Office Hours: I’m the CEO & founder of Elpha. I’m Cadran Cowansage. AMA!Featured

Hi Elphas!

I’m Cadran Cowansage, the CEO and founder of Elpha.

I previously worked in product engineering at Y Combinator and on the Cloud Automation team at MongoDB. Before that, I was one of the first 5 employees at two startups, and I also worked in intermodal transportation and finance. I have a computer science undergraduate degree and a masters degree in biomedical informatics.

I lived in New York for many years, but now live in Oakland, California and spend my time programming, reading and hiking.

Ask me anything about community building, building an early stage startup, transitioning from IC to engineering manager, navigating a job search, or anything else!

Thanks so much for joining us @cadran!Elphas – please ask @cadran your questions before Friday, December 30th. @cadran may not have time to answer every questions, so emoji upvote your favorites 🔥👍🏾➕
Hi @cadran--congrats on everything that you and the team have built. It's been amazing to see the growth through the years. I'm curious, how has your vision for Elpha evolved since you spun out of YC?-- any points in the growth of the company that you thought you were going to have to dissolve ('nuclear winter') and how did you navigate through?
Thanks @jocelyndegance and good to see you here!Creating an online space where women in the tech industry can talk candidly together has always been at the core of Elpha. Initially we were entirely focused on the creating a space where members could have high quality, thoughtful conversations. Once we spun out of YC, we decided to focus on developing our business model. It was important to figure it out quickly so that Elpha members would have confidence that we had a sustainable method for running the network that also aligned with our community values. In the early days, I found myself introducing Elpha members who were looking for jobs to YC startups by hand. Members were getting jobs and founders were excited about the new source of candidates, so that led us to pursue hiring.We haven't had any nuclear winter style events at this point, in part because we worked out our business model and began making revenue early in the life of the business.
Hi @cadran! What's been your biggest surprise while building Elpha, and what would you have done differently, if anything, from the beginning?
One of the biggest surprises for me has been how thoughtfully members use our anonymous posting feature. When we first released the ability for members to post anonymously, I thought there was a decent risk that a lot of anon posts would violate our guidelines. But this almost never happens. Anon posters are amazing contributors to the network!Had we known anon posting would work so well, we probably would have built it sooner.
I absolutely love the anon feature! Thanks for your reply to my question @cadran
Thank you for this feature! I always comment anonymously as Filomena21, and I was wondering if there is a way that I can view all of the Filomena21 posts in one profile? Whenever I click on the link to the username, I get the page that it's a user's anonymous alter-ego, but I can't see my posting history. Would be great if I could set my anonymous alter-ego to be publicly-viewable or viewable only to me.
Thanks for the feedback. We don't currently offer this, but I'm adding your request to our to do list!In the meantime, all your anon posts should be automatically included in your bookmarked posts.
Thank you for founding this platform, @cadran. :) It is wonderful! My question is related to serving the CEO role. When did you transition fully into operating in the CEO role? Do you still wear multiple hats? And what steps did you take that have worked best in moving from being in the business to driving the business vision.
Thank you, @weoptimizework. My role has evolved over time, but I do still wear multiple hats! At first, it was challenging to delegate and eliminate work from my schedule. Hiring competent, experienced people who have worked at early stage startups before helped a lot. And then continuously asking myself questions like "Do I need to be the one doing this?" and "Is this the most important thing I can be doing right now to move the business forward?" also helped me stay focused and say no to things.
Hey @cadran, Happy holidays to you and all elphas. As a former cofounder of a WWCode chapter in Silicon Valley, I believe in and really enjoy elpha...What are the top 3 asks/challenges you hear from elphas which likely are translating into your vision/strategy moving forward, and how do you see the community's help in achieving them?
Hi @guiti! Good question!A big one that comes up a lot is members who want mentorship from peers and more senior leaders. Mentorship is very much at the core of Elpha. Our goal is for everyone in the network to experience the network effects of having 100K other women they can go to for support and advice. Plus, the conversations in the Elpha network serve as a searchable knowledge base that we can all refer back to. We have had so many conversations about salary negotiation, challenging bosses, the list goes on. If you have a problem, we want you to be able to come to Elpha and either find a previous conversation that answers your question, or post about it and get perspectives from other experienced women.Another one is members who want to find new jobs that align with their values and skills. Elpha members tell us a lot that they want to find mission driven work, and that they want to work in a culture where they feel like they belong. We've done a lot of work on values aligned matchmaking between our partner companies and candidates in our talent pool.
Hi @cadran!What systems, tools or tips have you utilized to manage your mental health and motivation when working in unpredictable environments, or between positions?
Hi @LiriH! I don't do anything very complicated. Exercising on a regular basis and getting enough sleep have been the most important for me. I also try to optimize my work around my natural waves of motivation. If I'm having a day where I have a lot of energy and am feeling good, I will work on harder problems. If it's a day where I'm struggling to focus, I will do the easier stuff.
Waaaait wait waaait a sec... are you the same Cadran I remember from Colby???? OMG hi!! Love the community you've built here.
oh wow this is amazing! Hi Andreea! Yes it's me :) Yay very happy to see you here.
OMG! I am crying
Hi Cadran! Thanks for taking the time to share your insights with us. What are some lessons you learned as a founder that you don't think you had otherwise learned while working as an employee?
