Not Your Typical Wednesday: Taking the Stage in Dublin in Front of 5,000 People

Erica Swallow Speaks at Web Summit
Representing the Sloan School of Management, I spoke on a panel alongside fellow MBAs during the 2014 Web Summit in Dublin.

On a typical Wednesday, I only have two standing appointments: a marketing class and a comparative literature class focused on leadership stories and ethics. The rest of the day is filled with group meetings, homework, a visiting speaker session every now and then, and of course, sleeping in, thanks to my afternoon classes.

This past Wednesday, though, was everything but typical. I had been invited to the Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland as an MBA Scholar to shed my experience and wisdom on a crowd of 5,000 soon-to-be university graduates.

My morning shower was the tip of the oddities iceberg that day. I had rented a room via Airbnb, a peer-to-peer apartment rental site, and my host, it turns out, was one of 250 Airbnb employees based in the Dublin office. I had grown accustomed to her being gone by the time I woke up, and that was true that morning when I pitter-pattered on the cold, hardwood floor to the bathroom. Seconds after I undressed and turned on the shower faucet, though, I heard the front door open and her voice on the other side of the door saying, “Erica? Hello?” Confused, I answered back, and she told me the plumber was in to fix the water heater — for the past two days I had taken cold showers, assuming it was normal.

That morning, I learned about my host’s mysterious water system. The plumber told me that the water heats up from 4–8 a.m., and in the case of a later shower, I could use the magical “boost” knob to heat a small batch of water. Since it was my big day to hit the stage, I decided to go all out and boost it up! It turns out a boost really is exactly what it sounds like — just a wee bit warmer. As the Irish might say, a little nudge up the hill; a bump, a push, nothing more. But I was ecstatic to have a lukewarm shower to start the day off in what felt like near luxury.

By this time back in Cambridge, I’d be running to my first event or meeting, struggling to get my coat on, all while texting someone that I was running late. My time in Ireland, though, was refreshingly on-schedule. I arrived at conference panels on time; I showed up to dinners early; and I always seemed to find a taxi quickly, as I was traveling off-peak. So, I did just that — called a cab using Hailo, an Uber and Lyft competitor that’s popular in Europe — and zipped off to the Web Summit.

A panel, a speech, a fireside chat. Lunch. Two more panels. I took it all in, typing out nuggets of inspiration that flowed from the stage. As my speech time got closer, I began observing how speakers entered the stage, where they placed their hands, when they paused, whether they crossed their legs or not. At one point, I caught myself planning out my “body language strategy” for later that evening. Crossed legs, I determined, looked more relaxed. Hands in lap seemed nervous. Arm over couch arm, calm and collected. And lastly, facial features. If my face was going to be blown up 10 times its size, I was going to take this big screen opportunity to play up my facial features and keep the audience entertained.

It wasn’t until I was standing backstage with a pop star-style microphone wrapping from ear to ear that I realized I hadn’t spent any time preparing for the panel content. Granted, it was about my MBA experience at MIT, so it wasn’t really a topic that demanded much preparation.

The stage manager signaled for the other panelists — also MBAs, from Harvard and HEC Montréal — and I to head up the backstage stairs towards the fancy sliding door that I had seen reveal speaker after speaker in the previous days.

The door slid open and lights flooded the opening; 10,000 eyes watched us move across the stage, and the first thing I thought to do was wave. And second? “Snap a picture, you fool!” I reminded myself. “There are 5,000 IRL people looking at you! How often does that happen?”

Souvenir shot taken, the panel began and the stage countdown clock started. We shared our backgrounds, why we decided to pursue an MBA, and how we were enjoying Ireland.

I took body language inventory as the others spoke: Legs crossed? Check. Arms relaxed? Check. Smile? Check. Looking at speaker? Check. Breathing? Check.

I was the last to speak on the panel, with 30 seconds left on the clock. Moderator and Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave had asked us to give our final bits of advice. “Don’t do your homework,” I said, getting a few chuckles from the audience. “Back in college, the most life-changing moments for me turned out to be studying abroad, learning a new language, going to art galleries and shows, traveling. Whatever you do, don’t spend too much time worrying about homework, because you’ll discover your true passions and make your best friends outside of class.”

With that, it was all over. Five thousand of Ireland’s future leaders had hopefully soaked in our words. It’s cheesy, but I hope I become one of those fabled inspirations for at least one person in the audience. A decade from now, one of them might be on a similar stage as the one I sat on, responding to a well-worded question on leading a passionate life, saying “I went to a panel when I was in college, and this MBA student from MIT said something that will always stick with me…”

After all, the only reason I find myself on stage after stage — though not typically as large as this one! — is because I was inspired by those who came before me.

