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Why Stumbling Into Being a Woman in Tech Had Me Stumble Into Being a Woman Jiu Jitsu Fighter

Updated: Jul 11, 2019


My name is Morgan Berman - I am the founder and CEO of a company called MilkCrate.  We are the award-winning solution for the world’s nonprofit programs and municipal initiatives to reach their mission. We help them launch affordable mobile apps that engage nonprofit program participants and track their impactful behavior. When a nonprofit can reach their program participants where they are - on their phones - they can challenge them to act in ways that can be tracked and measured against the organization’s goals. Our goal is to make impact actionable and measurable - a goal that for me started many many years ago when I was starting out in my career.

I unwittingly became a startup founder about 5 years ago when I drafted the rough outlines of a “green yelp app” for my master's thesis. I was in graduate school for sustainable design at Philadelphia University, and had become increasingly passionate about and connected to the “sustainability scene” in Philadelphia. But I was concerned that the cause wasn’t spreading to the mainstream consumer world fast enough. My goal was to take all the information I had learned about how to be a more sustainable urban dweller (much like my mom did with thrift shopping as a thrifty mom) and pull it all together in an app like a “Green Yelp”. My ideas attracted others who wanted to help and the press followed, or maybe it was the other way around. Regardless, I got a call from Forbes about two weeks after the first version of our app went live (a year after I conceived the idea) and the rest is history. We attracted investors, accolades from the UN Foundation and much more. We set about testing a business model that is notoriously difficult. After nearly two years of repeated failure we made the painful decision to change our product and model. We were going to try a b2b model with a platform that could build apps to engage employees in sustainability and tracked their impact for their corporate employers CSR goals. It made sense on paper, and we even ran a successful paid pilot with Comcast - something few startups can boast. But we found the market’s needs and budgets didn’t have room for us and our vision. So after another year or two of testing and learning we had to admit that things still weren’t working out as planned. The bad news was that the client-market fit we thought we wanted was a disaster. The good news was we had one nonprofit client that was amazing. Finding them had been almost an accident, when their board member suggest they reach out to us about their program’s engagement and impact tracking struggles.  And it was a perfect fit! They paid us well, and on time, and just as importantly they were extracting great value out of our product. We had a perfect client. Finally! So now we had to go and figure out how to recreate that magic over and over. It took a lot of scary moments and decisions but we made the decision to pivot again (this last time) and to focus our b2b app building platform on a new focused market - nonprofit programs that needed engagement apps to track performance. Basically when an organization runs a program, sort of like this one, and there are people who have signed up to be in that program, like all of you, there are things you need to do to be a good ‘participant’ like articles to read, polls to answer, videos to watch - consuming of content. And then you need to act on that content - like going places, signing up for events - activities. And then you need to share that - with others in the group, or out in the world. And finally your program organizers want to be able to reach you to remind you to do all this stuff - like with a mobile push notification.

It’s been over a year since our last pivot and I’m so glad we made it. We are growing our client base every week, with amazing organizations having a tangible impact in the world - and we are the ones that get to help facilitate and track it. I haven’t done it alone, I’ve had my team and my advisors helping me every step of the way. And I can’t stress enough how important it is to have people in your corner that care about you and the problem you are solving. I am now lucky enough to be on both ends of that cycle - offering support to new founders as a mentee in the Philly Startup Leaders Accelerator and the Tribe12 Incubator. I also speak regularly with other founders offering advise and connections. Giving back and helping others is how innovation and how women in innovation can grow.

The theme for today is culture. And as an undergraduate student I studied anthropology, which is the study of humans - their culture, their evolution, their language, their ecology, their value.  And other than my fascination with the study of human evolution, in school I was most fascinated by how humans develop systems for what we value. What we consider to be right and wrong, precious and rubbish, insider and outsider. As the child of an interfaith and multicultural parents, I had an affinity for things that didn’t fit the standard cultural mold. And I knew from my own difficult times as a child that felt like an outsider much of the time that molds are usually fabricated to suit one group’s interests often at the cost of another. So today when I share my stories you will notice that what we choose to value, our time, talent and treasure - are the parts of culture that show up over and over in my experiences.

Several years ago I gave a TEDx talk about trying out jobs and boyfriends, and how the disappointment when they don’t work out was viscerally similar. At the end of my talk I flashed my phone number on the last slide hoping the boy who had ignored me in kindergarten might see the talk on the internet and call me and save me from my singleness. A bold move right? A few years later, I find myself very happily engaged. Not the boy I loved in kindergarten, no. Luckily my tastes have matured since I was five.

