Today Melissa Bradley is welcoming Stephanie VanPutten to her porch. Stephanie is the CEO of Blendoor, founder of Visible Figures (a non-profit with the largest network of venture-backed, Black female founders and fund managers), a data activist, engineer and a backcountry skier with a vision to pluralize the archetype of genius.
Stephanie shares how growing up in an entrepreneurial family gave her the courage to step away from her job at a major tech company, and build Blendoor. In addition to building her own company, she is on the board of Fair Pay Workplace and navigating the world of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance). She understands the importance of standards, in her personal and professional life, so she’s making sure to be present in the spaces where these standards are being built.
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0:00:13.7 Melissa Bradley: Welcome to Porch Talks. I’m Melissa Bradley, founder of 1863 Ventures and co-founder of New Majority Ventures. Here on Porch Talks, I sit down with veteran founders, CEOs, and entrepreneurs who are committed to creating wealth for the new majority. These folks have years of firsthand in-the-trenches experience navigating a fast-growing entrepreneurial ecosystem. Here they break down the roadblocks and barriers that tested their resiliency and resolve and share the lessons they’ve learned through it all. Each and every talk will support the health, wealth, and well-being of the new majority entrepreneur. Undoubtedly, these people and their stories will inspire you on your journey from founder to CEO.
0:01:00.8 S2: Just a quick note, in my conversation with our guest today, we talk about ESG. For those who don’t know, ESG refers to environmental, social, and governance investing, which is a set of standards for companies’ behavior used by socially conscious investors to screen potential investments. Environmental criteria consider how a company safeguards the environment, including corporate policies addressing climate change, for example. Social criteria may include its relationships with employees, suppliers, customers, and the communities where it operates. And governance deals with the company’s leadership, executive pay, audits, internal controls, and shareholder rights. Now, here’s my conversation with Stephanie.
0:01:44.6 S1: So welcome to the Porch. I’m honored to be sitting with you, Stephanie, who is the CEO of Blendor here, who’s also a visionary, engineer, and successful tech entrepreneur, now doing some investment work. But I think the thing I’m proudest for you for is you’re a wife and a mom. That’s how I know you. How would you like the world to know you?
Stephanie VanPutten: How would I like the world to know me? I am a risktaker, and I love just maximizing the opportunities that are available. So my identities are more centered around the work that I do and less around my personal relationships. But yeah, I am a backcountry skier. I am an engineer. I am a data activist. And I say that my vision is to pluralize the archetype of genius.
MB: All right now. What does that mean? What does that look like?
0:02:38.3 SV: So if you do, for example, like a Google image search of genius right now today, it’ll be primarily White and Asian men. That is the prototype that historically we have used. And I think as we enter into this fourth industrial revolution, we’ll see more and more images of geniuses that don’t fit that mold.
0:03:01.4 SV: And I’m trying to enable that.
MBYeah. I’m going to jump ahead a little bit because you have a child. Yes. Tell us about the baby. I guess not a baby anymore. Yeah.
0:03:08.7 S2: Alistair Theodore Alfred Van Putten is nine months old and amazing. My wife carried and seeing that journey has been very revelatory. But yeah, he’s great. Like seeing him discover the world and wake up happy has like grounded me in a way that I could not have expected.
0:03:29.5 MB: Yeah. I find when our last set of twins are born, I was thinking I could read all these books, I got to do all this stuff. And I realized at some point, the only thing I need to do is preserve their happiness because it’s gone so quick. What is your greatest hope for Alistair?
SV: My greatest hope for Alistair is that he can truly be a global citizen. I have concerns about the way this country influences the early identity development of African-American boys. And so I hope that we expose him to enough countries, enough people such that he feels American, but bigger, knows that his identity is not completely wrapped up in what America defines him as.
0:04:14.4 MB: That’s good. Comfortable and confident wherever he is.
SV: Or her. We don’t even know what this person’s gender will be. Fair enough. I just showed my generational age. I’m still trying to catch up. That’s fair. What’s your wife’s name?
MB: Brittany. Tell me about Brittany.
SV: Brittany is amazing. She’s a product designer.
0:04:30.6 MB: Did y’all meet at work?
