Roasting the Competition: Liz Wald on Cracking the Coffee Industry

Roasting The Competition:

Liz Wald on Cracking the Coffee Industry

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Liz Wald, formerly of Indiegogo and Etsy, is the newly-named US Head of Operations for the Berlin-based startup bringing the first roast-grind-brew coffeemaker to market, BonaVerde. Liz spent four years at Etsy running global operations and helping them grow from $80M to $800M as it prepared to become a public entity. BonaVerde was just declared by Engadget as “The Keurig of raw coffee” and they’re buzzing right now on the heels of raising over $1.13 million in just 1 week on Seedrs! They’re the first-ever supply chain shipping green coffee beans directly to your doorstep.

How did your background affect your success in tech?

I grew up with two brothers who are 10 years older. Both of them were athletes, and very early in my life I realized I either need to learn how to throw the ball or I’m gonna be the ball. In my community, growing up, I was the first girl to play little league baseball in my town. I remember thinking, “Why wouldn’t I be playing with the boys at age 10? I’m bigger and stronger than they are and I’m more coordinated at age 10.” I could switch over and be two years ahead of my girl peers and be the starting player as a freshmen as a junior. In my high school years, I also went to an all girls school. I wasn’t competing with the boys, so I’d take leadership roles. I was the star athlete of the school, the best at math because it was all women. In college, I was the first to raise my hand in class. I’ve always had the confidence. There’s a sign on my desk that’s a joke, but also a reminder to women at work: “There’s no crying in baseball.” You’re going to have good days/bad days. It’s work. If your boss yells at you, take it and figure out to improve it.

Liz Wald
How did your international experience help you succeed in the tech world?

I’m a relatively fearless person. I’ve traveled all over the world. I’ve ran my own company working with women in Africa. I traveled as a woman alone in Pakistan three weeks before 9/11 happened. When I travel, I don’t let fear limit me. I’ve always just taken the approach, ‘I can handle myself. I’m confident.’ It’s just been an attitude of, ‘I’ll figure it out.’

I apply that mentality to work. If you’re trying to change something like the coffee system, you have to have an attitude of, “This might not work, but we’ll try another approach.” We’re going to go to people, not just financiers, then we can go to the financier and say “10,000 people have come behind us. We’ve raised this much money, this is our vision, and people believe in us. Now help us get to the next level.”

When I came to Etsy and wanted to go international, they didn’t know what that meant. My bosses would say, “You tell us what you think could be a good approach.”  They didn’t have an expert yet and with me being new at the job, it came down to just feeling confident in myself and presenting my material.  You’re not trying to make your way up some big corporate ladder. Today, we see so many more conversations about women in tech and bro culture. It’s totally it’s there. But at Etsy, the vast majority of sellers were women. Your’e talking about crafts. The bro culture just didn’t exist there. It was about how do we make a craft take off online in the simplest terms? At the end of the day, a guy had founded the company and there’s a guy that’s a COO today, but the whole mentality of the place was very different then bro culture.

Liz Wald

Success in tech has less to do with the product. It’s about the story behind it. Financiers are betting on the fact that people want to know the origin of their food, that things are fresh, and see traceability of the money where you say it’s going to go. You obviously have to have a great product, then an amazing story behind it? Then we’re talking

What do you believe are the challenges of being a woman in tech?

When I moved to Indiegogo, there was three founders. One was a woman, and she wanted to make sure there was this attitude of democratizing finance. Everybody should have access to capital. Women have harder time getting access to capital in general. That attitude helped permeate equal opportunity, and increased the value of the whole company, so that helps overall. Now it could be because I’ve joined Bona Verde, the CEO remembered me from my time at Indiegogo. He reached out to me and said, “Hey, we need someone to lead the U.S. You have this great experience. I remember meeting you. I liked you. What do you think?” I don’t think he really thought for a second whether I was a female entrepreneur, or male entrepreneur. It was more like, “You have this experience. Let’s make this happen.” I’ve been able to come into lots of those situations through my career.

Do you think the tech industry is evolving?

Tech still has a long way to go. While In my experience, I’ve always been drawn to smaller, growing companies where you have a chance to get your hand in lots of different pots, so I didn’t necessarily go through having to prove myself as a woman. 

But as an organization grows and then becomes much bigger and then they’re looking to bring in experiencing senior management, that’s when I think you find the split start to happen because frankly, there are fewer women in those positions with 20 years experience compared to the number of men with 20 years experience.

I was lucky with Etsy, with partners or trying to raise capital, going out with a team of people and trying to raise money for startups, at Etsy, the team was able to say, “Hey, we have a first mover advantage. We’re something different than what’s been out there.” But a lot of the men who are the VCs for the most part, they don’t relate to the product. They’re like, “My wife goes on Etsy,” or “my daughters like that site.” That’s a lot tougher then, “I get on Uber everyday.”

That is where I continue to see it, is where the people making the decisions, are not consuming the product as readily.

Tech is getting more attention to the problem, though. Because of that, people are feeling like this is an area where older people are saying, “I need to mentor people around me.” It’s a step in the right direction. 

This is why I think its important that men get behind women in tech, too. Men and women need to realize their own inherent biases and consciously do something about them. Women need to be super confident, lead with their numbers and be like, “I’m going to crush this market.” When I counsel women, the first thing I do when they say, ‘I have this idea and I think it’s pretty good,’ I say ‘No. I have an AMAZING idea. It’s going to fundamentally disrupt the market.’ You have to use the language that the men are using. You have to have the attitude of “I’m gonna change the world,” as opposed to, ‘I’ve done my homework. I’m gonna work hard.’ Being dedicated and hard working are going to pay off, but don’t assume that. Ask for what you want. You also have to assume that you are worth it. Women don’t do a very good job of tooting their own horn. Culturally, you grow up thinking that’s not what you’re supposed to. You’re supposed to be respectful and demure, all those things that are fine at a tea party but not so much at a VC office. 

How do you prepare for male dominated boardrooms?

In more male dominated environments, the clothing tendency is to dress in pant suit trying to be like men. My advice? Go with what’s working for you. You have to do you. If you’re all about high heels and sexy dresses, own it, but with super amount of confidence in what you’re presenting. Don’t try to be like the guys. You have to put your best foot forward. Don’t sit next to the coffee. Don’t take the least power chair in the room. Don’t bel the last to comment. You have to get to the point where it’s natural to take the lead. The women aren’t here to make coffee. 

Also what is her future plan?

We’re selling coffee machines and we’re selling coffee, but we are trying to sell this bigger picture of disrupting the coffee chain. However we do that, it’s about telling the story, about getting value back to the people that put the hard work into creating the product. It’s about sharing those stories. It’s about making big changes and not just selling another product to people for their kitchen. It’s the overall mission of the company that gets me out of bed in the morning.

Samantha Miles

Samantha Miles is a multimedia journalist whose work has appeared in various newsrooms in Colorado, Texas, and Columbia Nightly News in New York City. She has also written for several online publications, and won awards for her journalism in the Arab Spring Uprisings for her piece - "The Jasmine Flowers: Women of the Tunisian Revolution," where she interviewed women rewriting the Tunisian constitution after the revolution. She has written about women from various cultures covering issues of domestic violence, social justice, and beauty pressures.

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