What One Female Entrepreneur Has Learned From Being Underestimated

Amber Wanner, Founder of CandiDate, shares how she responded after receiving a condescending message on LinkedIn.

Amber Wanner, founder of CandiDate, started her company when she was 22 years old. Today CandiDate works with 80 tech compani
Amber Wanner, founder of CandiDate, started her company when she was 22 years old. Today CandiDate works with 80 tech companies in the Philadelphia area and has a database of thousands of candidates.

In today’s world people are more connected than ever through the internet and social media. While it can be a great way to meet people that you wouldn’t otherwise meet, it also opens individuals up to harassment that they may not have experienced if they were meeting people face to face. A 2014 report from Pew Research Center states that 73% of internet users have witnessed online harassment. They define harassment as “being called offensive names, efforts to purposefully embarrass someone, being harassed for a sustained period of time, being physically threatened, being sexually harassed, or being stalked.” This study looked at harassment that could be seen publicly, but if people are willing to say those things online where everyone can see them, what is happening in private messages that we can’t see?

Amber Wanner, Founder of CandiDate, a tech recruiting firm with a twist based in Philadelphia, PA, decided to publicly share a condescending private message she received after some encouragement from a friend and the response she received took her by surprise. She shares with us what happened after her post on LinkedIn went viral.

Your idea to help people reach self-actualization through fulfilling Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is so unique. How did you come to the realization that the Philly tech community needed this?

After learning about Abraham Maslow in school and his Hierarchy of Needs I really took an interest in the intricacies of what allowed someone to ultimately reach that highest point of Self Actualization. In my own life I recognized a pattern: among friends, family, and strangers. It was very simple. I found that someone with a great job may be missing something from their personal life, and someone who was happy in their personal life may have been missing something in their professional life. How could one possibly reach Self Actualization if one of those were lacking?

While I was going to school, I was working at a technical recruiting firm and found that I knew everything about my candidates that I was placing in jobs. I became so close with them that they would often confide in me and say, “You found me this awesome job, I’m finally in a great place in my life, now if only you could find me a spouse.” They said it semi-jokingly, but mostly serious. I thought that if I could help fulfill the area of my candidate’s life that wasn’t fulfilled, I could help them to ultimately reach the highest peak of Maslow’s pyramid. At first it was something I did as a hobby, setting my candidates up with my single friends and such. I mean after all, we had already done their background check, checked their references, and we knew they were financially stable. It soon became apparent that there was a demand for it and that we had an untapped market here, combining recruiting with matchmaking, jobs and love.

I couldn’t imagine starting my company anywhere other than Philadelphia, and as the former mayor put it, Philadelphia is a “small, big city”. Philly has such a great startup tech community, but one of their challenges, similar to most small cities that are up against the Silicon Valleys of the world, is finding good tech talent and more importantly, retaining it.

CandiDate’s motto is, “A job may bring you somewhere, but love keeps you there.”

You mentioned during our chat that it took a couple years of sitting on this idea before you took the leap. So often we come up with an idea and then hold ourselves back from making it a reality until we are sure it is a good idea. What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome between the time you thought of the idea and the time it came to fruition?

One of the hardest parts of going out on your own is taking that initial leap. Walking up to your boss and saying “I QUIT”. While it may be the most exhilarating feeling ever, it’s also the most frightening. A million things are running through your brain. For me it was something along the lines of:

  • “WTF am I doing right now?”
  • “Omg, Omg, Omg!”
  • “How are you going to pay your bills?”
  • “You must be crazy!” (and it’s true, that was the day I realized that I was, in fact, crazy.)

I couldn’t help but replay the quote “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” over and over in my head until I walked out of my boss’s office.

As I walked out, I held my head up high, just long enough to make it to the elevator, and then burst into tears. The next day I signed a full-time lease at Starbucks, not really, but might as well have been. I spent all of my time there from open to close, sipping coffee VERY slow so they didn’t think I was loitering. It was 8 months later when we got an investment, and by May 2015 CandiDate was operating in an office in Philly and we hired our first employee.

