Interview With Christina Wallace
Lucy Sanders: Hi this is Lucy Sanders, the CEO, co‑founder of NCWIT. The National Center for Women and Information Technology. We have another one of our really fabulous interviews today with women who have been very successful in the entrepreneurial space. Today we're interviewing a woman who has experience across for profit and the non‑profit entrepreneurial sectors.
Larry Nelson: Good.
Lucy: Good. With me is Larry Nelson, w3w3.com. Hi Larry.
Larry: Hi, I'm really happy to be here. I really loved your site and our listeners are going to learn it. A number of wonderful lessons and were posted on our home page and NCWIT channel as well as a podcast directory and blog. Of course, we're in really shine is on the ncwit.org site.
Lucy: Yes, very excited about that. Today we're talking to Christina Wallace and as I mentioned before, Christina has a lot of experience in both for profit and the non‑profit sectors. She was also named as one of Mashables 44 female founders to know. Now, all of our listeners are going to know Christina.
Larry: There you go.
Lucy: That's absolutely awesome. Today she's the founding partner of BridgeUp: STEM and certainly near and dear to our heart. For those of you listening, STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math and BridgeUP: STEM is a new educational initiative at the American Museum of Natural History and it's focused on introducing girls and minorities to computer science again, something that we care passionately about.
Before her role at BridgeUP STEM, she was vice‑president at Startup Institute and the founder and CEO of Venture Back eCommerce brand, Quincy Apparels. A management consultant with Boston Consulting Group, who we used to hire when I worked at AT&T, and an arts manager at the Metropolitan Opera. Wow, what a span of things. I can't wait to hear about it in addition to, she has an MBA from Harvard University.
Christina, welcome. We're really happy to have you here. Before we start and get into the interview questions maybe just a little bit more for listeners about BridgeUp: STEM. I'm sure they'll be curious to know what you're up to there.
Christina Wallace: Sure, we're very excited. We're about six months into a five year grant to build BridgeUP: STEM. Helen Gurly Brown Foundation was very generous in being our founding partner to support this. It is a new portfolio of programs actually.
There's several pieces of this that we're building over the next five years at the museum, really focused on diversifying the pipeline of talent going into STEM. Really trying to get more girls, more minorities, under‑served students into the pipeline, getting them into computer science and encouraging them and inspiring them.
Our first piece of initiative is what we call our Brown Scholars Program and that is intended as an intensive two‑year after school program for 9th and 10th grade girls to come to the museum two days a week after school and we'll teach them to code in python. We'll introduce them to some statistics and data science and a little bit of algorithms and databases and data visualization.
We'll do that through using the scientific data sets here and letting them become mini data scientists. Getting to play with genome data, getting to play with our digital universe atlas of the universe and, in their second year, do real research with some of our scientists here and the opportunity to really contribute to some of the work being done.
That's our first big kick off for this program. Our girls start in our first cohort in February and we'll do another cohort sort of every trimester. Fall, Spring and Summer for the next few years. Then we're adding additional programming this summer for middle school students, boys and girls, trying to get out into the boroughs of New York City so it's not just something we have on the upper west side.
Then we're really looking into professional development and curriculum development opportunities for public school teachers. Trying to bring computational thinking and computer science into existing math and science classrooms.
Trying to really give the students of New York an opportunity to get exposed to this discipline and hoping to piquÈ their interest so that they're, you know, thinking about this as a real opportunity when they go to college.
Lucy: And we like that at NCWIT, I'll tell you what. [laughs]
Larry: Yes. Ain't that the truth.
Lucy: That is the truth. Christina, why don't you tell our listeners a bit about how you first got interested in technology and, as you look out there with all the great technologies you mentioned, data science for example. What other kinds of technologies do you see that you think are really exciting?
PARTICIPANT: Sure. So, I got into technology pretty young without realizing that it was a thing, or a thing that I could get into. My mom was a secretary in the computer science department and Michigan State University. We got to play with one of the very first laptops.
It didn't have an internal hard drive, it was a dual floppy with a green screen so you could boot it up on one floppy and then you could run a program off the other. And got to participate in some of the early experiments that some of the professors at Michigan State were doing with fingerprint scanning, which seemed so out there in 1991.
And really got to see that this was something kind of cool and exciting from the future. I've always was a math nerd, was a math major all through college and took some early programming classes as part of that major. I didn't really put one and one together until business school.
