woman behind a nonentity, that's not pro-life to me either. Quite frankly, if you put your ... let's go down the list, and there are much more articulate people than I on this subject, but the effects of climate change ... is killing our planet and really changing the course of the lives of our collective children. The right has done nothing to preserve life in that regard.
Lauren Schiller: I'd love to know what the best advice that you've ever been given is about how to find and be your authentic self.
Julia R Davis: You know what's interesting? I've gotten unbelievable amounts of wonderful, wise advice over the years. I've had an incredible access to women of all ages who've played tremendous roles in terms of mentorship and advice-giving and wisdom, both in sort of more formal settings and also just friends around the dinner table.
Julia R Davis: At the end of the day, the thing I've learned, it's not someone else's advice, the thing I've learned is any amount of advice is only as good as how much work you're willing to do yourself; how much work I've been willing to do myself. I think everybody's sort of demons are different in a way, but I guess my take on that is you have to find ways to internalize your wins and really fundamentally believe that you are enough just the way you are.
Lauren Schiller: Julia Rhodes Davis created her own all-woman space in the boardroom for Vote.org and is willing to give it some time to see if it not only feels good, it does good. As the director of partnerships for the Partnership on AI, Julie is making sure diverse voices are at the table when it comes to who and what technology is used for.
Lauren Schiller: I want to hear your stories of how empowerment has led to power. Tell us about a moment when you were empowered by going to our Facebook group, The Inflection Point Society, or go to InflectionPointSociety.org. I'm Lauren Schiller and this is Inflection Point.
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At age 35, Stitch Fix founder Katrina Lake became the youngest female founder and CEO to take a company public in 2017. Stitch Fix is now worth over two billion dollars. She has not only changed the way many of us shop for clothes, but she’s also changing how we think about leaders. Find out she learned to embrace her history-making role as the youngest woman to take a startup to IPO.
Katrina Lake: " I was almost like prickly about being a female CEO in the early days and I think it was at a time when you would see companies like Dropbox and AirBNB and whatever else and I was like, I just want to be a CEO and I don't need to be a female CEO, and I don't need to be the female CEO. "
Lauren Schiller: Meet Katrina Lake. If you've got a Facebook feed there's a good chance you've come across her online personal styling company, StitchFix. If you haven't come across this phenomenon it's like having a personal clothing stylist pick out clothes for you, ship them to your house and not complain when you send anything back. At age 35, in 2017, Katrina became the youngest female founder and CEO to take a company public. Stitchfix is now worth over $2 billion, and she got there by breaking the mold of what you might still typically think of when you think of leadership.
Katrina Lake: "I think a lot of the things that you think about as an entrepreneur, you think somebody who's like super risky and somebody who's going to stay up for all hours tinkering with something in their garage. Not that I didn't spend all hours doing StitchFix at some point, but you know, I don't think that I had like the typical traits of an entrepreneur. "
Lauren Schiller: Katrina has not only changed the way many of us shop with StitchFix, but she's also changing how we think about leaders. For one thing, you may have caught all the press hullaballoo over the picture of her from the Nasdaq IPO when she stood onstage with her young son on her hip unintentionally setting the tone for a new generation of women leaders. Her executive team is as close to a 50/50 gender split as you can get and now she plans to send a message intentionally about the importance of family leave because she's pregnant with her second child and is going to take a full 16-week maternity leave.
Katrina Lake: "I had to do the same research of trying to figure out who were the people before me that took a maternity leave when they were a public company CEO? Like, I mean, you can do the math. If I was the youngest female founder and I'm 35, you know, there's not going to be a lot of other examples out there of people who faced that, and so there's not a lot of precedent. So, somebody who now is raising young people and is thinking about like how the world that you see impacts who people become, there aren't great examples."
Lauren Schiller: I mean, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Case in point, before starting her own company, Lake was convinced that someone somewhere would have developed a new vision for disrupting retail, but after meeting with hundreds of entrepreneurs she became convinced that the only way to find that company was to start it herself. I spoke with Katrina Lake onstage at Inforum at the Common Wealth Club to find out what makes her tick and how she turned this startup into a successful IPO.
Lauren Schiller: I have to make a confession before we really get into it, which is that I had to change my clothes like 14 times before I got here.
Katrina Lake: I did too. It's okay.
Lauren Schiller: I don't know about all of you, but it was really hard to decide what to wear, especially when sitting down with a fashion entrepreneur such as yourself, but it made me start thinking about what the role of clothing is for women and men and the way that we thinks bout it and how it says who we are, and I'm curious what your thoughts are? Your entire business is around making sure that people are wearing stuff that they look good in and that they're comfortable in. How do you think about the role of clothing?