What is CandiDate's mission and how are you fulfilling it in the Philly community?

CandiDate has a two-fold mission. Our goal is to fulfill the aspect of our candidate’s life that is not yet fulfilled, whether it’s professional or personal. It’s not exclusive to either side of the service, so if you’re in tech and just looking for a job, or if you’re in tech and just looking for a date, we will help with either. We look to build confidence in our candidates, and allow them to grow based on experiences and constructive feedback so they can reach their full potential.

We currently work with about 80 companies here in Philadelphia and most of our business has been word of mouth. We do many events where we bring the tech community together and work on open source projects as well as talks on trending technologies. Our goal is to bring people from other cities to our “small, big city” and help build and grow these startups.

What is up next for CandiDate?

While we will always be “Made in Philadelphia”, the next step for CandiDate is to expand to other cities. Once we are fully established in one city we will be able to set up the proper processes and procedures to duplicate and scale to multiple cities. We want other “small, big cities” that have growing startups to be confident they CAN hire talented candidates without feeling like they have to leave to find talented engineers due to lack of skill or resources. Love is not the only solution in retaining employees, but CandiDate allows them to grow roots and establish a sense of community. You can often get lost in the shuffle of larger cities, we have found that small cities are easier to navigate.

Recently you received a message on LinkedIn from someone who was looking for a job that stated "I am sorry you look to be about 22 years old. Way too young for this industry. Cute but not worth spending time. I wish you the best of luck. Modeling would be better for you as a biz." What advice would you give to other women to help them overcome this type of sexism and ageism as they start their businesses and are exposed to the opinions of people who don’t know them on the internet?

Up until I received that message, I barely allowed the sexist and ageist comments that were thrown at me get to me, and trust me, there have been a plethora of them throughout my career. I’m used to taking them with a grain of salt and didn’t think twice about who or where they were coming from. Similar to being catcalled, I would not let them phase me, not today. I’ve always operated with the mindset that nothing can get in the way of my vision and goal for my company.

Starting a company and growing it from infancy is not easy. There are a ton of obstacles and challenges you’re going to face outside of the ridicule of people who don’t even know you. This was the first occurrence that really stopped me in my tracks and opened my eyes. After I posted it, I saw firsthand how wrong that message really was. I almost didn’t share it, in fact, I almost deleted it all together as if it never happened. I didn’t want people to believe it was actually true: that I was too young or that they would start doubting my abilities because I am a woman. It wasn’t until a friend of mine, who I initially sent a screenshot to, told me that posting my story could really help other women and people from all walks of life who are wrongfully judged at first glance that I thought I should share it.

The advice that I would give other women and people starting businesses is to fully understand your value. Be confident in your talent and what you bring to the table because as you make your way to the top, there will always be people trying to bring you down.

You received quite a lot of feedback from speaking out about this message. What was the overall message from the online community and what was the most surprising response you received?

When I posted it, I certainly did not expect it to touch as many people as it did. I learned very quickly that the Internet is a powerful place. Within the first 48 hours, the post had 168K views, hundreds of comments, and messages from people all over the world. They shared personal stories about how this post gave them confidence to stand up to people in their professional lives who bullied them and doubted their abilities.

While a majority of the comments and messages were positive and encouraging, there were some negative ones as well, primarily because I chose not to disclose the name of the man who sent that message to me. By outing this man, I would be responding with hate, and that does not make me any better of a person than the man who sent that message to begin with.

In life and in business, we are going to have to make tough decisions that could hugely impact others. My sister was severely bullied in high school and it follows her to this day. My advice would be to think before you say something and respond rationally and not out of anger or emotion.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a company?

If, you have a great idea and the one thing that might be stopping you right now is the thought of “What if”, for instance, “What if no one likes my idea? What if it doesn’t generate enough money? What if I’m a 22 year old female in a male dominated industry and no one takes me seriously?”

Instead, ask yourself “What if I don’t?”, because rest assured, someone else will.

More information on CandiDate can be found here.

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