Indu Navar: Women CEOs: Forget the pinstripes

Assertiveness, focus and direction is what female founders, CEOs and executives need in order to succeed, says Silicon Valley entrepreneur Indu Navar.

Welcome to the School of Herring Boatside Chat #6. Marten Mickos discusses the tech dilemma of how to increase the number of female founders, CEOs and executives with Indu Navar, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, who has beaten the technology track since the first bubble in the founding team of legendary Healtheon (WebMD) of The New New Thing. She has founded, built, CEO’d and succesfully exited Serus Corporation, a Cloud Enterprise Application company. You can contact her on Twitter @indunavar

See also Indu talking about how to face your fears: fake it till you make it

Ten steps to becoming a successful female CEO according to Indu Navar

  1. If you’re passionate about something, follow your dream.
  2. Concentrate on the opportunities, not the obstacles. There are many who will support you. They are saying “Show me you can really do it!” instead of “Can you really do it?”.
  3. There are positive and negative sides to being a female leader. Enjoy the upside: it is easier to get attention and be remembered.
  4. Tackle the downside in learning to maneuver tough situations in such a way that being a female does not become an obstacle.
  5. Understand that men and women often communicate differently. If as a woman you react emotionally this is a way of expressing yourself and not something to be ashamed of.
  6. Learn a new level of assertiveness, clarity and focus, often associated with men. Think of the process as a positive learning as opposed to a negative one. You are not trying to be someone else but adapting your skills to what running a business requires.
  7. Be the woman you are. It is more energizing than trying to pretend to be someone else. Do not listen to advice on dressing like a man in order to demand respect.
  8. Make sure your board members and major investors have worked with high powered women before and have an understanding of them.
  9. Educate men so that they know how female entrepreneurs and CEOs operate, so that they understand their reactions and what they mean.
  10. Enjoy the journey, learning about yourself and finding what amazing things you are be capable of.


Marten: I’m sitting here with Indu Navar famous start up founder and CEO. She built the company, she bootstrapped it, she made it successful, and she sold the company. We’re here today Indu talking about female founders, female CEOs, female executives, the good and the bad. Tips to young female CEOs and how to go about building a business.

Indu: It’s funny when you said famous CEO, the first thing that came to my mind is saying “Marten, I’m not that famous.” Again it goes back to women not being very comfortable being praised. I think, my journey is just a journey I would do it in a heartbeat again if I had to. It was not only for the end game, the monetary game, it’s also the journey and awareness I got about myself, building this great company, and building the team. Also figuring out what I’m capable of doing myself.

If you’re passionate about something, follow your dream.

The obstacles of can women do this? It’s really yesterdays story. There’s so many opportunities for women and I feel even when I started the company, even though it was ten years ago, and there was still a lot more support from the community. There was not a lot of “Can you really do it?” as much as “Show me you can really do it”. There’s probably a little bit more as a woman I had to do to show that I’m capable of doing it.

Marten: Was it easier as a woman to do it, do you know? Or do you think you had a tougher job because you were?

Indu: I would say it’s both. I would go to a conference and I could get anybody’s attention because I’m a woman. I could stand there and I could say “Hey, can I get your card? Can I call you?” People would remember who I am because I stood out. That was positive, right? I made some great contacts. I got my first investor like that. I got my first few customers like that. I could get people’s attention and people would remember me if I sent them an email again.

On the other hand, I needed to learn with how do you when you go for fundraising, or when you deal with some of the board situations, how do you actually maneuver in such a way that my being a female does not come in the way. There was some learning I had to do.

Marten: Right. Sometimes people say female CEOs and executives should just be themselves and not try to be men. Other times people say female executives should be more assertive and present themselves more. How do you navigate when there’s something for you to learn and change in your approach and your behavior, and when do you stick to the natural you that you always were?

Indu: I’ve had early advice when I started the company about some women telling me I should dress like a man. “Don’t put on too much make-up or lipstick. Wear pinstripe suits. Be like a man, so you can demand respect.” I realized that’s not me. I would be so uncomfortable if I did that, because I am who I am. I like to be feminine. That probably exudes more energy from me than trying to pretend to be someone. I think there is some truth to trying to be, understand how men operate. That is the clarity and the focus, how they actually communicate. There is some learning women can do. I think some of it is just not a natural ability to show that level of focus, that level of direction, that level of assertiveness in doing something. I think in those things it’s positive learning as opposed to, it’s not a negative learning. I’m not trying to be someone else, but I’m actually learning that’s what business takes. Assertiveness, focus, direction.

We talked about being assertive. Also I would add to it really being very clear on what you want, and demanding what you want. A lot of the times I think women get very uncomfortable asking, first of all. Secondly, when you hear it might not be okay asking for it. We have a tendency to be okay with what we have, and not really ask for it. It’s kind of a self justifying process of “I might not deserve it. It’s okay.” As opposed to really demanding what you think you deserve. If you don’t get it, it’s fine at least you demanded it and put yourself out there.

Marten: So you say assertiveness, focus, direction. Is that your advice to a young female company founder and CEO?

Indu: Yes, yes.

Marten: Anything else? Any mistake you made that you would advise them to avoid?

Indu: I would say my next company, some of the things I will do differently. Obviously I learned things. One of the things is people. When you’re young you don’t realize it, but when you get into a situation where you’ve raised 20, 30 million dollars and you have got a board, there is a lot at stake for everybody.

There is never a straight line to building a company. There is always downs you have to know, because ups look really party time, downs you have to be really understanding. Those are the times you really need the team to work together to actually get that time. To actually cross that period. You can’t have a broken team at that time because it’s really critical.

I would say if I had to redo it again I would seriously look at my board members and major investors. If they have worked with other women before, other high powered women before, and they understand how to work with high powered women. And they are okay with it because I would say that probably, not that I make mistakes, everybody makes mistakes, I’ll own up to the mistakes I make. But the reaction that I show needs to be okay because those are my reaction as a female.

I think when we’re in a situation where it’s a really intense situation when people have things they’re going to lose or gain, those are the situations I feel we can collaborate better. I think the collaboration will come from everybody feeling like what you bring to the table, and how you express your emotion is okay.

Because I do tend to get aggressive, in a way that probably warns some people that I’m upset. I’m not upset, just that my voice raises and I can be very gesturing, and sometimes I have tears. That’s part of my emotion, and it’s okay. I’m not trying to do anything other than express myself, which is very similar to a guy who is going to bang on a table or something like that.

Marten: So Indu you’re saying, you’re telling young female startup founders and CEO’s to be themselves. To not be afraid to drive their initiatives and to be assertive. Then you also actually just gave advice to men as well, you said “Men need to know how female CEOs operate, and they have to understand their reactions and what they mean.”

Indu: Exactly. I would say that you put it very well. I think the communication might not be exactly the same way we do. Especially during the time where there’s a lot going on and a lot at stake and you have to make some very hard decisions.

Marten: It turned out wonderfully well for you company.

Indu: Yes.

Marten: So thank you Indu, thanks for sharing your thoughts here today.

Indu: Thank you.


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  1. Indu, Terrific interview. I’m proud to have been with you when you were working out of that “broom closet” on Castro St. in Mountain View. You are a great role model for how to work hard, take chances, and work to success! .

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