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The White Elephant in the Room

blog - Monique Woodard

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk [CC / Flickr]

This post originally appeared on Medium.

white el·e·phant
a possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of.

The White Elephant in the Room

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk [CC / Flickr]

This weekend, I was at a 3-day event for Project Entrepreneur — an initiative from UBS and the founders of Rent the Runway to find, fund, and support women entrepreneurs. Black Founders is a Community Advisor for Project Entrepreneur and we facilitated some of the weekend’s sessions on product iteration, legal, and pitch critiques to the mostly female crowd.

I met brilliant women founders who are starting companies that create biometric sensor systems for clothing, help you self-manage hypertension, and plan for end of life. Despite the supportive environment, all of the great discussions, and wonderful connections made between women founders over the weekend, we’ve all latched onto one moment — The White Guy Question™.

I’ve heard The White Guy Question™ from men of color and women of all backgrounds, but I hear it most often from women of color.

This weekend, the question came from a black woman with a PhD who is the inventor of a medical device and holds a patent. So yeah…she’s always way smarter than most of the people in the room.

Should I bring a white guy to my pitches to give me more credibility with investors?

This time, The White Guy Question™ had an answer…and it was the wrong one. The response from keynote speaker and Skinnygirl CEO Bethenny Frankel was an affirmation that ‘yeah, maybe you should bring a white guy to investor meetings if you feel that is what is holding back your business’.

It felt like a suckerpunch to women of color and counter to so much of what we’ve all been working toward in supporting women entrepreneurs.

I tell founders all the time that lots of smart people are going to give you bad advice and this nugget from Bethenny was epically shitty advice.

Why the White Guy Question™?

The White Guy Question™ is bred from acknowledged cultural bias and wanting your startup to succeed by any means necessary. Women get less than 5% of venture capital funding and according to a recent Project Diane report, only 11 startups led by black women have raised over $1 million in funding.

Outside of that data, we pass along the stories of showing up at a VC firm and having the investor you’re pitching think you’re there to take notes or set up the laptop for the ‘real’ founder who must be pitching.

Many underrepresented founders feel that while they can have the confidence of a mediocre white man, bias will still keep them from succeeding.

Solution: bring in a white sidekick and investors will make it rain.

But here’s one very practical reason why you don’t want to find a white guy to be your mouthpiece.

The way you start it is the way you’ll end it

Let’s just say that you decide to bring the white guy who’s just there to be the white guy and you do indeed get funded.

  • Now you have to trot out this same white guy every time you have a board meeting.
  • When you have to make a hard decision about hiring or firing a member of the executive team, the board is going to turn to the white guy and ask for his opinion on how to structure your team.
  • You been working for weeks validating a new product line? Guess who they’re going to ask to explain how this affects the economics of the current business?

You’ve given away your power and agency in the company you started.

Some investors are just always going to feel more comfortable backing and believing in a person who looks like them — often another white guy. This isn’t the investor you want. You don’t want the investor who automatically turns to the man in the room when it’s time to answer a question about finance or the underlying technology.

You want the investor who you can count on in the hardest of hard times and you’ll find those investors by never introducing the white guy in the first place.

The collective ‘nah’

There are a lot of events where Bethenny’s comment would have gone by unchecked.

But not on this day and not in this room.

Dear White People

Photo credit: Dear White People (Lionsgate)

Throughout the room and at every table, there were women of color. The four black women at my table weren’t going to ignore the comment. The women like Mary Pryor who stood up and succinctly told Bethenny just how wrong she was were not going to give her a pass.

At this conference, we had a voice.

That was able to happen because Project Entrepreneur made it a priority to have women of color in the audience.

We didn’t need a white guy in the room that weekend and we don’t need one when we go pitch.

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The Digital Detox

blog - Monique Woodard

Photo credit:

A digital detox sounds like something pretentious people do – like a juice cleanse, but for phones and stuff.

And no one needed one more than I did.

My routine is the same every morning. Wake up. Pick up the phone from where it’s buried in my bed. Read and return emails. Tweet. Facebook. Secret. WhatsApp. All before my feet hit the floor. I am extremely connected. There is no “off” button.

I also sleep with all manner of books, laptops, iPads, notebooks, and magazines crowding my bed. I’m a mess.

