Tuesday, March 21, 2017

10 reasons to visit Jordan this year

When I decided to visit Jordan in January this year I was surprised by how many of my friends and family reacted with "is it safe?" or "aren't you scared?". Truth is I was uncertain, but not scared and absolutely determined.

The war in Syria, the increasing risk in Turkey and the destruction of ancient works of art like the Assyrian statues and the Temple of Bel at Palmyra break my heart at many levels. Art is mankind's highest achievement and I refuse to be intimidated into not experiencing as much of it as I can, especially in the Near East which is the cultural cradle of our species. I have had Jerash in my sights for many years now and when I had the opportunity to go back to Israel and into Gaza this January (my blog post on that trip is here) I decided to put 5 days in Jordan on the front end and see Jerash with my own eyes.

Everything about Jordan was marvelous. Everything. I encourage you to go and see for yourself.

Here's why:

1. It’s safe
I never once felt unsafe in Jordan. From arriving at the very modern Queen Alia airport, to walking through the souk right after a Friday demonstration at the mosque and surrounded by Jordanian men dressed in black - who were buying fruit and vegetables to take home for dinner - to driving the length of the country I felt safe, and welcomed the whole time. As my guide Raud said to me... the CIA listens in on all the cell phones and 90% of what they hear is "don't forget to pick up yoghurt on your way home".

Yes, the hotels take security precautions that are very similar to those in India (looking in the trunk, mirrors under the car) and there is a noticeable police presence, but this is a country where the British still have a strong presence, the army is trained by officers from Sandhurst, and anyone you interact with as a tourist speaks good English. While Jordan did have a terror attack last year at Kerak it is not as dangerous as the United States and you are more likely to die in your bathtub than from a terrorist attack.

2. Petra 
Probably the most famous tourist site in Jordan, Petra, like Wadi Rum, has to be seen to be believed. It was developed by the Namibians 2,000 years ago, but then also developed by the Romans and Byzantines. Along with a Roman theatre carved out of red rock, Petra is famous for the huge tomb facades cut out of rock. You may know the Treasury, featured in the Indiana Jones movie, but this is just one of many. The biggest facade, cut into a mountain, is the Monastery which is a 2,000 ft climb above the valley floor and next to it are panoramic views into the Jordanian desert. It's fascinating and stunning at the same time.

You walk into Petra down through the siq, a natural break in the rock with cliffs towering above you on the either side of the narrow passage. Everything can be walked easily, but at the end of a long day it is great fun to ride donkeys up and out of the valley. Mine was called Michael Jackson. I think he was named for tourists like me, but he was an easy ride.

Until recently 3,000 people visited Petra every day. Now it is down to 300 because tourists are afraid, although there is nothing to be afraid of there. So if you go into the park early, as the sun is rising, you can walk down the siq alone and soak in the beauty of the Treasury almost alone (except for a few camels). Magical.






3. The ethereal beauty of Wadi Rum 
Wadi Rum is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. Orange sands, pink and brown and ochre rock formations, continuously changing light and sky, mountains that come close and then move away as the sun sinks and billions of stars. I sat and stared in the light and in the dark for hours, fascinated and moved by the incredible beauty. To get a taste watch Lawrence of Arabia or Theeb, both filmed in the Wadi Rum desert, or even the Martian. But even these beautiful films can't prepare you for the huge, humbling beauty of the desert.

For the adventurous, riding a camel is an experience. Not very comfortable if you are new at it - I need more practice to get confident enough to cross my legs rather than ride astride!








3 dinar per day to rent a snowboard for the sandunes

4. Wandering lamb 
Jordan is not a place to go on a diet. Because the sheep/goat/lamb you are offered has been part of a wandering herd and has not always had a secure food supply its meat is higher in fat and so quite simply delicious. Roast lamb shank with salted yoghurt, lamb skewers, lamb meatballs ... with meze of all types and the best olives in my life. Northern Jordan is rich farming country so they grow all their own vegetables, tons of citrus and so many tomatoes they export them to the region. I have no photos of the lamb... I think I must have been distracted by the delicious smell every time!

My first evening at the Four Seasons, in the Jordanian restaurant, the waiter figured out I was a woman traveling alone. From then on the chef kept sending me his specialities so that I should feel welcome and experience the best of Jordanian cuisine. Enjoying the explosion of flavors along with some great red Jordanian wine I could not have felt more welcomed.




