Trailblazing Women: Nilofer Merchant, Author & Speaker

This interview is part of a series on Trailblazing Women role models (Entrepreneurs and Leaders) from around the world and first appeared on Global Invest Her. You have to see what you can be.

Nilofer Merchant, Author & Speaker
Nilofer Merchant, Author & Speaker

Nilofer Merchant, author of the new book ‘The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World’, is ranked by Thinkers50 as one of the world’s leading thinkers. She has personally launched more than 100 products, netting $18B in sales, has worked for companies ranging from Apple to Autodesk and advises many others.

Her visionary ideas have been recognized by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Financial Times, Fast Company, Fortune, Marie Claire, Vogue, O: The Oprah Magazine, Harvard Business Review, Bloomberg, CNN, Time, and Mashable. Her 2013 TED Talk “Sitting Is the Smoking of Our Generation,” is in the top 10 percent of TED’s most viewed talks.

Visit her website Read her blog and follow her on Twitter @nilofer

“When you stand in that spot in the world only you stand in, you are never a nobody. ‘Onlyness’ teaches that you always have something to contribute, add, care about. You are powerful beyond measure, even if the world has told you different. Onlyness is your way to access that power.”

Who is your role model as an entrepreneur? 

Robin Chase (Founder of Zipcar) is an executive I admire. One of the reasons I look to her, is she has actually built and shipped things—I really respect that. She has also done so in ways that her values are embedded in the culture of her firm. I respect her values of high trust, high performance for innovation and results. I look to her as someone who has raised money, built and shipped things and done so with such personal integrity that she can hold her head really high.

What is your greatest achievement to date? 

Two answers come to mind. 1) Writing ‘Onlyness’. It’s an interesting process writing a book, because somewhere in there I actually really wanted to stop. I was so scared that I wasn’t going to do it well, so I’d rather not do it at all. I’m proud of myself for going back and finding something much deeper in myself. The piece that was missing, that I hadn’t even understood, was that I wasn’t letting my own voice out, letting my own ideas shine, which is quite ironic given that I was writing a book about how you let your ideas make a dent in the world. I found myself not being able to articulate and find my own words and wanting to hide my emotions from it. So I’m really proud that I gave myself permission to keep working and eventually include that personal element.

Discovering What ‘Onlyness’ means: People often use things to describe who are you, based on things you can prove to them—i.e. credentials /job titles. Those things are very backward focused. I defined ‘onlyness’ as both your history and experience and your visions and hopes. I recognized that sometimes you have something that you can only imagine and dream of and can’t prove to anyone else, but that doesn’t make it any less real. In fact, it’s you saying, ‘I see something no one else sees’ that can define you and your future endeavours.

Those things that we can only imagine are the things that are going to rupture the status quo. So if we don’t make our wild ideas heard (which usually perpetuates the mostly male, heterosexual, white, rich, western European model), only a relatively small group of people gets to participate in the global economy. If we give ourselves permission to have a different set of ideas and share them, then a brand new set of solutions, activities and innovations are going to become real.

“That’s why we need to listen to our dreams more, even when we can’t prove them yet. Acting on those dreams is how we invent the future. The boldest ideas are the ones that don’t have an existing model.”

2) Learning about the power of trust: The first step of power is learning to trust yourself. I knew I wanted to write about trust for the book, so I studied groups of people who were willing to count on each other—that’s the key to scaling ideas. I looked at what was allowing them to trust each other. The big shift was, you have to first decide you are ok. Somebody said, ‘if you didn’t feel ok with yourself you were going to show up in the room and either strut or apologize’. It was such a great insight! You strut because you are trying so hard to prove you are allowed to be in that room, or you apologize because you feel you are not worthy to be in that room. You actually show up unable to let someone really see you. Now, whenever I find myself doing one of those two things, I say to myself, which of those is motivating me and think to myself – what is it I really want to demonstrate here?

“90% of power is you deciding for yourself who you are in the world, what your purpose or meaning is, what gives you motivation and to decide that regardless of what anyone says, that is true for you.”

A quote John Garner gave a long time ago really resonated with me; “The reason your life has meaning, is because you defined that meaning for your life.”

