Privacy is the New Celebrity

Elle Black on Inclusive Prosperity and Breaking the Archetype of Successful Tech Leaders - Ep 28

June 30, 2022
Privacy is the New Celebrity
Elle Black on Inclusive Prosperity and Breaking the Archetype of Successful Tech Leaders - Ep 28
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, host Lucy Kind kicks off our "Women in Tech" mini-series with Elle Black, author and founder of Cobalt, a platform that empowers users to design, source, and manufacture their own custom products from high quality suppliers. Elle discusses  her work decentralizing manufacturing and fixing broken supply chains. Lucy asks Elle about the challenges facing women in tech.  Elle talks about how to break the archetype of the successful tech founder as male and the importance of sharing success stories about non-male founders. Lucy and Elle dig into the problem of women in tech being judged by appearances, and Elle expounds on the concept of inclusive prosperity and the importance of giving underrepresented groups the resources they need to thrive. 

Speaker 1 (00:03)
Hello and welcome back to Privacy is the New Celebrity, a podcast about the intersection of tech and privacy. I'm Lucy Kind, and today I'm super excited to kick off our Women in Tech miniseries. If you work in tech, you know it's traditionally been a male dominated world. And so for the next couple of episodes, we want to highlight the role of women in tech and the innovation they've worked to create. Kicking off the series today is Elle Black. Elle is the CEO and co founder of Cobalt, a platform that empowers you to design, source, and manufacture your own custom products from high quality vetted suppliers in North America. She's got loads of experience in design and product development, and she's also the author of the book Promiscuous Innovation: How Idea Development Works. Elle, thanks so much for joining us.

Speaker 2 (00:49)
Hi, Lucy, happy to be here.

Speaker 1 (00:52)
Thanks so much for being our first guest on the Women in Tech series. So tell us a little about your work. How did you get started in tech?

Speaker 2 (00:59)
Oh my gosh. How did I get started in tech? That's such a great question. I feel like most good things it was an accident. And I'm really going to date myself here. This is like 2007. I was working in an ad agency, specifically in PR, and there was this app coming up that was very cool that all our corporate clients wanted help thinking about called the Facebook. And because I just so happened to be the youngest person on the team, of course they were like, hey, Elle, figure this out. And I was like, you got it. And I actually learned, like I learned how to code using FBML, which is Facebook markup language. Wow. It's a funny thing. It's like an old school archaic way of knowing how Facebook was using HTML to code around and do things within the app. So, like most things that are amazing, it was a total accident. But I said, okay, let's do this and then let's see what happens. And now I can say I knew FBML way back when. And that was kind of the entryway into the wonderful world of tech.

Speaker 1 (02:07)
Amazing. So how did you go from being the local office expert on the Facebook to launching Cobalt?

Speaker 2 (02:16)
Oh, boy. This is a very long story. So then I ended up doing apps, which was also like sort of the next step in that direction because after everybody wanted after all the corporate customers wanted to have Facebook presence then everybody needed an app. And so I started to figure out how to do apps, how to launch platforms. And then a really interesting thing happened, which is we started getting all of these customers that were startups. And I realized that there was a hole in the market for services, for startups. And I ended up creating my first company, which was basically like an accelerator in 2011 to help people with ideas launch them really quickly. And that was my very first company. We did twelve apps or digital products in the first year and then we ended up getting acquired. Yeah, then we end up getting acquired. Amazing. Yeah, it was interesting. I learned a lot.

Speaker 1 (03:26)
You also recently launched Cobalt Marketplace last year. Right. Can you tell us about the company and what it's all about?

