SEPTEMBER 27, 2018

Episode 29 – Scaling the Impact of Women in Austin

Jan Ryan from Beam Founders Network

On today’s episode, we’re joined by Jan Ryan, Founder of Women@Austin, as well as Director of Creative Entrepreneurship and Innovation at The University of Texas. Jan is driven by her creativity and passion for accelerating entrepreneurship in Austin. Women@Austin has been an all-volunteer led organization until joining Notley’s ecosystem of social impact initiatives. Listen now to learn how Women@Austin is working to make Austin the most accessible, nurturing environment for women-led businesses to thrive. Since recording, Women@Austin has rebranded to Beam Founders Network.

Lisa Graham (00:00):
Hi, my name is Lisa Graham, and I’m excited to welcome you to today’s episode of the Change The Rules podcast. I have my co-host Dan Graham with me, and today, we have Jan Ryan, Founder and President of Women@Austin and Director of Creative Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UT-Austin. Women@Austin is an impact organization equipping women entrepreneurs with what they need to be successful. The mission of the organization is to accelerate high-growth women entrepreneurs in central Texas. Thank you so much for being here, Jan.
Jan Ryan (00:27):
Thank you, Lisa.
Lisa Graham (00:28):
And before we get into the founding of Women@Austin, can you give us more of your background? What have you done in the past? Because I know you yourself are an entrepreneur.
Jan Ryan (00:39):
Sure. I actually have been in Austin since 1997. Came here for Vignette to be the first VP of Sales there when we were very new. In fact, those were the days when we called ourselves the company that did the worldwide web. With a straight face. So, I’ve been in tech for 32 years. My first half of my career was leading sales teams and being a Chief Revenue Officer, and then moved into being an interim CEO, and then a CEO of a high-tech startup in Silicon Valley. And ended up really having the knowledge come to me that I’m an entrepreneur. I really want to go do one of these. I’d been with venture-backed companies since I was in my late twenties. And ended up doing an entrepreneurial co-founding scenario in Menlo Park and we sold that company to Oracle back in 2006. And then, another company here called Social Dynamics, which was acquired by Lithium Technologies in 2012.
Lisa Graham (01:54):
What sparked the idea of Women@Austin?
Jan Ryan (01:56):
I mentioned I had, you know, we’d just had our second company Social Dynamics, which was in the social space. Analytics for social. We just were acquired in 2012 and I had been on the road so much in the last several years that I really just had this desire to stay in Austin and give back and be able to, especially, work with women entrepreneurs. Because after having gotten funded, you know, in two different companies, I really began to understand that some of the things that I had that maybe were unique, for instance, knowing so much of the investor pool was something that I actually kind of accidentally fell into. I had been working, as I mentioned with early stage venture-backed startups since I was in my late twenties, so I knew a lot of investors and I knew a lot of the different aspects of the different types of funding and the dynamics there.
Jan Ryan (02:54):
I began to realize though that most people do not know that. Most women don’t know even the difference between, you know, angel investing and private equity, or whatever. And I realized this was a huge gap that I had just sort of tripped into and I really needed to give back in that area. So I wanted to help more women get funded. And what I found was is that I couldn’t find any women in Austin, Texas. That we were all in these silos. And I truly had a difficult time in 2012 and 2013 finding other women to talk through some of these issues with.
Lisa Graham (03:33):
And you had mentioned, you know, these companies that you had worked for, or you were CEO of from an early stage and getting acquired. Were you aware at the time of these statistics that show single digits, less than 5% of acquisitions or venture-backed business are led by women?
Jan Ryan (03:53):
Sort of dire ratios of women getting funded, yeah. And, you know, I truthfully did not think a lot about it. We, in those days, didn’t talk a lot about those types of ratios. We knew it was hard. And because I was in tech and had been in analytics, most of my career was with all men. You know, when I was a VP of Sales, there just weren’t any women VP of Sales. So I had trained my mind, and I think I’d become immune to the fact, that the odds were that steeped against me. And yet there were moments when you could just feel how truly difficult it was. And some of it went right back to gender. So, I guess to answer your question, I really didn’t focus on it a lot. And the truth is, I don’t think most women who are successful and who end up really going the length of what they need to go focus on it. Because you can get sidetracked by all these crazy ratios. You need to be focused on building the kind of customer traction and customer satisfaction and delight that brings that kind of momentum to the company, which will get you funded no matter if you’re a man or a woman.
Lisa Graham (05:10):
And when you started thinking about Women@Austin, how did you start gathering these women from these different silos? And what resulted from that?
