Taking the Startup Plunge

by Sandy Jen
09/24/2007

Sandy Jen is a co-founder of meebo in Mountain View.

Quitting my first job out of college to start a startup in Silicon Valley was one of the most terrifying, but exciting, decisions I've ever made. Two years later, my lifestyle has become one of impromptu development meetings, last-minute design discussions, server emergencies, and some of the best all-nighters I've ever had. When I recall my experiences, it's very natural to talk about the great people with whom I work, the challenges of getting a company off the ground, and, currently, the transition meebo is making into a revenue-generating business.

It's very unnatural however, for me to think about my role at meebo, in the Silicon Valley ecosystem, in the light of being a female. For me, that variable has never been part of the equation.

Silicon Valley, for all its hype and fame, is quite a small place. I tend to run into familiar faces around town, conversation topics tend to float from crowd to crowd, and different coffee shops rotate being "the place" to meet up and discuss the latest technology trends or startup gossip.

Despite its small size, the innovation, nurturing, and enthusiasm for creating wonderful products and ideas is amazing. As a first time entrepreneur, the environment here is fertile and encouraging; once you open the door, the amount of experience and knowledge that is accessible to you is unparalleled. It might be a bit cliché to say that Silicon Valley is special, but because I've experienced it personally, I have to say it's the truth.

Having helped start a company in the Valley, I am often asked by students, reporters, and peers what it's like to be an entrepreneur, how I got started, what struggles I faced, and how I overcame different types of challenges. People are genuinely interested in my experiences and what I've learned. Since I'm naturally shy, it's always surprising to me when the answers I give satisfy and, at times, inspire them. Not once however, in the two years of founding meebo, has a budding entrepreneur asked me what it was like to found a startup as a woman.

Thinking about it, I suppose it is a rare occurrence for two out of the three co-founders of a technology startup to be female, and even rarer that both are developers. That fact has not escaped me. but it's always been sort of an afterthought, an "Oh, I guess that's true" sort of realization. I've only been an entrepreneur and a developer for a short time compared to other veterans, but the challenges, the self-doubt, the weighing of risk and reward, and all the other scary considerations that go along with starting a venture seem pretty universal to me. Even if I am one of handful of women in a mostly male industry, the camaraderie I've developed with my peers is no less strong or rewarding because of it.

On the purely technical side, there are multiple aspects to being a developer and, of course, a large part of that is your technical contribution. In the world of bits and bytes, code and design, gender plays no role; the part you played in the resulting product speaks for itself. People who are interested in finding out about how meebo works are only interested in the code that I've written and the problems that I've solved; they see me as a developer, not as a female developer. When I dive into a technical discussion, everyone gets excited at the concepts that we talk about, the ways to solve a problem, and the possible implementations. The fact that you're a man or a woman is a non-issue, it's all about being part of the team. The fact that the team might be comprised mostly of men makes no difference in my eyes; we're all working towards the same goal and that shared sense of accomplishment erases all prejudices. I've never seen anything from my teammates that would make me believe that they feel otherwise.

In response to an interview, Elaine Wherry (my co-founder) posted a blog entry about how she's never really identified herself by her gender, but rather by her roots, her family, and her degree. I agree wholeheartedly, and the people with whom we work and meet seem to do the same. Regardless of gender, there's risk, fun, excitement, and lots of learning on the road to starting a company.

It would be unfair for me to downplay the inequalities that other women have experienced, and I cannot express enough gratitude to those women in the past who fought and won battles for the rest of us. I've grown up in an industry where my classmates, peers, friends, and co-workers are usually men; perhaps that's affected my attitude and the way I see things. However, in my eyes, my gender has never gotten in the way of my goals nor has it had any negative effects on the paths I want to follow.

There is definitely a stereotypical mold of a male coder/founder, but in my career (even if it has been rather short as of now), no one has ever held that against me. I'm fortunate and grateful for all the opportunities that I've been given, and I couldn't have asked for a better job than the one I have now. Professionally, I've never thought of myself as fitting into any mold but the one that I've created: entrepreneur, developer, and most importantly, me. :)


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