Hi @tiffanyyhchang! I have a lot more empathy for leaders at companies now. Running a startup is hard and it's easy to make mistakes, especially when you're doing it for the first time. When you're an employee it can be hard to understand that, especially when you feel frustrated with your boss or your leadership team.As a founder you also learn how to get things done with a ton of ambiguity and without anyone there to tell you what the right decision is, pat you on the back, or help push you up the hill. I am a lot tougher and more resilient now!
@cadran Thanks for sharing your perspective! Founding a company sounds like a great test of character and mental fortitude. As a founder and CEO, how do you determine which challenges you're going through to share with your peers or direct reports, and which ones to keep within a very small team of folks or even with yourself? I imagine this can help others understand the challenges a leadership team experiences; however, I can also understand some information might be too sensitive to share with others.
Great question! I don't have a "Right answer" for this. Early on we defined Elpha's community values very simply with three words to guide our actions: direct, transparent and optimistic. We also added "no surprises" to our list. These have been really helpful for me in terms of making decisions about information to share and other actions I take. Even though these are just a few words, it tends to become clear to me quickly whether information is important to share in service of transparency, directness or eliminating surprises. And then when I share that information, if it is negative, difficult, or potentially scary in some way, I think through the ways it can be reframed to offer something positive, and I think through my own optimism for the path forward and share that also.
Thanks for taking the time to respond to my follow-up question! Love that our community values helped guide your communication strategy and decisions with your own team.
@cadran Thanks for your post and for building the Elpha platform! I am interested in learning more about your transition from IC to engineering manager. What skills did you find most helpful? What advice do you have to share for people going through job transitions? Thank you!
I am a big believer in direct communication. When I first started managing, I felt pretty comfortable giving feedback and having direct conversations. I've found this to be super helpful for making sure projects stay on track and that I'm on the same page with my team. Figuring out how to hold other people (and myself!) accountable in a productive way is hard, but so important and it's something I'm always learning to be better at.
Thanks @cadran for taking the time to answer our questions! I am looking forward to engaging more on this platform and seeing Elpha grow!
Thanks @juliezarubafountaine! look forward to getting to know you better here :)
Thank you for taking the time to do this, Cadran! Always love hearing your insights 💜 There are so many great questions here already so, to not double up on what's been asked, my question is: what have you learned about yourself in creating Elpha? From the moment you decided to start a side project to becoming a founder and growing the community to over 100K?
LOVE YOU @cadran thank you for building Elpha and literally changing my life and that of many here! What are your hopes and dreams for 2023? And how can we all help you get there?
awww back at you @iynna 💜In 2023, I want to continue to focus on scaling the Elpha network and making it easier for our members to discover each other and connect.
Noted! Let's keep scaling and connecting everyone :-D
Hi Cadran! Elpha is an amazing product and I'm so glad I have this community to lean on (I also used to work at Mongo!). I'm early in my career PM and would love to hear if there's any advice you would give to your younger self in terms of: 1) what to prioritize in your early career and 2) key components to build a great product
Thanks so much @SumedhaMehta. Very glad to hear Elpha has been helpful for you and nice to see a MongoDB alum here :)1. I'd probably encourage myself to take more career risks, to worry less about resume building, and to focus on working with people I really enjoy collaborating with.2. The YC advice to always talk to your users and stay close to them as you're developing your product is the key.
Thank you for your time Cadran and for the wonderful community you've built! In reflecting back upon your years of building Elpha and how far it's come today, how much of the original "vision" do you see in today's version? Did you think it would get this big? Did you think the conversations would be of the types of topics discussed today?Lastly, would love to hear if you have any favourite threads from the community! 🥰
Hi @cadran !I want to thank you & the team for building a great platform for communities to thrive and authentic conversations to take place. If I may ask for a brief reflection, what are some of the critical moments in shaping Elpha as it is today? How did you find the first hundred users? And how did you go about hiring your first team in the early days?
Hi @AmberL! 1. Critical moments: Deciding to build our own software rather than using an existing platform for the community was important. This has given us a lot of flexibility to explore how to create the best experience for our specific member base. Another one is deciding to review each Elpha account by hand before a person becomes a member who can participate in the community. This ensures that the space stays high quality and safe.2. Elpha started as a side project while I worked at Y Combinator. I really wanted an online space where I could talk candidly to other women software engineers without worrying about trolls. Since I couldn't find a space that felt culturally right for me online, I decided to build one myself. YC has a big alumni community of founders, so after I built my prototype, I first invited my coworkers at YC and then I expanded that invitation out to the alumni network. From there, we opened up invites, so members could invite friends.3. Most of the Elpha team comes from the Elpha community! The Elpha community is a great way to meet talented people who are enthusiastic about what we're building.
Thank you so much for sharing! Finding a problem that you truly care about and solving it with a team of talented, enthusiastic people are so crucial 🙌🏼 Love it!
A beautiful new year! @cadran What was your community member prospecting strategy?
Elpha members come from referral and word of mouth! New members also come in by discovering our content and conversations.