An idea from the ladies' room
INSIDE TRACK: A straight-talking maverick: UNDER THE SKIN LUCY MARCUS: The founder of HighTech Women is outspoken, passionate and a quick judge of character, she tells Alison Maitland.
By Alison Maitland
Lucy Marcus is a London-based American venture capital consultant, regular conference speaker and founder of HighTech Women, a forum for women in technology-related jobs to meet and mentor each other in cyberspace and face-to-face.
Born in New York, she did a summer internship with Edward Kennedy, the US senator, while studying at Wellesley College, and later worked in public policy for Price Waterhouse and the US Treasury Department. She obtained a master’s degree in political philosophy from the University of Cambridge, then worked in technology companies in the US and Europe before becoming an independent consultant to early-stage businesses.
In 1999 she set up Marcus Venture Consulting, which advises companies, venture capitalists and individuals on investing in technology businesses. Last year she launched HighTech Women, which has 1,700 members around the world. She also sits on the advisory board of Cambridge University’s Judge Institute of Management Studies. Her husband, Stefan Wolff, is a German expert in ethnic conflict and post-conflict reconstruction.
“I don’t tell anyone my age. I’m too young for some people and too old for others. I’m amazed how important age is to people. People look for boxes to put other people into. You’re a woman, you’re American, you’re x or y age.
I think you’ve got to judge a person on what they achieve – they’ve done different and interesting work, they’re a visionary or bucking the trend, they sound like they know what they’re talking about.
I love starting from scratch. Blank canvas is truly thrilling. At Wellesley I started a national student lobby group for more state support for higher education. Could anything be harder? If you see something that needs to be done, you can wait for someone to do it or you can do it yourself. There are times when I become afraid but that doesn’t stop me from doing what I want to do.
I’m lucky to have very smart parents and a husband who is completely and utterly supportive and very accomplished in his own field. I find him rather extraordinary. We’re both sort of mavericks. When I listen to him talk about his work, I find it enormously compelling. I’m inspired by his ability to focus, where I am somewhat unfocused. Where I get passionate, he gets analytical.
I couldn’t do something I wasn’t passionate about, because I couldn’t put the energy into it. In high school, I always needed to do 15 things at once. Everyone said: “You’ll grow out of that.” I’m still waiting.
I’ve been very fortunate to have many mentors who have taught me a can-do attitude and how to relate well to others. There was a guy named Jim King, who was head of the office of personnel management in Washington. One of the best pieces of advice I got from him was that you can either say what people want to hear and everyone likes you or you can speak with honesty and integrity. Maybe people wouldn’t agree but they’d always know you were telling it like you saw it.
I’m too outspoken [for a corporate environment]. If I had gone internally to a company two years ago and said: Let’s advise venture capitalists, they would have said: There’s no market there, they don’t want our help.
I came across a memo recently that I wrote to a client two years ago saying: “There is no such thing as the technology sector as it is defined today.” That’s a fairly controversial statement to make. I also asked why they wanted to invest in the technology sector. Everybody else had come in and told them: You’ve got to do this, it’s so great.
I’ve been saying this ever since: if you’ve invested in manufacturing in the past, think about where there are problems [in manufacturing] and how you can solve those with technology and then find a company that’s solving that problem. The question then is: are you investing in technology or in raising the bar in manufacturing? Technology is only as useful as the industry, the individual or the organisation that wields it.
My job is like being one of those metal detectors on a beach – finding the gem, the essence of anything, is so exciting. It’s the Hegelian way of looking at things: there’s the thesis, the antithesis and the synthesis. It’s looking at what existed before and exists now and pulling that together into what’s going to happen next.
I love to spend time with people in completely different industries. I don’t live in California because of that. It’s very important to walk in the other guy’s shoes and understand his perspective. It’s very easy to get [too] focused on your own little industry.
HighTech Women was something I had to do: I kept going to conferences and being one of four women in a roomful of 200 CEOs. I found that I’d meet the most interesting people in the ladies’ room!
Being a woman and being American and having a sense of humour gives me the liberty to do and say things that others would find hard. I remember in my first job in the UK, [a male colleague] asked me to fax something. I was responsible for marketing and business development for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. I was not responsible for this man’s faxes. I went and said: You left this on my desk by mistake. He said: I meant to do it, and I said: No, you made a mistake.
I asked somebody recently whether there were any women on the board of his company, which had made a lot of interesting changes. He said: No, there aren’t, that would be a step too far. Can you imagine?
[The forum] is all about how you get your first non-executive directorship, your first speaking engagement, your first opportunity to write something – how you progress your career. We have a ‘pool of directors’ from which companies can draw women who are first-time directors as well as those who have been directors.
Part of getting your first directorship is knowing people who know people who know people. But I hate the word networking. It’s a bit cold. I would hate to think someone perceived me as thinking about this all the time. I just love talking to interesting, new, smart people.
I am also a quick judge of character. If someone was a really good networker, they’d be friends with everybody. I’m not friends with everybody.”