0:04:32.2 S1: We met at South by Southwest. It’s amazing y’all met with all those thousands of people. But okay.
0:04:37.6 S1: We met at a Lesbians Who Tech meetup actually.
MB: Okay. It got smaller.
SV: Yeah, it got smaller. And she has a social science background and I usually cannot relate to non-engineers or business people, but she’s brilliant. She was homeschooled and has this insatiable curiosity for knowledge in all domains and has given me an understanding of the world that has helped me cope, especially with what’s happening, what has been happening over the past six years or so. So yeah, she’s amazing.
MB: Who proposed?
SV: I proposed, but then she did like another proposal after that.
MB: Oh, fancy, fancy. But yeah. And you got married last year?
SV: We officially eloped last year in Aquinnah.
MB: And why did you elope?
0:05:25.9 SV: She was eight months pregnant and it was like, you know, still COVID and we just wanted it to be about us and like what we wanted in our day. So it wasn’t a hard decision. It was great.
0:05:38.3 MB: When you think about your life before Brittany and now what’s the biggest thing that’s changed other than Alistair, of course?
0:05:47.6 SV: Honestly, if we’re really going to get personal, I don’t think I was ever truly loved or felt truly loved. Let me rephrase that. Felt truly loved.
MB: There’s a big difference. Yes.
SV: Until I met this person because she has just been through the trenches. She’s seen the good, bad and the ugly. And at the end of the day has made it very clear that she’s not going anywhere and that I’m okay and that she’s okay. For someone like me to experience that allows for so many other things to settle in my spirit, in my, even in my physical being, I feel a lot more relaxed knowing that, okay, at least one person has got me no matter what.
0:06:34.6 MB: It’s fascinating you say that because I think there’s something about respectfully all of us who had single parents because we realize if they’re gone, then what? I think there’s an element of vulnerability that when you said that, I was like, huh, I guess we all, I mean, I had a single parent. So it’s interesting. I do think that we don’t, you don’t think about in the moment, but you realize like, wow, if something happens to this person, I’m on my own. Right. Wow. You started with I’m a risk taker, which I think if anybody reads anything about you or know your story, they would say yes, but risk taker could be small or big. It could be like skiing or doing those crazy X games, or it could be just like, I’m not going to take my phone with me. What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
0:07:19.1 SV: Oh, definitely starting this company, Blendoor, because no one in my family has really taken that level of risk. We’ve been so focused on education and like coloring in between the lines, but for me to quit my job at Microsoft, go to business school with very little capital and start this company right out of business school, was probably the biggest risk I’ve ever taken.
0:07:48.2 MB: And so you quit your job at Microsoft. I hear people say, I qu it my job and quit my job at the Fed or would be like, don’t lose those good government or corporate jobs. What did your family say when you quit your job?
0:07:55.9 SV: They thought I was crazy, but I do have an entrepreneurial family, primarily lifestyle businesses. So I think there was some level of understanding that corporate America is not where we thrive. I think more so the confusion was like, you don’t have a backup plan. So what’s next? How are you…
MB: But I’m sure my sense is you did though.
0:08:17.4 SV: Oh yes. Yes. But longterm, I didn’t know the details along the way, but I knew what I was striving for and I was going to figure it out along the way.
0:08:26.0 MB: Gotcha. So you quit your job. Your family was like, what’s really going to happen? What was the thing that you were most scared of?
SV: Ooh, exposure.
0:08:36.8 MB: Say more.
SV: So when you take risks like that, you’re kind of putting you rself out there for the good and the bad. And I think given my upbringing, I have avoided negative exposure as much as possible. It really scares me.
0:08:53.8 MB: Can you say more about that?
0:08:55.8 SV: Yeah. So I’m the only child of a single mother. I’ve never met my biological father and my mom moved around a lot, struggled with drug addiction, alcohol, et cetera. And because we were so transitory, I had to develop a muscle to be liked and to be the model.
MB: Keep the happy face on too. Yeah.
SV: Yeah. And so it’s really challenging for me to put myself in situations where things can go wrong because I have the fear of abandonment and rejection having been so isolated most of my childhood.
0:09:34.7 MB: Sure. Let’s go back to your family. You said they were lifestyle entrepreneurs.