Jan Ryan (05:19):
Well, it was really interesting, because it was a time of learning for me as well. Just like I had mentioned, I hadn’t focused on this a lot. And the more that I was faced with just finding other women, maybe women who have had exits or women who were entrepreneurs, I couldn’t believe how truly fragmented and siloed we were. I think a lot of that has to do with women. You know, their true aim is to just change the world. They’re not out there posturing. They’re not at every event, you know, trying to stand on a stage and talk about how great they are or how much funding got. They’re working so darn hard that they don’t sometimes come to networking events (and especially in those days). And then when they have the time to lift up, they go home and they spend time with their husband and their children.
Jan Ryan (06:10):
So what was working against them is that they weren’t being able to learn and meet, and they weren’t being able to understand the wisdom from people who had been there before. So truly, for me, it was an exercise of finding women who also felt like they wanted to talk to others. And just to kind of complete that when I really began to understand the light bulb was going on for me; I went to a CEO conference here in Austin and there were 212 people in the room, and around 11:30 or so, they pulled the lights up. And I looked around the room thinking I’m going to meet some other really interesting women here. And there were only four women in the room. This is 2013. And two of the women were running the event. And there was one reporter and me and this other woman who were in the room.
Jan Ryan (07:08):
So it really began to dawn on me that no one was trying to intentionally bring women together. And that’s where Women@Austin was born. I started to talk to some women at Capital Factory, where I’m now a Partner. Some other women who have been in companies. There were a few that had exits. And that’s when we came together to ideate, you know, what would it take to really make Austin the most accessible, supportive city in the nation. Not just bringing a group together, but what would it take to be number one? And then the first, very first time we put up a meeting out there to have a panel and have speakers, we were just blown away. Within four or five hours, I remember on that first one, it completely sold out. There were 175 people at Capital Factory who, by the way, has still been a great partner all these years and helping us with events. But, there was obviously a demand.
Lisa Graham (08:04):
Absolutely. So what have you been doing for the last four years? What do you all provide for women entrepreneurs? And what are these women hungry for?
Jan Ryan (08:16):
So, when I realized there was that kind of demand, we really organized a board. There are now 21 women on this steering committee and we come together. It used to be quarterly, but we’ve not met as often in the last couple of years. But we would ideate about what it is that women need. And we came down to four pillars that have been with us since the beginning. And that was really about community. Bringing women out of these silos. Helping them understand how to get connections before they actually needed them. For instance, for funding. How to get connections for co-founders and mentors. And I can’t tell you many people have met mentors and co-founders and other people at these events. So we focused on that. We focused on mentoring and role models. So bringing and cross-pollinating between women who’ve had experienced and those that are just starting out. We focused on equipping. Which has ended up being one of the things, I think, where the most value has really happened recently, which is just helping women understand even operationally, how do you go run a company?
Jan Ryan (09:25):
How do you start? You know, what’s the first thing you need to think about when you’re a first time CEO? What are some negotiation tips? You know, what’s a people culture look like when you’re a real early stage company? And then the last was really about access to capital and helping people understand how to get funded. You know, a lot of women, you know, would come to talk to me when I was doing mentoring and say, Jan, can you help me get funding? But you look back and you realize they had just come out of this mode where they were building the product, getting the fonts exactly right. And then they want to show it the world and they want to immediately get funding, but funding is something that is 90% a relationship game. They have to start earlier than that.
Jan Ryan (10:09):
So they may even not be completely fundable at that point. So to be able to help them understand how to get much closer to a connection group or understand the ecosystem, we do something called venture dinners. The next one’s coming up, I think the 27th of September. And we pair five VCs or investors with five women entrepreneurs, and we have a nice dinner. JP Morgan always generously funds this for us. And we go to a dinner at a restaurant and have an authentic conversation. It’s not a pitch event. It’s something where you can actually talk about your market and your issues and get to know this ecosystem of investors. And it’s just been phenomenal. Made a phenomenal difference.
Lisa Graham (10:56):
And develop those relationships between two communities that don’t really know each other.
Jan Ryan (11:01):
Exactly, for the first time. Most of these conversations for the first time. Actually giving women more connections to that community.
Dan Graham (11:09):
I’m curious, you know, when you look back at kind of the beginning intentions of starting this group, what are a couple of the surprises that you’ve experienced? Maybe the biggest surprise in a positive light? But maybe also the biggest surprise more from a disappointing perspective?