5. The Romans were there 
The Greeks and Romans developed great cities in the Levant to support the trade routes, and Jerash was one of the decapolis - the 10 great cities (or maybe more) that were in a cooperative league. It stood until the great earthquake of 749AD and much of it remained buried until the 19th century, but now it is an extensive excavated site of a wealthy Greco-Roman city. It has magnificent gates, and theaters, and fountains, and Greek temples, and floors from Byzantine churches. It was on a major pilgrim route and so was developed by the Christians long after the western Romans had gone.

I had a guide here, and walked the entire site. He said I was the first client he had that wanted to see everything! He fell asleep in the car later that day, much to the amusement of my driver.





6. Layers of history from the Greeks to Islam
In the center of Amman you can visit the Citadel - the administrative heart of the city - above a huge Roman theatre. Originally developed in 1500 BC it was conquered by the Greeks in 300BC and named Philadelphia, occupied by the Romans, and then became Muslim in 661AD. It's a fascinating site with many layers of different histories, although very run down with not much left standing. But it's interesting to see the successive rulers and to see it was governed by 6 successive dynasties of Muslim rulers. The archeological museum has the oldest known statues of a man and woman thought to have been made about 7000 BC.



7. Moses and his view of Israel 
If you remember your Bible you'll known Moses was shown the Holy Land from Mount Nebo, and then died somewhere in Moab. The site where Moses is believed to have been on Mount Nebo is now a major Christian visitor site. It is set up for thousands of visitors, although there were maybe 10 of us there, and while there is a new church on the site, beautifully integrated above the floor of a Byzantine church, the real draw is the view of Israel and the Dead Sea. The oldest map of the Holy Land is nearby - a large floor mosaic in the church at Madaba.

Jordan and Israel are small, and close, and they have only been separate for less then 100 years. Standing on the mountain top looking across the beautiful landscape I was struck again by how close and intertwined their histories are.



8. Castles for and against the Crusaders
The Crusader era castles in Jordan are just as dramatic and romantic as you can imagine. The largest is at Kerak and was built by the Franks (the Europeans who, lead by the Papacy, tried to take and hold the Holy Land for 300 years) but I could not get to Kerak on this trip and so I went instead to a deeply atmospheric castle built by a nephew of Saladin. It was built on the top of a hill in the 12th century on the site of an earlier Christian monastery and named after one of the monks, Ajlun. It is a magnificent example of classic 12th century castle building, not unlike castles I have visited in England and France. Winding corridors, wind and rain swept battlements with panoramic views into Israel, and a few more people this time, although all Arab. The only place I ever saw other European or American tourists on my whole trip was Petra.




9. Castles for caravans 
Well off the beaten tourist track. I visited the Umayyad desert castles of Qasr Amra and Qasr Kharana about a 1 hour drive into the desert East of Amman. These are not "castles" as we think of them, but caravansary or palaces  - safe places for traders to stay the night on the spice routes. They are isolated, and very lovely, but what is particularly fabulous about Qasr Amra is that what is left standing is the bathhouse and the inside is covered in frescoes. This was built around 710AD, by Islamic caliphates, but the frescoes are not only rich, beautiful and evocative of a time when the area was lush with water, they also have human representation - something which is now forbidden in Islam. The paintings reminded me of both Persian and Christian styles of the times and they are quite simply gorgeous for their time.




10. Warmth of spirit 
Everyone I spoke with was warm, welcoming and glad I was there. From my driver Mohammed - who insisted on stopping at his favorite bakery to share his favorite bread - to my guide Raud who bought me oranges from a farmer on the roadside - I could not have felt more at ease. True I did not speak with any women (it is a male dominated culture) but I was never made to feel less than for being a woman.


The travel concierge team at Indagare.com supported me on this trip. I had a driver between locations and a guide at the major sites - everything was very smooth. Here is my itinerary in case you'd like to plan your own trip:
Day 1: Landed in the evening in Amman, stayed at the Four Seasons (very reasonable these days) 
Day 2: Umayyad castles, citadel of Amman, shopping in the souk and in Amman
Day 3: Jerash, Ajloun Castle 
Day 4: Madaba mosaic, Mount Nebo, on to Petra, stayed at the Hotel Movenpick at the entrance
Day 5: Petra, on to Wadi Rum, stayed at the Discovery Bedu Camp 
Day 6: Wadi Rum, on to Aqaba, walked across the border to Israel

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Thursday, February 23, 2017

It's time for Tone at the Top on Diversity - or Why Uber is Yet Another Wakeup Call for Boards and CEOs in Tech

Uber is just the latest company caught in the act of discriminating against women in it's workforce. Sadly for many minorities in tech this is an old story.

