Defying the Odds

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Venture capitalist, serial entrepreneur, physicist and unlikely advice giver Oksana Malysheva discusses her path as a woman in technology.

By Oksana Malysheva, Photo courtesy of Sputnik ATX

If you look at the highlights of my story through a glossy social-media lens, it would look almost like a Hollywood fairy tale. I am a Ukrainian girl who came to the U.S. with $100 to her name to study physics, got a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and entered the venture-capital world. Today, I am the CEO of Sputnik ATX, a startup accelerator in Austin that helps promising startups with funding, mentorship and training. I have a wonderful family, and we have each other’s backs on both good days and bad ones.

This may read smooth, deliberate and unreachable, but it would also not be the full truth, and such is not the real me. The real me will tell you my road has been bumpy; the victories have been interlaced with disappointments. The thrill of innovation has been sprinkled with some decisions that were pretty stupid. While I have been blessed with extreme loyalty, I have experienced visceral betrayals by those close to me. Such is life, and I am here to share how it all started.

I have to admit I would not have envisioned myself writing this at the beginning of my journey, as a girl fond of solving physics and math problems growing up in Kiev, Ukraine. I was a brainy and somewhat overweight idealist in a culture that valued glamor, domesticity and so-called feminine skills above what was happening in my brain. I was a nerd, hazed by the older students for being good at math and wearing the ugliest shoes in school.

My aunts would say I was too principled for my own good, not focused on mastering the womanly arts of cooking, dressing well or pretending to be less intelligent while on a date. Some 25-plus years ago, in another world across the ocean, this was my reality. It seemed like I had to choose: be who I knew I was and pursue what I thought was right for me or fit into the mold. For people of my generation, choosing the mold was the norm.

You might want to say, “That was ages ago, in a different culture.” So, for my daughter’s generation, growing up in a gender-neutral U.S. should be different. But is it?

In 2016, only 6 percent of venture-funded deals went to female founders, and they received only 2 percent of the total funding. Is it because we have fewer talented and gutsy women among us, or is it because we have accepted we have to choose between being brainy, knowledgeable leaders in our fields or enjoying all the other blessings being a woman brings?

In 2018, we are still facing an uphill battle. As someone who thrives on defying the odds, these three pillars helped me move forward:

No. 1: Your team and mentors shape you. When I look back, many people have helped me become who I am. It all started with my dad, who tirelessly played math and physics games with me and made it wicked fun while other girls were playing with dolls.

No. 2: Foster the joy of learning, innovation and growth. The most important thing my STEM education gave me was a mindset of constant learning and discovery. I practice it every day personally and professionally, and it is essential in propelling me forward. So, when you encourage your daughter to learn the Python programming language or to look up what a black hole is, you are teaching her much more than science facts. You are feeding her curiosity to learn and discover new things, to frame problems that have not been solved and seed creative solutions. 

No. 3: Establish winning routines that help you beat the odds. Get an early start to your day, learn something new every week, program people and activities that are important or joyful to you into your calendar and keep those appointments. This discipline helps me focus my creativity and decision-making power on new things, and delivers small victories during the rough days when nothing seems to go right.

 

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