In an impassioned and insightful interview, 2012 Les Roches graduate Salma Miss shared the path that led her to launch her own growth marketing agency, catered to ambitious startups: Disrupt. Along the way, she saw the world, but she also experienced the mental toll of ambition and the hidden side of sexism in the workplace. Now, she discusses her journey, and offers advice on how to effect change, both internally and externally.
Within two years of graduation, Moroccan born Salma had completed a J1 trainee program in the US, opened a hotel in Egypt, excelled as a Brand Manager for nightlife venues in Dubai & Abu Dhabi, and scaled-up a promising French startup. Next was a year setting sail across Southeast Asia, while still working of course, and putting on the building blocks of a career in Technology.
“I wanted to try remote work and do some traveling around Southeast Asia. I think everyone should try a gap year, take the time to explore and meet people from all over the world. So I found an online platform, filled in a profile, and within three hours I had an interview for a remote role with a startup in France.”
That French startup was incubated in one of the continent’s foremost accelerators, The Family – and Salma’s time there opened her eyes to the idea of launching her own business.
“The engineering team, product team, business development team, and all of the VC space and ecosystem that exists around startups was all as new to me as it was exciting – and very enriching. I really enjoyed breaking out of the mold and quickly realized there was an opportunity for me to create something of my own.”
“So I booked a one-way ticket and hopped on a plane”
“At first, Disrupt was more of a brand agency. Coming from a hospitality marketing background, it was innate. But as I worked with startups from over all over the world, I got to make a lot of connections – and learned a lot along the way. Thanks to a team of amazing collaborators at StarOfService, I realized my hospitality background gave me a head-start on all things experience – and I quickly got involved on the Product side of things, because what’s UX other than designing experience?
“Eventually I realized there’s only so far that remote work can get you in terms of connecting with ecosystems and finding opportunities. I needed to be where the tech sector was thriving. So I booked a one way ticket, hopped on a plane and moved to Hong Kong.
“Disrupt V2.0 (version two) was born in January 2020. We touch up on a lot of strategic areas, from brand, to digital marketing, and of course UX. But what we really do is help startups understand their customers, where their market opportunities are, how to best reach them, and convert them into long-lasting business. Along the way, we obviously help them understand how they should improve their product, identify and understand the markets they should move into next, and improve their product functionalities to make sure they successfully penetrate those markets.
“Our purpose is to not only help them drive results while we are all hands on deck – we also put a big focus on helping them learn the ropes. We work hand-in-hand with their teams to instill a growth mindset, while helping them up their skills in growth marketing.”
Launching a startup during a pandemic
Starting a business, stepping into the unknown and employing people can be stressful at the best of times, but in a pandemic, it ramps up a notch, as Salma explains.
“It’s been very challenging. We had a big retainer with Bitcoin.com that was in the books, and they pulled out. Fortunately I was involved in some of the accelerators in Hong Kong and around the world, so I had a direct stream of leads because I was mentoring some of the startups. Another thing that kept us afloat is our ability to be flexible, which right now means tailoring the scope of a project to get the startups making money, before anything.
“Unless you’re in eCommerce, don’t draw most of your budget into marketing right now. And if you do, make sure it’s experimental, then you can learn from it, and improve your product.”
“If you’re launching a startup right now during this pandemic, don’t waste precious time raising money. This is not the right time as investors are more focused on injecting more to save the startups already in their portfolios, than investing in new ones. Instead, focus on making your product better. Make sure that you truly understand your segment, and work on adding features that you didn’t think you originally had the capacity for. Unless you’re in eCommerce, don’t draw most of your budget into marketing right now. And if you do, make sure it’s experimental, so you can learn from it, and improve your product.
“I can’t emphasize on the importance of brand enough: now more than ever, you need a brand with a voice that speaks to people, that is visually appealing, that delivers a multi-sensory experience and speaks directly to your target demographic. Spend money on a professional brand specialist to create something that your audience can relate to. This is very important. Brands drives trust and people make decisions based on their perception of you.”
