Anna Akbari, Serial Entrepreneur, on Tech, Fashion, Karaoke and Rollerskating!

Anna Akbari is a serial entrepreneur, as well as a sociologist and professor in the department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University.

She is the founder and CEO of Splice, an enterprise software recommendation engine; and the founder of Closet Catharsis, her fashion and image consulting company, which takes a holistic approach to individual empowerment and identity construction through personal styling and image management.

Anna serves on the advisory boards for Dapprly, a men’s social fashion app, and Stone Creek Entertainment mobile gaming company.  Her academic research focuses on visual and virtual self-presentation, mediated / digital identity, group and individual identity construction, visual culture, and digital happiness. She is also a frequent guest lecturer and writer, most recently for TEDxSiliconAlley, The Atlantic, The Financial Times, and she has a regular column in Stylecaster.     

Anna attended Interlochen Arts Academy on scholarship for Theater; she received her B.A. in Religious and Middle Eastern Studies from New York University, an M.A. in Liberal Studies and a Ph.D. in Sociology from The New School for Social Research. 

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Splice and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

AA: I first conceived of Splice several years ago when social media was just starting to multiply the number of contacts and points of connection in our everyday lives.  As a sociologist, I immediately became interested in how this new technology would alter our relationships, and I soon became interested in solving the problem of using social technologies to create more meaningful connections – not just a lot of noise.  This started as a pursuit to create a consumer facing recommendation app that drew from data across multiple social networks.  But when I met my business partner, he had the great vision to pivot to enterprise.  So now we’re generating recommendations that connect employees by uncovering overlapping areas of interest, expertise, and hidden data.  It’s a different user than I first envisioned, but one where the value of that connection can be realized very quickly.

While getting Splice off the ground (it’s my first tech startup, so I’ve had a lot to learn), I started Closet Catharsis, my wardrobe and image consulting company.  In addition to specializing in our relationships with technology, my other sociological area of expertise is in visual self-presentation.  Closet Catharsis has supported me while I launch Splice.  It’s sort of unusual to start 2 companies at the same time, but in this case it was a great way to use my existing skills to earn money while building a product.  It meant I could continue to work for myself, name my own hours, and develop entrepreneurial skills from several angles.  It’s been difficult, but incredibly rewarding. I can’t imagine any other path, so I know I’m an entrepreneur at heart.  

TNW: What does your day look like?

Every day is different for me – that’s part of what I love about being an entrepreneur.  

I’m really not a morning person, so I usually wake up sometime between 8-9 am, check email and attend to whatever’s come up overnight while eating breakfast, then check in with my Splice business partner via phone or head to the office to meet him in person.  I oscillate throughout the day between working alone and working with my business partner and other team members and interns.  It creates a nice balance between focused, isolated productivity and collaboration – both of which I think are key to any organization’s success.  I’m constantly deciding which tasks to delegate and which to focus on myself.

Depending upon the time of the year and day of the week, I may also teach a class at NYU, meet with students, or give a guest lecture somewhere.  Most weeks I’ll schedule at least a few exploratory meetings with new people in my industry.  It’s a way of networking in a more intentional way that creates meaningful connections and strong relationships.  My evenings are often filled with more work (I tend to work late) or industry events – everything from lectures to networking mixers to drinks with investors.  If I don’t have an event to attend or work to accomplish, I’ll often use evenings and weekends to write and catch up on reading, as I have fewer distractions then.  My days are long, but I’m never bored (ever) and find myself wishing for more time – rather than wishing the work day would hurry up and end.  For me, that’s how I know I’m doing what I love and that even the tough days are good days.

TNW: Do you lie awake at night sometimes thinking about the company? What aspects of it specifically keep you awake?

