The first time I met Shana Kay Derman, she was dancing along to a music performance at a women in technology conference. Actually, she was the only person in the whole room dancing, so naturally I joined her.
I will admit, I was bit shocked to see her go up on stage a few minutes later. Not only was she a speaker, but she was the Chief Innovator and co-founder of a successful internet security company.
With a refreshingly authentic leadership style reminiscent of leaders like Richard Branson, Shana heads up innovation at IntelliCred in Johannesburg. While there remains a noted absence of women founder’s in the tech space, Shana has managed to find success. Who better to meet up with for a little inspiration?
You have built an amazing tech company. Looking back on your journey, what do you wish you could have done differently?
My journey is still very much in progress, but what is always top of mind is being less afraid. Being more willing to take risks is something that as a woman, I always thought was more of a “me” thing than a gender thing.
But over 25+ years, and engaging with women from all walks of life, many of them including myself admitted to not big risk takers. An example of when I should have spoken up and taken a risk was with my first business. I wish I would have had the opportunity to purchase a larger share of the company I was building. At the time, I didn’t feel I was worthy of asking, when in hindsight, I definitely was.
Another aspect of business that I wish I had been more vocal about was questioning things. I learned not to assume that if someone is older, or in the industry for longer, or even seen as knowledgeable, that anything they claimed should be taken as fact.
Questioning engagements, partnerships, points of view, opinions and especially advice is something that I do more now. Whenever I feel that the point does not sit well with me or simply does not make sense, I question it.
I know you worked incredibly hard in your first company. With that in mind I can’t imagine you being afraid to ask for the full value of your contribution. I’ve heard similar stories a little too often.
With the wisdom of hindsight, how can women begin to have their value realized in the workplace?
In my opinion, gender-roles are responsible for women (and I am referring to my experiences here and the stories shared by my female friends and peers) not valuing themselves in the business place.
Sheryl Sandberg’s Leanin.org published a statistic that a man will apply for a job with only meeting 60% of the criteria where a woman will want to meet 100% of the criteria to apply for the same job. This takes me back to risk-taking and raises the topic of assertiveness.
Being assertive doesn’t mean being a b***h or being a horrible person, it means we need to speak up more. Speaking up more means we start to be seen. Ensuring that our team members see and acknowledge the work we do is one of the ways that we can ensure that our value is visible.
Perhaps men value themselves more because they are allowed to experiment a lot more when they are younger? As children, girls are not nurtured nearly enough to hone the skills that allow us to show and feel value, in a business context.
However, having said all that, to me the essence of value resides in women supporting and uplifting each other. Women and men should consider showcasing women more as there are so many doing amazing things who no one ever gets to hear about.
At this stage you have successfully brought your idea to life. What advice do you have on shattering our personal glass ceilings and nurturing entrepreneurship qualities?
I believe that there are two core qualities in entrepreneurs that cannot be taught. The one is perseverance and the other is drive or vision. Perseverance is key to sustaining the entrepreneurship spirit. You’ll go through many challenges before successes and the challenges are many.
A few tips on shattering any personal glass ceilings are:
- Constantly educate yourself, especially on the essentials of the marketplace.
- Find a mentor that can give you support and a boot in the butt when needed, and hone your skills irrespective of gender. Having a mentor is also key to challenging my thinking when I am in a rutt.
- Drive or vision is the key sustainer for me. Have a vision greater than yourself. Doing a greater good for the world at large while building a successful profitable business is something I’ll always come back to.
I’ve heard it said that tech is ‘the great leveler’. Meaning that, it’s a space that doesn’t care about gender, as long as your product is good.
Have you found this to be true?
I would not say that tech doesn’t care about gender. It remains a very male-dominated industry. What I will say is that when you build something, no-one cares if a male or female built it. All they care about is that it works the way it is meant to. In this regard, tech is a leveler.
In the beginning of my technology career, I worked ten times harder because the field was so sparse with women. Over time and feeling more confident in my ability (due to educating myself and working hard), I had to prove myself less and less.
You do of course still come across the chauvinistic person every now and then. I deal with that by always speaking up in meetings or contribute to sessions where my contribution makes sense.
I imagine being one of so few women in the industry you must have felt the need to be close to perfect?
Perfection is something that I’ve always strived for in everything I do.
With that said, I realize that one cannot be a perfectionist in all aspects of life, it is simply just too exhausting. Life needs to happen too.
Can you think of a moment in your career so far that was a game-changer? What was the lesson you received from it?
In 2009, I was selected alongside 11 other South African women to study tech-entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, USA. The experience took us all out of our comfort zones. It brought together a mix of South African women in a gloabl context and the results were phenomenal.
Most of us remain very close friends, and we’ve even done business together. We also act as an informal board of advisers when the need arises.
My life changed forever due to the experience of being in the USA. It helped me to think bigger and more global. Being around like-minded, driven women, and meeting phenomenal mentors who continue to support us to this day was powerful.