Jan Ryan (11:28):
Great question. I think the biggest surprise from a positive standpoint is how many men and people that I didn’t even know or think I wanted to be interested in something like this would email me and want to be involved, because they had daughters or that they were interested. I think it was a surprise to me that the ecosystem in Austin, you know, maybe they, most of them that were not thinking about the ratios and not thinking about why do you not see women’s visual images anywhere? Why do you not ever see women on panels (in those days)? Once you bring it to their attention, I was really surprised, very pleasantly surprised, how quickly they wanted to change that and started to make some changes. So, the intention was right. The heart was right. In most cases.
Jan Ryan (12:25):
I think maybe the negative is how bloody hard it is to change the access to capital. Because there is certainly a dynamic there, and I understand this dynamic, but even well-intentioned investors many times are investing in people that either look like them or that they know, or that, you know, they’ve had experience with. And the only thing that keeps them from not continuing to do that is really to build a scenario where they can invest in someone who has been vetted by a group that they trust. Because then that does expand what they will do. If young women, and it seems like a lot of our entrepreneurs now are coming right out of college and they have amazing ideas, but when they go and talk to someone, either in Austin or outside of Austin as an investor, they’re not always taken seriously. And I think we have to surround them with the kind of vetting, and help, and mentoring, and understanding how to pitch, and understanding what the vocabulary is like to be able to go do that successfully. And frankly, to not have that stop you, even if that doesn’t work. You know, women have a lot more options than just the traditional VC route. And that’s a part of what we can add value to.
Dan Graham (14:00):
So just pointing out to an investor that 98% of their investments are to men, that hasn’t changed their behavior?
Jan Ryan (14:07):
It really isn’t enough. No, I’m going to be honest with you. I think they want to change. But many times I’ve been asked when we’ve pulled different groups together, where did you find all these women? I always smile because it makes me realize there really is a divide between women doing their thing in Austin (still today, even though it’s a lot better) and the old networks that are doing what they do, especially in tech. Not every woman has come up through the tech ecosystem. And yet they do use tech because almost everybody in some way uses some kind of tech. So I think giving, like the venture dinners, the opportunities for relationships to be built. You can’t just say, you’ve got to go do this because they don’t quite know what to do. And they still have LPs. And they have fiduciary responsibilities to place money in places that will have strong returns. So I think that there is a lot of work to do here, but I know there’s been a lot of progress that’s been made. We just need more of it.
Lisa Graham (15:21):
And you just announced too that Women@Austin will be joining Notley, which we’re incredibly excited! Beyond excited to be working alongside you! And can you talk a bit about why you decided to join Notley? And why now?
Jan Ryan (15:40):
Well, you know, that is also a really good question, because the “why now” is the main part of that situation. Now there’s over a thousand members in the network. And this is a 100% volunteer led organization. We know we cannot scale this and continue the demands there, but we can’t continue to offer consistent programming and do some of the things we want to do without structure. So having the ability to have Notley come alongside and really help with operational resources and the things that we need for, you know, influencers to be brought together in one central place is just going to be amazing. We couldn’t be any more excited. The steering committee is really excited about the potential here.
Lisa Graham (16:35):
I was attending a luncheon with you all a few weeks ago, and just the excitement in the room of the women that are there. They were all saying they respond to the email within 30 minutes because when these come through they know that there’s a quality event and they’re going to get something of great value out of it from the speaker, but also being able to interact with all these other women. So I think the value that you all offer is just so high. So what other programming do you guys currently offer?
Jan Ryan (17:08):
So, we offer the round tables. I think this is the one you were talking about. We offer round tables that are at lunch. And from 11:30-1, we come together, and we have an excellent speaker, and then have enough Q&A time that we can really begin to also answer each other’s questions. We have the venture dinners that go on. We used to do it every quarter, but now it’s about once or twice a year, we have a very large event where we bring multiple people on a panel and have a longer evening event. We do a large party at South by Southwest. A lot of what we do, I don’t want to use the word underground, but it is kind of a little quieter.
Jan Ryan (18:00):
We pair women entrepreneurs with mentors and, you know, it’s not as obvious what we do. What we haven’t been able to do is to keep up in a consistent way with this programming, because a lot of it, frankly, you know, as the Founder here, I get caught in a lot of the details I didn’t know I was actually going to even get caught in. And some of it depends on my schedule. So if you really want to continue to have consistent programming, you have to have someone working full-time. You really do. To be able to invest in this dream for Austin. The good news is we do have a playbook. And that playbook is something you can actually take and now go to other cities and take beyond Austin.
Jan Ryan (18:48):
But we’re really focused on having Austin be, as I said, that number one place. That dream, you know, that I had real early on about somebody waking up in Idaho and deciding they wanted to launch a company. A woman. And she packs her bags and comes to Austin, because she knows this is the ecosystem that she needs to be in. And I don’t think that’s a dream. I actually think that we have enough of the richness in our ecosystem in Austin ready for entrepreneurship, in general, that we can tune that thing and really intentionally focus on this singular issue. And we can be the number one city in the nation.