I started my career, as you said, at the Metropolitan Opera, I started off on the art side. I've always been both the technologist and a creative artsy person and sort of thought the arts was where I was going to be where I made my home.
When I got to business school and discovered there were all the tech start‑ups and sort of the creativity that came with creating something from nothing from a product and a business and really getting to kind of imagine something and then go build it, combined with the power of technology and computer science and data and all of those pieces.
It just kind of clicked for the first time. That's how I made my path back into this. It's a little bit secluded, but technology is always been there from the beginning.
In terms of the stuff I'm really excited about, I think data science is the thing right now. Computer programming, web dev, it's exciting. I like to make pretty things and I like to have them live online. Certainly mobile apps have been of focus for a long time.
Being able to ask big questions from giant data sets and really get those in place that can help you design better products. It can help you think about customer segmentation a little bit better. In our case, to help you understand the human body or how different fossils might have originated from different family trees within evolution.
In the case of our digital universe, finding new XO planets or seeing what else is out there in the giant universe. I think that's what's really exciting because there's more data now than there's ever existed ever.
Christina: It just seems to be compounding. Learning the tools and the skill set to be able to ask those questions and answer them is what gets me excited.
Larry: Wow. That's really interesting.
Lucy: What's an XO planet?
Larry: Yeah. What is an XO planet?
Christina: An XO planet is a planet that exists outside of our solar system. Our planet all rotate around the sun.
Lucy: I'm such a moron.
Christina: The sun isn't the only star that has planets. Our astronomers that search for XO planets are looking for planets that rotate around other stars.
Lucy: Thank you for that. [laughs]
Christina: You could tell I work at a science museum now. [laughs]
Lucy: Yup. That's awesome.
Larry: With all of these, this is very fascinating. Just why is it that you are an entrepreneur? What is it about entrepreneurship that makes you tick?
Christina: Oh, man. The creating something from nothing is just the thing that drives me. I was a theater director and a producer all throughout college. Going from that, spark of an idea to the plan of how we're going to do it, and then actually building it even if it requires some duct tape and holding two sticks together.
Christina: Hoping no one pushes a little bit too hard on the scenery. That's always been the conception to the execution in its first, second and 12th iteration, ideally under intense time, pressure with fewer resources than you would like is just what gets me excited, I think.
I've never been at the point of scaling companies. I certainly haven't been at the point to make them big and IPO or any of that. It's sort of that zero to two that gets me really excited.
When I created Quincy Apparel with my co‑founder, it's sort of the first time that we got to take this experience from the arts and kind of throw it onto a business model and see how that works and just...I don't know. Butting your head against the wall a hundred times and having it work 101 is just so exciting that I had to do it again [laughs] .
When I moved onto Startup Institute and got to open a New York office, it was great to be given a product and ideas that they already figured out, but the question of how do we make it work in New York or will it work in New York?
Christina: If it works in New York, how do we make it work in other places too? Then, now getting to be able to start‑up inside a museum that has such an amazing brand and cultural trove. Everyone thinks who about MNH, their first reaction was always, "I love that museum. It's love."
Christina: You don't get to build something that's attached to love very often.
Lucy: Awesome. I loved the Night at the Museum movie. [laughs] I love them also.
Christina: We just had our first hackathon here at the museum, which was a big deal. To say the word "hackathon" in the museum and to let people spend the night and create something on our digital universe is exciting.
Lucy: It was at the museum?
Christina: It's the best of both worlds. The Night at the Museum, the 3:00 AM in the Hall of the Universe combined with, "Here, take our data. Build something cool on top of it."
Lucy: It's so cool. That is awesome. Along this pathway, who has influenced you? You have mentors, role models, or people you've admired from afar?
Christina: Yeah. There's been quite a few. One of them that stands out so immediately was a professor I had at business school, Dr. Noam Wasserman. He teaches this course called Founder's Dilemmas. It basically goes through all the ways that a start‑up could fail. It had nothing to do with your products sucking.
Christina: It's mostly about interpersonal skills, founder things, legal things, and how to think about who you need on your team. It's just the nuts and the bolts and the playbook for how to actually take an idea and turn it into a business that can continue to exist.
It was a complete accident that I got into this class as a virtue of our class selection process. Maybe the second time he was teaching it, it wasn't in demand then as it is now. I actually tried to get out of the class, and I told him that.
Christina: I was going to take this other education class and I couldn't get out of it. I was like, "I'm so sorry. Please forget that I told you I was trying to leave the class."
