Tech lessons to last a lifetime from Dr. Laura Mather

Dr. Laura Mather is a cybersecurity executive and entrepreneur with over 20 years of experience in the technology field. Since 2003, she’s been a leading Silicon Valley voice in fraud protection and data privacy. She recently visited Signifyd to share her perspectives on success in Silicon Valley and how to find the right fit for each individual’s work-life balance. 

This is part two of a two-part series based on Dr. Mather’s fireside chat at the Signifyd main office in June 2019. Read part one for a profile on Dr. Mather and insights from her experiences in Silicon Valley.

Startup learnings

Q: Why do startups fail? Because they don’t have the funds or other necessary resources to continue? Do you feel like if you had given it a couple more years, you’d been able to keep the company going and have been successful? 

A: That’s a great question: what makes a company fail? Many people say, “I didn’t have enough money.” Or, “the market wasn’t there.” We call it a phantom market because it felt like it was there. After the other company acquired Talent Sonar, they ended up getting Nike as a customer. One customer does not a startup make. And even Nike bailed after a while.

Talent Sonar was ahead of the market, which breaks my heart. Not because my company failed but because this service is so needed. The science shows us how and why anonymizing resumes works for better hiring. We know how to do this. But companies aren’t willing to go there.

Q: What’s the difference in raising money for men and women? Do you have any strategies to share?

A: I wasn’t aware of the difference when I raised money for Silver Tail Systems. Since then I’ve mostly chosen to work with women to raise money. VCs are so busy that they don’t prep at all for your meeting. You can watch their faces drop when they see a woman walk into the room for their pitch meeting.

There’s a recent article by Atlassian’s Global Head of Diversity & Belonging Aubrey Blanche, a big voice in the tech diversity space. She suggests we just bring up the issues. Let’s be very clear that women raising money is a weird thing and that investors don’t see people that look like me everyday. My hypothesis is that will piss some people off. And that’s ok because you don’t want their money anyway. Others will admit it’s a good point to raise.

Aubrey says to do this around salary negotiations too. Women are penalized when trying to negotiate salary. They seem less likable. Look for VCs that fund women. There are more women entrepreneurs out there now but a lot of time they’re in women-centric categories like selling handbags or doing makeup. Trying to get VC funding as a woman in the enterprise software space may be trickier.

Promote VCs that fund women and look for firms that have more women partners in their groups. Be aware though: women can be really tough on other women.

Career perspectives

Q: Was phishing the first use case for your behavioral analytics platform? How did you tie those two ideas together?

A: Phishing was my first expertise at eBay. The second thing I worked on was fraud protection. People were abusing the eBay platform to defraud people. Here’s one common fraud example: Criminals figured out how to scam a particular electronic company’s ecommerce website. They learned that if you put something in your shopping cart, Lenovo will send a coupon once a week. One coupon would be $200 off, or the next week it would be 20% off. Scammers were getting close to $60,000 of laptops for free every day because they knew how to game the system. They kept items in their shopping cart long enough to keep the coupons coming. Silver Tail Systems protected against this type of fraud, called business logic abuse.

Q: Are there different considerations with starting a non-profit?

A: I researched non-profits when launching Talent Sonar. One thing I realized is that for-profit companies don’t take non-profits seriously. Even with open source things like Java. They figured out if they start charging for manuals, people start taking them seriously. We saw it at Silver Tail Systems too: the more you charged a client, the more they take you seriously.

We had large retailer as a Silver Tail Systems client. We helped them stop a big fraud attack over Thanksgiving weekend—their biggest weekend of the year. We went into negotiations with them at $750,000 per year for the service. After we prevented the attack, they decided to turn off the service. When they came back to us to start up our service again, we quoted them $900,000 per year. They paid it. These big organizations take you seriously the more you charge them. When someone’s job is on the line for $900,000 towards one thing, they better make sure it works.

Q: How do you advocate for yourself at work? 

A: When I was at NSA they were still cryptography-based. I studied something different: search engines and text classification. I decided to start a group at NSA that would classify text. I went to the higher-ups in the company to suggest this group. At the time I was pretty young and looked young for my age. I think I was 27 and probably looked about 21. I walked in the room and all the group members looked past me, like I was a secretary and they were looking for the person who started the group. I had to tell them they needed this idea. They let me start the group but eventually admitted they didn’t care about it. That was in 2000. When 9/11 happened they had to admit they made a mistake. They had what they needed from my work, but they didn’t know what it was.

I learned how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I was really uncomfortable walking in that room and especially when everyone looked past me thinking I wasn’t the real person they were meeting with. I had this realization that I was not what they were expecting. But I powered through. You have to realize it’s going to be uncomfortable and “no” is not a horrible thing. I learned from every “no” I heard when raising money for Silver Tail Systems.

Proving that diversity works

Q: What are the metrics and value proposition that prove how building a diverse team benefits a business?

A: The article Diversity Business Case Fatigue says that for 30 years it has been well understood that more diverse teams do better, whether it’s the stock price, return on investment or problem solving. And yet executives love to say, “prove it.”

The article says if you hear “prove it” from an executive, you’re dead in the water, because they’ve already decided they don’t care. There’s been a push to make change happen. California passed a law to put women on boards. Companies that have all men on their boards take huge risks that are not necessary for the business and end up tanking the business a lot of the time. Women on boards tend to do things much more thoughtfully.

Q: The Bay Area is about 25% Hispanic. What is one concrete step that Signifyd can take to hire more diversity over the next few years?

A: Taking the name off the resumes you receive for job postings is the easiest thing to do. All it takes is a sharpie. Aside from taking the names off resumes, you can take other things off like historically black colleges. The second thing is performing structured interviews: every time you interview for a position, you have a set of questions to ask every candidate. Research shows that people are biased to talk about specific things. Parents often talk about their kids with prospective candidates. If a candidate doesn’t have kids, their questions are mostly related to the job. You don’t get the apples to apples comparison.

Companies like Google make a big deal about having six percent black people and nine percent Hispanic people on their staff. This doesn’t reflect the current demographics of the Bay Area. Google can hire anyone they want. If they wanted to have 50 percent women working there, they could make it happen. But these companies don’t want to. Intel boasts that their workforce is 22 percent women and they’re done, they made it. Lots of people would love to have a job there. And yet these companies celebrating being done with the problem.

The hard thing about taking names off a resume is that you touch on people’s shame.  People aren’t willing to admit that if they saw a name on the resume was Jorge or Jamal, they might have some bias. When launching a startup, do not sell into the shame stigma.

Q: What does successful diversity look like and what are those steps that we need to take to achieve it?

A: A lot of people see it as “the chicken or the egg” problem: if you don’t have inclusion you can’t have diversity. My hypothesis is, even if you don’t have inclusion, more diversity will help. The more the room looks different, the more people start to accept diversity.

I’ll be honest. Same-sex and mixed-race couples wigged me out when I first moved here. I didn’t see them while growing up in Colorado. When I came to work for eBay they stuck me in an apartment at Santana Row shopping center. I sat at my window and watched people go by. I forced myself to look at and accept the people going by. I had to be comfortable seeing same-sex and mixed-race couples. The more you see something, the more you accept it. When you include people from different races and backgrounds and religions and viewpoints, you start to realize that they’re just people.

Chris Martinez

Chris is a content strategist at Signifyd.

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