MB: What’d they do?
0:09:40.0 S2: My mother was a serial, how do I describe it? Like the pyramid type model.
MB: Multi-level marketing.
SV: Yes. Multi-level marketing. So Avon, Amway, Mary Kay was her thing. All right.
MB: Did she get the pink car?
SV: She won several cars, trips. It was actually really inspirational and influential to see her in a female dominated enterprise. A lot of my public speaking comes from being exposed to her world.
MB: Those big stages.
SV: Big stages with just very confident women with blazers and yeah, big Cadillacs. And it just seemed like the world was their oyster. So yeah, primarily those types of businesses.
0:10:21.8 MB: That’s cool. Yeah. I still look for an Avon lady every now and then. They still exist. They actually still exist.
SV: They do. I tend to go on eBay if I need something weird from Avon.
0:10:35.3 MB: Good to know. You saw the good side. What was the challenges that you saw with your family being entrepreneurs that you might have been worried about?
0:10:42.1 SV: Probably the usual, right? So it’s a roller coaster. There are so many ups and downs, particularly if you’re running a business that relies upon other people for you to be successful because you have so many personalities and lifestyle changes that can impact the success of your business. And so I saw my mother hustle in ways that I did not really want to emulate, which is why I think I chose a little bit more of a traditional path. Yeah. I have lived by the saying that money is cheap, freedom is expensive. And my mother spent a lot of money on freedom. She sacrificed a lot of things for freedom, but I think in the end, she’s happy.
0:11:24.2 MB: I like that. That’s a t-shirt. That’s a wall saying. That’s a wall saying. You were at Microsoft. You went off to start Blendoor. Tell me what are you most proud of about Blendoor? What I’m most proud of with Blendoor is the way that it sparked awareness and conversations about things that I think people didn’t really believe were tangible, like diversity, equity, inclusion. I think we’ve added justice. It’s very much existed in this corporate social responsibility realm. It’s been kind of a warm and fuzzy topic, but I think very few of my predecessors had the tools and resources to create a product and solutions that could make it a bit more real. So I’m proud of that and the impact that we made in the 400 or so companies that we’ve worked with. I’m proud of the team that I’ve built. They’ve all gone off to do amazing things as we are transitioning. Yeah.
0:12:28.6 MB: What was the scariest thing about Blendoor?
0:12:33.0 SV: Oh, probably the capital, raising money and making payroll.
MB: You were in Silicon Valley.
SV: Yes. I moved back to San Francisco in January of 2015. We incorporated in April of 2015. And yeah, moving back to the Bay, I was gone for about 10 years prior, was definitely scary. It’s a different language. It’s a different world. And knowing the language and being in the ecosystem is really important. So yeah, entering that space after years of being on the East Coast and the Southeast was definitely a little daunting, but I feel much better off for it. I’m really glad that I spent those seven years there because I feel far more equipped to kind of navigate these spaces o n both coasts at this point.
0:13:21.4 MB: Blendoor was really about diversity, but not just for the sake of diversity, right? It was a recognition that there was talent that was sitting on the sidelines. How did Blendoor change post George Floyd?
0:13:32.9 S2: Yeah, we pivoted to focus more on accountability. When I first started the company, 2014 was the year that Jesse Jackson went to a lot of Silicon Valley companies and kicked up a lot of dust around reporting their diversity numbers. And so I kind of rode that wave and to see it happen again, seven years later, it was like, oh, I’ve seen this act before and I’m not going to do the same thing and expect different results. And so rather than leaning into the diversity training and tools space, I decided to lean back and focus on how we could actually measure the outcomes and efficacy of those outcomes so that key decision makers could kind of just cut through the noise and see like who’s actually putting their money where their mouth mouths are and making change. So yeah, we created a basically a FICO score for corporate diversity.
0:14:33.3 S1: How’s it going?
SV: It’s going well.
MB: Anybody in the excellent range or most of them fair to middling?
SV: The high performing companies are those you would actually expect. There aren’t big surprises. You can see it in the leadership. So I would say Intuit has always scored really well. And now that we’re in finance, trying to think some of the bigger companies, usually it’s the more resourced companies that score well, but we’re trying to mitigate that risk of people just being able to pay their way into a good score.
