Written by Priya Sinha Cloutier
I’m a 48-year-old nuclear engineer who became an intellectual property attorney who also happens to be a registered patent attorney. Way back in school, I was the only woman in both my undergraduate and graduate programs. In my early career, working in nuclear energy, I was often the only woman, or one of less than a handful of women, on all of the job sites I worked at. And even though there is roughly an equal amount of men and women in the legal field, there are very few women patent lawyers.
For the last 11 years, I’ve exclusively represented startups, and emerging companies and one thing that has become abundantly clear is that I represent only a handful of women entrepreneurs. While there is plenty of talk among the relevant communities about supporting girls and women in STEM and entrepreneurship roles, NOT MUCH HAS CHANGED since I began my career. In this blog, I will explore the background and wisdom of women who live in the startup/ emerging company space in hopes of inspiring and encouraging women to get out there and show the world what they have to offer.
In this inaugural post, the first woman entrepreneur I’m profiling is Susan Sigl. Susan is one of the handfuls of entrepreneurs I represent, and I can tell you from personal experience she is wicked smart. Here’s what her bio says:
Success as an investor and active participant in Washington’s thriving innovation economy led to the President & CEO role at the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA), the state’s technology trade association representing 600+ technology companies with over 100,000 tech professionals in one of the world’s most dynamic cyber ecosystems.
Here is what Susan’s bio doesn’t say: She has a devilish sense of humor that will strike you when you are least expecting it, she is just down to earth, thoughtful, and appreciative of the people around her.
Susan’s first entrepreneurial gig was in the 1980s in the oil and gas industry in Texas. When she told me this I laughed so hard I think my drink came shooting out my nose. Even though she has an MBA, she was asked to do menial chores like make appointments and take messages. Sexual harassment was not even a thing anyone spoke of.
As Susan talked to me about this time in her career she was not bitter and, in fact, it struck me that she felt quite positive about the experience and what she learned from it. Despite the challenges, Susan was hooked on the entrepreneurial life after this first experience. “It was like a drug,” she said, “we did whatever came across our plate.”
Susan grew up in a very traditional household where she was one of four children. She watched her mother, who is also incredibly intelligent, work herself to the bone doing jobs far below her abilities because of limited opportunities for women. Even at an early age, Susan knew that she wanted more in her life. But, interestingly, she didn’t become serious about school (college) until she met her husband whom she credits for, “forcing her to pay attention”.
Here are the kernels of wisdom Susan gave to me:
“Don’t be trapped by popular thought.”
I asked Susan about the popular movement that takes girls out of the classroom so that they don’t have to compete with boys because I believe that girls need to learn to compete for what they want at an early age. Susan agreed that girls need to learn to compete, however, very thoughtfully, she also told me about her friends who went to all-girls schools. She told me that, “the idea of removing girls from male competition may not be detrimental.” She pointed to the idea that girls who are removed from a mixed environment, where they might feel self-conscious, have been observed operating more freely and developing more self-confidence than in mixed situations.
She had other interesting scenarios of bucking popular thought and I think it comes from her innate perspective of questioning everything. Susan told me that popular thought leads to mediocre companies in the early stage tech arena.
Role Models Are Important.
Susan credits her husband as being her early primary role model because he showed her that focusing attention can lead to great rewards and once she understood those rewards, Susan was unstoppable. Susan contends that “role models need not be of the same gender, a role model simply has to show what is possible.” “In phenomenal environments, women work side-by-side with men”. The key is to find the phenomenal environment.
Do What Comes Across Your Plate.
In the startup environment, one may have a label (i.e. Chief Financial Officer) but, to be successful, you have to do whatever comes across your plate. In most cases “you are too busy running forward to guess whether it’s in your domain.” Susan’s advice, “don’t waste time guessing, do what needs getting done at least once—it might be one of the building blocks of your extensive learning .”
“You think you can.”