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Women on Top in Tech – Morgan Berman, Founder/CEO at MilkCrate

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Here is our interview with Morgan Berman, Founder/CEO of MilkCrate. Morgan is a multidisciplinary designer with experience in architecture, UX design, urban planning, digital and 3d art, blog writing, and homegrown meals. Her focus is on growing sustainable thinking in urban contexts, particularly her hometown of Philadelphia. She was listed by the UN Foundation as one of the “Top 10 Female Entrepreneurs to Watch” in the world and invited to the White House for Clean Energy Plan talks. Last year she also joined the World Economic Forum as a Global Shaper to help advance social entrepreneurship in Philadelphia

What makes you do what you do?
I am an optimist. And I am optimistic about the upswing in a worldwide sustainability movement and with it the seismic shift in international business practices and the engines of commerce. Over centuries we have generated so much profit, so many advances and opportunities in equal measure with waste, inequality, and pollution. But now? Within the S&P 500, 82% of companies are reporting on sustainability and the number one factor for a millennial selecting a new job is the chance to make a difference in the world. Times have changed.

We are no longer allowing the way we used to do things to dictate how we will do them today or tomorrow. “Doing business as usual” is no longer an acceptable excuse or curtain to hide any manner of social or environmental sins. Now business is expected to be transparent and proactive. The men and women who drive these businesses believe in this wholeheartedly. I am excited by them. I am driven by them. MilkCrate’s team and business model are devoted to building a platform to spur this growth faster, ever more productively.

On a less philosophical, more day-to-day level – I love design. I enjoy the aesthetic and logical problems that come with developing software and a brand. I also love the struggle of building a team that is coherent, productive and fun. The art of running a startup is not enough, but it is a big part of why I do what I do.

And of course, I love a challenge. The odds are so against me, and against us for so many reasons. As a woman raising capital the odds are against me. As a first-time tech founder, the odds are against me. As a startup of any kind, the odds are against me. These are exactly the kind of odds I thrive against. I’ve gotten more in touch with this quality of mine through my newfound love of training and competing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. My experience with this sport has been transformative and by far the best thing I’ve ever done for my mental health and sense of self … particularly during the arduous journey of company creation. This martial art renews me, renews my energy and my spirit.

The biggest lessons you can learn as a new jiu jitsuka is that you must accept that you learn through failure and that the only way to succeed, to win, is to rely on a strong mental calm and experienced technique. The dynamics of the sport are designed to level the playing field, so that any natural strength, size or aggression are not an asset. The sport demands experience and technique above all else. I can and have beaten people larger, stronger, and more aggressive than me. I am relying on skills which I am slowly building by training with teammates who have done this much longer than I have. That’s it. That’s the ‘secret’.

These lessons are perfectly applicable to running a startup. The people who become black belts are the white belts who never quit. The people who build successful companies are the ones who never give up. From my practice of this sport, I have learned that I love pushing through and finding that next level of resolve, of learning, and of grit.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?

After enduring my first quarter century ‘what am I doing with my life’ crisis, I was inspired to shift my focus to a cause that would employ my leadership and design talents, just as I had in college. Sustainable Design felt like the right combination of serving my city and our planet while getting back to the work that could nourish me personally.

The development of my daily sustainable actions was not an easy path – learning how to eat local food, or compost with worms – it took effort, knowledge, and motivation – all of this opened my eyes to an important if not obvious realization: If everyone was going to start living their values there had to be an easy, communal way to do it. Writing my grad school thesis, this realization morphed into a business, into MilkCrate. Later, after we learned about the huge need for employee engagement and CSR data tracking in the corporate world, I blinked again, took a deep breath and made a radical business model pivot, one that launched us into the B2B software world.

