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Randi Zuckerberg: the Starting Up North Interview

Randi Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO of Zuckerberg Media, has a lot of titles these days. Entrepreneur, producer, investor, author, speaker, to name a few. Zuckerberg, an early employee at Facebook who led marketing initiatives and created Facebook Live, spoke with us ahead of her keynote at Digital Summit Minneapolis on August 14. Technically still on maternity leave, (she had her third child just over a month ago) Zuckerberg took time to talk with us about Media, entrepreneurship outside the coasts and why she’s passionate about getting more women into tech.

In general, are you spending most of your time with Zuckerberg Media in particular?

Yes. Zuckerberg Media is really kind of the umbrella name that houses all of our initiatives that we’re doing. The big mission for Zuckerberg Media comes from the fact that during my time in the tech industry, while I saw incredible opportunity, I also felt like I was the only woman in the room for the decade that I was out there.

So, I spent a lot of time researching the two moments that we lose women in tech. The first one comes really early; it’s in grade school. It’s like age nine to 12, we lose girls just because we’re not capturing their hearts and minds, or they think it’s for boys, or the social pressures weighs on them, so we lose them there.

The second phase where we lose a lot of women is in entrepreneurship. A lot of women don’t have the resources to launch their own companies, they don’t get funded at the same rates as men, there are fewer mentors and support systems. Almost everything that we do at Zuckerberg Media is addressing one of those two gaps—either early childhood or supporting female entrepreneurs.

Can you tell me a little bit more about some of the different media initiatives you’re working on in that regard?

Absolutely. Like I said, we have two groups. We have a children’s entertainment group, and then a part of the organization that’s more dedicated towards entrepreneur training and leadership.

On the children’s side, we have two big projects that we’re working on right now: Dot., is an animated cartoon show about a very spunky, tech-savvy girl and her adventures. That show is now being broadcast in over 30 countries around the world, and we’re about to have our fifth book come out around Dot. So, that’s been so fun to see her adventures, and especially seeing her in so many different languages inspiring young girls in Turkey, and Argentina, and all over the world. It’s been really so special for me.

Our other project in children’s entertainment is called Sue’s Tech Kitchen. For the last two years, we’ve been touring this around the country as a pop-up. It is kind of a science meets restaurant. So, at this pop-up, you can get 3D-printed chocolate, you can code with candy, and use candy to drive robots and things. Really fun things that bring a family together and give young kids that aha moment around tech, that maybe they’re not getting in school. So now, for the first time, we’re going to launch a full sit-down restaurant for Sue’s Tech Kitchen, and that’s going to be like a full family dining thing, where every course that you would order has a really cool wow science component that comes with it.

And what sort of things are you doing on the side of the organization that’s more dedicated to entrepreneurship?

The Zuckerberg Institute is our big initiative in that area, and that’s where we provide coaching, mentorship, skills training, and sometimes even monetary investment into companies. There’s a lot of ways that people can get involved with Zuckerberg Institute. On the most lightweight side, we have a really low-cost membership subscription; you can join us on different Zoom calls around skills, and I get on every month and answer questions from entrepreneurs and talk to them.

On the high touch side, we do one-on-one coaching and mentorship, I take advisory roles in companies, or board roles to help them, and we have many companies that we’re very involved in the day-to-day with helping. For me, my dream is to make entrepreneurship very accessible for women all over the country, no matter what your socioeconomic status or your access is.

Do you think that we’ve made progress in that area (women in tech and entrepreneurship) since you first got out to Silicon Valley? Do you think there’s a difference, and if so, what excites you about that difference?

Yes and no. As you know, it’s a complicated question. On one hand, there are many more female investors, and that is the biggest benchmark for me, of changing the industry, because if women don’t control the money, then they’re not going to be investing that into other women, they’re not going to be changing the game.

I think women have to be pulling the purse strings in this industry in order to really affect change, and there has been a huge rise in firms having more female partners, or female-only venture firms. That being said, when you look at the industry as a whole, I think it’s still only 2% of all venture funding of startups in this country goes to women, which is really an abysmal number.

The area that I am excited about are all of these new emerging industries that I see women flooding into. I think we could keep breaking our backs trying to get gender parody in traditional tech, but I see a lot of women now flooding into artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, Blockchain, cannabis, all of these new emerging industries where everyone is starting from the same starting point. That’s what I think is really exciting, and the real opportunity to change the game.

Speaking of women being investors, are there any opportunities that get you excited about the idea of investing outside of the coasts, especially in the Midwest?

Absolutely. I think first of all, there’s so much opportunity in the middle of the country that people tend to overlook, because like you said, the money is on the coast. But I think there’s all these incredible pop-up communities that are happening around tech. Look at Omaha and Chattanooga, and Austin, and Minneapolis. These are incredible new hubs for technology where the cost of living is a bit lower so that you can start up a company in a more affordable way. And, a lot of these cities are hubs for entire industries and ecosystems, or have huge players, like Target, in your back yard that could really test different things. It’s incredibly exciting.

We did our first Sue’s Tech Kitchen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is a really struggling city because they lost all their automotive jobs and are now trying to rebrand as a tech hub. That was something that was really exciting for us, to go in and see what’s happening in innovation. I’m incredibly focused on all of these cities. There are a lot of people who are focused on the coast, so I’ve turned my attention inwards.

Are there methods that you use to kind of stay connected?

