My Career Path: Interview with Julian Guthrie, Founder and CEO of Alphy
- September 27, 2022
- Posted by: Selen Warner
- Category: Blog
This month, we had the pleasure of speaking with Julian Guthrie, NYT Best-Selling Author and Founder/CEO of Alphy, about her career path and the decisions that have contributed to her success. Here at Stage 4 Solutions, we are committed to supporting professionals’ career growth, and we believe that one way to enable success is learning from leaders.
Julian Guthrie is the founder & CEO of Alphy, an innovative new tech solution to help companies better recruit, retain, and advance women. She is also the co-inventor of Reflect by Alphy, an AI-powered communication-strengthening tool. She is a veteran former journalist and NYT best-selling author of five books, including Alpha Girls, the untold story of pioneering women in Silicon Valley, now being adapted for a television series.
- Alphy – Founder & CEO (2020 – present)
- Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination – Advisory Board Member (2019 – 2020)
- San Francisco Chronicle and SFGATE – Journalist (2000 – 2015)
Can you tell us about your upbringing? Who were your role models?
Julian: I grew up in Spokane, Washington, and I had a really wonderful family. I was blessed to grow up in an environment where there was a lot of opportunity and a lot of focus on education and also on athletics. Both my mother and father were very inspiring to me and my role models. My father came from nothing and was very very poor. He went on to become very successful through his work ethic, and math skills, a skill that I didn’t develop into more recently.
My mother is an incredible role model to me. She became a champion golfer at the national level. And one thing that I love about her story is that after she focused time on raising my brother and me, she went back to play, and people told her “You are never going to be competitive coming back after 10 years away.” And she came back, and she was a fierce competitor. She worked incredibly hard, and she won national women’s golf championships. It was really inspiring to me.
When you were in college, what were your career inspirations?
Julian: When I was in college, my career inspirations were all around storytelling, and I had an incredible English professor who supported me. I always loved storytelling and words and I have always been a word geek!
I really began to focus on creative writing, and then journalism as well. That English professor steered me in the direction of the college newspaper, and how to create a path to where you can write and support yourself financially. I knew I wanted to do something in storytelling while I was in college. I had wanted to do that since I was a little girl.
How did you decide on your first job?
Julian: I knew I wanted to write but I didn’t have a network at all, and it wasn’t a time of social media or networking sites. So, I was kind of floundering around. I would see jobs posted, and I would apply for them. My first job out of college was working for a small publishing company that was focused on Asian American content. It wasn’t the best experience but I can’t call it a disaster either because I learned a lot of lessons. At first, I thought “Great, I am going to be an editor right out of college.” I did a tiny bit of that, but then I was roped into working for the publisher who was a lawyer, and he was trying to train me as a legal secretary, and I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I said to myself, “Okay, how hard do I work at this to make it work.” Shortly after, I realized I wasn’t hired to be an editor. So, from there I moved to San Francisco, and I started freelancing for the newspapers. I would send out query letters to magazines and newspapers that I admired, and most of the time, I wouldn’t hear anything back but then I started to get a few great responses asking me to write stories for them. Maybe it would be a $75 payment at the time, and I was so excited! So, that was the beginning of my career as a journalist.
Can you tell us about Alphy?
Julian: Alphy is a company that I founded in late 2019 and I started putting the team together in 2020. Alphy is all about creating a better learning and social network for women and a SaaS platform for companies to do a better job at recruiting, retaining, and advancing women, and it is an end-to-end solution that doesn’t exist in the market today.
I think a lot of great companies are born out of great frustration. I had written a book called Alpha Girls which did really well, it is now being adapted for television, and it hit a nerve. It also opened my eyes to where women are in the world, and where women are not, and why in the world are disparities perceived along gender lines, and obviously are intensified for people and women of color. So, I wanted to come up with a solution to a persistent problem and a marketplace where there is a massive global opportunity. But there is not an all-in-one platform to advance women – really focusing on this target demographic, where now we see the future of work which is upon us, and which is really struggling, has to include the underrepresented groups and women are a huge part of that. Once you have done all this work to hire women and underrepresented groups, how do you retain these incredible rising talents and how do you nourish them? And then how do you advance them? So that’s what Alphy is all about. I love what we have built, and I am so proud of it.
Can you tell us about Reflect by Alphy, the AI-powered communication-strengthening tool?
Julian: Reflect is an AI-powered communication strengthening tool which is in Alphy and it has been trained in Alphy. Soon, it will be an available plugin for any communication channel you use, whether it is on Gmail or social media. Reflect is all about kinder, stronger, more effective communication, and it is something that began with my interest in diminishing language and how women specifically can self-sabotage in our speech with too many qualifiers and over apologizing. So, I wanted to create a tool that could suggest stronger communication. We have expanded it so that the tool is a fit for companies and industries of all kinds across genders because it looks at ageism, racism, sexism, and diminishing language. And it comes at a time when the world seems to have lost the ability to communicate kindly and inclusively and thoughtfully with one another.
