International Women’s Day Fireside Chat

In honor of 2022 International Women’s Day, Blackstone Charitable Foundation Executive Director Maura Pally sat down with two outstanding members of the Blackstone LaunchPad community: Nina Ho, Campus Director of the LaunchPad at UT Austin, and Dara Chike-Obi, LaunchPad Fellow alum and founder of infant feeding company Griö.

Below are a few highlights from the conversation. You can view the full video here:

Women and entrepreneurship

Nina: “The word that I think of is integration. As women, we grew up in a “man’s world.” We’re encouraged to cultivate behavioral traits and patterns that are more “masculine,” like will-power, grit, determination, strategic thinking, and being deeply analytical. But as women, we’re more in touch with “feminine” traits and behaviors that men in our society are not encouraged to cultivate, like compassion, the value of community, intuition. It’s when women are able to integrate all of these aspects of ourselves and step into the wholeness of who we are that we become really powerful change agents.”

Dara: “Women can bring a unique perspective to entrepreneurship because, historically, society was not built by us or for us, and so we’ve had to accumulate different tools to navigate to get to where we are today. Being a woman in this world is so different from being a man, and it’s worth speaking directly to those experiences. For me, one of those uniquely defining moments is motherhood. It’s taught me the masterful skill of prioritizing and cutting out the things that do not serve you or your goals. When you apply that to entrepreneurship, it makes it easier to say no because you don’t have time for something that doesn’t enhance you personally or further your purpose.”

Equity and entrepreneurship

Nina: “I think about DEI as three interlocking steps of a ladder. Diversity just means “the presence of.” It doesn’t mean people have decision making power, but at least they’re there. Equity is another step up, with decision making or financial power. Inclusion is psychological safety: people are making decisions at the table, and they feel safe to challenge and push back. In my job, we have a lot of diversity, but my goal the past few years has been to improve the equity part. We recently launched a program that would give students StartUPGrants of $500-$5,000 so they can explore entrepreneurship. Looking forward, to the inclusion part, we’re building programs with students, not just for students, and have them involved in every step of the process.”

Dara: “My thoughts on the definition of DEI have expanded greatly based on the programs that Nina and Blackstone are currently putting into place. At first, I thought DEI was about having equal access to more gatekeepers; by leveling the playing field; or by by offering funds to a more diverse group of people so they can kick around ideas. But Nina’s working on a new program that provides VC training to [diverse students]— it’s not only about giving people like me more access to dollars but about expanding the landscape for gatekeepers as well. That cradle-to-grave cycle is what DEI means to me now: not just making sure people have access to traditional decision makers but transforming who those gatekeepers are. Not just putting new chairs at the table but creating an entirely new table.”

Advice to students

Nina: “All students, whether they’re entrepreneurs or not, need to cultivate self-awareness. I give them three books to read for homework:

First, is Ikigai, which is the Japanese philosophy that contentment in life is the intersection of four things: doing what you’re good at, what you’re passionate about, what you can get paid for, and what the world needs.

Second, is The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now. It talks about how your brain is plastic and adaptable in your twenties, which makes it a great time to explore and set yourself up for success.

Third, is Designing Your Life, which is from an undergraduate class at Stanford that takes the [process of] human-centric design and applies it to how we live our lives.

Dara: “I often don’t feel comfortable giving advice to younger or aspiring entrepreneurs. I still have that masculine view that I have a lot to do and I haven’t really made it. But, I am in the midst of taking a lot of risks to build something, and that in itself, is valuable to students and younger entrepreneurs because there’s no such thing as overnight success story. So, for advice I would say, don’t be afraid of “no.” It’s just a word. You need to have self-resolve and faith in what you’re doing and where you need to be. Don’t let the highs go to your head nor the lows go to your heart… And, like Nina said, self-awareness. Really knowing who you are and what’s best for you, so that you’re not afraid or discouraged when outside forces tell you not to continue forward.”

Maura: “There’s no right or wrong choice that you’re going to make along the path of your career as it unfolds. You’ll learn from each choice, and you have to have confidence in your judgement to know you’ll never do something so wildly off-base. Each new job, you’re going to learn skillsets, you’re going to learn about yourself, what you like, what you don’t like, what you’re good at, what you want to avoid, and you’ll make a network that will propel you. It’s good to have goals, but you can also take some of the pressure off yourself to feel like you might make the wrong choice.”

Maura Pally is the Executive Director of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, where she oversees all Blackstone Charitable Foundation activity, leading strategy and integration efforts for its signature programs to support Blackstone’s goal of creating economic opportunity for under-resourced communities. Ms. Pally joins from the Clinton Foundation, where she was most recently Executive Vice President. Prior to that, she worked at Bloomberg Philanthropies and as the Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the U.S. Department of State. She served as Deputy General Counsel for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. She received her JD from the USC Gould School of Law and a BA in Political Science and Women’s Studies from Brown University.

Nina Ho is the Director of the LaunchPad at UT Austin. In addition to being the director of the LaunchPad, Nina Ho is also an entrepreneur, creative director, and educator. She is also a long-time volunteer facilitator for 3 Day Startup—a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship skills to university students around the world through a weekend intensive. Nina has been recognized in publications such as Business Insider, Austin Monthly, and Austin Woman for her work. Nina has a B.S. in advertising, B.A. in French, Portuguese minor, and a Bridging Disciplines certificate in Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship from The University of Texas at Austin.

Dara Chike-Obi participated in LaunchPad TechStars and is the founder of Griö, a patent-pending baby bottle system that allows caretakers to actively enhance their child’s development. She was previously Integrated Marketing Manager at Enverus and an Attorney at Equinor and BP, as well as a Portfolio Management Associate at Exelon Energy. She holds an MBA from the Texas McCombs School of Business and a JD from the University of Texas. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Penn State University.