Alicia Castillo Holley is a Silicon Valley Angel Investor, world renowned speaker and serial entrepreneur. Her story is fascinating, and she is supporting female entrepreneurs and small business owners learn how to get funded through her online program Women Get Funded.
We sat down with Alicia to talk about her work and the path she took to achieve her success.
What inspired you to create Women Get Funded?
I was tired of hearing the negative narrative about women’s lack of access to capital, and I realized I was spending a lot of time mentoring and giving feedback to women that were making basic mistakes. To have an impact, I needed to provide training, not just coaching for few women in Silicon Valley. Women get funded when they know how, so I developed a training program and made it accessible to every woman with access to internet. As a matter of fact, I just came back from India where I launched the program.
This program is valuable for anyone interested in securing funding, yet it has some specifics for women. As women, we have to go one extra step and overcome the fear of not knowing how to react in certain situations. Other circumstances are common to most entrepreneurs.
In the program, we needed to include two considerations specific to women:
- How you talk to yourself
- How to manage uncomfortable conversations
The rest of the sessions are gender agnostic, and are about tools and skills: such as how do you raise money from family and friends, angels, crowdfunding, and VC’s, as well as many other funding mechanisms. This is critical because raising funds is not a set of unrelated events. It is a process, and unless you’re prepared, you’re not going to succeed in the long run, you can also ruin relationships and, your cap table, for example.
What does being a Latina in tech (#LatinaGeek) mean to you?
I always felt out of place, not only because I’m a Latina, but also because I’m an engineer, I don’t fit into any boxes. This makes it hard for people to make sense of who I am, because of preconceived notions and it takes a while for them to realize that I don’t fit the stereotype of a Latina.
It is refreshing to see how these stereotyping is changing. Today, I don’t feel so different, but 35 years ago, the goal of life as woman was to have kids. I like having kids, but that doesn’t define me. Because people didn’t know how to react to strong-willed women, many thought I was going to fail. I come from a very small town in Venezuela, and doing unusual things became my norm.
For example, I had the first computer in my town because we needed to find a place for some cows and ending up trading them for a computer that was new, but laying around on a farm, because no one knew how to make it work. I always liked gadgets as a kid, so I took it on. I remember those days when we were fascinated by the screen which showed a c::/ in green over a black background. I had learned Fortran IV in college before, and thought maybe I could do something. Well, I couldn’t but I tried many things, and soon after friends and some people from my town started visiting to come see it in our house after church on Sundays. We also had a baby donkey my husband had gotten, and it was a typical and surreal experience, to have friends come to see the donkey and the computer.
That was my first relationship with a computer.
A few years later I worked for Bayer&Shell Joint Venture and automated much of my work with the department’s ONLY computer. That freed up a lot of my time and reduced a lot of mistakes.
I had no clue learning programming would be so important for me, but the reality is when you learn coding, you can communicate much better. When you talk to people there is the potential error of interpretation. When you code, you have to be so clear that it helps you communicate better. It helps you be attentive to details and understand what’s important or what’s not. It also helps you recognize mistakes and fix them instead of wasting time on whose fault is it.
Being an engineer makes me extremely objective and it permeates into everything I do in life. It helps me delegate, it helps me improve, measure myself, and be aware of patterns. Being able to identify patterns helps me navigate easily through difficulties and challenges, and strengthen my resolve or justify giving up, because letting go is also important.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve overcome to date in your entrepreneurial journey?
My biggest challenge was to trust myself. I come from a socialist family and country, so I wasn’t even aware of the concept of entrepreneurship until my mid 30s when I attended Babson College for my MBA.
Being financially successful was seen as bad in my home country, Venezuela, because it meant you’ve taken away from someone. We tend to think that the only way to get ahead is to take from others, and entrepreneurs don’t have the best reputations, because their success is made by causing damage. Living and visiting many countries I see that perception in some cultures. Here in the US, the view point is completely different, and there are many successful people that do great things for many people, and entrepreneurs create wealth and cause a great positive impact in the community.
I didn’t see entrepreneurship as way to make money, I saw it as a vehicle to make transformation in the world. For me having a company was more about creating a transformation. When you are clear about the status quo vs new possibilities, you realize you can create a new paradigm, a new reality… a new status quo, and go to make that dream a reality.
Once I overcame my mental barrier of questioning whether I could do this or not, every step was a opportunity to learn. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve chosen the wrong partners, or been ahead of market, and I’ve failed many times, but I’ve also won many times. I am the type of person that tries and learns during process, the engineer in me thinks, plans, acts and improves.
What is some advice you would give to other women to overcome these obstacles?
I think everyone needs to understand how the human brain works, my understanding of neuroscience and how we are wired has been very important in my career. Understanding how the brain works can help you identify anchors that hold you back and which are usually invisible to you. You feel stuck and can’t move forward, unless you uncover these anchors. Once you realize you have an anchor that is weighing you down, you can go back and let go and move forward. But on the other hand, is the inspiration that propels you to move forward. The combination of letting go of your anchors and letting your inspiration propel you is a great one.
What inspires you?
Life in itself is inspiring. When I was 13 years old, I fell off a horse and was in a coma several days, when I woke up I realized my gift was life, life itself then inspires me.
I had to learn how to walk again, and realized the way we physically look is ephemeral. In Venezuela, at that time, women had to be pretty to be worthy of anything, I was inspired by being alive.