This post was originally published on The Tech, MIT’s oldest and largest newspaper and the first newspaper published on the web.

Martha Coakley: Ambiguous or Contemplative?

Martha Coakley at Women's Leadership Council roundtable
Above: MA Attorney General Martha Coakley, alongside U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand at a Women’s Leadership Council roundtable held on September 14, 2014, at which I was honored to be a guest.

In her campaign for Massachusetts governor, Attorney General Martha Coakley is — as of late — being criticized for giving ambiguous answers as to her views on important issues, including a graduated income tax, increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, and granting drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. Her recent Democratic gubernatorial nomination over State Treasurer Steve Grossman, instead of being hailed as a victory was seen as a “showing that raises doubts,” by more than one political analyst, about her ability to run a state. Over at The Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh put it:

“Coakley ran a vague values campaign, talking a good deal about what she had done as attorney general, but far less about what she would do as governor. Light on specifics and hyper-cautious in her comments, the front-runner largely confined herself to broad themes and a general discussion of areas where she hoped to expand state services. Queried on specifics issues, her predictable answer was that she would ‘look at’ or ‘consider’ this matter or that.”

Having recently attended Coakley’s September 14th Women’s Leadership Council roundtable in Dorchester, I’ll be the first to say I approached this news with a skeptical eye. While Attorney General Coakley may have answers some of the tough questions in the primary with caution, I believe that she’ll take this new criticism seriously and not only step up her transparency game, but also get down to the nitty gritty.

As her background is in law, though, it should be fully expected that she has a risk-averse nature to making brash decisions. I, for one, am intrigued by her “let’s-review-it-first approach,” as long as those reviews turn into thoughtful strategies for a better future.

Having spoken with Coakley in an intimate, though brief, conversation with two others after last week’s roundtable on earned sick time, I was able to see her decisiveness in action. I thanked her for inviting me and gave her the feedback that the Women’s Leadership Council may find greater movement by including working out a more balanced male/female ratio. Incorporating more diverse opinions and getting buy-in from the current male majority in politics and business could be the tipping point, I said.

Without skipping a beat, Coakley responded, “I believe it’s important to first gather women to give them a comfortable space for sharing and speaking.” She went on to discuss her time in law and how the male-dominated culture, while now slightly better, still hadn’t dissipated and was still being echoed in other industries today. I agreed, but countered that we’ve been gathering in mostly-women groups to discuss women’s rights for decades and that it seemed about time for the conversation to be more balanced between the genders. “It’s all about finding the right male advocates early on,” I suggested. The conversation came to an amicable stop, due to time constraints, but I walked away feeling that I had learned something from her and that she had absorbed my feedback and would let it brew for future events.

My takeaway and first impression from meeting Martha Coakley is that she’s a woman of her word — someone who researches the facts, opinions, and options; chooses a course; and sticks with it. For some, that methodical strategy may seem slow, but for me, it seems wise. I look forward to seeing what conclusions Coakley lands upon.

The Perfect Handbag: Adventures in American Manufacturing

Justin Paul Leather BagMy favorite purse of all time (left) and the replacement I recently commissioned from the original Brooklyn manufacturer (right)

This is the story of how far I’d go to carry the same bag for nearly a decade… Short story: After the bag I carried daily for six years began showing signs of distress and I discovered it was no longer in production, I sought out the original producer — thankfully, he remade what I consider to be the best bag ever invented.

I’ve never considered myself a stylist individual. Though I appreciate design, I’m more of a utilitarian. Once I find the perfect product, I stick with it. Like many women, I had been on the hunt for the perfect purse since I was a tween. Once I had been enlightened that women were trained to carry around at least a pound of goods, just in case these goods might come in handy at any given moment, I jumped on the purse bandwagon and haven’t turned back.

Erica Swallow AuH2O ModelIt wasn’t until Sunday, August 3rd, 2008, though, that I found the perfect bag. I was modeling in the 2nd Annual AuH2O Block Party sidewalk fashion show, wearing Donatella Quintavalle jewelry (see right photo) and AuH2O thrift and vintage boutique threads. Also showing in the show, though, were beautiful bags by Teich, a New York-based designer.

