While most people think of tech startups as chaotic, and risky getting mine off the ground felt leisurely compared to Broadway!
In January of 2016, I was scheduling photo shoots for Liev Schreiber and Janet McTeer, the stars of my latest Broadway production, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which was set to open in October.
(Fun fact: The day this provocative photo was shot was the first time Liev and Janet ever met!). My days were a whirlwind of cast auditions, costume and set design, budgeting, show press, and ticket pricing. The show was a success—but it was also my last as lead producer. Because by the time Les Liaisons wrapped in January of 2017, I had already launched my new tech startup company, What Should We Do, personalized recommendations and culture covering online and app-based service in NYC (and we've since expanded to L.A. and Chicago!).
The worlds of theater production and tech startup might seem galaxies apart, but the truth is I couldn't have had better preparation for my new venture than putting on plays and musicals. Each one of the 26 shows I've produced in my career was a startup! Beginning with just an idea—sometimes in the form of a manuscript and sometimes not even that much—my team and I would bring it to life by finding a space, hiring the cast and crew, and getting the word out to potential audiences. Every production presented new challenges that had to be solved quickly.
So while most people think of tech startups as chaotic, risky, and distressingly fast-paced, getting WSWD off the ground felt leisurely compared to Broadway!
That's not to say it has been easy, of course. Having never worked in tech or publishing, I had a lot to learn. To bring my idea to life, I kept these four lessons in mind every day.
Believe in your vision. I was really worried about being taken seriously. I didn't know the difference between an API and a CMS, and yet here I was wanting to build both of them. But I knew I had a good idea for WSWD. One of my lifelong missions has been to make arts and culture accessible to all (which is why I'm the chair of the Board of Trustees at the Public Theater; their motto is "Theater of, by, and for all people"). There is so much incredible art in New York City—art that goes way beyond expensive theater tickets or old-master painting exhibitions—but not everyone knows how or where to experience it. As someone who has lived in and loved NYC my whole life, I really wanted to help people find and enjoy all the cultural wonders of the city, no matter how much money they had. That's what we do at WSWD: Connect locals and visitors to incredible art, performances, food, and experiences at every price level.
Whenever I felt insecure about my qualifications or my lack of understanding about the specifics, I would remind myself of my vision. You can figure anything out when you love and believe in your idea. And, yes, I now know what an application programming service and a content management system are, thank you very much.
Build a great team. The first thing I would do as theater producer on a new show was hire a director. Together with her, we'd assemble the rest of the team: stage managers; a technical director; designers; a choreographer; PR people; and many others. I never pretended to know how to light a stage, but I knew the importance of hiring an experienced lighting designer. So when I decided to move forward with WSWD, I knew I couldn't do it without a great team on my side. That's the thing about trying something new: You don't have to know how to do everything; you just have to know when to accept help. I hired a fantastic team of web and app developers, editors, business development experts. I reached out to my network of artists, curators, critics, and tastemakers to create WSWD's team of local experts who could keep us up-to-date on the best performances, restaurants, and events in the city.
Then, trust the team you've built. It's one thing to build a team, though, and another to trust them enough to change the course of your business. No one should try to alter your vision, but sometimes the path to get there is different than you expected. In WSWD's early days, for example, I was reluctant to have a heavy emphasis on traditional theater because I was ready to be done with that world. I wanted to highlight quirky, avant-garde, and immersive performances and adventurous places to eat before and after. We do offer that—immersive theater is one of the most popular categories on our site and app—but my editors convinced me not to shy away from my experience and expertise on Broadway. Today, theater companies are some of our best partners and users can trust us to point them in the direction of truly great shows.
Always be making connections. I've talked and written many times before about my goal of meeting at least one new person every day, something I've done since I was just starting out in the theater scene over 25 years ago. And I don't just mean, "Hi, nice to meet you." I make it a point to sit down and chat with people, whether it's my barista, a fellow entrepreneur, a performer, a writer, my kids' friends…anyone! Everyone has a story to tell and everyone has a fresh perspective; these casual and often impromptu "meetings" have always been mutually beneficial.
Also, you never know when a connection will be made. When I would tell people about my new business, they would say, "Oh, you should meet my sister! She's an app developer!" or "I know a food writer who would be great for WSWD!" You may not become best friends or professional partners with all of the people you meet, but creating a large and diverse network of connections is indispensable to any business.
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Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."