I knew I would need help with the tech so I did some research on tech meetups and learned about Code for Philly – this was how I entered the startup community for the first time. The people I met there helped me find other places to network and find the teammates that would eventually help me build my company.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup

Usual? What’s usual? I had something like 11 jobs between college and graduate school until I started my company. I have had an unusually large range of experiences working for others, learning what I can do, like to do, and what I can’t and don’t want to do. I’ve learned that I am best employed when I am leading a group, and I’ve been leading in one way or another all my life. Junior year my high school labeled each of my classmates with one unique quality. Mine? ‘Outspoken’. I was the President of Student Government. Later I got a degree in Women’s Studies where I obsessed over the suffragists and their movement’s leadership. Now I compete in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

I have always gone after challenges that require being bold while bringing people together. I just have. Everything else is boring. In addition to more typical leadership roles, I was also co-President of my high school theater troupe, where I learned to be comfortable speaking in front of large groups. I actually love public speaking now. I enjoy weaving a story, connecting with the audience, and building people’s enthusiasm for what we are doing. It feels great. So while I didn’t intend to turn MilkCrate into my full-time job at first, in hindsight it makes perfect sense. It marries my strengths as a leader and a designer, and my values around community and the environment.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?

Before MilkCrate I worked for a Professor at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Seema Sonnad. She was obsessed with her work, and an avid athlete. I admired her and was a bit intimidated by her energy and aggression. She was physically petite but commanded so much force and attention, and she applied it to a career of prolific publication and success. I was in awe of her and her productivity. She was the one who pushed me to direct my energies and apply to a graduate school program that would marry my interests and values. I am forever grateful to her for hiring me and then pushing me out of the nest.

While I was in graduate school I sought out Neil Harner, Philadelphia University’s Director of Interactive Media. He offered to work with me on an Independent Study, mentoring me through the process of refining ideas for MilkCrate. He was the first digital product designer I ever knew. He helped me understand how crucial it was to better understand my users and their experience in order to best deliver an effective solution.

I knew I needed a crash course in startups and the Philly tech scene to find developers to help me with my vision – people like Matthew Grande, Ellen Weber, and Cory Donovan helped me navigate this world.

Later I found people who were building tech in the startup scene and building businesses with their products, people like Gunter Pfau from Stuzo and his partner Josh Skaroff (who I knew from summer camp!). They both helped me a lot with my business model planning and the product design. Gunter’s help played a crucial role in my decision to pivot MilkCrate to a B2B model.

Some of the best mentoring comes from peer leadership training programs I’ve done, like my cohorts from Leadership Philadelphia, the Ariane de Rothschild Fellowship, The Alliance of Female Entrepreneurs Fellowship, and the Environmental Leadership Program. These programs and people have helped me think about my own development and my company in new and essential ways. I strongly urge other founders to join programs like these to extend their network and skills.

These days I have a formal board of advisors, mostly investors, and founders who’ve either funded or built very successful tech companies and know how to help me navigate new challenges like sophisticated financial models, enterprise pricing and sales strategies, and strategic partnerships. I’m lucky to have a partner in life with an MBA and strong marketing and strategy experience I can talk to all the time about my company and call upon regularly for a second opinion.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?

I look for people who are gutsy enough to want to work here, even if they don’t necessarily have experience or skills to back it up yet. They can be developed by drawing on their passion and persistence. The most important thing is to find people who really want to be here and for the right reasons: to make an impact, to grow and to learn, to be a part of a team, our team. I often have people reach out who are interested in joining the tech community or want to work for an impact focused business. Maybe they are looking for a job or they have a startup idea, whatever it is I try and be helpful either by making intros, giving feedback, or have just a cup of coffee to listen. I’ve been helped and encouraged so much by others, so I pass it on as often as I can. This has helped build relationships with folks that have either later come to work here or referred people that have worked here.

And someone joins the team it’s key that we are transparent and honest with each other. I spend a lot of time sharing things that other founders and supervisors might not. Like? How parts of our finances, what resources we are lacking, or mistakes I’ve made. Because I want the whole team to understand where we are and where we need to go. This way I enlist their pro-active help and understanding to get ‘there’. I can’t do it without them.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?

