Natalie Egan, 40
Not many of us get to see what life is like on both sides of the gender divide, but for transgender activist and tech entrepreneur, Natalie Egan, that unique vantage point has sparked an inspiring business idea. To help combat harassment and prejudice for others, the brilliant innovator founded Translator, a game-changing software that helps increase workplace empathy. “There is a ripple effect,” says Egan. “If we can make someone a little more empathetic it can actually save someone’s life.”
1. What made you choose this career path? What has been your greatest achievement?
Since I was age 5, I remember being obsessed with solving problems and trying to start my own businesses. So of course, that became my career path––I am an entrepreneur! My current company, called Translator, is a B2B technology company dedicated to helping large organizations positively manage human interpersonal differences while fostering a more open and inclusive culture.
I started Translator based on my experience coming out as a transgender woman after spending the majority of my life as a white man with access, privilege, and resources. Long story short; I experienced bias, discrimination, and hatred for the first time and became obsessed with building a for-profit company that systematically promotes empathy and helps people be themselves. And while our ultimate vision at Translator is #EqualityForAll, my greatest achievement to date is just finally having the courage to be me.
2. What’s the biggest criticism/stereotype/judgement you’ve faced in your career?
Ironically, my whole life I was told I could ‘be’ or ‘do’ anything I wanted, except the one thing that I wanted most: to be a woman. When I was born, I was “assigned male at birth” by a doctor and a society that never took into account my unique identity, how I want to express myself, my goals and aspirations, or who I am inside. I am not angry about it. We didn’t know any better. But we know better now and I won’t stand for it anymore. Not for me. Not for anyone. No one should be held back from living their truth and being their authentic self because of a body part, a skin tone, an ability, a belief, or anything. In my opinion, we are all humans and all humans are created equally.
3. How did you #SWAAYthenarrative? What was the reaction by those who told you you “couldn’t” do it?
As a transgender woman, I now face stereotypes and challenges that I never experienced in my life. People openly and blatantly discriminate against me. Others refuse to look me in the eye or won’t sit next to me. They pull their children away from me when I enter the room. When I walk down the street I don’t know if I am going to be verbally or physically attacked. I am told that I am mentally sick or perverted and that I can't go to the bathroom. And these are just a few of the challenges I face navigating the real world––let alone pursuing my career dreams. But none of this slows me down anymore. When people doubt or judge me it actually make me stronger. I am no longer bound by the limitations of other people's expectations. When I first figured out I was transgender I was so scared, but I no longer see being trans as a weakness. It is now truly my competitive advantage. My experience and point of view gives me a mental toughness in the business world that very few people can match.
4. What did you learn through your personal journey?
For me, #SWAAYINGthenarrative was about taking the ultimate risk. What if I just tried it? What if I was just me?
The reality is that I was programed my whole life to believe that transgender people were somehow “less than” everyone else. So much so, that when I finally figured out I was trans, I nearly killed myself. I had lost everything at that point. My marriage was in shambles and I had been fired from the company that I started by the CEO that I put in. But suicide would have been the easy way out and put those that judged me in a position of power and control. The moment of clarity and opportunity came to me when I realized I had nothing else to lose. I thought to myself, who cares what other people think? I am just going to be me and see what happens.
5. What’s your number one piece of advice to women discouraged by preconceived notions and society’s limitations?
My advice to all women and all people in marginalized communities is the same: Just be you. Don’t be afraid. It isn’t going to be easy but when you do it and do it consistently and authentically, good things will happen. People will be drawn to you and people are portals of opportunity. You are never going to be or do everything you want by yourself, no matter how strong you are. You need people and the best way to do that, in my humble opinion, is to just be yourself.
Sweaty Palms & Weak Responses
Early spring 2018, I walked into the building of a startup accelerator program I had been accepted into. Armed with only confidence and a genius idea, I was eager to start level one. I had no idea of what to expect, but I knew I needed help. Somehow with life's journey of twists and turns, this former successful event planner was now about to blindly walk into the tech industry and tackle on a problem that too many women entrepreneurs had faced.
I sat directly across from the program founders, smiling ear to ear as I explained the then concept for HerHeadquarters. Underneath the table, I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants, the anxiousness and excitement was getting the best of me. I rambled on and on about the future collaborating app for women entrepreneurs and all the features it would have. They finally stopped me, asking the one question I had never been asked before, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
Taken back by the question, I responded, "I just know". The question was powerful, but my response was weak. While passionate and eager, I was unprepared and naively ready to commit to building a platform when I had no idea if anyone wanted it. They assigned me with the task of validating the need for the platform first. The months to follow were eye-opening and frustrating, but planted seeds for the knowledge that would later build the foundation for HerHeadquarters. I spent months researching and validating through hundreds of surveys, interviews, and focus groups.
