How the First “Yes” Changes the Game for Entrepreneurs – Especially for Women

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The y2wear bestsellers

Today is the first day after applications closed for our initial cohort at the MergeLane accelerator for female-led companies. There is far more to do, but

I awoke this morning at 4:30am in the quiet space of reflection. The last six months of nurturing the idea for this concept have called to mind another time in my career.

In early 1999 I was living in Washington and working in the best job a still-youngish attorney with a liberal upbringing could have imagined. I was a federal criminal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice in the Civil Rights Division. This was a highly sought-after role, working with some of the smartest, most dedicated lawyers in the country. My division prosecuted people who harmed others due to race or national origin, police officers who went too far, and “activists” who threatened (or worse) abortion providers. This was a job I had wanted since the age of 11.

I was trying cases all over the country in federal court (a privilege rarely enjoyed by private-firm lawyers). I was on the team that investigated the murder of Dr. Bernard Slepian in Buffalo. I tried and convicted individuals in Little Rock who in 1997 – two years after the Oklahoma City bombing – strategically placed locked Ryder trucks in the driveways of all the abortion clinics in town. Despite the exciting challenges of my job, one day I looked up and thought: I don’t know many 60-year lawyers who are happy. As creative as it was to weave complicated stories for often adverse juries, there was something jostling me about the dearth of creativity in the career I’d selected.

These days also marked the emergence of the ubiquitous consumer web. My heart rate sped just a bit each night when I heard the magic jingle “you’ve got mail” on my home computer. In the early days of that year, along with the dire “Y2k” talk, a buzz began around the idea of having a “millennium baby” – a child born in the year 2000. I found the dialog ironic and amusing, and I started spinning ideas and taglines about this new era of children, framed by the connective tissue of technology. I learned a bit about the simple ecommerce functionality of Yahoo Stores. I decided it might be interesting to try launching an ecommerce store for millennium baby products (that I would create) while keeping my “day job.”

One night early in this contemplation phase, I went to dinner with my gang of friends in DC, and shared this idea. I felt nervous doing it. I had spent years and a bunch of money and energy building up to being a respected lawyer in a plum job. As we left dinner that night, standing on a sidewalk in Dupont Circle, my dear friend Pete Levitas pulled me aside. Pete was my most careful friend, diligent in charting his career path and incredibly conservative (read: “wise”) about money. I figured I was in for a loving lecture on focus. Instead, Pete pulled out his checkbook and wrote me a check for $10,000. He said: “Sue, I believe in you, and I want to support you in doing whatever you’re passionate about. I don’t care if I ever see this money again.”

Even with all the imagining and investigating that took place before that night, it was in that moment that “Y2Wear,” my first startup, was born. The money was helpful, but the vote of confidence meant far more. I built and grew a digital baby products company. I worked with a designer to create a winning brand and some adorable, ironic products (the onesie that read “I come to your planet in peace” was my personal favorite). I delivered tens of boxes to the post office every morning and then hopped on my bike to pedal to DOJ. I paid Pete back with no demand of interest. I learned that the only thing more satisfying than a “guilty” verdict for a racist scumbag was the sale of a romper for $9.99 at a trade show. I realized that launching a business with a one-year fuse was dumb, and I “pivoted” (without learning that word until years later). I learned 5,000 other things that were dumb (but only after doing them).

I decided to leave the law. I lucked into a real job at a large TV company because there was an SVP there who was a brilliant ex-lawyer and saw something in me. I sold the business. On my first day, I got a lecture from a colleague (an MBA who shared my title) who elucidated the top-10 reasons why I had no business in this job. That same day my boss asked me to do a “P&L” on a new acquisition prospect. I called one of my “rabbis” and asked what a P&L was. He told me and suggested I do it in “Excel.” I went to a nearby bookstore at lunch and bought Excel for Dummies. I had never opened that program before that day. I have never looked back.

The early months of MergeLane have been filled with astonishing learning and a steady series of lucky breaks. In all honesty, my whole career and life could be described this way. Ninety-nine percent of the “asks” we’ve made to people, groups, and companies have come back with resounding “yesses.” This is a first-year program, but as a function of our timing, our conviction, our experience, and our networks, we’ve had a sprinting start.

I keep coming back to one moment, one meeting. On May 21st of this year, we sat down with Seth Levine, partner at the VC Firm Foundry Group. This was our very first meeting, and we pitched our nascent concept. Elizabeth knew Seth well. I had never met him personally, but I’d been active in Techstars and the startup ecosystem during my first few years in Boulder. We all shared our views on the strengths of women-led teams. After a rapid-fire discussion, we asked Seth if he thought he and/or Foundry would support us. He didn’t miss a beat. He said YES. He said he would check with his partners, but he imagined they’d all invest personally, and he ballparked an amount. Looking back, this was the day MergeLane was born.

I don’t know if we would have gone down this road without this first, meaningful yes. Getting an early win might be even more significant for women entrepreneurs, who tend to be more risk-averse. I do know that getting that vote made us move more quickly, fueled by our own conviction and by the sheer weight and momentum created by this approval in the investor and startup community.

Today, the first day after our application deadline, we could not be more energized or determined to win. What strikes me this morning — as I wait for the darkness to be replaced by reddish light on the foothills out my window — is that there is nothing more humbling or more powerful than the pivotal nods given by meaningful people to the entrepreneurs they believe in.

We could not be more grateful for all the investors, mentors, journalists, sponsors, professors, social media mavens, entrepreneurs, significant others, and friends who have been in the ring with us so far.

Now. On to the real work.

3 Comments

  1. Holly Hamann (@HollyHamann)
    Permalink

    Inspiring and generous. Sharing the origins of MergeLane (I’m certain there is more to tell about your journey) brings me even closer to understanding why I was drawn to participate in the first place. It will be an amazing first class!

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  2. Layla Sabourian
    Permalink

    Dear Sue: Thanks for sharing your story. Indeed the first, meaningful yes will make all the difference in the world for many entrepreneurs, and the fact that only 4% of entrepreneurs in the world are women shows how important your initiative is. Thank you.

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  3. Monique Mills
    Permalink

    What an inspiring story! Thank you for sharing. Reminds me of where I am now, having left my career in engineering after 15 years to start a business geared towards making lives easier for people who have to plan birthday parties for their kids every year. We’re sort of an Airbnb for parties and events so there is more to it than that, but that was the genesis of the idea -from me being a busy professional, mother, and wife and needing that stressful pain point solved for myself and many others who aim to balance it all. Nonetheless, some people look at me as if I have a third eye when I tell them what I’m doing after recently completing my MBA. Although a lot is uncertain, I could not be happier at this point in my life.

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