I’m a tech startup founder and CEO.
My company, Prontopia, is a platform for travelers to get in-person help in cities when they need it. We started in Venice, Rome, and Florence, and we just launched in Barcelona. The idea was born out of a void I experienced while running my previous company, also in Italy, and managing the care of my ailing father in Kentucky. In both areas, I craved support from local networks that essentially didn’t exist. My dad liked to walk from his apartment to get an ice cream, pick up some groceries, and walk back. I thought, if we could just find some friendly local to come and walk with him, it would be delightful for them and so good for his dignity. This was right around when the DIY travel economy was emerging. Everything was becoming automated.
With Prontopia, we’re taking a proven concept from luxury travel and democratizing it. And by having the voices of locals providing the help, we’re also democratizing the distribution of business around the city. We had to really listen to the locals, earn their trust, and make them understand that what we’re doing is good for their city.
I originally pursued an academic career in medieval Italian history. I was in a PhD program, but when I got married, the reality of finding a job hit home. In academia, you have to move wherever the jobs are, and there aren’t many. It was clear that we would be staying in Santa Barbara, so I didn’t see much reason to finish my doctorate. I worked in finance for about a year before being recruited for a job at an educational publishing company. It was a big pay cut, but it was something I cared about. And we were ready to have kids. After I had my second child, I switched to consulting. By the time my younger daughter was two, it had become kind of ad hoc. I had flexibility and two beautiful children, but I wasn’t growing.
One night I went to my book club, a group of women that I’ve been with now for over 20 years. I don’t remember what I said, but it must’ve been pretty dismal. One friend finally said to me, “Look, we keep hearing the same things from you. Isn’t it time to just do one thing for yourself?” It made me so angry I walked out. Halfway home, I remember standing in the dark wondering, why would I be angry that she said that to me? It was fear, I realized.
So I started penciling it out, imagining one baby step I could take to make my life line up more with my values. And I founded Arte al Sole, a summer day care for international kids in Italy. I worried that I was being selfish, dragging my kids off to Tuscany because I needed something. Now I see that probably the biggest benefit was to them. They grew up with that program. They met some of their best friends and built a foundation of self-esteem.
Now I’m part of a women-only accelerator in Silicon Valley. We had a chance to talk with some VCs, and I asked one of them why resources are so scarce for women-led tech companies. He told me most VCs don’t think women have networks. He also said investors are looking for the “unicorns,” of which women have not produced many. I was like, don’t you see there’s a chicken-and-egg situation here?
I’ve had potential investors ask about my family circumstances: do you have children, how old are they, are you married? Male founders are not asked these questions. I’ve just had to be clear that none of that is stopping me. I’m fully participating in my family duties and in this company. I will not tailor myself to other people’s ideas of how it should be done.
Interviewed on May 17, 2019