Lisa: This is Lisa Calhoun and I’m founding general partner at Valor Ventures. Your host today on the Atlanta startup podcast. With me is one of my favorite innovators in the local Atlanta community. I’ve had the chance to speak with her and to watch her work from afar and I personally can’t wait to dive in. Please let me welcome Sandy Welfare. I’m so glad you’re here, Sandy.
Sandy: Thank you, Lisa, for having me.
Lisa: So please tell our audience a little bit about your background in tech and your amazing career.
Sandy: I’m happy to. I am a 29 year old who clearly has a 30 plus year career working in various industries. And so I started off at AT&T many moons ago when I trivested and actually went to Lucent Technologies and ended up doing some fabulous work around technology and finance. That was the first time my career had an intersection of understanding how one actually can support the other and vice versa. From there, I moved to Singapore and actually had a great time doing some good work around SAP implementations.
That was the first taste of true technology and innovation that had a global spin to it. I spent a few years in Singapore, then I moved to Sydney, Australia. I love Sydney, Australia and ended up being there right when the Olympics were there, so you could not have asked for a better time. I moved back home to Atlanta, had my son, and then a few years later I moved to London where I worked on global operations for the IT group with Exchange. And so that was the second time I had done such a large global role, but at the same time you end up learning so much from your team members who are in Singapore, Frankfurt, or in India. And so that was probably one of my proudest moments or accomplishments from an overall global perspective. Then when I moved back to Atlanta, I had decided that I really needed to get to a more personal life here in Atlanta.
I started working at Cool Girls, I did that for a few years, and then moved to Women in Technology and did that for a few years. Now I’m at a paper packaging company, where I’ve been doing technology. It’s been a really good full circle of technology and innovation, and just seeing what the possibilities are when we’re utilizing every aspect of being more efficient. More importantly, I’ve been learning new skills. That’s probably one of the best things that’s happened in terms of how innovation has taken over technology.
Lisa: Well you’ve had quite a tour of duty in technology from a global perspective. So I’m just gonna straight up ask you. What do you think Atlanta does well? And we will definitely go into areas you think Atlanta should improve. But let’s start with where you think the strengths are in our tech community.
Sandy: The tech hub of the South East is probably Atlanta. This is mainly because you have so many people from so many socio economic backgrounds that have a platform here. So if you were to think about where people gather, where people innovate, there’s more spaces that allow for that. So whether it’s the General Assembly, the Women in Technology organization, or some of the other organizations that have been started specifically for women, I would say the best of Atlanta is the fact that you have such a platform here. More importantly, you have investors here. If you don’t have the investors, moving into a business or moving into some new startups just won’t happen without it. So, if you were to look at some of the big players here, such as Valor Ventures, you have a platform and the people who can actually partner to make the best of both worlds.
Lisa: Thank you for that shout out. It is definitely a work of progress, but I am very proud of what we’re achieving and I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else than Atlanta at this time. One of the reasons I started valor back in 2015 is the challenges in our ecosystem. I am quite compelled by the diversity of talent here and you don’t see that reflected nearly enough in the diversity of founders receiving investments. This is something we’re very passionate about. I wonder what you think some of the weaknesses may be. Where do some of the fault lines lie that are really narrowing it down to the ones that are changeable by the attitudes of those of us who actually live here.
Sandy: Right. I probably would just say the general side of what I see is that funding is not fair. You can take an idea from a 20 year old kid from Georgia Tech and because he’s at Georgia Tech, he and a few co-founders might get that funding instead of a more developed business idea from a female perspective. If we were to break it down by the different aspects of African American and Hispanic, the numbers become even less. Six or seven years ago when I read the Diane project was the first time where I saw funding from a different perspective and realized that “Oh, even if you have a really good idea you still may not get funded, or you may not get funded to the level that someone else who may not have such a good idea gets funded to”. It was the first time that I saw the numbers and since then I haven’t seen that much improvement. I feel as if the standard for a female co-founder in innovation is totally different than the standard for male. I’m stating that based on my own experience of having worked with a few organizations as a mentor to some females who were trying to roll out a new business. People can say what they want to say around the tech hub of the southeast, but I think that the funding side probably just needs to be more fair, just in terms of everyone having access and everyone being able to be provided funding.
