#WhatWeNeedToSucceed: An Open Letter To Our Next President


I grew up in a lower-middle class family where female entrepreneurship wasn’t discussed. It wasn't even a possibility on the radar. My family and my family’s family worked to pay their monthly bills, and talk of female-led tech organizations or small businesses, for example, was unheard-of. The women all worked just as hard as the men, yet they still remained, in many ways, invisible. They were contributing women, yet they were somehow just still women.

My mother was a nursing assistant who worked the late shift when I was child, my maternal grandmother sold a small inventory at a church sale every couple of weekends and my paternal grandmother emigrated from Italy and became an X-Ray technician in the Women’s Army Corps.

When it comes to women entrepreneurs, I think of how far we've come and how hard we’ve worked — some of us from nothing, from systemic, sexist obstacles — to achieve the autonomy to create, to innovate and to inspire the next generation. And I think of myself and my own media company or my future e-commerce business. I think of my friends who created apps and organizations, my colleagues who digitally influence others and my friends who lead organizations to make our country better.

So when “#WhatWeNeedToSucceed: A Letter to the Next President on Behalf of Women Entrepreneurs,” was published, its purpose was to identify the ingredients for success — the very things that our country should afford our women. It was written and co-signed by several dozen women in executive positions from companies all over the spectrum — including Estee Lauder, GIPHY, Birchbox, Mogul, Care.com and Buzz Marketing Group. The signature line, to put it lightly, was breathtaking.

How could these voices be ignored?

"Women put 90 percent of their income into their communities and families, therefore we believe their success will not only benefit our economy, but will also have a positive impact on society."

All they're asking is for the government to consider and fight for equality. Parity. A fair chance — especially given the fact that women are starting businesses twice as fast as men, yet are facing unfathomable (yet enduring) challenges that must be addressed: receiving less venture capital and media representation.

It’s as if we’re working harder and harder, all while invisible. As if that invisibility is built into the system and hasn’t been addressed because it’s so status-quo. Well, the reality is this: it is.

In fact, according to one piece published at University of Penn, Katherine Hays, the co-founder and CEO of venture-backed Vivoom (her first start-up), says that she’s usually the only woman in the room. “Male VCs — and obviously most are — are very comfortable now giving female entrepreneurs capital for ‘girl stuff,’” she says. “Want to rent dresses or sell baby wipes as a subscription? No problem. The VCs ask their wives or girlfriends if the idea is cool, and they’re good to go.”

If women and men participated equally in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, the United States’ GDP could rise by $30 billion.

Should women have any other idea, though (like proprietary tech), it’s all crickets: “Sometimes I believe if I were a 21-year-old male in a hoodie, Vivoom would be even more appealing to VCs.”

And here’s another unfortunate anecdote ripe for change: according to Catalyst.org, women hold only 4.6% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. So, if women aren’t even finding themselves in positions of leadership in the workplace, how are we expecting them to find the confidence, resources or backing to start their own companies?

This is exactly why the letter states, “If women and men participated equally in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, the United States’ GDP could rise by $30 billion.” So what’s stopping everyone?

It’s as if we’re working harder and harder, all while invisible.

To expedite the brainstorming process, the letter offered up some specific and tactile strategies that could lead to successful women-led businesses, including focuses on “gaining access to capital, expanding and supporting networks and markets and addressing the changing face of business through technology.”

The minds behind the letter believe that “access to and development of financial and human capital” is vital to encouraging and supporting women entrepreneurs. From incentivizing organizations to invest in women-owned companies to “considering a shortening of government payment cycles from 90 days to 30 days for small women-owned suppliers.” While these may seem like small movements in a huge engine, they're actually not. The little things matter. No one ever said starting a business should be easy, but unnecessary obstacles should be removed. And if those obstacles are preventing half of the workforce from even getting close to where they should be, it's time to re-think the system.

"We believe that access to and development of financial and human capital is essential to fostering women’s entrepreneurship."

More so, they believe that “increasing access to local and global networks and markets” is critical — including “supporting trade agreements that liberalize and trade and open new markets for businesses of all sizes,” supporting mentorship and — so important — “encouraging conscious placement of women on boards, in venture partnerships and on executive teams.”

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they ask for specific, logical and, yes, overtly obvious steps that will help future generations of women. They ask that government and business leaders help women entrepreneurs thrive in the face of changing technologies by emphasizing (STEM) and digital literacy in school, enabling access to the Internet — everywhere — and making it known to women the “hardware, software and digital resources they need to scale their companies.” Sometimes, for many people — especially those who don't come from privileged families or a circle of entrepreneurs — just having access is enough.

Not only do all of these ideas make a real, every-day impact on the way women run their businesses, they say out loud, “We’re here. We’re not leaving. And this is just the beginning.”

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Do 2020 Presidential Candidates Still Have Rules to Play By?

Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.

When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.

2016: What rules?

Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.

Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.

And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.

And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?

Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.

Digital policies for 2020 and beyond

While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.

Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy

Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:

  • If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
  • While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
  • If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
  • Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
  • Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?

Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.

Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply

The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:

  1. Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
  2. Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
  3. Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
  4. Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
  5. Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
  6. Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
  7. Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
  8. Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.

Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles

Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.