It was supposed to be a quick pit stop before starting the 3 mile hike across the Seine and back to my cozy apartment in the République. I planned to use the bathroom by the cafe before leaving for the day but abandoned that mission as soon as I heard loud squeals coming from behind the bathroom door. The door that was decorated with Barbie dolls dressed in all manner of haute couture because.. it’s Paris after all. This bathroom was probably not for me, I decided. I had a momentary flashback to my younger days and a New Years Eve at First Avenue in Minneapolis when I heard a similar squeal before opening a bathroom door. I wasn’t up for it. Instead, I turned around and made my way through the “Share Zone” a part of the giant tech hub, Station F, that was open to invited guests. I hurried past the indoor tranquility jungle where the “normal” young tech founders lounge and sometimes even nap. A place where wireless earbuds abound and everyone is glowing with the promise of youth and creativity.
I reached the staircase and descended into the maze of lockers where I thought I remembered seeing some bathrooms on my orientation day nearly a year ago. I remembered the awe and enthusiasm I felt that day. I was one of only 5% of tech founders accepted into the Founder's Program in the largest tech incubator in the world. Surely I could remember where all the bathrooms were. I opened a door that looked like it lead to a bathroom and discovered I was correct but spotted a urinal on the wall so assumed it was for men. There were no signs that indicated any gender particular situation and I'm all for gender neutral bathrooms but I wasn’t taking any chances. The last thing I needed was to embarrass myself in front of some young man who would be mortified to find someone his mom’s age using the men’s room. Finally, I stumbled into a room with three stalls. All had doors which gave me some confidence I wouldn’t be violating any unwritten French rule by entering. Once inside a stall, I turned the noticeably heavy lock to secure the door and carried on with the dialogue in my head that went something like this: “Everyone is so young, why are they so young? What am I doing here? Everyone probably wonders if I’m somebody’s mom who is visiting or something. I bet I’m the oldest woman here. I am now the old lady, how did this happen? ….”
I continued this mind babble as I did what I was there to do. The chatter abruptly came to a halt as I tried to turn the lock and open the stall door. It wouldn’t budge. I jiggled it. I tried pulling and turning, pushing and turning, lifting and turning but to no avail. I banged on the door but knew nobody would hear me because the bathroom was in the basement behind a bunch of lockers and very little traffic. I decided to email a couple of my contacts at Station F in hopes they would be in the building and could find someone to help set me free. I took a deep breath, put the toilet seat down and tried not to panic. I distracted myself by marveling at the way the stall was so air tight. There was no space open at the top or bottom that I could climb over or under. There was also no space between the door and door frame that I could shove a credit card into and push the lock open. The walls met the ceiling and the floor without so much as a crack that might allow a svelte, French roach to fit through. I had no choice but to sit and wait.
Sitting and waiting historically leads me to thinking, so in classic form, I started wondering if I belonged here. I wondered if the Universe was trying to tell me I wasn’t welcome in any of the bathrooms, Barbie decor or sans Barbie. Maybe I just didn’t fit or have the magic thing that the 20’s and 30’s have that makes them more suitable to starting tech companies. The tranquility jungle didn’t even appeal to me if I was being really honest. There had to be a reason almost no women who are 50 do this and maybe it’s a good reason. Who did I think I was coming half way around the world? I don’t speak French and I sometimes wear clogs, which is frowned upon. I know this because I have literally been frowned upon after more than one Parisian looked at my feet. Also, everyone knows I can’t stand smoking. I let myself ramble on in my head for another few minutes and then began thinking about the entire journey that lead me to be locked in a bathroom at the largest and arguably most competitive and sought after technology environment in the world. Right there in that bathroom stall, where foreign dignitaries may have marveled at the same walls, I realized a few important things.
I am not too old. Nobody is too old or too young to be innovative or successful. There are likely a number of reasons there aren’t more 50 year old women creating technology but it isn’t because they aren’t capable of doing it. I know women and men of all ages who have amazing ideas for solving problems that can create real change in the world. Is it hard? Hell yes, but so is having a baby, working yourself through college or doing both at the same time. I have learned a great deal on this journey. Are there some who seem to have less hurdles to clear? Absolutely. I have marveled, sometimes choking back fierce envy as another, male founder described how he raised $500,000 from friends and family over a holiday dinner. I have felt out of my league, in over my head and experienced a case of imposter syndrome that would put Clark Kent and Peter Parker to shame. On the same token, I have come to realize that I couldn’t have created my technology at any other time in my life. Wishing I would have or could have done this when I was 23 is as pointless as me thinking I could drive when I was 6 because I was able to turn the wheel of my grandfather’s Chevy pickup. I had the will and desire but lacked the experience necessary to take meaningful action and succeed. The twists and turns of my journey and the unique decisions I made are what brought problems to light and my ability to think of creative solutions to solve them. This is exactly the right time for me to do this.