Katrina Lake: It was a major point of inspiration to me and I think two different angles. So, one, there are so few other categories where people really thoughtfully think about like oh, I'm coveting this and I want this and you think about something for weeks and you get inspired by it and I mean, there's so few other categories. Food is probably one of them also where you have the same emotional connection to it, but with clothing it's just one of these things that is so important in people's lives, and not in a materialistic way, but in this way that like you thoughtfully decide every day what you're going to put on your body and that means something. And, so, I think that made it very attractive to me because I think it's just this really interesting huge category that people weren't really thinking about what does technology bring to it and what's the next generation of it? I think the second element they're getting to a little bit is like it really does have an impact on who you are. I know this, and this was shared recently, but I'm now, I don't know, four or five months pregnant. I'm in that phase where you're like chubby but not pregnant yet.
Lauren Schiller: Nothing fits.
Lauren Schiller: Congratulations!
Katrina Lake: Nothing fits and it's such a good reminder of the humility of like how much I really appreciate when I have clothes that fit and when I know what I want to wear every day. The reality is if you're feeling great about who you are, if you're feeling confident about who you are, it really does impact all the touchpoints in your day. I think all of us know that feeling of when you're not quite feeling that way or the flip side is when you are and I think how electric that can be and I think in all these little micro moments in your day it can change your life of how kind you are to somebody, how kind you are to your kids, how outgoing you're going to be, how confident you are when you're at work doing something that's really important. For all those reasons I love that apparel was both super meaningful in people's lives and I think in these really small, but meaningful ways has an impact on people's lives every single day.
Lauren Schiller: What was happening in your life when you came up with the idea for StitchFix?
Katrina Lake: It's hard to say exactly when I came up with the idea, but I guess some history. Growing up as a ten-year-old, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would have told you a doctor. It had never occurred to me that I should want to be an entrepreneur, I would be a good entrepreneur. You take all these, I forget what they're called, like a Myers-Briggs test. You take these tests when you're growing up and like zero of them told me I should be a entrepreneur. My mom was a public school teacher here in San Francisco for a long time. My dad was a doctor, but always in the university system. He was here at UCSF for probably over 20 years or so. There was not like an entrepreneurial bone in my body.
Katrina Lake: My journey was a little bit of an unconventional one where I worked at a consulting firm. I did that kind of out of indecision because I thought I wanted to be a doctor, but I wasn't ready to do that yet. I worked at a consulting firm and was lucky enough to kind of stumble into the retail and restaurant practice, and that is where both retail and restaurant I love because they're just these big meaningful categories.
Katrina Lake: The journey was more like I loved those categories and I was like, I want to work at whatever is going to be the future. I spent a bunch of time looking to join that company, and so I interviewed a bunch of places. I almost took a job at Starbucks. Ultimately, it didn't quite feel like that was exactly it and then I worked at a venture capital firm, thinking, okay, this is going to be a great way for me to meet the person who's going to create the future, so I went and met with 100 entrepreneurs in my two years there and didn't meet the person that I thought was going to be the future of retail, but got to meet 100 people who were all like pretty normal people who were not qualified to be an entrepreneur. I realized that any person could be this, and I think you get exposed to the Mark Zuckerberg and the Steve Jobs of the world and you don't have in your frame of reference that could be me. By meeting 100 people, you meet a lot of different types of people, so I realized I could do it. You know, I was really on this journey of I just want to work at whatever company is reinventing retail in the future and the formation of StitchFix was really just realizing that like, if I believe there is a different future out there, I could start it.
Lauren Schiller: Just create it. Just make your own future.
Katrina Lake: That was the beginning.
Lauren Schiller: Were you always a shopper? I mean, from an intellectual standpoint it was interesting to you, but in terms of your own personal, was that something that you either hated doing or loved doing?
Katrina Lake: Maybe both. I have a sister actually who's here. She's not the shopper either, but we have a sister who's the age in between us. She was a shopper and so she was the one who was definitely always the expert. She was the one taking the fashion risks. Natalie and I were probably more the followers in taking her hand me downs. What I still loved, and what I think even people who hate shopping can resonate with is there is nothing better than being able to feel like you have clothes in your closet that you love and there is nothing better than putting on an outfit and being like, this is a great look. Like, there is nothing better than that feeling. I really loved that and I loved the ways that clothing could contribute to that.
Katrina Lake: My middle sister literally will like, she would spend her free time looking at like the new arrivals on websites and that's not really how I spend my free time.
Lauren Schiller: Now you just have a company that has a combination of machines and people doing that for you.