I am lucky that, because I’ve traveled and I’ve done so many keynotes, that I have a lot of relationships in different cities around the country, but even in this digital world that we live in, there’s nothing that compares to that face-to-face time. My favorite thing to do is actually just to travel the country and meet people personally. I have found that, every time I go to another city, it completely opens my own eyes and changes my thinking around industries, and entrepreneurship, and the different challenges that entrepreneurs face in different cities. Nothing really compares to getting out there myself, but I do have contacts in various cities, and we share deal flow.

I saw that one of the other things that you’ve been busy on is winning Tony awards. [Zuckerberg won Tony’s as a co-producer of Hadestown and Oklahoma!]

It’s been so fun. That’s always been a huge passion of mine. I was kind of a wannabe performer when I was growing up, and I quickly realized that I didn’t really have a future on the stage. But one of the things that I’ve loved since getting back to New York about four years ago from Silicon Valley is that I’ve really seen how, through the arts, you can affect change and affect a conversation. And I think the nation really saw that with Hamilton. When that show started four years ago, suddenly there’s a huge uptick in interest in studying history from young people in this country.

I invested in a show a few years ago called Dear Evan Hansen. It’s a really beautiful musical about teen suicide and depression, and mental health. It’s been incredible to see families come see that show together, and the conversations it’s opened. I think we could beat people over the head to tell them like, “Study STEM. Get into tech. Be an entrepreneur,” but I think the arts can bring people together in difficult conversations in a way that nothing else can. That’s why I’ve been investing a lot in the arts.

Do you think there’s anything in particular that you’ve learned from the entertainment industry startups that entrepreneurs could learn from, or kind of gain ideas from?

You’re actually the first person that I’m even telling this to, but we are in the process of launching a tech-style venture fund just geared toward Broadway, and we just had our first call with some of our investors around that. What I learned from my experience with Broadway is that there are all of these small industries that are going on around the country, that are exploding in opportunity, but that no one is really paying attention to yet. Everyone right now is thinking like, “Tech, tech,” and pouring billions of dollars into things, but then there is the Broadway market. Broadway made $1.8 billion last year alone. That’s a big market, and there’s no technology that’s going into it.

There’s only a few players that are using a lot of data. For me, coming from Silicon Valley, a light bulb goes off thinking, “Ding, ding. We can apply Silicon Valley thinking to an industry like this, and really make some big wins.” That’s what excites me about entrepreneurs all over the country in their own cities, and their own industries. There are industries like Broadway all over this country that regional entrepreneurs are poised to dominate.

Any advice on how those  of us who are regional entrepreneurs should tell their story, or market some of those industries?

One of the things I’m going to be talking about in my keynote tomorrow is podcasting. Podcasting is still in its infancy. There are many more people listening to podcasts than there are podcasts, but two years from now, it’s going to be flooded. So, right now is a great opportunity to launch a podcast or an audio strategy. I’m also going to be speaking a lot about email newsletters and live streaming. Every entrepreneur needs to define their own personal brand, and ideally make it as specific as possible. I think creating a personal brand and defining it, and then blasting it out in podcasts and emails, that’s a really great way to get noticed as an expert in your field, even for a small entrepreneur with limited resources.

To switch gears a little bit, amidst your other initiatives you also spend a lot of time mentoring. Why is that important to you?

I love mentoring. In many ways I got very lucky that, because of my brother, a door opened to me in Silicon Valley that I’m not sure I would have gotten without that family connection. I’ve made a lot of it on my own, but I think about all of those women and all of those young Randis that are out there who don’t have a connection to Silicon Valley, who don’t have someone holding a door open for them, and it’s something that I always think about, even while I’m furthering my own businesses: how do I keep the door open for other women to follow me instead of closing it behind me?

Do you have any best practices or advice you give to those young entrepreneurs to how to leverage or work with mentors?

Yes. At the Zuckerberg Institute, it’s all group mentoring. I don’t really do any one-on-one, because I believe that you learn the most from your peers than you do from that person way up there that you’re so excited to talk to. I wish I learned that earlier in my career. I kept looking for that pie-in-the-sky mentor who would solve all my problems, and I never found that person, or they always disappointed me. It was only a few years ago that I realized that, actually, my best mentors this entire time have been my peers all around me going through the same things with me, and bouncing ideas off one another. So, we do entirely group mentorship, and it always amazes me how much people learn from one another, and how much the challenges that we’re going through are very similar, even if it’s different industries.

Lastly, one of the things that we as an ecosystem talk about is the idea of work-life balance, and how do we encourage that. Can you share a little about your approach, Pick Three?

I got a little fed up with the term balance, because I think that puts unnecessary pressure on all of us to think that we have to do everything every single day. I’m more of a fan of being well-lopsided than being well-balanced.

If you’re an entrepreneur who’s starting a company, you’re going to be very lopsided. In the first year or two of a startup, you can’t expect to be perfectly hitting the gym every day, and having an amazing family life. But then, I look at where I am right now. I’m on my maternity leave, I haven’t really been doing that much on email or on calls. I’ve been mostly with my family. That’s a different kind of well-lopsided. As long as it evens out over the long run, we can cut ourselves a little bit of slack in the short term.

That’s really what my book Pick Three is about. It’s about the five main categories of life: work, sleep, family, friends, fitness,. Then, you pick three. It really shows that, at any moment in your life, you can really only do three of them. You have to give yourself permission to not be balanced.

Anything that we haven’t covered that you want to make sure Minnesota entrepreneurs know about?

I hope, if anyone wants a little more one-on-one time, they can come see what we’re doing at Zuckerberg Institute, and join our Zoom calls. But even more than that, I encourage people to take the opportunity from the local ecosystem, from players who are mentoring and helping entrepreneurs in their own backyard. I’d be thrilled to see that.

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