Chester County Fund For Woman and Girls Annual Luncheon Keynote
Updated: Aug 1, 2019
My name is Morgan Berman - I am the founder and CEO of a Philadelphia-based company called MilkCrate. Over the last 5 years we have accidentally become an award-winning solution for the world’s nonprofit programs and municipal initiatives. With our platform nonprofit clients can now launch affordable, customized mobile apps that engage their nonprofit program participants and track their impactful behavior. When a nonprofit can reach their program participants where they are - where we all are these days - on our phones - now nonprofit program managers can challenge participants to act in ways that can be tracked and measured against the organization’s grant funded goals like getting more teens to go to museums, more parents to read to their children, or more adults to vote - all examples of our current clients and how they use the apps we built them. Our goal is to make impact actionable and measurable - a goal that for me began when I was just starting out in my career ten years ago.
As I alluded to, I was an unwitting startup founder almost 6 years ago when I was in graduate school at Philadelphia University for my master's thesis. Sustainable design, my field of study, had become a personal passion increasingly morphing into a professional pursuit. I was deeply concerned that our planet’s environmental and resource issues weren’t being internalized by the mainstream consumer world fast enough. My goal at the time was to take all the information I had learned about how to be a more sustainable urban dweller. So I pulled it all together - my childhood, my studies, into an app like any good millennial. My idea for a ‘green yelp’ attracted like-minded others and the press followed.
I got a life altering call from Forbes about two weeks after the first version of our app went live, barely a year after I first conceived the idea. We were one of the 5 companies Forbes had selected from around the country to pitch at the Under 30 Summit. As a result, we attracted investors, accolades from the UN Foundation and much more. Enthusiastically, naively, we set about testing a business model that typically requires millions in marketing that we didn’t have. After nearly two years of repeated failure we made the painful decision to change our product and model. Now we hoped to try a b2b model with a platform that could build apps to engage employees in sustainability and track their impact for their corporate employers’ CSR goals. It made sense on paper, and we even ran a successful paid pilot with Comcast - something few startups can boast. It felt like we were on the right path.
But we found the market’s needs and budgets didn’t have room, either for us or our vision. So after another year or two of testing and learning we had to admit that things still weren’t working out as planned. The bad news? The client-market fit we thought we wanted was a disaster. The good news? We had one client that was amazing - but they were not a company, they were a nonprofit! Finding them had been almost an accident. Their board member suggested they reach out to us about their program’s engagement and data challenges. It was a perfect fit! They needed an app to engage program participants with location check ins, polls, push notifications - all things we could already do. They paid us well, and on time. And just as importantly they were extracting great value out of our product. We had a perfect client. Finally!
Next we had to figure out how to recreate that magic over and over and over again. It took a lot of scary moments and an equal number of hard decisions leading to our current, and I hope, final model. Basically when an organization runs a program, sort of like this one, and there are people who have signed up to be in that program, like all of you, there are things you need to do to be a good ‘participant’. Things like articles to read, polls to answer, videos to watch - consuming content. And then you need to act on that content - like going places, signing up for events, volunteering - activities. And then you need to share that action - with others in the group, or out in the world. And finally your program organizers want to be able to reach you to remind you to do all this stuff - like by sending a push notification or a chat message. All this to keep you, the participants, enrolled, engaged and moving toward your organization’s stated goals. And then tracking that data for your funders!
It’s been over a year since our last pivot. I’m so glad and so relieved we’ve made it here. Now, finally, we are growing our client base every week, with amazing organizations having a tangible impact in the world - and we are the ones that get to help facilitate it and track it. I haven’t gotten this far alone, I’ve had my team and my advisors back me, guide me, argue with me every arduous, scarey, rewarding, fun-filled step of the way. And I can’t stress enough how important it is to have people like them in your corner, people who care about you and the problem you are solving.
Today I find that I am now lucky enough and grateful to be on both ends of that cycle - offering support to new founders as a mentor in the Philly Startup Leaders Accelerator and the Tribe12 Incubator. I speak regularly with other founders offering advice and connections like I was given. Giving back and helping others is how innovation and how women in innovation can, and do, grow.
