Like many young women looking to build courage, confidence and character, tech strategist Jessica Lawrence spent much of her childhood in New Hampshire participating in the girl-centered legacy known as the Girl Scouts. Some alumnae leave their troops behind in adulthood, fate stepped in for Lawrence, who returned to the organization after college and rose up the ranks to become the nonprofit’s youngest Girl Scout Council CEO in the country.
It wasn’t easy to innovate a century-old organization, but Lawrence succeeded in initiating change and moving the nonprofit forward. In 2011, she moved from Southern California to New York City, ready to open the next chapter of her professional life. In another act of happenstance, Lawrence was introduced to the board presidents of Meetup.com, who were looking to hire their first full-time employee. The recent NYC transplant fit the bill and, six weeks later, she was hired as the managing director of NY Tech Meetup, the largest Meetup in the world and a nonprofit organization that supports New York’s growing tech community.
Lawrence is currently the NYTM’s executive director and co-founder of The Work Revolution Summit, a conference that unites tech entrepreneurs, investors, designers and experts in an attempt to discuss and collaborate the future of meaningful work.
“Tech companies in the city of are often integrations of technology with the other industries and resources you find here,” Lawrence said of the Concrete Jungle’s digital revolution. “And I say that the startup world in NYC is truly a community because despite New York’s reputation for being fast-paced and competitive in general, in tech I find that everyone is really interested in helping each other. We are all learning how to do this together and are building this together.”
In an exclusive interview with Not Impossible Now for our Women Innovators Series, Lawrence discussed the startup world in New York City and how companies can implement more diversity in the workplace.
NIN: Which came first — your love of writing or technology?
Jessica Lawrence: My interest in writing came before my interest in technology. I kept journals and wrote poems especially in my middle school and high school years. My first memories of technology were playing games like King’s Quest on our family computer, pre-Internet, in my mid-teens.
Can you tell me about your personal experience with the Girl Scouts and the professional path that led you to work with the organization well beyond your sash-wearing days?
Lawrence: I had been a Girl Scout for a few years when I was growing up in New Hampshire. After college, I moved out to Southern California and was looking for a job. One afternoon, I got lost driving around and I looked up and saw this giant building with the Girl Scout logo on it and thought to myself, “Well, that could be an interesting place to work.”
I reached out to the assistant executive director and went in to meet with her. We hit it off, but they didn’t have any jobs at the moment. She told me to wait for a couple of weeks and she’d find me something. And then a few weeks later, the director of development announced her retirement, so they brought me in to do fundraising.
When working with an organization that’s been around since 1912, did you encounter any opposition when trying to convince your peers to adopt more technologically advanced methodology?
Lawrence: I do not think there is a way to change the culture in a 100-year-old organization without encountering opposition. By the very nature of any organization at that point, there are hundreds of things that have become “the way we’ve always done it” and people feel a sense of ownership over them, even if they aren’t working anymore. I think two of the biggest underlying challenges at the Girl Scouts were lack of trust and risk aversion, which go hand-in-hand. When no one feels trusted they take no risks, and then it becomes very difficult to innovate.
Whether I was pushing to give employees laptops or have more of a presence as an organization on social media, the pushback was all centered around fear that people could not be trusted and that it was too risky. Usually, what won out was that the business case was stronger than the fear. We could point to other businesses for examples and we would try a little bit internally, like giving a few people laptops or seeing what happened if we engaged a bit more on Facebook. When the world didn’t fall apart, and, in fact, it got easier for us to do our work, the case was made.
As long as you’ve been working in the tech sphere, what do you consider the biggest “disruption” to the non-profit industry?
Lawrence: For a lot of large companies, but I think in particular for a lot of older non-profits, permission-based hierarchy had become king. Even if the non-profit had originally been started in a bottom-up, grassroots way, in my experience the only management style that was comfortable for many of those organizations was top-down, where they thought they could keep everything in control. The introduction of technology — and particularly the Internet — disrupted that. Knowledge was no longer cloistered; it was just a few keystrokes away. Freedom of speech was taken to new levels. Brand management couldn’t function in the same way.
Concepts like open source and crowd-sourcing broke the traditional mold of how things got done. This sudden lack of control was a shock to the system. At the same time, it opened up new possibilities. Non-profits that couldn’t afford professional videographers before to capture the stories of their organization could shoot and post simple photos and videos themselves. They could interact on a more ongoing basis with volunteers and donors. But in many cases, non-profits have been reluctant to use these tools or aren’t ready or able to allocate resources to employees learning how to use them.
Tell me about your transition from the CEO of Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council in Southern California to managing director (and now executive director) of NY Tech Meetup?
Lawrence: When I left Girl Scouts in January 2011, I decided I was ready for a big life change so I packed up all my stuff, sold my car, and bought a one-way plane ticket to New York City where I planned to freelance for a bit. I had seen someone tweet about NY Tech Meetup, so I decided to buy a ticket to attend the monthly event.
