This is a story of courage and possibilities. Allison McGuire, the cofounder and CEO of Sketch Factor, a new app that geotags “sketchy” trouble spots for pedestrians based on user comments and publicly available data, had to rebuff criticism that her app facilitates racism…even before it went live earlier this month. This happened, according to NBC, even though she and cofounder Daniel Herrington had sought input from diverse experts. PCmag.com, in one of its well-regarded app reviews, concluded that “[Sketch Factor] doesn’t deserve to be maligned for promoting racism.”
It takes incredible fortitude to bring something new like this into the world. Many people don’t like to see the status quo challenged and tend to attack game changers–often unreasonably and before they have all the information. Leaders need to prepare themselves for this eventuality with foundational building blocks for courageous leadership (see bolded text below). I wanted to discuss this with Allison, a young leader who has deflected criticism with grace and has watched her app begin to become a success.
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Lisa Arie: Was there something person that instigated creation of this app?
Allison McGuire: One night I was walking home [in Washington, D.C.] and a woman standing outside her house stopped me and asked if I lived in the area. I said yes. She told me, “I saw you walking alone and wanted you to know a woman was choked and mugged here last night, so I want you to be careful. I live here and this street corner has no lighting. I wanted you to know this happened.” It took my breath away. I realized this woman was a beacon. I’m guarded when people talk to me on the street, but this person was trying to be helpful, and I thought, Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could have that [kind of] moment and [could see] on a map that this is a trouble spot. Right then, I knew this is what I want to dedicate my life to.
Lisa: Was there any fear around launching a company?
Allison: The main fear was around money. How do I support myself while we launch? The other fear was, What if I fail. I had a conversation with one of my best friends. She said it’s so much worse in your head than it is in reality. I realized I was attached to a worst-case scenario.
Lisa: So what happened?
Allison: I realized that I just have to ask for what I need and be aware that what’s in my head is usually worse than reality. I was afraid nothing would happen. Instead of that, 60,000 people downloaded our app in four days.
Lisa: You mentioned the surprises of leadership these days and weathering those moments. What have you learned about such surprises?
Allison: I’ve learned that I need to keep a good sense of humor to weather emotional storms. I’ve learned to stay focused on the big picture [and avoid] tunnel vision. I learned how important it is to know who I am. I have received death and physical assault threats since we launched. Knowing who I am makes it easy to stay the course. I trust myself.
Lisa: How did you learn to trust yourself?
Allison: I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I acknowledge my mistakes and learn from them. Then I let them go. I’ve been through terrible things. I don’t think I know everything, but I stand up for myself. This has helped me build trust and confidence in myself.
In our society, we are often taught, especially women and people of color, that we need to look a different way, act a different way, wear this, say that–try not to be yourself and dress the part; act the part and you’ll have riches and the person you want to be with for the rest of your life. I went through years of huge insecurities about myself, my body, my abilities, my intellect, and it’s been a process building to where I am today.
What I wish for more people is confidence to look in the mirror every day and say I’m beautiful, I’m smart, I’m doing the best I can. Because those messages are self-fulfilling. I’m not threatened by other smart, confident people who are doing great things in the world. I’m inspired and motivated by them. For me, it’s a better world where people are more confident and more positive than one where people have deep insecurities that are crippling them.
Lisa: Sitting here with me at this moment, what’s the possibility your confidence brings you?
Allison: The possibilities are endless. If you told me five years ago I was going to run a tech company before I was 30, I would have said you’re crazy. Confidence gives me the ability to see endless possibilities.
Lisa: Is there anything else you want to share?
Allison: Having an honest, strong support system is important to keeping leaders grounded. Investing in continual learning is important so you know who you are and can stand in the face of anything.
We’ve had some negative press. I can weather that because I know who I am. Make knowing who you are a priority. It’s directly connected to your performance as a person and a leader, and to how you deal with other people. You have to see the big picture–your life. People have stressful lives, and setting aside time to figure out why I do what I do, how I can be better, makes life less stressful. It’s important for leaders to want to be better. The only way you can do that is learn more about yourself.
Lisa: Thank you, Allison.