Mandela SH Dixon is co-founder at Founder Gym, an online training center that teaches underrepresented founders how to build successful tech startups.
She began her career in Silicon Valley in 2011 as a startup founder backed by Kapor Capital, 500 Startups, and Imagine K12. She led a global entrepreneurial program called Startup Weekend Education that spanned six continents and empowered thousands of entrepreneurs to launch edtech startups. Most recently, Mandela worked at venture capital firm Kapor Capital, where she supported the success of over 120 tech startups. She’s spoken for TEDx, Google, and Facebook. She’sForbes 30 Under 30, LinkedIn’s Top 10 Voices in Venture Capital and Startups, and Medium’s Top 10% of Writers.
In this interview produced by OF10podcast, Will Lucas (OF10podcast host) and Mandela SH Dixon discuss helping people from diverse backgrounds make it in tech and startups, how to know if you have what it takes to build a big company, and how to feed and keep meaningful relationships while building a company.
Note: This portion of the interview is derived from the audio interview heard on the OF10podcast with Will Lucas. To hear the podcast, subscribe in iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
This interview has been edited for length.
Will: We met about five years ago and what I find so amazing about you is that you are a really great communicator. Before I even knew you were an educator in your past life, I thought, she can really teach! You’re just so clear and insightful. So now you’re “back in the classroom” with Founder Gym. How do you see this program in the life cycle of starting a company?
Mandela: I say all the time that my background was as an educator, and that was my first step into the professional world after college. And, yes, I feel like that experience has helped me become a great communicator, but I also think that experience has helped me create a lot of emphasis for people coming into this space who don’t come from traditional backgrounds. So, I make it my priority and my job to ensure that what I am always speaking about is accessible. Just because you speak English and I speak English doesn’t necessary mean that we’re speaking the same language. Vocabulary matters and context matters. It’s really all about meeting people where they’re at. When I was a sixth-grade teacher, and I’ll tell you this Will, most of my students coming through that door were not at a sixth-grade reading level. Again, it’s the awareness of where you are and where you need to get them. I’m proud to say I’ve always made it a priority to never make people feel dumb for what they don’t know. We are all a product of our environment and our experiences. This all plays into Founder Gym, because it’s the first training center for underrepresented tech founders. They reason why we call it a gym is because we really see the entrepreneurial experience as a journey and exercising your knowledge.
Will: How do I know if I have what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur in the tech space? How do I know if I have what’s required to be a Jessica Matthews of Uncharted Power, Michael Seibel of Y Combinator, or a Mandela SH Dixon?
Mandela: You will never know if you have what it takes until you do it. For example, Airbnb founder Brian Chesky compares the tech startup journey to a video game. You know, you start at level one and maybe you have to kill a couple zombies and then slay the dragon at the end. Then you have to go to the next level, and there are more zombies and the dragon is a little bigger, so you have to slay those to get to the next level. So, what he’s saying is that every level of startup success just gets harder and harder. There are always new problems and bigger problems you’ll face, so you don’t know if you can really make it through those until you actually experience them.
Another thing I use to screen a founder is I work to get an understanding for their appetite for risk. Ask yourself ‘when in your life have you faced really hard problems, and have you backed away from those, or did you look the problem straight in the face, and someway, you figured it out?’ A lot of that growth mindset and perseverance can be applied to a tech startup. You need to really understand that this line of business comes with a lot of sacrifices. If you’re in a romantic partnership with someone or dependent on someone, it’s important that you don’t go on this journey alone. Enlist the most important people in your life on this journey, because it will be very hard for them to understand why you’re working so late or why you’re skipping all the parties on the weekends. What happens is that your work ethic can often breed resentment and it can create tension in relationships. I often give founders the insight that it’s not just about you in being ready to do a startup. You need to make sure the people you’ve made commitments to are also ready and okay with you doing a startup. I’m not saying drop your dreams for what everyone else thinks, but, if you’ve made the decision that certain people are important in your life, you need to have a real conversation with yourself and with them on how you’re going to balance it all. Because a startup will take over your life in many ways. And it’s really exciting that it does, because you should be doing a startup that you are incredibly passionate about.
Will: You talk about work-life balance a lot, so talk to me about life in building a startup? How much should my startup take over my life?
Mandela: This is really a personal preference question, because work-life balance is very subjective. To me, my first two hours of my day are dedicated to myself, getting centered and doing what I want to do. And then, the rest of the day is dedicated to my business. But I have checks and balances within the week to really maintain the other things that are important to me. For example, my husband and I have a date night every single week. It’s something to really look forward to – it’s a space in our week dedicated to just us, to really maintain our bond. We also have life meetings. It’s the same construct in building a business in having ongoing meetings with your cofounder. Because I’m building a life with my husband and we need to make sure we’re on the same page about our dreams, our finances, family and all sorts of things. My husband is in tech too, so he’s very busy. What I described works for us, but it may not work for a lot of people. Work-life balance for me and my husband, may not be work-life balance for other people. Success is all about self-awareness and being honest about what you need to fill your cup up. Because some of your cup will be full with romantic relationships, friendships and your career and business. So it’s all about trying your best to accommodate all of them. This is about choosing and designing your life.