And I am not alone.

83% of Americans don’t dedicate any part of their day to just thinking.

A study by the University of Virginia found that people who were asked to sit in a room and spend 15 minutes doing nothing would rather give themselves a self-administered electric shock. Most people would prefer an unpleasant activity/experience than none at all.

Let that sink in.

I’d like to think that I’m not quite at the place where I’m willing to give myself an electric shock for entertainment, but it’s close.

So I jumped at the chance to disconnect and hang out with my friends at a private campsite outside Fall River Mills — a sleepy town 300 miles from San Francisco and a world away from the constant activity of a hyper-connected life. Okay, when my friend asked me how many pillows I would need, I realized it was more glamping, than camping, but I still had no cell phone service and intentionally left my laptop at home.

What do you do during a digital detox?

From a purely activity standpoint, I hiked, I boated, I laid out in the sun, I went to a thrift shop and bought a hipster typewriter (stop judging me).

But unplugging from the internet also gave me a huge creative boost.

I was able to read two books that I really wanted to finish and would have taken me weeks to finish had I been at home with all the responsibilities and YouTube Beyonce videos that internet access allows. I outlined future blog posts. And most importantly, I reconnected with friends and had the time and space to let my mind wander.

So do whatever makes you happy…that doesn’t involve the internet.

How can you do your own digital detox?

First: stop Tweeting, Instagramming, Facebooking or whatever else you’re doing.

A digital detox is nothing but turning off everything that sucks you into media and the internet. Phones. Tablets. Televisions. All of it.

Being forced to disconnect is effective. There are plenty of yoga and meditation retreats and now an entire cottage industry has cropped up around helping the tech addicted let it all go.

Camp Grounded is the “summer camp for adults” in Anderson Valley, CA where you’ll pay $500 to disconnect for a weekend and do non-internety things like playing games, cooking without the aid of, and singing campfire songs. It sounds a lot like the Girl Scout camp I went to when I was a kid and I’ve heard it’s awesome, so if you have the inclination and disposable income, go for it.

But a digital detox doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t even have to take you out of your city (although there’s something to be said for a forced disconnection and change of scenery). Take some time to wander around a bookstore, go for a walk, or sit in your apartment and just BE.

Digital detoxing should happen much more often than once a year. Try to plan an internet-free day once a month. I’m not even there yet, but what would it be like if you could completely disconnect for one day a week?


What did you bring back with you?

Even before I disconnected for a few days, I was starting to get worried about how being super-connected was affecting my health and wellness. I wasn’t sleeping well, my neck and back were sore all the time, and there wasn’t a moment where I wasn’t thinking about work or the next big thing.

A lot of people would say that the first thing you should do is remove your mobile phone from the bed. I still sleep with mine; but, I’ve started doing yoga more often and before I dive into the alerts on my phone, I hit the mat. Some people start the day with meditation. Whatever your kink is, find it.

I’ve also been carving out time to get massages, read actual physical books (from the library no less), and spend time connecting with my friends offline.

I’m never going to be the sort of person who regularly goes for days without checking their email or sending a Tweet, but I can find more daily balance and carve out time to hit the reset button with a complete digital detox every few months.


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Can hackathons encourage civic action and political advocacy?

Government & Civic Innovation - Monique Woodard

Hackathons were once the playground of programmers — where 36 hours of caffeine-fueled code would result in interesting applications of new APIs and technology and some gadgety prizes. But lately, we’ve seen the rise of hackathons that use technology to solve social problems where the prize is the warm hug of feeling like you did something to impact government or advocate for a social issue.

There are hackathons for homelessness, affordable housing, and gun safety. Initiatives like the National Day of Civic Hacking (May 31 – June 1) pulls in civic geeks, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and civic organizations and encourages everyone to #hackforchange. The products that come out of this address issues of public safety, disaster management, and civic art.

I’ve seen great things come out of civic hackathons — mobile products that help the manual workforce find labor jobs using SMS or ways to rethink money management for the unbanked and underbanked.