Lisa: One of the things that I sometimes think about is if it is because our investor base is itself not terribly diverse, so they don’t have the network of diverse founders and appreciate those experiences. I’m not sure I believe that every investor can extend their personal network and experience to cover the full gamut of entrepreneurship in this region. We have an amazing immigrant, Hispanic, African American, and female population. There’s some strength in focus, such as “I’m great at founders who do this”, but I think that the investor base is a little narrow.
How have you learned to work with diversity in your corporate life? What are some of the things that work? Some of the things that don’t work? I know that you’ve had a lot of senior roles and you’re in a senior role today.
Sandy: The biggest thing is being open to dialogue. If I were really being honest, I think if I were going back to my true 29 year old career, I would have to work harder and I would have to do more in order to get that promotion. That part has not gone away. I think what has replaced it is the fact that the dialogue for understanding how you can utilize diversity and inclusion within any company is to engage in the conversation and keep the conversation more around “How do I bring value to the company”. If I’m really being honest, it’s about having different opinions around the table and it’s about having different experiences. If we were trying to overlay the best case scenario for any company, it would be around “How do I look at value realization from the aspect of each team member bringing something special and unique to the table?” Then, “How can I leverage that?” If I were being honest, I stopped preaching to the choir.
I stopped just trying to have conversations with female leaders and then started to have more dialogue with the male leaders. When I was at the Women in Technology, I had this tagline that I would give to those men who were really wanting to come out for women and I would call them “Menbassadors.” You really want ambassadors across every aspect of every group. D&I is now around intersectionality. So if I’m a black Female, I might also be gay. If you were to start looking at every aspect of that, the best thing is for you to ask each person to bring their whole selves to the table and be a part of the conversation and the brainstorming.
If you’re trying to go through ideation and figure out what’s going to be the right response for a customer need, having all those different experiences around the table will benefit your company long term. I think that the dialogue has changed because I think that we learn more and we’ve developed leaders that really want to be a part of that conversation and of the solution. And so for me, I will say my experience has been more positive because I’ve stopped looking at the one-way street of talking from female to female on “Can you believe he got promoted? She could do that job with her eyes closed.” I’ve focused more around ensuring there were sponsors and people in the room who could help those decision-makers make the decision that if the female was the better leader then to choose her. I think that this is everyone taking a breath, and then understanding that we’re all trying to get to a great solution. It’s just that we might take a different path to get there.
Lisa: I couldn’t agree with you more. I really love a piece of recent research that came out from the Kauffman Fellows, that diverse founding teams over the last 20 years have provided 30% greater financial returns to their investors. How did that happen? I’m sure in every individual case, it was unique. But one thing is for sure, they had different perspectives and they saw what rang the cash register. I see the same thing in the day to day at valor. We have a very diverse team. Even this afternoon before I was coming in to speak with you, I had a long conversation with an older gentleman on my team who is very experienced. He said, “How are you used to doing it?” and I said, “Well this way,” and he’s like, “Well, I’m used to doing it this way.” It was completely different. Neither one of us understood that we had both had a completely different process. In sharing it openly, we were like, “Now where do we go from here?” It was such a productive conversation coming from curiosity and a difference in background.
Sandy: Right. And I think for me, the experience of not being on a defense versus being on the offense has made a huge difference. If you look at anytime you’re trying to move the needle on changing culture within an organization, you’re going to need to come at it from an open conversation perspective. I think that if I were really being honest, 20 years ago when I was at AT&T, the conversation almost got shut down immediately because everyone would go to their corner and they were ready to fight. I think the more you release it and the more you engage in that conversation as you did with the person, everyone’s going to get to the end state. A different path is okay. I think that that was truly an “Aha” moment for me 15 years ago.
Lisa: I think it is a big moment and at that moment is when I realized that inclusion was going to get me results. So, I’d love to learn a little bit more about some of your go-to daily practices around creating higher performing contexts…
Sandy: That’s an interesting question. I meditate each morning, so I can get myself prepared for the day because I think that if I am too gung ho, it’s just never a good day. I think that whatever energy you’re bringing into a space, or you’re bringing into an organization, it’s gonna flourish throughout the rest of the team. So, there’s these moments that I’ve had where I’ve been like, “Alright, you’ve gotta find a different path.”