Katrina Lake: Right. Well, and I think that's part of the inspiration too is there are people who love doing this and who are experts and know everything and in their free time love to do this, and wouldn't it be great to be able to create a job for people like that. That actually ended up being part of the inspiration too.
Lauren Schiller: How important was going to business school and creating this idea?
Katrina Lake: For me it was important because I wasn't this super risky entrepreneur type. I was never going to quit my reasonably well-paying job and have a gap on my resume. That was not something I was comfortable doing. For me, it was important because it created this two-year period of time where I could take this risk. I went to business school and my plan was to have a company off the ground, paying myself a salary, paying back my student loans the day I graduated, and if I wasn't able to have a business idea that was good enough that someone was going to give me money, if I wasn't able to have an idea that I wanted to do so that I would want to spend so far seven plus years on, then the worst case scenario is well, I have this MBA and I can go work at a great company. So, I saw it as kind of a risk-reduced way to start a company. For me, it was really important because I have a hard time imagining how else I would have been able to find kind of a two-year time period like that.
Katrina Lake: You know, I think that there's a network element that's somewhat valuable. The classes were great. It's so fun. I think, kind of like, probably the reason many of you are in this room, like getting to be an adult and go and learn is just like a really fun experience and getting to choose what you're going to learn. I definitely valued the experience, but the time was actually the part, I think, that was most valuable to me.
Lauren Schiller: Well, I'd love to talk a little bit more about this idea of risk because, you mentioned this a few minutes ago, that people have this idea in their head that entrepreneurs are these massive risk takers and anything goes. In fact, I saw a book just earlier today that said, How to Raise An Entrepreneur. It was like, teach them to take risks, like all these things that just go counter to what the actual common wisdom is about how you start a successful business, which is not necessarily to just let it all fly. Can you talk about your mentality around that and what you've run up against in terms of the perception of what an entrepreneur should be?
Katrina Lake: First of all, I think I am a good leader and a good CEO. I don't know necessarily that I was a great entrepreneur, to be honest, and, you know, maybe people think of, I mean, I don't know. Like, I just, it wasn't kind of where my comfort zone was. I don't sit back. You'll meet some founders who get to this stage of the company and they year the scrappy phases again and they like the building part. You'll hear that from people. I did like it, and it was really fun and crazy, but I don't know that that's the part that I feel like I thrive in, and we'll probably talk about this later, but you can also argue that I wasn't good at it. We've built a $2 billion company using $40 million of capital, not because I was like, I want to raise as little money as possible. It was because I could not raise more than that much money. In today's world a good entrepreneur is one that can raise the most money and hire the most people and buy the most time. You could argue I wasn't good at those things and ultimately was actually good at creating a company, which is maybe different.
Katrina Lake: I hope to be able to be a role model of a different type of entrepreneur because I think there are lots of women and men out there that might be thinking to themselves, that's not for me. I can't see myself being that crazy out-there person, and I felt the same way and I think ultimately like I actually think I'm good at this job and I don't know that I would have discovered it had it not been for kind of the convoluted path that I took.
Lauren Schiller: When you talk about StitchFix, I've heard it talked about as a fashion company, a technology company, the intersection of fashion and technology, what is it?
Katrina Lake: I mean, it is both. My theory on the whole thing is I think the world is, we are going to a place where like being a technology company will be table stakes for you to exist. You know, the idea of a tech company doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Like, I think Facebook is a marketing company, Uber is a transportation company, AirBNB is a hospitality company and we sell clothes. That is our business model. I think the reality is if you want to be around ten years from now,if you want to be successful ten years from now, all of us are going to have to be technology companies. Technology is certainly what is differentiated about stitchfix. I think what is very special about StitchFix, that at the end of the day the business that we're in is retail apparel. Actually, I just heard that on the analyst side, the investor side that Tesla has now been moved into the auto category for most, which makes sense. They make cars.
Lauren Schiller: They make cars. Where were they before?
Katrina Lake: They were in technology, and so there's this weird catchall bucket of people who have used technology as a differentiator that, like I think you're going to see more and more of that migrate back into. Even at StitchFix as a stock, we're covered by mostly tech people, actually, and then a couple retail people. I think you'll see more and more people recognizing that like, hey, these businesses are the same businesses they were before, just powered by technology in a way that we didn't see before. You know, I think we're both, but I think the marka tion ten years from now will probably be retail.
Lauren Schiller: Yeah. You had these big goals for yourself coming out of business school. Did you meet them right away? I mean, you wanted to pay yourself a salary. You wanted to have a stay-at-home business.