Speaker 2 (03:32)
Oh, boy. Yeah, Cobalt is a fun story too. So Cobalt is really, it's kind of my dream come true, to be very honest with you. I wish that I created this product a long time ago. Well, what ended up happening with Cobalt is that I started to see that all of these products were coming up through social media--products, small products, skincare, supplements, small things, were being launched on Instagram and TikTok and getting very popular very fast. So these are called like digitally native products or audience first products. And I started to realize there was a shift in commerce and the shift was away from traditional corporations to independent brands, from centralized R and D, to decentralized communities bubbling up their ideas and someone seeing what they wanted and actually being able to commercialize it. And so I started to realize that one of the hardest parts of all of this that was still missing was R and D or the manufacturing. So one of the hardest parts of making a product is actually getting it made. And so I had spent a number of years working with suppliers, manufacturers in the US. And I knew that those manufacturers and suppliers in the US wanted access to these very new digitally native brands, but they didn't know how to do it. And then I also knew that the brands, these digitally native brands, wanted access to the suppliers, but there was no way to do it. And then a very lucky thing happened. Covid. And Covid actually broke the supply chain. So it used to be, and today it still is, that 97% of products are sourced through Alibaba. But for these indie brands that ended up happening when Covid happened is all the supply chains broke and products were stuck in China. They were stuck in ports for seven months. And of course now there are tariffs and all kinds of other additional costs that didn't exist before, making sourcing from China almost impossible. And so, for the first time in a generation, brands are looking to the Americas to source their own products. And there is no place to go for that. And so that's exactly what Cobalt is aiming to solve, is to aggregate, organize, and make it really easy for independent brands, anyone with an idea for a product, to be able to find, source and order products from trusted vetted suppliers.

Speaker 2 (06:01)
Right here in the Americas, we're focused on Canada, the US. And Mexico specifically.

Speaker 1 (06:07)
Amazing. So it's like you're giving people the power to be able to create their own products in a way that's connecting them to brands and suppliers that they wouldn't have access to before. What a nice niche to fill.

Speaker 2 (06:19)
Yeah. This is where Cobalt has a very interesting intersection with privacy, because we have a community of about 7000 independent brands, and we talk to them regularly about what their problems are, what they need, how we can help them. And when we ask them what the challenges they have around sourcing, of course, there's all the classic stuff that comes up, right? Like, well, I can't grow my business, I don't have any products. My products are stuck in ports, my products are stuck in China. So I'm very worried about growing my business. That's obvious. One of the things that is probably a little bit less obvious, but that comes up in the top three concerns for these independent brands is actually IP. So independent brands do not, they are very hesitant to send their art files, to send their ideas to suppliers in China and abroad because there are no IP protections. And we actually have drop quotes from our independent brands saying, well, we're afraid of showing this product to a supplier in China because we don't want them to just rip us off and then sell this product directly at a cheaper cost under their own brand.

Speaker 2 (07:30)
This is one of the privacy issues that we see that as a global community. We're going to have to talk about how do we handle global IP? What does that look like? What are the rights to privacy? How do we handle these things?

Speaker 1 (07:42)
Yeah, definitely. It's an interesting issue to bring up. So for this little miniseries we're putting together, we want to hone in on how the experience of working in tech is different for women versus men. So I just wanted to ask, what do you think are some of the challenges for women entering this field?

Speaker 2 (07:57)
How honest can I be?

Speaker 1 (07:58)
Be as honest as you would like. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Speaker 2 (08:05)
Oh, boy, how honest can I be? I really want to figure out how to be very honest while also not complaining. I don't know if that makes sense.

Speaker 1 (08:20)
And it's like almost the things that women aren't supposed to complain, but I feel like if a man did it, it might not be seen as complaining. That's just me being really honest right there.

Speaker 2 (08:30)
Yeah. I won't sugar coat at all, it is very difficult and it's probably not even one very. It's probably two very's. It's very, very difficult. And I'm going to tell you exactly why. Because in Silicon Valley and the people funding startups, the majority of people funding start ups, what they're doing is they're pattern matching. That's how the human frame works. Right. So they're looking for patterns or signals from people that look the same to indicate potential success. Right. And so there are a lot of ways that females, women or non males, so to speak, are that are just a little bit different. That the typical pattern matching brain of those making decisions can't see. It's actually a blind spot. And that makes it really hard to be heard and seen. So it's really hard. Actually, you're catching me at an interesting moment, and I was going to correct this, and I don't even know, Lucy, if you know this, but I'm stepping down as CEO.

Speaker 1 (09:37)
I did not know that.