Ambition comes with Anxiety
As a founder of a startup, you’re going to encounter stress and anxiety, it’s part of the package and means you’re growing. You just have to see it and manage it.
“I’ve gone through debilitating anxiety. So I know what it is to not be able to get yourself out in the world. When I was in my early twenties, it was really bad. But one of the things that makes me stronger today is that I’ve gone through it before. So now, whenever I get anxious, I never let it take over because I understand that whenever you’re down, you’re going to get back up. You’re not broken. You have to find the coping mechanisms that push you forward. For me it was Crossfit.”
“…you’re going to feel extremely low and you might feel like you’ve lost yourself, and that’s OK.”
“You have to normalize the fact that there is going to be moments where you’re going to feel extremely low and you might feel like you’ve lost yourself, and that’s OK. You’ve not lost it. Everyone goes through it and you’re not alone. Just use your coping mechanisms, focus on yourself, eat healthy, work out, get outdoors and close to nature. It may sound generic, but it works: understand how your brain works and what it releases in every situation – and gain mastery over it.”
Outing sexism in the workplace
For Salma, sexism in the tech startup space is less obvious than in other industries, but it does exist. It’s often just harder to spot, blended in the hype of “startup culture”, and extremely difficult to call out.
“There’s a lot of unconscious bias. Unlike aging sectors where the Dinosaur is easy to spot, the Tech sexist will come across as all sorts of cool. His misogynistic behavior will be “milder”, and he will not be aware of his own bias – which makes it so hard to discuss.
“Think of that cool C-level who last cut you in a meeting, or put his hand forward in a gesture to signal you to “stop talking”. Or that idea you’ve been putting on the table time and time again but was not picked up – until the Male speaks. Or this aggressive line of questioning or dismissive tone that throws you off-rail when you are trying to have a productive meeting.
“Most women will confirm: it happens more often than most realize. It’s a belief system and we have to break one piece after the other. For most women it means quietly demonstrating that our abilities are as good as theirs. But I’m a very outspoken woman and I’m not going to shy away. I make sure to address it and help people realize what’s going on, and the toxic behavior they are breeding.”
“When it comes to unconscious bias, it is a lot harder to put your finger on it and convince someone they have been perpetrating it. So, as a business, if a female colleague brings up that she feels like her gender is a determinant in how she is being treated, hear her out. As a leader, you have the responsibility to address it. Look at it and look back at yourself. You may think that you’re doing things to the best of your ability, and you probably are – but you may have a little underlying toxicity at the back of your head that you may not fully realize.”
“Be the ambassador of the principles that are infused in you”
Detailing a process that’s as important for colleagues as it is for business-owners themselves, Salma shared her personal three-step approach to dealing with sexism in the workplace.
“The first thing I do is address the issue with the person before I escalate anything. I go for coffee with them, speak to the person directly: ‘I just want to tell you, this happened today and I didn’t feel good about it. And I just feel like you’re not necessarily been listening. And I think we should work together in resolving this issue’.
“Assuming the person was not my boss, the next step I’d take is to go to my direct supervisor and speak to him or her about what is happening and how I feel. He or she may know the person that I’m having challenges with better. It may confirm what other employees have told them before and lead to positive action.
“The last thing I do, which is a little bit more extreme and I’ve had to do this, is escalating it to C level, or HR if it’s a C level person you’re having difficulty with.
Generally, I would say always start smooth, try and resolve the issue directly, build rapport with the person and prove yourself. This will feel really counter-intuitive and it requires a lot of self-control, to push yourself with a person that is discriminating against you. But you want to be the ambassador of the principles that are infused in you.”
Thank you to Salma for taking the time out to share her journey, insight for entrepreneurs, and advice for all professionals facing challenges in the workplace. Disrupt is only going one way and we’re excited to watch it grow.