Episode 9 – When You Don’t Fit the Model, Break It

Today’s episode features Mara Zepeda, the co-founder and CEO of Switchboard, a founder of Business For a Better Portland and XXcelerate Fund. She also co-wrote the Zebra Manifesto which gave birth to the Zebras Unite movement and soon, the first DazzleCon. Don’t miss this episode, especially if you don’t buy into the “scale for scaling’s sake” zeitgeist! Listen along as Mara educates us about what’s really going on in the gender gap in startup funding, what many women are doing about it, and how she’s broken that model to allow her startup to succeed.

Kristen: Hi. Welcome back to Up Right and Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up into the right and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher.

Mara is the co-founder and CEO of Switchboard, which she bootstrapped by designing hundreds of calligraphy tattoos through her studio, Neither Snow. Along the way, she gave a TEDx talk about how the ethos of Oregon, that a quality over quantity and long-term thinking over short-term gains embodies the future we wish to see. She’s also a founder of Business for a Better Portland, a Chamber of Commerce for Progressive Business Owners and XXcelerate Fund, a revolving debt fund for women, trans and non-binary Oregon founders. She co-wrote The Zebra Manifesto, which gave birth to The Zebras Unite Movement and soon, the first Dazzlecon. I met Mara in 2013 when I essentially tried to figure out where in the Portland startup machine she would be and kept going there, eventually meeting her during office hours at the Multnomah Whiskey Library. It was quite possibly one of the most important meetings I’ve ever had because my life is constantly improved, inspired and altered by being near what Mara works on.

There’s so much I could say about Mara because her background is so fascinating, intense and filled with moments of contemplation, action and compassion. For now, I want to talk about connecting her work and the thread that links it all. Join me in welcoming Mara Zepeda.

Mara, I don’t know even where to begin because there’s so much that you’re involved with and so much that you have started with, but I guess we can start in just one place. Maybe that place could be Sex and Startups. First question for you there is why did you feel the need to write this piece? Then, I’ve got a follow-up for you.

Mara: Sure. Well, thank you for having me. Sex and Startups, we wrote in February of 2016. I wrote it about a year and a half ago. It was co-written by my dear friend and another startup founder, Jenn Brandel. I think we felt as though we were really being saturated in this metaphor, and metaphor had meaning. The metaphor that we were talking about and that we are talking about started this notion, and you know, I’m using the masculine and feminine here to describe broad archetypes and gender more than I am sex. You know, this notion that essentially, startups have this vernacular, so acceleration, exits, seed funding, up and to the right. Everything is oriented around hyper-growth and this really fast and unsustainable trajectory. As Jenn and I were thinking about the companies that we wanted to build and the change that we wanted to see in the world, it because very clear that we were after a different metaphor. It was something that felt slower growth, sustainable, Instead of disrupting systems, we were really excited to repair them, so I worked with education and Jenn works in journalism.

We just felt as though the existing startup culture wasn’t really describing the types of companies that we wanted to build and that there wasn’t even a tolerance for it. When you have an entire culture that’s set up for hyper-growth, what that means is you’re excluding a lot of founders with different ideas and different solutions that they’re trying to solve.

We wrote this manifesto called Sex and Startups. Basically, what it argued was that instead of thinking about this ejaculatory up into the right model, if we want to create more sustainable thoughtful culture, we have to come up with different metaphors. We have to invest in different types of cultures. That was the genesis of that piece. Since then, what happened was over the year since we’ve published it, we’ve heard from hundreds and hundreds of founders and investors and people in the startup community saying, “What you’re describing is exactly what I am, and it’s who I want to be. It’s the type of company I want to build.”

We unintentionally created this movement. The subsequent piece that we just published called Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break attempted to be another layer of synthesis in describing how we could create a more ethical, inclusive and sustainable culture that could give birth to and help these different types of companies thrive.

Kristen: I love it. I just love the language shift from disrupting and breaking and re-imagining the system. I think it does align with a masculine, at least in the English language and American cultural viewpoint, it does align more masculine than feminine. It’s such a more violent of a perspective. If you take a step back and you look at the way that the startup world works, to me, being a little bit on the outside but a little bit on the inside due to the companies that I work for… It feels a little violent, and it feels rushed and terse. It doesn’t take into account the kinds of cultures that we’re talking about here and in Sex and Startups.