For any team that I’ve ever worked with, I’ve requested that everyone work their hardest and give their best. If we were able to do that, most times we would have success, but it’s also because I’m willing to do the same. I don’t want to ever ask the team to do something that I’m not willing to do. I have been able to let people learn something new. So it may be something that’s not related at all to their role, but it’s something that they’re excited about.
Then I wanted to say, “Okay, is that what you want to do for your professional development this year?” It may not be aligned specifically to anything relating to their day in and day out role, but it’s something that’s probably speaking to their inner person and that inner person is there knowing what they need. And most times when you let people go on to do something different or do something unique, it has been a benefit to the overall organization. And so even last year, Leadercast had an event for women, and I invited all of the female team members to attend and it was probably eight or nine of us. We probably had one of the best sessions after because we talked about our experience and it was around purpose. And as much as this is something small, not all that unique or not all that original, the speakers really talked about how you support the purpose of what you’re bringing to the table for your home, for your organization, or for whatever it might be. Since then, we’ve had a few application updates that people have just grabbed the horns on because they figured “My purpose is for me to take what I know for this application, do something more with it, so that we can actually streamline and be more productive, whatever the case may be.”
And so I would say that investing in people and, more importantly, listening has probably been the most important aspect of a successful career for me. If people feel like you’re really willing to answer the question, “What’s in it for me,” and you’re really willing to follow up and do stuff on their behalf, I think it just goes a long way of how you get the best out of a person. And you may think that you know the one who has the worst attitude ends up being the one who has the best attitude and the best ideas because they’ve been free to use their right brain, left brain, or maybe just stay focused on one side. So I have found over the years that people definitely want your help answering the question, “What’s in it for me”, and if you can do that sufficiently by investing in them, I’ve never seen it not be something productive.
Lisa: That is great advice. Let me look on the dark side for the moment. Have you ever had to let someone go?
Sandy: Yes, I get that question.
Lisa: So I was going to ask you because so many founders and leaders struggle with the right time, the right process, and I know that there’s no good way. But what would you say you’ve learned about letting people go in a good way?
Sandy: Well, I think a lot of it is knowing why you’re doing it. And so I’m probably going to give you two examples because I think it makes sense to differentiate the two. If the company is going through any kind of struggle and you’re needing to reduce headcount, that is never a good situation. I don’t care who you are, whether you’re the person delivering the news or the person receiving it, and anytime that you’re impacting someone’s likelihood, it is never a positive, positive experience. But what you can do is use your resources to ensure that they have what they need to move on. What can you do to help them land in their next spot or land as softly as they can. That’s one side of it. And that’s usually just based on business needs. And most times, it’s the nuggets always in the number. So if I’m looking at numbers, and I know in two months time or six months time this is the decision, then I’m definitely going to make that decision. I think the other side to it is when you know a person is not the right person for the role. And I think that this is where people struggle the most because they’ll feel as if they’re somehow letting someone down or they’re somehow wanting more time for them to work it out. And I recently had a conversation with a mentee, who is in a role where they have to make these decisions, and the one thing I said to her is that it doesn’t get any easier. So don’t think it’s gonna get any easier and you’re probably gonna need to make a decision sooner rather than later. At the end of the day, what you’re really wanting to ensure is that you’re being fair to that person and being fair to them sometimes is basically saying, “This is not a good fit for you.” And I think that when you have that conversation, you can do all you can to ensure that they don’t have to have that conversation. But once you reach that point where you know it’s not going to get any better, it’s not going to be the response, or it’s just not going to be what they would want, It’s better to do it sooner versus later. And so I always differentiate those two because sometimes it’s not about skill, it’s really about business reasons. And then the other side is what it is about the skill or that the individual is not a good fit for that organization. It’s good to keep people in the know of where things are and don’t wait too long because I think the more time goes by the worst reaction people are going to get, particularly if they already have that feeling in their gut that it’s just not a good fit.
