Leah Busque ’01: ‘Now, We Are All Founders’

Commencement address 2016

Leah Busque '01
Leah Busque ’01

Sweet Briar has offered us all a very special, very unique gift: what could be the most important leadership lesson many of us will ever tackle. This experience has given us all an opportunity to step up in a way that we wouldn’t have before. The opportunity to examine our core values, to take control of our future, to prove that the impossible is just another problem to solve.

Ultimately, because of this experience, we have earned the right to crown ourselves with a new title, a new identity, a new piece of our being that we may not have even known was inside us. Now, we are all founders. The faculty, staff, administration, alums, parents, community … and especially this historic Class of 2016: We are all founders now.

In 1906, the College opened with 51 women: the pioneers of their day. They were the first founding class. 110 years later, we celebrate 82 women who have boldly chosen to take a stand to renew this institution. You are the second founding class, following in the footsteps of our original founder, Indiana Fletcher Williams. This class declares that education dedicated to women is relevant and important.

As the founding class for the next century of women, you have earned — as we call it in Silicon Valley — your “Founder’s Badge.” Welcome to this very exclusive, very elite club. This is a club you can’t buy your way into. It’s not something you can slowly work your way up to. Being a founder is something that you experience, something that you own, something that you earn. You all have made sacrifices and taken risks, and you have the battle scars to prove it. You’ve plowed ahead, regardless of whether what’s around the corner is the highest of highs or the lowest of lows. It’s imperative that we all recognize and celebrate the giant leap of faith you took to ensure this founding class graduates today. Now, we are all founders.

I am so glad my parents and family could join me here today. It’s been almost 20 years since my mom and I made the 12-hour drive down from Boston for Accepted Applicants Weekend. I remember everything about it, especially those tense moments maneuvering the rental car through the Blue Ridge Mountains, the twists and turns of Route 60. I remember looking at my mom and thinking, We are not in Boston anymore.

But as soon as we turned into campus and drove up that gorgeous tree-lined drive, surrounded by meadows, and forests, and even deer! I knew. I knew this is what I wanted my college experience to look like and feel like. This was where I belonged. Where I belong. My daughter is here as well — Congratulations, Class of 2035! — and I can’t wait until she is old enough to understand this dramatic story of heroism, activism and achievement. I will tell her about my home on these 3,300 acres and these 82 female founders who came back to their school and paved the way for her to be here. And I will try very hard to convince her that there are more students than deer.

In 2008 I founded my own business. I was seven years out of Sweet Briar, working at IBM as a computer programmer, and I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. (Honestly, sometimes I still don’t feel like I know what I’m doing. Don’t tell my investors). Today, I want to share with you three lessons. I happened to learn them as a founder, but trust me when I tell you that these lessons are pertinent no matter who you are, what your passions are, or where life takes you.

Lesson #1: Know your founding story

Lesson #1: Know your founding story. Because you’re a founder now, you must have a founding story. Lucky for you: you saved your college. That’s not a bad start for a founding story! But now you have to craft it. You have to apply it to who you are, what inspires you, and what you believe in. You can use it to propel you forward.

This is a story that you will tell about a trillion times, to every single person you meet. Friends. Family. Employers. Mentors. Investors. Advisors. On job interviews. People sitting next you to on the bus. You will be able to recite this story, perfectly from memory, every time in the same exact way. You will get sick of hearing yourself tell this story, and you will love it.

Every good founding story has 3 parts – 1) A personal back drop, 2) A moment of inspiration, and 3) an innovative path forward.

My founding story started eight years ago during a cold winter night in Boston. It was 2008. My husband, Kevin, and I were sitting in our kitchen, getting ready to go out to dinner, when we realized we were out of dog food. Kevin is also in technology, so we always had these very geeky conversations in the house. That night, it turned into …

— that was my personal backdrop —

… wouldn’t it be nice if there was a place online we could go, say we needed dog food, name the price we were willing to pay? We were certain there was someone in our own neighborhood that would be willing to help us out, maybe even someone at the store at that very second; it was just a matter of connecting with them.

That was my moment of inspiration.

Now this was 2008. The dark ages. The iPhone had just come out, no one was utilizing location-based technologies yet, and Facebook was just emerging out of the college scene. (Yes, I was at SBC without Facebook!). But as a technologist myself, I became passionate about merging together these three technologies — social networking, mobile technologies and location awareness, to connect real people in the real world, to get real things done. Now, we’re even doing it in real time!

