Anna Barber of TechStars LA Thinks Confidence is Key for Women Entrepreneurs

LZ: You have an unusual story behind how you met your co-founder at Scribble Press. Why don’t we start there?

AB: I met a woman on an airplane. We both had young children at the time and she had a great idea about a retail location where kids could make books.  We started talking about it and literally became business partners during the plane flight.

“I wish someone had said ‘just because you’re CEO doesn’t mean you have to know all the answers.”

LZ: Talking to you, I get the sense that you never questioned whether you should be a founder or launch an entrepreneurial venture.

AB: My mom was an entrepreneur. I grew up watching her work, so I was always comfortable that it was something I could do. I also had a lot of different kinds of experiences before I founded Scribble Press. For instance, after I got my law degree, I worked at McKinsey and I worked with an e-commerce startup during the dot com years.  That was a crazy time. And lots of fun. That’s when I got hooked on startup culture and the idea of creating something new where nothing existed before.

LZ: So you raised venture for Scribble Press in 2007, grew it into a retail space and then found great synergy after the iPad was launched and pivoted to be a successful app. And you had an exit in 2014 when you were acquired by Fingerprint – your distribution partner. That’s a lot of building and hard work over 7 years. What do you wish you had known before you started?

AB: I wish someone had said ‘just because you’re CEO doesn’t mean you have to know all the answers’. I had trouble asking for help. Especially as a woman, I felt it wasn’t ok to say ‘I don’t know’. I definitely could have let people help me more. What I see now is that the most effective CEOs and leaders are those who foster an environment for other people to solve problems effectively.

“That’s not to say there are no tradeoffs [being a mom and running a startup]…There are always choices and no way to do it all.”

LZ: Rather than thinking you have to do everything yourself. Right?

AB: Right. My experience was as a lawyer and a consultant. You’re hired to make recommendations and brought in as the expert. So I really didn’t think it was my role to be asking questions. Based on what I learned, after I sold the company, I became interested in helping other, mostly female, founders. So I started working as an advisor and business consultant in edtech.

LZ: You had young children when you founded Scribble Press. I actually think that having kids or wanting to have kids deters a lot of women from starting growth ventures. How did you manage that?

AB: When I was running Scribble it was a product for kids. So it was easy for my kids to come to work, and easy for people to understand and relate.  And now my kids are a little older so I have more flexibility.

But that’s not to say there are no tradeoffs. I’m not involved with their schools. I miss events. I’m not the mom who’s going on the fieldtrips. I don’t cook and I’m unapologetic about it. If I’m home, I want to spend time with my family so we find other ways to eat healthy meals.

There are always choices and no way to do it all.

More broadly, I think [my working] has given my kids a sense of pride that I’m a capable and successful human.  My mother wasn’t home after school, but I saw how much joy her work gave her. She was a complete person. So I think it’s good for my kids to see that I’m happy & fulfilled outside of being a mother.

“I see TechStars as providing a lot of the scaffolding for success that I didn’t have as a solo founder.”

LZ: At the beginning of this year you accepted a role as Managing Director of TechStars LA. That is so cool!  Tell me about what you do there.

AB: My job is to unlock the value of the TechStars network for our companies. I’m a catalyst for our startups to help them find what they need.

I see TechStars as providing a lot of the scaffolding for success that I didn’t have as a solo founder. It’s an amazing global community. No matter where you need help, there’s someone in that network that can answer any question or make an introduction to someone who can.

LZ: What do you think startups get out of going through a program like TechStars?

AB: We reduce the risk of failure. Generally, 90 percent of startups are gone within five years. TechStars has graduated 1,000 companies. One hundred ten have been acquired and almost 800 others are still operating.  So we’ve flipped the statistic on its head for our portfolio.

We help companies develop and kick the tires on their growth strategy. And then we accelerate that through mentorship.  We connect them with experts who can give them new ideas, BD strategy and marketing strategy. And we give them access to capital.

Being a founder is lonely. There’s a lot of value just being surrounded by a group of people who are either going through the same thing or that have been in your shoes.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that people have commitments outside of work. I think balance is really important.”

LZ: You were a startup leader and now you’re leading a huge program for startups. How would you describe your personal leadership style?

AB: I think it’s evolved over time. Early in my career I wasn’t very collaborative. It was more about command and control.  Now I’m much more open, flexible and wanting to work with people in a way that supports their growth and development.  I try to take a whole person and a whole team approach.  I think it’s important to honor and acknowledge that people have commitments outside of work. I think balance is really important.

LZ: Do you see differences between male founders and female founders who apply to the program?

AB: I think it’s hard to generalize and there are both generational and cultural aspects of that question. I’ve talked to more than 200 founders over the last couple of months. If there are any differences I think it’s that male founders skew more confident and seem to feel success is inevitable. Women founders seem to question themselves more. But of course there are exceptions on both sides.

LZ: What advice would you give women founders who want to get into TechStars?

AB: Do some digging in your own network and connect with people in the Techstars community. Reach out and talk to them about their experience. Connect with the team running the program you’re interested in. We love to see people who come to events apply. It lets you see if there’s a fit and shows you’re really interested.

As far as the application goes, we care about the team the most. It’s important to have all the founders in the video. Really think how to make your personalities and approach show in that video.

“Rather than asking questions about whether you’re going to be successful, inspire confidence by walking in with the inevitability of your own success.”

LZ: Across the eco-system and particularly in tech, why do you think we see fewer women founders & women leadership teams getting funded?

AB: I think it’s a two-sided market place. If you look at who’s funding, there are few women in the seats writing checks. You and I talked about the unconscious bias studies.  Even when people try to give equal treatment to others, they are naturally drawn to people like themselves.  Only 20 percent of companies that apply to TechStars have a woman in a founding role. So there are also fewer women in the pool.  And as I said earlier, attitude is important.  Rather than asking questions about whether you’re going to be successful, inspire confidence by walking in with the inevitability of your own success.

LZ: What do you think needs to happen to get more women in the game?

AB: I think it’s a multi-pronged solution. We need more interviews like this. We need more girls funneling into STEM and thinking about themselves as business people. We also need more mentorship and support for women founders and CEOs. In the tech world we’re not taking advantage of the great pool of women resources.

Another thing – I’d love to find a way to get men actively engaged in fixing this problem. I’ve been thinking about that a lot.

And a lot comes back to confidence. There was another study where men and women were asked to evaluate their own performance. Men overrate themselves and women underrate themselves. Many feel like they need more training or credentials before they can launch.

I always felt I could do anything. I was never intimidated by stepping out and taking a risk. We need to get more women to feeling that way.

Notes from LZ: Talking to Anna is really energizing. After just a few minutes, you can tell she’s one of those people who is willing to take the leap into the unknown — a step that inhibits a lot of people aspiring to be entrepreneurs. It’s clear that the passion, experience and confidence she brings to the table is going to be a huge asset for the companies joining TechStars. If you’re a woman founder (or even considering it), I highly recommend looking into TechStars programs in your area. In addition to numerous accelerator programs they also run Startup Weekend. It’s a great way to connect with other entrepreneurs and people who can help you succeed.



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