“I didn’t know what I wanted to be; I always knew the woman I wanted to become.”
Diane Von Furstenberg’s words perfectly illustrate Nicole Yeary’s career path—and this quote happens to be one of her favorites.
Nicole, founder of Ms. Tech, lives by the philosophy: ‘Do today with what you have.’ I so appreciate Nicole challenging us to remember to use the resources we have access to right now and do the best we can do. One day at a time, it adds up.
Ms. Tech ties together women, business and technology from within 1871 in Chicago, the largest tech innovation hub in the country. Chicago is the world’s capital of female founders—30 percent of Chicago’s startups are founded by women, compared to the 18 percent national average—and Nicole has now entered those ranks.
People with Panache: What is your mission with Ms. Tech?
Nicole Yeary: We help business women with tech and tech women with business, and we focus on helping women start and scale technology companies. We’re a membership-based organization, which drives a lot of our mission to really address capital resources and other needs for women trying to build high-growth tech startups. We also serve entrepreneurial women, technologists and people like that. There’s a real disconnect when it comes to the education and the availability of that education—and that’s even just aside from the network you have to have to raise a lot of capital.
PWP: It sounds like you’ve created a really integral resource for women starting entrepreneurial tech ventures. How did you see this need and decide to start Ms. Tech?
NY: My mom is actually a system’s engineer or architect for progressive.com. So I grew up going into server rooms and watching her change tapes. I remember being with her and thinking that I wanted a cubicle of my own—when you’re a kid, you just want a copy machine and a cubicle.
Eventually, I got that at United Healthcare, where I was developing an online application. I had gone to school for architectural engineering, and I’ve always been a tinkerer—always liked to take things apart.
Then I got laid off in March 2009. I had learned all of this information about people and buying health insurance online—I really wanted to develop some sort of website to solve a problem no one was doing anything about. I learned how to code through iTunes University, and I was going to build my own website, but I realized I would need venture capital. That was out of the question.
PWP: Then what happened?
NY: I got an invite to work for a startup in the 900 W. Chicago office. I was basically their first hire. I was from this world of pantsuits, and everyone was wearing flip flops. I remember being so out of my element; they didn’t even have a business model or a plan. As time went on, I realized that’s the way you have to be to build a startup. You can’t go into it taking yourself too seriously. That’s what I was doing before. You have to go into it without a plan, listen to what customers want and really develop a narrative around their needs and your mission. I worked there for a little while and then thought if you can get $3 million for your startup, I can, too.
I went on this journey to raise money and figure stuff out, but what I ended up doing was losing everything. My money and my plans were spent—and that’s when I really started to grow.
After I left that startup, around October 2010, Facebook had come out with these new groups, and I thought it would be amazing to have a group with these women I go out to brunch with on the weekends, because I learn so much from them. What if we could have that ongoing—why don’t we hire each other? I started with eight women who I felt were the smartest women I knew, and this group caught on fire. So, Ms. Tech kept growing while I was trying to figure out how to build this healthcare startup.
I went back to Ohio, where I’m from, essentially living on my dad’s couch. Google reached out to us and said, ‘Ms. Tech has such a presence in this community, we really want to partner with you. We have this new thing called Google Plus.’ We threw a huge event at the Google office for around 200 people—a kickoff to what became a monthly recurring event that I would host in spaces across Chicago. I brought in different women to be on panels and really kept a presence here in Chicago while I tried to figure out what was next.
PWP: Who helped inspire you along the way?