Can you appreciate accept and affirm everything that is already? When you stand in the truth of that, you are standing in a world only you stand in, which by definition is a strong place, because it’s your place. I don’t think there was just one “aha” moment for me, but a series of moments to see this for myself. The image I have in my head is that there is always a series of spirals around you. Sometimes you get closer to yourself and sometimes you wander away from your spot and you have to find your way back. Sometimes things throw you off course, pull you some other way. If we could only look inside ourselves and say “This it the thing I have to contribute, this is the special thing I would like to bring.” The problem is, we can’t see it, because whenever we are in the room we are constantly comparing ourselves to others, so we can’t see how special it is. This is where we need friends to tell us what they see in us.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman entrepreneur? 

  1. Women tend to get paid less overall, so that means we have to hustle more.
  2. We also get asked to do the emotional work of teams that we are part of, which means we have to work more and deal with the fatigue that comes along with that. If you are an entrepreneur doing all these things, who’s taking care of you? Are you earning enough money to make it all work? The level of hustle women have to do is sometimes a little too much, because it means you are not focusing on the things you can actually add the most value. That worries me as a woman entrepreneur right now.
  3. Being willing to ask for help. When I had decided to take longer to write the book, I wrote an email to my friend Susan Cain (author of Quiet). I knew she had spent around 7 years writing it, so I thought she might have some perspective to give me. It took so much out of me just write her that email, because I didn’t want her to think I wasn’t competent or capable! Instead of giving me lots of advice, she actually paid attention to what I said and found a line in the email where I had said I didn’t feel I had put my best work on the page. She said to me, “you actually know your own answer, because you know that you need more time to figure that out. Give yourself more time.” Often we know our own answers. What Susan did was really pay attention to what I was actually saying. That’s what good friends/colleagues/bosses do –witnesses who we are and acknowledge what we’ve done. We decapitate the person if we tell them our answer, but if we listen to their own answer and hand it back to them, they can listen to their own wisdom. That was such a gift of generosity Susan did for me in that moment.

For me the biggest challenge is remembering to ask for help, letting other people provide care and support. I’ve been used to being that emotional caretaker in so many situations, where I’m always looking at ‘how can I serve you’ instead of ‘what could you do to help me?’ I rarely ever ask that question, yet I probably should. We all should. People want to help, but we rarely allow room to create opportunities for that.

What in your opinion is the key to your success? 

  • Not to worry about where I’ve come from, but to really think about what I can learn now, what I do next, how do I just keep going. I came to America when I was 4 ½ years old. My parents divorced when I was two and my mother was extremely abusive, which meant that I got passed around because she didn’t know how to take care of my own interests. So I grew up with very little expectation that I would have my own opportunities in the world. I was expected to enter an arranged marriage, to serve the needs of my mother and be at the whim of other people. I left home at age 18 to avoid that. I wanted my parents to ask the prospective husband if I could get an education, and they wouldn’t, so I left the house and never went back. I took 3 jobs and learned how to put myself through school.
  • Learning to manage my rate of change. There was a moment in a calculus class when I realized ‘OMG, this is me!’ I didn’t understand why we had to learn calculus and thought it was the craziest class ever. I was sitting there, trying to understand the teacher’s explanation of the ‘why’ it was useful and suddenly I got it! Calculus is a measure of the rate of change. So in my mind now, I have the slope line and all I’m trying to do is manage the curve of that slope. I feel that if I can adapt faster, get up faster when I fail, ask better questions, these are the ways in which I can manage my rate of change. That’s why I feel I manage better than most people, because if I can do that, I can actually keep going up the hill. It doesn’t matter where I started, I just have to manage that curve line. Being willing to learn, means you have to admit to not knowing. We have to not know long enough, to give ourselves the chance to learn something better. The willingness to learn, take action and be persistent are the keys to anyone’s success.
  • The other thing I’m really good at is spotting patterns. A few years ago, I asked 10 people who knew me well but were not in my inner circle, what they thought I did well and many of the things they said overlapped. Spotting patterns was one of them.