There’s no magic thing that I’m lacking. I used to think there was a particular professional background or skillset that was required to become an entrepreneur. Especially an entrepreneur that creates technology. I am here to tell you there is not. There isn’t some secret club with secret information that a bunch of young men have exclusive access to. When I first started my company I assumed there must be something or many things, men knew that I didn’t know that put them in some mysterious, unnamed category that tipped the scale in their favor. I mean, they kind of looked like they knew something I didn’t. They certainly congregated together at networking events or pitch competitions where I was often the only girl in the room. They always appeared confident and were usually in pairs in contrast to my unenviable position as a sole founder. I do not exaggerate when I say I was the only woman in the room. This happened so often that it prompted me to search the internet for all the other women who I knew must have started tech companies and were successful. I’m not going to lie, I found almost none.
There are degrees, experience and skills that are valuable on the entrepreneurial journey and for running a business but there is no perfect formula or curriculum or path that insures success. If there were, it would be well publicized and every college and university would be offering that major. There has been a fascination with entrepreneurs and what makes them tick for a long time. A fair amount of research has also been conducted on the topic but it doesn’t seem there is one particular thing that makes an entrepreneur or company successful. Over the years, the one attribute that stands out to me, that if absent will likely mean failure, is courage. The wonderful thing about courage is that you aren’t born with it. Some people are born with attributes like hutzpah or tenacity but courage is an entirely different animal. You can build courage over time and it grows with each obstacle that is surmounted and risk that is taken. Courage lives in every single one of us and is limited only by our fear. The great news is that fear of failure, fear of getting hurt and fear of judgement seem to have less of a debilitating hold as we age. In my life, some of the most courageous individuals I have met are women who have been shaken out of their comfort zone and found within them a voice to say what they want or don’t want, without hesitation. That is courage and we all can find it.
More 50 year old women need to be at Station F and everywhere problems are being solved and innovation created. It’s not the tech community’s fault that it is dominated by men and primarily men under age 50. Station F is a rare and beautiful thing in many ways, one of the most significant in my opinion is that they make a concerted effort to include female founders. In fact when I was accepted into the Founder’s Program, over 40% of companies had a female founder or co-founder. I just couldn’t help but notice most of these incredible woman look well under 40. Don’t get me wrong, as the mother of two daughters it is so inspiring and satisfying to see millennial, Gen Y and even Gen Z women pursuing technology and entrepreneurship. When I was in high school in the late 1980’s I was still being presented the top career options of becoming a nurse or a teacher. This was in the 1980’s mind you, not the 1950’s. I scoffed in 8th grade when my teacher told the class that Bill Gates envisioned a world where there would be a computer in every home. I wondered why in God’s name everyone would need a Commodore 64 like the one that was in the back of the classroom for the well-behaved kids to play games on when they got all their work done. Why would anyone let alone everyone, want that in their home?
I get it, women presented to us as role models or examples to aspire to were not pursuing careers in technology or even entrepreneurship. I mean, Cindy Crawford and Kate Moss were most certainly successful business women but with uniquely necessary attributes that can’t be developed or learned and that I certainly didn’t possess. On the flip side, our generation has a unique perspective on technology because we spent half of our lives without it. We are the generation that went from albums to cassettes to CD’s to streaming music. We had a Rolodex followed by a Palm Pilot and finally, an iPhone. We were some of the very first users of Myspace and Facebook and we understand all too well the pitfalls of both an old school blind date and a swipe right on Tinder. So why aren’t we leading the way in the development of technology? Why aren’t we the ones disrupting industries and being lauded as the next messiah because we are egregiously wealthy and in positions to make global change because of it?
I suggest a phase 2 of Me Too. That’s not to say the first phase is all fixed and we can move on but let’s not stop at an expectation that we won’t be grabbed, threatened, coerced, demeaned, assaulted or held back because of our gender. I propose a grander vision. A world where women of all ages go out on a limb, take risks, feel awkward because we are old enough to be someone’s mother, have to learn new stuff that we think we never can learn (like speaking French), laugh when we get judged because of our footwear and feel painfully aware that we may fail. I propose this because while I have felt all of these things, I wholeheartedly still believe the return on that investment is beyond our wildest dreams. Even if we fall short of a set goal, we will find in ourselves courage and capability that will transform the way we move in this world. We are the ones that can change the way women past the age of the long held false perception of worth are viewed. We can shift the dynamic of power and it can be a shift the likes of which has never been seen. I invite, no I implore you to join me. Sure sometimes you will feel inadequate and you will second guess your ability or skillset. You may even find yourself locked in a bathroom stall in Paris to be rescued by some lovely 20 year old woman with stylish shoes and red lipstick who most probably helps you because you remind her of her mom. I also promise you won’t be alone. Rest assured I will be fumbling my way through some uncomfortable situation, getting judged for wearing clogs but finding enough success to keep moving forward.
When I was finally freed from the bathroom, I began my journey back home. As I crossed the bridge that took me over the Seine, the sun broke through the clouds over Notre Dame and I thought about how long she has stood on Ile de France, the absolute inception of this incredible city. “Our Lady” she is referred to with utmost love and respect. Even with her spire gone and having been badly damaged by fire, she is revered and held in the highest regard simply because of her strength and ability to endure. It was then that I decided, I am exactly where I am meant to be.
To apply to the Founder’s Program at Station F go to https://stationf.co/apply/founders/
Founder and CEO alska
I am a healthcare professional, technology entrepreneur, wife and mother. I am passionate about improving delivery of healthcare in the United States and around the world by empowering patients and caregivers and giving them the tools they need to take charge of their health. I am currently [...]