Every generation must feel like the future is up to them to fix, that they’ve inherited a mess of a world, filled with inequity and dysfunction. Or maybe I just feel that way since I’m a millennial who graduated college in 2008. Either way, the research is solid that the world gets better when women and girls have access to more capital, more education, and more freedom to choose how to live their lives. According to the Clinton Global Initiative when women work, they invest 90 percent of their income back into their families, compared with 35 percent for men. By focusing on girls and women, innovative businesses and organizations can spur economic progress, expand markets, and improve health and education outcomes for everyone. And organizations like CCFWG play a crucial role in building that better future. It is crucial that we allow girls to learn how to take a fall, learn from their mistakes, embrace adventure, and help others avoid some of the nastier bruises that come in uncharted territory.
As women we set very high, impossibly high standards for ourselves and our girls. “Brave, Not Perfect” is a book by Reshma Saujani - where she is encouraging us as women to teach bravery over perfection as an ideal character trait to girls. And I heartily agree.
I have a suggestion for how we can do that. Because while teaching to ‘embrace failure’ is all the rage these days, I don’t think that is enough. We can’t just say the words and think them, and expect to change our mindset. We need to feel it. We need to feel it in our bodies. In our bones. The same way we feel the rage and terror that comes with failure, we need to start to feel comfortable being brave in the face of extreme odds.
It isn’t common in our everyday lives to simulate the feeling of a panic attack - the loss of breath and blood flow - but that is exactly what I do three nights a week on those jiu jitsu mats. I am paying good money to be at a gym where people stronger and more skilled than me use me as their plaything to hone their skills. I know this because now I do the same thing with the people who are newer and smaller than me. The only thing better than being a brown belt is being a black belt. The only thing worse than being a blue belt is being a white belt. When I fight a white belt I get a taste for what the black belt feels when they so easily dispatch with me.
I’ve willingly, eagerly been doing this for almost three years. The only people I can beat easily are either new or half my size. Anything bigger or better and I have to really work to win. It takes a really long time to get good at jiu jitsu. These experts have been doing this for 6, 8, 10, 12 years. I have a long way to go. And I see women give up all the time. There was this one woman, Nora, who was a slightly higher rank than I was, but I would beat her when we spared. She left the mat crying after a roll once. I felt terrible because I knew how I had in the past also fallen to pieces after an emotionally challenging match. But that is the necessary pain to grow. Those experiences of falling apart are what makes room for us to build ourselves even stronger than before. Unfortunately, she stopped coming to class. And I made a note to remember that I wouldn’t end my jiu jitsu journey that way. It wouldn’t be because I was scared of my own shortcomings.
Several years ago I gave a TEDx talk about trying out jobs and boyfriends, and the viscerally similar disappointment I felt when either or both didn’t work out. At the end of my talk I flashed my phone number on the final slide, still hoping the boy who had ignored me in kindergarten might see my talk on the internet and call me and save me from my singleness. A bold move. A few years later, I find myself very happily engaged. Not to the boy I loved in kindergarten, no. Luckily my tastes have matured since I was five.
When I look back now, I realize I left out the most painful parts of the story. And I think it has something to do with maturity and hindsight.
My most painful learning experiences working in the nonprofit world, like most others, all came down to power and money. When I was 23 and in my first job, post college, I was lucky to be doing what I cared about most. I was working at a nonprofit dedicated to providing people, mostly women, regardless of resources, the full spectrum of reproductive health care. What happened? According to what I was told from higher ups, our affiliate’s former CFO had embezzled thousands of dollars, the state funding was dwindling thanks to political pressure and a deflated economy had hurt patient revenue. That’s when the layoffs started. Every person on my level was laid off. I remember thinking, “Where are the adults?” I thought adults were supposed to know how to run things better. Of course this was 2008 when the whole economy collapsed exactly because of greedy and incompetant “adult” behavior.
So off I went to the next couple of opportunities. In one new role, I was charged with a caseload of approximately 15 women who were pregnant or new mothers and who needed support in a variety of areas from navigating the healthcare system for an infected tooth, to securing baby formula when their WIC ran out, or how to get a new stroller for a child. It was rewarding in that I had continuity with my clients - I was able to help them over time and know when they benefited from my efforts. The downside? I had inherited a case load from a predecessor who had clearly forged and made up much of her client interactions and data. And what was worse was that my supervisor didn’t seem to care. And over time my awareness of the problems only grew. I realized that the baby formula we were handing out was often expired. So I threw it out. And I was chastised. I kept discarding it because I couldn’t bear the idea of a child getting sick because of me. I was equally furious that the clothes and bottles and pacifiers that had been donated to us were being stored in open trash bags on the floor of our filthy little office where cockroaches and other vermin regularly skittered about. In an effort to more safely store these items i began cleaning out the only storage we had - a decrepit metal overhead filing system that was half filled with unused paper forms that were 5-10 years out of date and entirely useless. My list of offenses recounted to me on the day I was fired mostly revolved around my ‘blatant disregard for instructions’ and ‘wasting supplies’.
