Hey Women: Take up More Space and Ask Brilliant Questions

I woke up in the middle of the night last night – a night that falls toward the end of the inaugural class in the MergeLane accelerator for companies with at least one female leader. Things have gone well. Eight diverse and talented companies that cut across tech, consumer web, and consumer products. Each company with impressive traction, great ideas, or both. It’s been a phenomenal ride.

MergeLane Raise HandsBut there I was, awake at 1am reflecting on how our teams were handling their participation in our mentor and speaker sessions. These teams are engaging, funny, provocative, and 90% female. I was frustrated with the seemingly low willingness (or inclination) of our team members to pose incisive questions to the incredibly talented leaders that had agreed to engage with them.

As I wondered about the causes, I arrived at my best guess. I think women are geniuses at “looping” with the room or a group. We are more sensitive to whether our need or question will be useful or interesting to the rest of the people in the room. They are less inclined to be “selfish” about taking up space. With slightly less ego, they are perhaps not looking to make a play for visibility with our speakers as much as comparable men might.

I have no idea if this story has merit. Anytime one wonders about topics underlying questions of gender, one faces the risk of wildly generalizing. Yet in my current role, generalization seems to help facilitate the true acceleration of the companies in MergeLane.

Here’s what I wrote to our teams:

In the event I’m right about my theory, I’d like you to please hold on to the gift of reading a group, but please err on the side of taking up more space, making yourself more visible, having your needs met, asking for help on your issues. First, most of us are dealing with many of the same issues. Second, you are in no position to imagine what other people need in any event.

Here’s the thing. These people we are bringing in — many of whom are pretty damned famous — are taking time out of their day because they SINCERELY WANT TO HELP YOU. These people — and interestingly the more famous and more senior people do this MORE — email me to ask how they can be of greatest service to you. They are looking for cues from me, but in a session, they are looking for cues from you to ensure that as many of you as possible get something out of their involvement. They already have arrived. They have nothing to prove. They are not doing this for ego. You allow them to feel helpful, and you allow this to happen more in direct proportion to how much you engage with them.

Further, there is honestly no better way in a group session to establish yourself as someone worthy of knowing than by listening and asking incisive questions. You don’t do this to be a showoff. You do this because you want to learn more, because you want to connect with people on the other end.

Last. A story. I hardly knew my MergeLane partner Elizabeth a year ago. We had met one-on-one for 30 minutes. Other than that, I knew one thing about her. In group settings (pitch events, investor meetings), she asked phenomenal questions. She shifted the dialog to a higher level with her questions — for everyone. And she did this by also giving an opportunity for the speaker to connect even more with an issue he or she cared about. Elizabeth is a wizard listener and a better questioner. It’s a huge part of the way she has built her network. And it’s the reason that at a dinner in May of last year, when I wrote on an index card “Accelerator for women-led companies,” I wrote her name under that line. And here we are.

Please be visible, dig deeper, make expert use of these brief encounters. This is not just in MergeLane, but always. MergeLane, the entrepreneurial community, your mentors, this economy, your customers, and more are opening a big, giant door for you. Go ahead, women. Run through.

Raise your hand. Interrupt. Get so excited that you can barely stay seated. Just be there. More.

 

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