The vernacular that I think you’re trying to put onto it is a completely different way of thinking about it. I don’t know that there’s a lot of people thinking about it in those ways, other than those of us who are trying to build zebra companies or maybe people have also been familiar with the B-corp companies, but not all B-corps would be zebras in my view. Not all zebras would be B-corps, perhaps. Maybe more zebras would be B-corps. Not sure.

What’s been the feedback that you’ve gotten or not so much the feedback, I guess, because you mentioned you’ve gotten so much good response? What resistance have you met with, if any?

Mara: I think a lot of people, I should first say that many of these ideas were deeply informed by the work of Jennifer Armbrust, so for those of you out there who haven’t heard of her work, she has a really beautiful creative mornings talk called The Feminine Economy. She has something called Feminist Business School. She’s been a dear mentor and coach of mine. It was Jen that first started to speak about and introduce me to these concepts. The masculine economy is one that has linear growth, that’s based on individualism and competition and this hierarchical myth of the meritocracy. Then, you had this other, the feminine economy, which is about interdependence, collaboration, generosity, resourcefulness, sustainability, care.

Jen was really the first person that started to speak about business in this way that really resonated with me.

I think in terms of the response, when it comes to the resistance, I think there’s a misconception that we are saying. It’s an either, or. We’re saying either it has to be a masculine economy or a feminine economy. Part of the work that all of us have to do is to recognize that both can and should have a place to exist. There’s a balance of the two. There’s like this yin yang marriage of the both of them and that we will not have a diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem without being able to create a culture that we want.

I think there’s a misconception that what we’re saying is we want to get rid of the masculine economy. That’s craziness because that’s like saying we want to eradicate capitalism. There’s no sense in trying to dismantle that model, but I think what we’re seeing more and more is the recognition that there is space in the world to accommodate a different type, different types of business models, different types of businesses.

In doing that, in opening ourselves up to a diversity of opinion in that way, we then make our entrepreneurial ecosystem more diverse. Diversity actually comes from respecting and valuing the values that these founders have and saying to them, “You deserve a movement of your own.” The world is big enough to accommodate it. It’s a both/and, it’s not an either/or. I think it’s too easy to page it in the antagonistic term. I think really, what it’s about is just creating a more diverse ecosystem.

Kristen: I want to come back to ecosystem in a little bit, but as we’ve all read in the news in the past six months or so, I mean you could really say the past 10 years, but really in the past six months, it seems like company after company is coming forward or somebody or some woman is coming forward from many companies. What it’s caused is this seemingly abrupt tide of mea culpas from the mostly male venture capitalist community to say, “I’ve done these things. I’m so sorry. I won’t do them again in the future.” Well, how is Sex and Startups and Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break related and intertwined to that behavior that we’re seeing in VC right now?

Mara: I think one thing that was interesting, so after we wrote Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break, we then announced this conference that we’re going to be hosting in Portland, November 15th through 17th. For founders that are interested in joining us, this will be a small conference of about 150 founders and funders to start to co-create a vernacular around this movement. You can learn more about that on the website that we’ll put in the show notes. I think it’s something I think about every day because it really comes down to power and who has it and if they’re sharing it and if they deserve it. Those are the questions that I tend to ask myself every day. You can have as many apologies as possible and as many mea culpas as possible or diversity trainings, but the fundamental fact of the situation is that women receive … Now, the most recent numbers are something like 10% of venture capital. That’s on a very high-end. Traditionally, it’s been around 4%, and 4% of bank loans.

If money is power, then essentially, power is being withheld from women and people of color. There are many things we can do to skirt this issue to say we’ll create a more inclusive ecosystem. We’ll have these equity quotas, but it actually requires funding women and funding people of color. It requires fund managers to be women and people of color. That tippy-top layer of power for under-represented founders and people to have access to that tippy-top layer of decision-making power is really the holy grail.

It’s the place that nobody wants to talk about, but it’s the place where the solution will be born. I find that it’s really frustrating because everything else is essentially men making decisions for women and people of color and lording… It remains an imbalanced power structure when men are assigned to “fix the problem.” It’s a very different dynamic when women and people of color are trusted enough to create the solutions that they need.

