Welcome to The Power of She, a new blog series dedicated to featuring women entrepreneurs and leaders. With this series, we hope to create a platform to help readers better understand the unique challenges that women entrepreneurs face, the opportunities they have created and the lessons they can share with other women who are interested in following the same path. The full series appears on the Crossroads blog.
The Power of She: Carol Vercellino of Oak City Labs
Who starts a tech company when she’s four months pregnant with her second child? Carol Vercellino, of course. What better time to create a new “baby” with one on the way and one already at home?
Although that wasn’t exactly Carol’s thought process, she certainly didn’t let her pregnancy deter her when she started Oak City Labs, a mobile software development company that builds scalable iOS and Android solutions for growing technology companies. Carol knew that the timing and team were right, and she didn’t want to miss the opportunity to build an amazing company with her two co-founders (both male). She also thought it was the perfect opportunity to set an example for her daughters, showing them “what is possible as they grow up” and teaching them that they “can be successful without someone else telling them what success is supposed to look like.”
The fact that Carol’s career started with a bachelor’s in business administration, not engineering or computer science, tells you even more about the kind of person she is. While interning for a lending cooperative in college, Carol taught herself Visual Basic after getting frustrated with the inefficiencies of manual processes like bank reconciliations. Using her newfound skills, she automated a number of spreadsheets and databases for the company. She then moved into an IT role that she stayed in until graduation.
After graduating, Carol worked as an IT systems administrator for a SaaS company before joining their engineering team. She went on to manage a number of engineering teams at other software companies. Carol earned an MBA with a concentration in technology and entrepreneurship commercialization focused on startups and high-growth technology from North Carolina State University. She and her co-founders started Oak City Labs in August 2014.
I spoke to Carol about her career in engineering, her path to entrepreneurism and more. Her answers are below.
Q: Engineering is often considered a male-dominated field. Did that factor into your career decisions at all?
A: Not at all. During my college internship, I reported to a female CFO, which was fairly rare to see within the agricultural lending industry. When I transitioned to full time, my manager was also female. I just focused on doing what I found interesting, which I thought would be finance technology.
Q: What are some of the unique challenges you think female entrepreneurs face, particularly in the technology industry?
A: Hands down, the most unique challenge was starting Oak City Labs while pregnant. I would go to networking events and you could tell that people were awkwardly trying to figure out if I was 1) pregnant and 2) a legitimate entrepreneur. I kind of wish I could have polled people to see how many thought I would still be in business after kid number two was born. With that said, I am clearly very fortunate to have cofounders that shouldered more responsibility during that time.
Q: How can women overcome the challenges female entrepreneurs face?
A: We all need to figure out what our strengths are and focus on those. Gary Vaynerchuk talks a lot about betting on your strengths, and he’s right. We’re taught that being a leader fits into a certain style, that being a mother looks a certain way and that being a tech entrepreneur fits a specific stereotype. We have to start breaking away from that mentality—and to a certain extent, what we’re taught in school—and figure out who we are as individuals. When you focus on your strengths and put yourself in situations where that can shine, you’ll overcome anything.
I took a job at a large company and had to learn that it wasn’t part of my strengths to be in that environment. I did my worst work there and learned that’s not a good situation for me personally. But I had to be in that situation to learn and wouldn’t trade that learning experience for anything.
Q: Do you feel that you and other women entrepreneurs have a responsibility to serve as role models and to help pave the way for future female leaders? What can we do better to support these women?
A: Yes, things will get better with each generation. We learn and adapt. I think the STEM efforts are great, but we also need to help young women understand their strengths and then help them figure out where they’re needed. Giving future generations the opportunity to explore and figure out the best path for them is what’s important, not necessarily trying to herd them all into STEM programs.
Q: Why do you think more women don’t follow the entrepreneurial path and/or pursue leadership positions?
A: Probably two reasons: 1) They don’t know that they can, meaning they don’t even know it’s an option or they haven’t thought about it before, and 2) it’s really tough if you’re going to have kids.
Q: What are some of the unique opportunities you believe female entrepreneurs have or can create?
A: Females tend to make up the buying power in the country, whether in the consumer markets or occupations like education and nursing. I think we’re already seeing more female entrepreneurs, but it’s in markets that don’t typically get a lot of press coverage (like tech). Or they’re not out trying to raise venture capital, which also seems to get press coverage. I wish that would change, too. It would be nice to highlight companies that are growing debt free or based on customer growth instead of just celebrating companies raising debt.
Q: How do you measure success? Do you feel you’ve reached that point yet?
A: The definition of success is very personal, and it changes. It’s a combination of goals, combined with general happiness and well-being. My goals are slightly different now that I have kids and a family. I feel successful if the journey to achieving my goal was fulfilling. I’ve always wanted to be in a position to create jobs and help people, and we’re doing that right now at Oak City Labs. At this very moment, I feel some level of success, but I don’t feel done. In running, there’s always another race to run, another course to tackle or more distance to conquer. For me, success is very similar.
Q: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started your company?
A: I wouldn’t change anything that we’ve gone through as a company because we’ve learned so much and met so many people along the way. Part of the process is learning and adjusting. If I have to choose something, I would have told myself to learn sales early on.
Q: What are you proudest of in your career so far?
A: The people I’ve had the opportunity to meet, work with and learn from.
Q: What advice would you give other female entrepreneurs? What can they take away from your experiences?
A: Spend time figuring out your strengths and put yourself into situations that allow you to continue growing those strengths. I’ve lucked into a lot of opportunities, but I do wish I had spent more time focusing on my strengths and ignoring people that focused on my weaknesses. Also, as a mom and entrepreneur, there isn’t really “balance.” If you stop trying to achieve it, you will figure out how to adapt. My idea of making things work would probably drive some people crazy, and that’s okay.
Know an amazing woman entrepreneur whom you think should be considered for this series? Send Shawn an email.