Two weeks, later I was sitting in the front row when our board president Nate Westheimer and board chair Andrew Rasiej announced from the stage that they were looking for their first full-time employee — they needed a director who had experience in non-profit management, fund-raising and event planning. It was basically an exact match for my resume. Six weeks later, I was standing on stage at a Meetup being introduced to the community.
There’s Silicon Valley (San Francisco) and Silicon Beach (Los Angeles), but how would you describe the startup world in NYC?
Lawrence: I would describe the startup community in New York as dynamic and truly a community. New York City is diverse and is the capital of so many other industries, from finance to fashion to advertising. We are also a mecca for food and arts and culture. Tech companies in the city are often integrations of technology with the other industries and resources you find here. And I say that the startup world in NYC is truly a community because despite New York’s reputation for being fast-paced and competitive in general. In tech, I find that everyone is really interested in helping each other. We are all learning how to do this together and are building this together.
What inspired you to start The Work Revolution Summit?
Lawrence: Through my experience with culture change at the Girl Scouts, organizational culture, wellbeing in the workplace and the future of work all became very important topics to me. When I began my work in the technology startup world, I was a little bit surprised that although companies were building innovative products, they weren’t being very innovative in the types of workplaces they were creating. Instead of building something better than the standard corporate cultures that many people had grown to hate, they were setting themselves up to recreate them. It bothered me that a whole new generation of leaders looked like they were starting to go down such an unhealthy path, so we decided to start The Work Revolution Summit for them and anyone interested in the future of work to explore better ways of building companies.
How can startups better diversify their workforce, especially when it comes to hiring more women?
Lawrence: There are many things that startups can do to diversify their workforce. The first is to decide that it’s important. That sounds simple, but there are still so many entrepreneurs out there who put diversity on the backburner or just treat it as some box to be checked. It helps you get to a point of diversity if you truly believe that it is important. The second is to get diverse as fast as possible. Make your first hire someone who doesn’t look like you. This is small step can stop what often becomes exponential hiring of the same type of person over and over again, leading you to a point where you have to try to convince a woman to be the first woman in a company of thirty men.
And, finally, make it easier for human beings to want to work at your company. All human beings care about things like feeling welcome and supported and being able to take care of basic things like their health. Create a company hiring page that sends that message to everyone, not just to the select group of people who might be drawn to your offers of access to free beer and video games. Share what you offer for things like training and time off and health benefits and parental leave so that it’s clear that you actually think about what a broad spectrum of people might want and need.
How can new technologies drive social change on a global scale to transform the way we live for the better?
Lawrence: Technology has the possibility of driving social change and already has in many ways, but I think that some of the incentives are often misaligned at the moment. There are people who get into tech because they see it as a path to personal wealth and success. While another dating app might be great, it is really not solving our huge world challenges. But that is where the money is.
Looking back at your work over the years, what are some of the projects you’re particularly proud of?
Lawrence: That’s an interesting question for me, because I often don’t think about the work I do through the lens of projects with “final products.” Even when there was a “ship date” — the day our new NY Tech Meetup website went live, or the day we officially became a Results-Only Work Environment at Girl Scouts — those moments felt more like a beginning than an end. They were catalysts to help us do our work better, to deliver more deeply on our mission.
I think what I’m most proud of is in general asking why, challenging the way things have always been done in light of evidence that the old ways aren’t working anymore and asking how we can maximize the good we do in the world. That might sound a bit cheesy, but I think we’ve become a little bit too accepting of the idea that in order to grow businesses and be successful, we inevitably have to leave a trail of collateral damage. I’m not interested in how fast you grew your business if you practically killed yourself, your employees, the community and the environment on the way up.
What’s in store for the future of NYTM, The Work Revolution Summit?
Lawrence: At NY Tech Meetup, we just launched a new membership platform that is integrated with Meetup.com, and we’re looking forward to continue to iterate on and improve that. And we’re planning our programs for 2015, looking at all the ways we can help support the community and what it needs now.
Work Revolution Summit is still evolving and I’m not totally sure what iteration it will take next.
Finally, what piece of advice would you give budding female innovators that has helped serve you best in your professional/personal journey?
Lawrence: A mentor once said to me, with exasperation in his voice, “Jessica, you ALWAYS underestimate yourself.” This is not commentary on my level of greatness, but I think more speaks to the challenge many of us face in often feeling that we’re not good enough or prepared enough. So remind yourself frequently that your “I’m not (fill in the blank) enough” voice is probably wrong.
Learn more about Jessica Lawrence at her website. Not Impossible Now’s Women Innovators series is a monthly feature profiling the best in the business. Previous subjects include Marnie Webb and Sophie de Oliveira Barata.
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Top photo credit: Matthew Castanos