Office Hours: I'm the co-founder of Topknot, the online personal development platform for women, and formerly an investor at Neo and teacher at Teach For America. I'm Claire Shorall.Featured
Hi everyone! I’m Claire Shorall, co-founder and CEO at Topknot, the online personal development platform for women. Prior to founding Topknot, I was a principal at Neo, a mentorship community and VC fund. I started my career in education through Teach For America. I have taught high school for a decade and led computer science education at the Oakland Unified School District.I am a graduate of Rice University, where I was a student-athlete in cross country and track & field.Ask me anything about startup building, personal development, community, breaking into VC, investing, teaching, running, and more!
Thanks so much for joining us @claires!Elphas – please ask @claires your questions before Friday, November 13th. @claires may not have time to answer every questions, so emoji upvote your favorites 🔥👍🏾➕
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer questions! Love that your enjoy running :) Do you have any favorite books or authors on personal development? Also- what’s your favorite run/trail in the east bay?
Thanks, Rachel. Let me get the trail out of the way: I love parking at the Skyline Gate Staging Area and running the West Ridge Trail in Redwood Regional. Hands down one of my favorite places to be in the world. That said, I appreciate running the Lake when it’s dark in the morning because it’s lit and there are people around and it just feels safer to me. I have trained for marathons basically only running loops around Lake Merritt — it has to get a shout out.As for books and authors, I think my biggest takeaway from all of the reading I’ve done on this topic over the last few years is that while people present their work as holistic or as a system, it’s totally fair to take what you want from one place and something from another. For that reason, I’ll highlight Emergent Strategy because Adrienne Marie Brown straight up asks you to do that.
I’m a huge advocate and believer of the power of education ✨💗 That been said, what has been your best experience and biggest lessons you have learned while participating at teach for America? I also recommend you one of my favorite books, educated by Tara Westover 📖
Thanks for the kind words and the book recommendations. I wrote something similar for @ktoney, so you may want to check that response. In general, I’d just like to reiterate the honor it was to live among and serve the families in East Oakland. TFA is designed to be two years, but that short of a timeframe would not have worked for me. I cherish the 8 years I worked for the Oakland public schools. And I am blessed to have ongoing and deep relationships with my students. A day doesn’t go by without at least one of them checking in with me. That’s a pretty magical life setup.
Hi @claires! Thank you for taking the time to answer questions this week!As technology develops and the demands for core competency's shift faster and faster I find that there's always another certificate, software or core competency I feel I need to learn as soon as possible. How should professionals decide which skills to develop in depth, what skills they can develop over time, and what skills they don't need to focus on as the landscape changes? What should drive these decisions?
Wow! I love this question so much, Naome! I think about the skills versus content acquisition divide a ton. When I was in the classroom, I made unit plans for the content we were going to cover, but I also made plans for the skills we were going to cover. The latter spiraled throughout the year and included reading comprehension strategies, evidenced-based essay writing, basic programming, etc. I think if you were to ask my students what they learned in my Biology, Calculus, or Computer Science classes, they’d say they learned how to learn. Or maybe how to study. I doubt many remember the specifics of the cell or random Java syntax.This is all to say that I never pass up on the chance to gain broadly applicable skills. As much as possible, I try to extrapolate broader learnings when I am learning a new tool. As far as which tool to learn, I think that’s industry specific and there are people much better equipped than I am. That said, I would want to feel confident that the underlying learnings could be across the board.Skill building is often brought up in a deficit lens, so I want to take another thought from my classroom and remind you that you are enough — today, and as you are. Certificates or not, you already bring some much to the table.
I/m going in! What are the two most impactful things you learned about about engaging and motivating high school students in the Oakland Unified School District? Mind sharing your inspiration for Top Knot? How do I break into VC?
