A support network: beyond a professional network, make sure you have a group of supporters outside your startup environment. These are the people who know you best, whether family or friends. It’s hard to build a company, especially when you feel like you’re pouring your energy into a new venture. My friends and family sent me food, funny presents and always encouraged me — early on, these displays of support sustained me.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Merav Yuravlivker.
Merav has more than a decade of experience in the education field, from classroom teaching to instructional design and building online learning platforms. As a co-founder and the current CEO of Data Society, she helps companies save millions of dollars with instructionally sound and effective data science training programs. Merav is passionate about transforming how professionals use data and how companies invest in their staff.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My career path was not traditional. I started with several years in a classroom as a teacher in New York City Public Schools. That experience inspired me to broaden my impact outside of one classroom, which I did at the International Baccalaureate Organization, training teachers and developing online training programs.
Fast forward a few years, I was looking for new ways to broaden my impact further. I ended up meeting one of my co-founders, Dmitri Adler, whose background was on Wall Street. His work with data and Excel spreadsheets led him to search for more efficient ways to do his work. He ended up discovering a way to use an automated script to condense several weeks of work into a single afternoon. He had already been working with our third co-founder, John Nader, who is now our COO and general counsel, to build the strong foundations of our company. Working with Dmitri and John was a great opportunity, given that I was looking for another way to increase the impact in my career further.
Despite not having a background in data science, I started dedicating my nights and weekends to learn programming and design our future-focused curriculum and student experience. After six months, I quit my full-time job to focus on Data Society.
Of course, it was risky, but I firmly believed in our idea and our team. Education is at the core of our business, and since founding Data Society, we’ve focused on establishing a pioneering approach to reliability and quality for our industry-tailored training solutions.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It’s difficult for me to pinpoint just one story, but this one from our early days stands out. In 2015, we received an invitation to participate in The Opportunity Project, a program that had just started and paired private companies with government agencies to complete a challenge together. As a result, we worked with the Department of Education and our partner, Kitamba, to develop a School ResourceMapper pro bono. The platform helped Philadelphia identify where they needed to add more community services and helped parents see resources for their children near their schools.
Because of our participation, we were invited to the White House to showcase our work. We met high-level officials, including former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith and U.S. Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil, and many other innovative individuals who all came together to solve various challenges. It was such a pleasure to meet these game-changers, and it was a thrilling experience to bring our team into such a prestigious building. The opportunity to speak with them and hear their input made the tangible impact of our mission real. It was the first time our company was seen on a larger stage, and it helped us understand how we could shift the way people think about data.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we had our first large customer, we had to deliver our training programs onsite, this was pre-COVID, of course, and a part of that was printing out all of the materials for the students. As a bootstrapped company, we tried to keep our expenses low, and printing out 30 books with 200+ slides was an expensive option. So, I did my research and bought a small office printer and a lot of ink, paper and binding materials to save on costs. The one piece I forgot to factor in was the time it would take for one printer to do all that.
I started printing at 9 am on Saturday and finished printing everything by 3 am on Monday, with the class beginning at 9 am that day.
By the time I had printed everything out, I had run out of binding materials. The team and I drove to the hotel nearby, arrived at 4:30 am, and slept for a few hours. I woke up early to go to Staples to finish the binding process, but the machine was broken when I arrived. I saw a 3-hole punch and binders in the store, so I started punching paper as fast as possible. I bought out their stock of binders, but even that wasn’t enough. I ran over to Walmart and quickly scooped up the rest of the binders I needed. After standing in a long line at the store, furiously driving back to the hotel, completing the fastest change of clothing, and getting lost on the highway, we arrived with 10 minutes to spare with all the materials in hand as class started. The course was an amazing success, but we shelled out the extra expense for the printing after that!
If there’s one big takeaway from this story, it’s that the cheapest option usually has a different cost — time. So, today, I typically choose the option that saves us the most time, even if it’s not the cheapest. While we do have to stick to a budget, time is the one resource we can never get back, so that’s the resource we must value accordingly.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It’s challenging to select only one person from the vast support network around me. I’m grateful for my co-founders, family and friends who have encouraged me throughout my career and through the challenges I’ve faced. In addition, the professionals we train are another source of inspiration.
One experience particularly stands out to me, when we were in a meeting with a large company to discuss bringing in our training solutions. A staff member entered the room and said, “I hate to interrupt, but I just wanted to meet you. The reason I am here today is because of the classes that you taught me. As a result, I gained the skills that I needed to build a strong data science foundation and improve my confidence in continuing my education. So, I wanted to thank you for the amazing work that you do.”
It’s inspiring to see how our programs prepare employees with the skills they need to solve complex challenges and realize new opportunities in their careers.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
From what I’ve seen and experienced, there are two areas of focus to increase female entrepreneurship: access and representation. Before I founded Data Society, I never imagined starting a company, much less growing one over the past seven years. I hadn’t seen many female-grown companies, so it never crossed my mind. I also didn’t know where to start and what resources I would need. For many women, the barriers to entry include not having many role models in the space and a lack of access to these resources.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
The first step to inspiring women is creating awareness. Then, we can highlight the real journeys of female entrepreneurs and make them feel more accessible. Especially in the past few years, I’ve seen more considerable media, venture capital and public policy efforts to encourage women who may not have the same networks as men.
