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Step down

laroqueI’m currently in a tiny village in the south of France, not far from the Spanish border. I’m here on maternity leave, which has morphed into a whole family sabbatical. My husband is here to write before he cracks on with training to teach, our four year-old is here to spend a term at the local school, and our baby and dogs are just here to soak it all in and stay warm for a while longer than they would back in Brighton.

While out here I am finishing up some research as part of my Clore Social Leadership Fellowship (http://toteachtolead.wordpress.com). I am also in the process of determining what my next steps will be.  I am stepping down as CEO of Spark+Mettle, and moving to become its Chair. It’s a really good time to be going, and we couldn’t have a stronger team in place to take it through its next phase.

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Spark+Mettle has been on a roll since I’ve been on maternity leave. Thanks to Kazvare Knox and her whipsmart team, it has been developing and running a series of programmes to develop character strengths and soft skills awareness to other youth groups. It’s moved into wonderful offices in north London. And, as recently announced, it’s set up an extraordinary partnership with the British Council and HSBC to deliver skills training to schools in nine countries across the Middle East and North Africa. That’s right, it is going global.

I’ve chosen to step down as CEO for a number of reasons. First, I’ve always been aware of the dreaded “founders’ syndrome” and so had only planned to stay at the helm for just 3–5 years. Second, my delight and my strengths lie in getting things off the ground; Spark+Mettle is now moving into a phase where it needs to level off and with that comes a different leadership style. Finally, my work over the last five years has taken me to London a lot. But Brighton is home and it is where I want to be based.  I love a full working day but I have a young family; time with them is precious, not to be truncated by trains. At the same time, Spark+Mettle needs someone at the helm who is a lot more present than I can be.

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I am thrilled that I will be able to take on the role of Chair and support the strategic direction and growth of Spark+Mettle moving forward, while giving space for Kazvare—someone extraordinarily dedicated, talented and focused—to be in charge. It’s been wonderful over the last few months to watch the organisation flourish and demonstrate its independence. It fills me with huge pride and pleasure to see others achieve so much and evolve what was once a teeny tiny kernel of an idea that I had into something that is so much bigger and better than I could have achieved myself.

This is not the end. Far from it. It really is only just the beginning.

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The worn out truth

[With an addendum added 18 May 2013]

This week I was asked, very kindly, to write a short bio about myself that might be pitched to a national paper’s blog. (Thank you, Naomi Kerbel.)

Here’s what I wrote:

Eugenie Teasley is founder and CEO of Spark+Mettle, a youth aspirations agency that builds character strengths, soft skills and networks for marginalised young people. She holds degrees from Oxford University and UC Berkeley. She has taught in south London and has lived and worked in San Francisco. Now aged 32, she lives in Brighton with her husband, son and two dogs. She speaks and writes on topics that centre around flourishing,  entrepreneurship, feminism and youth development. Her blog (www.eugenieteasley.com) is written from the perspective of a young(ish) woman candidly reflecting on her daily thoughts and experiences as she learns to lead an organisation and find a way to balance it with her personal life.

She was sweet about it. But then I realised that I was just putting out the shiny version. Best face and all that. So much for ‘candid’.

Here’s the real version:

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Eugenie Teasley persuaded some (admittedly pretty hotshot) buddies to become trustees to a fledgling idea in 2011. She’s run it mostly from her kitchen. The floor of which is as worn out as she quite often feels. She sends a lot of emails, but can regularly still be found in her pyjamas well after lunch time. For no apparent reason she tends to avoid phone conversations and only listens to voicemail about once a week. She has two dogs and even after her #Flourish40 experiment still barely walks them. She hasn’t cooked anything this month, yet feels disproportionately proud that she folded two baskets’ worth of washing a week ago. Her kid spends so much time with the childminder that he now mimics her facial expressions. She’s just discovered that there is a word for people who refer to themselves in the third person: illeist. She should have know that because her BA was in Classics, but she didn’t because she has forgotten everything she ever learned. Except that ‘education’ means to ‘bring out’ rather than to ‘indoctrinate’. But then again a lot of non-Classicists can figure that out. 

Update, May 18

A wonderful friend just sent me an email with her own ‘unpolished’ bio. It was so brilliant it made me want to ply her with cocktails. It was also so candid it made me realise that my ability to be genuinely candid is clearly more gradated than I first reckoned.

