Fast Frontiers is an exploration of how innovation frontiers are emerging in surprising places. Innovators, entrepreneurars, champions of founders – these are all words that should not surprise you given the content of our podcast, yet time and again, if the word ‘woman’ or ‘female’ is put in front of any of them, the conversation takes on a different connotation.
At Refinery, we are on a mission to find and develop the very best hypergrowth leaders. We do not handle any of them differently because of a descriptor put before their title. Our friend, Lindsay at Casted just had a viral post about this very subject. I encourage you to check it out.
This brings us to the idea of perceived expectations, skewed perspectives, and sterotypes. One such innovator that comes to mind is Heddy LeMar.
We wanted to highlight three extraordinary women who spoke with us over our second podcast season to share their unique stories and experiences. Each of these powerhouses defies stereotypes and being limited to certain expectations simply because of their sex.
Hollywood Bombshell AND Inventor
Hedy LaMarr is an example from Hollywood about just how wrong and skewed perspectives based on stereotypes can be. The majority of the world recognizes her as the stunning Hollywood actress that graced our screens in the ’40s. But what few know is that LaMarr was also a brilliant inventor whose work with frequency-hopping technology became a precursor to the secure wi-fi, GPS, and Bluetooth now used by billions of people around the world, including you.
So why don’t many people know this fascinating and impressive fact? And why are we surprised when we hear it? The simple answer: Stereotypes. According to director Alexandra Dean, Hedy LaMarr, the inventor, did not fit into the narrow narrative for a movie-star in those days: “From Hedy, they absolutely wanted glamour. They wanted somebody to stare at in the movie theaters that would help forget all their troubles.” People only saw her physical beauty and assumed she was a starlet, simply made to shine onscreen for our entertainment and escape.
Luckily, we are making strides and are recognizing what all people, including women, are capable of. And speaking of capability, Wendy Lea, Michelle McBane, and Noor Sweid have it in spades. These three women are a part of a positive movement on the rise, where women-led VC funds are flying in the face of the stereotypes and flourishing.
Michelle McBane is a senior investment director at the MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund and managing director of StandUp Ventures, where she leads early-stage investing in health and technology companies. And a huge part of what Michelle is investing in? Female-led ventures.
A big believer in breaking the mold and shattering the glass ceiling, Michelle definitely is not a fan of stereotypes. “There’s a fundamental belief that you can’t be what you can’t see,” she said, and what hasn’t been seen for far too long (until just recently) has been ventures with a woman (or women) at the helm. Michelle, via StandUp, in particular, is working to change all of that.
After seeing what Michelle was doing at MaRS—namely that 12% of the portfolio was in female-led or co-led ventures—an LP approached her to collaborate. What came of that was StandUp Ventures, a private fund aptly named after the little girl standing up to the bull on Wall Street. “She’s everything you want to see in a founder,” explained Michelle. “She’s confident; she’s courageous. She’s curious.”
Michelle wants to inspire, hire, and fund more founders, just like “her.” How? By setting an example and going back to her original quote, giving them something they can see and aspire to. “Part of the portfolio’s goal was to have some really great stories back to little girls standing up to the bull, having the role models. And so I met these two amazing young founders straight out of university yesterday, and I’m able to make these connections for them to the founders that I know. And that’s just going to feed itself. I think that’s what has to happen.”
Wendy Lea is a leading digital innovations strategist and ecosystem development guru and current CEO of Energize Colorado, where she’s mobilizing resources and relief for small businesses, non-profits, and individuals recovering from the economic impacts of COVID-19. Wendy knew from an early age that she wasn’t going to let any glass ceiling—or stereotype—get in her way, and she has always moved to the beat of her own drum. In Wendy’s own words, “a design principle of my life was to be independent.”
Wendy was always challenging herself with the question: “What is your potential? Because if you want to be independent, you got to get real clear with your potential.” Wendy knew her potential was massive—to be the boss, stand on her own two feet, and run the show. Stereotypes be damned. And she did—and is doing—it. After starting as support staff for her mentor, then co-founding, Wendy shared how she got brave and struck out on her own, but not without a little help and encouragement along the way.
Such connections have shown Wendy just how important relationships are to continuing the journey, especially in reaching your full potential. “Relationships are everything … I invest in [connections] because they have converted into relationships that matter. I just want that to be heard and to know that at this stage of my life, I wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing without those relationships.”
And Wendy is committed to using her own platform, particularly with Energize Colorado, to keep building such relationships and building up women in particular via several initiatives—all of which you can find out more about in our full podcast.
Identified by Forbes Magazine as one of the world’s top 50 women in tech, chairperson of the Middle East Venture Capital Association, and director for MIT Sloan and TechWadi, Noor Sweid knows a thing or two about breaking away from stereotypes. Noor was a true pioneer, a young woman leading a company and going public, and now focusing her efforts on helping others be able to do just the same.
She shared a bit about her pioneer journey: “Being a woman doing it is a little bit harder because more often than not, you’re the only woman in the room. And sometimes, you may be one of two women in a room of 20.” Add being young to that and attempting to run a company, and the push back only increases. “There’s a lot of questions on your credibility and your ability to lead the process and to move the process forward,” Noor said.
Noor’s advice? “It’s a lot of different challenges, and I think the way to do it is always one day at a time, define your process, run your process, keep to your process.” And thrive.
There were many more excellent insights discussed by all three of these entrepreneurs. So for more from these three pioneers, head over to listen to the full podcasts.