Last Saturday I went to Y Combinator’s Female Founders Conference in San Francisco, which is possibly the most sexist (and sexiest) conference in the world: Absolutely no men are allowed. Attendees range from YC alumni with a couple startups under their belts to 1st time founders just getting started. All the speakers are women, and many of them are YC alums.

From a field of amazing speakers, two were particularly remarkable. The 1st speech of the day, by Jessica Livingston, was exceptional, as was Adora Cheung’s speech on scaling a growing enterprise.

YC Female Founder: Jessica Livingston

Jessica is one of Y Combinator’s founding partners. Her talk was about company culture.

She first reflected on Y Combinator’s early days in the broader investment landscape. Compared to other early-stage investors, YC did two things distinctly different: first, they created a new structure of investment by investing twice a year in batches at a very early stage; second, they created a unique collection of people that now sums to more than 2,000 YC Founders. At the time, these were not the norm like they are today — they were cultural differences between YC and other means of early-stage investment.

In a company, culture is the people on your team, how you act as a team, and how that team interacts with the world. Company culture is the one thing no one else can copy! Taking care of and nurturing culture is an often forgotten key to success, and I’m thankful to Jessica for sharing her thoughts on how important it is and how YC did it.

But, much more than the content itself, I loved how Jessica told all of us that culture is the competitive advantage of YC that nobody can copy, the primary reason why YC is successful, and that it was largely Jessica’s creation. She built the culture of Y Combinator because she’s better than her co-founders at building it, and it’s her responsibility to do it not because as a non-tech co-founder she was doing “everything else” (as if everything else was not that important) but because she’s excellent at it. She’s the social radar keeping fakers and sociopaths out.

It’s so rare to see a woman own her success, really own it, appropriate the glory for herself. I loved it! And it inspired me to be a better manager and a better founder.

But there is a caveat. The conversation around women in business is often about developing female leadership abilities, empowering women, about helping us believe we can do it too, believe we can own our success.

This advice is limited. Being an outstanding business person takes leadership, yes. And it also takes exceptional business acumen, the ability to identify risks and opportunities, to strategize and plan, good financial knowledge, etc. It’s not just about confidence or belief. It’s also about hard business skills.

YC Female Founder: Adora Cheung

For me, the best business advice of the day came from Adora Cheung.

I’ve heard Adora speak before, both at a YC dinner and one year ago at the 1st Female Founders Conference in Mountain View. With each speech I learn something new. I found this pearl on my notes from last year: “It (starting a company) is a sprinting marathon with mountains, and water that is a mirage after all, and it actually never, ever ends!” More than 18 months into my own company, I can attest: that’s exactly it.

This year, Adora talked to us about scaling a business. Again, she had an amazing metaphor: Scaling is an awkward car race. You start with a terrible cart that you have to race at 200mph, and so you fix it and replace the parts during the race until you end up with a Tesla! Love it!

Listen to her speech to learn about when to scale (hint: do not scale anything until you find product market fit), what type of growth to focus on, and how to scale your product, organization, and self.

And when you’re ready to scale internationally, hit us up — we’ll help you put in place multilingual customer support, translate your newsletters… Sorry, I couldn’t resist — this is Unbabel’s blog after all 😉

Final Thoughts

  1. Watch the videos on YouTube. These are incredibly valuable resources.
  2. I’ve struggled with impostor syndrome for most of my career. Since starting Unbabel, it’s sometimes so strong I can barely face the world. It’s not a male/female thing. We all suffer from it — it’s a Founder thing. We think other startups have it together and we’re the only ones spending our days putting out fires. Hearing Jessica say “Most startups, behind the scenes, are shit shows.” made me feel much better.

To all the aspiring entrepreneurs reading this, male or female, good luck!