I’ve had some deep belly sobbing sessions in my life but this one is definitely going down in the books. I was so young, so naive, so hopelessly committed to my sense of right and wrong. I basically was wearing a sign on my back from day one that said “Fire me” because I was incapable of doing things other than what felt right to me. And I am glad I was that way. But it was a big learning lesson about how to fight, and how not to.
Shortly after that ‘learning experience’, I was lucky enough to be hired to work for the perfect counterbalance, Dr. Seema Sonnad, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who built her career researching professional mentorship between women. So it should probably be no surprise that a woman like her would be in the business of mentoring lost young women like me. After learning of my background in women’s health and research she picked me to be her new protege. This job gave me the breathing room I needed to get my life in order, to consider my options - and as Seema reminded me on a V E R Y regular basis ‘go to graduate school’. She was such an academic. And a fearsome athletic competitor. So much so she died with her sneakers on, while running in a long distance race. I am forever grateful to her for reaching out to me, mentoring me, and I hope I have in my own way, continued to carry on her values and legacy by mentoring younger women in turn.
Let’s fast forward. I have successfully extracted myself from a job working in a cafe and a relationship with a really bad boyfriend, and landed in graduate school, fully funded, thank goodness. Determined to work on a cause I cared about but with the freedom to be creative and grow professionally. Little did I know that as an extension of securing my degree requirements, I’d be building my company at the same time.
So here I am today. Shaped and honed, stubborn as ever, hoping to inspire organizations to track their impact, use their resources more wisely, and perhaps adopt a more business-savvy approach to their efforts.
To survive this very challenging new role I’ve created for myself in a very male dominated industry I’ve become a member of a competitive martial arts team. I regularly speak around the world, mostly to groups for women, about how this has become a crucial outlet for the fierceness and bravery we all need in our everyday lives.
Like most sports, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a game of strategy, but unlike many sports - it has a focus on using leverage to submit your opponent not strength. I started training because my mom had been nudging/nagging me for months about needing to find an outlet for the stress of my work. Of course, stubborn daughter that I am, it took almost a year before I finally did something that has changed my life forever. One summer day back in 2016 I opened up google and typed in four words “Martial Arts Near Me”.
It turned out to be one of those Fork In The Road Of Life moments….
Nothing prepared me for what it feels like to sit on my knees and face a male opponent who is taller, heavier, and stronger. And to fight. What I was even more unprepared for? What it feels like to beat him and win. This is the beauty of jiu jitsu. Go online and you will find videos of women besting men twice their size with the skills they’ve honed over many more years training than I have had. You beat him with your skill, with your leverage, with your game. You win. He loses. It’s a very clear and simple victory. There’s no ambiguity about favorable treatment, pay scales, crossing lines of sexual harassment, gender bias, glass ceilings. None of that exists. He tried, you prevailed. Done. When else do we get such a pure victory? Where no one can say it was because you were attractive. Or unattractive. Or they had to meet a quota or something else? No one can take that victory away.
There’s just something so unusual about getting to fight on a truly even and uncorrupted field against an opponent, male or female, like I can with a jiu jitsu match. we as women are always being reminded that we are vulnerable, that we are weaker, that we can’t or should not try and do the same things as men, or that our appearance will be a distraction or a hindrance. I didn’t realize how much I had bought into this garbage until after I beat my first opponent. I almost didn’t believe it. But then it happened again. And again. Not always of course, and most of the men and women on my team can still kick my butt. But the thing is, sometimes you fight better, you move smarter, and you win. Regardless of their gender or yours.
In the weeks leading up to my very first real competition I was constantly preparing myself to do one thing - lose. I was convinced there was no way I could win, no way I should even think about it, because then I’d just be disappointed. I had never been good at sports, never knew what victory felt like or where it came from. It was literally the last moment before stepping onto the mat that I decided maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if I at least stepped out there, open to the idea that I could win. I have no idea what would have happened if I had a time machine and gone in with a different attitude - kind of like the same way I never know how to answer the question - “what’s it like to be a woman in tech?” - how would I know? I can’t hit rewind and do my life all over again as a man! I have nothing to compare this to. Anyway - I stepped out there on that mat and I won.