I’m here for you going in.It’s so hard to limit myself to just two things. Teaching in Oakland indelibly changed my life. I have had the opportunity to meet a ton of people in my life and I am steadfastly Oakland youth over everybody. Since I left the classroom full time, I have continued to volunteer teach — it’s just that precious.So to your question about engaging and motivating, I’d say creating an authentically student-driven space. This is by no means easy; for the teacher, you have to put in structures and gain buy-in, and students have their curiosity sparked and their progress honored. People often remarked that my classroom was “so different” or noted that I looked like I wasn’t doing anything because kids were talking in small groups and only rarely coming to me for questions. It was all so intentional. Spaces where learners are driving their own growth make me feel most alive. The second thing was that language mattered — duh. After my third year, I made a commitment to never praise outcomes, only the process. This is hard. You had to mentally replace “Good job on that test” with “You score tells me that you must have taken significant time to study.” Even harder was the in-the-moment small affirmations like saying “Yep” when a student got a question right in front of the class. But it forced me to start asking about their process so I could praise it (“Where did find that?”) and it made it really safe to be wrong because the reactions were always neutral. I think it changed students’ perception of their safety in the learning environment immensely.My inspiration for Topknot is part supporting my students as they’ve navigated early adulthood (my oldest students are now 29) and part my own journey. It’s almost universal that people are doing the right things, moving along, and yet in some domain it just doesn’t seem enough. We wanted to support people to find everyday fulfillment through real skills that allow them to move forward and make sense of their world.I answered the break into VC question for @lapazina. I hope it’s useful.Thanks for asking these questions about my journey. I feel very seen.
Hi Claire! Love everything about Topknot and am particularly impressed and appreciate the sliding scale pricing structure. A couple questions related to it...1) How did you come up with the suggest income/price combinations? 2) If you've raised capital, how did you convince investors it was the right approach? (And if you haven't raised capital, how do you manage financial projections?) Thanks so much for your time and all the good work!!
Hi Adrienne. I’m thrilled it speaks to you. Big picture, the pillars of our company are equity, intentionality, and growth. We want every decision we make to reflect one or more of these pillars. For the sliding scale, there’s a ton of research out there particularly for health practitioners about alternative payment models. Very few tech startups do anything. We looked at a bunch of implementations and came up with what we have now. Like most things with an early stage startup, the details are likely to change as more data come in. That said, equity of access will always be central to our strategy.We’ve raised a modest amount of outside capital. Candidly, the pricing structure rarely comes up. I do think with investors who question the — for lack of a better term — ruthlessness of our team, this is probably a data point. I’m all about finding believers, not convincing skeptics, though.FWIW, it does significantly complicate financial projections. :)
Hi Claire, I'm Kanika, founder of Hey Noggin. Our goal is to help economically disadvantaged students gain access to 1-to-1 tutoring and obtain the same academic advantages as students whose families can afford these services. We are targeting selling to schools and districts and I have the following questions for you?1. What advice can you offer for navigating the public school system as we embark on the sales and marketing process2. Are there any forums and conferences you recommend with participate in to share our solution?Thanks!
Hi Kanika! Sounds like awesome work. Like I told @pdhodyd I only know the sales cycle from the buyers side. With services like yours, I often saw companies partner with districts for efficacy testing and then leverage those results to sell to other districts nearby. In that model, you develop an internal champion who can help shepherd you through and speak to real results.I love your second question, too. I would say that I preferred somewhat niche communities when I was going to conferences over the massive ones. Does Hey Noggin tutor across the board? Or is it particularly good at supporting students over a more narrow set of topics? If the latter, I’d see if there are any good local meetups. I love Ed Camps. The biggest vendor market I’ve seen at a conference is ISTE. And Twitter and Facebook #edchat are both fairly active.Best of luck!
Hi @claires et al, I'm the founder of a networking and support group for mid- to late-career women called K!ck*ss Women. Founded in 2018 around a table with 7 other women, I identified the need to address my biggest pet peeve: women in business playing by the man's playbook. We started with an executive coach teaching us how to build and maintain our self confidence, a co-founder of FlexProfessionals (places people in flexible positions) teaching us positive mindset and on and on. I want to keep the "platform" I've built (need a tech stack) accessible while I build out the business playbook..... Advice?
You have to be very intentional to not recreate a failing system, so I applaud you for your efforts. I’d start by defining accessible for yourself and then that might inform next steps. If it’s inclusion into the table, then how do you support that meaningfully? If it’s sharing the framework so that others may use it, how do you get it in the hands of people who would be most impacted? I mentioned above, but one of our company pillars is equity. We took a very long time to hone what equity meant at Topknot, and we are consistently adding more “reasons to believe”, which are evidence from our work of that pillar being fully upheld.