On another model, I spotted the most gorgeous leather bag — made of deer leather, I learned — hanging elegantly from one shoulder. The sidebag-style purse had two large pockets and two visible zippered compartments on the outside. While I hadn’t fallen completely in love yet, my heart skipped a beat, and I knew I needed to see it after the show. As soon as the show ended, I leaped towards the designer, Allison Teich, and asked her about the bag. It was the only one of its kind produced, she told me, as it was a sample from the Brooklyn factory she sourced from. She handed me the bag and I fell absolutely in love once I opened it. Inside, it had the most beautiful lining I had ever — and since — laid my eyes on. Vintage red roses, shimmering gold light bursts, and soft geometric figures against a deep black gave me a feeling of calm, but lively, enchantment.

The pocket configurations, too, were exactly what I needed. Two large pockets, and three small zipper pockets — one on the interior, and two on the outside. This setup gave me plenty of room to compartmentalize all of the do-dads I carried around. A long, skinny pocket for pens and chapstick. A narrow, slanted, easy-to-reach exterior pocket for my business cards. An interior side pocket for bandaids and other health items. And of course, the two large pockets for everyday items, such as my wallet and sunglasses… It was a dream come true.

Teich and Justin Paul BagsA peek at the lining of my old and new purses, both by the same Brooklyn manufacturer

While the purse set me back a few hundred dollars — even after a modeling discount — I’ve been using it ever since. So, from an investment perspective, this puppy was a bargain!

Now, the unthinkable happened this year: The lining tore. Six years of wear and tear did its work on the soft, delicate lining. A hole appeared in the bottom of the main pocket and the most exposed part of the lining at the opening had been rubbed so much that it wore thin to mere strings. Pennies started to disappear in the inner workings of the purse and my fingers would get stuck in the worn areas from time to time. I knew it was time to repair or replace, so I began my journey towards fixing my purse in May.

I reached out to Teich, and she told me it would be just as costly to have the lining repaired as it would to send it to the original manufacturer. Plus, she told me, she was no longer designing and producing handbags, as she had moved on to running various Teich shops in New York. In fact, I had stopped by the West Village Teich at one point a few years earlier, bag in tow, to tell her again how much I loved it and how I’d never take it off. The store was full of jewelry, scarves, belts, and even children’s toys, I remember.

Allison was amazing, though, to introduce me to the original manufacturer, Roy Campos, owner of Justin Paul, Brooklyn-based luxury handbag manufacturer. Within days, I was on my way to having my precious purse repaired. I was even planning on going to New York that weekend, so Roy and I planned to meet up to see what he could do.

Roy Campos and Erica SwallowDesigner and producer Roy Campos and me in his Brooklyn factory

After taking a look at the bag, Roy told me that it’d be just as costly to make a new bag as it would to reline it. With 30 minutes left until closing time, I decided I’d take a look around the factory with him and see if there were any leathers and linings that piqued my fancy. Admittedly, I didn’t find any that completely replaced my old love, but I did find a warm, maple leather that reminded me of the first time I laid eyes on my now aged purse. We started there and moved onto linings. Again, nothing lit up my heart like the soothing red roses and golden bursts I had rested my belongings against for the past six years. That old lining was produced in Japan, Roy told me, and he had run out long ago — I had known all along that there was something special about it. Finally, though, we found a spring paisley pattern in subtle blue, purple, and lime green that embodied a more sophisticated and grown-up feel. I decided to take the leap, and we picked out the final details — rivets, pulls, and zippers.

As it turned out, Roy and I were both heading back to Manhattan from Brooklyn — and as fate would have it, we were heading to the same block in Manhattan — he to replace some machinery tool and me to visit a friend at Venmo HQ. We talked about our families and what brought us to New York. We had a lot in common, actually, and Roy made me feel clearer about where I was going in life. In fact, he reinvigorated a light in me, a desire to do what makes me feel passionate. He came from a family of cobblers, he told me, and when he came to New York, he just fell into the leather goods business, fell in love, and has been doing it ever since. The way he jaunted across his factory and spoke about his work reminded me that I, too, once put passion above societal expectations… Something I feel I lost sight of in the past few years (but, hey, that’s another story).

Back to the perfect purse… While I chose to get a new purse created, I’m certain that this is the perfect design for me, and I will be wearing it for another six years, until maybe this one falls apart, and I contact Roy again for a little assistance.

In short, all I’m saying here is that love and passion can drive a person to do things that were once unimaginable. How many goods in your home were produced by people you personally know or have met? Or did you ever love a product so much that you sought out the person who made it? It’s sagas like this in my life that showcase what true passion, curiosity and respect look like. I would have never been at peace without knowing who made the bag that pulled me through so many episodes. Knowing what I know now, I’m even more touched by its beauty. I only wish that this sort of passion can seep into every other aspect of my life — and may you and yours find the excitement in every day goods and happenings to seek out their true roots and unique beginnings.