Speaker 2 (09:40)
It's an answer to your question. Cobalt has for a long time, needed a co founder, and I wanted it to be a male to try to give it the best possible chance. And so I ended up hiring a head of product. About six months ago, he came in. He's awesome. He's excellent. He's a former founder himself. He's grown a business to Series A, 12 million in revenue, raised 18 million himself. And then after he grew that business to Series A, he passed it off to a Series A CEO, turned around and said, you know what? I'm a seed guy. I go from zero to one. That's what I like to do. He found Cobalt. He said, I love this idea. I think it needs to exist in the world. So he came on about six months ago, worked really hard, and said, I'd really love to be the CEO and help grow it where it needs to go. And I said, I think that sounds great. So I'm going to step into the role of President. He's going to step into the CEO role, and I'm going to let him drive. And that's a big conceit for me.

Speaker 2 (10:49)
That's a big conceit for me. But the other side of it is and this is like, you know, women in tech, the other side of it is I want Cobalt to be successful. And if my and if me as a person, as a CEO is not the right person, that's fine. Let's find the right person to make it successful. I really don't have any ego in it. And I think that's the one advice that I would give everyone, especially females trying to break in and work in the industry. It's like trying to have ego in it and think about things in one, two steps. How can I make a win now? How can I make a win later? So that's number one. And number two in making this decision as a CEO. When I was making the decision to bring in Richard and elevate him to the CEO, I had to remind myself the role of the CEO. And the role of the CEO is to find the best person for the job, give it to them, and then get out of their way. When I took a step back and looked at the business and who was in the business and who is the best candidate for that, it was very clearly Richard.

Speaker 2 (11:52)
And so I said, hey, that's actually my job is to give away my job and help it grow. And so now I get to be in a role that I'm actually more excited about too. That's the other part of it, being president. I get to work with the customers, with the buyers and the buyers, and that's ten x more exciting for me.

Speaker 1 (12:09)
That's great. I'm glad that you found a way where you can feel your new role as president for you. I just want to double click on what you just mentioned about Richard being the best candidate. How much does gender and appearance have to play in him being the right candidate? Going back to what we were just talking about, about pattern matching and those that have the investment money being predominantly male.

Speaker 2 (12:31)
Yeah, my assumption is a lot. I think we'll know the answer to that in six to twelve months, you know, so I'm putting Richard in a CEO and then letting him drive the rest of our fundraising. So I'll know with hard data in six months to a year.

Speaker 1 (12:51)
Yeah, I totally see where you're coming from. And it's one of those things where you're like, I need to be able to adjust to what the system is like. But at the same time, how do we evolve that? Right now, only 24% of computing jobs are held by women. Women make up only 19% of tech senior vice presidents and only 15% of CEOs. So obviously a huge disparity there in gender. So as someone who is still currently part of that 15%, how do you think we can change this? How can we make tech more inclusive to women?

Speaker 2 (13:25)
We just need more and we need more resources and more support. But this is what's really hard about it, right? Because again, it's about pattern matching and so we need more stories. I've said this a lot for a long time and actually it's what Promiscuous Innovation is actually about. What we need is more archetypes. So right now, when you think about the classic founder story, Lucy, what comes to mind?

Speaker 1 (13:54)
Yeah, definitely. It's like the self made, in my mind generally, the self made young man who probably like, dropped out of school because he had a great idea and he was so bright and so great that he couldn't play by someone else's rules. But in my head, it's like a "he" pronoun that's narrating it and that's the archetype.

Speaker 2 (14:12)
Yes, exactly. And so unfortunately, in tech, we really only have male. The vast majority of the stories are "he's". We need more archetypes, we need more heroes, and we need more heroes that look differently and it will happen. It just takes time. But we need more people doing different things and we need more wins and more voices and just different archetypes.

Speaker 1 (14:36)
I totally agree.

Speaker 2 (14:38)

Speaker 1 (14:38)
Let's talk about your book for a second. Promiscuous Innovation. That's a fun title. What's it about?

Speaker 2 (14:44)
Oh, that's thank you. Well, the term "promiscuous" is really fun because it really means many inputs, many different places. And so the whole theory, my whole innovation theory about products is what we actually need is more. We need more voices, more products, more ideas. And when you think about that, it's really about, like, niche products. Right? So if you think about what I was saying before, the movement that we're in from sort of the old school way of products and brands and the future of products and brands, it used to be that we had mass produced products from big, huge conglomerate companies, and that was what we got as people. The theory of promiscuous innovation is we need actually more products, but different products, smaller products, not mass market niche products, but more people that actually have the problems that they want to create the products themselves. That's the future. And that's actually exactly what I think we need, not only in product, but also in tech. Like, in solving the problems that you're talking about. We just need more. We need access for more people to have smaller wins. Every win doesn't have to be a home run.