Additionally, building on existing networks to be more deliberately inclusive is crucial for fostering early innovators. For example, Washington, D.C. is one of the best cities for women in tech — why? There are many networks here, such as DCFemTech, designed to support women entering the field and share best practices. These networks have helped me recruit team members, develop business relationships and provide a safe space to ask questions and receive support. For any women interested in starting a business, I encourage getting involved in these networks. They’ve proven invaluable to me, especially as I was beginning my entrepreneurial journey.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Simply put, we have a different viewpoint that speaks to a large portion of the population. It’s less about why more women should become founders and more about encouraging diversity of thought and backgrounds, regardless of gender. Many incredible companies come from a founder’s challenge. We all face different challenges, depending on who we are and where we are. We need diverse representation to bring solutions to problems that we see and those we don’t see. As a part of that, we need more women to join the top ranks and effect change.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
One of my favorite myths about being a founder is that your time is your own. While it’s true that you don’t have a boss in the traditional sense, you have a more significant obligation to your team, your clients and yourself. Especially in the first few years, I easily spent 90–100 hours per week working. Your time is your own in the sense that you are setting the direction and determining the most valuable projects to prioritize. But when you’re building a company from the ground up, there is no off-switch. There are always more tasks than hours in the day.
The same goes for the freedom that we have. Founders do have a tremendous amount of freedom in choosing the company’s direction, but it comes with an equal amount of responsibility that builds up as the team grows. Now, with a team of 50 (most of whom are women), I see my position transitioning to support and strategy. My goal is to ensure my team has everything they need to succeed and feel good about working together while setting our direction.
All that said, I am incredibly proud to represent our amazing team members and shine the light on the work we’re doing to educate, equip and empower professionals with the skills they need in the present and future.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
The most successful founders I’ve seen demonstrate strong tenacity, excellent problem-solving skills, and the ability to forecast the future while keeping the present stable.
I built our learning management system early on, learned how to program, developed a method for printing materials, edited videos, taught classes and managed client relationships. Because we bootstrapped our company, as co-founders, we shared the mentality to pitch in and support each other, regardless of the task, and without egos. This dedication is critical for any company to succeed.
The demands in a founder’s lifestyle are not for everyone, and I’d argue that it’s not for most people. Many jobs and careers are incredibly fulfilling and allow individuals to excel in their area of expertise without needing to worry about payroll or management. When I started Data Society, I didn’t have family obligations and was fortunate to have saved up enough money to feel financially stable for at least six months. I strongly advise anyone thinking about starting their own company to ensure they think carefully about how they will fund the company and themselves, which can be a big limiting factor to many people.
Finally, one common trait I noticed about many founders is they love solving challenges — if a person doesn’t have that drive to push through tough roadblocks, it will be difficult to get the idea off the ground.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- A professional network: no woman is an island. Find a network of women and entrepreneurs in your area who empower others and support each other. We secured one of our first large clients by connecting with them on the floor of our co-working space. Don’t be shy to tell people what you’re doing — you never know who needs your services or products!
- A support network: beyond a professional network, make sure you have a group of supporters outside your startup environment. These are the people who know you best, whether family or friends. It’s hard to build a company, especially when you feel like you’re pouring your energy into a new venture. My friends and family sent me food, funny presents and always encouraged me — early on, these displays of support sustained me.
- Self-care: how can your company be at its best if you aren’t? I know many women who put everyone else’s needs above theirs. With so much responsibility, this can be debilitating. It’s vital to find ways to give yourself the space you need to be a strong leader. To this day, I find time to go on walks, go on coffee dates with friends and even take naps during the day. I deliberately set aside time for activities to refresh me, and I say no to meetings when I need the time. Find your boundaries and stay in tune with how you’re feeling.
- Perseverance and passion: I group these two because it’s difficult to have one without the other, and it’s impossible to work this hard voluntarily without both. No matter what your idea, make sure you believe in your mission and your company. Then, work hard to make it a reality. I remember the week before we had to deliver one of our first big programs, I probably slept a total of 20 hours. But when I got into the classroom and saw how our students engaged with the material and even solved problems during the course, it reinforced the impact that we could have on a massive scale.
- Confidence: this is something I’ve noticed many founders struggle with, particularly women. I always assumed that everyone else knew what they were doing, and I felt out of place as someone who didn’t have a business or data science background. I was especially intimidated by coding until I saw how others solved problems by turning to each other and Googling their errors. One of my favorite moments was when I was building an interactive data dashboard in R, and I spent hours trying to figure out why I kept getting errors. Then, I found the offending extra comma, took it out of my script and it worked! That triumph illustrated both how empowering it is to learn such a versatile skill and that I could learn anything I didn’t already know.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
An important focus for Data Society is giving back to our community. For example, as mentioned above and as part of the White House Opportunity Project initiative, we developed a School ResourceMapper pro bono. In addition, we’ve partnered with World Central Kitchen on a data tool for enhanced food product recommendations for chefs in disaster areas.
This focus on giving back has been significant in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, we worked with a startup to create a resource for consumers to find items they needed at grocery stores. Additionally, we’ve sponsored a Gather for Good trivia event with our staff to support food insecurity efforts.
I am also passionate about increasing diversity in the data science field. I’m part of multiple organizations aimed at amplifying the efforts of women in tech organizations, including helping to found Gender Diversity Across The Axis (GDATA, formerly Women Data Scientists DC) and participating in DCFemTech.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I feel strongly that education is truly the great equalizer and critical to unlocking society’s potential. Therefore, I see an opportunity to build up the value of education overall and place greater value on our educators and teachers.
From those I’ve met in my career, I know that every teacher is passionate about seeing their students succeed. Therefore, we should work to equip teachers with the resources they need to keep making positive impacts in the lives of their students.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to meet Mary Barra, CEO of GM. I have always been impressed by how she worked her way up in the company and learned the ins and outs of their operations. I am inspired by her commitment to making GM an innovative place to work and a supportive environment for employees, illustrating her holistic approach to leading the company. I’m also excited about the initiatives she’s putting into place regarding electric vehicles and her pledge to end distracted driving.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.