That was my innovative path forward.

Eight years later, my company TaskRabbit has raised $50 million from top-tier Silicon Valley investors, expanded into 20 cities across the country, opened an international market in London, and helped define an industry widely known as the Sharing Economy. It all started on that cold winter night in Boston. That is my founding story.

Think about what your founding story is and how this past year at Sweet Briar has shaped that story for you. Get clarity around this story and be ready to shout it from the rooftops. This is the gift that SBC has given you: concrete proof that you are tenacious, you are mission-driven, and you will persevere. Make no mistake: This is rare for anyone, especially a woman of your age. This is a tremendous asset, so use it. You have proven yourself today more than any other graduating class in history. When people hear your founding story, they will commend you, reward you and want you to be a part of their team. Most important: They will want you to lead. Go out and use this story to show the world what a force you can be!

And, oh yeah, Kobe, our dog, did get to eat that night. We gave him some extra treats in his bowl and he was happy.

Lesson # 2: Have Big Hairy Audacious Goals, but take baby steps

Lesson #2: I want you to have Big Hairy Audacious Goals … BHAGs. BHAGs are the kind of goals that are so outrageous, so ambitious, that it is almost crazy to consider them. I picture these goals like one of the characters from that book “Where the Wild Things Are”: patchy purple fur, a large green, troll like nose and bright yellow eyes. This beast wears a giant golden crown as she tromps around the jungle, blazing everything in her path.

You may feel compelled to keep this beast hidden in your closet; you may not even dare to whisper the crazy ambitions of this outrageous animal. But if it makes you uncomfortable, you’re on the right track. If people think you’re crazy, unrealistic, or too ambitious, that’s when you know you are aiming high enough.

At IBM, my team was made up of predominantly men, and I was easily the youngest by about 20 years. I remember vividly the day that I was told I was “too ambitious” by a teammate. I thought, “too ambitious” … is that a thing? He said it as if having ambition was a negative thing. I was perplexed. Confused. Befuddled, even. Years later I realize, it is a well-studied phenomenon that men are celebrated for their ambition, while women are judged negatively for it, because it violates communal stereotypes.

That was a wake-up call! Not everyone has or appreciates ambition. When I founded a company of my own, I knew I would always challenge my team to have ambitious goals.

One brainstorming session, early on at TaskRabbit, we challenged ourselves to come up with one BHAG we wanted to achieve. What was something so outrageous that we all might laugh when we put it up on the white board? Someone said, “When President Obama posts a Task on TaskRabbit, that would be a great BHAG.” And yes, we laughed. All of us.

Well, fast-forward a few years: We have been invited to the White House multiple times, presented TaskRabbit to President Obama, and partnered with their Disaster Relief Team to offer our technology in times of crisis. President Obama has seen the app with his own eyes, and although he hasn’t technically posted a Task on TaskRabbit himself … many of his closest advisors have! So, I’m calling that a win. Besides, in eight months he’s going to have a lot of free time on his hands. Maybe he’ll start delivering groceries.

How many people thought saving Sweet Briar was too ambitious? That raising $21 million in 90 days would be too crazy? That it couldn’t be done. And yet … here we all are! Proof that you don’t mess with the Vixens!

But the truth is that while Sweet Briar has been saved, the work here is not done. We must continue to push forward so that this place can thrive for the next century of women.

I have a goal for this institution to be the premier women’s college in the country. Known for launching exceptional global leaders into the world.

I have a goal for women to achieve equal pay across all industries in this country in my lifetime.

I have a goal to fix the “pipeline problem” of not enough female engineers in the technology industry.

I have a goal for TaskRabbit to achieve intergalactic domination. Not just this galaxy … all the galaxies.

But I’m not the only one with BHAGs. Mark Zuckerberg wants to make sure affordable access to basic internet services is available to every person in the world.

Malala Yousafzai wants every girl (even if they are living in a war-torn country or surviving a refugee camp) to have access to 12 years of free, safe, quality primary and secondary education.

Now the key with these BHAGs, the same key to dealing with any purple-furred, troll-nosed beast, is: Don’t let them control you. The only way to tame them is to be realistic about what that process entails. I don’t wake up every morning and tackle revolutionizing work around the globe. I think: What can I do in the next 24 hours to move my business forward? Sure, tomorrow that could mean briefing the President on how TaskRabbit’s technology can help in a time of crisis. But maybe today that means taking out the trash. And that’s okay! You have to start somewhere. Dare to dream, yes, but make sure your dreams can be broken down into actionable pieces.