I never expected it, but at the last moment I let myself consider it, even maybe hope for it. And let me tell you - the badasses on my team are the reason that happened.
Because when you have to fight that many amazing skilled opponents night after night, men and women, it’s hard to not have an edge. In my first real honest attempt at being an athlete and being treated like one by my coach - I took a gold medal home. It was incredible. And I realized how every win is won by not just you but all the people that got you to that moment and helped carry you through it.
Like I said, when I was younger I hated sports. Now I’m in my 30s my world is very different. To date I have had 6 competitive fights. And I’ve won them all. My teammate after my last fight came over and said “You know what this means right? You’re undefeated!” Initially I brushed her comment off, saying “6 isn’t that many fights”, knowing that she herself is closer to 100 fights or more. But then I stopped myself. What would I say to another woman? I would celebrate her. I would tell her she is amazing for putting herself out there AND winning. So who am I to disparage on myself?
Part of why I’m telling you my story about jiu jitsu is because I remember what it felt like to have those bigger older boys push me around on the playground, to grope me in gym class, to punch me in the stomach when the teacher wasn’t looking. And then later as an adult when I was catcalled on the street, or taken advantage of by male ‘friends’ as a drunk college student. When we are fired. When we struggle to become an adult, a business woman, a leader. We all have scars like this, and as a former Women's Studies major, turned Women's Health Advocate and abortion provider, and now a woman tech CEO and martial artist - I know first hand the struggles women face as underrepresented or underserved group. I want to show up here today to tell you, maybe for the first time or as a reminder, that women can fight above our weight class and win.
That same night I beat a man the same rank as me but much larger, I was instructed to fight a woman on my team who has been a semi pro athlete for her entire adult life. She’s also a bodybuilder and 8 years younger. A normal roll or match is 4-6 minutes. And those are very long minutes. After the match my coach told me he let us roll for almost 20 minutes. In the end, she submitted me (as she always does).
But that night I earned my blue belt. And just like in the professional world, it is always after the longest and toughest battles that the greatest victories are often earned.
I’m still very early in my Jiu Jitsu career (andmy tech career) but it’s been almost three years and in that time I’ve learned enough to occasionally be helpful to much newer teammates. Last week in class I had an experience when working with a young woman who recently joined our team. She’s a very strong smart and determined young woman. She’s a first year medical student. She is used to struggling and pushing. We were doing a drill of this move and she was using all her strength and completely failing at it. You see Jiu jitsu is all about technique. Strength is nice but it’s not what will win alone. And I had this lightbulb moment where I realized what was messing her up. She was trying to move me when what she should have been focused on is moving herself around me. I told her “don’t try to control me. I’m just a prop. Ignore me. Focus on yourself. Move your own body around me instead of moving me around you”. And it worked! She was able to break out of the mindset of “fighting someone” and instead focus on her own movement and that’s when she started to float around me. It was incredible. And I realized that when people say “Jiu Jitsu is the gentle art” it’s because of this floating thing that can happen. The most impressive and successful person on my team is a former ballerina. When you “fight” her it feels like she’s floating around you. At least until her hands are on your neck. I’m trying to model my approach on hers and pass along what I’m learning. When you’ve attained the highest ranks in jiu jitsu you are called a professor. It’s all about learning and teaching - like everything else worth doing in life.
Sometimes in our professional lives it can feel like an unending onslaught of sucker punches, head butts, and some self-inflicted wounds. I’m lucky that one of my most dominant personality traits is that when I’m faced with a challenge, my instinct is not to run away, but to face it head on. This happened when I was attacked and mugged. My reaction was to chase my assailant. The cop later said “That was cool, don’t do that again.” My impulse to turn and fight showed up again when a room full of Comcast executives said “Nice work, but no thanks”. Six months later, Comcast was a client. And again when our old corporate model wasn’t working. Ok, Pivot. Time to work with nonprofits!
Throw off my balance? Block my way? I pivot. Knock me down? I get back up.
The most powerful phrase I’ve heard in jiu jitsu is “A black belt is a white belt that never quit”. I hope you can take it with you on your journey as a reminder to stick it out, to stay true to your goals while being open to change along the way, and to fight above your weight class. You will surprise yourself.