Katrina Lake: Not right away, but I really wasn't going to do this if I wasn't paying myself a salary and paying back my student loans. That wasn't an empty promise. Like, I really wasn't going to do it. So, I was very committed. I spent a lot of my second year in business school out here. I spent probably a week or so a month, like sleeping on people's couches. I was able to get a term sheet from Steve Anderson who's a seed investor who's one of the first investors I saw Kevin on. This was all real. Kevin was actually like my reference check for Steve the investor. He was the first investor in Kevin at Instagram. I was lucky enough to meet him early on and so he gave us what would now be considered a very small seed check of a half million dollars and so we closed that. In April of 2011, we started shipping fixes in that month and then I graduated in May and then kind of moved everything out here in June. I guess we closed the money a month before I graduated and so maybe I got in just under the wire. We didn't have a sustainable business model yet at that point, but I was able to pay myself a salary, pay rent, hire some people.
Katrina Lake: I think the other part that was important to me too in the investor thing is yes, it was important to raise money, but I think it's also important to have somebody who believes in you invested in the business. There's a lot of, I think, confidence and credibility that comes from the fact that an investor who's met a lot of entrepreneurs and seen a lot of companies, believes in the business. I think one of the things that you can do as an entrepreneur is delude yourself into really, really believing in something. Sometimes that's great and sometimes it's not reality. Having investors involved I think also helps to build confidence that like this thing is real and it's possible.
Lauren Schiller: How many nos did you have to hear before he said yes?
Katrina Lake: I mean, the seed was relatively easy I would say of just like, I think fundraising at StitchFix has always been either really hard or really easy and nothing in the middle. With him, I had worked with this woman Sue Kenderson-Cassidy who had been an advisor of mine and mentor of mine and she introduced me to him and so that part worked out well. Basically, he gave a term sheet for $750,000. He was going to put in $500,000, and he said, "Go find whoever else to fill in the rest of the $250,000. I probably talked to, I don't know, 20 or so people and everybody else said no, and I was very freaked out, like is he going to get cold feet when I go back to him and say nobody else wanted to. He actually said, and I think he meant it, he was like, "I'm glad that nobody else did. I'm happy to put in the other quarter million." I was, great.
Lauren Schiller: That's amazing.
Katrina Lake: And so, you know, he was like, "It just makes me even happier to see something when other people don't see it," is kind of the way he put it. That round we got done. Later rounds, I think, were a little bit more difficult.
Lauren Schiller: Did he tell you what it was he saw, I mean, what it was that made him believe in you?
Katrina Lake: I mean, at that stage anybody can come up with this idea. Anybody can come up. StitchFix has this great product market fit because when you tell people, wouldn't it be great if you could fill out a style profile and have a stylist who would send things to your home and then you could try things on at home and just pay for what you keep. The concept is so strong itself that I think we benefit from having a lot of just natural product market fit from it, but the flip side of that is anybody can think of that and anybody can pitch that to an investor. And so, I think with Steve it was really about am I going to be the right person to do it and honestly I had no experience that should have led him to believe that I was credible. Like, I had no entrepreneurial experience whatsoever. I had no network of engineers and whoever else to draw from, but for whatever reason he felt like I was going to be the one to be able to do it.
Lauren Schiller: Well, congratulations to him and to you for that. I want to go back to you maybe being a doctor at some point when you were ten. I understand that your mom came to America from Japan to go to graduate school. Did she have that immigrant mentality that my daughter must achieve absolutely everything to live up to the expectations of our new American family? Did you run into any of that growing up?
Katrina Lake: I'm looking at my sister. I don't know really.
Lauren Schiller: Keep her honest.
Katrina Lake: I think academics were very important in my family. Both of my parents really believed that succeeding in school, that having a great education would open doors and so I think that element was definitely very much ingrained and growing up, my mom immigrated here from Japan for graduate school and so we spoke Japanese growing up. In San Francisco there are schools you can go to so that you can keep up with the Japanese curriculum because Japan has a national curriculum and so every Saturday until I was in seventh grade I think, every single Saturday and then every day in the summer I went to Japanese school. I mean, that's like a lot of days of school if you think about it.
Lauren Schiller: That is.
Katrina Lake: Of 365 days, like, the vast, vast, vast majority of them were spent. I basically had every Sunday off. That's right.
Lauren Schiller: That's a lot of school.
Katrina Lake: I had 52 days off of school in a year.
Lauren Schiller: Did you resent that?
Katrina Lake: Well, yes. The reality is there wasn't like anything better that I should have been doing. It was so funny, too, because it was in the nineties and so everybody thought Japanese was going to be so useful. It's still useful when I'm in Japan or occasionally in a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco, but it wasn't quite the business onlot people thought it would be.