Speaker 2 (15:52)
And those, like, smaller wins are how we get the massive change that we're looking for.

Speaker 1 (15:58)
Definitely. It's like making a platform where everybody's ideas can be in a position where they can achieve a win. Getting them out there.

Speaker 2 (16:05)
Yeah, it's very inclusive. Right? So one of the things that I really like and talk about a lot in Promiscuous Innovation is an economic theory called Inclusive Prosperity. And Inclusive prosperity is really simple, and it's really about creating more chances for more people to be prosperous. And when I think about even Web3, that's what I love about it. Web3, as much as it's about, like, dismantling systems from the past, it's also about creating inclusive prosperity. How can we have more people with more jobs doing more things and creating and capturing the value that they're getting? Even if it's not a 10x win, it's a little value over and over and over again. And that's how you create this inclusive prosperity.

Speaker 1 (16:47)
Yeah, I love that term, inclusive prosperity. That's a good one. So we were talking about how to create more wins for women in tech and expanding those archetypes. But what are the specific tools that women need to succeed? Thinking back to your own days, creating this company, what resources did you wish you had that would have made this journey easier for you?

Speaker 2 (17:08)
This is like, less a tool and more like a tactic. But the one tool is something that I think about and try to do. I didn't have a lot of mentors. There weren't people, and there still aren't people pulling me aside and saying, hey, Elle, whatever the next thing is, I think you got it. So I want to help you. I want to be your mentor. And so I have to actively find my mentors and I have to actively recruit them and build my own advocate and mentor network.

Speaker 1 (17:37)
I feel you on that one.

Speaker 2 (17:39)
Yeah. So you have to build up and then turn around and pull someone else up. Right. So figure out how you can mentor the next generation. I think doing that would have been an awesome tool. There are a lot of tools, so to speak, communities trying to do this right now, and I think we're all trying to figure it out, how to help each other. The other thing about women in tech is that it comes in so many different shades, right. And it can be very challenging because women have different, obviously, roles, but they also have different paths. There are a lot of women that, women in tech with kids, women in tech without kids, women in tech with families, and there's all these different sorts of roles. And so for women, it's not as easy to find a large, it's not as easy for us to aggregate as women in tech in general, because they're all these fragmentations of it, so to speak. But I just don't think people with the pronouns "him" have to worry about they don't necessarily have all these other roles that they self identify as. We very rarely hear men being like, hi, I'm a father.

Speaker 2 (18:54)
I'm a working dad. They just are. Right. Women are like, I'm a working mom, and we got to move away from some of that and just be like, this is who I am.

Speaker 1 (19:07)
I love it. And it's like, through this mentoring, through this lifting up the next generation, we are creating more positive archetypes for women to just be who they are.

Speaker 2 (19:16)
Yeah. Because we need I mean, this is a Beyonce quote, so don't put these words out. You have to see it to believe you can be it.

Speaker 1 (19:25)

Speaker 2 (19:27)
Who do we look up to? Who we got? We need, like, a million different versions of I could be that when I grow up. I could be that when I grow up. I could be that in my career. And don't get me wrong, Lucy, there are definitely some kick ass women, and I try to find them, and I have a lot of people that really inspire me. But we need more. And that's the thing. Even just to think, like, Hey, Lucy, you inspire me. We don't need to have these zero to one founders that dropped out of college and made a billion dollar company in three years. We don't need that as the only archetype. We need all these other different models of success. What else does success look like in the space?

Speaker 1 (20:10)
Exactly. I have a quote, or I say, there's a million ways for things to go right. So if we have more different pathways that we can see, that we can follow, that would be such an inspiration. I'd love for you to tell us about your archetype. I'm sure your story is so different.