Update: After manufacturer Roy Campos read the above blog post about how much I loved my old bag, he called me back and said he wanted to refurbish the old handbag. He replaced the lining free of charge and gave this beauty a new life! Watch a video on how he refurbished the bag, alongside photos of the process, on the blog of Maker’s Row.

Top 20 Startup Ecosystems in the World

I represented MIT TechLink at this week's Midway Club Fair and got a taste of the startup scene on campus.

I represented MIT TechLink at this week’s MIT student club fair and got a taste of the startup scene on campus. Excited for the next two years!

Having just moved to Boston for grad school, I’m learning more and more about the area’s ecosystem and always on the lookout for new thoughts and opinions on the Boston startup scene. While I’ve read over the past few years that it’s highly focused on the healthcare, energy, and industries, nothing beats living in Kendall Square, among the innovation.

And an infographic, of course, certainly can’t illuminate every aspect of a city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, but it’s always interesting to see how various communities stack up against each other. Boston, it turns out, is number six on the list.

Intuit published the below infographic last month, illustrating the results of the 2012 Startup Ecosystem Report, published by Startup Genome in partnership with Telefonica Digital and researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkley. Measuring eight key areas — including startup output, funding, performance, and talent — the report deemed Silicon Valley the most entrepreneurial hot spot in the world (of course). But the real fun is in the other 19 ecosystems identified, some of which are called out for certain strong points. Santiago, Chile, for example, has the highest percentage of female entrepreneurs (20%), compared to Silicon Valley at a paltry 10%.

Click here to see the full size infographic.

Top Startup Hubs

Are you a startup entrepreneur? If so, what makes your city’s startup culture unique? Shout it out in the comments below.

Infographic courtesy of Intuit, Top 20 Entrepreneurial Hot Spots Around the Globe.

Delta Air Line In-Flight Report From 1951

My Oh My, How Flight Has Changed Since the 1950s

Delta Air Line In-Flight Report From 1951
An in-flight report from 1951

Over the past month, I went on a mission to research commercial flight in its early years. Commercial aviation took off right after World World II, when the excess of jet-engine-powered aircrafts and leisurely time made flying a newfound excitement around the country and world.

I spoke with a number of people about the topic, including early flight attendants and airline passengers, one of which told me that due to the lack of PA systems, when the engines were too noisy, the attendant would pass around pieces of paper with the flight crew’s names and the destination city’s weather conditions.

Since he shared that story, I couldn’t stop imagining what that paper might have looked like – was it hand-written, printed, white, off-white, letter-headed, signed, dated, scented?

Today I received an email from a Delta Air Lines archivist, passing along the above image of an in-flight report, the piece of paper my interviewee had told me about. As it turns out, it was beautifully illustrated and hand-written. I most love that it points out the “next point of interest” for passengers peering out the window, a pastime I’m told was popular in the early days of air travel, when seat-back entertainment and in-flight WiFi were not yet the norms.

I’m consistently amazed by the power of the Internet. With just one post, I wondered what this piece of paper of a bygone period looked like, and the next day, the answer was in my inbox. The world is a beautiful place. Thank you, universe and Delta Air Lines archivist.

Next Up: Three Months of TechStars Awesome Sauce

Erica Swallow at TechStars NYC

Over the weekend, I had full intentions to leave New York this Sunday for a two-week trip to Utah, where I’d shadow winemaker Danny Bull at Montezuma Canyon Ranch and Vineyards to learn how to plant grapevines and make organic wine — as some of you know, I’ve been on a personal winemaking journey for the past few years, following one of my life goals of starting Swallow Winery.

And my plan for the full month of May was to knock out tons of work while sipping mimosas beachside on some gorgeous beach I had yet to choose.

All of that changed on Sunday night, though, when Lexi Lewtan, a friend and colleagued email introduced me to Eugene Chung, the new managing director of TechStars NYC, previously of NEA fame and currently also wearing VC and indie filmmaker hats — quite honestly I took the meeting because I love TechStars and Eugene’s background sounded oddly intriguing.

I took a Monday afternoon meeting, thinking I’d go in, hear about a really cool position, but ultimately decline, because I had to get back to my massive vineyard and beach travels. But I was in for the surprise of the year — for the first time in my life, I decided to take an unpaid position, merely because it sounded like the best use of my summer and the team I’d be working with sounded like a rockstar combo.

For the next three months, I’ll be working 70-80 hour weeks, missing out on a gazillion coffee dates, annoying all of my friends with party declines, and frankly, having the experience of a lifetime. I can honestly say there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing right now. Ok, except maybe having infinite amounts of cookies delivered to the office to share with my newfound team. But hey, my $5 per day budget isn’t going to allow for that. Trade offs.