When you have an Internal locus of control, because you are inspired from within, you can live with a much deeper meaning, that helps you take more risks, build a repository of inspiration inside of you so don’t have to look outside. A lot of high impact entrepreneurs have this repository of inspiration, when you learn to look inside, you start doing things that are better for you and that have impact, then life has meaning, and you become self-inspired. That is extremely powerful.
I am also inspired by so many invisible heroes, such as teachers. They are unrecognized around the world, a teacher at a community college for example, has a difficult challenge, yet they go and give their best to the world without having to be visible to the world. I’m inspired by poor people around the world that do their very best every day, they face real challenges of survival or discrimination and yet give their best. These people are all around us. I am in constant awe of so many signs of inspiration that go unnoticed.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way?
The hardest lessons led me close companies. Realizing that I had made mistakes and brought on the wrong people, led to difficult choices such as letting go of an entire team and shutting down the company. This is a different kind of lesson, not transformational, but very important. It has made me much more careful about who I bring along with me to the party.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t be so hard on yourself and spend more time with your kids. I’m making up for it now though, with my children and their children. We have a family tradition go somewhere in the world for two weeks, we make the decision together and enjoy spending those precious days.
What paradigm shift would you like to see for women in the world?
We have to stop the objectification of women. I see my daughter and granddaughters have this huge pressure to be cute and nice and caring. This is brainwashing girls to feel that they always need to be kind, cute and pretty when sometimes you don’t want to be. Sometimes you want to be aggressive and that’s not acceptable. Also, everyone has something to say about how you look if you are a girl or a woman. What nonsense!
As a society it’s important to think about what we are imprinting on our children. We can’t tell a boy he is pretty or kind, and can’t tell a girl she is competitive or smart.
How do we change the conversation around boys and girls? We have to think about what these subtleties are doing, and I would love for younger generation to make these changes. Boys can be sensitive, girls can be insensitive. Being a boy doesn’t mean not having compassion, being a girl doesn’t mean not showing aggression, we need to find a balance.
What’s the strongest skill female entrepreneurs need to nurture to thrive?
Be assertive and to listen to others. Assertiveness is about being secure with what you are doing. We are constantly being told how we should feel, what we should do. We need to strengthen our sense of self.
Women also need to understand how to create a channel of trust to receive feedback, it’s very hard to receive feedback because most people (men and women) don’t feel they can express what they think without being ‘mean’. Yes, it can be hard for us to take harsh criticism, but as an entrepreneur, it’s important to be able to take feedback and also to make others feel safe in giving you harsh criticism and be able to give you comments that can dramatically improve your business model. We don’t teach women to be tough, so many opportunities of learning are lost.
I see that also in my communication. These days I ask for permission to give criticism, but this is coming from place of respect and nurturing.
As a female entrepreneur, it’s important to create channel of trust so people can tell you what “they” think you need to know. That was my secret for my venture fund, I was able to create Chile’s first seed capital fund, mostly because every time I finished a funding meeting I sat down to evaluate the feedback. I kept tweaking the model until it became an irresistible proposition.
It doesn’t mean losing the essence of the business, it means continuously improving your business model until becomes an amazing business, and the truth is people will tell you how to make a great business, if you allow it.
Who is your hero and why?
My dad was a hero, he passed away in January. He was alway in good spirits, and the last four years of his life he was deaf and blind. Yet, he would play mental games, and created a language through touch. He was a scientist, always intrigued with biology, exploring new ways to stimulate learning and making things fun, he was grateful for everything in life.
Another hero of mine was Czech insect evolutionist, Bohumila Bechyne, who was our neighbor and had a huge influence in my life. She was 40 years older than me, and was so eccentric! My kids loved her to pieces, and she would teach them how to talk to frogs – we ended up having a wild toad too – Mila had a moth-shaped car and never learned Spanish well, so we spoke mix of Spanish and German, but our conversations were amazing. She was an incredible artist and had magnificent drawings of insects, which is how she got into studying them.
She never had kids and her husband passed away when I was a child. She was always reinforcing the need for people to trust themselves, and was very assertive.
She encouraged me to be courageous, and to stop caring about what people thought.
One of the best gifts she gave me was the reassurance that I could walk by myself in the Cloud Forest. I loved walking in the forest, but it was dangerous, there are scorpions, snakes, and thieves. She said “you need space to find out what drives you, and find your inner strengths.” With a great sense of humor and practicality, she gave me a jar of cyanide to break and ‘defend’ myself and told me to go in morning because thieves are sleeping in morning. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was making me trust myself.
It was eye opening to understand that you can always find a way to turn a problem around. A problem doesn’t define you, you can always do something about it. With Mila, there was a constant reinforcement to feel good about yourself and gain confidence.
It is a great time to be an entrepreneur and there are and more people supporting those who are willing to work towards building and growing companies.
What are you looking for help with today? How can we help you achieve what you want?
I want to encourage more women to get funding, because I think being an entrepreneur is an extraordinary career choice for women, well, for anybody. It provides great financial rewards, flexibility, earns you respect, and bridges the pay gap.
You learn so much by being entrepreneur, you learn to collaborate, you grow and learn from hard lessons, you are accountable, respectable. It creates good moral values.
I want to encourage more minorities, not only women, to create and grow companies. I also want to invite more women to join us at Women Get Funded. Com because like anything in life, if you are not prepared, it takes you longer to reach your goals, and you might not reach them at all. You can join us on Facebook at Women Get Funded. We will also be launching a similar program for the general population and other minorities coming up next year.