Christina: It ended up being one of the best experiences that I had at school. He stayed as one of my close mentors throughout this thing. Always on speed dial when I needed him during Quincy and even post my startup as I thought about, "What do I do next?" "How do I build a career within the start‑up world without being always the founder or always kind of driving this?"
He's just been always there for me. I try to pay it back when I can, going back and teaching in his class or contributing when I can. He's been just a huge supporter, from the beginning, even when I told him I wasn't interested in being there on purpose.
Christina: And then I think the other person that really just has been driving me, especially in New York is Rachel Sklar.
Lucy: Oh sure.
Christina: She's the founder of "Change the Ratio" and "The List" and just has been on the forefront of trying to get more visibility and opportunity and access for women in tech, trying to make sure that not every conference is the stale pale male lineup of speakers. Trying to really call out biases when she sees them in media, or in companies, in the way that funders and VC's think about the work they're doing.
She's unflagging in this regard. She takes a lot of criticism sometimes. It's hard getting to the forefront of a revolution, but she just does it and she always looks great doing it. She has so much energy and has been one of the reasons I've gotten such a great network of women in New York, from the beginning that have exponentially helped me succeed here and have become some of my best friends, which is pretty awesome to have that kind of a community.
Larry: Boy, that's better than dessert. Yes, that's good.
Lucy: Better than dessert.
Larry: Though, Christina, let me ask this, with all the things you've been through and you've developed and you've been a part of and everything else, what's been the toughest thing you've had to do in your career?
Christina: The toughest thing I've had to do in my career was to get back up after my company failed. It's something that I try to talk a lot about, because I don't think failure is something that high‑achieving, go‑getter people really think about it until the moment that they're in it themselves. It can feel really, kind of career ending or overwhelming or any of those things, and it's not, at least in the start‑up world.
The moment that I knew that we were going to shut down and went through that whole process of unwinding the company. Then I went home and I crawled into my bed and I didn't leave for three weeks. There was this moment of paralysis, of like, "Well what do I do now? "
In addition to the, "I have no skills. I'm generalist. I'm a little bit of everything and no one's going to want to hire me," through to the like, "How do I look my investors in the face again," and say, "I lost your money. I'm so sorry. That was never something that I thought would happen." To, "What about my employees?" They pay their rent with paychecks that I was giving them and they don't have them anymore. I've had kids on my health insurance plan. All of these things are going through your head and it can feel overwhelming.
I gave myself a couple of weeks to watch The West Wing and to eat seamless and not see anyone. Then I got back up. That four‑week period was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do personally or professionally, but I did it and it all worked out.
I don't think any point in the last two years, anyone has asked me, except from a "I want to learn perspective," no one's asked me "Why did your company fail? That's such a terrible reflection of you as a human being or an indication of your ability or your potential or your worth as a person." It's never came up.
That was surprising and something I hope especially more women experience, at least in a lot of the public speaking I do and the mentoring I do. High achieving young women have never really failed at basically anything. The potential for failure, I hope, doesn't prevent them from trying.
Lucy: That is so well said. In many of these cases, in both of the last questions you answered, you said like in the case of your professor, you know, "I didn't want to be there and yet, I learned so much." Nobody wants to fail, but definitely it's one of the places you learn a lot.
Christina: Oh yeah.
Lucy: You learn how to lead in hard times. That's very hard. I don't want to say it's remarkable experience because you don't say, "I hope you fail," but there's a lot of learning that can happen there.
Sort of along those lines, you've already given us great advice about being an entrepreneur. If you were sitting here now, with young people talking about entrepreneurship, what other advice would you give them about being an entrepreneur?
Christina: Not everyone should be an entrepreneur. Right now, it's being very popularized. It's in the Zeitgeist. We're sort of turning a lot of entrepreneurs into these rock stars. That's great that we're giving the visibility and the platform to sort of show off that this is one potential path, but it's not the path for everyone.
There's also a lot that can be done, and it can be very fulfilling. It can be the right path to be an early hire at a start‑up, and to be employee number two or number one or number ten. To recognize that I want to be in a place that creates value. I want to be at a place that is very close to it's customers and listens for their feedback and iterates. I want to be at a place that values learning of it's employees and is really focused on professional development and opportunity for us as well as creating value for investors.
Identify that start‑ups or technology companies or however you want to define this is a sector that you would really like to be part of without being the first one off the ship, with the idea and no money and living on the couch and taking all the risk. There's a lot of great experiences and obviously, we need entrepreneurs in order to drive innovation. But you don't have to be an entrepreneur to be entrepreneurial.