As Ellen Pao writes in today's Time article it is an indication of "tech's existential rot". In a world that "started off seemingly harmlessly by white men funding white men with few exceptions. When only white men were given opportunities, only white men were successful. White men went on hiring only white men, because it seemed to be a common trait of successful employees. Then investors who were white men decided only white men could be successful and doubled down on white men. White men who succeeded in the system decided it worked and saw no need for change. Fifty years later investors can’t break out of that pattern."

But it is time for the pattern to break for many reasons. There is mounting evidence that diverse teams build better products - they are more likely to understand the buying behavior of their customers if they reflect the customer. There is also growing research that companies with diverse boards and management teams produce better returns for investors -so now some investors are encouraging boards to take on diverse board members.

But more importantly it is no longer acceptable for companies to allow employee harassment to continue while HR departments stand by or worse become part of the problem, as Uber is finding out to it's detriment. The #deleteuber campaign has been due for a while and will hurt. (note, I switched to Lyft a year ago after reading about the leadership culture at Uber.) 


So if it is no longer acceptable at the board level, in the executive team, and in the engineering ranks what can we do to make change happen faster?


I have worked in the "bro" culture of tech in Silicon Valley for more than 30 years. I have repeatedly experienced unconscious bias (sometimes not so unconscious ), being underestimated, being dismissed, being propositioned etc. and I have worked hard to over come it as I became a CEO who grew my company through a successful IPO and acquisition. And as I have done so I have been open and public about my wish to be a role model to other women that you can be technical, and be in a leadership role, and have a family in the technology industry. It's possible to do and be happy.

I was conscious of the challenge I was facing from day one when I was one of only a handful (I think 5) women majoring in math at Cambridge in my year, out of about 300. And so, to be a role model, I have always tried to hold a leadership position in any situation I am in, especially if everyone else in the room is male.

It is so clear to me now that the problem we have in tech is not a pipeline problem. Yes, we need more little girls to like computers, and more little african american boys to believe they can be Mark Zuckerberg, but we have plenty already who enter the tech world. But the women leave in droves within 10 years because the environment is hostile. Our problem is keeping women in an industry that makes life difficult for them.

It is time to set the tone at the top. To insist that boards have at least 2 or 3 women on them (not just none, or the "we have one so we're done" you see on so many boards). There are now several recruiters who specialize in finding qualified women with the right experience for boards. For example Beth Stewart of Trewstar would tell you there is no shortage of qualified women to serve, but a shortage of boards who think this is an important issue.

It is also time for boards to insist that the CEO builds a diverse leadership team. This takes real work to find diverse, qualified executives but it can be done in most fields. Uber is just one of many examples where a mostly male leadership team is simply deaf and blind to the issues facing their female employees.

"Tone at the top" is an expression used by boards when reviewing the results of the annual audit. They discuss whether the management team is committed to honest, ethical behavior and whether they operate with integrity. The discussion is important to sign off the financials - after all what audit committee chair would want to sign off the financial filings if he did not believe the CEO and CFO had integrity with the numbers?

It's time for companies to embrace a "tone at the top" discussion around equal opportunity for all employees. It is time for every board to pay attention to the diversity statistics within their companies. How many women are employed at every level, has the company done an audit of pay across gender to check that women are not paid less than men for the same job? Are the percentages of women in leadership growing or shrinking? It is just not hard for HR to run reports and track progress over time - but it takes a serious discussion on the importance of diversity from the board down to build a world class company in the 21st century.

I am hoping this is what Eric Holder and my friend Arianna Huffington will now do for Uber.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Breakfast in Gaza, Dinner in Efrat: Impressions from my trip to Israel and Palestine

I first went to Israel in March 2016. I went at the invitation of a good friend who was teaching a class in Tel Aviv and went because I was longing to explore the ancient history of the area. I packed in a week of experience - as a tourist and as a mentor, across 3000 years of Jewish, Roman, Christian and Muslim history and I was hooked. Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the River Jordan, Beit She'an, Masada, Cesarea, Herodium... energy, culture, technology, history and food... fantastic.

