Beth Thouin has been called a bitch three times in her professional career.
The first time she was 27, pregnant with her first child, and trying to name a product. A lawyer she was working with, annoyed that she refused to do the trademark research he tried to pass off onto her–which was outside both her expertise and responsibilities–asked her, ‘Are you being a bitch because you’re pregnant, or are you just a bitch?’
“At the time I was still shy and in my shell, and I didn’t say anything. I felt shocked and intimidated. I didn’t even tell anybody. Today, at 37, the gloves are gone. Of course I would confront that. I would try to confront that with compassion, because that’s the only way to get anywhere,” Thouin told MTLinTECH.
The confidence and self-assuredness Beth radiates now, ten years later, was hard won. And that ability to confront with compassion is the result of years of seeing sexual discrimination in the workplace, both in and out of the tech sector.
“I started my career in traditional sales and marketing in the wine industry, and then I went into manufacturing. And then I went into tech. The ‘women issue’ is universal in any industry. I graduated with a BCOM in Marketing from Concordia, and at a recruitment fair I met a man recruiting for a marketing and sales position for a wine packaging company here in Montreal. The first thing he said to me was: ‘Well Beth, this job requires a lot of travel, and I know women don’t like to travel so it might not be for you’. So from the get go of my professional life, it started on a high sexist note.”
Thouin ended up taking the job, citing her experience traveling to recruit international students for Concordia University over the previous eight months. But what she initially saw as a challenge, she later came to realize were red flags.
“Being so young I didn’t clue in that maybe this was going to be a pattern with this boss. Two years in, it was an obvious pattern. He would ask me to put an extra button on my shirt all the way up to my neck because it was distracting for the factory workers. He would challenge women for their emotions, and it was just daily that conversations revolved around gender inequalities. And then having to travel with this person and be in hotels with them when they’re offering you drinks and casually hitting on you as a young woman in her mid-twenties, you just have no clue what’s happening.”
She learned a lot, and in her time there gained valuable experience doing door-to-door sales, working on the website, messaging, and branding. But after two years she had had enough. During her time there, she had kept a list of her boss’s inappropriate behavior towards her.
“I went into his office to resign, and I listed every single thing he had ever done or said to me. I said I would also take my bonus, even though the year wasn’t finished, and if you don’t give it to me I can go and talk to everyone at the office. And I walked away with a $7,000 bonus when I was 25. So that was my first moment of empowerment in my professional career.”
After the wine packaging company, she got a job as a marketing coordinator for a bathtub manufacturer–the largest in Canada–and spent five years learning the ins and outs of manufacturing.
“We were trained by Japanese consultants–who pioneered lean–and we had rigorous training every year. I went from a coordinator to a project manager to product specialist, and in those years the biggest takeaways for me professionally was the lean manufacturing and voice-of-customer training. And then I took that with me to tech.”
After having her second child, an old friend from university offered her a job at a startup where he was acting CEO part-time. While the company was focused on inbound marketing–a whole new world for Beth–she soon realized that the skills she had learned at her last job were both transferrable and necessary in the startup ecosystem.
“I was working on their branding and I was asking the founder, ‘So, what about your product can customers not live without?’ And he pursed his eyebrows and he said, ‘Well, I think it’s going to be this, this, and that’. I said, ‘What do you mean you think? Have you never spoken to a potential customer?’ And he hadn’t. This is in 2012. I was blown away. In the manufacturing world, I couldn’t even go to the board with a project idea without having done at least 100 customer interviews or surveys”
She became more involved in the Montreal startup ecosystem, attending events for MTL NewTech in its early days, and realized the lack of knowledge about customer validation was widespread.
“Nobody was really doing it. Everybody wanted advice, so I started coaching people on the side. And then I met Davender Gupta, who was like ‘Beth, you have to get this material out in the world’. And at the same time, The Lean Startup by Eric Ries came out. When I was thinking about merging all my lean manufacturing knowledge with the tech world, this book came out. I used a lot of his material combined with my proprietary stuff I’ve done and I started giving trainings.”
She began running workshops with Startup-Académie in Montreal and Quebec City. Soon after that, she met Sergio Escobar and started mentoring at Startup Weekend, Startup Next powered by Google for entrepreneurs, Founder Institute–and soon enough McGill and Concordia were calling her for the material.
“For me, when I would fail early on in my career, I would lose sleep for days. I felt so accountable and guilty for making mistakes. And today, when I fail, I’m happy. It’s a complete 180. I fail, and then I congratulate my team on failing, we document, we learn, and we’re smarter than we were before we failed. And I still fail. All the time.”
“Over time I refined the material and got to understand what the connection was between the material and the entrepreneur that gave the entrepreneur that aha moment. It was a beautiful thing. Then I started doing workshops with Fondation Montreal Inc., and I have the best formula with them. We do the first session where we train them, and then they have two weeks to go out and do validation. And when they all come back they are new people. They are starry-eyed and inspired by customers with new ideas. And then it’s about helping them focus on solving the right problems for the right customers, and then moving forward with customer development on that track.”