Lauren Schiller: It's not over yet.
Katrina Lake: It's more just like I do feel like they instilled the importance of education in us, so we definitely worked hard in school and definitely liked succeeding in school, and on the family side, I don't think I've realized this until being an adult and actually really in the last few years, I had a lot of exposure to women in my family who had done amazing things. Part of it was my mom immigrating here and not knowing English and she didn't learn to drive until she had had two kids in San Francisco and she was like, "Well, the bus isn't going to work anymore," and had to figure out how to drive. I mean, all of that is kind of amazing. The longer story is my mother's mom, so my grandmother, was actually the one who really desperately wanted to be an American. She had grown up in Japan at a time. She grew up during the war when Japan was in a very difficult place and she just always dreamed. She would see American movies or posters or God knows what the influences were, but she just desperately wanted to be an American. She was growing up in a time when women weren't driving. They had very little opportunity. She was in an arranged marriage. She actually ultimately did follow my mom. After my mom moved here she followed my mom here and she did actually ultimately become an American.
Katrina Lake: It's like an amazing thing to think that of all the things that you think are hard in life, imagine growing up in Japan in that moment and being able to think to yourself, some day I'm going to be an American and make that happen is like amazing. The other one is on my American side, actually, or on my Caucasian side. My greater grandmother, so it was my grandfather, my grandfather was raised in this very unusual household where my grandfather, basically his mom and her sister both lost their husbands. This was before welfare. It was before there were social services that were available. So, what these two sisters did was they were like, "Well, we're just going to create a household." I think they had, I need to fact check. I think they had four or five kids between them and they were like, we're just going to combine our households and one of us is going to go to work and one of us is going to stay home with the kids and two sisters are going to raise these kids together. So, my grandfather was the youngest of those. He had been raised by these two strong women. He had never even known his dad. To be able to have these examples in your life of like people doing ...
Katrina Lake: Anything that I achieve is never going to be as amazing as the things that they did. It's just a great example to be able to have in your life because I think it opens up kind of what's possible in a way that I really appreciate.
Lauren Schiller: Yeah. Do you think that changed his world view?
Katrina Lake: It totally did. My grandfather was the one. He like taught me to use a computer. He taught me to drive. I look back now and I can recognize those things as being really cool things that he did, but like, I think he came from a place where, oh, yeah, of course women are going to do these amazing things and of course my three granddaughters are going to do whatever they want to do and learn how to do the stuff on a computer. He definitely had a different perspective than I think a lot of people in his generation did.
Lauren Schiller: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a new business? What's the one thing you wish you had known that nobody bothered to tell you, or the ten things?
Katrina Lake: Oh, God. There's so many. There's a bunch of things. I think one, this is a very permanent decision and so as much as you can do of like learning and validating along the way I think is really valuable. I do think there are times when you can delude yourself into like well, it's just one more product change and then everybody's going to love it or it's just one other thing. I think the more you can really get like concrete points of validation and I think it's called lean startup now, which is basically like how to build a shell of what you're going to create and then see if people like it. What do they like about it and then iterate from there rather than trying to have like a build-it-and-they-will-come approach. You know, I think that's definitely a big one. This is my personal philosophy, but I don't believe in entrepreneurship for the sake of entrepreneurship. You devote a lot of time and energy and a lot of your life to this and you really have to love it. So, not to sound like I'm discouraging entrepreneurship, but I think really making sure you have that like one thing that you really want to devote a lot of your life to. I think, I don't know, people can rush to imperfect ideas and, I don't know. I think that's one thing.
Katrina Lake: The last thing is just surround yourself with people who are smart that you learn from. That's true if you're an entrepreneur or just a regular person in your career like I was. You know, I think to be able to surround yourself with people who challenge you, to be able to feel like ... There's nothing worse than stasis and staying the same. It's a hard thing, actually, these days in how little I think we get exposed to other perspectives these days, but if you try to think about when was the last time I really changed my mind about something important? Like, it's a hard question to answer, and I love being proven wrong, and at work I get proven wrong probably more than anywhere else, and I learn from it. The only way that you grow is through learning and so I think that's just the best advice of like as you're building a team, as you're building a board, as you're thinking about your advisors of just really holding the bar high for people who are going to challenge you, people that you're going to learn from and people who are going to help you stay on this really steep learning curve.
Lauren Schiller: As the CEO of a public company it's kind of this high wire act. Like, almost anything you say could affect the share price, and you don't necessarily know what that thing is going to be. So, everyone is listening all the time. I'm wondering, as you think about the values that you want to instill in the company and what's important to you and where your priorities are, how do you balance that sort of like, "we've got to pay attention to what the shareholders want," versus, "We've got to pay attention to what's right for the company?" Maybe sometimes they don't always match up.
