Tech Leader Spotlight: Lizelle van Vuuren

For this week's Tech Leader Spotlight, I sat down with Women Who Startup founder, Lizelle van Vuuren, to talk tech, Denver, and entrepreneurship.

van Vuuren is originally from South Africa, but made the active choice at the young age of 14 to move to Colorado. She moved to Boulder where she spent her first summer living in the states with her sister, who attended CU Boulder. After graduating high school she attended CU for one year, studying psychology and performing arts.

However, van Vuuren realized that the school was not quite right for her.

She said, "I couldn't imagine being happy for the next 3 years sitting in an auditorium of 500 people. I didn't, at the time, I do now, know that I'm a hyper sensitive person. So I take things in a different capacity." 

 After coming to that realization, she worked and travelled for a year when she came across The Art Institute of Colorado in LoDo. Three weeks after walking into the student gallery, van Vuuren was enrolled as a full time student and finished a four-year immersive interactive media design program in just three years. She graduated with an internship-turned-job, and continued onto complete her MBA.

Now, the entrepreneur runs her company, Effectively - a tech lab, leads a community of over 3,000 women at Women Who Startup as Founder, co-hosts Women Who Startup Radio podcast, and has an especially prominent voice in the community when it comes to tech and diversity.

SO, TELL ME ABOUT YOUR TRANSITION FROM PSYCHOLOGY AND PERFORMING ARTS TO THE TECH COMMUNITY.

Right, well I went from growing up being quite the right-brained artist, and an avid athlete, and growing up in theater and on stage, and really loving art, psychology, human behavior, and then I really kind-of shifted gears to a different medium. At The Art Institute, I did a really immersive degree that touched on all of the things I was already passionate about—telling stories visually, capturing moments visually…it touched on all of those things, and went pretty deep into all of them and that was amazing to me. I learned to code from scratch during that degree and built my foundation of web design and web development and many other applied digital arts mediums including videography, digital photography, design and more.

I was lucky enough during my second year to get a six-week internship at this company, which I ended up working at for nine years. So, that was the foundation of my career in technology. I finished my degree, then completed my MBA full-time while working there. I went from graphic design intern, to part time marketer, to marketing manager, to director of marketing and product development. I became really accustomed to taking concepts, working with software engineering teams, creating the launch strategies including branding and positioning for them, building the websites for them, and taking them to market really fast, with really no money. It was very “startup” oriented.

And that’s where I really quickly learned…I’m not built like a lot of other people. I’ve got speed, I really know how to take things to market with really scrappy resources, if any, and I can hack anything together.

Then at the end of 2011 when I left the company I immediately shifted and became a professional entrepreneur. I was out on my own. And 5 years later, here we are.

AND AFTER YOU LEFT THE COMPANY, THAT’S WHEN YOU DECIDED TO START WOMEN WHO STARTUP?

So, yeah, I started Women Who Startup because once I was on my own, I started going to a lot of events. I mean a lot. And I started meeting all these fantastic community builders, and  going to meetups and all those network type events. From Denver Founders to Refresh Denver to Boulder-Denver New Tech—you name it, I was there. And except for the women-specific meetups I went to, which were really young then, almost non-existent, all of these platforms were fully male dominant. And not just male dominant, white dude dominant. And, well, they kind of still are. And that’s a fact.

I have a lot to say about that…but instead I do something about it. So, I created Women Who Startup, which started as less than 12 of us and is now a community of over 3,000 female entrepreneurs, startup leaders, women in tech and the men who support the cause. I created a bridge for women through Women Who Startup to make sure they know and understand that our community is vast. And, for them to see how showing up at platforms and opportunities like Denver Founders, like Denver-Boulder New Tech, like all those male dominated meetups, is really critical to their success.

Even though at some point it may be uncomfortable. Awesome shit doesn’t happen when we’re comfortable. Our brand, Women Who Startup, is zoned in on the climb. Because climbing a mountain is really tough, even if you’ve climbed a hundred. But nothing is more uncomfortable or intimidating that your first. Nothing is scarier than the unknown. So, we build a community, Women Who Startup, that is an opportunity to start that climb. We call our monthly events Basecamps, and in essence, it’s like if you make it to Basecamp, you’ve already achieved quite a bit. Showing up is the best and hardest part by far. But now that you’ve showed up, what are you going to do?

I always say that I write women back into history with our platform, in all our programs, just every opportunity I can, because for eons, we’ve been writing women out of history. And, there’s a lot of good reasons that we need to actively, today, not do that anymore. It’s almost like, so obvious, that it’s painful to have to say, and repeatedly say, and continuously say, but here we are.

So, you believe me that we need to tell the stories of women. They need to tell their own stories. And that’s why they’re a profound force in our community, in Colorado, in Women Who Startup, in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. They share their climb with the women at Basecamp, they are a force in making the change we need and encouraging other women to start their entrepreneurial journeys. They carve a path up those proverbial mountains if you will. “You cannot be what you cannot see”, I say that a lot and we’re changing that narrative because we’re showing women everyday other women who are working their asses off building their companies, innovating in tech or conquering mind-blowing adventures.

BESIDES WOMEN WHO STARTUP, WHAT IS YOUR INVOLVEMENT IN THE TECH COMMUNITY?