After spending a year and a half as a partner at an agency, learning the ins and outs of inbound digital marketing and client services, Thouin struck out on her own as a consultant. She charged her first client $45/hr.
“I’m very transparent about salaries. Today, I believe everybody should share their salaries. We gain pay equity, motivation and clarity from understanding what and why our peers and colleagues are worth. I was so insecure about charging a high hourly fee when I incorporated my own business I wanted to do it for free. I feel like women have been conditioned to not ask for what they’re worth.”
“When you’re getting hired, ask how much your male counterparts or predecessors, ask how much they made. Don’t take the job until they tell you. It’s happened to me and friends multiple times where they were missing $20,000-$30,000 on top of their salary that their male counterparts were receiving. Same experience, same accountability, less money. You have to ask.”
Within three months, her first client encouraged her to charge more: she was his most productive worker and was charging far lower rates than any of his other consultants.
“There’s a threshold, especially with startups, with willingness to pay because they’re bootstrapped and every dime counts. And then there’s this nurturing side of me that just wants to contribute and help. So do we do it for free? Well, no, because I’m single and have to pay my rent and have all these responsibilities. It grew from there, and the amount of growth that one gets from client work is tremendous. 1) from working alone, but 2) from working with many clients. Because every client helps you grow in a new way that helps your other clients. All of the knowledge I share with one individual client they all benefit from. Over time, that just grows exponentially. The consulting just literally blew up from there. So I went from $45/hr to charging $100/hr within a year.”
She continued consulting, working as a sort of CMO-for-hire for funded started, strategizing and building a marketing foundation from the ground up, then handing it off. She worked with two or three clients at a time for three, six, or nine month contracts. Until one day, she started a three-month contract job at Acquisio, and it grew into a permanent executive position.
“Acquisio, although it was a ten year old software company born and bred in Montreal, it was very much a startup culture-wise. They hired me to restructure their marketing department as well as processes and strategies. It was the biggest job I had taken as a consultant yet, it was a full-time three month contract. After building that team, I couldn’t leave them, it was just too much fun. They offered me the VP Marketing position, and I’m their first female VP of Marketing after four males.”
The second time somebody called Beth a bitch it was a founder she was mentoring.
“He asked me two things: ‘Do you think you get jobs because you’re hot?’ and ‘Oh come on Beth, you think you’re hot shit. You walk around here like a bitch.'”
That time, Thouin had a candid conversation about it. The founder, once confronted, ended up being very receptive and said he had meant it as a compliment and because he was genuinely curious.
“But I had to explain to him how that just makes me feel like I’m without merit for maintaining clients, helping clients succeed, and it makes me question if they come back to me because I’m a woman, or do they come back to me because I make them money? And then the bitch piece, I just explained to him, ‘I’m walk around swiftly simply because I need to go from point A to point B and I don’t know how to change that, and I’m not going to change that’.”
One of her biggest challenges as a woman, especially in her younger years, was being heard. Being truly heard and considered as a contributor to anything business-wise. The second biggest challenge was not being intimidated by males. But she’s developed strategies for dealing with both challenges over the years.
“At a very young age I found myself mimicking men, because I was trying to level the playing field between us. I sit with my legs open. I wear jeans and shirts, I never wear dresses. I active listen, I lean forward. I interrupt a lot. And that’s okay. I make really fast decisions, and I make a lot of them all day long. I don’t hesitate. And all of these are traits that I’ve picked up from men and I try to mimick them. it helped me feel more comfortable, because it’s always obvious that I am the only woman in the boardroom.”
There’s a distinct double-standard when it comes to describing demeanor in the workplace. If a man is curt, focused, and driven he is ‘business-minded’. If a woman is, people wonder if she’s a bitch.
The third time somebody called Beth a bitch was similar to the second. A colleague remarked that, ‘You know what, Beth? You’re actually pretty cool. I thought you were a bitch when you started working here.’
“And then I asked why? And he said, ‘You walk around here like you owned things, your face is always in your phone, you’re curt.'”
“My next question was whether he’d ever had that thought about a man. And he hadn’t. If it was a man, it would be seen as ‘Oh, he’s just all about business.’ I am a strong believer of lean systems, and cutting out waste, so I will walk out of meetings if they’re wasting everybody’s time. That’s how my team works at the velocity at which they work. We also have a ton of fun. It’s just my way. So when a man considers that being a bitch, I feel that it’s pure sexism.”
But it’s because of these very qualities that Beth is where she is today. She’s no longer the 27 year old young woman too afraid to speak up to someone. She’s developed her own fail-safe methods and strategies for success, and she’s not afraid to use them.
“My advice to women in tech is to surround yourself with smart people, bring solutions (not problems) and ask for help! I still get all my projects peer reviewed by experts. And please, never question your worth. We all want to contribute and your contributions are important.”