Speaker 2 (20:27)
I feel like my archetype is so different. So, first of all, I have everything going against me. When I started Cobalt, I was a female solo founder, non technical, which is like three strikes. Honestly, when people ask me like, why did you start Cobalt? And I'm like, well, even if it's not a bang of success, as far as I've gotten, I will be proud of it, because I'm at least an archetype for someone. There is some person somewhere who will be like, hey, if Elle did it and she's a female nontechnical solo founder, so can I. And the it that I did so far, I've raised by myself $3.4 million, gotten a product in market, gotten customers, getting ready to get it to scale and grow. And I'm proud of that. I'm proud of my wins and I'm proud of my failures, but I'm proud of it. I've grown and done something that a lot of other people haven't. And so that is an archetype that I like, and I've done it while being 100% me, which is in heels, my bubbly personality, and probably I wear makeup. Oh, no. That's who I am. And it's okay.

Speaker 2 (21:42)
It's totally okay. I'm not for everyone, and that's okay. And I think that archetype is I don't know, I'm very unlikely.

Speaker 1 (21:52)
I love it. It's like an archetype of authenticity, whatever that means to you, regardless of which gender it belongs to or where it fits you're just l. And that's great.

Speaker 2 (22:04)
Yes. I mean, this is funny because it comes to life in really funny ways, right? Like, I'm working on the deck for my fundraise right now, and you have to put a headshot in. And I have two or three different headshots, and I've gotten a lot of Lucy, do you know how many people give me feedback on my headshot?

Speaker 1 (22:20)
Oh, my gosh. Tell me how many.

Speaker 2 (22:22)
I think three out of four pieces of feedback from different people. 75%. Every time I get feedback. Maybe you should try a different headshot in black and white. Like, really? Truly. Or TechCrunch did a story when Cobalt went out of beta and the image that they chose was a headshot of me. And I remember I was like, Wow, that's what they want to do. I wonder why you would never see that with a male.

Speaker 1 (22:49)
That's so interesting. What was it that they picked? What does it look like?

Speaker 2 (22:55)
I'll send it to you. It's just like a headshot of me, but it's very clearly like, look, here's a female.

Speaker 1 (23:00)
Yeah, I'm looking at it right now. Producer Sam is just holding up a laptop with your picture, and it's like, Yeah, in the front. And you're like, Yeah, totally.

Speaker 2 (23:09)
Yeah. Like, Lucy, forget that I'm building. Like, forget that Cobalt, in theory, is like a billion dollar idea, right? Like, the Alibaba of the Americas. That's a huge idea. Totally. You know what I mean? Like, I'm taking on Alibaba. Forget that they put my picture on it because I'm a female. And I just remember being like, oh, why did they do that? I don't know. So there's like 100 little things like that that are these interesting little things that get in your head. And I'll be honest with you, the hard part is like, not being down on yourself, right? Like, I'm not going to lie, I get down on myself a lot and I'm like, Oh, my gosh, why am I trying to do this? I should just conform. I should just stop getting dressed up, stop wearing makeup, stop being me. Just do all the things to look like everybody else so I can get ahead. But I don't know, that feels wrong. So I don't. I don't know. Maybe don't put that part in there because I'm like, Lucy, it's weird, but it's true.

Speaker 1 (24:10)
I mean, I feel like we've been skirting around this issue that you and I are both aware of as well as probably any other woman in Tech, which is that there's so much about our looks as women that is talked about in a business setting. Like, you would never hear someone say, like, oh, yeah, I don't really like how his hair looks in that picture in that article. Nobody looks for that. But with women, it's like, that is like a point of critique when honestly, what they should be looking at is the business model, is the investment, is the idea. So I don't really know what the question is in this, but it's just more a statement that I think a lot of people see that, and it probably resonates. Yes, it's real.

Speaker 2 (24:52)
It's very real. And the other side of it, if we're going to be charitable in this conversation, we have to talk about the other side of it too. The other side of it. And people point this out to me is that like, because when that Tech crunch story came out, it really bothered me that they chose that headshot as the image. And I asked a couple of people about it, and I was like, tell me, help me think why this could be a good thing. And they were like, well, maybe what Tech Crunch is also trying to do is show more archetypes. And so if they're like, Hey, here, you know what I mean? And I'm like, you know what? I like that story. Let's go with that narrative. So it's both sides of the coin, but on the one hand, you want to think that we're making progress, and we make progress by showing more archetypes. The thing that my husband always reminds me is, okay, if you're going to be another archetype, you have to be okay with that. And you have to be okay with them saying, hey, look, here's this person that's super different.

Speaker 2 (25:48)
Here's this person that doesn't meet the norms. It doesn't look the way that you think that a tech CEO would look.