Yes, of course. The need and benefit is obvious to me. The opportunity to do more is everywhere if you choose to have the willingness to look. Last year we made a few changes after B Lab issued the “Inclusion Challenge.” A year later we continue to offer informational interviews to every qualified MilkCrate applicant born outside the US. Applicants who are newer to this country often have a smaller professional and social network, as well as different cultural norms or linguistic abilities that can create barriers to employment.

We are dedicated to welcoming these applicants to meet with us, learn about our company, and hopefully offer them a new relationship, if not also a spot on the MilkCrate team. We also compile resources for job seekers looking to work at a Philadelphia-based startup, or sustainability, or impact- focused company and share this information with every single job applicant.

This year we want to expand and improve on these initiatives. On the challenge of Inclusive Interviews – we are going to expand this to become Inclusive hiring – to capture the whole hiring process from beginning to end. This means we will find ways to cast a wider net when seeking new hires, as well as creating a diversity and inclusion manifesto that the whole team creates and commits to upholding. This will ensure we not only source, interview, and hire a diverse team but also by building an inclusive environment, we will retain these new teammates as well.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb

The most consistently identified trait I hear is determination and grit. And I have to say that this feels true to me. There have been so many moments when I could have given up, could have used an event like a teammate leaving or financial constraints or technical failures as a reason to give up, to close it down, to walk away. But then I remember how badly I want to solve a problem, or how much I love working with my team – and then I keep going. We keep going.

The other big rule that I don’t think gets said enough is that you have to be honest. Be honest with yourself, with your team, and with your KPI’s (Key Performance Metrics). What do I mean by being honest with yourself? Really know what motivates you and what your needs are. If you keep those aligned you are much more likely to work more effectively. Being honest with your team is crucial. Why? Because if they trust you they will stick with you in the scary times. And there will be many of those. And finally being honest with your KPI’s means knowing what success looks like and being honest with yourself and your team and your investors if you aren’t there yet. If you aren’t there yet, and you know it, then you can ask questions and test out new solutions. But if you hide your head in the sand you will just keep going down the wrong path.

Advice for others?

My first tip is always, always to find a good mentor. Find someone who has achieved some version of what you hope to achieve in business and then latch on to them. Tight.The second tip ties in with this. And what is it? Listen to your mentor! And listen to other’s who’ve been at this longer. They will almost certainly tell you to let go. Let go of your idea of what your solution is, and instead to spend more time understanding the problem you want to solve, and to really truly research existing solutions. I meet so many founders who are in love with a solution that maybe doesn’t have a real problem, or just as bad – a solution that already exists in a much more developed form that they haven’t bothered to find.

And then it’s the same stuff I’ve been taught and always heard, but all too often hard to believe or realize in the moment. Like: That it’s going to be okay no matter what. Stressing out is not going to help. Those things you tell yourself– or your mother tells you– it’s finally starting to feel less like a life and death struggle. But in the beginning? It really felt so serious.

And now? To deep breathe, like my dad always says. To enjoy this moment, this life, this business, because otherwise, why do it? So look for the joy and the happiness and the creativity in the process. Let that be the reason to keep doing, to keep going, to keep trying to hit a goal. To take the next step. The next meeting. The next phone call. To do the next interview. To make the next speech. Sit on the next panel. To pitch a room full of investors. To close a sale. But they are not the point. Absolutely not the point. All that definitely needs to happen. But it’s not what makes you want to keep doing it, what makes me want to do it. What is the most important skill to be a (hopefully) successful CEO? Face down your fear. Do not be afraid. Have fun. Keep going…

Learn more about MilkCrate

Callum Connects

Mikyung Kim, TV Commercial Producer

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Mikyung Kim is a savvy producer who runs her own TV and print production business, based in Hong Kong.