MB: Give that enough grants, goes up.
0:15:09.8 SV: Yeah. If you have a CEO or activist board members in a company that really care about this and you can see it, typically it trickles down into all the areas that we measure.
0:15:20.7 MB: Who holds you accountable?
0:15:21.9 SV: Oh, good question. My wife primarily. And then I have amassed like a personal board of directors. So I have mentors that I’ve met through tech business school and just my own personal wheelings and dealings. And I intentionally keep, try to keep people around me who will give it to me straight and provide very critical feedback because given my family background, I kind of need all the help that I can get. And I need it from people who don’t see my shortcomings as character flaws, but can recognize it as developmental opportunities. And I think I’m constantly seeking that. Like it’s something that I want to have forever.Because nobody’s perfect.
0:16:05.1 MB: No, I always say we’re all hashtag work in progress. So I love that.
0:16:10.9 S2: Stick around for more of my conversation with Stephanie Van Putten after the break.
Welcome back to The Porch. Here’s more of my conversation with Stephanie Van Putten.
MB: Tell me about what’s next after you’re doing some other stuff besides Blendoor.
SV: Yeah. So I have joined The Equity Alliance, which is a fund of funds focused on emerging diverse fund managers. It’s backed by Dick Parsons, Ron Lauder, Mike Novogratz.
MB: Big time, big time.
0:16:45.7 SV: Yeah, it’s great. It is really great. I’m excited about the work that they’re doing, focused on social capital.
0:16:51.9 S2: I’m also on the board of Fair Pay Workplace, which is an emerging standard for measuring how companies are paying people equitably. And I’m still trying to figure out what role I want to play in this emerging ESG space at the intersection of like ESG and institutional capital. But I know how important standards are. And so I think I’m trying to align myself in my personal and professional life with getting in the proper spaces where these standards are being built, because I know that the implications hundreds of years from now are going to be major. Oh, and I started a nonprofit, Visible Figures.
0:17:33.9 MB: Tell us about Visible Figures.
0:17:35.4 SV: Visible Figures is the largest network of venture backed black women founders and fund managers. We’re expanding to include other just black women luminaries. But it started off as just a little good old girls network with the listserv. But over five years, it became much more powerful than that. We were facilitating nominations for global awards. We were connecting folks with funding opportunities. And I could sense that I was building something on a foundation of trust, which I think is this invisible currency that we don’t talk about a lot in business or enough. And so, yeah, I just I want to grow that to be global and exist, but not be obvious. So one of the things I learned recently is that trees communicate underground. So if one tree is under resourced, other trees will chip in. If there are climate changes or diseases or anything, they get a heads up through this communication, through their roots underground. That’s exactly what I’m trying to replicate. I don’t want visible figures to be, you know, big and loud and, you know, like sorority, like everyone’s got to get in and we’re going to haze. No, I just want communication to flow, resources to flow so that we can thrive.
0:19:00.3 MB: I love it. Who knew trees communicate with each other?
0:19:00.9 SV: Yeah. Yeah. They’re really powerful.
MB: When you think about all the women that you’ve convened, what is the one thing that you hear from them that they want the most of?
0:19:16.1 SV: Oh, I’m going to tell you what they say and I’m going to tell you what I interpret. So they say they want more access to capital, education, mentorship, and of course, networking opportunities. What they’re not saying, I have observed, is that they’re under resourced across the board. And even if given the things that they need, there’s certain foundational things that need a bit more reinforcement. And I think it starts with mental health. And it’s a bit, it’s still a bit taboo in our communities, but I don’t think many of us, because we’ve been moving so quickly for the majority of our lives so that we could be here, have stopped and really listened to our bodies and our spirits and realized that we’re exhausted and we can’t do the work. We can’t fight the battles unless we rest more and find energy supplies. So I have to sometimes read in between the lines. Also, I’m surprised to find how many of these women are very single, but want children, but have not yet frozen their eggs. It’s a bit of a daunting concept because they’re realizing that they’re running out of time, but they don’t want to quite accept it yet.
