Saturday, February 27, 2010

Women Who've Launched

by Susana Montes-Delgado

Women entrepreneurs are seldom the majority at Silicon Valley events. But when they get together, their combined experiences appear to increment the sound and the energy of a room.

Last Wednesday, women flocked from all corners of the world to see Gina Bianchini, co-founder and CEO of Ning; Judy Estrin, CEO of JLABS and Mae Tai O’Malley, founder and managing attorney of Paragon Legal, who came together to speak about entrepreneurship at the Stanford Alumni Center. Their goal: To shed light on the challenges and rewards of being a businesswoman in the 21st century.

Gina Bianchini said she launched the social networking platform Ning after several successes and failures in her business career. Her vision materialized when she decided to break the mold and innovate the social networking world. In 2004, she started Ning with one idea in mind: To provide freedom to social networking users.

What differentiates her company from other social sites like Myspace and Facebook is that Ning allows users to create their own social networks with customized layouts and features based on their interests, she said.

If you give people space to create their own experience online," said Bianchini. "Really interesting things happen."

Judy Estrin, CEO of JLABS and author of Closing the Innovation Gap, agreed with Bianchini.
Behind any new innovation there is an adventurous spirit who is not afraid of failure, she said. Estrin believes all good business ideas grow if there is a clear mission and purpose--and a strong leader who moves that enterprise forward.

"If you are afraid of failure, the entrepreneurial path is not for you because it is definitely not a straight line," said Estrin. "Entrepreneurship is a state of mind."

Estrin believes the most profitable businesses grow when they stop focusing on making money. The best way to grow a business is to work with flexibility and patience, she said. This comes from a woman who has co-founded 7 successful technology companies and who has been named to Fortune Magazine's list of the 50 most powerful women in American business.

"We need to change our focus. Businesses should be about making a difference," Estrin said. " They should be about creating products that can change the world."

Mae Tai O’Malley, a lawyer and founder of Paragon Legal, one of the nation's fastest-growing alternative model law firms, said this was her case: Her company took on a life of its own without her even knowing, she said. O'Malley began her career at Morrison & Foerster and then worked in-house for Symantec and Google before founding Paragon in 2006. She has been featured in numerous publications including the Wall Street Journal, National Law Journal, and SF Business Times.

Instead of a traditional lawfirm, Paragon Legal puts lawyers on-site to work at senior level positions within companies. Today, her company provides legal counseling and services to Netflix, Yahoo, LinkedIn and Cisco, to name a few. And most of the attorneys are women.

"I didn’t know what I was doing at the beginning," O'Malley said. "But you've got to stick in there, keep on going."

The three women agreed that women entrepreneurs not only need to have discipline, drive and passion. They also need to balance their time and ask for help, when necessary. The three of them have raised children and businesses at the same time. And they said they have gradually learned to find a balance between work and play.

"Think about jugglers: They know how many balls they can keep in the air," Estrin said. "The key to work-balance or life-balance is to pick the number of balls that you can juggle. What are the balls that are most important to you? You've got to know yourself. Put down a ball-- or ask for help."

Estrin added that sometimes taking unnecessary risks to start a promising business idea is not recommended. Women, in particular, need to be careful about their investments, she said.

"I encourage people not to invest what they cannot afford to lose," she said. "You've got to have enough of your own resources. If you can’t afford to do start your own business, stay in your job while you put together your business idea-- and then find somebody to fund it."

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