I'm an immigrant founder of a $1 billion tech company. Here are my 5 best tips to overcoming imposter syndrome.

Advertisement
I'm an immigrant founder of a $1 billion tech company. Here are my 5 best tips to overcoming imposter syndrome.
Manny Medina is Outreach's CEO.Outreach
  • Manny Medina is the CEO of Outreach, an AI-based sales engagement platform.
  • He's learned that sacrifices will have to be made, even to parts of your identity, to get ahead of this problem.
  • Medina says using imposter syndrome as a positive motivator and building a strong support network has helped him to be more ambitious and assertive as CEO.

Last summer, I was interviewed by Elias Torres, the cofounder of Drift, about our experiences as Hispanic entrepreneurs in the United States. Afterward, as I chatted with attendees who were thinking of starting companies, I was struck and saddened by the amount of negative self-talk I heard.

Many of these talented young people had great ideas, but seemed to have convinced themselves they weren't cut out to be founders.

"I wouldn't feel comfortable walking into a room of VCs."

Advertisement

"I have never done this before. They would never trust someone like me."

"Who am I to start a company?"

I recount this experience not to be critical, but to say that I get it. I've been there. In fact, I still am some days.

Advertisement

As immigrant founders, we all share some form of imposter syndrome

I've felt it ever since I left Ecuador to come to college in the US at age 20, and at every step in my journey as cofounder of Outreach. Even though I'm now CEO of a company that's valued at more than $1 billion, is listed on the Forbes Cloud 100, and employs more than 600 people, I still sometimes worry whether a guy with an accent - who worked in shrimp farms most summers as a kid, and whose grandfather was a Communist organizer - is the right person to take forward the company I love.

But here's the good news. While I don't think these thoughts will ever go away completely, I've learned to control them. In fact, I've learned to let them motivate me.

Imposter syndrome is defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite demonstrable success. It can happen to anyone, but is particularly common among women, minorities, immigrants - people who may not fit the common norms in a given community.

Advertisement

The current political situation in the United States exacerbates this phenomenon. Over and over, I hear the narrative that immigrants are bad for our economy and are stealing jobs that should go to Americans. Former President Trump has repeatedly demonized immigrants from Mexico and Central America as rapists and criminals and "invaders." In fact, last year the Trump Administration put a temporary ban on the H1-B visa program, which is how Outreach has hired several of our most talented, unique, and irreplaceable employees, particularly data scientists and other highly technical people.

This problem also extends far beyond official Washington policy. I sometimes feel that kind of resentment from people I meet in daily life, even in progressive places like the Bay Area and Seattle, Outreach's hometown.

What can other immigrant founders - or anyone, for that matter - do to overcome imposter syndrome? Here are a handful of lessons I've learned along the way.

Advertisement

1. Turn it into a positive motivator

Like most thoughts, you can't just destroy imposter syndrome, but you can control it with healthy habits and discipline.

Don't hate or judge these thoughts too much - they can even be useful. While they may be misplaced, I think they are related to the paranoia and passion and ambition that many successful people share, and those can all be powerful motivators. They can help you check yourself to make sure you're not drinking your own Kool-Aid. The trick is to never let your thoughts become debilitating. If you find yourself sitting around finding ways to justify why you're a horrible founder, it's time to adjust your mindset.

Meditation can help. I started meditating three years ago, and it's given me a mechanism to calm the negative voices in my head. It doesn't silence them, but it lets me observe my own moods and triggers. Am I sad? Am I discouraged? Why? What's triggering those thoughts? Are negative thoughts sapping my energy? Do I need to go for a walk to change my train of thought? Simply becoming aware of your thoughts without judging them is half the battle.

Advertisement

Read more: What the future of coworking might look like for the self-employed as they seek out ways to network, collaborate, and set up shop

2. Give yourself some extra credit

Chances are, you've had to overcome multiple challenges because of your immigrant or minority or gender status. For example, English is my second language, so I actually have to translate everything from Spanish on the fly. When I do math in my head, I do it in Spanish. That means it takes a few microseconds longer for me to answer a question or do a calculation. That's okay. Rather than beat yourself up, consider being proud of your determination to overcome challenges. It's all about perspective.

3. Accept that you'll make sacrifices

Zoom is one of the most successful new companies of the past few years, but its founder, Eric Yuan, has said that he had to work hard to overcome his accent. In a recent interview, he said, "I do think the language barrier is a factor, seriously. I was born in Shandong province in China, and when I came here I even did not speak the language."

Advertisement

If you have an accent, know that some people will judge or have preconceived ideas about you because of it. It isn't fair, but it is sometimes true.

I've also paid the price for my accent. For example, after we pitched one venture capital firm, the partner declined to invest because I "wasn't technical enough," even though I have a masters degree in computer science and Outreach is a technical company at its very core. We've been focused on machine learning advancements since our early days, and 40% of our revenues are invested into engineering. I'm convinced that I just didn't fit into this person's idea of what a tech entrepreneur should be. Did he pass on us because I didn't code the product myself, or because to him I sounded like his gardener?

Some of the sacrifices you will make might take you by surprise. I'm reminded of this every time someone says my name. My name is not Manny - it's Manuel. But early in my career, one boss had a hard time remembering my name and decided, "I'll just call you Manny." I love the guy, and I'm sure he didn't mean it to be hurtful. Since then, I've learned to live with it, but I didn't like it at all at the time.

Advertisement

I'm not suggesting you put up with all the slights or wrongs you face. I sometimes wonder why I never pushed back to reclaim my given name. But I've learned it's important to pick your battles, and accept the fact that you may lose some en route to achieving more important dreams.

Read more: How to optimize your LinkedIn profile using keywords so it's super easy for recruiters to find

5. Build a support network

When my company recently passed an important revenue milestone, instead of feeling proud and accomplished, one of my first thoughts was, "How am I possibly going to get this company to the next level? "

Advertisement

I started to imagine a host of new fears. For example, when we go public at some time in the future, how will the market respond to me? Will investors think, "Outreach is great, except I'm not sure about that CEO. He's never done this before, and he comes from Ecuador. There are no successful immigrant Latino CEOs in tech." Will having me as the CEO be detrimental to our valuation as a public company?

Well, despite the fears, the truth is that I'm pretty good at founding and scaling a company.

So rather than spend time bemoaning the unfairness of it all, I decided to put in the extra work to re-level the playing field.

Advertisement

Extra work doesn't just mean putting in more hours than the next person. It means being creative about preventing problems that could result from people's conscious or unconscious biases. Soon after cofounding Outreach, I set out to get 200 people in the industry to not just know me, but to respect me - for my ideas, my authentic personality, my vision. Not only did I manage to sell a lot of software to some of these people, but I also earned the trust and friendship of a network of colleagues across the industry, connections that probably saved the company during make-or-break points in our history.

I'm repeating this exercise now, this time with fund managers. We've said that we're a year or more from an IPO. But when the time comes, I want these institutional investors to know and understand me, rather than think about my heritage.

Whether it's fair or not, imposter syndrome is likely to be part of your life as a minority, immigrant or female founder. It's your choice whether you choose to let it hold you back, or to drive you forward. I encourage the latter.

Advertisement

Manny Medina is the founder and CEO of Outreach, an AI-based sales engagement platform. Prior to Outreach, Medina was employee No.3 on Amazon's AWS team and led the Microsoft mobile division from launch to $50 million in annual revenue. He holds an MBA from Harvard and a master of computer science from the University of Pennsylvania. Medina grew up in Ecuador and now lives with his wife and three children in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter.

{{}}