To Be Successful, See Obstacles As Opportunities
Christine McDonnell is the CEO and cofounder of Codelicious, a provider of full-semester computer science curriculum which is project-based, teacher-led and aligned to CSTA standards. Christine graduated Magna Cum Laude from Vanderbilt University with Bachelor’s degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and earned her MBA in Corporate Strategy and Marketing from the University of Michigan. Prior to Codelicious, Christine led her own consulting practice, McDonnell & Associates, which focused on counseling high-growth technology ventures.
I had the opportunity to interview Christine 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.
Christine McDonnell: I grew up in Texas — in the Dallas area. I grew up in a large family with seven brothers and sisters. As second to the oldest, responsibilities came at a young age. I loved to build things, so any time toys for my younger brothers and sisters needed to be put together, my parents saved them for me. In fact, my Dad is the one who encouraged me to study engineering.
Griffin: When did you first get the whisper you belonged in business?
McDonnell: I got my feet wet working with DuPont. After practicing engineering for a few years, I moved into sales and then into product management. Seeing the different aspects of running a business motivated me to earn my MBA. The next phase of my career was with McKinsey & Co, consulting with Fortune 500 companies, as well as high-growth technology ventures. It was the experience working with high-growth technology ventures that built my interest in starting my own company.
Griffin: Was there an early teacher that inspired you? Who and how?
McDonnell: My high school math teacher, Mrs. Bauer, was a huge inspiration. She opened my eyes to a career in STEM. It was Mrs. Bauer who not only introduced me to computers, but encouraged me to take them apart, look inside, and figure out how they work.
Griffin: As you rose in your career, what obstacles did you encounter and how did you deal with these?
McDonnell: Obstacles come in many forms if you are a woman working in a technology field. There are those who challenge your right to be on the team, those who challenge your depth of technical knowledge, those who try to minimize your success to characteristics other than intelligence, and those who will treat you as though you have nothing to contribute. It is hard to focus on the impact of just one obstacle when there have been so many.
For me, each obstacle became an opportunity to learn and to persevere. These obstacles taught me the value of knowing who I am and believing in my capabilities. They taught me the value of building a network of mentors who believed in me, but would candidly help me navigate opportunities and challenges. These obstacles have helped shape the culture of the company I am building.
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?
McDonnell: “Surround yourself with people smarter than you.”
One of my favorite clients who had built many businesses shared this with me and I have reaped the benefits of its wisdom. Having people around you who will challenge, question, and bring a new perspective will accelerate learnings and enrich your perspective. What a great way to build a business!
Griffin: Please give me the top 3 bullet points in your Personal Leadership Credo.
- We are always positive, always moving forward.
- We take responsibility for our own actions.
- We treat everyone as a peer, regardless of their job title.
Griffin: What advice do you have for young, talented, ambitious women who want to rise?
McDonnell: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Innovators are often disruptors with ideas that challenge the status quo. By the very nature of those ideas, you will receive lots of feedback. Listen to it all, evaluate whether it makes sense to you, use what helps you move the needle, and forget the rest. Let the feedback fuel your confidence — then make it happen!