Stacy Stubblefield, the co-founder of US communications company TeleSign, shares her inspiring story of becoming a successful entrepreneur.
We got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interview Stacy to talk about her business and the role of women in the industry.
- What was the inspiration behind Telesign? Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?
Yes, I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur! Entrepreneur magazine was one of my favourite things to read as a child (I was a strange kid), and I started several small businesses when I was very young to fund various goals I had. There was never a question in my mind that I’d eventually have my own company as an adult.
- As someone without a hardcore tech background, how challenging was it to take Telesign beyond the concept phase? Can you describe what that process was like?
It was difficult but not impossible, very similar to most other challenges you have when you start a company. When we first created the product, we had no idea what we were doing and actually ran the entire service from a few servers in our office kitchen 🙂 But as we gained traction, we quickly realised that we needed the help of people with a bit more experience, so we brought them in to professionalize the technology. No matter what challenges you face in business, the key is just to learn quickly and find a solution, which is exactly what we did.
- Congratulations on being a presenter at the TADSummit in Lisbon. I see that you’re the only female presenter among the 35 overall presenters. What are your thoughts on female representation at higher levels, especially in STEM fields?
I hadn’t noticed that I was the only female presenter, but this isn’t surprising. It’s pretty typical for females to be underrepresented at events related to these fields, although that just reflects their underrepresentation across these industries as a whole.
- I was informed that you started a successful web development firm at the age of 12. That’s pretty incredible! What was that experience like?
It was an awesome experience and I learned an incredible amount. My parents were always very good about encouraging me to take chances and try new things, so they supported me when I announced that I was starting a web development company. I’d already taught myself HTML (which was much simpler in the 90s than it is today), so the main challenge was bringing in new clients and learning how to work with them so that we achieved the results they were looking for. I learned a lot about sales and perseverance during that time, as well as how to communicate with clients and understand their needs, which are skills I still use today.
- What are some of the challenges you’ve faced, as a female entrepreneur, and how did you overcome them?
There have been times when people I’ve talked to have assumed that I’m not technical and that I have a more traditionally “female” role at our company. In these cases, I do one of two things. 1) If I need to get more information from this person, I play dumb and ask a lot of questions. It seems that people are far more willing to provide highly detailed information to people whom they don’t find threatening. 2) If I need this person to respect me, I slowly elevate the level of technical/industry conversation until I find their ceiling and then keep the remainder of the conversation right around this point, sometimes going just above it. This is usually effective for making it clear that I know what I’m talking about. Either way, I look at it as a game and try to use their assumptions to my advantage as much as possible.
- According to you, what would really help improve gender parity in STEM fields?
To me, it looks like the gender gap in STEM fields – especially technology – is starting to shrink. I think as tech becomes more and more mainstream, the social stigma of being a tech “geek” is disappearing. People are starting to realize that working in tech is a great opportunity, regardless of their gender. In general, though, I think it’s important not to make assumptions about what fields women should participate in. It’s not unusual for people to congratulate me for doing so well in tech, “especially as a woman”. I always find this odd because it contains the inherent assumption that women should not be able to do well in tech. But why not? Women should realize that there’s absolutely no reason they shouldn’t excel in STEM fields and instead make the assumption that they will do just as well as their male peers.
- What piece of advice would you give to women who want to start their own business?
Three pieces of advice: 1) Don’t focus on the fact that you’re a woman starting a business. You’re a person starting a business. Create value, solve problems, and stay confident. 2) Work with people you trust who have skills that complement your own. I cannot overstate the value of working with people you trust. These are people you’re probably going to be seeing 12+ hours per day and going through some major highs and lows with. You will not survive if everyone isn’t committed to the team. 3) Your clients/customers are the only people whose opinions matter. Make sure you understand them inside and out because, without them, you have no business.