Speaker 1 (25:58)
Yes. And you're the badass. That's the part that's why I think that makes it an archetype.

Speaker 2 (26:02)

Speaker 1 (26:02)
It's like you have that headshot because it's something that represents your authenticity.

Speaker 2 (26:08)

Speaker 1 (26:08)
I totally could see how they picked it, in a way, to be like yes. And this is what you can look like to be a successful CEO.

Speaker 2 (26:15)
Yes. And it's funny too, because it's a badass thing. I really appreciate that. Thank you for saying that. When people always say, what do you think has been your superpower? Or what makes someone, like, a badass CEO or like, a badass founder? My personal advice on that, the one thing that I think that is my superpower is actually just like optimism. To do a start up, to be in the tech world, to be on the front of something new, you have to be resilient and you have to be tenacious and you have to not give up.

Speaker 1 (26:51)
Those literally the two words I was thinking to describe you. I've seen your journey over the last couple of years, how hard you work, how dedicated you are, and you are tenacious and you're resilient. Even though you know the deck is stacked against you, you are still like, hell yeah, let's do this. Because you believe in your idea.

Speaker 2 (27:09)
Yes, exactly. And that is a super power. And figuring out what your superpower is and then using it, I think it's also a huge, huge tool and something that lots of other women in tech should think about. Right. Because if you think about the superpowers that are traditional in tech now we're talking about things that are soft sciences. Right. Like tenacity. That's a soft science. Optimism, courage, those are soft sciences. But even if you, the tech world starting to catch on, right? Like Y Combinator, that's one of the things that they're teaching in YC. They're teaching those soft sciences now. Yeah. Like they're talking about that right now. Hey. The number one indicator for one of the top indicators for success not the number one, but one of the top indicators for success in the startup is how tenacious and dedicated and resilient founders are going to be. Because you're going to fail a lot. Yeah.

Speaker 1 (28:07)
It's like, how can someone else believe in you if you're not believing in yourself? I love that. Sign me up for taking Tenacity 101.

Speaker 2 (28:17)

Speaker 1 (28:19)
Well, I know, Elle, that you consider yourself an idea person. What do you think makes a good idea and how do you know when you see one?

Speaker 2 (28:27)
That's a good question. So I think the best ideas come from solving your own problems. So what I'm seeing is I have a problem and I want to solve it. I have a problem, there is a solution on the market, and I know this problem exists, number one, because I am a user of the problem. So I like ideas like that. I think they're very authentic, especially when people want to solve them. And people typically want to solve their own problems, so that's pretty good. I also am sort of like, infamous for saying, I don't believe ideas are good or bad. I don't actually believe there are good ideas. I don't believe ideas are inherently like good or bad. I think they're raw and we have to be like a little bit kind to ideas and let them develop and watch how they develop. I think ideas are sort of like kids. They're not born good or bad, they're just kids, and then they develop as they go. And you kind of need to look at ideas that way. Your idea is going to change inherently because that's what ideas do, they inherently change. And you've already decided it's not a good idea.

Speaker 2 (29:36)
You're not giving the idea any space to grow and change. So you have to change your mindset and get rid of this concept of, like, that's a good idea, that's a bad idea. In US ethnocentric culture and language, we immediately judge an idea. We say, that's a good idea, that's a bad idea. What if it's not? What if it's just an idea and now it needs to grow and change and evolve and get some air and talk to other people and see if it can merge into a brilliant idea.

Speaker 1 (30:03)
I love that. I love that. It's like, you take the idea and it's about the guidance, it's about, like you said, the perseverance and the dedication you put into it and what you said at the end there. It's also about sharing ideas. That's something I think in Silicon Valley, people get really protective of their ideas. Even when you are talking about with the IP earlier, and I've seen that show Silicon Valley where it's like, oh yeah, your startup idea could just be stolen by another one. I don't know if you've experienced any of that kind of stuff with Cobalt, have you had any challenges from that point of view there?

Speaker 2 (30:34)
Yes, and actually a lot of what we try to do is help people understand that their idea, like, they don't have an idea to be stolen.

Speaker 1 (30:46)
Tell me more about that.

