Audrey Gelman's Apology Reveals the Struggles of a First-Time Founder and 3 Key Takeaways for Other Entrepreneurs
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Earlier this year, when co-working startup The Wing first hit the headlines for accusations of racism and a toxic work environment for LGBTQ and women of color on staff, I weighed in with insights on what some of the contributing factors to this deteriorating situation and what other entrepreneurs could learn from it. At the time, founder Audrey Gelman was coming under fire for the seemingly contradictory messages of feminism and female empowerment against what many believe was a workplace filled with unconscious bias and discriminatory practices against non-white and gender non-conforming individuals. Since then, Gelman resigned her post and has largely remained quiet until issuing a lengthy apology via Instagram last week. Her remorse-filled statement admitted the company tried to grow too fast and put aside the importance of implementing its values in order to make more money.
I think Gelman’s apology is on point and contains a lot of lessons for other first-time founders facing the age-old startup conundrum of balancing business growth with workplace culture health.
The cobbler's children go without shoes
Founders are focused on influencing the market, because that's what allows them to scale and have more impact. And it's a classic rookie entrepreneur move to under-prioritize the needs of their own team. I've seen the other side of the spectrum, too, with startups like Glassbreakers that were more focused on the internal mission than growing the business. And, at the end of the day, those businesses aren't having the impact they want because they're not scaling.
So did Audrey Gelman go far enough in her mea culpa? I think she did. Like all entrepreneurs, she's on a journey of understanding how to balance internal needs with growing the business, and how far you can push this expansion before you need to slow down and invest in your team. Every founder is on that journey, and some have more experience than others.
Having said that, there are two variables that exacerbated Gelman's miss. First, she represents part of the 1 percent of women founders who receive $100 million or more in funding. She stands out, and she's going to experience more scrutiny because she stands out. I challenge you to find a male startup CEO who (1) lost his job because of poor workplace culture, (2) issued further apologies after leaving the company, and (3) had that apology scrutinized the way Gelman’s has been.
Second, by creating a brand that is known for gender equality and inclusion, Gelman (perhaps unknowingly) created a higher bar for her organization. If you're going to create a brand known for its equality and inclusion, you better prioritize those dynamics within your own organization so that your team members are brand ambassadors who extend your brand rather than disenfranchised critics who question your authenticity.
Gelman is probably just starting to understand some of those dynamics, and I suspect she'll get more clarity as she continues to reflect back and think about her "lessons learned" from a wild ride. It’s clear she's on that journey, and I would expect to see a more experienced and wiser Gelman in her next startup.
Here are three key takeaways entrepreneurs can learn from Gelman’s experience.
Determine your values early
All entrepreneurs need to understand there's a balance between pushing for business growth and investing your time and resources in supporting and developing your team and a healthy workplace culture. First, determine the mission and values of the company and communicate those to the entire team. The mission is your rudder to steer the business and the values are your guardrails to ensure you stay on the right path. Getting that right – and at the beginning — is critical.
As Gelman acknowledges in her apology, The Wing fluctuated in its mission. Is it a co-working space designed by and for women? Is it an organization to support equality and inclusion? Is it a tech company that handles co-working logistics really well? Not making that clear creates a vacuum. And when you have a vacuum, the market can brand you anything that makes sense to them — not to you.
Walk the walk, and be more than a slogan
After you get the business financially stable, carve out time and prioritize investing in your team, values and culture. This has to be more than an inspirational poster in the break room or making your company Instagram profile picture black for a week. People need constant direction, coaching and development. Teams need values and well-established norms of behavior for employee interactions and conducting business.
Conversely, if you don't create an intentional culture, then you're building a business without a strong foundation or structural beams. That business will crumble at the first earthquake.
If you’re an underrepresented founder, know you’ll face more scrutiny for your mistakes
The sad truth is that if you're an underrepresented founder, you just need to know going in that you’ll be harshly scrutinized for your missteps. It's just where we are as a society right now. Also, if your mission relates to workplace culture or social justice, you better make sure your workplace culture reflects what you're advertising.
Overall, my biggest hope is that Gelman takes these learnings, continues to invest in her own growth and eventually dives back into the entrepreneur pool well-armed with the wisdom gained through this experience. Rough lessons and even failure produce stronger leaders, and we can all benefit from those in the business world and society at large.