But on the same trip I found family. My husband did not know he had a Jewish family of cousins living in New York until they found us in mid 2015 (he was not raised Jewish). First cousins, not distant cousins, and one of his cousin's sons is a orthodox settler in the West Bank. So on the same trip I visited his family in Efrat - after all they are family! As Fivel drove me around the West Bank, explaining what I was seeing, I saw the walls, and the settlements, and the Palestinians villages and while I saw with my eyes I could not really understand what I was seeing or the implications of what I was seeing on the lives of the people living there.

So I spent the last 10 months studying with a focus on the history of the region, trying to get some grasp of the complexity of the situation. I read books covering the last 4000 years of the Middle East, the last 150 years and the British mandate, the last 100 years and self-serving colonial interference, the last 70 years of the state of Israel, the last 8 years of the impact of Obama's policy, and I felt I barely scratched the surface of understanding.

2016 was my year of saying "yes" and so when, sitting in an outside cafe in Mountain View, I was asked if I could go to Gaza to mentor entrepreneurs I took a deep breath and said yes. I had the anchor for my next trip.

And so, on January 19th 2017, I found myself eating breakfast in the besieged town of Gaza City, with dinner plans in an Israeli settlement in Efrat in the West Bank.

Gaza Strip is a small area of Israel with close to 2 million people in it living under siege. The reasons are very complex, but the result is the people of Gaza are not allowed to leave without a permit and a special reason. They live with limited resources, limited access to electricity, youth unemployment at close to 60%, an oppressive local government, bombed out buildings, poverty and the continuous risk of renewal of war. Many told me they have no future, the future for Gaza is "black" and the young people want to leave.

And yet they survive and try to thrive. They go to university, get married, have children, take care of their parents, dance, eat, and now have the chance to build tech startups.

Gaza Sky Geeks is a startup accelerator in Gaza City, run by an amazing dedicated team from Mercy Corps, the only one of its kind in Gaza Strip. Once you are in through the door it has the feel of a typical incubator. Lots of young entrepreneurs, high energy, laughing, laptops everywhere, people camped out whenever they can get to a plug, and unlike Silicon Valley, 50% women. Most of the businesses are very early stage, most of the ones I talked to fall into the category of web applications or platforms to solve issues in the region. For example, a mobile phone app to connect distressed Arab mothers with online advice or a platform to connect freelancers in a more efficient financial model suitable for the Middle East.

But the Gaza startups have significantly more headwind than you'd find in Silicon Valley, or even in Tel Aviv. They have no access to PayPal payment systems (you can read about this issue here), they have very uncertain power at home (although GSG just successfully raised money to buy a generator for the office space), they have limited access to seed funding, limited access to legal support, need an education on what it means to run a business to make meaningful progress and yet, despite their significant challenges, they are creative and determined to succeed.

I spent only two days with GSG because of my schedule, and would have been happy to spend ten.  It's an exciting place to be and very much in need of mentors, especially in coding, product management and marketing.

It takes a permit from both Israel and Hamas to cross the border in and out of Gaza, and the crossing is not simple. It's Orwellian, and random, and I was disappointed to see that even Israel, the security technology leader of the world, did not have a system to analyze my history and digital footprint and determine I am not a threat. This is a business opportunity...

I left Gaza City at 1pm, crossed the border at Erez finally at 3:30pm, and arrived in Jerusalem by 5:30pm. Since I stayed in West Jerusalem last time I chose to stay in East Jerusalem this time, at the American Colony Hotel which is over a hundred years old and built in colonial times. I felt right at home.

Off to dinner with family that evening, we drive to Efrat as Fivel gives me a running, highly educated commentary of what I am seeing. There are about 400,000 settlers in the West Bank, another ~300,000 in East Jerusalem, and many are American so it makes sense that the settlements look like US suburbia. Nice white houses with red roofs, gardens and often on hilltops (for defensive reasons). You could be in the Midwest, except for the barbed wire protection around them. The Palestinian villages look similar, but different. They are white houses, with white roofs, black water tanks, and a mosque in every village. And big red signs at the entrances saying Israelis are forbidden to enter. And while the settlers have easy access to Jerusalem for work, the Palestinians do not. They must go through a crossing point and be checked.