I’m stoked to have the opportunity to help the next group of amazing startups build awesome digital media and press strategies as one of six baller TechStar NYC Associates, working alongside Eugene and Program Manager KJ Singh.

So, friends and family, believe me when I say I love you and for the next three months, I’m going to miss seeing your beautiful faces. Please don’t hate me if I don’t answer your phone calls, only respond to your text messages after midnight, and miss everything you invite me to this summer. Just know that I’m only following my passions, and I’m thinking about you all every moment of the way. At the end of this, you’re going to get to spend time with an improved version of me — one that probably spent the past few months sleeping under desks and on couches, meeting epic people and seeing amazing products built right before her eyes.

For you and for me, this is a long-term investment for a better me and a better world. Let’s do this!

A Selection of Startup Pitches With Flair

In my Startup PR courses on Skillshare and Udemy, I advocate using the Founder Institute’s recipe for the perfect one-sentence startup pitch (see video above), as pitching and messaging are usually issues for entrepreneurs or startup employees who may be more focused on product development, user acquisition, or a boat load of other tasks.

I’ve read some great startup pitches and some not-so-lovely pitches as well. It’s always a pleasure to work with startups eager to craft better pitches.

In January, I taught an online Skillshare class called “Getting Press on a Tight Budget.” After taking the course, students were asked to create press kits for their startups, making sure to include — at the very least — a one-sentence startup pitch and an email pitch written to me, a tech journalist. Below you’ll find some of the best pitches submitted, and in case you’re curious, you can find all of the projects on the class page.

One-Sentence Pitches

Let’s start with one-sentence pitches, the elevator pitch of email. Here are a few that stood out from the crowd:

  • Web Academy of Music is a video-based online music school that offers private lessons through video exchange to help busy people learn an instrument.
  • Meet Your Makers is developing a series of weekly markets and an accompanying website to help small creative businesses who engage in sustainable practices to gain main-stream exposure and increase direct sales.
  • offers a full service sake appreciation program that will help anyone discover and more fully enjoy Japanese sake using unique and fun in person and online sake tasting seminars.
  • Mewe is the first comparison site that helps purpose driven travelers find, book & rate their perfect voluntourism package and also enables them to crowdfund their selected cause.

These pitches are crisp and easy-to-understand — way better than the usual mumbo jumbo that reaches my inbox. And, I must say, Mewe accompanied its pitch with a delightful product video that showcased the team is serious and has a brilliant product idea. Furthermore, I’d recommend checking out UrbanSake’s email pitch, as founder Timothy Sullivan really understands the art of the personalized pitch.

Email Pitches

Check out the wrap-up and feedback session for my Skillshare class, which features the best one-sentence pitches and email pitches with in-depth reasoning behind their awesomeness.

When it comes to choosing the best email pitches from the course, I’d say UrbanSake and Mewe did a great job.

There were, however, two email pitches that caught my eye, and for two separate reasons:

  • Leaves of Trees, an all-natural skin care company, submitted an email pitch, that while a bit jargon-y at times, was well-targeted towards a writer who cared a lot about all-natural products (me). Though I don’t cover skin care, I appreciated the detail put into explaining just how special the process was. Furthermore, this email included beautiful product pictures, including a lip balm close-up, which amazingly, I’ve been looking for a new brand of all-natural lip balm. It’s like they knew!
  • Just BE Cause” is a “book anthology that features Ah-ha moments that inspire the next generation of change makers,” written by social entrepreneur Syreeta Gates. I was charmed by Syreeta’s pitch, because she showed true passion, included endorsements from recognizable leaders in education and entrepreneurship, and seemed to have a purpose behind her work. She made a few missteps, which I pointed out in the comments of her project. But, otherwise, I would read the book in a heartbeat.

Last, but not least, I can’t forget the most thorough press kit submitted — the Skillshare press kit, submitted by Skillshare’s awesome community manager, Danya Cheskis-Gold. Of course, I couldn’t choose Skillshare as the top project submitter in a Skillshare class! But, I wanted to give a shout-out, since this kit has everything a journalist could need: FAQs, class examples, logos, team bios, photos, videos, screenshots, demos, press clips, thought-leadership articles. It’s quite amazing and is a perfect example for the startup that wants to go all out on its press kit!

If you’re still craving press kits and email pitches, head on over to the Projects tab on my Skillshare class for all the pitches you could care for. Hours of fun and learning, guaranteed. Cheers!