Breaker and tech superconnector Nathalie Molina Niño on her mission, her mind, and the importance of kindness...
Nathalie Molina Niño is a fiery opinion-maker. As a fierce advocate for the causes she supports, she doesn’t shy from controversy. She says just what she wants, in just the way she wants to say it,sensitive souls be damned.
Some such firebrands struggle with communication on an individual level, but Nathalie defies that stereotype. Despite, or perhaps because of her raw honesty, Nathalie has a reputation as a highly effective people person. She was named a “superconnector” by Keith Ferrazzi in his now-famous book “Never Eat Alone.” “[Nathalie is the] fuel core of a network," writes Ferrazzi, "that makes it easy for her to tap the resources to get stuff done, and done quickly." Indeed, Nathalie has advised everyone from Mattel to Google and seems to have a three letter C acronym in front of her name on just about every project she touches.
So what’s the through line? Like all the best Breakers, putting exactly what Nathalie does into words is a challenge. The short answer is that she fosters women entrepreneurs. She has helped launched several major projects with that goal, including SELF MADE, Human, and MergeLane. She spearheads entrepreneurial education for young women through ENTREPRENEUERS@ATHENA at Barnard College and a summer camp called Entrepreneurs in Training. She has also spoken about tech globalization at Tech808. Most recently, she launched BRAVA Investments to invest in businesses that positively impact the financial health of women.
Another source of Nathalie’s magnetism is her integrity. Despite her intimidating resume, she is self-aware about the potential destructiveness of unbridled ambition (click here to watch her speak about the risks of overwork at Ignite Seattle). She comes from a working class Latino family for whom kindness and justice were governing values, and those principles still guide her life. The reason for her success is not necessarily her relentless drive (which, trust us, is quite relentless), but her ability to recognize when to turn it off. Despite having a hand in what seems like just about everything in the tech world, everything, as you’ll learn in our interview with her, can sometimes be just a little too much…
Where are you originally from?
Always a fun question. I'm half Ecuadorian, half Colombian and 100% Andean. I was born on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. I grew up, like most children of immigrants, straddling my countries of origin and the U.S. I have three passports but I am rather emphatically unpatriotic. I've lived in 10 countries and traveled to over 70, so I find patriotism, in all its forms, to be philosophically problematic.
What do you “do”?
I have no idea. I'm a connector. I started as a coder, studied engineering, fine art and cartography (GIS/GPS) in school the first time around, and most recently went back to school for a playwriting degree. I’m the co-founder of an impact investing firm [MM1] now. I work to bring young women into STEM, especially coding. I’m also passionate about launching the personal brands of extraordinary women through a collective I founded called Human. I advise the Athena Film Festival, and have been involved in a couple women-centric film projects and am currently helping produce a handful of TV shows about women entrepreneurs. I occasionally get distracted with a startup I think is a game-changer, and step in to help run it for just long enough to, hopefully, make a positive impact. I was recently CRO of PowerToFly, the interim CEO of SELF MADE and am now the CEO of BRAVA Investments. There's more, but you get the dilemma. I don't know what profession that is, but as a dear friend recently said, I guess I’m a “conglomerate.”
What was your favorite tradition growing up?
I'm not a fan of tradition, much less growing up.
"Kindness, I've decided, is all that matters, in business or in anything."
Do you have a guiding role model that exemplifies your work today?
I grew up in the sweat shops of LA, so I learned early on what hard work and long hours looked like. But hard work is not the same as justice or compassion, and those I learned from my mother in the 80's during the height of the AIDS epidemic. My mother handled the cash register for a business in Los Angeles and I distinctly remember her coming home one day and telling me that no one at the company was willing to serve customers with visible signs of the disease. No one but her, that is. I remember my heart breaking as she described the gratitude she received from the people she served. I was at once saddened at the thought of the cruelty of others, and proud that people like my mother existed in the world.
What age did you become an adult?
My parents would say roughly seven, but I would say twenty-three, when I found myself running a multinational in 20+ countries and lying about my age because my employees were all older than me. So it's debatable. In any case I've been actively regressing back into childhood ever since, and only very occasionally catch myself adulting these days.
You’ve given talks where you mention that you may have pushed people, and yourself, too hard at times. Talk about that realization and how it has shaped you.
I'd so thoroughly bought into the "win by whatever means" culture that is so prevalent in tech, that I lost my way, and a little of my own humanity in the process. That's not how I was raised, nor was it a reflection of who I am, at my core. I think it's why it still stings a little to remember. I think I tell that story, difficult as it is to revisit, to remind myself of my true north. And because it happened over a dozen years ago, I also tell it to share with anyone who will listen, that it's possible to be successful, and even relentlessly ambitious, while still being kind and generous of spirit. Kindness, I've decided, is all that matters, in business or in anything.