Lisa: Yeah, if you convince them you’re going to work with them on it and then suddenly you’re not working with them on it, that becomes really a bad relationship.That’s a bad breakup. I’ve been let go before too, and when you’re the person who’s being let go you never fully understand and you don’t like it. You don’t want to accept it. But when you have to move on, that’s when you find your next wings. And the longer you’re holding on, the more you’re struggling. So that jives with my experiences as a young professional in my early 20s that had a couple of jobs that didn’t work out and I was like, “Oh, my goodness, I failed,” but then pretty soon I had to pick myself back up because there was no other choice, which is good. So for professionals in tech in the Atlanta area, you’ve been around, you’ve seen a lot, and you lead a fantastic team today, what are some of the organizations you feel are really doing great work and tech professionals should consider becoming a part of and making time for in their lives?
Sandy: The more you can become involved with some of the organizations that support, so an example is NCWIT, which comes out of Texas, but I believe they have a lot of local local events here. Basically, it is the National Center for Women in Technology and they have some of the best metrics that I’ve ever seen. They do a year over year comparison for everything relating to female leadership. They’re probably one of my favorites. I would also say Valor Ventures will be a great organization, Womens Entrepreneurship Initiative is also a good one. And then I’ve been a mentor for digitalundivided with the Kathryn Finney team. That organization to me is one of those where you can give and you can get, so even if you’re not one of the cohorts for the year, you definitely have some of the best mentors that I’ve been around. As well as Women Who Code does a fantastic job of engaging people in transition. And so one of the things I did a lot of work with Women in Technology is with women in transition, so women who have been in a company and they’ve had a career that has totally changed. So even if you think about accounts payable and accounts receivable, that’s such a different and unique arena now because enterprise applications pretty much do the majority of what someone previously would have learned to do as a part of the day to day work. So we’re able to help people get trained in something new. There’s some organizations out there that are willing to do that. And more importantly, there’s a lot of good people who will network with you, and help you stay connected to those who are making the decisions around new roles or even startup roles. So I think that it is just taking the time to join a few organizations that are definitely doing some good work for women. At the end of the day, we’re in this together and we’ve got to find some willing participants who’ve been there and lived it.
Lisa: I love some of these organizations too. And I think of Kathryn Finney’s unique ebullience for life; just being around her and her team, lifts me up. So I always look forward to their events. And I can say the same about Women Who Code. I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with them on a global level through their board and that is such a passionate driven group of technical professionals. Even when I’m in a new city or different cities, sometimes I’ll just check the events to see if a Women Who Code event and the events are typically free. And there’s always new tech and for someone who’s addicted to innovation, I love it. It’s a great way to work. Great way to spend the evening. And thanks for the shout out to Valor Ventures. Our startup runway event is one of my favorites. It’s four times a year, and we give away $10,000 grants to founders of color and women and if you have a side hustle software business, this is the kind of place that can write a $10,000 grant, so Thank you for bringing that stuff up. I appreciate it
Sandy: Absolutely! To that point, don’t underestimate what Valor Ventures is doing to ensure you know, continuity or growth for an organization. There’s a young lady and I don’t recall where she got her first funding, but the name is Goodr. I don’t know if you’ve seen her in the news.
Lisa: Jasmine–she’s amazing, right?
Sandy: I follow her from afar. Here’s someone who clearly had a great idea of how you reuse food, so that it doesn’t go to waste. And in the current environment, how important is what she’s doing? How important is work like that? That to me is when the intersection of need and idea come together and come to fruition wholeheartedly. So I love it.
Lisa: I do too. While we’re on the topic of Goodr, which is such a fantastic local firm, the Atlanta Airport, gave them their first large contract. I have to give a shout out to Charles Hudson at Precursor VC there in the Valley that led her seed round, saw vision, and put in a million dollars and led a round that was larger than that to help get Goodr to that next level that you see today. So that’s a great example. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, while we’re talking about people, who are two or three people that you’d really say are worth following, worth getting to know, worth buying a cup of coffee where you feel the tech community should really be rallying behind?
Sandy: Oh, god, there’s so many I would feel bad if I had to really isolate a few. Kathryn Finney to me is a rock star.Every now and again, I’m around someone who I’m in awe of and she’s definitely one of those individuals. Everything she does or everything she touches is for the good of women. And you can’t ever argue that point. And so I would say, Kathryn has done some really good work. I would say that there’s probably others, but it’s more of a collective group perspective because there’s just so much good that’s out in the community.