It is a tool that does not auto-correct, it is not about grammar, but it is about “reflecting” before you hit send, thinking about the tone of what you have written. It is a great tool to enable and foster better communication, and collaboration, and also potentially avoid, really bad scenarios that could end in litigation as well.
What has surprised the most in your career?
Julian: I think how you can latch on to a primary passion, a primary interest, a primary skill, and then you can take that and run with it in your career.
People talk about pivots in their careers, and that does happen, but I think you still have these translatable skills that you can apply to in the next career step. I think of my skill as a storyteller, and my interest in stories, and how stories, far more than entertaining, open eyes, open hearts, open minds start companies, jump start industries, and how I take that love of words and of communication of storytelling, and apply it now as a founder of a company. How do we tell our story? How do we tell the story of the companies that we are working with? How do we help them better communicate that they are a place where women want to work?
I think there are all of these great transferable skills that people don’t necessarily think about that they have and realize they have and capitalize on that. For example, maybe you are great with dealing with the public or if everybody tells you that you could sell anything or you are great at something, think about it and if you feel that way, think about how you move, how you take that skill, which is probably based on something you like to do, and build upon it.
I think my interest in storytelling, and how translatable it is, and now as a founder and CEO, how I use that love of storytelling to really advance our company and our mission is surprising to me.
Can you please tell us about an important career risk you took?
Julian: Definitely starting this company! I had become a very successful journalist and author of 5 non-fiction books. I went out into this environment that I had written about with Alpha Girls, where I should have been really daunted having written the book on this subject of women founders and women funders, I’m glad I didn’t get frightened away by that only 2% of all venture capital dollars go to women-founded firms and that’s it! And 94% of all venture capitalists are men.
As a woman who was starting a company, I knew that it was a risk raising money. I wrote about the stories of the women founders and the women funders, and also the great male allies who are out there, whom we need more of them. But it was a big risk to take and to go from this career right into this whole new world of raising money and becoming a leader as well as a woman leader. I have worked for others and working as a writer is very solitary and you ultimately report to your editor at the publishing house and the publisher. It was the first time I had built a team and led a team. It was the first time I had tried to raise money from investors. How do you handle the finances? How do you do payroll? How do you do HR? And, all of the things that you do as a founder and you don’t know what you don’t know. There have been so many questions which I didn’t have the answer to and that is okay. I have learned that it is okay to say, “I have no idea how to do that yet, but I am going to figure it out.”
That was a big risk, and it still is as well. We have created a solution that we believe can be a category leader and do better than what is out in the market for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging tools, and create an incredible integration for human capital management and talent management systems, as well as a standalone solution for companies to add on.
Raising money and selling is not easy in this economy. There’s a lot that is very challenging but when there is no risk, there is no reward.
What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?
Julian: It is all about learning, it is all about credibility, it is all about coming through and figuring out how to do things. There are daily challenges that I talked about, but I think the biggest ongoing challenge is probably fundraising. That is something that I didn’t know how much time and energy you needed to put into that as the leader of a tech startup, and it is pretty much constant. Maybe I get a month or two off from that and I had underestimated that part of it.
That is a very, very significant challenge and that is something where you cast a wide net, and you talk to a lot of people, and you really have to go through a lot of noes before you get to your yeses and that is just a part of the process. So I learned not to be afraid and to just keep going. You really have to have a lot of fortitude, discipline, a lot of stamina to start a company and keep a company going. We all need that, to take time for ourselves, and make sure we have that mental and physical fortitude because it is really challenging. And, at the same time, it is the most fun I have ever had. So, there’s that great part of it too, creating something from nothing and bringing it into the world, now starting to see it grow.
How do you balance your professional and personal goals?
Julian: To be honest, I never have done that very well. There is a great Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote I love, “You can’t have it all, all at once” and I’m a big believer in that. I say no to a lot of things. My friends and family know that I am very, very focused on building Alphy and before I was very, very focused on writing my books and meeting the deadlines. So, it is about prioritizing but again, I don’t feel like I have balance. I feel like I am striving for something highly ambitious, really difficult, and that it requires a lot of sacrifices. Having said that, I cherish my family first and I make sure that our time together, even if it is concentrated, is intentional and that I am really present. So, I make time for that every single day and try to be affirmative and constructive, and I hope, inspiring in my interactions. I also am a big believer that if we are happy at work, if we are happy with what we are doing in our professional lives, it makes for a better home life.
What advice would you give to your younger self? Younger professionals?
Julian: Learn as much as you can about as many different things as possible. Know that no learning goes unused. I would have focused more probably on math, business and computer science because now I am playing catch up with all of those things.
Look at your education in a holistic way and try to, even if you don’t think you are going to be interested in finance, get an underlying degree of knowledge and skill in it and as many other things as you can. Be open to where your life is going to take you and be prepared. Having the tools in the toolbox that you may eventually need and having that foundation is very important.