That's the distinction that, when I'm talking to a lot of the young students that I'm mentoring, really trying to help them define "Why do you want to be an entrepreneur? What specifically are you impassioned about solving a specific problem. Do you just see a potential opening in a market that you want to take advantage of?"
Or, do you say, "I'm looking at the jobs in front of me in consulting and banking and brand management. None of those look exciting. I really liked that startup movie. I'm going to go start a company because it's not that hard to get $25,000 and two friends to build something at a hackathon." Those are very different things.
To really identify where you think you sit and that it might change over time. You might not be ready to be an entrepreneur right out of school, or even in your 20's, but you want to get that experience. At some point, when you find that thing that you can't stop thinking about, and that opportunity that you just have to build, because no one else can build it except you, then you go and take that plunge.
You risk everything to build it and that's totally legitimate. It doesn't have to be just his second and you don't have to be the founder to still get that entrepreneurial experience.
Lucy: That's very wise.
Larry: Boy, that's for sure. Christina I want to thank you for sharing the experience that you went through a few years ago. It's really a great turn on for a lot of people who really could use that extra push. Now I'm going to ask you another question...
Larry: ...That kind of ties in with that. What are the personal characteristics that you have that given you the advantage of being an entrepreneur?
Christina: This is a great question. I was reading a Steve Blank blog post on this today on the "First Round Capital" blog about what to look for when you're basically dating for co‑founders or what specific traits to look for. I don't remember the exact quotes that he put in there, but he basically outlined it as someone who can focus in the midst of extreme turmoil.
Christina: And it's function and moving pieces. Someone who is resilient and has endurance, that this is not a sprint, and it's such a clichÈ but it's so important to especially if you've never run a marathon. To understand what it means to run a marathon because it's not a sprint, it's a marathon.
To have that resilience to keep getting back up and continue to try and push through. Someone who just has that work ethic to put in the hours. It's not just about long nights so that you can claim that you're working hard.
But it's not like a work‑life balance thing. At least that's the beginning. To have that understanding of the discipline required for the home marshmallow test. Can you wait till tomorrow to get two marshmallows versus getting one marshmallow right now? Do you have the discipline to push through for a delayed gratification?
Do you have the resilience and the endurance to pick yourself up even after you've been thrown to the ground 20 times? Do you have that ability to focus and make decisions when you're in sort of extreme chaos and dysfunction? Or does that paralyze you? Because that's an early stage company, the very beginnings of entrepreneurship.
It's not about executing against an idea, it's trying to narrow down what that idea is. Triggering out what type of business plan that you are trying to execute against his and being able to prioritize and assign resources to different things when everything is priority number one. Some people have life experiences that just naturally prepare them for it.
Thanks to you for saying that the ideal founder in his opinion of someone who grew up in a dysfunctional family and was a platoon army leader.
Christina: That gives you that perspective of chaos but decision making and leadership. Some people have those experiences. I would argue that, I was a costly trained pianist, and challenged for 16 years. That honed my discipline side of my brain, the ability to sit still and practice six hours a day. In hopes that three months from now, this piece will be ready to perform.
I certainly grew up in a slightly dysfunctional, crazy things moving around and changing all the time kind of home life. From the endurance and the resilience piece, I run marathons and I climb mountains. I don't do either those things because I really like sweating. It's a way to sort of build that endurance muscle to push through and kind of recognize that head space that you've been there before and you can kind of get to the end of it.
Lucy: Here in Boulder we have mountains and marathons.
Christina: There you go.
Lucy: We have all those things here and we have craziness too.
Larry: That's true, that's true.
Christina: I believe that.
Lucy: Totally crazy. You mentioned the work‑life balance and that's actually our next question around. How do you then sort of in some sense blend your personal and professional lives? Because we all have something that we do outside, what we call "work." Right?
Christina: Again, it's sort of a horrible not answer, answer. But it also sort of depends. It depends on what stage of life you're in, it depends on how you need to balance those things to make it work. It depends on who else is involved in the room with you right? So with Quincy, I made the decision very early on that it was all I was going to do.
I worked seven days a week at it. I didn't sing in a choir, I didn't run marathons, I didn't date, I didn't see my friends, I didn't really see my family. It was just all I did, seven days a week. All I could think about even when I was sleeping. It was the one I needed. At the beginning we were getting from a running start with no money. We had a very specific length of time before we were out of money so that was the runway we had, it was about eight months. It either had to work or it was over.
