An Entrepreneur with a Happy Heart.
Earlier this year, I found myself in Kabul, Afghanistan surrounded by women. Women cooked me breakfast and served me chai. Women washed my clothes and made my bed. Women brushed my hair, offered to do my makeup, sang to me in Pashto, and did anything and everything they could to make me smile.
Though I had come to Afghanistan as the CEO and founder of Klink Mobile to solidify partnerships with mostly male-run mobile operators, it was the women that enthralled me. I was staying at the home of a business partner, and over the course of my two-week stay, his mother, sisters, aunts and cousins became my constant companions. Since Afghan women are often discouraged from going out of the house without a male chaperone, a situation that has only been worsened by the violence in Afghanistan, these women set out to make the most of the culture-shocked, jet-lagged, all-American piece of the outside world that had suddenly shown up in their home.
Since they didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Pashto, miscommunications did occasionally arise. For example, they were so curious about the western way of life that they followed me everywhere I went around the house — even, and I had to draw the line here, into the bathroom. But as I got to know them better, I realized that these women might be physically isolated, but they were excellent at connecting with others. Even with a language barrier and a cultural divide, I left Afghanistan feeling like those women could have been my mother, my sisters, my aunts, my cousins. And it made me wonder, what is it that enables women to be so good at connecting across barriers? Perhaps more importantly, with Forbes dubbing entrepreneurship “the new women’s movement,” what exactly is the link between connecting well and female entrepreneurship?
Women and Connective Leadership:
A term called “connective leadership” has long been associated with female entrepreneurs. As Claremont Graduate University Professor of Public Policy and Organizational Behavior Jean Lipman-Blumen argues, connective leadership “reaches out beyond its own traditional constituencies to presumed adversaries, using mutual goals, rather than mutual enemies, to create group cohesion and community leadership.” If the traditional form of leadership is about competition and exclusion and has historically been embodied by men, connective leadership is about cooperation and inclusion and has, more recently, been associated with women.
Importantly, since we all know better than to think that there can be any pat correlation between sex and behavior (thank you, SWAG 101), I should point out that connective leadership has nothing to do with the female mind or the female body. If women lead differently than most men, it is not because of their inherent womanliness but because they have been socialized to be community-oriented due to their conventional roles in family structures. Not all female entrepreneurs demonstrate connective leadership, and many male entrepreneurs do. That said, I do think that my tendency towards a connective leadership style — a style that is more about making friends than enemies, more about negotiation than commandments — is part of what enabled me to make successful partnerships with Afghan mobile operators when many of my competitors have not. Not knowing what to expect in Afghanistan, my tendency towards connective leadership enabled me to adapt my goals so that I could meet the Afghan mobile operators halfway and end up with a partnership that was beneficial for all.
Connectivity and the Coming Prosperity:
In his new book The Coming Prosperity, my friend Philip Auerswald writes about the value of entrepreneurs for an economy still grounded in the centralized technological infrastructure and big, slow-moving business models that dominated the western world during the 20th century. According to Phil, the value of the 21st century entrepreneur is his or her ability to use small-scale, individually owned, network-based technologies (like the smart phone) to connect quickly to new markets and adapt rapidly to solve new problems. This technologically-enhanced sensitivity seems, to me, to be a sort of techno-material metaphor for the kind of communal responsiveness, collective caring, and connective leadership that women have long been “socialized” to embody.
What concerns me is that the shifting, de-centralized and network-based nature of 21st century business seems to require connective leadership in order to reach its full potential, but many women are still being urged to adopt more conventionally “masculine” leadership styles in order to be successful. I, for one, feel the pressure to conform to more traditional and more conventionally masculine leadership styles daily. But as markets becoming increasingly global, it seems more important to me now than ever before to make sure that the culture of business learns to embrace a diversity of leadership styles instead of continuing to squeeze individuals into a stale image of what leadership should be.
When I think back to my time in Afghanistan and the women who helped me there, I am reminded of how important it is to reach out across boundaries and work through conflict to connect with new kinds of people, information and value. I am pleased to see programs like Project Artemis and the 10,000 Women Initiative helping women from emerging nations gain the business skills they need to become successful entrepreneurs while contributing to the transformation of a sometimes stagnant model of what a good business leader should look like. As women from emerging nations start businesses in increasing numbers, connective leadership is on the rise, but so are other new models of leadership that grow out of the differences between geographic regions, cultures and social systems. A new wave of leadership styles will enable new businesses to develop that solve problems in ways that we have yet to imagine. But these businesses can only grow to reach their full potential if all of us strive not only to be sensitive to difference but also willing to connect with it.
In 2011, I founded Klink Mobile, a company that uses cutting-edge mobile technology to transfer minutes and money to mobile devices worldwide, and in retrospect, I didnʼt fully comprehend what I was getting into. I didn’t realize that I was embarking on a path that would transform me, a twenty-something living with my parents in Kansas City, into the public visage of a potentially billion-dollar company; a path that would take me out of my comfort zone and into a war zone; a path that would show me, time and again, the importance of intuition in the face of adversity.
