The story of a bear in a bathroom, a hackathon, a blue ribbon and a rodeo belt .
What’s your spirit animal? I love this question. I take online quizzes to answer this question and for a lot of my life, I would have proudly declared myself some sort of elegant and fast feline. But now, after 8 years of juggling a demanding career in Silicon Valley while having and raising 2 young kids, I have come to fully embrace my bear spirit. I have many stories of how this bear spirit has grown inside me over the years, but the one I will share today is the first of hopefully many times in which I let my animal spirit fully shine.
A bit of background on me: for my whole life, or at least all of it that I can remember, I’ve wanted to start my own company and also make a difference in the world. I’ve wanted to do these things, but they’ve always just been one job or one skill away in my mind. These unmet goals were not a result of lack of hard work, but rather a lack of confidence and focus.
I’ve worked my ass off since I was 14, whether it was selling kitchen knives door-to-door during my summer vacations, scooping gelato and waitressing at a diner while at school, or working 8–5 as a writer at an ad agency only to then work from 6–11 making gelato professionally, I am no stranger to hard work, and juggling.
I’m the master of juggling. I could win a juggling award.
I work hard and I do good work, and over the last 12 years I’ve been building my career in product management and marketing in the tech industry with no slowdown in my dedication to it. In fact, having kids only made me ramp up my juggling prowess. I’ve been determined to not let my right to be a mother diminish my right to ascend my career like anyone else, even at the cost of my health and happiness, but that is for another story.
So I’ve worked hard and I have a career and a resume that I know many would envy. But I was always feeling bad about myself for not doing the thing I wanted to do, the thing I really wanted: to start my own company, focused on something I cared about deeply. I have little patience for people that CAN do things, say they want to, BUT DON’T. As my career rose I became increasingly down on myself, ashamed of my inaction when I have the luxury and privilege of a safety net of supporters, and a resume that can get me back in the game if all else fails.
Every year I shied away from my dreams with yet another lame excuse like needing more skills, needing to be a better public speaker, needing to know the right people, needing to be an engineer, needing to be a man. All of this while working in a world where so many successes seemed to be led by a 23–26 year old man, with far less experience than me, but what seemed like a lot less fear. My excuses would evolve, but they all came from the same place of insecurity, the place where my imposter syndrome would flare up, the place where my teenage self-hating voice was loudest in my head.
But after years of letting that place of self-doubt rule my life, one day I pressed mute on the voices that came from there. I told them to shut the fuck up and leave me alone.
I became a bear, and it was magical.
I was at a hackathon called Apps for Ag (Ag, meaning agriculture). For the past two years prior to this event I had been moving toward my dream, slowly lining things up. I’d let my employer know about my ultimate goals and a potential upcoming “side project,” but I planned only for baby steps. My insecurity ruled out any leaps and bounds. I had to test things out first, see if the world would even take me seriously, try and build something small with little tech and then see where things went. Writing it now, I cringe a little, because that is not who I am. I am generally a BOLD leader; I like to tackle things head on, but this dream was so near to my heart that my insecurities won in the fight to protect it.
But not on this day. About 6 months prior, I told my husband that I finally decided what I wanted to work on. I had been considering many ideas over the past several years and I finally chose to focus on the food and agriculture space, an area I have always cared about. Josh was thrilled, as he also cares deeply about agriculture and food; it’s one of the reasons we moved to Davis from SF two years ago. About 5 months later he discovered the Apps for Ag hackathon and on a whim I signed us up.
When the hackathon came round, I got nervous and went into self-sabotage mode. The event was Friday-Sunday, so I said we could just “check things out,” meet people on Friday, and bail early before joining a team so no one would be disappointed. I made no child care plans, thinking it would be the perfect excuse for not being able to join a team. I even made plans for a Saturday, family outing at a local tomato festival.
I had a morning commitment on that Friday, but Josh got to the hackathon early and texted me to come soon so I didn’t miss the opening pitches. Phew, I thought, I’ll get there too late and we’ll have to bow out with no fuss. But when I got there, none of the pitches had started at all.
I still had an easy out, but when I looked around and saw that there were few women participants in the room, like many tech events I go to, I didn’t want to leave without making any mark. With a bit of encouragement from Josh, I did something I never had dreamed I’d do, I asked to pitch my idea to the crowd with no advance prep. I whipped together 5 slides and before heading to the women’s bathroom asked the organizer if I could project my slides for my pitch.
There was no way out at that point, so for what may have been the first time in my life, I kicked my insecurity completely to the curb and I let my dream take center stage. But before hitting the stage, in the bathroom, I remembered what a Google exec, Johanna Wright once said at a Women TechMakers event. She said when you’re nervous going into a meeting and doubting yourself, go in the bathroom, look in the mirror, raise your arms and roar like a bear. I did exactly that. I raised my arms up and I roared like a bear in the women’s bathroom, which was conveniently empty that day. And that great, big bear roar kept all those nasty thoughts of self-doubt at bay.
I got up in front of the room and I told them about myself. I told them I was concerned with how disconnected we’ve become from our food sources and the people that actually feed us, that I believed that building communities around food and helping people grow their own food and eat more locally could have an impact on their health and happiness. It could have an impact on the world.
I pitched a few of my app ideas that included helping people know what to grow based on their location using several data sources, connecting experts, local gardeners and farmers with one another and a way for people to put extra produce up on a marketplace to reduce food waste. I said it all with a kind of clarity and conviction that only comes when you are speaking about something you deeply care about and that is unhampered by fear.
Participants and industry experts sponsoring the event, including Gabe Youtsey, CIO at the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Bobby Jones, Chief Data Officer at the USDA, had questions and I was ready for them. I was in my element and I loved every minute of it.
Then it was time to sit down. And the bear in me let her guard down for one brief second, letting me think for a moment that maybe I had totally failed, that people only gave me the time of day because I was a woman, the only woman to speak. This internal struggle played out through the last pitch of the day, until it was time for participants to choose their teams.
I put on my casual, confident face, the one I’ve perfected over the years to mask my imposter syndrome when in meetings with tech execs or on stage when talking to industry folks. I had my mask on as Josh and I stood up and chatted a few seconds, and when two engineers walked over and said they liked my idea and wanted to work on it with me.
Me? Wait, me?
Hell, yeah…ME! That’s right. Two engineers I have never met want to work with ME. My internal bear won and roared on the inside. Grrrrrr!
The four of us (the two engineers, plus my husband and I) worked for nearly 48 hours straight. Our amazing community of friends took care of our children, creating an impromptu summer camp rotation for them while we fully participated in the hackathon. After 2 days of product management, coding and presentation prep we found ourselves pitching our idea and our tech to a panel of judges at the California State Fair that Sunday.
And as you probably guessed, we won! We won awesome prizes including some money, office space and support from AgStart, legal advice from Royse Law Firm, and we also won California State Fair blue ribbons and rodeo belts to boot.
Appropriately, our enviable rodeo belts have the California state animal on it: one big, badass grizzly bear. This bear is out of her cage now, folks, so watch out!
Learn more about what we plan to launch soon at givinggarden.io