Kathryn Minshew is goals—literally.
She’s the co-founder and CEO of career platform The Muse, which aims to help millennials and women early in their careers navigate the ever-intimidating, often-confusing world of job hunting and professional development. She encourages young people to put a premium on their personal value by setting concrete goals and then identifying the pathways to achieve them.
“When people tell me I can’t do something, I immediately wonder why and then think it through. It only makes me more motivated to prove them wrong,” she said in an interview last year.
Minshew’s own professional path was something of a roadmap for her business today: She started her career thinking she’d be a diplomat and worked at the consulting firm McKinsey; she then introduced new vaccines into Africa with the Clinton Global Access Initiative. She realized diplomacy wasn’t her thing, but she wasn’t sure exactly what she did want to do. She saw an opportunity to help other young women in a similar predicament, and decided to do something about it.
Minshew co-founded The Muse with Alexandra Cavoulacos and Melissa McCreery in 2011, and quickly built the site into a signficant business. “It’s often the subtle, unintentional stereotypes and biases that are the hardest thing to deal with,” Minshew said about the challenges of being a female founder in the male-dominated world of venture capital. “People assume you don’t really want to build a massive company…that your ambitions are small or cute.”
Despite the prejudice, Minshew has grown her company into a professional-development empire that has raised $28 million in funding and draws over 50 million users each year. She and Cavoulacos have also written a book, The New Rules of Work, which aims to help people discover and prioritize their career values.
In an interview with Quartz, Minshew talks about embracing the changing nature of work, putting a priority on inclusive company culture, and the value of relentless persistence.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
Work is becoming more human. While the statement itself might not sound controversial, the ideas it represents are rocking the HR industry, which has long been a fairly transactional space. Think of the legacy “job boards” that return 5,732 crappy, indistinguishable results from a single search. Work as a transaction—my time and labor—for a paycheck alone is an antiquated concept for most knowledge workers, especially millennials.
That’s one reason why it’s harder than ever for companies to attract and retain great talent. Job seekers are more aware of their options and are changing the power dynamic with potential employers. As a result, talent professionals are moving away from transactional job-filling, and companies are looking to understand and articulate their internal cultures, build relationships with potential hires long before they’re looking to make a move, and make interviews a two-way street so both sides can decide if it’s a good fit. In this process, talent/HR is starting to look a lot more like marketing, branding, and relationship-building.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
Persistence and the ability to find a way around any obstacle. I just assume I can always, always, always make it work, and we’ve climbed over some pretty serious mountains as a result.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
Fund them, pay them, back them. Women can’t build game-changing businesses at the same rate as men when they continue to receive just 2.19% of venture funding (yes, 2%), and when many forms of the pay gap still exist.
For investors, read up on unconscious bias and actively seek out founders from diverse backgrounds. Then don’t just mentor them—fund them as well.
For employers, make sure you’re doing compensation benchmarking at least once per year, ideally alongside reviews, where you look at pay against market rates, as well as breaking it down by gender and race, to make sure that unconscious bias hasn’t seeped in for people doing the same work.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
I wish I didn’t think I had to be someone else’s version of what success looks like.
That took a lot of forms for me. The first suits I bought for my job at McKinsey were boxy and androgynous, because I was afraid that looking female would make me seem weak. (Guess what: They could still tell!) I also discounted things about myself because I didn’t fit the norm. For example, one of my greatest strengths is my intuition, yet some of my early corporate environments didn’t value that as a skill. The people who were successful in those environments all had other strengths, and as a result I doubted or downplayed some of my own strengths for a long time, wondering if they were even strengths at all. It took me a few years, a career switch, and several badass role models to see it differently.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
My lowest moment was probably when I lost my first company. I’d poured my heart and soul into it for over 10 months, plus my life’s savings. Within a few short weeks in June 2011, I went from being on top of the world (we won a major industry award!) to devastated, as power jockeying between business partners brought the business to a halt. I was crushed, broke, and couldn’t imagine moving forward at first. Yet only a few short months later we launched The Muse, and business grew faster than I’d ever anticipated, mostly due to the lessons learned from my first company. It wasn’t easy—my co-founder Alex and I sometimes joke that we alternated between the fetal position and the whiteboard—but it was worth it in the end.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
I genuinely enjoy getting to know and helping people, and I think that’s been useful in business. In any relationship, I try to first focus on the person: Who are they? What do they care about, and what motivates them? If there’s a way for us to work together or for me to help them, great. I wouldn’t be where I am today without so many people helping me, and I love to pass it on. Being willing to go out of your way to help people when you can is a powerful thing.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
This is a funny question, because what sprung to mind first was the “best” advice I disregarded.
When I was starting The Muse, nearly everyone in a position of power or influence suggested I was crazy to mix jobs and content. “Just be a job board,” they said. “Kill the content. Doing two things well is too hard.” I was offered investment if I’d drop one half of our business, and I turned it down.
What I realized, however, is that the magic was in the mix between disparate elements. The advice to cut down my business was pervasive, insistent, and delivered by some of the most powerful people in the industry represented the establishment perspective, and it made me realize that others were blind to the gap and opportunity I’d perceived. That, or maybe I was a lunatic. Luckily, it seems to have been the former!
Now I often counsel entrepreneurs to get advice from a wide set of people, listen openly and thoughtfully to all of it, but be comfortable disregarding that which doesn’t apply. You might just be seeing something that they can’t.
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
To spend at least one hour researching and reading up on the ways that women are still treated differently in the workplace so that you’re more aware of the biases and issues, both intentional and not, that still exist. In the tech and VC space, here are a few places to start:
- We recorded VCs’ conversations and analyzed how differently they talk about female entrepreneurs
- Two women entrepreneurs invented a cofounder named “Keith” to be taken seriously. It worked
- The enduring reason you believe all nurses are women
- Here’s new ammunition from McKinsey for women fighting for equality in the workplace
And when you finish reading, send the 13 pieces that were most eye-opening or relevant to another man, and suggest he complete the same exercise.
The mountain I’m willing to die on… is leaving half a banana in the office kitchen is acceptable, as long as you’ve cleanly cut, not bit, the half. Snack sharing is a sign of love.
I wish people would stop telling me… to work less.
Everyone should own… a blender! I’m in love with mine.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.