As cliché as it might be, it’s hard not to think of the Energizer Bunny when you become familiar with the career of Caren Merrick. Her frenetic (in a good way) pace was initially accelerated as cofounder of webMethods, a Web services company that was acquired by Software AG in 2007 for $546 million. Now founder and CEO of Pocket Mentor, an app that provides self-assessment tools and content related to career counseling and mentoring, Merrick is also a prolific writer and speaker as an advocate for women in technology.
What brought Merrick to my attention was a recent piece she wrote on why women need to give themselves more credit. It’s a great piece, but in my view the more fundamental question is, why do women tend not to give themselves as much credit as they should? I posed that question to Merrick in a recent interview, and she said there are probably several answers, because every individual is different:
But if there is a broad influencing factor, I would say it’s probably that culturally, that’s how women have been taught to act—to be more modest than men. You can talk to any woman in the business world, and she has experienced that cultural bias. If she talks about herself, she’s described with one term, whereas when a man does it, he’s described with a different term. That’s changing, and I’ve seen it change in my own career. I’m fortunate now, in serving on company boards, and running a business, it happens far less than it used to. And on my boards, it never happens at all.
So is it more harmful for a woman to take more credit than she deserves, or less credit than she deserves? Merrick didn’t flinch:
It’s so important for women to learn to give themselves credit, I would say if she’s struggling with this, I would rather see her err on the side of giving herself too much credit. It’s good to just get into that practice, and people need to know what she’s done. I would rather she take a risk and make a mistake, and learn from that, than never risk it at all, and stay under the radar—and have her great work, and maybe her team’s work, not elevated to the place where it deserves to be elevated. When it does get elevated, everybody wins. The work gets more support, and it’s able to reach key stakeholders in a way that matters.
I asked Merrick whether she thinks the failure of women to give themselves as much credit as they should contributes to the gender pay gap. She said it absolutely does:
I led global marketing at a company that I cofounded [webMethods], and I used to say to my team, “You don’t get what you don’t ask for.” It used to be that in a performance review, I would talk about what I achieved, but I wouldn’t talk about it openly elsewhere. So it’s really important, when you’re one-on-one with the person who is making that decision about what your pay raise will be, that you are very clear, with qualitative and quantitative evidence, about all the things you’re doing well. Make clear how you’re achieving goals, when your ideas have been put into action, and what the results were. You might even show the person emails from your best customers, who might send you a private email and say, ‘You made all the difference.’
I mentioned that I had recently interviewed Tacy Byham, CEO of DDI, a talent management firm, who talked about research DDI had recently conducted that found that women tend to be less confident than men. I asked Merrick if she agrees that’s the case. She said she does, and it staggers her:
Not long ago, I was having coffee with a senior vice president of a global consulting company that has billions of dollars’ worth of private-sector and government contracts. And by the way, she graduated from West Point. She was talking about how she doesn’t feel that competent. How could she even think that, after all the ways she has proven herself? On the one hand, I think humility is really important. But on the other hand, because women don’t give themselves enough credit, that is one of the factors that lead to their lack of confidence. I tell women, the first person who needs to become more comfortable with your achievements is you.
I asked Merrick what she took away from her webMethods experience that she found most valuable. She said it’s all about entrepreneurship:
First of all, there are a lot of really extraordinary people in the ecosystem of the technology industry, from angel investors to advisors. We had so many people of great integrity and talent, from the very beginning, who believed in us, and who were willing to stick with us, even when we got down to the last $33 in our bank account. So I would say it just reinforced to me the virtue and value of entrepreneurship in business. My cofounder and I come from very humble, modest beginnings—we were the first people in our families to get a college degree. To be able to do something like that, I’m continually grateful for it, because I don’t know that we could have done this in any other country.
The cofounder Merrick referred to is her husband. So what’s it like to found a company as a married couple? She acknowledged that it doesn’t work for everyone:
It was interesting, because on our first date, I said to my date, Phillip, who eventually became my husband, ‘I’m in the process of starting my own business, and here’s my plan.’ We were just starting to get to know each other, and he said, ‘I want to start a business, too.’ He’s the only person I had ever dated who also wanted to start a business, and I think that that sowed the seed. We were married within a year, and then within a couple of years, we launched webMethods. At the time, it was helpful that we didn’t have kids, because as a startup we were working 80 to 100 hours a week—it’s great if you’re both involved, because then no one feels left out. He’s very technical, and I’m very business-oriented. I’ve since become more technical, and he’s become more business-oriented, so we actually helped each other out. We had very complementary skills, and it really forged a great enterprise. We learned and grew along the way.
Finally, I mentioned to Merrick that I found it interesting that she has dabbled in politics, having run for a Virginia State Senate seat in 2011. I asked her what she took away from that experience that she’s found valuable in her subsequent pursuits as a female entrepreneur and business leader. Her response:
One of the most surprising aspects of running for public office is how much like launching a startup it is. So I approached it with the exact same mindset and skillset that I did with webMethods, and that I’ve done my whole life. I did a lot of research and interviews—I did a whole year of listening and learning. I reached out to U.S. senators and former state senators. I spoke on a couple of occasions with Sandra Day O’Connor, who started out as a state senator. I talked to the whole ecosystem—major funders, fundraisers and activists. I attended the Sorensen Institute at the University of Virginia, which is a candidate training school.
It was so similar to a startup, because what do you need when you have a startup? You need a specific product—that was me, with my experience as a business owner and working in the non-profit world, helping low-income families. Then I had to raise money—a lot of my time was spent raising money. Then I had to develop a campaign, which is what every startup has to do with its marketing. You have to find out who your key supporters are—the people who are going to be most passionate about your 1.0 product. That would be my No. 1 takeaway—how entrepreneurial it is to be a candidate.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.