This next part is like a sequel in a sense. But more like a prequel.

When I look back now, I realize I left out the most painful parts of the story in that first TEDx talk. And I think it has something to do with maturity and hindsight.

When someone asks you “what do you do?” or in my case “what does your company do?” it’s important to start with your why. Just google Simon Sinak. He will explain it better than I can.

For me, my why is about being honest about doing right thing by others. What I mean by that is, I’ve been haunted by something a professor of mine said to me once - that the goal of all social movements should be to put themselves out of work. To achieve the goal and then all go home. And as I left academia and entered the workforce, specifically the nonprofit one, I realized that if all nonprofits were honest about wanting to solve the social problem they are dedicated to solving, then their goals would also be to put themselves out of work. But who wants to be unemployed?

My most painful learning experiences working in the nonprofit world, like most others, all came down to power and money. When I was 23 and in my first job after college, I was doing what I cared about most. I was working at a nonprofit dedicated to providing people, mostly women, regardless of resources, the full spectrum of reproductive health care. What happened was, according to what I was told from higher up the power chain, our affiliate’s former CFO had embezzled thousands of dollars, the state funding was dwindling thanks to political pressure and a deflated economy had hurt patient copay revenue. That’s when the layoffs started. Every person on my level was laid off. I was one of the last ones to get the ax. I remember thinking, “where are the adults?” I thought adults were supposed to know how to run things better.Of course this was 2008 and 2009 when the whole economy collapsed because of similarlyl greedy and incompetant “adult” behavior. And that was one of the first moments I started to think about money a little differently, and with a little more respect as a tool that needed to be more wisely maneuvered to achieve better results and to serve the mission.

The next blow came when I found myself working at a different chapter of the same organization, in a basement clinic with no natural light on 3 sides of the building. This was the abortion clinic of the organization, separated by a layer of concrete and federal law from the rest of the clinic where the more mundane tasks of breast exams, birth control pills, and genital wart removals took place. Here in this dark sad place I helped women and girls go through one of the most challenging days of their lives. And I found myself feeling trapped in a cycle of endless deja vu. There was no end in sight. No measurable goal towards life getting any better for me, my coworkers, or the women we helped. We showed up, we worked, we left. And it was exactly the same the next day.

So off I went to the next opportunity, one that seemed like it would be a vast improvement in that at least it was above ground work. In my new role, I was charged with a caseload of approximately 15 women who were pregnant or new mothers and needed support in a variety of areas from navigating the healthcare system for an infected tooth, to securing baby formula when their WIC ran out, or a new stroller for their children. It was rewarding in that I had continuity with my clients, I was able to help them over time and see them benefit from my efforts. The downside was that I had inherited a case load from a predecessor who had clearly forged and made up much of her client interactions and data. And what was worse was my supervisor didn’t seem to care. The problems only grew from there when I realized that the baby formula we were handing out was expired. I immediately threw it out. And I was immediately chastised. I kept discarding it because I couldn’t bear the idea of a child getting sick because of me. I was equally furious that the clothes and bottles and pacifiers that had been donated to us were being stored in open trash bags on the floor of our filthy little office where cockroaches and other vermin regularly skittered about. In an effort to more safely store these items i began cleaning out the only storage we had - a decrepit metal overhead system that was half filled with unused paper forms that were 5-10 years out of date and entirely useless. The offenses that were listed to me on the day I was fired mostly revolved around my blatant disregard for instructions and ‘wasting supplies’.

I’ve had some deep belly sobbing sessions in my life but this one is definitely going down in the top 3. I was so young, so naive, so hopelessly committed to my sense of right and wrong. I basically was wearing a sign on my back from day one that said “Fire me” because I was incapable of doing things other than what felt right. And I am glad I was that way, but it was a big learning lesson about how to fight, and how not to.

I was lucky enough to meet a woman, Dr. Seema Sonnad, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who researched professional mentorship between women. It’s probably no surprise that a woman like her would be in the business of mentoring lost young women like me and after learning of my background in women’s health and research she hired me as her new protege. This job gave me the breathing room I needed to get my life in order, to consider my options - and as Seema reminded me on a very regular basis  ‘go to graduate school’. She was such an academic. And quite the fearsome athletic competitor too. I am forever grateful to her and hope to in some way carry her values and legacy on.