But family life in Efrat, and the Palestinian villages, is not unlike family life anywhere else in the world. Kids go to school, people run small businesses, their kids won't go to bed, they worry about their kids future... but they also all worry about what the long term looks like for peace and financial prosperity. And obviously there is no comparison between the difficulty of life in Gaza and the challenges of the two communities living in the West Bank.

I won't take sides in this conflict - I don't know enough, both sides seem entrenched and politically responsible for this terrible situation but who am I to judge? But I asked questions. During my trip I spoke with a Palestinian business leader who just wishes the Israelis would leave her country. And I was reminded of the Gazan entrepreneur who told me she just wished they had the quality of life of the Palestinians in the West Bank. I spoke with Israelis who feel strongly that security is the top issue and they are determined to ensure Jews never come close to extinction again, and Israelis who long for a democracy and peace with their Arab neighbors.

After my surreal day spanning the two worlds I spent the next few days mentoring and teaching. I met with women entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv at Startup Nation Central and was very impressed by their businesses, drive and intellect. I taught an EMBA class on being a CEO at Hebrew University to wannabe VCs who were intense, and funny and a joy to talk with - and interested in how they can help Gaza. This is a small place, and everyone's lives are, in the end, intertwined.

For me, the small way I can help is on the ground with women and entrepreneurs. I have believed for many years now that our world will only become sane when women hold equal power to men. Most women are not as violent; when most women make money they invest in the family and education. The long term solution is women also having financial power, investing in a peaceful future.

I also believe in the state of Israel and the need for it to exist and thrive. Whatever the past, it is here and here to stay. But the long term path to peace is that the people living on Israel's borders, in Israel's occupied territories of Palestine, and in Jordan, have jobs and a future and hope. They need a healthy economy. So I have decided I will, to the extent I am permitted to, help on the ground mentoring entrepreneurs and women in Israel, Gaza and Palestine.

The Middle East and Islam dominates so much of our global and US politics, and it's so complicated that I encourage you, if you have not done so already, to go and see for yourself. And, if you're willing, volunteer mentor for Gaza Sky Geeks.

Reading resources:
HuffPo article on Gaza Sky Geeks
TechCrunch article on the fundraiser for a power generator and coding academy at GSG
The Silk Roads - Peter Frankopan - a retelling of world history 
The Kingmakers: The invention of the modern Middle East - Shareen Blair Brysac and Karl E Meyer
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel - Ari Shavit
The Two State Delusion - Padraig O'Malley
Jerusalem - Simon Seabag Montefiore
and there are many more...


 Fishing boats in the Gaza city harbor
 Christian (Greek Orthodox) church built in 407 AD in Gaza City
The Great Mosque in Gaza City - on a site from the 5th century but destroyed and rebuilt as a cathedral or a mosque many times in the last 1500 years
 The port at Gaza, growing the harbor walls with the debris of the shellings
 Creativity bursting out in Gaza as graffiti
Walking out of Gaza
 Beautiful Judea (West Bank)
 A fence winding between Israeli settlements and Palestinian villages
Dense, intense, Jerusalem

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

How 2016 rocked my world as I talked with women entrepreneurs

I am more convinced than ever that there is a bright future for women entrepreneurs and 2016 proved it to me!

I stepped back from being a full time CEO a little more than a year ago. It was time, for family reasons, and I set out to change my life. I still work (I serve on two public company boards) but I decided to spend a great deal more time with my father and my family than I have ever been able to do before, and to prioritize my time to giving back. But I had no idea what that really meant for me – what could I do that was meaningful other than work as a CEO?

I decided that I would just say “yes” to every request for help from entrepreneurs, especially, but not exclusively, women. Not that I would be a pushover and do anything I was asked, but I would say yes to any request for a meeting from an entrepreneur who wanted advice. A first meeting at least and if I thought I could make a difference I'd keep saying yes. I wish I could say I was inspired by Shonda Rhimes’ TED talk but I did not see it until I was well into the year. Instead I was thinking of it as following breadcrumbs without knowing where they were going to lead.

It's been an extraordinary year, it's taken me in directions I never would have expected, and it's changing me.