What’s your story?
I am a TV commercial and print producer working with advertising agencies and brands to bring their communication needs to the screen. My background is in film production and I started my career in Hollywood working with Oscar winning directors Michel Gondry and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Before starting my own company last year to produce content directly with agencies and brands, I was with Ogilvy & Mather Hong Kong for nearly five years as the Senior Producer and Head of TV running the film production department.

What excites you most about your industry?
How it’s constantly evolving! Every day is different and it’s certainly never boring. I love that it’s a creative industry and that my job involves talking to people with creative minds on how we can bring a story on paper to life. It’s exciting that the advertising industry places high value on the creativity and effectiveness of content. I’ve produced a few commercials that creatively push the envelope with fun and sometimes wild ideas that have converted into positive brand awareness. Ever heard of KFC Finger Lickin’ Good…Nail Polish that yes, tastes like chicken? https://www.adweek.com/creativity/kfc-just-made-edible-finger-lickin-good-nail-polish-yeah-tastes-chicken-171245/

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Seoul and raised in Hong Kong until graduating from high school at HKIS. I spent my university years in Boston at Emerson College and worked in Los Angeles at Anonymous Content and Partizan Entertainment. But on a brief visit back to Hong Kong in 2010, I decided to move back and continue my career here, and it was the best decision I ever made.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hong Kong is my home so it will always be my favourite city for business and for me personally. What I love about Hong Kong is that while I am based here, I can actually work with agencies and brands from anywhere in APAC. If I need to attend an important meeting, I can just hop on a quick flight easily. I spent most of 2017 working in Seoul with Korean agency Cheil and Samsung, and currently I am working with Japanese agency ADK and Toyota based in Singapore.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Fake it until you become it,” from Amy Cuddy’s TED talk. Worth a watch. This helped me early in my career when I felt like I was under qualified for the job I was in. I learned to fake my confidence and fake a powerful body language until I truly felt that confidence became something real. It was nerve wracking at first but it worked and now I don’t have to fake it.

Who inspires you?
My friends. Noelle who worked part time jobs while being a full time student to pay her own tuition while we were in college together. Osti who is a lawyer focused on supporting developing nations and a board member of Redress, an environmental NGO working to reduce waste in the fashion industry. Vanessa who runs a real estate company, co-owns the gym Crossfit Asphodel, started a health foods business called Quo and NGO The Keep Moving Project to promote wellness in our community. Cathy who will be the first Asian woman to direct a big budget superhero film starring Margot Robbie with Warner Bros and DC. And too many more to name!

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
5.2 million plastic bottles are thrown away in Hong Kong every day. Plastic pollution is a major issue for the environment and we as responsible citizens can do our small part by reducing our consumption of unnecessary plastic. I do mine by having a water filter at home and carrying my own reusable water bottle with me everywhere I go. I love the brand Hydroflask because the stainless steel material keeps water hot or cold for hours, so I don’t feel tempted to buy a cold water at 7-11 on those hot, humid days we have here.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
About five years ago I purchased my very first stock and put one month’s salary into it, which at the time was a lot of money for me. Knowing how that stock has performed now, I would have put all my savings into it.

How do you unwind?
Exercise is essential in my daily life to help clear my head and de-stress. My go to is a workout at Crossfit Asphodel, running outdoors, yoga and hiking. But a glass of red wine and live music at Soiree in Soho on Sunday night works pretty well too!

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
One of the best trips I ever took was to the island of Lombok in Indonesia. Two girl friends and I did a 3 day 2 night hiking and camping trip to summit the Mount Rinjani Volcano. It was physically challenging but mentally relaxing. There was no cellphone reception, no distractions, we had the company of nature and nights with skies full of shooting stars. It was pretty magical. We then went to the Gili Islands for a few days of scuba diving, yoga and sitting on the beach doing nothing but sipping on coconuts. That was pretty relaxing too.

Everyone in business should read this book:
“Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office” by Lois P. Frankel and “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. Essential reads for every working woman and/or man who wants to know how to support the working women in their life.

