Let's go ahead and get something out the way. What comes to mind when I ask you to conjure an image of the classic “private investigator?" If I had to guess, I'd say that you're thinking of a man, maybe in a trench coat, hiding in the bushes while peering through binoculars to spy on some sort of social deviant.
You're picturing that because that's how film, television and literature defined the profession for hundreds of years. In fact, until I became more familiar with the industry I couldn't name one female PI character. A little research reminded me of the female PI pioneer Nancy Drew, and then I learned how ahead-of-her-time author Sue Grafton was writing about Kinsey Millhone in 1982.
Like these strong females, I also seek to solve the world's problems. When I moved into the entrepreneurial world, I promised I would take with me the values I cherished as I advocated for the world's most vulnerable children at a large international child welfare organization. If I was going to start a company, my stipulations were clear: it must solve a meaningful need for an underserved population, and whatever we do we must do it better than anyone else.
Emma Roberts as Nancy Drew
In terms of diversity and inclusion, I promised to cast a wide net to build a talented, passionate and diverse team. How else could we truly create change without different perspectives informing our decisions and direction? I knew that's what it would take to make us scalable and able to do the most good.
As a mom of five, I'm constantly reckoning with the need to raise five mindful, conscientious and kind children and the need to just let them be kids. It's a daily struggle but we match it the only way we know how and that's by modeling behaviors that we want them to emulate when it's time for them to go out into the world.
With three young girls at home, I can't wait for their turn to change the world. Every day, strong women are fighting for their future. Our young kids might have no memory of a fight for equality among men and women. I believe it's thoughts like this that keep us women-focused.
If I zoom in on my corner of the world and take a close look at the intersection of tech and private investigation, I see a wave coming. With thousands of private investigators in our network at Trustify, we're seeing a surge in female PIs. Right now we're at nearly 20 percent female, but research indicates that will continue to rise. A male-dominated industry for hundreds of years, soon to be shattered by women!
Then again, should we really be that surprised? A woman's natural instincts are perfect for solving complex and deeply personal issues. Perhaps the most important trait an investigator can have is empathy. And research points to the fact that women simply are more empathetic than men. When people come to a private investigator for help, they're feeling desperate. They've usually tried everything and are searching for peace of mind. You need to understand what they're going through, see how hard it must be to walk in their shoes, and commit yourself restoring relief to them.
And let's not forget a woman's innate ability to read a room, listen for cues, look for signs and follow her intuition. I saw one of our PIs locate a family's mentally ill missing son on the West Coast who went missing in Florida. She had little to no clues or leads to work with from the outset. She traced a minimal paper trail, talked to everyone, questioned a feeling and followed her gut. Trustify's PIs will tell you that there's nothing more satisfying than closing the loop for a client, especially when you've witnessed their grief and heartache firsthand.
We've created a career choice that's gratifying and flexible for anyone, but especially working moms looking to stay in the workforce, make a difference and create their own schedule. We only ask our PIs to do what they're best at, investigating. We handle finding new clients, collecting payment and other administrative duties. In return, they save our clients from whatever problems they're facing and serve as the face of Trustify across the country.
When I set out to start a first-of-its-kind company, I wanted to build something incredible and to do that you need to build a first-class team. As we were putting our team together at our headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, I wanted top talent with diverse backgrounds, and I wanted to look beyond the people in our existing circles whenever possible. My husband, who is my Co-Founder, and I had met and worked with remarkable people over the years, but I knew we needed to look in other circles to find the right people for the job.
You need to be intentional about hiring in order to break the cycle and be exposed to new people. In a perfect world, Trustify would represent every gender, color, religion, and outlook. We're not there yet but we're getting closer every day. Based on a recent employee disclosure survey, 70 percent of our team identifies as female and 40 percent of our team is a person of color.
If 70 percent female sounds homogenous, then I'll remind you that we're a data-driven organization and research shows that female-led businesses are more profitable. We intentionally target females because we're willing to take a bet that productivity will be higher, culture will be stronger, workplace tensions will be decreased and revenue will increase.
It's really quite simple, if you value the women in your workplace then promote them. Don't just talk about it, demonstrate it with your actions.
Want to attract more women? Then forgo the office beer pong table (that never actually gets used) and offer a space designed with women in mind, including nursing-mother rooms. At our headquarters, we've been recognized by the DC & Maryland Breastfeeding Coalitions for our commitment to supporting working moms. Tech awards are great, but the working mom in me felt like Meryl at the Oscars when we were presented with that Gold Star award. Career high, hands down.
As important as it is for companies to commit to growing their female workforce, it's also incumbent among women to support each other in the workplace. Women believed in me before I even proved myself to anyone. I believe in women and the power of true mentorship as I have benefitted from the generosity of women who shared their time and insights and nurtured my own career development.
Try as we might, sometimes you hire the right person but for the wrong job. As a business owner, what you do from that point makes all the difference. The two most valuable traits in an employee are diligence and commitment to excellence. If I've found that in someone, I'll work hard to hold on to them and find a place and a role for them within the company where they will thrive.
Like never before, women are on the rise. Time's up on letting men take the lead. It's exhilarating to be at the intersection of two male-dominated industries where women are making their moves, leading with their voice and transforming the way business was once done.
And on the days when it's hard to see how the world is improving and that we, as women, are finally breaking through established good ol' boys clubs, let Trustify's team be an example. We're just getting started, we're thousands of people strong and we've reshaped a profession that was once only run by older, white males. If only Nancy Drew could see us now!
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.