I've met with many amazing female entrepreneurs. Aged twenties to sixties. A psychiatrist who has figured out how to use technology to dramatically reduce the cost of cognitive testing for veterans with PTSD or the elderly with dementia, a media executive with a passion for travel who's changing how people explore the world, a technologist who's figured out how to measure skin tone so you can buy the right makeup for your skin, a CEO with an IoT product that can tell you all about the water leakage risks in your commercial property assets (something I did not know was a big problem), a woman revolutionizing the sex tech industry, a woman with breakthrough security technology to protect your phone, a visionary who set up the first and only incubator in Gaza... a new calendaring app, a better travel itinerary planning app, a next generation geospatial model, better on-chip failsafe technology, the artistic director of a ballet, networking technology, machine learning technology ... the whole gamut! I have found I love talking with entrepreneurs and CEOs. I love listening to their stories about their businesses, what’s working, what’s scaring them, how they are getting funded.

I ask questions, ad nausea, and then focus in on one of two challenges they face and discuss with them how to overcome them. It's fun for both of us, and I realize I can help many of them. No judgement, just the experience of being there myself more than once before. And I now believe, more than ever, it is much harder for women to get venture funding than men. I have far too many data points now!

I've met with women hedge fund managers who only invest in women led companies, recruiters whose only business is placing women on boards, bankers who want to do deals for women CEOs. The movement is happening. Women are, more than ever, proactively helping women. I threw a book party for Joann Lublin’s new book Earning It - the party was 3 days after our horrific election - and I saw ~60 women (eating my husband's terrific food and drinking good wine) talking to each other about how this cannot be our future and becoming even more committed to make a different future for women.

But I also visited Israel for the first time and I was hooked. I found Israel fascinating and a historical goldmine but then I spent time in the West Bank with family who are orthodox settlers, and at the same time joined a small group trying to help Palestine with Silicon Valley technology. Wow, that is a complex area. I am reading like crazy trying to understand, but it's also an area where young women are starting businesses and where I can help.

2016 wasn't all about female entrepreneurs. I've spent 25% of the year in Europe. Driving with my Dad through France, quiet days with him in England helping him write his life story, Italy with my daughter, with my husband, with my sister. Enough time that I know I was truly present for my family, for the first time in a long time.

I am not unaware that it is a privilege for me to be able to do this, but I also now recognize that it is not only money that holds us in our jobs. It is also social status, recognition, a sense of being important. One of my new friends, now in her seventies, and who had a very big, high profile CEO job, told me one of the things she found most difficult about retiring was not being important any more. We are all, in our own ways, driven by ego and giving up the identity that defined me for most of my adult life has had it's hard moments, like when a man asked me at a fundraiser what I do for a living and when I said I am retired he said “oh” and walked away. I've had plenty of "invisible" moments this year and it takes some getting used to.

We may feel it's hard for women entrepreneurs in 2017, but the groundswell is growing. The number of smart women building businesses inspires me. The number of powerful female CEOs inspires me. And in 2017 I am open for business to help them in any way I can!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

So you want to join a board: Advice to help you prepare

If you want to join a board, you are not alone. Some people want to find a board in the middle of their career because they like the idea of learning about board life, or for the status of it; some people are looking for board work towards the end of their career because they want to stay engaged and give back. Either way it's a common, serious interest for many people.

But what does it take - how do you prepare yourself to be qualified?

First off, determine why you want it - and be able to articulate that. Are you looking for income or interest? Be clear about this because there is a huge difference between the two. Non-profit boards typically don't pay, in fact they expect you to give money. For-profit private company boards may pay cash, or they may only pay in stock (which may, or may not, ever be worth anything) and for-profit public company boards pay, but the pay varies widely depending on the size, industry and country of the company.

Once you can clearly state what you want and why, the next step is for you to determine what value you are going to bring - what is your value proposition? What experience do you bring, how will you be helpful, why should a board want you on it? I had never done this formally until a few weeks ago when I was on a panel and the moderator asked us panelists to write down our value propositions. This is what I came up with (late at night in a hotel room!):

As someone who has 20 years as a high tech CEO, has been through an IPO and many M&A deals  and who is very technical, I bring experience in what it takes to create the strategy, execution plans and leadership teams necessary to drive growth. As a compensation committee chair on two public boards I team with the CEO to create the right incentives to execute the operational plans and create shareholder value. I tend to be the voice in the room focused on strategy and the needs of the leadership team in a rapidly changing world.

