Don’t Just Dream About Success, Get Started
Marissa Evans Alden is the cofounder and CEO of Sawyer, an online platform that provides a convenient, all-in-one booking service for parents looking to discover and schedule activities for their children outside the classroom.
I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Alden recently. Here are the highlights of that interview:
Jill Griffin: Where did you grow up? Describe your early childhood and its significance on your life.
Marissa Evans Alden: I grew up in a small town in the suburbs of Boston. I was very lucky to have access to a great, small public school, and had wonderful role models in my parents. My mother is a physician and my father is an entrepreneur – so I was constantly thinking about the role of women in male-dominated industries, and starting my own business.
But I’m also the child of a messy divorce – I was often put in the middle and had to be mature and responsible, acting like a “grown up” before I was really ready.
Griffin: When did you first get the whisper you belonged in business?
Alden: I remember my first “startup” idea at eight years old was to start a company that took underprivileged women out of poverty and found them jobs. It wasn’t the most compelling path to profitability, but it was a clear indication that this is what I wanted to do.
The startup bug never went away – I started a nonprofit and mentoring program in high school, and in college I started A Shirt Thing and ran a business called Campus Promotions, which was the perfect mix of learning to lead, starting something, and also making a little money!
Griffin: Was there an early teacher that inspired you? Who and how?
Alden: I had a professor in college who taught a class on design that I frankly took for fun – but in it I was introduced to design thinking and how much impact it has on the products and services we use every day.
I remember first hearing about organizations like IDEO. I didn’t know that creativity could be considered work – and from then on, I was hooked on being able to find a career that blended creativity and profit.
Griffin: What’s a great piece of business or life advice you received, who gave it to you, and how has it enhanced your life?
Alden: My father often says if money can solve a problem, it’s a good problem. It’s less about the money but having the perspective around things that seem insurmountable at times. The idea is that most problems do have solutions, you just have to be creative about solving them–it’s a way to keep things in perspective.
Griffin: Please give me the top three bullet points in your Personal Leadership Credo.
- Bring your best intentions to everything you do.
- Always try to make other people look good…you can never go wrong with that.
- Dream big, always.
Griffin: Describe a painful setback in your life and what it taught you.
Alden: I have a bit of dyslexia and always struggled to read out loud and write. While context clues and practicing have been helpful, it’s still never been a favorite thing of mine.
But, when I was younger, I sought out other areas to build self-assurance in like math or theater or sports. It built up not only my confidence, but allowed me to go deeper in skills that I was good at. If anything, it has helped me find my strengths and double down on them.
Griffin: What advice do you have for young, talented, ambitious women who want to rise?
Alden: Just get started! If you are dreaming about a startup or new career path, what are small steps you can take in that direction now?
We have so many free tools and resources available to us now that you don’t need to spend an unreasonable amount of time or money to pursue a new path.
You should demonstrate that you can take on that new blog because you have one on your own, or you start selling those t-shirts to friends via a PayPal link before you build a website. Starting in the most basic way and showing traction with little to no tech is the best way to go – it’s all about proving the concept first and building the business later.
The network of friends you have now – teammates, colleagues, siblings, etc. can be a very powerful group. Don’t underestimate the power of female friendships in growing your professional network. Find like-minded people who like to do what you like to do and keep them close! Maybe a traditional “outing” isn’t as appealing to you so build a group focus on doing something you like, going for a run in the park, or checking out a new band as a group, or a long weekend of massages. A friend of mine from business school is working to get a group of us together, all professionals with young children for a weekend in Palm Spring (pampering and professional development, more our speed!)
For me, this network turned into advisers, business partners and funding – none of which I had planned for when first developing the relationship. With women representing such a small portion of founders today, we’re so much more powerful when we lean on one another.