At the end of those eight months, we did managed to raise a venture capital. We had some resources and we were able to hire some people and my co‑founder and I looked at each other and said "We have to have slightly more work‑life balance, or we're going to burn out." So now we're in a different stage in our company. We're able to say, "OK, now we're working six days a week. We'll take one day off every weekend." She was married so she tried to find time and space to make room for her husband.
I decided to take up long distance running and I got to go back on audition for a choir, so I'd have something. We got eight months more into that and we were nearly to a point where either was going to work or we were going to have to shut down. In either case, killing ourselves wasn't going to make that difference.
We said "OK, now we're going to work five and half days a week" and make a little bit more space for ourselves. In the case of per jobs done at MNH, it's a very different culture here. It's a museum, it's a non‑profit. We have hours that the museum are open, we have hours that the education programs happen.
A lot of the partners that I meet to interact with in order to build this program, they're not going to be on their email at four in the morning on a Sunday. There's no point in me being on email at four in the morning on a Sunday. There's a lot more space for me to have a work‑life balance here because the other partners in the room, insists on it. It's the culture that we have here.
It can be frustrating sometimes. It can feel a little bit slow sometimes and that's the pay off, right? The nice thing is, I'm not competing with other companies to be the first to market with our product. It's a different type of a start‑up and a different type of an organization.
Larry: Wow, that's really something. One of the things I would like to ask is, what mountain are you going to climb next but I'm...
Christina: Well I can tell you, I leave in two days. I'm going to Nepal to go to average base camp.
Lucy: Oh my gosh. Wow, be careful.
Larry: Oh wow.
Christina: Thank you.
Larry: Yeah, you have a great time. Yes.
Larry: Well, you've already been through a great deal, you achieved a lot. What's up for your next?
Christina: I mean, I'm excited for project STEM. This could be a program that isn't just something we run at the American Museum of National History. But something that other museums and other informal learning areas might be able to adapt. One thing that we're already seeing in our early development here, is that by teaching coding in computer science through the lens of a subject that girls and minorities already know and are familiar with.
We're getting a much higher sort of response rate to the applications and to the programs than we were expecting because if you look at biology, they don't have the gender gap that we have in computer science. Or at least not nearly as much, and certainly in a place like museum where a lot of these kids have been going on school trips since they were in kindergarten. It's a place that they recognize and that they feel comfortable in.
We're not having this "Oh I'm not sure I fit in there" piece. For me, the big question that I wanted to ask with this program and I hope that will be able to publish the results and help others think about replicating is, can we teach computer science a lot like we teach English? Which is a tool to help you do other things.
If the thing that you're interested in is biology or if it's fashion, or if it's art, let me teach you different languages and process season. Algorithms and things that it might be interesting tools for you to do that other thing that you care a lot about. We might be able to really see this change in this diversity of the talent that's interested in it.
This is my big focus, what's got this grand for five years and I intend to take the most of it. But I really want to see this as something that scales beyond just MNH and beyond just New York City. As a way to think about computer science and STEM education. Or populations that aren't necessarily just attracted to the idea of "Let me learn to code, cause I want to learn to code."
Lucy: Amen to that. If NCWIT can help you, we are here.
Lucy: We are absolutely here.
Larry: Wow I'll tell you, that's a fact. We'll have your interview course up on our home page at w3w3.com, in our blog, in our podcast directory, in our newsletter. Most of all, go to ncwit.org and you'll see some fantastic information and stories.
Lucy: Well, thank you Christina, very much of just great advice. We always love these interviews. We ask the same questions to everybody and they're all different, the answers of course. Very interesting, thank you very much.
Christina: That's awesome. Thank you, I was so happy to be here. This is such a great initials of you guys have.
Lucy: Thank you very much.
Larry: Christina, I'm glad you didn't ask me to carry your bag on a couple of days so...
Lucy: Well, thanks very much. We're sort of done with the interview now. But I should just reinforce that offer to help, in any way, NCWIT got a lot of research and practice. What you're doing with bridge up STEM is very much in our will house in terms of interest.
Christina: Excellent. I will absolutely follow up with you guys on that.
Lucy: Yeah. We have a K12 alliance and all the organizations are working together in different things. There's no membership fees for non‑profits so could be some natural affinities there.
Christina: Excellent. I will look into that more when I'm back from Nepal.