Women in Business Q&A: Kristen Hamilton, CEO of Koru

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today? "This is an ongoing process. I try hard to be 'always learning.'"
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Kristen Hamilton is CEO of Koru, a Seattle-based company that provides career training and coaching to recent college grads. Before serving as Koru's CEO, Kristen worked as COO of a global non-profit, launched mobile media devices for a Fortune 100 company and helped take Onvia, which she co-founded, public.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
This is an ongoing process. I try hard to be "always learning."

I grew up on a farm in Canada. We all want purpose and meaning in our work -- it's the human condition. However, I learned from a young age that hard work itself is meaningful because of how it makes us feel to fully commit ourselves to something difficult and get it done.

I had an insatiable curiosity and because of it, I learned by doing. I was always throwing myself into the unknown because I was curious or I wanted adventure. It taught me that failure is an important step in learning and growing. I would try something, often impulsively because it seemed interesting, make a mistake and correct it fast in order to keep going.

My current business, Koru, is founded on the concept of "learning by doing." And as a leader, one of my favorite mottos is "fail fast and cheap." Avoiding failure cuts off our opportunity for learning. Try things, and be willing to let go fast if it's failing. It's the only way to innovate.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Koru?
I took a year off before I went to college and lived and worked in Germany and Cyprus. That gap year gave me more real-world experience than my four years at university.

After college, I worked in consulting for a number of years. I was constantly building strategy, framing problems and needing to work harder than I thought possible. I then co-founded and scaled a company, Onvia, from an idea to a public company. I learned how important it is to be purposeful about building a culture and how hard it is to hire good people fast. I then worked for World Learning, a global non-profit, and Microsoft, with dozens of it's subsidiaries. A valuable lesson I learned from these large and dispersed organizations is that the most valuable information is closest to the customer, in the minds of those who are with them from day to day. I ask customer-facing team members a lot of open-ended questions, and invite their voices into conversations about things like product, marketing and strategy.

I learned how important a clear sense of mission is to the making of a great company, and that the ones I admire most are led by inspired, principle-driven people with a purposeful approach to culture.

I've brought a little bit of all these experiences to Koru. We are working on having a huge impact and solving a really big and important problem: obliterating the statistic that 53 percent of recent college grads are un- or underemployed. We've built something that leverages "experience" as the best form of learning, we have assembled the best possible team to solve this problem, and we've ignited a culture that's based on a set of principles we passionately believe in.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Koru?
The first years of running a startup that is working well are like a game of Whack-a-Mole. You just have one fuzzy hammer (limited resources) and there's always a field of problems that pop-up unexpectedly.

That being said, it's exhilarating. I've been awed by the commitment of our team, what we've been able to achieve in our first year, and the integrity and character with which we've done it. I'm especially grateful to have won the co-founder lottery. It's statistically difficult to find a good partner to start a company with. I think Josh and I have the right Venn diagram of similarities, differences, personalities, temperament and appetite for impact to make it a great match.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
I'd give the same advice to anyone wanting to start their own business.

First -- Choose a problem, not a product/service/solution. You can have a cool product idea, but all successful businesses solve a specific problem for a particular customer. Ask the potential customer about their problem for as long as it takes for the solution to start unveiling itself.

Second -- Be sure it's a problem you care so much about that it almost tortures you not to solve it. Starting a business is very hard and it will consume your life. Also, make sure you are aware of market trends, and land your business at the crest of a wave. It's hard enough to start a business. Don't make it impossible by working against nature.

Third -- Ask yourself what you are willing to give up to solve the problem and be really honest with yourself. You will make compromises and other aspects of your life will get less of your attention. I suggest trying to keep as much constant in your life as possible when you start a business, and be clear about what you'll give up to make room in your life for your newly beloved company.

Fourth -- Gather the brightest minds and hold an ideation session. One of the most important things I did was to make a list of all the people I knew (or wanted to know) who could help me with a first vision for how to address the problem. In our case, the problem was the 53% unemployment and underemployment rate of college graduates in the US. We had a two-day ideation session and in that time, we pushed thinking forward more than I could have in six months on my own. I also found my co-founder.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Anything is possible, but not everything is possible. Harness the best available information from the right sources, make choices and move forward.

That, and if you take your time to figure out what your dream is and share it with people you have developed an authentic relationship with, people will go out of their way to help you achieve those dreams, as audacious as they may be.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I stop pretending to. I forgive myself for letting the balance swing one way or the other, and try to make good choices. On his deathbed, my grandfather Jack's advice to his oldest son was: "Have Fun." Fun and love are two of life's most important ingredients. I try to honor Jack's wisdom and make more room for fun and love, and less for guilt and shame.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
This is something I am asked quite often, and I've realized that I have a different view than most Americans. An important caveat here -- I'm not an authority, and am still trying to figure this out for myself.

I think that the biggest issue for women in the workplace is worrying about women's issues in the workplace.

Some context first. I was raised in a place, Quebec, where women (particularly in the French culture) are, more often than not, running the show. There was a set of spoken and unspoken assumptions that we could do anything we set our minds to, as long as we worked hard for it. I remember my father, who raised me, telling me at a young age that I could be prime-minister of Canada if I set my mind to it. I never had any other context.

Here's what I think -- inequity problems won't be truly solved by debating or discussing issues. We should all be the future we hope for. I can't say what this means for others, but for me, it means always trying to be my best, assuming good intent in others and keeping my eye on the prize.
I'm not ignoring reality. I know the statistics. And when I say to be the future you imagine, there is nothing passive about it. I make a habit of shutting down haters. If someone is sexist with me in the room, I'll do what I can to call it out, even use positional and personal power to embarrass them if it's really bad. I'm choosing to envision (and create) a world where everyone commits to using whatever power they have in any circumstance to shut down prejudice.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
A great mentor of mine was the first venture investor in my first business, Nancy. She studied engineering in college, and was VP of Engineering at a top tech company and headed a top tier venture fund in Silicon Valley. She was the first woman I witnessed and experienced as an exceptional, superlative leader by behaving as an equal to those around her, and never letting the fact that she lived her whole career in a "man's world" be a factor. She inspired me to be who and how I am.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire lots of leaders, male and female, and tend not to put them in separate categories. The women who have inspired me in particular are generally trailblazers who I've had direct experience with and who I've witnessed as inspired leaders, especially in challenging times.

They are:
· Carol Bellamy, former head of UNICEF and my boss at World Learning
· Nancy Schoendorf, Venture Capitalist
· Judy Kirton, my riding coach
· Mary Gibb-Carsley, my grandmother

What do you want Koru to accomplish in the next year?
Two things -

Get the word out to every college graduate in the US that Koru is here to help them on the path to a meaningful and lucrative career.

Establish Koru as the most trusted source for high growth employers to hire top entry-level talent.

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