But, I did know that my heart was telling me something. And lucky for me, I listened. As a female founder of a mobile technology startup, I’ve had my ups and downs, but in recent months, as I’ve grown increasingly confident that my little mobile company is actually going to make it, I’ve started to compile a list of lessons I’ve learned along the way. Being a founder is hard work but if you follow your intuition – by taking risks, reaching out, and staying true to your values (even if they are conventionally “feminine”) – you’ll succeed, and so will your business.
First and foremost, as the founder of a startup, I’ve learned the importance of following your intuition and taking risks. Starting a new company is always risky, and of course, it’s important to do your research and think carefully before you commit. But once youʼve decided to do it, how do you know when is the right time to make the move and whether or not it will all be worth it in the end? As clichéd as this might sound, this is where it becomes important to listen to what your gut is telling you and take an intuitive leap of faith.
In his best-selling book “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell talks about the ways in which our best decisions are often dictated by those gut-level hunches that we have in the flash of an instant, the blink of an eye. Sometimes, over- thinking can be our enemy and a lack of self-confidence our undoing. Gladwell’s book has been criticized recently for downplaying the importance of carefully reasoned decision-making and the value of extensive research, and I take the point. But I still think that intuition has an important role to play in the decision-making processes of entrepreneurs, who often have no choice but to make risky decisions quickly and without any opportunity for gathering more evidence.
Klink was born out of my willingness to look at the information at hand and take an intuitive risk. I had been working in the mobile transfer and pre-paid mobile business for some time, when I recognized that there might be an easier way for customers to replenish their mobile devices other than visiting top-up machines in retail stores. Considering both the rapid rate at which mobile technology was improving and the growing demand for electronic money transfer in developing nations, I couldn’t ignore the extra value that a direct mobile-to-mobile transfer process would bring to the global market. I suddenly knew that now was the time to head out on my own and find some great people to help me start a company that realized the technological potential of mobile-to-mobile money transfer.
Of course, taking intuitive risks is only part of what it means to be a good founder. As the leader of your startup, you are responsible for reaching out and surrounding your company with the very best people, partners, and investors you can find. As I’ve learned, you have to be willing to follow your intuition all the way around the globe, if need be, in order to make the connections that will help your company survive and flourish.
Which is how I found myself in Afghanistan just days after the accidental burning of Korans by U.S. troops led to an outbreak of protests that, according to The Washington Post, left six Americans and thirty Afghans dead. I had been warned against traveling to Afghanistan by so many friends and colleagues that, as I was boarding the plane that would take me from Barcelona to my nine-hour layover in Istanbul, I almost turned around. It would have been so much easier to just back out and go home to Kansas City, but in the end, I am so glad I listened to my gut and got on board.
I was heading to Afghanistan in order to make contact with the nationʼs key mobile operators, and Iʼm proud to say that today Klink has made great strides with many of these companies. But my trip to Kabul brought Klink so much more than new business partners. Experiencing first-hand the stark contrasts between the Afghan and the American banking systems, I got to see just how beneficial mobile-to-mobile money transfer could be in a developing nation. I can now make it clear to investors just how powerful their capital is; their investments not only help to build a business but also help to improve the daily lives of those in less well-to-do nations.
It was inspiring to see the really life-changing effects that mobile-to-mobile technology could have in the region, but the most moving part of my trip was getting to know the people. I will never forget the kindness of my host family, the way they shared their home, their meals, and their warmth with me. During the first night of my stay, I was amazed when aunts, uncles, and cousins from the surrounding neighborhood came to introduce themselves, say goodnight, and literally help tuck me in. Even though our countries have their differences, both Americans and Afghans understand the value of reaching out.
As a founder, you can become so focused on representing the company and doing whatʼs best for business, that you forget to stay true to yourself. My experience with Klink Mobile has taught me that, no matter where you go or how far youʼve come, itʼs essential to maintain a clear sense of your personal style, goals, and values if you want to run a successful business.
I have to confess, as a female founder of a mobile technology startup in the Midwest, I’ve occasionally fallen prey to the worn-out notion that women have to change their personalities in order to fit into a male-dominated business culture. When I started presenting at conferences, I was sometimes asked by other founders and potential investors (most of them male) if I really thought I was the right person to represent Klink Mobile to the public. Was I sure, they would ask with a grin, that I wasn’t too sensitive, too sincere, or even too nice? Soon I was asking myself the very same questions: Could I really run a business? Was I really CEO material? While there are many men and women who have been extremely supportive of my role as a founder, I occasionally faced resistance from the business community and sometimes started to doubt myself.
But when I listened to my gut, I got the right answer. It isn’t so much that I need to change as that entrepreneurial culture is still struggling to adapt to a new era of tech-savvy, female founders who know that being sensitive and sincere and, yes, even nice to those you do business with is an excellent way to guarantee both financial and professional success. As more and more women and men embrace their own unique styles of
entrepreneurship, I’m proud to be “klinking” away on a business venture that is bringing a more exciting, more connected, and more intuitive mobile technology to life.