Imagine you were a remarkably successful serial entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, and that you now serve as a senior tech executive leading product strategy, product management, engineering and operations at a pioneering communications services provider. Imagine how many challenges you would have confronted, and how many obstacles you would have overcome, to reach that pinnacle. Now, imagine you did it all as a woman who emigrated from Ukraine, and that you knew next to no English when you got started. Welcome to Kira Makagon’s world.
Makagon is executive vice president of innovation at RingCentral, a provider of cloud-based communications services in San Mateo, Calif. In a recent interview, she spoke about some of the lessons she had learned as a woman in technology, with the hope that sharing what she had learned would be helpful to other women entering the field. So I asked Makagon in her capacity as a serial entrepreneur, if she had to give a single piece of advice to women who are interested in starting a business, what it would be. She said it’s all about passion and refusing to give up:
If you want to start a business, you have to do it because you believe in your idea. Regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, you should start a business that speaks to you—you have to be passionate about it, and let that passion drive the business. Whether you’re a man or a woman, it’s going to be difficult. It’s difficult for women in particular, because it’s harder for women to raise money. But you have to believe in yourself and your idea, knowing that it will be difficult and that you will have to overcome obstacles. Just don’t give up.
I asked Makagon what the difference is between the advice she would give to a woman, and the advice she would give to a man. She said women have to be prepared for a higher level of scrutiny:
When a woman walks into a partnership meeting in a room of VCs and there’s one woman and six guys, it may be intimidating. She may be perceived as not being strong enough, or as not being committed. If she believes that she is committed, and this is what she wants to do, I would say she shouldn’t let any of these things get to her. If you walk into a VC meeting, and a guy notes that you just got married and asks if you want to have kids, remember that the same question can be asked of a man, so don’t let that get to you. Maybe that may not be the right partnership for you. You’re being judged as a woman, and you know there’s more scrutiny—that’s a fact. So apply the same scrutiny the other way. Find the right partners.
It was interesting that she mentioned finding the right partners. I mentioned to her that I had recently spoken with a female entrepreneur named Frances Kweller, who advises women to avoid partnerships when starting a business and to go it alone, because when you enter into a partnership, in her words, you spend “more time dissolving the partnerships, losing money, taking one another to court, than … focusing on and growing their business.” I asked Makagon for her thoughts on that, and she said she hadn’t had that experience:
It’s very hard to be an entrepreneur, man or woman. I’ve certainly had the good fortune of having good partners, and they were all guys. I think it’s easier if you have a partner, especially if you’re a minority—if you have a partner who isn’t a minority, going down that hard road and bouncing ideas off of somebody, it’s easier. So I’m not sure I’m completely on board with that—I think you can have good partners and bad partners. You need to find partners with complementary skill sets. If you’re a techie, find a good sales guy. If you’re good in sales, find a good techie. Having that partnership, where you have common goals and complementary skill sets, can definitely be an accelerator.
I asked Makagon to identify a couple of the toughest challenges women in senior executive positions face that their male counterparts don’t, and to offer some advice on overcoming those challenges. Her response:
If you’re a woman senior executive, you’re probably a minority, especially in the tech world. You have to live in a boardroom culture where certain conversations take place, and you may not be particularly interested in participating. You may have to deal with associates or people on your team who create issues because you’re a woman. I’ve always taken what I would call a “gender-neutral” approach to this. Try not to focus on the fact that you’re a man or a woman. For a woman who’s in the minority, try to focus on your skills, and what you bring to the table, and the value that you create—focus on your strengths. In terms of the challenges in being a minority, where you may not be comfortable with everything that’s taking place around you, then speak up—don’t put up with something that you’re not comfortable with. Assert yourself, because that will establish your presence. But sometimes, just go along with it. If everybody wants to go to a loud bar, where women may not be as comfortable, just go. Put up with it. It’s part of the game.
Finally, I mentioned to Makagon that earlier this year, I interviewed Lori Ann LaRocco, an author and producer at CNBC, who had some pretty harsh criticism for Sheryl Sandberg and her campaign to ban the word “bossy.” She said, “I think when you throw out words like ‘bossy’ or ‘bitchy’ or stuff like that, it kind of takes away from the issue. What drives me crazy about that is that it sounds like we’re whining—it fuels the stereotype of women whining. If you do your job, and you do it well, there’s no reason to put the focus on those terms.” I asked Makagon for her thoughts on that, and she responded that she’s “kind of ambivalent” about it:
I think you have to be yourself, whatever your style is. Whatever style works, go with that style. I wouldn’t necessarily ban the term “bossy.” Maybe there’s a certain way that women behave in a position of power that is stereotyped as bossy. But if somebody wants to call me bossy, let them call be bossy. I’m going to focus what I do on getting results.