Lisa Graham (19:28):
And we’re currently the number two city, so we don’t have too far to go. Is that correct?
Jan Ryan (19:36):
There are so many different articles that come out and it depends on what you’re measuring. That particular article was just this week, wasn’t it? It had to do with what women earn. And it was much more about women who ran their own business in some way in a singular way, but earnings were frankly quite low. So I’m not sure what the intent of that article necessarily was, but I wouldn’t say that we, based on that article, are number two. I think that we have been anywhere from number one to number – for instance, the Dell WE Program Global Study that just recently came out – we were number 16. And they do this annual analysis (16 out of 50) and they used other other things to analyze this. By the way, I was very pleased that they brought out, as one of the things that was very positive about Austin, Women@Austin was one of the organizations that they talked about. You know, focusing on women entrepreneurs.
Jan Ryan (20:46):
But, there are other studies that have come out there. And depending on what you’re measuring, we fall in different places. I think the good news is everybody recognizes that we have this amazing opportunity. We do have a very strong ecosystem. We have women that are helping each other. We have women that are bright. The innovation engine coming out of UT, where I’m now Executive Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the design and creative technology school, I am seeing so much come from young women. We have something here that’s very unique. And I think that’s being recognized.
Lisa Graham (21:30):
To piggyback off of that, can you talk a bit about your role at the University of Texas and what you’re creating there with entrepreneurship and design thinking? I’d love for you to elaborate on that a bit and what’s happening over there.
Jan Ryan (21:42):
Yeah. So, my recent chapter after, you know, four years of doing a lot of mentoring and investing and doing some consulting, I have now gone to the academic world. Which I didn’t anticipate, but I am having a ball really investing in the next generation of entrepreneurs. And where I’m focused on is for creatives. So I’m within the College of Fine Arts and we have a new school, which is in itself an entrepreneurial endeavor, it’s the School of Design and Creative Technologies. We do a lot of work with obviously design thinking. We also in the technology side have 2D and 3D gaming. We have AR/VR. Design for AI. Design for healthcare. So it’s very, you know, new 21st century technologies that we’re working on. But what I’m doing there is helping to do something for a population that actually had not been served as well for entrepreneurial education and activities, which are the creatives.
Jan Ryan (22:52):
And it’s not just within the College of Fine Arts, it’s across campus, but those creatives that really don’t have a background in business, but are very, very entrepreneurial and have the ability to think outside the box that are just coming up with a lot of new ideas. So, we’re building programs for them. I’m teaching a class in creative entrepreneurship. We’re very focused on women. It’s interesting that women tend to sort of skew toward creative anyway. And within the College of Fine Arts, there’s 63% of the college that are female. So we’re developing a focus on women entrepreneurs. I’m really excited, in the spring, I’ll be teaching the first ever class for women in entrepreneurship. So from across campus, any Longhorn female or male, if they wanted to come, we’re going to be teaching a class that is surrounded by women, designed by women, taught by women. And it’s focused on all of those things that I just mentioned that are the perspective of a woman. What does a woman on that journey go through? What is a female’s relationship to failure? For instance, what’s different about confidence? What are some of the ways that she might relate to negotiation? So, I couldn’t be more excited about that class. It’s going to be in the spring.
Dan Graham (24:18):
That’s so cool. How are you thinking about the attendance of that class along gender lines?
Jan Ryan (24:24):
The attendance in terms of how it will break out? I think it will be mostly women. But men are also open to come if they want to as well. It will be one of the first, truly in the nation. But what a rich area of content we have and this, you know, this group of leaders in Austin, women leaders that want to give back. What a great mentor pool.
Dan Graham (24:58):
You’re going to blow those student’s minds with some of the mentors you’ll be able to bring into the class.
Jan Ryan (25:03):
Yeah. Well, and I think they, the mentors will want to be there.
Dan Graham (25:09):
If the guys are smart, they’ll be clamoring to get in that class as well.
Jan Ryan (25:13):
It’s very true. And it’ll be a great perspective if they do. Many of our Women@Austin events have men in them. And it’s always very, very cool guys that come.
Lisa Graham (25:25):
So with all of your exposure to the business community in Austin, and also, it sounds like even in developing this class that you’re teaching in the spring, what are things that the Austin business community could do to be more welcoming to a female entrepreneur? What things need to change or what things just need to stay the same, but maybe be highlighted?