Oh, and also … It’s never a straight path from upstart to intergalactic domination. You are going to fail. If your goals are big enough, you’re supposed to fail. It’s what you learn from these failures that will push you closer towards your goals. Embrace the idea of working your way up from the bottom, taking baby steps toward your goals, and be okay with failing … just remember to learn something every single day. That will help move you forward.

So embrace those good-natured beasts that live inside of you. Keep your eye on them. Nurture them. Take small steps, every day, toward them. Live deliberately to carry out the vision for your life. Embrace those big hairy audacious goals and unleash them into the world.

Lesson #3: Be engaged in the world

Lesson #3: Be engaged in the world. Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. When I had the idea for TaskRabbit that cold winter night, I had already spent many months deliberately training myself to be in an entrepreneurial mindset. Frankly, I was getting bored at IBM and hungry for new ways of thinking and working. TaskRabbit was not the first idea I had thought about pursuing. My founding story is always told as a moment of inspiration, and it truly was, but it was also the many months leading up to that moment that prepared me to be open to this inspiration. I had to first be in that entrepreneurial mindset, and that is the less glamorous truth.

Thinking this way is not just for tech inventors and builders. It will serve you well across many aspect of your life, no matter what your aspirations are. But how can you skip years of wasted time and energy being on autopilot and train yourself to think entrepreneurially? A good friend of mine, Adam Grant, recently published a fantastic book called “Originals.” In it, he explores how everyone can be an original thinker and what makes for a successful entrepreneurial mindset. One of my favorite parts in his book is the concept of Vu Ja De, which is the opposite of Déja Vu. You know that feeling you get when you’ve experienced something before, but in reality it’s really the first time you’ve ever seen it? We’ve all had that feeling. It can be explained as a simple glitch in the matrix. Adam’s concept of Vu Ja De is the opposite of this. It is being able to look at the same thing hundreds of times, but have the ability to see it differently. It’s having a familiar experience, something you do all the time, but training yourself, your mind, to look at it from a different angle.

My Vu Ja De moment was when Kevin and I ran out of dog food that cold winter night. It wasn’t the first time we had run out of dog food. Poor Kobe had experienced this with our delinquent parenting before, though all 100 pounds of him proved we kept him very well fed! We could have just moved on, like every other time. We could have cooked Kobe a nice bowl of boiled chicken and rice, and gone out the next morning to retrieve his dog food. But for the first time, we deliberately decided to look at the problem differently. We actively refrained from going on autopilot and forced what turned out to be an exciting conversation on what was possible. At that moment of Vu Ja De, it all came together. Four months later, I had quit my job at IBM to build the first version of the site, and the rest is, as they say, history.

So be engaged in the world. Embrace every moment of would-be inspiration. Look for Vu Ja De moments. Train your entrepreneurial mindset and be open to these inspirational moments. Because as a founder now, you can have a real impact on the world — large and small. You all can.

And there you have it. Three life lessons: Find your founding story. Establish big hairy audacious goals. Be engaged in the world around you. It’s as simple as that!

I mentioned earlier that you are part of a very exclusive, very elite club. This is true. All of you are part of this — parents, professors, administrators; the entire community. Now, we are all founders. What is also true, particularly for this very special graduating class, is that as a female founder, you are part of an even smaller, even more elite club. You will consistently be in the minority for many of the paths that you follow. There just aren’t enough of us out there yet, but the numbers are changing, and your induction into this special club only helps those numbers.

Nevertheless, there will be roadblocks. There will be inequalities. Your ambition will be criticized. And you will be underestimated. Constantly. This can end up being a tremendous advantage for you! Most of the world will not see you coming, and that is a brilliant thing. You will stand out and capture the spotlight in a way that people may not expect. You will surprise them. Heck, you may even surprise yourself sometimes. Focus on following your story. Ignore the noise. Never worry if you are good enough to do something — know you are, and always act like it. Embrace that confidence that Sweet Briar has instilled in you. I know it’s there. I’m living proof.

Being here today with you has been such an incredible honor, a moment I will always cherish and remember. You all are truly an inspiration to me. Seeing you ready to go out and blaze your own paths in the world, particularly after the year that we’ve all had together. It really is special. For the rest of your lives, people will look up to you for being the most important kind of founder. Because if there’s one thing harder than building an institution, it’s rebuilding it, and we will, because we are all founders now.

Thank you!

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