I was dedicated to knowing and understanding the needs and challenges of my audience. I knew early on that having a national collaborating app for women entrepreneurs would mean that I'd need to get feedback from women all across the country. I repeatedly put myself on the line by reaching out to strangers, asking them to speak with me. While many took the time to complete a survey and participate in a phone interview, there were some who ignored me, some asked what was in it for them, and a few suggested that I was wasting my time in general. They didn't need another "just for women" platform just because it was trending.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve. I became irritated. Just because HerHeadquarters didn't resonate with them, doesn't mean that another woman wouldn't find value in the platform and love it. I felt frustrated that the very women I was trying to support were the ones telling me to quit. I struggled with not taking things personally.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve.
The Validation, The Neglect, The Data, and The Irony
The more women I talked to, the more the need for my product was validated. The majority of women entrepreneurs in the industries I was targeting did collaborate. An even higher number of women experienced several obstacles in securing those collaborations and yes, they wanted easier access to high quality brand partnerships.
I didn't just want to launch an app. I wanted to change the image of women who collaborated and adjust the narrative of these women. I was excited to introduce a new technology product that would change the way women secured valuable, rewarding products. I couldn't believe that despite that rising number of women-owned businesses launching, there was no tool catered to them allowing them to grow their business even faster. This demographic had been neglected for too long.
I hadn't just validated the need for the future platform, but I gained valuable data that could be used as leverage. Ironically, armed with confidence, a genius idea, and data to support the need for the platform, I felt stuck. The next steps were to begin designing a prototype, I lacked the skillsets to do it myself and the funding to hire someone else to do it.
I Desperately Need You and Your services, but I'm Broke
I found myself having to put myself out there again, allowing myself to be vulnerable and ask for help. I eventually stumbled across Bianca, a talented UX/UI designer. After coming across her profile online and reaching out, we agreed to meet for a happy hour. The question I had been asked months prior by the founders of my accelerator program came up again, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
It was like déjà vu, the sweaty palms under the table reemerged and the ear to ear smile as I talked about HerHeadquarters, only this time, I had data. I proudly showed Bianca my research: the list of women from across the country I talked to that supported that not only was this platform solving a problem they had, but it's a product that they'd use and pay for.
I remember my confidence dropping as my transparency came into the conversation. How do you tell someone "I desperately need you and your services, but I'm broke?". I told her that I was stuck, that I needed to move forward with design, but that I didn't have the money to make it happen. Bianca respected my honesty, loved the vision of HerHeadquarters, but mostly importantly the data sold her. She believed in me, she believed in the product, and knew that it would attract investors.
From Paper to Digital
We reached a payment agreed where Bianca would be paid in full once HerHeadquarters received its first investment deal. The next few months were an all-time high for me. Seeing an idea that once floated around in my head make its way to paper, then transform into a digital prototype is was one of the highlights of this journey. Shortly after, we began user testing, making further adjustments based off of feedback.
The further along HerHeadquarters became, the more traction we made. Women entrepreneurs across the U.S. were signing up for early access to the app, we were catching investor's attention, and securing brand partnerships all before we had a launched product. The closer we got to launching, the scarier it was. People who only had a surface value introduction to HerHeadquarters put us in the same category of other platforms or brands catering to women, even if we were completely unrelated, they just heard "for women". I felt consistent pressure, most of which was self-applied, but I still felt it.
I became obsessed with all things HerHeadquarters. My biggest fear was launching and disappointing my users. With a national target audience, a nonexistent marketing budget, and many misconceptions regarding collaborating, I didn't know how to introduce this new brand in a way that distinctly made it clear who were targeting and who we were different from.
I second guessed myself all the time.
A 'Submit' button has never in life been more intimidating. In May 2019, HerHeadquarters was submitted to the Apple and Google play stores and released to women entrepreneurs in select U.S. cities. We've consistently grown our user base and seen amazing collaborations take place. I've grow and learned valuable lessons about myself personally and as a leader. This experience has taught me to trust my journey, trust my hard work, and always let honesty and integrity lead me. I had to give myself permission to make mistakes and not beat myself up about it.
I learned that a hundred "no's" is better than one "yes" from an unfit partner. The most valuable thing that I've learned is keeping my users first. Their feedback, their challenges, and suggestions are valuable and set the pace for the future of HerHeadquarters, as a product and a company. I consider it an honor to serve and cater to one of the most neglected markets in the industry.