Speaker 2 (30:51)
Boy so people love to get their ideas patented, or they love to say, like, oh, well, I can't talk about this idea unless we're under NDA. And I'm like, cool, where are you in your idea development process? And like, Well, I'm just at the concept stage and I'm like, please tell me that you're not spending a single penny on legal, patenting anything at the concept stage because you don't actually know what the idea is. You don't actually know what you're patenting. And we have in, again, US ethnocentric culture, even in Silicon Valley, we're like, I have a brilliant idea. I'm going to develop it in private, I'm going to patent it, and then I'm going to show it to the world. And I'm like, that is how you waste tons of money and tons of time because you don't know if you have a brilliant idea or even a good idea until you've got a paying customer. And then, you'll know, until then, it's not developed. It's goo. And that's why there are literally millions of patents that never come to market. So what value is there? Well, for corporations, there's a lot of value because they can use them defensively to actually keep competition at bay.

Speaker 2 (32:12)
But when you start to think about that as a consumer, what are all of the brilliant ideas and products not getting developed because corporations are holding the IP hostage? Think about that. Right. Actually think about that. I saw a lot of that when I was doing corporate innovation. I saw a lot of that happen. And it's one of the reasons why I don't want to work with corporations anymore. I only want to work with individuals. I want to fuck the establishment like I want to look at small guys.

Speaker 1 (32:45)
Good for you.

Speaker 2 (32:47)

Speaker 1 (32:47)
And now that you've successfully launched your own company against all the odds and statistics, do you have any advice or words of encouragement for other women out there with dreams of launching their own tech companies and becoming a CEO?

Speaker 2 (32:59)
Yes. Build in public.

Speaker 1 (33:01)
Build in public. Nice.

Speaker 2 (33:03)

Speaker 1 (33:03)
The opposite of what we were just talking about, which is spend money and time in secret.

Speaker 2 (33:08)
Share your idea. Build in public. Get feedback as early and fast as possible. The good, the bad, the ugly, share it all. Here's what I learned. Here's what I failed. Here's what I learned. Here's how I failed. Share it all. Build in public. The cool thing about building in public, too, is, you'll know, ten x faster who your customer is. And if you're building something that's valuable, and it's also, like, very empowering to be able to tell people, hey, here's how I failed. It really reduces the pressure to have perfection, because you're just instead of seeing these moments or these releases or these things that are happening as failures, you see them as learnings. And so you can literally change how you think about it and change how you speak about it. Here's what I learned. Here's what I learned about the market. Here's what I learned about the tech. Here's what I learned about the product. Here's what I learned about myself. Here's what I learned about building. Here's what I learned about fundraising. And all of a sudden, all of your failures are just learnings. And people talk about that. It's a really beautiful language to use and to talk about.

Speaker 2 (34:06)
But when you do it in public, do it on Twitter, in blogs, in social media, with your friends, it's a whole different game.

Speaker 1 (34:14)
I love that. And language and frameworks are so integral in determining archetypes and the way that our culture is formed. Right. So like you said, instead of a good or bad idea, instead of like a success, or failure. It's like learnings along the way.

Speaker 2 (34:27)
Yes, they're just ideas. They're neither good nor bad, they just are.

Speaker 1 (34:31)
Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were just starting out in your path?

Speaker 2 (34:36)
Yes, I've got three pieces of advice, because here are three things that I learned. The first is build a killer team as fast as possible. Find people that you want to work with every single day as fast as possible. And build the killer team as fast as possible. The second is build in public, which I already told you. And the third piece of advice is find your customers and community. So go to all of the communities where you think your customers might be and just start talking to them as early and as fast as possible. That's sort of like a subset of built in public, but also just like, figure out who your people are because they're there. They're in Reddit, they're in Facebook groups, they're in LinkedIn, they're searching for you. Like, find these types of people and talk to them as fast as possible.

Speaker 1 (35:26)
We love it. Great points of advice. I want to put them all on throw pillows.

Speaker 2 (35:31)
And then, honestly, this is a very dorky one, but just do it, man. Just get started. What are you waiting for? What's the worst that could happen? You could fail. Oh, no.

Speaker 1 (35:41)
I know. You've also chosen to invest in Latin American manufacturers for Cobalt, and you've made a commitment to work with underrepresented people in tech. Can you talk about that choice and why you think it's important?