Try writing yours - what would you say?

Another way to approach this is to inventory your skills. Make a list of what you're good at - what makes you unique. This is your experience - what types of jobs you've had - PLUS what is it about your intellect and personality that will be helpful? Are you good under pressure, are you energized by solving hard problems, are you good at negotiation, are you natural coach, do you have strong P&L management experience? These are skills that are often not on your resume, but when a recruiter asks you what you would bring to a board it's good to be able to confidently state the top 3 or 4 skills that you would bring.

The next challenge is that while  you may feel you are ready to contribute on a board, many boards will not want to hire someone with no previous experience. This is one of the top objections that prevents boards diversifying - boards tend to hire people they know, who are like them, who have served on boards before. It's less work than hiring someone who is different and needs training. But as the trend towards building more diverse boards continues, nomination committees are coming to terms with hiring board members without previous experience.

One of the ways you can prepare yourself is to go and take training. I am a member of the volunteer faculty at a two day intensive training course - the NextGen Directors Academy - designed to take a small group of diverse, aspiring future board members through the nuts and bolts of being on a board. We cover the basic responsibilities, what each committee is responsible for, what your institutional investors care about and case studies of boards who got off track with activists. It's an interactive, peer to peer format, and there are no stupid questions. There are several courses around like this, but not all have deep, intense content so make sure you talk with previous attendees before you sign up.

Another way you can prepare is to make sure you have the business basics covered. Most of the top business schools run executive training classes, from a few days to several weeks, ranging from general management preparation to specialized skills like cyber security. Once you have inventoried your own skills and experience, think about whether you have a gap you need to fill with some training, or whether you want to develop a skill that is currently in high demand for board members.

One of the ephemeral requirements of many boards is "fit". Boards are expected to be collegiate, to get along, to voice difference but in the end come together on decisions. (I could write a tome on whether this is healthy for the shareholders or not, but not here). If you want to get onto a company board, but have no experience to point to, try joining a non-profit board first. Pick one that is a decent size (>$500k a year in budget), that has a real board that meets 2-4 times a year and that is run by an experienced chairperson. Reading the prep materials, listening to the management team, sitting in the meetings contributing to the discussion in a balanced, collegiate way will bring you confidence and experience that you can then refer to when you discuss your first for-profit board.

Make sure you have the time to be an effective board member. Being on a board carries status with it, it sounds important, and it may pay well. And many boards have 4-5 meetings a year so it doesn't sound like much. But actually board work can take a huge amount of time. On a regular basis you need to put the time aside to read, to prepare and to attend the meetings. But in addition you will have countless phone calls and phone meetings outside of the regular meetings. You will need to meet with the CEO and members of the executive team and if the board needs to find a new CEO (for whatever reason) expect to spend days and days, over a series of months, meeting candidates and discussing them with the other board members. So before you pour time into preparing yourself to sit on a board make sure your day job allows you enough time to truly contribute.

And finally, don't be shy. If you want to get on a board say so. Tell everyone you talk with about boards that you are, yourself, looking for a board seat. Network with recruiters who specialize, and stay in touch with them so you are current in their minds. Talk to people who are already on boards. Finding the right board is a pretty random process and so getting the word out will help the right board find you.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Exploring 2500 years of Sicily

Sicily is magical. Ancient history, glorious art, beautiful countryside and marvelous food and wine. My Christmas present from Bret this year was he was willing to go to Sicily with me without his kiting gear - and for those of you who know him this is a big give! So we set out, guidebooks in hand, and explored...

I got started with an overview of Sicilian history through the book Sicily by John Julius Norwich. This book walks through 3,000 years and is an expression of the author's long standing love affair with the island. It gives a rich backdrop to help you understand what you are seeing every day.

Your can see our route here.



Magical Mosaics

The Normans ruled Sicily for a hundred years through most of the 12th century, and left behind the most glorious byzantine mosaics. A visit to Monreale Cathedral and the Capella Palentina, both built by Roger II, are a must for any art lover. It's easy to wander around Palermo following in the Norman's footsteps through churches, cathedrals and the great Norman palace. Then move forward a hundred years to the time of Frederick II (stupor mundi- the wonder of the world) and think about his extraordinary achievements while standing by his porphyry tomb. The Normans and Frederick II were rich, cultured, religiously tolerant and clearly had an eye for beauty and visual story telling.

