A former Toxic Chemicals Biologist, Sandi MacPherson might sound like an unlikely Silicon Valley tech founder. But the Canadian entrepreneur was born to innovate. Originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, MacPherson took a page out of her father’s (entrepreneurial) notebook, carving a niche for herself in the Bay Area’s startup scene. We asked Sandi to share her experiences as the founder of professional social network Quibb, and to tell us about her 50/50 Pledge, an initiative designed to make women more visible in the tech industry.
How did you get into the startup tech world?
During my MBA, I was focused on sustainability and corporate social responsibility. I realized that it wasn’t quite right for me, and I decided to shift to plan B—entrepreneurship. My father had been an entrepreneur for most of my childhood, so to me it seemed like a normal, obvious option. I started taking tech classes at my business school (tech strategy, design thinking, etc.) and also started getting involved in the local Toronto startup scene. Once those things happened, there was really no going back! I started working on a couple of ideas in Toronto, but nothing that was actually a fully-fledged “product” until I moved to the Bay Area.
The 50/50 Pledge is a project you’ve been working on for two months now. What is it about? How did you come up with it?
The 50/50 Pledge is a brand new initiative that I’ve just started working on. In my day-to-day running of Quibb (my startup), I see the gender imbalance in tech. I’m asked all the time by other tech and startup people about the problems women encounter in the tech industry. As I started thinking more what I could do to work constructively on these issues, I thought of some of the problems that I was seeing around representation of women in public forums, specifically industry events. There was very clearly a trend that existed that people weren’t talking about: event organizers really want and feel pressure to get women speakers on stage, but have trouble doing so. They know where and how to move the needle, but they’re not equipped with the resources and connections to actually find and get more women on stage.
In thinking about this, I had an idea on how to help further push the representation of women on stages at tech industry events. I put out a feeler, via a Google form and a tweet, asking women to sign up to a directory of women speakers. The response was overwhelmingly positive—over 1,100 women from companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Shopify, Uber added their details to the directory of women speakers. At the same time, several tech industry event organizers also reached out to me, asking how they could work with me on this issue that they’ve been struggling with.
The model that I’ve settled on for the 50/50 Pledge is one where I select individual, high-quality tech industry events to partner with. I work with those events to match them with accomplished women professionals who have added their details to the directory. One of the biggest reasons why I think it’s such a powerful approach is that it’s extremely high leverage. The initiative acts as one pebble in a very big pond, with a huge ripple effect. There is obvious prestige and status that comes from simply being on the stage, presenting your opinions and thoughts on your professional area of expertise. There’s also the fact that in working with the best, high-profile events in the industry, those voices are made even more powerful because of the context of the event. Finally, there are the added benefits of the exposure—through attendee blog posts, press coverage, recorded video—that extend the impact those women have.
Tell us more about your startup, Quibb.
Quibb is a professional social network for industry news and analysis. My goal with Quibb is to reimagine what a modern industry journal/trade publication would be, in an age where individual professionals are empowered to share their opinions and experiences so much more broadly than in the past. Professionals no longer look to the WSJ, or Financial Times, or niche industry publications to learn what they need to know to do their job well—they’re increasingly looking to blogs, niche sites, forums, podcasts, etc. Quibb is a platform to look across the network of professionals who matter to you, to understand, “What do I need to know or learn today?”
I’ve been working on the company for three years now. I was self-funding the company for the first two years, and raised investor money just over a year ago from a great group of large tech investors (i.e. betaworks, Bloomberg Beta, Lightbank, Slow Ventures) and angels. My background is not related to the tech industry, so it’s been quite an adjustment over these past few years. That said, I really love what I do, and love the challenges that come with working on my own company and learning everything related to being a tech professional, all at the same time.
Do you have any advice for women who want to take on a new entrepreneurial adventure?
Being an entrepreneur is probably the most difficult professional option available to anyone. Your identity becomes tied to whatever company/initiative/project you create, and it can be difficult to separate the two sometimes. I think it’s extremely important from the very early days to surround yourself with people who you trust, and who have worked on something similar. Their experiences and understanding become the only perspectives that matter at times.
It’s also really important to talk to those people when things get really hard (as they will), and to remain open and transparent with those people throughout your journey. The idea of a solo, brave, and fearless entrepreneur is one that’s forever glorified. Yet of all of the most successful and accomplished people that I’ve met these past four years, none of them have stories related to their own success that don’t involve at least a handful of strong, supportive peers.
How should someone think about or decide what type of company to create?
A friend came up with the concept of a “forever company.” For a lot of tech entrepreneurs, you sort of fall into one idea or another, you join a co-founder who’s already gotten started, or you’re working a full-time job until enough stuff happens for you to start your own thing. The idea of a “forever company” is that there is a company that fits all of your professional, intellectual and emotional interests. People dream of building their “forever company,” but oftentimes we get off track. While it’s really hard sometimes to put down everything and focus on creating it, you need to start by having a crisp understanding of what your “forever company” is. Once you have that, you’re then able to plan and create the steps and experiences that you need to enable you to create it. Everything you do, can and should be furthering the creation of that end state.
Photos courtesy: Sandi MacPherson