Qual foi seu maior desafio na inicialização e o que considera essencial para uma startup ser sustentável?
I used Google Translate to get this question: What was your biggest startup challenge and what do you consider essential for a startup to be sustainable? I hope that you can translate my response. :)Biggest challenge: Knowing that there are lots of features you want to build or things you want to do and knowing that you have to pick a very short list to prioritize. And then overthinking as to whether you picked the right short list…Startup sustainability: Most people would answer this question about money — or so I think — but I think a healthy team. We spend a ton of time crafting working agreements, sharing communication styles, creating agendas, etc. We’re process people. But it matters. We have tough conversations. We never let things fester. We find joy in our work. That’s what keeps us coming back.
Great work on TopKnot, Claire. I signed up a week ago and have really enjoyed going through the questions so far. I really appreciate the depth of the questions and their focus on what matters. I am a former teacher who got my start in the Peace Corps and I have slowly made a transition into the start-up world as a founder. I've been bootstrapping for two years and just received my first grant and there is push now from two directions for me to go down the corporate track. Similar to @ktoney I am interested to read how you made a transition from teaching to VC. And at what stage did you become a co-founder of Top Knot and what impacted your decision to transition from VC to co-founder? Or are you doing both?
Thanks, Tanya. Your praise means a lot. I appreciate that you’re at a fork in your road, too. I hope some of the self-discovery work is helping you navigate business decisions — I know it helps me.My transition to VC is so much right place, right time, right mentor. A mentor of mine was starting a community and had reached out to me to support him in that work. As the vision for the community grew, we recognized we needed a business model and a VC fund made the most sense. He has a strong reputation in Silicon Valley and was able to raise a debut fund. I had made it clear to him that I was interested in working closely with early stage startups. He knew my work in the school district and was uniquely well-positioned to understand the mountains I moved to get CS off the ground. Because he was familiar with my work and I was clear about my intent, he asked me to invest with him. I understand most people do not have a mentor who just so happens to start a fund. I take my role to facilitate more opportunities like this for others very seriously.As for my transition to Topknot, I knew for the last five years that I wanted to start a company with my cofounder. From the first time I met her I knew I wanted to attach my cart to her proverbial horse — she’s just that spectacular. We spent the better part of a year figuring out when was the right time to leave jobs we loved, but both transitioned to full time in February. I certainly have enough on my plate with this one full-time job.Best of luck on your decision — I’m cheering for you.
Hi Claire,Thanks for taking the time to answer the questions, excited to see products like Topknot in the market!What advice can you provide to someone trying to break into VC?
Hi Maria! Let me say from the jump that I don’t think there’s any one right path. I will tell you how I think about it, but I want to acknowledge that always with the notion of “breaking in” there’s a navigation of privilege, networks, accessibility, and more.I think anyone trying to get into VC should be clear about their “why” and what they have to offer. I was very transparent with my fund that I was there with the intention to learn as much as I could about running an early stage startup. I had demonstrated in my previous work an ability to build community, manage an organization, evaluate talent, and take initiative. Of course, it helped that the GP of my fund happened to be deeply connected to CS education, which was the nature of my work. I guess the lesson there is that people in venture have broad interests, and sometimes the best way to network is outside of investing.I know getting into VC is hard. I support a few young people who are trying to do so right now. I am impressed by how much initiative they take before they even have the job — writing newsletters, supporting student entrepreneurs, offering to support events like pitch competitions. They are finding ways to be useful and contribute before they’re even hired.If I have one taken away for you, it would be hone in on your “why”.
Hi @claires! I would love to hear more about TopKnot's backstory and how you identified the primary pain points for the women that you support. I am currently working on a platform to support women in the early stages of their software development career and I am struggling to focus on one particular pain point for my customers.