For the ‘Onlyness’ book, I researched 300 stories to analyze and try to get to the repeatable patterns. Almost all the patterns had a couple of things in common. If I started on a timeline, with a scale of 1-10, I was catching them at 10 in their story and was asking them to rewind. They would go back to 4. I would ask them – ‘is that really the beginning?’ They would back up a little more and almost always, they were skipping the first 30% of the story. The reason was because it was un-provable. In that moment, there was nothing you could show and say ‘this is the thing’. So, for a long time, I kept nudging them backwards, because if you don’t acknowledge that 30% part, you are not creating the pattern that other people need to follow. Almost all of the interviewees kept that part quiet and I found it super interesting and wondered how much of it was about keeping it quiet from themselves.

I found a piece of research by London Business School (LBS) Professor Herminia Ibarra which she called ‘scaffolding.’ She said the reason you don’t go all out at the beginning is because it’s too much of a personal risk. Let’s say you are doing X today but you also want to work on Y. Why would you leave X? How are you going to make money at Y? What happens is, you don’t even know what Y fully looks like yet and can’t really explain it because it’s too early. So Ibarra said building a new identity is like building a new house. In order for you to go live in this new house, you have to go build it out first. You set up the structures, make it safe enough so you can go and inhabit the space. I said to myself ‘that’s what we’re doing!’ We are actually keeping it really quiet, on purpose, because we are testing out what the shape of that space will look like, what would the parameters be, how would it be safe enough for me to go into it and live there.

“We have to live in that other space where we are actually working at the problem, developing proof of concept, getting a running start, before we can make the big hurdle. If we don’t give ourselves credit for what that period of time looks like, we don’t actually know how to repeat that pattern.”
  • Asking for help: Now I’m getting better at asking my friends and family to take care of me, by letting them do some of the organizing for me. For example, I have a 16 city book tour coming up and some of my friends are organizing the logistics side of things, so I only have to show up at a certain time and place and don’t need to worry about actually organizing the event too. I appreciate that so much, because I don’t want to be the one to make decisions all the time. It’s important to learn to ask for what you need, so others can take care of you.

If you could do 1 thing differently, what would it be? 

I wish I could go faster somehow. I keep having this sense of – why is it taking me this long to figure something out? I guess the real answer is, I wish I was less hard on myself, because everything takes its own amount of time. If it’s taking that amount of time, it’s for a reason. I often think ‘why is this so hard?’ When I was preparing my talk for Inspirefest, it took me so many cycles to get it right and I was saying to myself ‘did I not pass an intelligence test today?’ I was really frustrated, because it’s a very hard topic. Onlyness is something I don’t think anyone has cracked the code on, so why would I suddenly say ‘I wish I could do that faster?’ The answer is to relax and have less self-judgement during the process.

A coach once described the voice as a ‘tyrant’ and asked me how the ‘tyrant’ served me. I said it help me stay on task, get things done and she said ‘so the only way you’re going to get things done is because a tyrant’s beating you over your head? You’re not going to get it done because you love what you’re doing?’ I remember that moment clearly. You become motivated by that love of the ideas you are working on, because you see how you want the world to be and you want to build that into reality. It doesn’t happen because you hate something, it happens because you love something – you have give yourself more room to love instead of fear, exhaustion or that tyrant voice in your head. Be ok with everything. We don’t need to punish ourselves as we are doing the work we love to do. If we simply count on the fact that we love the work, we’ll do it.

What would you say to others to encourage them to become entrepreneurs?

I never really encourage people into entrepreneurship. It worries me a lot that business schools are really selling this notion of entrepreneurship.

“I don’t think you should actually be an entrepreneur. I think you should chase an idea that you think matters. Being an entrepreneur could be one way to turn that idea into reality, working for a corporation could be a way, you could finance other people to do it. I’m less fascinated by the categories and more fascinated by the ideas.”

One of the weird things that happened when I taught at Stanford Business School was that students loved to be ‘entrepreneurs’ because they were in love with the idea of being an entrepreneur, not an actual idea itself. I think this is the weird thing that is causing Silicon Valley to have its psychosis right now, where a bunch of people knew they could make more money by going into venture capital than they could in finance. So now all the douchebags who used to be in finance, have now gone to Silicon Valley. That’s why the current situation is like this. Because they want to be ‘entrepreneurs,’ not because they want to make the world better. When you get enough of those guys together, you get Uber and all that sexism in the industry that persists.

