Spotlight: Entrepreneurship as Activism with Nathalie Molina Niño

Nathalie Molina Niño is entirely focused on outcomes. A technologist and coder by training, Nathalie’s latest venture is the CEO of BRAVA Investments, an investment firm that funds companies meaningfully addressing gender parity – regardless of the gender of their founder. Nathalie has also dedicated herself to leveling the playing field for women through her co-creation of the Entrepreneurs@Athena at the Athena Center for Leadership studies of Barnard College. We’re thrilled that Nathalie is also involved with our Galvanize Program where she’ll be leading the Entrepreneurship track. If you want to hear from Nathalie first hand, learn more about the program here!

Taylor: You and your team launched BRAVA Investments: a focus on outcomes over optics. Can you tell us a little bit more about what outcomes over optics means to an investment firm?

Nathalie: So, in the case of an investment firm, because we’re not making movies or trying to change culture in a way outcomes are measuring in impressions, outcomes means measurable economic outcomes for women. What that means for me is that while it’s nice to see one woman succeed it’s nice to see one woman’s company be successful and thrive. Maybe one woman become a billionaire; as a result of her efforts. One woman’s success doesn’t translate into thousands or hundreds of thousands of women being economically better off. To me, that means that that woman’s success is really more of a symbol. I don’t want to put down symbols, symbols are great and impact culture. You want little girls to be able to look up at somebody who reached a particular height, in business especially, and be able to say “I can be that way.” But that’s something that happens over time. What I want is pragmatic short-term outcomes right now. So what I often say is if you were to make me choose between making one woman a billionaire or making a billion women economically independent I’m going to choose B. And it’s not because B is better it’s not because you know helping one woman at a time is wrong. It’s just that I know what my swim lane is, I know where my talents are and I know that with BRAVA, we have the ability to make that change hopefully to the lives of a billion women and that’s really where my energy is going to be focused and it’s what the company is all about.

Taylor: And I love that because there are so many people doing the work of getting more symbols and visible leaders, but there aren’t many people doing what you’re doing.

Nathalie: No, I mean I think that in a way you’re right. Nobody’s saying it this way. No other investment firm is positioning making more women economically independent as a priority, rather than having female-led companies as the priority, especially at the growth equity level. But what I love about our premise is that my thesis is that there are actually people out there who have the potential to or actually can do it but they’re not getting funding. They’re not getting the kind of support that they should be getting.

A big thesis of mine too is if you build a business that is actually putting money into the lives of a lot of women, and you’re doing something that is affecting real economic change, then I don’t actually care if the founder is a man or woman. That’s one of the things that is important to me because I have a sense of urgency around supporting women and supporting them as soon as possible. And when you have that sense of urgency you come to the same conclusion as I have that you need all hands on deck. I don’t care where you come from, what your story is,  if you’ve built a business that helps women I want to invest in it.

Taylor: I love that. And I think you know you have helped so many other women start their own businesses. You know you co-founded Entrepreneurs@Athena at the Center for Leadership Studies and worked with Nely Galan of SELFMADE so it’s safe to say you’ve helped hundreds if not thousands of women launch their own businesses. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to women that are looking to start their own business but aren’t exactly sure where to begin?

Nathalie: First of all, I’ve never heard it phrased that way and it actually kind of gives me the warm and fuzzies. Having had some small impact in the lives of a lot of women especially in terms of you know their path to becoming an entrepreneur…it’s a big deal in the sense of a woman’s life and a woman’s entrepreneurial awakening. It’s more than just somebody figuring out that they have a skill. It’s about controlling their own destiny. And entrepreneurship to me is one of the key ways to do that. It’s exciting for me to think that there might be a bunch of little seeds planted in the minds of a lot of women and girls who are realizing that whether they choose to be entrepreneurs or not, that they have that ability and that you know there’s a little bit a seed of something that could come later.

In my estimation, women especially will be entrepreneurs at one time in their lives, regardless, whether it’s a side hustle (which is what Nelly calls you know a lot of the side businesses that women have when they have two, three jobs and they drive a Lyft car) or they actually leave their jobs and they start companies, or they retire and they start something, or you know or they start a nonprofit. In my experience women who are exceptional will be entrepreneurs because exceptional surgeons start their own practices, and exceptional lawyers start their own firms. It tends to be that no matter what field you’re in, if you’re good at it there’s probably going to be a time in your life when you create something with that expertise. And whether that’s a for profit or nonprofit, it’s an entrepreneurial endeavor. So, I think being entrepreneurial is one of the things that is not a skill that you learn as an option, it’s a little bit like language where it’s just core to living in the society that we live in today.

Taylor: So for all of these women that have this entrepreneurial spirit, how do you take that first step? How do you get started?

Nathalie: Now it’s the perfect time to ask me that question because we happen to be right smack in the middle of putting the finishing touches on our curriculum for Galvanize. We’ve built a whole set of modules based on my roots at Athena at Barnard College and some of the classes and the curriculum that we’ve developed there. But step one for me, and there’s a ton of research that supports this, is that we have an identity problem when it comes to entrepreneurship. It’s not really the fault of women who might not identify themselves or see themselves when they hear the word entrepreneurship. We often do exercises where you go up on a white board and you get a classroom of girls, college age women, or even older women, and we have them rattle off the first names that they think of when you think of an entrepreneur. Inevitably, the first 20 names are men and inevitably they are white men. I don’t know if that is something that we’ve created. I think that we are, in many ways, a product of what we see every day – the covers of magazines are filled with people who look like that. The subject of most articles the people who tend to be called “geniuses” or “mavens” or “bad asses” or “ninja” or whatever – they don’t tend to be women and they especially don’t tend to be women of color. And so if you happen to be a woman or if you happen to be a woman of color it’s not surprising that’s not the first thing that you think of. For me, step one is that. Step one is someone is realizing what the true meaning of entrepreneurship is. It’s that grandmother who used to sell empanadas on the corner in order to make a supplementary income for your family. It’s that mom who used to work on weekends as a seamstress to make extra money and pay for schooling. Those are all entrepreneurs. And I think that realizing that many of us come from sometimes two, three, four generations of entrepreneurs, that the most important key, is to realize that when you already have the skills if you wanted to be an entrepreneur.