Fast forwarding a bit and I have successfully extracted myself from the cafe and a really bad boyfriend and landed in graduate school (fully funded thank goodness). I was determined to work on a cause I cared about but with the freedom to be creative and grow professionally- I enrolled in a masters of science in sustainable design program. That is where I started my company.

So here I am today. Stubborn as ever, hoping to inspire organizations to track their impact, use their resources more wisely, and perhaps adopt a more business-savvy approach to their efforts. If the goal is ‘go out of business,’ no one will sign up. But what if the goal is to track real progress and become financially sustainable in the process? Now that sounds like something even my former employers would be interested in.

Doing the work that I do I’ve had to come up with a label for myself since I’m basically inventing a new type of work with the product we invented. I am a self labeled "impact technologist". As I said I came to the tech world from the nonprofit space. It wasn’t a smooth or easy transition. It still isn’t. But now that I’m here in this moment, it does make some sense. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up because the job I was best suited for didn’t even exist when I was in school.

Jiu Jitsu In order to survive this very challenging and new role I’ve created for myself in a very male dominated industry I’ve also become a quasi competitive martial arts and I regularly speak around the world, mostly to groups for women, about how this has become a crucial outlet for the fierceness and bravery we all need in our everyday lives.

Like most sports Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a game of strategy but with a focus on using leverage to submit your opponent. I started training because my mom had been nudging/nagging me for months about needing to find an outlet for the stress of my work. She and I agreed that my identity as Morgan and the identity of MilkCrate were too intertwined. If MilkCrate felt at risk of failure then my whole sense of self felt at risk. She reminded me that the kickboxing classes at my old gym had seemed to really help and that I should find something like that. Of course stubborn daughter that I am it took almost a year before I finally did something that has changed my life forever. One summer day back in 2016 I opened up google and typed in four words “Martial Arts Near Me”.

For me it was a fork in the road moment.

Gasping for air while your heart feels like it's trying to break out of your rib cage. This is something I experienced well before finding martial arts. I was experiencing intense anxiety from work and life collapsing in on me.  If you’ve ever had a panic attack you know what I’m talking about.

But nothing prepared me for what it feels like to sit on my knees and face a male opponent who is taller, heavier, and stronger and fight. What I was even more unprepared for, was what it feels like to beat him and win. This is the beauty of jiu jitsu. Go online and you will find videos of women besting men twice their size with the skills they’ve honed over many more years training than I have. You beat him with your skill, with your leverage, with your game. You win. He loses. It’s a very clear and simple victory. There’s no ambiguity about favorable treatment, pay scales, crossing lines of sexual harassment, gender bias, glass ceilings. None of that exists. He tried, you prevailed. Done. When else do we get such a pure victory? Where no one can say it was because you were attractive. Or unattractive. Or they had to meet a quota or something else? No one can take that victory away. There’s just something so unusual about getting to fight on a truly even and uncorrupted field against a man like with a jiu jitsu match. Because we as women are always being reminded that we are vulnerable, that we are weaker, that we can’t or should not try and do the same things as men, or that our appearance will be a distraction or a hindrance. I didn’t realize how much I had bought into this garbage until after I beat my first male opponent. I almost didn’t believe it. But then it happened again. And again. Not always of course, and most of the men and women on my team can still kick my ass. But the thing is, sometimes you fight better, you move smarter, and you win. Regardless of their gender or yours.

In the weeks leading up to my very first real competition I was constantly preparing myself to do one thing - lose. I was convinced there was no way I could win, no way I should even think about it, because then I’d just be disappointed. I had never been good at sports, never knew what victory felt like or where it came from but where ever it was I did not have the coordinates. It was literally the last moment before stepping onto the mat that I decided maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if I at least stepped out there open to the idea that I could win. I have no idea what would have happened if I had a time machine and gone in with a different attitude -  kind of like the same way I never know how to answer the question - “what’s it like to be a woman in tech?” - how would I know? I can’t hit rewind and do my life all over again as a man! - anyways - I stepped out there and I won.

I never expected it, but at the last moment I let myself consider it, even maybe hope for it. And let me tell you - the badass women on my team are the reason that happened.

Because when you have to fight that many amazing skilled opponents night after night- it’s hard to not have an edge. In my first real honest attempt at being an athlete and being treated like one by my coach - I took a gold medal home. It was incredible. And I realized how every win is won by not just you but all the people that got you to that moment and helped carry you through it.

As women we set very high, impossibly high standards for ourselves. “Brave, Not Perfect” is a book by Reshma Saujani - where she is encouraging us as women to teach bravery over perfection as an ideal character trait to girls. And I heartily agree.