Katrina Lake: Yeah. I mean, I might have like a Pollyanna view on it and maybe we're early at this. We've been public for three quarters, but I really believe that what the right thing is going to be for the shareholders is also going to be what's right for the company, and you know, I don't look at the stock price on a daily basis. For better or for worse, I don't know what the fluctuations are or what causes them. Where we go in the longterm is definitely important and I think a lot of the things that we do are really looking at how can we make sure that we can create the most value for ourselves, for our shareholders, for our clients and the other brilliant thing about our model that I love is that there's this amazing alignment. Like, in our business model the more I can send you clothes that you love, the happier you are and the better our business is. There's like really, really great alignment that you don't always have. Like, if you think about Google's business model, for example, the more ads they can show the more ads they can get people to click on, the better their business is.
Katrina Lake: As a consumer you don't really want to see all the ads. You just want to use Gmail. There's this interesting, I think, kind of dance that a lot of executives have to walk of just like what's good for the business versus what's good for the customer? I have this amazing advantage where it's very aligned in a lot of the cases and so it helps us in prioritizing because if we can just focus on how can we help people to find what they love and how can we help people to find more of what they love? It just makes it really clear of what we need to do to create value. So, I'm hopeful that they are the same thing and that we won't have to feel like a lot of conflict of short-term versus longterm, but I think so far we've been, when we talk to investors we spend time with investors and it is actually in a lot of ways just like being a private company. There are investors that we can talk to at certain times and hear their perspectives. I think it's my job to make sure that everybody knows what that longterm vision is and to make sure that people all see it and believe it.
Lauren Schiller: We have so many entrenched ideas about how a company should be run because they've mostly been run by men of a certain age and hair color or hoodie, but Katrina Lake has been finding lots of ways to disrupt business as usual whether she intends to or not, and her vision for StitchFix has paid off so far. But it also comes with a spotlight on her every move.
Katrina Lake: Like, there are just these weird conversations around like well, what do you do with earnings when you're on maternity leave?
Lauren Schiller: That's coming up after the break.
Lauren Schiller: Before we get back to the conversation, I want to turn you on to a podcast that I just love. It's called Reckonings and it explores how people change their hearts and minds. Episodes have ranged from a deeply-conservative congressman who made a dramatic shift on climate change to a white supremacist who transcended a life of hate and became a force for nonviolence to two teenagers who managed to overcome bullying. In a time that feels so polarized, it's refreshing and hopeful to see people capable of such monumental shall we say reckonings. You can find in Reckonings on your preferred podcast app and at www.reckonings.show.
Lauren Schiller: I'm Lauren Schiller. This is Inflection Point. This conversation with Katrina Lake, the founder and CEO of StitchFix, was recorded live at Inforum at the Common Wealth Club.
Lauren Schiller: I mentioned at the very beginning of this the iconic photo at the Nasdaq with you and your son on your hip, and it was a head turner. Are you tired of headlines that focus on taking your company public and being a new mom or just recently there was a headline, StitchFix CEO Katrina Lake talks about leading a public company and her upcoming maternity leave?
Katrina Lake: My perspective on it has changed over time. I had some pride about me, I think, that prevented me from embracing that early. This is more on reflection of looking back and thinking, why did I not think I could be an entrepreneur and now I just think it's so important. And so, even if it's just like I'm just an example, like I think it's good and I'm happy to be that example and like I said, I hope there's going to be many more people after me that can be ... Like, it's totally normal. There are just these weird conversations around like well, what do you do with earnings when you're on maternity leave and you're a public company CEO? There are all these things that like, I don't really know what the right answers are and I'm going to try to figure it out. There just needed to be more, I think, just having more examples of what different types of stories look like and different possibilities look like is super important.
Lauren Schiller: Yeah. I mean, it's one of those sort of can't-win situations in some ways, right, because like Marissa Meyer got dinged for only taking a couple of weeks of maternity leave, and you're probably going to get dinged for taking the entire maternity leave. I mean, it's like ...
Katrina Lake: Well, and these situations are all really different because I think when Marissa Meyer was in her place, I think she had like active shareholder issues. She had a company on fire situation, and so was that the right thing to do when your company is on fire? This is the problem is that there's so few examples. Actually, I was with a public company CEO literally last week who he has a six-week old at home and he is taking his paternity leave. He was happy to meet me at brunch wearing golf clothes and shorts and he was on his paternity leave. I think all of these situations are unique. You can't fault, I think, one person for having a different choice, but the challenge is that there's really only two situations now that you're going to be able to look back on and I think for many other men there's hundreds. Hopefully, this can add to what people think of as what are my options when I'm in this situation?