Here’s my Candid 2.0 addendum:

I’m actually a generalist in the disguise of a professional. I tried to create some neat, impressive narrative arc for my life but really it works because a lot is left out—such as I quit my teaching job halfway through the year and moved to San Francisco, primarily for love and only secondarily for a Masters. I love coming up with ideas which means that old ones tend to get replaced by new ones a little bit too often. And although I’m more into date nights than I have previously been, I can be regularly found alone on the sofa looking at my Twitter feed and reading Grazia. What does that magazine choice say about my purported feminism? I mean, I don’t just pick up old ones in hairdressers, I actually buy them with my own cold hard cash. I’m still not comfortable talking about my facial hair management routines. This is the first time I’ve said ‘chin hair’, ever. I run out of money two weeks before the next pay cheque.  I only run a lot because I like to eat at least one chocolate bar a day. And when I say chocolate bar, I mean one of those big Cadbury ones.

San Francisco panorama

Leading women

San Francisco panorama

I’ve just been in San Francisco to talk to people working in the ed-tech space, to figure out where Spark+Mettle should go next and to drink insanely delicious cold-pressed coffee.

I was staying in a “Hacker House”, a first-stop, loft-style hostel for people working—or looking to work—in Silicon Valley. The sort of people who have briefcases rather than backpacks, more into bench-pressing than bong-smoking. So that was good. Less good? There were sixteen people staying there; I was the only woman. Twelve of us slept in an airless dorm. Bunk beds. I haven’t slept in one for about fifteen years. On the third night a nice guy gave me some earplugs so I didn’t have to hear the nocturnal male chorus of farts and snores.

Only one of the sixteen was an out-and-out chauvinist git. He threw out a couple of comments about whether or not I’d be making breakfast for everyone, which I chose to ignore. (He also asked if people in the Czech Republic speak “Czech Republic” and believed it when an Australian jokingly told him New Zealand was part of Australia. He had a hypoallergenic dog and a penchant for pedicures. Hashtag lost cause.)

And asides from a couple of other requests for “a pretty cleaner” to come and tidy the place, the rest of the guys were super cool and respectful. Then again, they were not, in the main, the alpha male type. More like beta males: the engineers and developers, glued to their screens for eight hour stretches, drumming up a new website in a day or two. I learned a lot from them. In fact, they inspired me to sign up for a Rails Girls course asap.

Beyond the four walls of the Hacker House, the entrepreneurs and investors of Silicon Valley were different. Alpha. The few women I met were alpha too: ballsy and sharp. I’d love to meet a female leader who bucks the trend and makes it work.

Many of the conversations I had involved men sitting with their muscled thighs far apart, showing off how big their balls were. That’s metaphorical. Mostly. There were a few good guys I met, including the immensely cool and un-douche-bally Sam Chaudary, founder of the brilliant ClassDojo.  But the residual sensation I was left with was that Silicon Valley—perhaps like other entrepreneur and tech conurbations—was full of a lot of big talk and sly one-upmanship. These are the guys who have nailed the art of the humblebrag. It’s cool that it’s cool to fail round there, I’d like that except it’s pretty dementing that it’s now part of the schtick. Every pitch seems to pivot around the first missteps, and that downgrades their integrity and humility, or so it seemed to me.

iterativeAnd for all its talk of disruptive innovation, the tech start up world is made up of a lot of identikit folk. The relentless jargon, the slacker uniform, the upside-down work schedule: it all smacks of a new take on a traditional old boy’s club or fraternity.  You might not need the tie or a basic knowledge of the Greek alphabet, but you most likely need some biceps and a good line in big talk to get accepted. If you’re not into that—guy or girl— then it does a good job of making you feel excluded, small, un-ambitious, un-exciting.

I went out there with the hope of figuring out where to take Spark+Mettle next, what to focus on, and how to grow. Thanks to a lot of illuminating conversations and a good chunk of time to reflect, I’ve been able to figure out how to kick the organisation into the next gear. It’s pretty exciting. The big new vision: to put Spark+Mettle’s online offer front and centre, to reimagine ourselves as an ed-tech organisation. As we shift our focus, we will continue to provide a pipeline of opportunities for marginalised young people to develop the personal and professional competencies needed to flourish, including paid traineeships. You can find out more in our latest report.

But I also came back with some other things I learned around what it means to be a female leader—and specifically a female entrepreneur in the ball-dragging world of tech start-ups.

