Brit Fitzpatrick can walk across a stage in 3-inch heels. She can also pitch an investor on her startup.
There's nothing about the pairing that should connote mutual exclusivity, and this 2015 Miss Kentucky and founder of MentorMe, an application to help run mentorship programs, wants to be an example of why that idea — there's no one way to be a startup founder. Anyone can work in tech.
Fitzpatrick did her undergraduate work in public relations at Howard University. She thought that one day she might have her own PR firm. But when she graduated in 2009, the job market wasn't exactly healthy. So, she went to grad school instead and got a full ride to the University of Memphis where she pursued a master's degree in digital marketing.
It was during her master's program that she filled an open elective with a web design class. While she'd always been interested in technology and design, she'd never actually learned to code.
"I wound up loving it, getting addicted, and finding myself taking time outside of class to learn more advanced things on my own," Fitzpatrick said.
From there, she started looking at who had the worst websites — frequently churches and hair salons, and asked them if they wanted new ones.
That meant some side income. It took her about 6 months to find her full time first job.
"I was on the ramen noodles budget but I was making it," she said.
That first job was with non-profit Ronald McDonald House doing PR and marketing, but she quickly transitioned into digital and helped them do things like develop a social media strategy and tap into a younger demographic. Fitzpatrick used social to drive fundraising, volunteerism, and actually raised $10,000 in her first year.
Her drift toward digital continued.
"I think social media was a gateway to technology for a lot of women in particular and it certainly was for me, so I started to look at a lot of technology platforms that could help me do my job more effectively," she said.
What she noticed in investigating new platforms was that were many were startups that offered products she liked, but they were mostly geared toward for profit companies.
It took her about a year in her job to get itchy.
Fitzpatrick wanted more ownership of her personal growth, the flexibility to work unconventional hours, and more independence.
A few factors shaped what happened next.
On a foundational level, Fitzpatrick had been a mentee since she was 6 years old, and then mentored when she got older. She witnessed organizational challenges mentor programs faced with regard to matching people, or even just keeping track of them —"duct taping" together spreadsheets or other tools to help run the program, and then not really being able to use that data to influence outcomes.
Fitzpatrick also had a conversation with a friend about the nerves surrounding being matched with a mentee. Even after interviews, applications, questionnaires — a whole lot of data collection — there's no guarantee the pair will click.
"If you can imagine doing all that for a date. At the end of this there better be Mister Right after I've gone through all of this," she said. But the idea is that dating sites like eHarmony or Match.com work towards using all the data to effectively find a match. There needs to be an eHarmony for mentoring, she thought.
As more of a direct catalyst for starting MentorMe, in December 2012, Fitzpatrick's grandfather passed away.
She said he'd always been very encouraging of her independence, as he had an entrepreneurial spirit himself. He was someone who lived his life without regard for what others thought of him.
"That put me in a very reflective state where I just thought, 'if I'm going to do it, I need to do it now,'" she said.
MentorMe does three things. It helps match mentors and mentees, provides a solution for tracking mentor/mentee activities as well as feedback, and it gives organizations a way to measure their desired outcomes through data reporting.
Launching MentorMe proved to be a learning experience in Fitzpatrick staying true to herself.
Early on, people advised that if she were to go into an investor meeting, she should carry a backpack, not a purse, and wear jeans, a blazer, and t-shirt, not a dress. Basically, don't be too feminine.
She quickly realized that trying to conform made her uncomfortable. Who she is happens to be that person who can toggle between those 3-inch heels and running a business meeting.
"They don't limit my ability to do one or the other and I think it was important for me to put that message out there and take a stance against that for those young women who I mentor, for the young women who I know are watching me," she said.
Another convention she bucked was that of having a co-founder. If anything, Fitzpatrick said she wished that she'd taken the time she spent looking for a co-founder and put it toward building MentorMe sooner.
Going solo isn't easy.
"You're kind of Tom Hanks with your Wilson volleyball," she said, but it's been more productive.
These days as she's growing MentorMe, Fitzpatrick spends a lot of time in her car.
"If we have a potential lead with a company that's based in Dallas and I needed to drive to Dallas, I would be on the road to drive to Dallas," she said.
Aside from MentorMe, Fitzpatrick is also on the advisory board for 100 Girls on Code, and has been involved with Project Diane, a project that aims to document black women founders.
"It helps me to see that when we talk about women and minorities, when we talk about diversity — there are some women who are both. I think sometimes that gets overlooked in the diversity conversation," she said.
In her own words...
How do you unplug?
"I think the person who makes me unplug the most is my grandmother. I grew up spending a lot of time with her so I try to on Saturdays, I try to reserve that day to spend with her. She'd be proud of me no matter what I was doing. The thing a lot of entrepreneurs say is a lot of people ask 'how are you?' and your initial response is to tell them how your company is doing. That's what everyone wants to know. When my Granny asks how I'm doing, she really means how am I doing. It takes me out of that, oh let me give you my KPI dashboard in a 5-second summary. I think she's someone who takes me out of that mode."
If you could try another profession, what would it be?
"I was just thinking about this last night. One of my favorite shows isn't on the air anymore, but it's Drop Dead Diva. I would love to be Jane Bingum for a day. She has some fabulous outlooks for Harrison-Parker the firm she works for. I would love to try out being an attorney for a day. All the law classes I took I really enjoyed, but I think there's something about that profession that I really like."
What's your favorite thing to read?
"I probably enjoy fiction more than non-fiction, though I feel like there are some fiction books I feel like every entrepreneur should read. I really like Mitch Albom, John Grisham. I read Forbes and Inc. and all that stuff."
Erin Carson has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.