0:20:36.0 S1: And they want to be partnered. So I have entertained the thought of a matchmaking service on top of visible figures or something.
MB: Because-Data, you’re all about data. You can engineer that. There you go.
SV: It’s people, it’s people analytics, right? In part because I’m biased given the impact that this partnership with Brittany, the impact that it’s had in so many facets of my life, and also having been married before and seeing the other side of it. So yeah, there’s a big need for that mental health and partnership.
MB: Mental health and mates. Yeah. As you were talking about Visible Figures and the trees, I’m still thrown by that. Talk about who or what happened to you that allowed you to navigate? Because let’s be honest, you’re young, but there still weren’t a whole bunch of black, female, gay product engineers floating around Silicon Valley. So who was your underground railroad? Who were the trees and what was happening to get you there?
0:21:39.5 SV: Yeah. My claim to fame has really been latching on to people that want to help and can provide a bit of guidance. I think because not only because I was an only child, I was the only child of a neglectful parent. I have just naturally had to seek out resources outside of my environment. And so that has been, there’s no way I would be sitting here with you today. You met one of my aunties or two of my aunties, one of which was extremely influential. She’s the one who got me exposed to skiing at a young age. And my exposure to skiing is how I learned about Stanford and all of these other things that I probably would not have even seen as feasible given my environment. But that exposure raised my ceiling a lot.
MB: I love that. Why do you like to ski? Because it scares the hell out of me.
SV: Oh, so many reasons.
MB: Are you doing downhill, cross country?
MB: Okay. So your life is flashing before you as you’re going down these hills.
SV: It feels like the closest thing to flying, right? Without leaving the ground. I mean, sometimes you leave the ground.
0:22:51.9 SV: Also, I think mountains like trees have spirits and energy. And I go to a lot of different mountains across the world, Austria, Switzerland, we’re in Japan, Chile, Canada, obviously all throughout the US. And everywhere I go, it’s like meeting a new person. It’s like absorbing this energy. And then you get to experience an intimacy with that mountain. And you have to respect it because they all have different personalities. Yeah. It’s a really, I guess, intimate thing for me being able to experience a mountain and have the comfort level such that I don’t have, I guess, the fear. It’s more so just respect.
0:23:35.6 MB: I respect the mountain so much. So when I go to Aspen, I ride up on the tram and I just sit there and I have a drink and then I ride back down the tram and I cheer for all of you all racing down. I go, look at that. That’s awesome. I still feel the spirits, but they’re telling me, do not put your feet on the snow. Stay in your lane. That’s right. That’s right. Putting Alistair aside for a second. What is your proudest personal moment?
0:24:02.1 SV: Probably being accepted to MIT. I was often told and felt in undergrad that I didn’t belong, that I was an affirmative action admit, and I just kind of squeaked by. But getting accepted to MIT as an engineer is like…
MB: Huge. That’s the top of the mountain.
SV: Right. So at that point it was just like, oh, you can’t tell me anything. You cannot tell me I’m not smart.
0:24:35.6 MB: What would you say to other young black girls who want to go to MIT?
0:24:40.3 SV: Oh, stick with it. I had a dream of going very young and opted not for undergrad, but yeah, I often seek out blueprints.
MB: That’s the engineer in you.
SV: Right. So at a very young age, I researched the profiles of the people who went to these schools and did these things that I admired, because not all of them that I admire, and just reverse engineered and did what they did and it worked.
0:25:10.4 MB: Yeah. Every time I see you, I don’t remember where we met or how we met, which just speaks to the ecosystem. I feel like I knew of you before I knew you, and now I’m on the other side of the spectrum. I’m honored to know you even more during this conversation. You’re always happy. Like, whoa, I got this. But I realize now as an engineer, I can fix almost anything. What scares you the most?
SV: Ooh, good question. I was just talking with my wife about this after a conference we attended here recently. You were actually the moderator of the panel, and I was looking at the program and it was about generational wealth. And someone spoke about how we are 225 years away from catching up with our white American counterparts in generational wealth. And one of my mentors said something to me recently that was really impactful, that we have to be careful that we’re not running behind someone into a burning house. The more that I understand capitalism, I am starting to believe that we might be chasing someone into a burning house, because in order to achieve the level of wealth that our counterparts have, there was exploitation of people and land involved.