Well, I’ve organized and co-organized things like Startup Weekend, I’ve cultivated a lot of collaboration between pretty much every other platform or community in the greater Denver area. I’ve been part of Denver Startup week since very early on, co-organizing things, etc. Women Who Startup is, and has been, one of the headline events for going on three years now.

I respect this community profoundly, and I feel honored to have a seat at the table. There are several people in our community that always make sure I’m at the table to represent Women Who Startup, women in general, diversity in tech and in general. I’m always going to be an advocate that it’s not good enough that we’re a bunch of white people in the room. We have to do better than that. It’s as simple as that. Take more responsibility, curate diversity. Some people see me as a loud pain in the butt, other people understand that when I show up at the table, I mean business. I am there for a purpose because when I am expending energy I’m doing it for my community, and the betterment of the community. For women to always have a place in the room, at the table, in the boardroom, at the pitch opportunity.

I believe we have a lot more room for collaboration even though we are thriving as a collaborative community. We really are, but we can do even more, even better! We have to make sure we are empowering and inviting diversity to the table, and I mean all kinds. Age, minorities, people of color, the LGBTQ community, you name it. We have to make sure that people have opportunity. Opportunity to succeed, to thrive, to innovate, to build, to create, to be entrepreneurial. There are a lot of people who have given me opportunity and, to them, I am forever grateful. And, I hope to generate a lot of that feedback loop into the work I do in the community.

I’ve also got my company, Effectively, which is currently pivoting to Effectively Labs, where we are building Effectively Hire. That’s also all about the intersection of innovation, technology and diversity, like my involvement in the community in a way. Now, we’re in alpha, but what we’re really experimenting with is machine learning and artificial intelligence and how it empowers connecting people into opportunity, how it eliminates bias during the hiring process, and toying with utilities surrounding that process.

WHAT IS YOUR TYPICAL WORKSPACE LIKE?

So, I’ve had an office literally since I was in my early 20s. Even though I actually worked in an office at that time, I’ve always had a home office because I like working. I know, it sounds crazy. But, I like building, I like creating, I like shipping and always have. Especially when I was younger, just gaining a multimedia degree, I loved creating stuff. So, I’ve always had a home office but since 2011, I’ve had a real home office, and let me tell you I’ve experimented with everything. I’ve written blog  posts on why you should sit, why you should stand, why you shouldn’t sit, why you shouldn’t stand, you should fly, you should hang from the ceiling by your feet! So, I don't know. Still learning. But you should definitely be standing more while working.

But, it’s really lonely working from a home office, so I do a lot of strategic meetings in environments like Galvanize, and I do a lot of events. The work I do in my home office is heads-down work. It’s where I get the projects done that really need that uninterrupted time.

But some people really don’t thrive in a home office, and so they really shouldn’t work from home. Self-knowledge is really important, figuring out what works for you. It’s hard for me, sometimes to work at Galvanize. I feel bombarded by the bright lights, energy, constant interruptions, constant questions. So, the best time for me to work here is Sunday afternoons or Saturday mornings. Knowing that I am hyper-sensitive and just constantly in-tune with the energy and physical environment helped me know what’s right for me to get work done.

For me, concentration is quiet, but I always have my music going—either jazz or classical or maybe some chill out house. I love music, it powers me through and it has for my entire life, I actually used to be a DJ. Which shows today because, the most important thing to me, at my events, is always the music. I always make sure I've got the best DJ! 

It’s such an interesting component that most people don’t think about, but I’m always thinking about that human experience.

 

Back to the home office: I love it. I thrive off of it. You will never—and never say never but, you will probably never see me stuck in an office 8-5 Monday-Friday. Not for me. Movement is life and I solve some of my biggest problems on a walk, at the park with my dog - mostly while in physical movement, that’s when I’m most relaxed and things seem to fall into place and make sense, when I get back to the office I can get to work.

WHAT’S THE COOLEST TECHNOLOGY YOU’RE CURRENTLY WORKING WITH?

So, I’ve used Adobe Creative Suites since I was like, 19. About a month or two, I updated to the Adobe Creative Suite applications all in the cloud and now everything cross-references, and cross-communicates. For someone who has used it for like 12 years now…since 2004? Since 2002! Damn. Well, when you use something for awhile, that while, it was awesome to change, everything being in the cloud, everything being accessible. So I am addicted to Adobe Creative Suites. I want them to continue to get better and simpler, but it’s just an awesome suite of applications that I have used, and will continue to use, for a long time.

BIGGEST TRENDS IN TECH YOU SEE?

Virtual and augmented reality is taking the world by storm. Match bots are taking over and we’ll have to figure out how we make that work with us not against us [humans]. So is smart - everything. Smart cars, smart homes, so IoT (The Internet of Things) is a huge uproar in human experience now. Health tech, Ed-tech and HR tech are interesting new industries that should change so much of how people live and work so I’m very interested in those spaces. But, I’m an overall geek who loves technology with a passion. I’m currently trying to focus and not get so side tracked by all the amazing new “shiny toys”.

★★★

Special thanks to Lizelle for being our featured leader! 

Don't forget to check out our last Tech Leader Spotlight here