I think it just requires some pretty nuanced discernment to understand the difference between someone who is coming in as Mr. Fix-it. That hero role is one that is very appealing to the ego versus creating systemic change where it’s accommodating solutions by making space for those solutions to be created by the people who are facing the problems to begin with. That’s a much scarier proposition but something that I think we just have to, we can no longer avoid.

Kristen: Right. Well, it’s scary but also risky, right? It’s a risky proposition to say, “I’m going to gamble on the idea that I can make a difference in this huge, vast system.” You know, I think of Astrid’s work with Sfera, right? I mean the kinds of things that Sfera is trying to do, as well as Switchboard and many other zebra companies are such systemic work that people who are happy to stay in and have made their money in quick wins, and which, again, very, very masculine, maybe ejaculatory quick-wins are the easier way to go, right?

If you, for me at least, reading through Wired or Fast Company or GeekWire or TechCrunch, it’s always like, “Oh, the exit was three to five, maybe seven years after the company started,” when so many of the zebra companies that we know are seven to ten years in before they’re really seeing results because they’re willing to put in the sweat equity to do that.

Mara: Mm-hmm (affirmative), completely. Yes, we actually reached out to the reporter of the New York Times story that aggregated those women’s experiences of sexual harassment. Jenn and I both come from a reporter background, and we tried to say as clearly as possible, “Look. The news requires you to have these very viral stories,” so you have a viral story of six women or how ever many, six very brave women coming forward with their stories. We really encourage the Times to do a much more thoughtful investigation of an anonymized survey of women founders across the country that would share their experiences, not only around sexual harassment, which of course is a problem, but also around discrimination and any number or any other number of challenges that they face in the startup world, and that you would then have an aggregated data set that would tell a very different story of the problem. We could actually would help to inform so much, so much around funding and around business models and around the new type of culture that we needed.

I’m not sure what they’re planning to do with that, but unfortunately, I think that we can get lost in anecdotal details around the culture, and what we really need is a much more holistic 30,000-foot view of what women and people of color across the country are experiencing from a discrimination standpoint. Not so that we can call out individual VCs and finger-wag and bemoan the state of affairs, but so that when we think about the movement that has to come in to create something, that we can do it from an informed place and from a place of strength and unity. All of what I’ve just described around grassroots organizing long-form journalism, deep investigative reporting, reaching out to sources across the country, creating systemic change. Everything I’ve just described is completely antithetical to where we are right now as a country, in terms of meeting immediate gratification.

Kristen: You mean fake news wouldn’t help us there?

Mara: Yes, exactly.

Kristen: Yes, right.

Mara: Just the cadence of what you’re describing, absolutely. It’s not. It’s not sexy. Nothing about creating an alternative movement to something is sexy. Nothing about movements, historically, has been sexy. It’s just been back-breaking work over decades to try to create cultural change, so absolutely. I think you’re so spot-on that the cadence couldn’t be more stark in this time, between what you are able to vomit out in a tweet versus the type of life’s commitment that you have to make to actually creating systemic meaningful change.

Kristen: Right, right. It is. I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole, but when I see often male founders, CEOs up on stages talking about their commitment to diversity and inclusion or male VC’s apologies and their new found commitment to funding, or they’re going to actually start an impact fund, which I find very interesting, and we talked a little bit about that in my interview with Stephen green, that impact funding, that funding women and people of color is not impact funding. It’s actually just founding and funding companies that make money, but that, that is such a difference perspective. There’s sitting up stages and writing, writing articles and posts but haven’t actually committed to the life-long work that it will take to move their firm in a different direction or to move their company in a different direction or to really examine their hiring processes that a diversity training is not going to solve that problem, right?

Mara: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kristen: You know, this could be naïve and certainly in a generalist case, but I just could imagine an economy made out of zebra companies. You wouldn’t have to have unconscious bias training. My hope at least is that you wouldn’t have to, but perhaps we’ll see that in 20 or 30 years.

One of the medium articles that you wrote, not super recently but this is the one about how the sausage of everything that is amazing about you and that you’ve done is made included 14 important lessons that you’ve learned. Although I love many of them, one of my favorites on that list is every museum is a temple to what is possible. I’m certainly biased because I have a background in museums and in thinking through human behavior as a collecting tool and a cultural tool. Can you talk a little bit more about this? Maybe I’m treading on a thread that’s too light, but how is it connected to the work you do with Switchboard?