Lauren Schiller: Where is your husband in all of this? Does he like ... It used to be, like I remember, I don't know 10, 15 years ago, like Carly Fiorina, when she was running HP that whole story was on her husband was at home taking care of the baby and that's how they made it possible because they invested the typical relationship. So, do you and your hubby ever talk about divvying up the responsibilities so you can both do your thing?
Katrina Lake: Yeah, we definitely do, and he's not at home taking care of the kids as his job full time. It's not. We have a nanny and she's wonderful. But, that being said, I think to myself like am I being sexist in thinking this because it's less about this year. I travel quite a bit, but I think about next year and I think about we're going to have two kids and one's going to be a toddler and one will be an infant, and I have this enormous guilt around that seems really hard for me to be traveling and leaving him to deal with two kids at night, even though he's not taking care of them during the day. It's a lot of work in the nights and the mornings. I would think to myself, am I sexist in thinking that because there's many, many men before me that had wives that traveled and left their two kids with their wife and probably didn't think twice about it. I still haven't figured out like how are we going to do that next year?
Katrina Lake: I think I'm very, very lucky and grateful that I have a husband that's very supportive and a husband that probably takes more of the mornings and nights than I do, and I do think in this world it does take somebody who is willing to kind of put in a little bit more, I think. I don't think it's necessarily that you need somebody who's going to be like a complete kind of stay-at-home parent or anything, but I do think the reality is that it's hard. You know, the reality is there's sacrifices that one or the other is going to be making every single day and then just trying to figure out how you can do that and have a healthy relationship with your kids and a healthy relationship with your spouse and it's all puzzle pieces that aren't super easy.
Lauren Schiller: Yeah. Wow. Well, it sounds like you've surrounded yourself with a great team that come from a variety of big-brand backgrounds and Netflix and Google and Lulu Lemon was in there somewhere. Do you have a mentor? Do you have that one person you can turn to and be like, I can't ask anyone else this question?
Katrina Lake: I do, and I've had many throughout my journey and I would say I have different people that I turn to for different topics, and so actually one of the things that I think has been really fun and unexpected about being a public company is that it's not like I had lots of public company CEO's that I knew. I had met a couple. I really didn't know any. It was really amazing how people kind of came out of the woodwork and helped. You know, now it's all water under the bridge, but our [inaudible 00:38:10] show process, the process to getting public was difficult. It's like in the bucket of when I say fundraising has either been really hard or really easy. The IPO process was really hard, and we weren't kind of seeing the traction we wanted to see. We weren't getting people bought into the story in the way that we needed to. And I had a public company CEO who, through an investment banker, was like, "Hey, if she needs to talk, tell her to call me. It was somebody I'd never met before who had been through the process and kind of knew exactly how I was feeling in that moment. There's been others also who have kind of reached out since.
Katrina Lake: I think that was network that I didn't necessarily knew existed and where I didn't feel like I was part of it before. That just kind of emerged to be helpful. That's been great. You know, I think I have, my board actually, I have a lot of great people on board who I turn to a lot and over the course of the last seven years I've bene lucky enough to kind of build a network of, in a lot of cases, other CEOs, the people who are in the space and not in the space who are going through similar things that I can talk to and get advice from and you know, I think I've been very fortunate that there are a lot of women that I've met also along the way who are very happy to make time for me whenever I ask. It's certainly something that I hope to be able to repay the favor for.
Lauren Schiller: What do you look for, because I know you're involved in a few things that are female-focused in terms of investments and the female investment fund, something called Moving Forward, which is about diversity. In terms of when you now look at other companies that are looking for investments, what do you look for?
Katrina Lake: What do I look for? I mean, I don't do a ton of investing, but I mean it is really important to me that founders that I meet and kind of companies I'm involved in are committed to building diverse teams. That has a women angle, but I think it's much broader than a women angle of like, I think one of the things that StitchFix that has made the company great is the diversity of team and perspectives that we have and so the fact that we have data scientists who are sitting next to stylists and being like, why are you picking that one? Wait, why did you not pick that one? I don't understand. What's going on in your mind? They're just fascinated and really have this great respect for the job that they do, and I think part of what's amazing about StitchFix is I don't know if there's every been like a data scientist who sat down with a stylist and gone into their brain about why they're choosing clothes. I think we've really benefited from the diversity of people and perspectives that we have. I think it's really important for founders to start like that.