My mentor, James Dallas, was previously the CIO for Georgia Pacific and now he does consulting around various businesses or other innovative solutions. And James is another one who tells you the truth and gives you the perspective of what value you are bringing to the table. And so even every now and again, we probably meet once a quarter, I’ll talk about something that I’m thinking about wanting to do, and he’ll challenge me on the value. “What? Why are you doing that?” And it has actually caused me to say no to things that I think, “Oh, that would be a great, cool thing to do.” And he’d be like, “But why do you want to do that?” And I think it wasn’t until he challenged me to utilize my time as a true asset that I ended up having a totally different perspective. So I think that there’s a few people in my life that I definitely am in awe of, and then more importantly, people who are doing everything and they have my best interests in mind. And that’s always good people to be around.
Lisa: Thank you for sharing some of those people. I’m sure now people are taking notes and thinking about what’s caught for them. I want to close by asking you a really difficult question. I feel it’s been difficult for me, but it’s essentially an easy one. It’s a true/ false question. Have you heard this phrase, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”
Sandy: I’ve heard that phrase. Yes.
Lisa: True or false?
Sandy: I would say it’s a yes/ no answer. I think there’s some honesty and something to be said for if you haven’t seen something before, could you imagine that? Let’s just take Katherine Johnson from Hidden Figures. She didn’t see it before, but she knew what she brought to the table. So she brought the skill set to the table to literally get an astronaut into space, and then get him back alive. And so I think that there’s something to be said for the influence of young people. So if I were to look at Girls Who Code, girls in their cool tech program, or the YWCA in their tech program, they’re feeling the need to have young women see who’s out there and in these various spaces because they feel like if they see it, there’s going to be a role model that they can utilize in the future. And so I think that there’s a lot of truth to be said for that. That doesn’t take away from the young girl who has the skill set and will probably find it on her own. So I almost feel as if it goes both ways. If I were to see an executive in a particular company and the person looked like me and their hair was like mine, I’d probably say, “Wow, I could do that as well.” You can’t deny that there’s no power in that, but I think that sometimes it’s going to naturally happen. But I believe that truly for young girls, particularly young girls in tech and young girls in innovation.
Girl Scouts has one of the most engaging programs I’ve ever seen around STEM. If those girls see other engineers, they’re thinking about becoming an engineer. They might end up finding the best way to do some major issue that we have in society that they might not have even thought about. And so I’m caught between the yes or no answer, because I think it’s 50/50 and goes both ways.
Lisa: So it sounds like if you can see it, you can definitely be it. And if you can’t see it, maybe you can be it too.
Sandy: Right. And I think a lot of it is just how little people’s brains work. This is a perfect example. So a few years ago, we had a speaker come and speak for Women in Technology and I never heard of her (Debbie Sterling). She apparently had started doing these engineering toys for girls and if you were to look in the toy aisle there was not a single toy that related to engineering or building. And she went to Hasbro and a few other places. And they said, “No, we don’t want that.” And so here she’s coming out of Stanford University and building engineering toys for girls, but everyone says no, no, no. She wins a 62 second commercial during the Superbowl, and all of a sudden, Goldie Box becomes a name brand overnight. And so that’s something where she did not see it, yet she became it.
Lisa: Yeah, that’s awesome. That is a great story. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your time with us today. Is there a better way for people to reach out to you? Do you like to use LinkedIn? How can people stalk you and your wisdom online?
Sandy: Well, LinkedIn is probably the best way so Sandy Welfare. I usually go in and look at the laundry list. I have over 2000 connections, so I’m clearly at a point now where I’ve got to do a better job of being responsive to people because I will sometimes get quite a few requests for coffee. And to be perfectly honest, I try to do all of them if I can. And so if people find me on LinkedIn, I’ll be happy to chat with them. And then more importantly, they may be the future of women and technology or women in innovation.
Lisa: Thank you so much. It’s great to have you.
Sandy: Thank you so much, Lisa. It’s been wonderful.
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