What to do when you’re the only woman at the table
Mai Ton built a successful career as the go-to HR leader for growth startups. But when her daughter started questioning why she was always the only woman and woman of color in the room, she committed to working with diverse leaders and work cultures. If you can’t find it, build it. Today Mai is the Chief People Officer at Kickstarter and still coaches leaders as part of her own consulting business. She also wrote the book Come Into My Office: Stories from an HR Leader in Silicon Valley. It’s her mission to level the playing field for her daughter and other children entering the workforce over the next decade.
You began your career in Finance. How did you make your first pivot into the world of HR?
Coming out of college, one of my first jobs was working in an investment bank. The job paid really well, but I didn’t love the work. One of the bankers that I worked with left to start a company and he hired me as his first employee. I started doing all of the HR work for him — I hired the initial team, I searched out office space and set up the business. That was how I landed in HR.
After startup HR, you worked for established companies like PwC and law firms. What’s the difference between HR in a startup and a big company?
The startup world got me into HR. But what I found after two startups was that, even though the startup life is great and fun, it can also be unstable. I did stints at PwC and a law firm because I wanted to find something more stable.
But at the same time, in an established company like PwC, I felt like my role was getting smaller and smaller as the firm was getting larger and larger. I started to feel like I wasn’t having the same impact that I could have at a startup. So I jumped back into the startup world. The first HR leader at a company has a huge impact. I was usually the first people leader to join the company and grow the HR function and felt fortunate enough to be effective across the full spectrum of a company’s operations.
In your book, Come Into My Office: Stories from an HR Leader in Silicon Valley, you bust through some of the myths of the “glamorous startup” world. One of the big challenges for you is gender and diversity. Tell us more about that.
I have worked for many startups. At one of those startups, I was in our office space in Manhattan one day. It was beautiful, our furniture was high end, we had spent $150,000 on audio and visual equipment alone. And with that beautiful office space as the backdrop, I looked around and thought I’m not happy doing what I’m doing.
I thought I was happy. But I was feeling burnt out. And I was working with people that I didn’t always agree with in a culture that aligned with the stereotypical “bro” culture you see in startups and tech.
Also, throughout my startup experience, I became a mother. And there were two incidents with my daughter, Emma, that made me question what I was doing.
In the first, Emma came into my office during an executive team meeting on a day my husband and I were tag teaming child care. She was six or seven years old at the time and she asked me: “Mommy, why do you only work with men and where are all the women?”
The eyes of a six or seven year old are very clear. And I suddenly thought deeper. You’re right. Why am I the only woman at the table?
Another time when Emma was about 10 years old, she looked at a photo of my team out at a business lunch. It was a group of about 15 people, men and women, all who reported up to me. My daughter was surprised when she saw the photo and said “Wait, Mommy, you manage men? You’re the boss for men?” In her eyes it was a surprise that her mother, who is a woman, was leading men.
I wanted to show her that, yes, I manage men — and so can you. One day, Emma, you can also manage a lot of different people, men, women, non-binary people. It became so important to me to work in an environment with those values. I didn’t want to be the only one calling out insensitive jokes anymore. I wanted a balanced executive team with diversity, and to find leaders with high emotional intelligence.
So many women can relate to the disappointment of a work culture that isn’t designed for them. Once you acknowledge that, how do you overcome it?
I knew I needed a break. I wasn’t showing up at work the way that I wanted to. I was feeling frustrated and jaded, which is not what you want to be when you’re in HR and in the business of supporting all the people around you. That was one of the final straws that motivated me to leave. I trusted that I would figure it out along the way.
I looked around at other startups for the kind of culture I wanted. But it wasn’t easy to find. So I decided I would build it on my own. I took time off to hang up my shingle and build a consulting business centered around helping drive more diverse leaders at the executive levels.
I have a strong network that helped me build my business in the first year. Most of my business came from women who suffered from the same experiences I went through all these years. When I went out on my own, I started working and finally understood that my experience was shared; work environments sometimes were not designed for working women. By forming my own business, I had the chance to join women’s communities, especially the women’s network Chief, and expose myself to women who were helping each other.
I am trying my best to help women because we need to move the needle faster when it comes to female leadership. In a decade, my daughter will be in the workforce. We should create more avenues for women to achieve positions of power. We should make every leadership table more diverse. I want to move past these challenges so my daughter doesn’t have to feel the isolation and loneliness that I’ve always felt being the only woman at the table.
What is your advice for other women who want to pivot or build their way into a better career?
Take that first step. It’s a series of small steps. You just need the gumption and inspiration to get started. Go build your first website. Go decide on the name for your company.
And, bring people into the fold. You’ll be surprised how generous people can be. I started with my friends and family for inspiration. I networked with people I hadn’t connected with in years. I hired a freelancer on Fiverr to build my website. I asked people to give me advice and they generously gave me their time and held my hand through every step.
Each of the puzzle pieces started coming together, naturally and through my focused time.
Thank you, Mai, for sharing your story! Learn more about Mai’s book, Come Into My Office: Stories from an HR Leader in Silicon Valley.
Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Reclaim Your Career shares the stories of women who have made brave career pivots. They inspire and unlock what women always had the capacity to do: Break free from the traditional narrative of success to write your own story.