Big Ideas Judge Jill Finlayson: Mentoring and Marveling at Founders

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By Veena Narashiman

There are few people as committed to judging the Big Ideas Contest as Jill Finlayson. A lifelong advocate of mentorship and a graduate of UC Berkeley, Finlayson has been a Big Ideas mentor since the competition’s inception in 2006. She currently serves as director of Women in Technology Initiative at CITRIS (Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society) at UC Berkeley, where she supports research and initiatives to promote the equitable participation of women in the tech industry.

Previously, Finlayson led mentorship and incubator and accelerator programs for Singularity University Ventures, ran the Toys category for eBay, managed a community of social entrepreneurs at the Skoll Foundation, and consulted for the World Bank, Gates Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. Her passions include social entrepreneurship, open government, civic tech, startups, education, innovation, women, mentoring, tech for good, impact, and leadership.

Big Ideas sat down with Finlayson to learn more about what makes her optimistic about the future of technology and what brings her to Big Ideas.

Your background is fairly diverse—from running eBay’s Toy category to consulting for the World Bank. How has working in different sectors informed your view on technology’s role in society?
The nice thing from working in so many avenues is that you get to see similarities between supposedly different sectors. It really increases your empathy and understanding at a systemic level. But it also gives you the advantage of a cross-sector lens to view potential collaborations. None of these efforts exist in a vacuum—to get working on issues with deeply entrenched root causes, you will work with governmental agencies as well as the private sector, large organizations, and startups. If you are able to take the metrics used in social enterprises and marry them with the design thinking and urgency used in tech startups, you’re at a huge advantage.

How do you see the landscape for women entrepreneurs today? Do you see a change in culture from when you first started out?
The biggest win has to be awareness. We have enough data for people to see and understand how harmful microaggressions can be. We have studies that show discriminatory practices toward female academics and Venture Capitalists asking biased questions toward female founders—this data makes it easier to help people understand the challenges and make needed behavior and system changes.. Though the technical workplace may still have significant attrition for women, we’re seeing better and more informed policies that promote equitable participation. The notion that people “have to be a guy” is decreasing. Companies are placing more value on stereotypically “soft skills”—things like communication, collaboration, and global mindset, and they are devoting more resources to fostering inclusive leadership which will lead to a more level playing field.

How important are female founder/role models to burgeoning entrepreneurs or engineers? What do you think people can get out of mentorship?
Mentorship is beneficial in a myriad of ways. We’re a great sounding board—it can be a bit lonely at the top, so having someone to bounce ideas off of is such an asset. Mentors offer valuable criticism, forcing you to either have a sound rationale or to pivot. It’s much easier to change course early before you invest a lot of time and money. Finally, we offer a network. Every day, I think about who I can connect my team with to inform their solution. We are your ultimate champions, and hopefully, our cumulative knowledge may help you bridge sectors.

All this to say that mentoring is also benefiting us! Mentors are able to feed off the dynamic energy of founders, while constantly learning from complicated startup challenges. It’s an opportunity for us to leverage hard-earned knowledge to help create concrete applications and to help founders achieve their potential and their vision. Founders have the same energy throughout the globe—you will feel at home in any startup space from in the world because they are filled with people trying to solve big problems. Anyone with the courage and excitement to build something from nothing is someone I want to work with.

What are the most important qualities of a successful founder?
You have to be in love with the problem—not the solution. A founder must pivot, and you cannot afford to be too attached to anything. Imagine what you think success would look like, what kind of metrics you would use to demonstrate impact for an ideal scenario. These questions can guide you to figure out what you would like to achieve.

The best teams have a shared vision and psychological security; you want to make sure that your team members are able to say something crazy without being penalized. This comes with avoiding micromanaging, having the belief that your team is qualified, and doing your best to support them and remove any barriers to their success. Diversity in backgrounds is important to avoid blindspots and foster innovation, but ensure that everyone shares the same exponential vision for the company.

Helming a newfound project is equally as exciting as chaotic. Be ready to learn and strive to engineer serendipity – put yourself in places where you might meet collaborators and discover best practices from other sectors. Figuring out how to marry what you learn in one sector to another one can be challenging, but it brings immense fulfillment and sustainable innovation.

Ultimately, you have to be ready to think BIG. You might do a pilot as a proof of concept, but you are not here to fix a little thing. Try to think systemically and don’t be afraid to challenge assumptions.

What is unique about the startup world? Do startups have the resources to challenge the status quo?
Startups are the only ones with the ability to attack systemic issues! Founders are the ones who want to disrupt the status quo and thus are uniquely incentivized to move fast. We desperately need people to keep asking the question of why. More often than not, our assumptions and the bounds of our problem statement are based on our own experiences. Without diverse creators and people constantly challenging assumptions, solutions will fail to serve everyone.