0:26:25.7 MB: Absolutely. Including us.
SV: Yes. So unless we are willing to take those steps, I don’t see that gap closing, and I don’t think that’s the route we want to take. There could be another route, but based on the data, I don’t have any evidence that there is, and so it scares me a lot that all of this attention and focus on generational wealth might be leading us down a path of just straight up greed and exploitation. And I would like to see a better form of capitalism, if that’s possible, for those of us who have been left out of that party. Like, let’s create another one, let’s figure this out and how to do it in a better way. And maybe financial returns aren’t the most important KPI. Sure.
MB: We have a better gold standard.
SV: Yeah. Because honestly, everyone’s talking about Adam of WeWork, right? I don’t think he sleeps well at night. I don’t think his grandchildren will be proud of him. And that is like my biggest fear is not just what I’m doing now, but what my legacy will be. And I think that’s not just financial wealth, it’s spiritual wealth. It’s creating things that make quality of life better for everyone, not just a small subset.
0:27:46.4 SV: So, yeah, our obsession with generational wealth scares me a little bit, a lot of it.
0:27:51.2 MB: You talk about generational wealth. Alistair and maybe other children that you all have will grow up. What is the headline that you can’t wait for them to see? And what is the headline that you hope is no longer on social media?
0:28:08.0 S2: The headline that I hope Alistair will see is that we’ve achieved some significant amount of parity, gender parity, racial parity, all these categories that have emerged over the years, over the centuries. I’m looking for something that’s like, okay, we figured this thing out. We’re good here.
0:28:31.7 MB: Check the box before we all leave. Is there a headline out there that you don’t want Alistair to see?
SV: I don’t want to see any more hype about billionaires and the things that they’re accomplishing, going into space, their tomfoolery, because it’s just greed. We’re rewarding greed. And it’s not the Native Americans have a term for people who take the biggest piece of meat. And it’s not considered something that you praise. And I’m hoping we get away from that, like propping up the wealthy. Stop saying massive accumulation is a good thing. Yeah. Yeah. And really highlighting them as revolutionaries, visionaries, those who can fix the world’s problems. One of my favorite books is from a Anand Giridharadas called Winner Takes All. Love, love that book, because it really just breaks apart what’s happening when you have someone who’s amassed a great deal of wealth and they think they’re best equipped to solve the world’s problems, even though they’ve benefited from crazy tax breaks along the way. Because in their minds, they’re more equipped than the systems that have evolved over hundreds of years to solve problems. And it’s just not smart.
0:29:55.9 MB: We have a lot of other people who amassed great amounts of wealth off the ancestors of the communities they’re trying to help. And nothing happens. Nothing happens. I want to thank you for coming to the porch. Thank you. I really appreciate it. Truly enjoyed the conversation. Likewise. Thanks.
Thank you for listening to my conversation with Stephanie Van Putten. I hope that you now see you can be a mom, a business leader, and a badass all at the same time. If you enjoyed our conversation, please leave us a rating and a review. To learn more about our guest and find a link to the website, check out our show notes. You can find us on social media at WeAreNMV or search for us with the hashtag porch talks.
MB: Speaking of bestsellers, have you written a book?
MB: Are you going to write a book?
SV: No time soon. Okay. Because I’ve read a lot of memoirs of people.
0:30:51.5 S2: I was like people, I’m like people are 30 years old, they got a memoir.
SV: You could have waited. Okay. You could have waited all that way. Okay. Yeah, no, I need to do more before I think I’m ready. I think I have something to say. Okay. I am so touched by real experience and science and data.
0:31:07.4 S1: Do you have a book title in mind yet?
SV: No, not yet. I’m still working on it.
MB: Okay, that’s fair. That’s fair.
Porch Talks is a production of Kinetic Energy Entertainment and New Majority Ventures.
Recording and video production services were provided by Modulus Studios.
This podcast was recorded at the Blackjoy House in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard.
Our producer is Ann Kane. Our social media producer is Misako Envela and the show is mixed by Sonya Harris.
The Porch Talks theme is A New View by Tony Cruise. Thanks again for listening. See you back on the porch.