What you should know about working at a startupFeatured

It’s hard to gauge racial/ethnic representation across startups because — as I’ve talked about on LinkedIn — not many startups put that information out there. But we can start to get a sense of what that representation might look like by turning to diversity stats in tech generally.

According to Latinas in Tech, Latinx women make up only 1.5% of tech employees. If we open that net a bit wider, we find that the combined Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous representation in Silicon Valley firms accounts for just 5% of their employees, approximately.

And while I can’t speak for all people of color — or even all Hispanic women, for that matter — I can speak to my experience as a first generation Hispanic woman from a low income family, and why joining a startup seemed like a complete nonstarter for me for so long.

(Though, spoiler alert: turns out startups actually offer everything I’ve ever wanted in a career. More on that later.)

I’ve spoken previously about the ways in which being a low-income minority impacted my sense of confidence and approach to job applications in the past. And to be clear: All those things still apply here. But when we talk about “past me” considering working for a startup, there are even more challenges that come into play.

For starters, I didn’t actually understand what a startup or “tech” meant. Growing up with a working class immigrant mother, and without any connections to anyone who had ever known anything different, those words felt far off and fantastical. Almost sci-fi and unrealistic. Whenever I thought of things like coding or tech, the only things that came to mind were Neo in the Matrix and Bill Gates building a computer in his garage. And while I think we can all agree that this isn’t quite what the rest of the world means when they refer to these terms, as silly as it sounds, I just didn’t know that. And so it felt like there simply wasn’t a place for me in the world of tech.

Second, even once I did learn what these words actually meant, the concept of working at a company that was brand new, without a proven track record and decades of demonstrable success felt like a level of recklessness I couldn’t afford. Literally. How could I take on a job at a company that might not exist in two years? My mom could barely afford to pay her own bills, much less cover for me if I ended up unemployed. There was no fallback plan. No leeway if the job didn’t work out.

Third, the reality is the lack of diversity in most startups is palpable. It is painfully noticeable. And I don’t use that word lightly. It is painful to look at career pages with picture after picture of people that represent worlds I’m not a part of, that lack employees who look like me or the people I grew up with. Even to this day, it feels off-putting and intentional when companies put out pictures of homogeneous groups. And while I believe that companies are trying, it doesn’t change the impact: seeing homogenous-looking company pictures makes me feel unwelcome.

So what made me finally take the plunge and how the heck did I fall so in love with this community that I never would have considered growing up?

Well. Truthfully, I jumped into the startup world despite the fact that it was a startup, not because of it. While my first company wasn’t exactly a startup, it was new enough that it still felt like a risk, and my new company is absolutely still a startup (3 years young and counting).

But my first job had a job description that was inclusive enough that it gave me the confidence to apply — they explicitly said they were willing to train people on the job — and my new job literally centers its business model around building ethical and inclusive workplaces.

(If you haven’t picked up on the theme here, DM me on LinkedIn. We’ll talk.)

Once I was in, I was hooked – the ability to learn and grow so quickly, the everyday exposure to senior-level staff, the opportunity to jump into different areas of the business because, at a startup, every job is really more like 3-in-1.

There were challenges, too, of course. And I’ll get into those shortly. But I learned more in my first 5 years at a small, but quickly scaling company (one that went from approximately 200 employees to 1,000+ in record time) than I would have in 10 years at a large corporate conglomerate.

So if you’re on the fence about joining a startup, here’s what you should know.

1. Company culture matters. While there’s a definite “startup vibe,” no two companies are alike. Do your homework. Poke around their careers pages. If they don’t have one, pay attention to their approach to job descriptions and ask smart, specific questions about their culture during the interview process. “How would you describe your company culture?” is good, but “What’s your philosophy and approach to work-life balance?” is better.

2. If you’re looking for a clock-in, clock-out culture, you’re not going to find it at a startup. Don’t get me wrong. Work-life balance is important, and you should find a place whose philosophy on work-life balance aligns with your own. At Ethena, we’ve been public about our own approach to work-life balance because we want candidates to have the necessary information to make the right decision when applying to jobs. That said, building a company from the ground up is tough work, and sometimes, you really do have to pull a late night or check in on the weekend. If you’ve got strict boundaries around your availability or if you’re looking for a place where you can perfectly predict what hours you’ll be working every day, a startup might not align with your interests.

3. You need to be comfortable with working in ambiguity. I know many people who thrive on structure and clarity. They find working within unclear guidelines both exhausting and demoralizing. If you are one of those people, it’s possible you wouldn’t enjoy working at a startup. Startups by their very nature are still figuring out the rules, still testing out what structures and processes work best for them.

Personally, I find this exciting because it means:1. there are endless possibilities around how we might want to approach something, and 2. I get to create clarity out of that ambiguity. But for others — and especially if you are new in your career — it can bring with it a sense of uncertainty and stress. Consider your tolerance / excitement for ambiguity carefully before joining a startup.

4. The company you join won’t be the same as the company you joined one year ago. Startups are unpredictable. Their business needs are constantly changing. That’s because they’re still figuring out who they want to be in the world, who their target market is, how they want to build out their structure, etc. That’s normal, and — if you’re like me — exciting. But it also means that the company you join at 15 employees will be a very different company than the one it becomes at 100 employees.

What they need from you in your role will change as will the company culture itself. This can be a jarring experience for some employees, especially if it turns out that the needs of the job no longer align with the things that attracted them to the company in the first place. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider startup life. But it does mean that you need to do one of the following: 1. Prioritize growing with the company and adapting to its changing needs, 2. Seek out startups that aren’t looking to scale quickly, and 3. Consider that your tenure at startups may be briefer if you only like to work at startups at a particular size and stage in their journey.

5. Take initiative. Part of startup fun is that there are constantly new challenges to tackle. The people who thrive at startups are those who are constantly looking for new ways to level up — both as a company and as an individual. If you see a gap, don’t be scared to call it out. Say something. Better yet, offer a suggestion. Even better: fix the problem yourself. Not only will this make you an incredibly valuable member of the team (and make you a prime candidate for promotion when the opportunity arises); it will also help the overall company’s success.

6. Optimize for speed and make calculated mistakes. Perfection is the enemy of progress. This is critical. Startups need people who can execute with speed, and get better over time. If you’re terrified of making mistakes or putting out work that is less than 100%, you’ll need to work hard against that urge to succeed at a startup. At Ethena, we use the 80/20 model: Get the project 80% of the way there and then roll it out. You’ll learn much more, much faster, by putting the project out there and opening yourself up to feedback than you will from sitting on the project for another week while you get the rest of the way to 100%.

So there you have it. Startups are honestly not for everyone, and I don’t sugarcoat that. But if gaining as much experience as possible, as quickly as possible, and trying new things often sounds like an adventure that excites you — definitely look into startups for the next step in your career. And remember, even if you don’t feel you fully qualify for a job description, apply anyway! You might be surprised at the outcome, and like me, you might discover you enjoy it.

Such an insightful post, Melanie. Thank you for sharing your perspective.
I appreciate your straightforwardness on this topic, as someone considering this path. Thank you for sharing, @mnaranjo!
Hi Melanie, thank you for sharing these insights! The happiest I've been in my career was working on smaller incubation teams, but for the most part I did that with a backing of an already established corporate business. As I search for my next mission I think a start up will be the best fit for me. Do you have any advice on how to find a start up that is willing to take someone from a mostly Corporate background? Thanks!