Speaker 2 (35:51)
Yes. I'm actually a first generation American, I guess. My mom was born in Colombia, and her family immigrated from Colombia to the US. To San Jose in the late seventies. And I got to see first hand in my own family what inclusive prosperity does, and just access to the chance to make your own future, just what that does literally changed my family's life. And I have tios and tias and family back in Colombia and all of Latin America actually. And just seeing the difference in quality of life is pretty tremendous. And that's actually where my passion for inclusive prosperity stems from. Hearing my mom and my grandparents talk about what it meant to come from another country to the US. And be able to build your dream. I mean, that's powerful stuff as a kid, and it's not something that you ever forget. And I really think that is like a core part of who I am. And it infused a lot into my thinking about how we can do that at scale. I already feel like an outsider in tech and in Silicon Valley, and I also very fundamentally believe, like, make the flaw the feature.

Speaker 2 (37:13)
And if my flaw is that I'm an outsider, how can I actually make that the feature? Well, when I turn around and think about making that the feature, what I realize is that I'm able to connect and build bridges to people that have the same path as me and give them an entryway into Silicon Valley. And so that's where I start, or even in the US. That's when I start to think about and build those bridges towards manufacturing in the US. It's also just, like, economically obvious. We have no tariffs with Mexico. The cost of labor for Mexico is actually cheaper than the cost of labor in China. It's closer. It's on the same continent, it's in the same time zone. The economic opportunities and advantages of going to Mexico and Latam for manufacturing are obvious. And so I really like that. But it's also like, unlocking a market and giving inclusive prosperity to a whole new demographic is awesome, too.

Speaker 1 (38:12)
I didn't know that you were a first generation immigrant. Your mom came from Columbia. Can you tell us a bit more about that experience and how being a first generation immigrant played into your story as a Tech founder?

Speaker 2 (38:23)
Yeah, well, Lucy, that's a great example. This is a very funny example, now that you guys have seen that picture from TechCrunch. So, by definition, I am Latinx, right? Which means I'm not 100% American and I'm not 100% Hispanic. I'm this other thing, which is what Latinx is. And every time that comes up, people say, well, you look too white. And I'm like, well, that's actually exactly the problem. You're like, yes, exactly. I don't belong. I'm not Hispanic, I'm not Colombian and Latina enough to be that, and I'm not white enough to be white. I'm this other thing in between. And we don't really have a place anyway. That's just like an aside. But that's exactly like that's why the concept of Latinx even exists. It's for this other group of people that were raised by culturally different parents. Right. So my mom is Colombian. She came to the US with her family in the late 70s. Her dad worked for IBM. I don't know what he was doing, but he came from Columbia and they moved to San Jose and he worked for IBM. And it's pretty remarkable when you think about the upward trajectory and the upward mobility that just coming to the US has.

Speaker 2 (39:52)
My mom's mom, so my grandmother, she was one of nine kids. And her parents couldn't afford to take care of all the kids. And so my grandmother was actually sent to be raised by nuns in Columbia. Yeah. And then when my grandmother's dad, when my grandmother was about twelve, her dad, who was a roofer, fell off a roof and died, basically, like, the whole family fell into poverty. And when you think about that being just a generation or two away, it's wild.

Speaker 1 (40:37)
Anyway, wow, what a story. Thank you for sharing that with us. Yeah. I'm glad that you've been able to make such change since then in a way that can create this archetype of people who didn't quite fit into, like, a cultural box, so kudos to you.

Speaker 2 (40:54)

Speaker 1 (40:55)
Any more books on the horizon?

Speaker 2 (40:58)
I don't think so. Oh, man. No. Books are a labor of love, man. That was like, my Covid project, too.

Speaker 1 (41:08)
Well, it sounds like you still have a lot on your plate. Let's leave it there for now. Elle, thank you so much for joining us on Privacy is the New Celebrity.

Speaker 2 (41:16)
Thanks, Lucy!

Speaker 1 (41:17)
Our guest has been Elle Black, author and CEO of Cobalt Marketplace, and the first guest in our Women in Tech miniseries. Thanks for listening. Don't forget to subscribe to Privacy is the New Celebrity. Wherever you listen to podcasts and check out to explore the full archive of podcast episodes. I'm Lucy Kind. Our producer is Sam Anderson, and our theme music was composed by David Westbaum. And remember, privacy is a choice we deserve.