Facing Down Doubters and Empowering Others
I was an entrepreneur from the start, building lemonade stands and winning awards for selling the most chocolate bars, but by the end of the third grade, I was failing out of school. The principal called my parents to say I couldn’t continue where I was. The words "learning disability" weren’t used so often in those days. "Your daughter is retarded," he said.
My parents thought that something else was at play, but they fought hard to get me the support I needed, insisting that I received busing to my new school, which provided more one-on-one help. Their unconditional love and encouragement was so strong that, for the next three years, I had no idea that many adults thought I’d never make anything of myself. All I thought, getting on that bus day after day, was, "I’m special."
After years of testing, we finally discovered that my problem was not a learning disability but severe hearing issues. I returned to a traditional school for the seventh grade, but this experience was foundational for me. All entrepreneurs have an aggressive negative voice coming from somewhere, but we also have a choice about how we respond to it: We can choose to see ourselves as the kids with all the problems, or we can choose to see ourselves, as I did, as special and awesome.
I grew up around tech, with a father who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. After receiving my master's degree in business administration from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas during the dot-com boom, I embarked on my first real venture, an online data-mining and data-analytics company. I had the background and the drive, but still, many people asked, "What do you know about that?"
While inspiration gives you the extra gumption to bust through walls, you need to balance it with humility -- to know that to make something unbelievable happen, you have to ask for help. This brings me to my longstanding connection with Dell: I wanted to be like Michael -- to be the kid that could build a multibillion-dollar company out of nothing. So I went for the guy who taught Michael what he knew, former McCombs Dean George Kozmetsky, and asked him to mentor me, too.
It was a wild ride, and though I almost ran the company into the ground as I figured out how to make it work, we were ultimately successful. One once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that led to the next, and the next. As my career unfolded, meditation became a cornerstone of my life, helping me cut through the doubters and to stay deeply focused on my purpose.
In 2011, I was invited to attend the second annual Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network event in Rio de Janerio. I was at a turning point in my career, having sold two businesses and worked in both television and policy, and as I witnessed the fundamental ways Dell’s team rolled up its sleeves and invested in entrepreneurs, it hit me: We, as entrepreneurs, will turn our global economy around, but the real key will be to see things through a new set of eyes -- the eyes of women. As I sat quietly on the plane ride home, it became as clear as day: Everything I’ve done to date was gearing me up to empower a billion women entrepreneurs by 2020.
"Do not tell anybody that," some of my former business partners said when they heard my ridiculously ambitious goal. "They will think you are totally crazy."
Yes, I conceded, I am only one person, but I’m really good at creating leverage in business, policy, and media. If everything I do is in the service of that bigger goal, we can get there.
So I called up Steve Felice, Dell’s president and chief commercial officer, and I said, "I don’t know exactly how to explain this to you, but you guys are doing unbelievable work, and I want to do everything I can to make sure that you’re wildly successful." Together we dreamed up my Entrepreneur in Residence position, and the only way I can describe it is inspired.
Now, my day job is to encourage other entrepreneurs to dig deep, to know their passion. When they hit potholes along the road, I remind them that every one of the world’s greatest visionaries has gone through some significant adversity that would stop most other people in their tracks. If it were easy, after all, everyone would do it. The key is to understand that if you really want to make something happen, you can. I am a walking case study that truly anything is possible.
-- Ingrid Vanderveldt, as told to Sarah J. Robbins