I have a suggestion for how we can do that. Because while teaching to ‘embrace failure’ is all the rage these days, I don’t think that is enough. We can’t just say the words and think them and expect to change our mindset. We need to feel it. We need to feel it in our bodies. In our bones. The same way we feel the rage and terror that comes with failure, we need to start to feel comfortable being brave in the face of extreme odds.

It isn’t common in our everyday lives to simulate the feeling of a panic attack - the loss of breath and blood flow - but that is exactly what I do three nights a week on those jiu jitsu mats. I am paying good money to be at a gym where people stronger and more skilled than me use me as their plaything to hone their skills. I know this because now I do the same thing with the people who are newer and smaller than me. It’s a sort of circle of life. The only thing better than being a brown belt is being a black belt. The only thing worse than being a blue belt is being a white belt. When I fight a white belt I get a taste for what the black belt feels when they so easily dispatch with me. I’ve been doing this regularly for over 2.5 years. The only people I can beat easily are either new or half my size. Anything bigger or better and I have to really work to win. It takes a really long time to get good at jiu jitsu. These experts have been doing this for 6, 8, 10, 12 years. I have a long way to go. And I see women give up all the time. There was this one woman, Nora, who was technically a slightly higher rank than me, but I would beat her when we spared. She left the mat crying after a roll and I felt terrible because I knew how I had in the past also fallen to pieces after an emotionally challenging match. But that is the necessary pain to grow. Those experiences of falling apart are what makes room for us to build ourselves back up stronger than before. Unfortunately, she stopped coming to class. And I made a note to remember that I wouldn’t end my jiu jitsu journey that way. It wouldn’t be because I was scared of my own shortcomings.

Like I said, when I was younger I hated sports. I always felt like a loser. Never winning any games, never feeling the taste of victory. Here we are in my 30s and my world is very different. To date I have had 5 competitive fights. And I’ve one every single one. My teammate after my last fight came over and said “You know what this means right? Your undefeated!” Initially I brushed her comment off, saying “5 isn’t that many fights” knowing that she herself is closer to 50 fights or more. But then I stopped myself. What would I say to another woman? I would celebrate her. I would tell her she is amazing for putting herself out there AND winning. So who am I to disparage on myself?

Part of why I’m telling my story with jiu jitsu today is because I remember what it felt like to have those bigger older boys push me around on the playground, to grope me in gym class, to punch me in the stomach when the teacher wasn’t looking. And then later in life when I was catcalled on the street, or taken advantage of by male ‘friends’ as a drunk college student. We all have scars like this, and as a former Women's Studies major, turned Women's Health Advocate and abortion provider, and now a woman tech CEO and martial artist - I know first hand the struggles women face as underrepresented or underserved groups. I want to show up here today to tell you maybe for the first time or as a reminder - that women can fight above our weight class and win.

That same night that I beat a man the same rank as me but much larger, I was instructed to fight a woman on my team who has been a semi pro athlete for her entire adult life (she’s also a body builder and 8 years younger than me). Now a normal roll or match is 4-6 minutes. And those are very long minutes. After the match my coach told me he let her and I roll for almost 20 minutes. In the end, she submitted me (as she always does).

That night I earned my blue belt. And just like in the professional world, it is always after the longest and toughest battles that the greatest victories are earned.

Sometimes in our professional lives it can feel like an unending onslaught of sucker punches, head butts, and some self-inflicted wounds. For me it’s things like: Struggling to fundraise, or sell your product, and the emotional landmines of managing a team. And then there are the struggles I never imagined. Like how to artfully say ‘no thank you’ to a creepy investor, or creating team norms after outrageously inappropriate comments on the group slack channel.

Now I’m lucky that one of my most dominant personality traits is that when I’m faced with a challenge my instinct is not to run away, but to face it head on.

This happened when I was attacked and mugged. My reaction was to chase my assailant. The cop later said “That was cool, don’t do that again.”

My impulse to turn and fight showed up again when a room full of Comcast executives said “Nice work, but no thanks”. 6 months later, Comcast was our newest CSR client.

And again when our b2b model wasn’t working. Ok, time to work with nonprofits!

Knock me down? I get back up.

The most powerful phrase I’ve heard in jiu jitsu is “A black belt is a white belt that never quit”. I have experienced first hand and I hope you can take it with you on your journey as a reminder to stick it out, to stay true to your goals while being open to change along the way, and to fight about your weight class. You will surprise yourself.

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