  1. I am so lucky to live in a house of my own with a (silent-sleeping, clean-smelling) husband and kid.
  2. I am so grateful to have as a partner a man who is all man and at the same time 100% supportive of what I do, with no gendered view about who of us should be doing what at home or outside of it. He’s smart and insanely hard-working and progressive and liberal, and the more men I meet, the more I realise what a cool catch I caught.
  3. Investors and funders invest in the team. Their eyes also light up at growth curves that make a half pipe look tame. But it’s the team they want to know about. Are you ready to bust their balls to make it work? Are you smart? Are you hungry? Those are their questions. The business model, the market—they’ll change. But the team will stay. So it’s vital as a female leader or founder to be able to pitch yourself with confidence and without apology.
  4. There’s a lot of innovation in the tech space, and there’s a ton of interest in emerging ed-tech companies. But the boot-strapping, fast-failing business plans haven’t proved themselves yet. And the competitive, big-balls-club climate means that the  chest-beaters are the ones who get the funding to make their stuff, leaving other neat solutions made by quieter folk to fall by the wayside. So it’s important to find a way to sound loud, however that best suits you.
  5. If you want to be a power player, or just a player, in tech or enterprise or innovation, you can just pick up the rules and play the game. (Albeit in heels. Or not.) But for anyone, like me, who wants to take a more collaborative, complementary approach to solving social problems with tech-based solutions, we have to remember that we’re going against the grain. To disrupt the disrupter scene, we have to spend time forming compelling arguments that will resonate not just with the likeminded, but also with the kind of guys who like to kiss their guns.
Dolores Park, San Francisco

Blue sky thinking

 

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Super entrepreneurs: ditch the ego and don some pants.

What makes a successful entrepreneur?

It would be so great to know the answer to that. And then there was me, being asked to give an answer to that question, in front of a bunch of brilliant young people. Last week. At The Company—a new project run by ever-awesome London youth centre The Winch.

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Man. Me? Answer THIS?

First up, I run a CHARITY. Success has a different meaning in my world. If only I knew more about it in the corporate, for-profit sense. Seriously. My idea of success is not everyone’s, at the same time I need to know more about theirs.

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Second up, I don’t really bill myself as an ENTREPRENEUR. I’ve now been trying to run Spark+Mettle for the last two years, and I’m a bit tired of all the ego-stroking, trumpet-blowing that can go on in Entrepreneur Land. It can get even WORSE when you stop off in Social Entrepreneursville for a while, because there, dotted amongst the helium egos and loud trumpets, are all the very high moral pedestals on which many of these people sit, thinking that having a social purpose makes all their other character flaws okay.

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I’m kinda over all that shit. I don’t have time. I have time for people who think beyond themselves and see themselves as one dot among many. Not falsely humble, but just aware of what they can do, and how they can fit alongside others. People like Cassie Robinson (see pic). I’d quite like her to run things for a bit.

So, back to me and The Company. What did I say to these young people?

Firstly, that I was ill-equipped to answer the question. I posed a number of questions instead. Classic teacher. And I brought superheroes into play. Because that’s always fun. And likely not all that original. Ah well.

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Here’s the guts of what I said, minus the gesticulations and stupid asides:

  1. Entrepreneurs are like superheroes [I brought along copies of crummy superhero kids’ magazines]. They have their key strength or power, but they also have their vice. And, crucially, they have a purpose, a reason for doing what they’re doing. That’s them. But then there’s also the world that they are in. They have a sense about the opportunities that they can take, as well as the enemies or threats that exist. I asked them all some questions:
    1. What’s your key strength?
    2. And vice?
    3. And purpose?
    4. Where’s your opportunity to do super awesome stuff?
    5. What enemies or threats exist that will thwart you?
  2. Entrepreneurs, like superheroes, need a utility belt. Different people need different things on theirs. But pretty much all of us need this one thing: insight and understanding into who we are and how we fit and what we can do. My question: what else other than this insight do you want to strap onto your utility belt? Different tools that I suggested might be useful for some entrepreneur superheroes could include [note how I try to make this as non-prescriptive as possible, but still somehow wind up creating a list]:
    1. Energy
    2. Grit or mettle or determination or whaddevveryawannacallit
    3. Vision
    4. Humour [PLEEEEASE]
    5. Self-esteem (not ego)
    6. A pressing urge to do something different
    7. Ability to make lists, and then revise them [I just added this point in, about five hours after publishing the original post].
  3. There are two types of superhero. Firstly, there are the lone avengers—the Supermans—out fighting Bad Stuff all by themselves. They’re into saving people. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how gender neutral/equal rights they are.  They’re pretty combative and competitive. Then there are the teams—the X-Men—all of whom have different strength and vices, but when they work collectively they are rad to the power of sick [stole that phrase from Dil Lalloo]. These guys, they are collaborative, their skills complementary. And, lo!, I asked of the crowd:
    1. What type of superhero are you?
    2. How can you work best with others? What powers do you lack that you could find in others?
  4. And then to my grand, sweeping conclusion: superheroes—and entrepreneurs—aren’t born but made. They are made by themselves, and they are also made by the people around them. The skills and strengths we need to be successful aren’t extraordinary, but just ordinary stuff we’ve worked damned hard to improve. Encouragement and support from others is a bit like the added bonus of a cape: not entirely necessary, but it makes us feel good, look good and maybe even go a bit faster. My final thought? That if there were less ego, and more let’s go figure this out together, then this world would be WONDERFUL. Until then, let’s just go put our pants outside our trousers.

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