NY: There was an author who I read a lot when I was in sales, because I never had any official training: Jeffrey Gitomer. I connected with him on LinkedIn and said, ‘You taught me everything I know, I’d love to connect with you.’ I thought he probably wouldn’t accept me, but he did—just never said anything back. Then, when I was in Ohio and feeling really down, I get this random text message: ‘Nicole, it’s Gitomer. Can you talk on Tuesday?’ I remember thinking, ‘I don’t even know what to say to this guy because I have nothing going on for me right now.’ But of course I wanted to talk to him. I read every book he wrote. On the phone he said, ‘What do you do? You do all these things—build websites, SEO, photography, Ms. Tech—but what do you want to be known for? People don’t even know what kind of business to send you if you don’t pick one thing.’ I’m like, ‘I thought juggling was the way to do it!’ He said, ‘Pick the one thing you see making the biggest impact in your life and do that. You know what it is.’ I said, ‘I know I want to do Ms. Tech, but I won’t make any money.’ He said, ‘That’s not true. Don’t you know the 80/20 rule in business? 20 percent of those people will provide 80 percent of your revenue, and screw the rest of them. If they don’t like what you’re doing, who cares?’ After that, I was all excited for life. Then he said, ‘Hold on. For the next six months, if you do focus 100 percent on one thing, just know that they will be the most miserable six months, because you haven’t yet ever given one thing 100 percent of yourself. Imagine what you can accomplish if you did that.’
My a-ha moment was me recognizing: I have this problem and this Facebook group—all of these women need help. Okay, that’s my calling, that’s what I’m going to do!
I had a friend who let me stay with her for a month or so. My dad gave me $40 and some camping food, so I could live off of that, and I came back to Chicago with one suitcase. No matter what, I had to make it downtown every day, but I couldn’t use the CTA because that’s $5 a day and I had $40, so I walked downtown every day and set up shop in the McDonald’s on Clark and Lake with a 45 cent ice cream cone and free Wi-Fi. Then I met this really awesome guy, Benjamin, the founder of Grind, and they had just opened up. He saw some photos I took at our very first event and asked if I would take photos of their space for their website in exchange for 5 free days of co-working. On the 5th day, I was like how am I going to leave? As I was walking away, I get a text saying they’d like to offer me free membership as a collaborator to bring diversity into the space. I was there for about 2 years. I’ve never been so happy that I got that message and had that opportunity. That started real traction for us.
PWP: After you officially incorporated in January 2014, and you finally got your very own apartment again just over a year later, how has Ms. Tech continued to grow? What are the benefits of being a First Class member?
NY: We have discounts for very commonly used products or tools—from Hootsuite to dry cleaning. We pick the things that we love, have tried and know are going to make you more efficient and effective.
We also have our community and our Facebook group, which is a free group, but the women love it so much they want to pay for First Class membership because they value it and it provides them a lot of business. They get referrals, leads and trusted answers and advice from that group.
Lastly, we do office hours, but it’s really tough because I’m one of the few who is set up to do that. There are not a lot of women who are experienced technology startup founders, let alone have the time to mentor someone as they’re hustling to keep their startup alive and going.
PWP: That really sounds impactful—and like you have lots more room to keep growing, as well. What do you love about what you’re doing now?
NY: Giving the Jeffrey Gitomer moment to other people—that’s what I live for now. Moments like when one of our members and her cofounder sat me down and said, ‘Because you’ve been a mentor to us and we just found this out, we wanted you to be the first person to know that we got accepted into Y Combinator.’ It’s an accelerator program that is extremely hard to get into, and the fact that they got in is just amazing.
Also figuring out how we can continue to change the landscape for women. Everybody is scaling their business, but when you scale social change or social impact, you have to think about the best way to use your time.
PWP: And as you mentioned your members really love the networking side of Ms. Tech, what’s your best networking tip?
NY: Being vulnerable. One thing we strive for at Ms. Tech is creating environments and moments of vulnerability that in turn create a bond and trust among a group of people.
PWP: What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
NY: Get closer to fear and jump into something you’ve been thinking about doing. You’re never going to be fearless, but go and be all in. If you really want it to happen, you will make it happen. You just have to trust yourself.
PWP: So right. Nicole, among all of this work and community building and mentorship, what fulfills you?
NY: Being in tune with my reason for being. I don’t even have to set an alarm to wake up in the morning. I get up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. because I’m excited for life, and I love to see the sunrise. Life is so different—when I worked in corporate America, you couldn’t get me in there before 10 a.m. It’s so hard to go to work when you don’t like what you’re doing. I feel honored and privileged to be able to do what I love.
Ms. Tech has their next event—Mastermind: Design—on August 10!
[Photos provided by Nicole.]
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