But values don't guarantee success. After 25 years building companies and 25 months building AboveBoard, I've identified six elements of an Entrepreneurial Mindset that, in combination with shared values, are critical to the success of a mission-driven startup.
- Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. One of the most impressive things about our team is openness. For example, during one of our team meetings, a Black team member described to a white team member the burden they bring to work each day— how they carry the impact of systemic racism with them in and out of work. Both exhibited an ability to be uncomfortable. The end result was first, a shift in the way the white person stated things, and second, a deeper, shared understanding of and commitment to our equity mission. Pursuing a mission means creating change, and the process is often uncomfortable.
- Be direct. Being part of a diverse team that prizes openness means that we have difficult conversations. Others’ viewpoints might not align with our own experiences, and we have to be direct to get on the same page–including giving and receiving critical feedback. We are direct to help each other be the very best versions of ourselves and, as a team, to build something new and exceptional.
- Be open to different experiences. Hiring for capabilities rather than the “perfect” CV has enabled us to build an amazing team that is also demographically diverse. Many of our employees are early in their careers; most don’t have tech startup (or executive search) experience. But they bring smarts, work ethic, energy, excitement, willingness to learn, and innovative thinking outweigh any standard experience. It’s easy to learn an industry, it’s hard to replicate lived experience.
- Be both idealistic and realistic. Don’t mistake good intentions for actual impact. Our aspiration to change the face of corporate leadership is great, but it isn't’ why our clients pay us. We build a success model for each client that lays out how we can help them reach their hiring goals. It feels good, in a measurable, tangible way.
- Participate in the ecosystem. If possible, situate yourself in the middle of an ecosystem. When I visualize a business in my head, I see it as a series of gears. The startup phase is about proving that the gears turn, then that they drive each other–both inside the company and beyond. We’ve built momentum, not just from our gears, but from the interlocking drive of those around us: our founding partner True Search, our mission-driven partner organizations, our board of directors and advisors, our corporate clients, our private equity and venture capital clients and their hiring portfolio companies, and executive association partners. We’re all gears working together to improve search, especially for executives in underrepresented groups.
- Be like a mountain climber. Building any startup is a series of peaks and valleys, not a straight shot up. Often, when you reach a summit it turns out there’s another, higher, peak just beyond it. It’s important, nonetheless, to stop and appreciate what you’ve accomplished. Then you’re ready to reach that next, higher, summit.
There’s a wonderful, feel-good element to growing a mission-driven business–it’s uniquely joyful. But shared values and aspirations are not enough. Having an entrepreneurial mindset can help your mission-driven company climb beyond mountains made of good intentions and scale summits of true impact that only the bravest climbers can reach—where the view is truly extraordinary.