Shameless plug for your business:
I am a TV commercial and print producer that can plug into an existing advertising agency or brand team to produce their communication needs. Many advertising agencies these days are scaling down so they have creative directors and account services but may not have an in-house producer, so I can fill that gap by becoming a part of the existing agency team. For brands that want to produce content directly without involving an agency, I can also bridge the gap by bringing my production knowledge in-house and working as part of the marketing/brand team and liaising with the other departments in the company such as product team and ecomm.

How can people connect with you?
They can email me at [email protected]
or visit my website at mkimproducer.com

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Callum Connects

Renne Ballard, Owner of Renée Ballard Communications

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Renne Ballard runs a social media agency working with business women, helping them find their business’s voice.

What’s your story?
I began my career in PR/communications ten years ago in Australia, after arriving home from two years in Dubai. In Dubai I was working for Emirates Airlines as a flight attendant and flying around the world non-stop for two years. This really sparked my interest for how people communicate. I started out as a community manager for an online advertising company, then moved into the corporate world of outdoor advertising, managing internal and external PR and communications. After having a baby four years ago, I decided to leave the safety net of corporate, and stride out on my own. I now run a social media agency and I specialise in working with business women, helping to find their business’ voice so they can use social media to achieve their business goals.

What excites you most about your industry?
I love the open accessibility online provides. It’s free for businesses to get online and connect with their target audience. Twenty years ago, advertising and PR was insanely expensive and quite elitist, but through incredible platforms like Facebook or Twitter, any business can connect with who is looking for their product/solution. Social media is particularly effective for small businesses because they have the edge when it comes to authenticity and a clear voice.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m in Hong Kong because I’m a trailing spouse. I know it’s such a daggy term, but I love it, it makes me sound so dedicated to my husband! Alas, we came to Hong Kong for my husband’s work. He’s the Design Director of Asia for an international retail design agency. We’ve been here for almost two years and it’s been a huge learning curve in terms of business and culture. We love the fast-paced nature of Hong Kong and the fact that everything is open late – it suits me perfectly because I’m nocturnal.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
That’s easy, Hong Kong. It’s the perfect blend of start-ups and mothership-sized institutions. I love the small business side, watching the collaborations between workshare spaces with galleries, networking groups and foodies; it’s a hothouse of creative partnerships here.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
When you’re are feeling scared about your next step, lean in and feel the difference. Is it fear mixed with excitement? Or fear mixed with dread? Always go with the former and cut loose the latter.

Who inspires you?
I love Tamara Mellon (Jimmy Choo founder). She has created multiple empires and she never stops trying new business models and pushing her limits. It helps that I love shoes too.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I just turned 40 years old. At best, I’m probably halfway through my life. It makes me constantly question, “Am I where I want to be?”

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have asked more questions to the people I looked up to, and listened less to the people telling me I won’t achieve my goals.

How do you unwind?
In this day and age, it’s scandalous to say, but I love sunbaking. At any chance, you’ll find me poolside, laying in the sun in a trance-like state.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Northern Danang in Vietnam. We were there at Christmas, at the foot of the mountains and it was beautiful. Heaps of wildlife and jungles and enough five star resorts that I was never parched once.

Everyone in business should read this book:
‘The E Myth’ by Michael Gerber. It’s an oldie but a goodie because it succinctly outlines how to transition from a one person operation to a global business like McDonalds. Once you see how important systems and processes are, you can recognise shambolic companies a mile off.

Shameless plug for your business:
Renée Ballard Communications is a social media agency that works with business women who are ready to make social media work for them. We create effective, powerful social media strategies that are tailored to the people who will be breathing life into them. We hand on heart promise to never use annoying, marketing buzzwords and that we value laughter above everything else.

How can people connect with you?
[email protected] or www.reneeballard.com or +85296670115

Twitter handle?
@ballard_comms

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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