You comment often on bro culture in today's tech world. How has that changed from your early days in tech? Do you see positive strides being taken?
No. In fact, it's decidedly worse. The huge economic success of a handful of brogrammer-led businesses combined with the mass exodus of women from tech over the last 20 years has emboldened what were a set of occasionally toxic corporate cultures into what is now an industry-wide epidemic. It affects not just women, but also people of color, the LGBT community and those with disabilities. Shortly after I attempted to leave tech in 2011, I found myself advising students at Barnard who wanted to follow in my footsteps and go into tech, which I found troubling. I realized I'd spent my entire adult life inside a broken culture and left it no better than I'd found it. So my amazing students, and in general the next generation of women in tech, are the reason I have returned to the speaker circuit and even stepped in to advise women-owned tech startups. So, no, I don't think inclusion in tech is any better, but I'm committed to doing my small part to ensure it improves.
How did you launch the Athena Center at Barnard?
Kitty Kolbert, my co-founder at Entrepreneurs@Athena and the Director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard, was introduced to me by a faculty member at Columbia. She successfully argued the landmark supreme court case Planned Parenthood v Casey in 1992 and is credited with saving Roe v. Wade. Initially we met regularly for what she called "business therapy sessions," which were meetings where I'd advise her on strategy for the center. It was in those sessions that we had the idea to create a project to level the playing field for women entrepreneurs.
What are some of the Athena Center’s best successes to date?
This is so hard. I could name the dozen or so programs we've created to arm women and girls with entrepreneurial skills, or the national attention, or the amazing TEDx talks we helped bring to life, or even the profitability of the programs, which is important to me since I'm a believer in self-sustaining businesses (even if they're non-profits). But my favorite success stories are the individual women we've touched. From the high schoolers we've trained in our summer camp who years later still write and tell us how much their lives were changed, or the VP of a Fortune 50 company who still writes saying the same thing.
You also helped launch PowertoFly, the accelerator MergeLane, and assist with various other projects including Latinas for Hillary. Have there been some fires in juggling all of these at one time? Any fun ones that you can share?
I don't personally find it much fun, but as my close circle of friends and my last relationship can attest to in great comedic detail, the perception of me being out in the world kicking ass and taking names is probably best balanced with the bumbling hot mess of my day to day reality. The fact is, I can't remember my phone number, I lose damn near everything and I'm pretty sure the last time I checked my voicemail was 1993. I broke six phones last year and won’t spend more than $10 on a pair of sunglasses because I go through them at a rate that most would agree is nothing short of spectacular. The only fun thing about that fog of chaos is that I get to bring in my far-more-competent friends to help me run things, and because they love (or pity?) me, they help keep the circus side show running and make me look good in the process.
Earlier this year you worked on SELF MADE with Nely Galan. Can you tell us why that project was so important to you?
When Nely told me she was publishing a book called SELF MADE geared towards arming women with the tools they need to become entrepreneurial, I immediately signed on to help. We couldn't possibly include all the resources available to women in the printed book, so we launched a website, a video series, webinars and a companion mobile app as well. I stepped in as interim CEO for the launch to be building a bridge for women, especially women of color, to get started on the path to becoming self-made. Women-owned businesses are under-capitalized and under-resourced, but they're also invisible until women launch the
"The perception of me being out in the world kicking ass and taking names is probably best balanced with the bumbling hot mess of my day to day reality."
In October you launched BRAVA Investments, and among your co-founders is Howard Buffett. How is BRAVA a new kind of investment company?
I believe that both venture capital AND impact investing are broken, and neither are effectively serving the interests of women. With BRAVA, we want to prove that businesses that do well by women also do well by founders and investors. The impact platform we’re creating focuses not on whether a business is women-led or women-founded, but on the impact their products and services have on women. Our focus is to invest in high-growth, scalable businesses that positively impact the financial health of women. We focus on outcomes, not on optics.
Instead of making BRAVA a traditional VC fund, we have modeled the company after Warren Buffet's philosophy of investing in scalable companies, for the long term, not for the short term exit, which is also the model used by i(x) investments, who launched last November and are my co-founders.
What's a trend you wish you could get rid of?
This pesky business of only 24 hours in the day. I find it incredibly inconvenient.
Who or what currently inspires you?
My friends each do in their own way, but right now I'm especially inspired by Joan Fallon, a distinguished Fellow of the Athena Center and the CEO of Curemark. She's one of the most brilliant and courageous people I've ever met and I’m thrilled to witness her make history, which is exactly what she's doing right now with her work for children with autism.
What's your biggest hope for 2016?
It’s to be more accepting, of myself and others. I try to choose a word each year, in order to meditate on an intention and hopefully put my energy into it consistently throughout the year. Last year it was "kindness" and this year my word is "acceptance." It was inspired by this amazing talk called the Mount Everest of Human Emotions by Kelly Corrigan. I highly recommend it.