HandUp is one of my favorite social impact startups. It allows you to send a donation to a person in need via web or text where they can use the money at approved locations to puchase food, clothing, or medical care. It starts from the really simple premise that people want to give to homeless people but are hesitant to give money on the street because 1) they don’t have cash and 2) are afraid that the money won’t go to essentials. HandUp didn’t come out of a hackathon, but it’s exactly the sort of idea that could.

A hackathon will never ‘disrupt homelessness’ (*shudder*) or provide the one-stop cure for many other challenges cities face, but hackathons can inspire ideas to alleviate the effects of poverty and provide a jumping off point for social change.

What a hackathon can do is:

  • Give the tech community a familiar avenue to get involved with social issues
  • Gather new thinking around solutions to a problem
  • Create prototypes that can be used to partner with hacker teams on further development

 Here’s what a hackathon won’t do:

  • Solve [insert major social issue] in a weekend
  • Allow a civic organization or government agency to walk away with a fully-featured product that solves all their problems


I also believe that you can use the hackathon model to encourage online advocacy and growth hack our way to real time political action.

I’ve been working with Hackers/Founders and on DEBUG DC — the first political growthathon to growth hack immigration reform. We believe that we can get developers, growth hackers, data scientists, and UI/UX designers to use the levers of technology to influence constituents in the most important districts — the ones that have been holding out on reform — and encourage them to take political action and contact their Congressional representatives with a demand for reform.

It’s a unique form of online advocacy that empowers the average person and provides them with a way to immediately take action.

But there are a lot of questions we haven’t answered yet:

How do you use publicly available information to concentrate your efforts and identify the people most likely to want reform? Which mashups of APIs and data will compel people to complete a fairly low-tech (phone call, letter, or postcard) action? And will a sustained period of constituent activity really change the minds of the politicians who are holding out?

Politics is a complicated game. There’s an analog level of back-channeling and deal-making that technology hasn’t yet touched. The bug in the system is that those Washington DC deals often have nothing to do with the needs of constituents back home.

DEBUG DC brings the fight to a Congressperson’s backyard by rallying people in their home districts who are just as mad about immigration reform as we are.

We might not solve America’s immigration problems in on weekend, but if you put a bunch of smart people in the room and ask them to figure out how to motivate people to make their voices heard, I believe that we can create a groundswell of activity that will be difficult to ignore.

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Let’s Make it Official: Starbucks Should be the Next Big Thing In Coworking

blog, Innovation - Monique Woodard
Another day at Starbucks by Ed Yourdon, on Flickr

Photo credit: Ed Yourdon, Flickr

When 6 out of 10 of the world’s most valuable brands are tech companies, you can understand why non-tech consumer brands would want some of that tech fairy dust to rub off on them.

The Starbucks highlight reel is full of examples where the brand has used technology to connect with their customers and give them the best experience both in-store and online. Chief Digital Officer Adam Brotman has pushed forward a digital strategy that smartly combines web, mobile, social, and in-store to make them one of the most tech-focused food and beverage brands. They made a $25 million investment in Square, using their technology to power their POS system and the CEO of Starbucks took a year-long board seat at the payments company. The Starbucks mobile app is one of the most downloaded from a food and beverage company, with mobile payments making up 14% of their in-store sales. They’ve rolled out wireless charging stations in some Silicon Valley locations and their Clover brewing machines are controlled from the cloud.

Starbucks has also been acquiring companies and taking steps to make themselves more than the place where you get your morning coffee fix. They’ve  introduced beer and wine in select locations to extend patronage into the evening and acquired La Boulange bakery to improve their food selections. Since acquiring Teavana, the chain is taking advantage of America’s growing tea culture by opening Teavana Fine Teas + Tea Bar locations in both New York and Seattle.

But Americans still spend the largest part of their day doing one thing — working. And as more people embrace freelance careers and entrepreneurship, the need for permanent office space has declined while the hunt for flexible workplaces has risen.

Coworking and the new gig economy

I live in a building that has a Starbucks in the lobby. When I go downstairs for my daily macchiato, I run into startup founders, I overhear lots of business chatter, and I can look over at the next Macbook and see lines of code being written. I’ve been known to take many meetings over a latte or bring my work there for the silent companionship that I can’t get at my home office. Starbucks isn’t just for coffee anymore. It has become the de facto workspace for the creative class and in urban cities like San Francisco, it is a gathering place for entrepreneurs, freelancers, and anyone who doesn’t need to be tethered to a desk.