Katrina Lake: I think one of the bigger challenges of why we see so little diversity at the top and the technology companies is because so often founding teams are built by repeat founders who go back to their network to build the team. So, they're just perpetuating this kind of lack of diversity that has existed in the industry for 20 years. No one's putting up a job posting for a cofoudner. Like, you're just drawing from people in your network. So, as I have the chance to meet with founding teams, I push on it a lot. I push in with their board. I push on it with, you know, I've noticed you don't have any women on your founding team. What is your commitment on that? I think that's an area that I think helps to make companies better and I think also kind of creates a better ecosystem for all of us.
Lauren Schiller: Well, let's talk about your team and how the values that you're espousing are playing out inside your company around diversity. So, your executive team is 50/50, men and women. I actually went to your website and I counted. It's true. It really is true. Most of your on-the-ground employees are women, I think 86%. Is that right?
Katrina Lake: The number is a little hard because we have a 3,500 stylist organization and the vast majority of our stylists are omen. These are women who are working part time and mostly work from home. So, that skus the number to make it 80-something overall company wide, but then we also have 1,500 warehouses where it's about 50/50. Our headquarters I think is about 60/40 women to men. So, if you put in the 3,500 stylists into our 6,000 employee figure, then it becomes very skued sounding, but on average it's a little over parody where we have women a little more represented than men.
Lauren Schiller: One of the things I've been thinking about is we already know what the downsides are of a culture dominated by men and so I'm just thinking about what happens when you have a company that's kind of dominated by women? What's the outcome there?
Katrina Lake: I mean, first of all I would contest that culture dominated by women. Our management team is 50/50. Our board is 60/40 women. Like, I don't think that's dominated by women and I don't think that you would ask a male CEO who is progressive enough to have a 50% female management team. Like, you would never ask him about a culture that's dominated by men.
Lauren Schiller: I might now. I might now. I mean, maybe not five years ago, but now I definitely would. I'm just curious. I'm not saying that's what your situation is, but just sort of philosophically speaking, if there's any sort of up sides or down sides to having, even jut having at 50/50 is, in a sense, more dominated by women than it has been in the past.
Katrina Lake: Unquestionably, it is more so. I don't know. I mean, I think the down side is I get questions like that not in an insulting way, but in a way that like it's not obvious to other people, like that it's not something people are experiencing all the time, so it becomes something that is unusual. I think that's unfortunate, because I think there's a lot of up side to it. I think there's a lot of upside to it just like having different perspectives in diversity. I think there's also, we were just talking about parenting, so it's top of mind for me, I think there's also a lot of upside from the perspective of people who are men and women who are trying to live a life and work. I think there are a lot more conversations and there's a lot more empathy that happens when you see both sides of the equation every day at work. I don't know. I think, it's also all I know. I can't speak to the downsides or the upsides, but I think we've been able to create a place that people love to work and that has been able to take kind of this what people academically talk about is being important, and diversity and actually show, this is what it looks like and this is how it works and this is an example of it in a way that I don't know that we've had a lot of examples before.
Lauren Schiller: All right. I have one last question for you, which is an Inforum tradition, which is your 60-second idea to change the world?
Katrina Lake: I don't know that I have a specific idea, but like, I think that one of the things that has been a real challenge, and you can see it in kind of the political landscape also and loss of community. So, I think even just like this group of people getting together to do something like this in an evening is a really great part of that. I think there's been just kind of a loss of humanization of a lot of things that we do. So, when w'ere buying things, the way that we engage with each other, like a lot of it has been kind of dehumanized in a way that I think has taken away from communities. So, I don't know what the exact ID is, but ways that you can bring more commerce into communities, ways that you can make things like buying clothes a more human experience and a more human-to-human experience I think brings back the humanness that connects us a country and as a community.
Katrina Lake: I think a lot of, especially in eCommerce, it's become very anonymous and very transactional and I think that the harms of that are greater than what we're seeing in terms of the impact that it's having on how we think about each other and how we think about the space that we occupy together. So, I'd love to see anything that kind of just brings back a sense of community and brings communities together in more human ways.
Lauren Schiller: Katrina Lake's company StitchFix is often described as being at the intersection of fashion and technology, but at the end of the day she's using technology to solve one of the oldest problems in the book, what am I going to wear, and she's doing it by putting people first. It's bigger than just how we shop for clothes. She sees a problem with the lack of diversity in tech and makes sure her company is an example of how diversity makes good business sense. She sees a problem with the lack of parental lave and has made it her dedication to family as much a part of her public identity as her extraordinary success. I look forward to the day when Katrina's success and her dedication to a diverse and family friendly workplace is no longer extraordinary. It's just how business is done.This is how women rise up. This is Inflection Point. I'm Lauren Schiller.
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