Chase what matters to you, and the rest of it is really mechanics. When you are in your career, once you understand the mechanics, it gets really easy. At the beginning of your career, you are so confused because you don’t understand the mechanics and think you should study them. Actually the smartest people who understand business, don’t need to understand the jargon of business, because they understand all the tools available to them.

The root of anything drives meaning – how will that meaning take form in the world, what are the business models you can do in order to do it? Start back at the root, and the flowers that emerge at the top of that will bloom beautifully.

How would you describe your leadership style? 

My big thing is to figure out how to enable other people. When I’m coaching TED fellows, I’m often working on having them learn their own wisdom. I don’t want to prescriptively give them answers. I want to ask enough questions, so that the person hears the tension of their own answers – ‘if you are saying this and this, which one is true?’ If they can understand their own issue, they won’t need me the next time because they’ll be able to spot it. I’m teaching them how much they actually know about themselves. That’s really what I do, by process of questioning - get people to understand the problem better.

I ran a strategy firm for 11 years and helped Nokia get rid of Simbia, helped Symantec defend against a $2billion Microsoft attack—complicated things. One of the things I realized, is that my team and I could have all the answers in the world, but it didn’t matter what I knew – what really mattered is what the client team understood to be true. I learned to sit down and figure out how to be in conversation with the leaders, so they had their own epiphany moment. The goal was to have the insight come from the team, so that it almost looked like we were barely there. Ultimately for them to get the idea to execution, they have to own it, understand it and be in their head – it can’t just be on a powerpoint. I noticed we would get brought in after McKinsey or Bain had been there, and they would show me the consultants’ slides, but they didn’t feel any interest in those ideas, because it was what the consultants had said. What I decided early on in my career with Rubicon, was: I’m going to get it so that you have your own set of ideas and I will be the enabler of that mechanism. Ultimately it must come from you, because you are the one who will draw it across the finish line. No idea is a good idea until it crosses a finish line. I couldn’t care less if I get paid $1 million for an idea. What I really care about is whether it’s executed, because ultimately, it has created the market value that it should. So I nudge instead.

What advice would you give to your younger self? 

Have less self-judgement because that would take the pressure off. It doesn’t matter if it takes you 2 weeks or 2 years, go work on the thing you need to work on. That self-judgement piece I talked about earlier, the ‘tyrant’ is a very self-hindering activity.

What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years? 

The research for ‘Onlyness’ has taken 5 years, so I want to see that through. I feel like I’m just about to strike the ball and see that idea go out in the world! I think it has a real opportunity to change how we think about the notion of talent, because we mostly categorise by people who are ‘qualified’, meaning, do you have the right credentials, title, initials after your name. I believe that talent is much more widespread than that. The opportunity for ‘onlyness’ – that unlocked capacity of every idea – to be unleashed in the world, is a real tectonic shift that we can make. I want to think about where are the places, levers, who can join me on this journey.

In the book I write about how you signal what you care about, and in doing so, you find the people who care about the same things as you. This is really key to starting to have the lever to move the world. That’s an idea in Chapter 4. This book is basically me now in Chapter 4, saying ‘this is what I care about, would you like to come be a part of this journey with me? How would we start to work on that?’ I feel like I’ll spend the next 5-10 years figuring this piece out.

“I think we have 30-40% of our capacity unlocked, which means all the creativity and solutions humanity needs right now, is still available to us. It can be about climate change, anything. It can be something that only we can see, and we get an opportunity to solve problems at local level, state, national levels. Right now, we are only seeing ideas from people who we expect the ideas to come from.”

3 key words to describe yourself?

  • Insightful
  • Doer
  • Articulate (I can give language to things others can’t give language to).

About the Author:

Watch Anne Ravanona’s TEDx talk on Investing in Women Entrepreneurs and learn more about her @anneravanona

Learn more about Global Invest Her @GlobalInvestHer

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