And two, if you look carefully, you probably come from a long line of very entrepreneurial people. A lot of us have it in our families and we just don’t even realize it. So that is to me step one – it’s identity and realizing that I can be an entrepreneur and I identify as one. And there are a ton of them you know even in my own ancestry. And then step two is coming up with a good idea. Even that I think that can be really intimidating for people because people associate themselves as not being creative. You know, “my sister, my cousin, my husband, my whatever, my artist friend, you know they’re the creative ones.” But what we do a lot of the times in some of my trainings is we do workshops where we walk people through step by step processes for coming up with business ideas, and we show them that you don’t have to be an artist. You don’t have to be this quintessential stereotypical creative.

Anybody can get go through the process of figuring out a problem in their world – coming up with some solutions to that problem and then thinking through ways to monetize it. Those are the three ingredients. It’s identifying a very important problem, coming up with a viable solution to it, and then thinking of a way to monetize it. And when we equip people with that process and we walk them through a workshop that basically takes them through, the takeaway for us is always you did it once. You can do it again. And P.S. – You can teach other people this process. It isn’t some magic talent that only Michelangelo or Mark Zuckerberg or any of these can do . And then step three is funding and that’s a part of what I think that is the reason why I started BRAVA Investments is because we need real solutions to the problem of funding women.

Taylor: I think when you set out as a one, two, and three it makes it seem so accessible, because people are doing one and two as we walk around our lives and then framing it as step three is what gets you over the hump I think. I love how it’s framed.

Nathalie: It’s super easy and it’s not even about dumbing it down. That’s truly the process and it doesn’t matter what business you look at, you’ll see that they’re all rooted in a really a painful problem. The problem you are solving doesn’t have to be big, it can be “every time I open this one app, it crashes on me” or you know “there’s something about some appliance in my house that doesn’t do a b or c.” It doesn’t have to be painful to the extreme but it is something that legitimately bugs you. We often call it “that thing you want to punch in the face.” Every business is rooted in one of those.

Taylor: One thing that we’re really excited about is that you are leading the Entrepreneurship Track at the Galvanize Program that’s launching in Chicago in July. And you know we have five different tracks and Entrepreneurship is one of them. We also have Running for Office and other tracks that seem on the surface a little more inherently political, but I know that you believe that entrepreneurship is also rooted in activism. What role do you think that startups, businesses, and entrepreneurs have to play in continuing the push for progress?

Nathalie: I love that you mentioned that because I think that part of the reason that I’m still as involved as I am in this space is because I think that most of my career in tech I picked too few battles. I wasn’t really that entrepreneur activist that I am now. And part of why I’m so passionate about doing it now is because I feel like I missed a lot of opportunities. I look back at the 15 years that I spent in tech startups and I don’t know if I left it any better than I found it. And so I’m convinced that the second time around, I’m committed to making that happen and I often talk about how you know I like to look at systemic change. And I don’t like putting Band-Aids on problems. And when I think about what is at the root of an active society of people who are politically involved and involved in the other things that influence our lives, like the arts, like academia, like big corporations that fundamentally do have a big impact in our political sphere, I think about what the root of that all is. And I think if we had a population of economically independent entrepreneurial women, they would fund the arts. They would create the next big corporations. And P.S. – they would also fund politicians.

Hopefully, as many of us who end up getting involved in politics have experienced, once you get involved, once you fund a campaign, once you start to get into that sphere, you get a bit of a taste for it and maybe you’ll get inspired to actually run yourself. And I think that when I think of what is the most sort of basic building blocks that I can contribute to make sure that that reality happens. Women need spare time. Women need support with childcare. Women need the ability to have a little bit of disposable income to start companies to fund campaigns. You need that little nest egg to be able to have influence and do things with your capital and with your time. And if women are living paycheck to paycheck, if they’re getting paid not a living wage, if all of these things are the common experience of most women in this country and in the world (which they are) then you’ll never get women out of survival mode and they’ll never be able to participate in the political process or any other process. So for me it starts there and that’s why I think entrepreneurship is step one for activism or any way of mobilizing women.

Taylor: And I think this brings us to our last question. So what do you want the state of women to look like?

Nathalie: I’m fundamentally an optimist and when I think about the efforts of my colleagues, when I think about the efforts of women funding women, when I think about everyone from the corporate sphere, you have so many people doing amazing work. I see slow but real movement towards making it a priority that women have positions of leadership. And so in a way I’m not suggesting that that job is taken care of, but I feel like we’ve got a really good army of women who are increasingly paying attention to that issue.

My tendency is to go where people aren’t. So while there are a bunch of us working on getting women into positions of leadership and funding women what I want to be focusing on and what I want the state of women to look like in 10, 20, 30, 40 years is today when you gather into a room the handful of women who have made it to the C-suite, handful of women who have gone their companies funded. When you look at those early signs of success and you got them all into a room, those rooms are not very diverse. And so what I see fundamentally as an issue today that I want to be sure that I contribute to is in 10, 20, 30, 40 years when we get those same rooms of the women who made it to the C-suite, of the women who have gotten their companies funded, and who have been successful, I want those rooms of women to look a lot different than what they look like today. I want them to be diverse. I want to see women of all ages. I want to see women of all ethnicities of all religions. I want that to be the state of women in the future.