According to an Intuit report on the future of small business, over 40% of the US workforce will be freelance, temporary, part-time, contract, or specialists by the year 2020.

The US government hasn’t counted this growing sector of the workforce since 2006, but even then, there numbers were impressive — 42.6 million or 30% of the total workforce were these non-permanent or contingent workers. Today, more than 80% of large corporations report that they plan to increase their use of contingent workers in the coming years.

As the number of freelance and contingent workers has risen, so has the of number of people starting small businesses. There are almost 28 million small businesses in the US and 52% of all small businesses are home based or without formal office space.

A growing number of entrepreneurs and CEO’s have begun to embrace the ‘coffee shop as office’ concept not only for themselves, but for their employees as well.

The shift to mobile devices and cloud technology combined with the ubiquitous availability of broadband has made location flexibility feasible for many more types of workers. Technology has helped make the worker sitting in a Starbucks in SoMa just as connected as the one sitting in her cubicle. She can share documents using Dropbox, use the Asana app to update you on her progress from her smartphone, and be an active part of your weekly team meeting via Google Hangout.

The future of work is more independent than ever before and as the global workforce shifts to freelance, many of them will be looking for a place to set up shop.

How much better could Starbucks make that experience by taking the office hack that people are already doing and improving the time that workers spend in their location?

The business model behind coffee + coworking

Starbucks branded coworking spaces would exist completely outside the current retail locations and provide flexible workspaces on an hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly basis. And of course, the coffee would be discounted with a monthly pass.

These spaces would be customized to meet the needs of the technologically savvy and  untethered worker. Desks and seating areas that are more conducive to spending long hours in front of a laptop. Nooks with privacy screens for more intimate conversations. Faster wi-fi. Better lighting. More power outlets. Please god, more power outlets. Allow customers to both pay for their coworking time and order up a frappuccino directly from the Starbucks mobile app.

These coworking spaces would merge the independent worker’s pre-existing affinity for the Starbucks brand with more desk space and the human desire for community and camaraderie. Independent workers have already adopted Starbucks as their unofficial office space and they will pay for something they’re already doing for free if it provides a better experience.

Challenges of real estate and operations

Coffee plus coworking isn’t a new concept. The biggest challenge has been getting the economics to work out. And despite what you might see in your neighborhood coffee shop, Starbucks isn’t in the coworking business, they’re in the coffee-selling business.

Running a coworking space isn’t a trivial task. There are both real estate and operational challenges to consider. The larger footprint required would mean increased real estate costs for the company. Coworking spaces would need to be located in urban business corridors where their storefronts can generate foot traffic with street frontage and prominent signage.

Starbucks is great at running coffee shops, but bona fide coworking would be a new concept. They could partner with a company whose business is coworking to manage the operational aspects that make these spaces work. The partner would contribute market knowledge, operational expertise, and agility while Starbucks contributes the firepower of a global brand.

Started from the Bottom: Garages to Coffee Shops

The Menlo Park garage where Google started

Larry Page and Sergey Brin in the Menlo Park garage where they started Google

Even though technology keeps us constantly connected, I can tell you that being an independent worker can be a lonely business. There is no office water cooler where you gather to exchange industry gossip, trade contacts, or help your fellow worker. Social media and industry blogs give back some of those connections, but shared working spaces foster those face-to-face interactions that create community and help those in the new economy remain connected to other professionals.

Creating this new type of Starbucks experience is less about coworking or even about freeing up space in the retail stores taken up by customers who camp out for hours at a time. It positions Starbucks as a brand that understands the modern consumer and the place of work and community in our evolving lifestyle.

The tech company that started in a garage is a very Silicon Valley story. Apple famously started in a Los Altos garage. Google started in Susan Wojcicki’s garage in Menlo Park. Much further north, Jeff Bezos started Amazon out of his garage in the suburbs of Seattle.

With more people starting tech companies and barriers to entry lower than ever, the next wave of startup mythos could very well be the story of the billion dollar company that started in a Starbucks.

Starbucks, when you roll out these coworking spaces, I only have one request: don’t make the music suck.


Yo dawg, I heard you like Starbucks

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