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Susan Lyne: “I Just Always Believed There Was A Bigger World Out There”

Susan Lyne’s career has been about cultural change. Now, leading AOL’s Built By Girls fund, she’s investing in other women to do the same.

Susan Lyne: “I Just Always Believed There Was A Bigger World Out There”
Master the mix: “Every piece of research that has been done will tell you that diverse teams are more successful.” [Photos: Ben Kulo]

Susan Lyne has spent years leading the charge to improve tech’s work culture. As the current head of the Built By Girls (BBG) fund, she is taking her passion to investing. Here is an edited and condensed conversation with her about women, entrepreneurialism and female role models.

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Tell us about BBG’s mission and how it fits with AOL.

Seven percent of venture funding goes to women-led startups. If 93% of the funding is going to 50% of the population, there’s an opportunity to focus on the other half. The other inspiration was #builtbygirls, AOL’s initiative to encourage young women to view technology as their friend. AOL had a millennial [entertainment news] brand called Cambio. We partnered with Girls Who Code and made them a proposition: Create the site that you and your friends would come to every day. They reworked the editorial policy and built new features, including a platform allowing girls to contribute content. In October, we relaunched Cambio as a site for girls, #builtbygirls—that’s the BBG in BBG Ventures. We’ve made seven investments so far, all in consumer Internet companies. It’s the area women play in the most, and the area I know best. We’re making $100,000 to $200,000 investments—seed funding.

Every month, Cambio chooses a Girl of the Month—a teen doing something extraordinary in charity work, music, tech, etc. Think back to 17-year-old Susan Lyne. What inspired her?

I was the oldest child of a father who had more daughters than sons, and I just always believed there was a bigger world out there. There are a ton of girls like that. Now that technology has connected them, you see that even more. For me, reading magazines made me believe that I could do something that was a lot more interesting than if I stayed in my little community outside of Boston. More girls now see role models everywhere. You’re going to see a whole lot of young women leaders as a result.

What were you reading?

Honestly, Seventeen. Magazines were where new ideas got shared and where cultural or social change was beginning to be felt.

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You eventually started Premiere, which covered the film industry. What did you learn from that experience?

Hire people who are really good at things you’re not good at. One mistake a lot of young executives make is thinking they have to do everything. As a result, they do a couple of things really well and a lot of things not so well. They miss the opportunity to create a great team.

What are you not good at?

Oh, lots of things! Look, there are parts of this new world that I am never going to learn as well as a digital native. Internet marketing—there are 20 people on this floor who are better at that than I ever will be.

How do you create a great team? Whom do you hire and promote?

At Gilt [which she ran from 2008 to 2010], I set up an informal measurement system: The people who could get their peers invested in their success were the people we should promote. If you can get people who don’t report to you to jump in and help you get something done, you are going to be a really good manager.

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Conventional hiring, especially in tech, often overlooks minorities, women, and people with disabilities. What do you see?

If you’re looking for an engineer, or a marketer, you ask your friends. Your friends are going to send people like themselves. You’re going to keep replicating the same style and background. There’s been a fair amount written about it out in Silicon Valley, but I can’t tell you I’ve seen a lot of action taken. Every piece of research that has been done will tell you that diverse teams are more successful.

Has that been true in your experience?

For a long time, I thought that women were naturally smarter and more emotionally evolved. What I found is that when you have too many women around a table, aspects of our strengths can become weaknesses. We look for consensus too quickly, and we don’t forget slights. I would sit there and think, “Oh, my God. If half this table were guys, we’d argue until we got to a conclusion, and then we’d go have a drink together.” When you get a mix, it’s a much more productive dynamic.

Tell me about mentors you’ve had.

Premiere was the first job I had where I owned it—I was not second in command. It was a hard transition. John Evans, who ran Murdoch Magazines, was fierce about me not “looking for Daddy”—his actual words. I sent my first editor’s letter to him and explained that I wanted some feedback. He said, “Never send this to me again. I don’t buy a dog and bark for it.” The message got through: This is your magazine, and it’s not going to succeed if you’re always looking for someone else to make the final decision.

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You’ve worked for some prominent bosses. What have you learned from them?

Let your managers do their jobs. Give them goals, give them targets, and give them rope. [Disney CEO] Bob Iger is really good at letting people run a business. When I started working at ABC, he would pop his head into my office a couple of times a week and ask me what I was working on. He never stayed more than a few minutes, and I assumed he was just trying to make the new girl feel at home. Over time I discovered he spent 30 minutes every afternoon walking the halls, having impromptu conversations with a half dozen people. He said it had turned out to be the single best investment of his time—a quick way to stay in touch with the creative execs, an early warning system for any brewing problems, and a signal that he was interested enough in your work to come to you. To this day, I think it’s the smartest thing a chief executive can do to stay current and build loyalty.

A couple of weeks after I started at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, I went down to West Virginia to visit Martha at Alderson prison. The rules were that I couldn’t talk business results with her, but I could tell her what I was doing and seeing. So I talked about seeing the inspiration boards for a new line of high-end bed linens the design team was developing. Martha asked me if I wanted what I saw. I said I thought they were beautiful and moved on to the next item on my list. She stopped me and said, “That’s not what I asked you. Did you want them? Until you covet them, you have to keep sending them back to work.” That’s why she became such an icon—she never subscribed to the “good enough” theory. It has to be great. Consumers know the difference.

What do you do to recharge?

Things that open my mind. I’m on the board of Rockefeller University. I went up there last week because Nathan Wolfe, who has been doing virus mapping globally to identify early when viruses are moving from animals to humans, was speaking. There was an opportunity to have dinner with him afterward. I did a similar evening a month or two ago with Atul Gawande, who is one of my favorite writers.

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His last book was about mortality.

We have so many ways that science can extend our lives. But some of the most important ones are very old-fashioned, like his focus on washing your hands and how profound that can be to mortality rates at a hospital.

How does that apply to your sphere?

The companies that are most interesting to me combine some low-tech element with the best technology. There’s a company we’ve invested in called Gracious Eloise. They are mapping and then digitizing your unique handwriting. You can send an email and they will output it as a “handwritten” card. It is taking what is still important to a lot of people—manners, saying thank you—but bringing technology to it.

I don’t know how I feel about that. Is it fake manners?

No, it’s not! I have terrible handwriting. Much better for me to be able to have that output.

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Is this human element lacking in tech?

Everybody talks about culture being critically important. I’m sure there are many startup tech companies where the interactions are spectacular, but it’s very hard to develop a great culture. The companies that have done it well—Disney, Starbucks, REI—have grown up over time. You can mandate it, but it’s only going to work if the people believe in it.

About the author

Jeff Chu writes on international affairs, social issues, and design for Fast Company. His first book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, was published by HarperCollins in April 2013.

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