AA: All the time!  (I’m not a great sleeper.)  In addition to the daily mental rundown of deadlines and what needs to be accomplished the next day, I think a lot about my team – everything from strategically building our team, to helping team members manage a healthy work/life balance, to mentoring new interns.  I really do think of them as family.  I constantly try to imagine the next 3-12 months (and beyond) and then anticipate what steps we need to take to continue to evolve into a healthy, thriving company.  I also think a lot about all the areas in which I still have room to grow and learn and what to read/who to listen to/what experiences to create in order to make that a reality.  Turning my mind off is a constant challenge.  

Scheduling regular runs, yoga classes, and fun, creative outlets like karaoke (I co-founded the NY Tech Karaoke Meetup) and disco rollerskating in Central Park are great ways to escape from my head for a bit.

TNW: If you hadn’t chosen entrepreneurship, what alternative career path might you have pursued?

AA: In my first life (Anna 1.0) I was an actress and performer (theater, dance, music, etc.).  I attended Interlochen Arts Academy, an international school for the performing arts.  I’ve moved down a different path than I was on in those days, but my training as a performer serves me daily and I’m grateful to have those skills.

TNW: Do you think that attitudes towards female entrepreneurs are changing?

AA: I hope so, but studies like this one which suggests that IPO investors are less likely to trust their money to companies with a female CEO are very discouraging.   The notion that women professional leaders are less capable than their male counterparts is absurd – and the more women who throw their hats (and heels) into this ring, the more quickly this myth and prejudice will dissipate.

TNW: What do you think could be done to increase the number of women entrepreneurs?

AA: This is a topic I’m very passionate about.  The entrepreneurial gender gap is disturbing and not in any way an accurate representation of the contribution potential of women.  I think role models and mentoring are at the heart of increasing the number of women entrepreneurs.  If young women can’t envision themselves in these leadership roles – if there’s no one to look up to – then it’s hard to actualize it.  Young women also need to be directly mentored by other women.  Making the commitment to become an entrepreneur is risky and can be scary, so mentors are key to supporting and encouraging those aspirations.   

TNW: What is one lesson you would like to pass on to other women leaders?

AA: It’s ok to be a woman and a serious leader.  In other words, we need not try to assimilate into men to be effective.  

I embrace my femininity, in both the way I conduct business and the way I visually self-present, and I don’t think it in any way compromises my success as a professional – quite the contrary.  

Anne Hollander, in her brilliant book, Sex and Suits, uses the elaborate, cumbersome outfits worn by Catherine the Great and Elizabeth I as a testament to the fact that “female” attire can be empowering: “Such clothing certainly did not confine those queens to the sofa, nor their conversation to frivolities...nor to feel submissive and inactive...In fact, both the inward feeling and the outward aspects of persons in their situation...who preserve bodily decorum, mental energy and rhetorical skill...all while visibly transcending the constant challenge of such garments, are infused with the aura of power and triumph, not with the sense of submission to burdens.”  I couldn’t agree more.

TNW: How should female entrepreneurs present and style themselves for increased success?

AA: Female entrepreneurs need to remember that they have infinitely more challenges than men when it comes to effective visual communication and self-presentation, so we need to be that much more hyper-vigilant.  Curves, accessories, heel height, hem lengths, makeup – the list of everyday challenges goes on.  Here are 5 basic rules to guide you:

  • Wear things that fit properly.  Pay for tailoring if need be; it’s worth it.
  • Invest in quality over quantity.  Men learn this earlier than women and we should follow their lead on this one.
  • Don’t wear things that require too much fidgeting.  It’s distracting and instantly disempowering.
  • Gravitate toward classic pieces, colors, and patterns (note: classic is not the same as conservative) and choose a specific area to introduce a bit of style and flair into your outfit (i.e. an animal skin belt, colorful shoes, unique statement jewelry, etc.) – just don’t wear them all at once.
  • Never underestimate the power of grooming.  Taking the time and allocating the necessary resources to maintain your hair and wearing a little makeup has been proven to be positively rewarded in professional settings. Use it to your advantage.

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