Mara: I guess apart from just growing up in museums, I would say it’s been eye-opening to create a company and recognize the artifacts that we create that are not considered artifacts by any type of museum standards, but are still … There’s a material culture to companies, I suppose is the best way of putting it.

Kristen: There is, right.

Mara: If you were to take a step back and think of a company as a museum in some ways, you know, I’m constantly thinking, and I will be the first to admit that I could do a better job on so many different levels, but this is at least to say that it’s in the back of my mind. You know, what is the experience that your employees have when they first start? You know, the work that we’ve done together has been so integral in that. That is similar to when a museum is welcoming you. How are you onboarded into physical space is very similar to how are you onboarded into your company? What are the images that they’re surrounded by? I’ve always been very intentional about having flowers delivered every other week, depending or every week, depending how we’re doing.

Kristen: How we’re feeling.

Mara: Just to have that sense of seasons passing, so when the peonies are blooming, that is a signal to me that we’re in the height of the sales season. Then, when we have cottonwoods delivered, that signals something else. There are visual signals. I think also what the founders revere and we’ve seen time and again that just having our team feel that they have as much freedom and autonomy as possible, and so certainly when you’re thinking of that museum design experiences, wanting to be as the best ones, obviously, are the ones in which they’re such a playful experience of exploration and this encouragement to discover what it is that we are truly interested in, without being forced to be guided through one nook and cranny or another. Yes, I worked at the … The College of Physicians of Philadelphia is where the Mütter Museum is, which is-

Kristen: What an interesting museum to work at.

Mara: Yes, and so that was right downstairs from some work that I was doing there in Philly many years ago. Yes, so just to be informed by physical spaces and then to think of companies as, yes, creating these cultures. That was something that I didn’t entirely understand but that I’m so grateful to have learned, is that a company is very much a culture. People say company culture, and that never really resonated with me abstractly, but when I think about it more in terms of something like museum design, that’s where the cultural experience becomes a lot more real.

Kristen: I’m feeling like there’s something I need to write on this because this part of our conversation is especially fascinating to be, because I hadn’t been thinking about it this way, but that concept of material culture is pertinent because it is just … Even, it could be digital material too, right? The logos that you transition through, maybe the first one that you started with, and I’m struck. I’ve been in the Switchboard office, and there’s the shrimp logo. I know there’s a story behind that, and there are the books that you share and the notebooks that you share, and all of these things that come together to form a company and the knowledge that is created is material culture, right? The other thing that I’m thinking about as I listened to you talk about that is the intentionality and the care with which you’re thinking about these things, and that I wonder if that’s not indicative of a zebra company, right, of a company that is paying attention to the way in which it interacts with and within the world, right?

Mara: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kristen: You’re paying attention to how you create things and how you align objects, both digital and physical and metaphorical to create an organization in the world.

Mara: For sure, yes. Some reading that I would recommend on that is Ari Weinzweig who’s the founder of Zingerman’s Deli, who will hopefully be coming to our conference, Dazzlecon, is really my mentor in this way. He has a series of restaurants and roadhouses in Ann Arbor and has written a phenomenal series of business books. Really, the only ones I recommend is called the Lapsed Anarchist’s Guide To Being A Better Leader, Managing Ourselves, Building a Great Business and Beliefs in Business.

He talks about this process of anytime he’s about to come up with a new idea, he’ll sit down and write a visioning statement. He will go through the senses, so what’s the sensory experience that the customer is about to have? They walk into the roadhouse, and immediately, they smell coffee, incredibly roasted coffee. They’re greeted by someone at the cash register who is friendly and smiles and makes eye contact. He will just go through this incredibly detailed … You know, the napkins that they’re touching are soft and cotton and heavy. He will go through this descriptive process of the material culture that he’s thinking about, which is the experience.

The hospitality industry actually has so much to teach tech in this way because they are much like museums. They’re thinking so very much about the experiential aspect of the process. Absolutely, I think, and to your point about zebra companies thinking in this way, in startup culture, this is an ananthema, right, because you’re just trying to crush it. You buy a ping pong table. You source a keg. You print out t-shirts in China, and the disposability is inherent in an exit strategy. I remember joking with a friend of mine. One of the startup companies in Portland had all of these t-shirts printed. Then, they folded. You just see, and they brought them all to the local homeless shelter. You would just see people in Downtown Portland –

Kristen: Oh my gosh, how interesting.

