With an MBA from Harvard Business School, Ellen Rubin had a lot of options, some more challenging than others. She chose to take one of the most challenging paths of all, especially for a woman without a technology background: becoming a serial tech entrepreneur.
Rubin’s current incarnation is that of CEO at ClearSky Data, an enterprise infrastructure startup in Boston that she co-founded with virtualization and data storage guru Lazarus Vekiarides. I recently had the opportunity to interview Rubin, and I asked her, given that her co-founder is male, whether there is a beneficial gender dynamic that exists when two co-founders of a company are opposite genders. She said it’s a matter of balance, not gender:
The most important dynamic between any two co-founders is how they balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The gender issue is not the point. I’ve worked with many co-founders in Israel, at CloudSwitch and ClearSky, and there are always issues on which you don’t agree. These can cause arguments, sometimes intense ones that are not easily resolved. However, successful founder relationships depend on two main criteria that have nothing to do with gender: Can you argue and disagree strongly, but still get on the plane together the next day, or go to the next meeting and not have the arguments get in the way of working productively? And is each partner willing to give the other space to lead in her areas of strength, especially as the company’s needs and priorities change over time?
I asked Rubin how being female has made her life as a serial tech entrepreneur more difficult than it otherwise might have been. She said early on in her career, it was harder to be young and relatively inexperienced than it was to be female:
Since I wasn’t trained in engineering or sales, it was also hard to be credible early on as a founder, since most founders came from these functional backgrounds, which tend to be heavily male-dominated. After my first startup, I realized I needed to be part of an existing company that was well run and led by someone I could learn from, so I ended up joining Netezza. This experience was foundational for me, and it helped me tremendously when I left to start CloudSwitch.
Rubin has been involved in tech startups in Tel Aviv and Boston, so I asked her how she would compare those two environments, specifically in terms of being a female tech entrepreneur. She said the military culture in the Israeli business world was foreign to her:
I started a company in Tel Aviv in the late ‘90s. At the time, it was a very male-dominated tech world, even more in Israel than here in the U.S. Many founding teams and venture capitalists had been together in the Israeli army in elite units, and they knew each other well. The business community was modeled on the military world, with a command-and-control culture. As you can imagine, this was all a bit foreign to me, coming out of Harvard Business School and management consulting. However, Israeli society and the technology industry are unbelievably entrepreneurial and scrappy, which offered valuable experience for me in my first startup. People worked like crazy and were truly mission-driven, and they saw the entire world as their market. Since the Israeli internal market is small, the company’s potential investors, partners and customers are likely to be based elsewhere.
I asked Rubin if she’s found that women and men have different leadership strengths and weaknesses, and if so, what the relative strengths and weaknesses are. She said that’s a question she’s often asked, but it’s not one of her favorites:
Great entrepreneurs are more alike than they are different, and it would help everyone if we stopped trying to determine why a ‘female’ attribute is better than a ‘male’ one in the startup world. The best leaders combine skills that are considered ‘male’ and ‘female,’ and they use them as needed for given situations.
So with that understood, are there ways in which having a female CEO influences the culture at ClearSky Data? Rubin said that having a female CEO has more of an external influence than an internal one:
In recent years, there is a high level of interest and attention on women in CEO roles, so the spotlight is on. This can be helpful in terms of getting more attention for the company and breaking through in the media. But since there are still relatively few women in these roles, especially in the high-tech startup world, it means that there is a lot of scrutiny on how things are going and whether any conclusions can be made about whether women leaders perform better, worse or the same as men… I bet we will find that the success ratio is pretty much the same over time and that other traits besides gender are what turn out to be predictive.
Finally, I asked Rubin what would be the one most essential piece of advice she has for young women who aspire to be tech entrepreneurs. She said they need to build relationships early with mentors and advisors who can help them at every stage of the company’s growth:
Make the effort to spend time with people you respect and who are recommended within your network. This is a critical part of your job, so make time for it. Ask for help from these mentors when you have issues that require expertise outside of your own background, and don’t be worried that you need to act like you know everything.
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.