Hi Beleicia. I resonate a lot with this question. Here’s how we’re thinking about things and maybe there’s a nugget in here that sparks something for you.We’ve been committed to building with, not for, our users. This has manifested in myriad ways, but notably we started by asking the women who signed up what brought them to us. From their open-ended response, we were able to create buckets (career, relationship, parenting, etc.) and then distill further into topics of interest (considering a change in field, maintaining a relationship with a partner while parenting, etc.). We ultimately ended up building an initial sequence that worked well for a range of motivations for showing up, as well as adding the infrastructure for data capture and feedback we need to more fully understand and listen to our users. We’re committed to using their input to shape our offering as opposed to predetermining a pain point.Like I said, I really resonate with this question (and very much with the work you’re doing — thank you!). I think it’s tough when you so obviously know the status quo is off and there’s just SO many possible ways to address it and you inadvertently put pressure on yourself to find the right one. Instead of needing to be right, perhaps you can think about it as training your ear to listen to the most useful feedback. I hope this helps — I want you to win!
This was crazy helpful - thank you! I've had to rethink a lot of things about TechUp and while I am so grateful to have learned to talk and sit down with the women I'm working with, I've been feeling overwhelmed by the fear of not addressing their concerns correctly. I love the way you reframed it as not needing to get it right, but growing over time. Thank you because this truly has been helpful in reframing the last couple weeks of having coffee chats!
Hi Claire! Great to learn about Top Knot and your journey from teacher to VC to entrepreneur. I'm a former school teacher myself, and recently founded Highr, an online live-learning marketplace, where educators can buy & sell live video sessions to improve classroom teaching. Based on your experiences both as a VC, as well as a former teacher, what are your thoughts on: 1) Selling this as a subscription model to school districts, and navigating sales cycles with schools & districts in the US? We are an India-based company trying to enter the US market. 2) What in your opinion should a product like this be priced at in order to accommodate the long sales cycles? 3) How do VCs view selling to schools? Looking forward to hearing from you! Thanks in advance! Pallavi
Congrats on your new company, Pallavi! I’m biased, but I think that teaching does so much to prepare you for entrepreneurship. As to you questions, my experience with selling to schools is primarily from the buyer side when I ran computer science for a district. I will do my best to answer them, but I suggest that you look to leaders in the ed tech VC field, too. I am particularly fond of Reach.1/ Per seat subscriptions was a standard model that I saw as a district administrator. Oftentimes the tool was free to use, but the analytics was the paid component.2/ I think comps can be helpful in determining pricing. In my role, I evaluated on a per deal basis. As such, I don’t think I can offer standard guidance.3/ If schools are the right customers, then I think you’ll receive positive reception. If there are other possible customers — parents, individual teachers, etc — it’s worth exploring, but I would go after whoever finds your product most valuable.
Hi Claire! Topknot looks like an awesome platform -- I've been enjoying the first skill lessons! I'm curious:1. How did you find your early users / love group? 2. Is there anything surprising that you've discovered about the personal development space?
Hi Jenna,Thanks so much for these questions.1/ We found our earliest users through a few social posts. LinkedIn was by far the most successful for us. This came from our personal accounts, but the signups were a very healthy mix of people we knew [of] and people we did not. Our initial waitlist was ~300 people. 2/ I’m holding my fingers back from spontaneously typing out the full novel I want to write right now. I find this whole space fascinating, particularly because at its core I think meaning-making happens on the level of the individual. In that vein, I will give you a surprising insight I’ve had, but speaks to something about coaching more broadly. I am a person who likes to tell stories, and I often find myself negotiating what details I need to share with people for a story to make sense. A huge takeaway I’ve had on my own personal development journey is that sometimes that layered context is a hindrance — to look fully forward, sometimes it’s best to not peek back. I can’t tell you how many times in coaching I’ve started to explain something and my coach stops me and is like that backstory isn’t impacting the choice in front of you. I don’t know — that’s been sort of revelatory for me. Looking inwards or ahead instead of trying to make sense of what has passed is new.I’ll let you know when my book comes out. ;)
Hi Claire. Congratulations for your inspiring career! Topknot looks very interesting and totally complementary to our startup connectingtalents.org. We are a talent sharing platform operating in Europe for the moment, but would love to have a conversation with you about possible collaboration.
Thanks for the incredible questions. I was able to answer everyone's. Let me know what you think. Appreciate the @ElphaStaff for the opportunity!