Mara: With these t-shirts printed in China about VC-backed company that had totally had gone belly-up. What an interesting-

Kristen: An interesting investment in the community.

Mara: Exactly like, “Okay, this is how it’s all going to end-up.” Yes, when we’re talking about when to buy, where we buy snacks across the street from them, and I’m looking at it. It’s the local vegan grocer, and so we buy our snacks from the vegan grocer. That takes an additional 10 minutes out of my week or our team member’s week versus buying it on something like Amazon. A company is made of so many of those micro-moments that …

Kristen: Right, decisions moments.

Mara: For sure, zebra founders are just thinking about it in a really different way.

Kristen: I love it. I feel like I could continue this mental, just exercises on what is a company like this? As we wrap up, what is something that you might say to, let’s just say, a tech founder who might not currently be building a zebra company but is curious about it? How would they enter into that world and try to become more like a zebra company?

Mara: I think for me, I would say it’s just being able to find heroes who are doing work in a really different way. Then, figuring out what it is that they’ve done and just using other founders and other industries as a guidepost. One of your guests, Jill Nelson really taught me this lesson as well when we’re talking about just the care that can go into a company. She has an entire … I forget what it’s called, but it’s basically just this entire corner of their office that’s-

Kristen: Oh, yes. The gifting station?

Mara: The gifting station.

Kristen: Something like that.

Mara: Yes, exactly. I would not know how to do anything that I am fumbling along doing without mentors and people to emulate across industries. I mean they run the gamut from artists to authors to intellectuals to other startup founders. I wouldn’t even call it mentorship, so I would just say I think it’s almost impossible to learn information abstractly and to be brave about seeking out the people who are signaling that they’re doing work that’s resonant with you and establishing authentic relationships with them and just being able to observe them and to apprentice yourself to them as much as possible, has been something that’s been so profound for me. I was lucky enough to be accepted to Portland Incubator Experiment, our company was, and just being in the orbit of Rick Turoczy and all of the community-building that he does in such a quiet, thoughtful, selfless way had a huge impact on the culture of our company. That’s one example.

I suppose that’s what I would say to begin with. Then, for the books, they’re really starting with books like Ari’s book. There’s a woman that I’ve recently become very enamored with whose name is Mary Parker Follett, F-O-L-L-E-T-T. She has this book called The Creative Experience that I’m reading right now. I’ll send you some information, but she was a turn-of-the-century … She was writing in the 1920’s about management and business, and what she has to say is just blowing my mind.

Kristen: It must be very … I just can imagine, if you’re enamored of it, it must be very anti-tailorist.

Mara: Yes, I’ve never read anything like it. Peter Drucker called her the prophet of management. She’s a woman that I have never come across in my life. She really argues for this notion of power isn’t something that’s given. It’s not something that’s taken or given. It’s just it’s like this exponential increase of capacity that all of us should be helping each other to fulfill. What she has to say about power and organizational management is just really something.

Kristen: Wow. I’ll have to take a look, and we’ll link it on the show notes. Well, is there anything else that you’d like to leave us with?

Mara: No. I mean gosh, it’s just such an honor to speak with you. I think that all of us are on the same page, right, of just wanting to create a more humane and ethical and inclusive space, and so to be able to be alive together, to all do that work is something that’s such an honor. I just feel grateful for the community in Portland and for the work that you’re doing and for the people that I’ve learned from every day. Very excited to connect with more folks, thanks to your podcast.

Kristen: Well, thank you so much, Mara. I can’t say how happy I am enough that you are on the podcast. I think that this is probably the most explicit interview that really speaks to the name of the podcast, Up Right and Better. You used the phrase earlier, up and to the right, and I was very inspired by our conversations, and many others with people that I want to emulate too, to try to help us find a way to build these companies that are profitable and are good for the companies and the people in them and the employees and the environment all around, so that they’re up, right and better, not just profitable. Thank you for your work in that as well.

That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, e-mail me at hello@uprightandbetter.com. Until next time, grow better.