Jan Ryan (25:45):
Well, there’s a lot of things on both sides. You know, we’re in the middle of ideating how we can help put some focus and pressure, maybe even on some things that need to change. But you know, women still in Austin are not guaranteed a paid maternity leave. There are things like that that really are not probably receiving as much attention as they should. You know, I travel a lot in LA and Seattle and San Francisco, and that’s not the case. And still in Austin, we don’t have that. The good news is I don’t believe we have as much of the bro culture in Austin, but there is a lot there. Now I don’t want to discount that the bro culture is not a problem, because it still is, but it’s not anywhere near like my experience in other cities.
Dan Graham (26:36):
What are a couple of the signs that you might be working for a company that has a bro culture?
Jan Ryan (26:50):
There’s a certain vocabulary and style about a company that is growing fast, for instance, that that are not really taking into account that women think a little differently. Usually women, not that we don’t like to party and have fun and drink and do all of that because, you know, that’s not the truth, but usually one of the top things that we don’t want to do is go always to drink for every celebration for everything. Because we have, you know, it’s just true that we do have commitments at home that sometimes the guys don’t. There are things like that. If there’s no attention given to that. If you walk in the main office and see that their value system has nothing to do with any diversity or inclusion. If there are nothing but just white male faces everywhere you go, you know you’ve got yourself into something.
Dan Graham (27:49):
If you’re asked to take a shot on your first day at the office, you might work at a bro culture company.
Jan Ryan (28:01):
Well, there’s aspects of bro-ness. There is a scale. You know, from 1 to 10. And some of it is literally unintentional. That the fact that you don’t realize that you’re talking amongst yourselves in a way that excludes a female. Most of the times, if you can bring that to someone’s attention, it does make them at least aware and try to change. When you don’t hire enough women early on. This is a big mistake I see a lot of entrepreneurs make. They hire people they know and they don’t try to really balance it with diversity early on, you set the wrong tone and the wrong rhythm, because once you get started, people then start to hire other people they know. And if you don’t hire women, you find yourself now with 20 engineers and not a single woman in the group. And maybe some of those women don’t even want to be a part of that group because of it. You have to start early with inclusion and with diversity, or it is much harder to correct later on.
Lisa Graham (29:01):
You had mentioned some other cities that, you know, are, I will say are always a little further along than Austin when it comes to having a different type of culture at their companies. Does that typically come from a policy standpoint? Or does that come from just the culture of the companies that have grown up and then them seeing how their peers are doing it at their companies? So, therefore I will have this length of time for maternal leave. Is that a culture thing within the city that bubbles up? Or is that more from a policy standpoint?
Jan Ryan (29:29):
I think there’s both, Lisa. I think that you kind of have to separate policy from culture too. Because even though we have some policy things we could do better in Austin, sometimes the culture is actually much more inclusive than what you might find in another city. So, I think that, you know, we have a lot to learn from New York. There’s a lot of things going on in New York where they truly at the very beginning of a company in a startup’s life start to think in a much more balanced way. If you have women on your executive team, hello, this helps. It not only helps in balancing out who you’re going to hire. We obviously know that the company will have more profits. It will accelerate faster. It has a better culture. These are known facts. So I think if we start very early on with that in mind, some of these things are easier to fix.
Lisa Graham (30:30):
And in Austin, right now, we have several very high profile companies led by women, built by women, and hearing the stories that are coming out about the really innovative and different things they’re doing within their companies. You know, it’ll be interesting to see how that does spill over to the Austin business culture as a whole.
Jan Ryan (30:46):
I think it already is. I think we’ve got women even coming out of some of those companies that are bringing that with them. And we’re seeing across the startup ecosystem, certainly, a real change in the way companies are being built and run. And, you know, the way that happy hours are run. How is it that that culture should grow and mature, it’s being influenced by women. We’re already making that difference.
Lisa Graham (31:16):
Well, Jan, thank you so much for what you do and what you’re doing in Austin.
Jan Ryan (31:20):
We’re so excited about joining you guys and seeing the impact that we can have.
Lisa Graham (31:25):
Yeah, we’re so excited. Everybody’s thrilled. So thank you again for coming and joining us today. The Change The Rules podcast is sponsored by Chez Boom Audio. Chez Boom Audio is the leading audio post-production company for TV, film, advertising, audio books, and podcasts in Austin, Texas. And we’re so honored to work in their studio with the wonderful Shayna Brown. You can find her studio at https://chezboomaudio.com/. And if you want to hear new episodes every week, please subscribe to the Change The Rules podcast on iTunes. And we’ll see you again next week.