Gold, angels, old and new testament stories on every surface

Artists from Egypt decorated the chambers of Roger II and Frederick II

Is it a mosque, is it a church, or is it now a Victorian garden?

But the Romans also developed Sicily and one of the best preserved Roman villa floors in the world is in the middle of Eastern Sicily at Piazza Armerina - the Roman Villa Casale. Built in the early 4th century, every room has gorgeous, complex, well preserved mosaics on the floors. Hunting scenes, lovers, athletes, children's whimsical playtime, it's overwhelming. Forgotten for many years, it is now a Unesco site, and while off the beaten path well worth the effort to get there.

The lovers on the floor of the master bedroom

Greek Temples

Ah the riches! Segesta, Selinute, Agrigento - each captured our imagination as we walked through reconstructed temples and climbed over the remains of even bigger fallen temples. The Greeks started building in Sicily by 750 BC and built vast cities warring with each other. But while the temples were abandoned by ~200BC the sites were not, so in each case you can visit for an hour or two - or for a day - depending on your taste. Speaking of taste, when an old man hands you a flyer inviting you to his restaurant which is 5 km down a dirt track from the site accept the invitation. One of our best meals was at a farmhouse surrounded by goats with no menu, where no one spoke English but everything was made by the old man's wife. Yum.

Agrigento - jaw dropping

All these ruined temples are very atmospheric, but the best is not a temple, it is the Duomo in Syracuse. While masquerading as a duomo now, it is actually a Greek temple where the gaps between the columns have simply been filled in with tufa blocks. The inner and outer colonnades are in place and the columns are exposed so as you walk through you feel you are actually still inside a pagan temple but it has a thin veneer of monotheism on top.

Is it a church, or a temple with a thin veneer?

Of course because there were Greeks there are also Greek theaters. From the small one at the hilltop in Segesta to the huge one in Syracuse to the panoramic one in Taormina. Every one has to be explored.

Syracuse theatre, site of many opening nights 2000 years ago

Marmalade!

Sicily is a perfect climate for citrus. And the south east corner is the best - miles and miles and miles of lemons, oranges, grapefruits and hundreds of varieties.

At the Marchesi di San Giuliano they have been making marmalade for 20 years all organically, only from fruit on their land. Everything is cut by hand, everything is prepared, cooked and bottled by hand. We requested a marmalade tasting in advance and, after getting lost a few times, found ourselves at a small farm where they had rolled out the red carpet. The chief cook hosted us and she had made a lemon marmalade tart, as well as prepared bread, butter and a selection of all their marmalades to try. The whole experience was delicious and amusing, and even more so when I innocently asked "how many people come to taste marmalade a year?" and they answered "You are the first!" We satisfied their curiosity about our strangeness when we told them we are English.

Foggy Erice

Even in late September Sicily is hot. T-shirts, sandals, hats and sunscreen. Except in the small mountaintop village of Erice. Erice is at 2500 feet with sheer cliffs on 3 slides and a defensive wall built by Daedalus. The town is walled in with cobble streets and no room for cars (although of course you don't know that when Google maps says you can drive to your hotel and you break numerous traffic laws figuring out you can't). There is a small Norman castle at the top (of course on the site of an ancient Greek temple) and by mid afternoon we were completely shrouded in fog. On brief breaks in the fog we could see down to the glittering sea, but then we'd be back in the clouds - perfect for a spooky abandoned castle!

Erice castle and the cliff face down to Trapani

There is so much to see in Sicily and there is something for everyone. Expansive white beaches, cocktails on the harbor wall, wine tasting, Caravaggios, museums and easy driving. Everyone we spoke to was friendly and pleased to help us and our fellow travelers were from all over Europe, and rarely from the US. If you have not been, put it on your bucket list!

The view from the ancient Greek theatre in Taormina

I worked with the team at Indagare.com for all reservations - and cannot say enough about this service. Excellence at every turn and they booked us into everything from a 3 star hotel with worn carpets (but still the best hotel in Erice, and the best coffee of the trip), to a 7 room super quiet agritourism hotel in the middle of an orange grove to the 5 star experience of the Villa Athena in Agrigento. All with grace and patience.  


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