This Neuroscientist and Single Mom Raised $58M to Reduce Hiring Bias
Soon after becoming a single mom, Frida Polli, a Harvard- and MIT-trained neuroscientist, founded a startup dedicated to improving the hiring process. Here are her tips for chasing your own entrepreneurial dreams.
Frida Polli began her career as an academic neuroscientist at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She loved the research she worked on, but soon realized she didn't want to be limited to producing data and writing papers. "I wanted the fruits of our research to actually impact real people," says Polli.
At the same time, the neuroscientist was raising a daughter, Ellie, whom she gave birth to in 2005 while in grad school. She became a single parent a year later and was asking herself how she could sustain a career in academia simultaneously. "As a postdoctoral fellow at a top-tier university then, you were basically making less than $40,000 a year," she explains. "That is not a lot of money if you're living in an expensive city like Boston or New York."
Taking all of that into consideration, the single mom felt compelled to try something new—and see what she could do to create positive, meaningful change. By 2010, inspired to apply science to real-world problems, Polli got a fellowship to go to Harvard to get her MBA.
That's where she noticed how antiquated the hiring process is. "We have all these ways of understanding people's cognitive, social, and emotional aptitudes—their soft skills—and those features are so much more predictive if somebody is fit to a job than a resume," says Polli. She was left wondering why no one had leveraged that technology to make the job matching process more accurate and fair.
She also noticed how the current process was creating a lack of representation, which in turn, prevented qualified candidates from even applying for particular positions. Polli knew what that felt like firsthand. "I was in my mid-30s, and I was a single parent," she says. "I didn't see myself represented among entrepreneurs. So I had that self-doubt." She was compelled to make a change, thinking to herself, "Wouldn't it be awesome to create a system whereby we make you more than just a resume? We really look at you holistically."
In order to do this, Polli began applying the types of behavioral activities she would lean on as a researcher. These "games" could test altruism, working memory, attention, cognitive flexibility, and a variety of traits and aptitudes that undoubtedly come up when someone is actually tackling a job. "That level of data or detail really gives people and hiring managers the confidence to make matches that maybe on a resume aren't as obvious," she notes.
In 2012, Polli graduated with her MBA. Her daughter was 7. And while it felt risky, she knew the time was right to raise capital to make her dream a reality. "I had just graduated from this fantastic program that gave me a lot of exposure to the type of folks that I would need to raise capital from," she explains. "It just led me to think there's no better time than now. I was also so motivated by the vision of helping everyone realize their career potential, which is what I was trying to do myself."
Along with her daughter and her co-founder, Polli moved into an apartment in New York to get started. In 2013, the founders raised their first outside capital for their company, Pymetrics. Soon, they had raised $58 million. Today, the entrepreneur is thriving and dedicated to the mission of the company, which is to use neuroscience games and artificial intelligence to help everyone realize their full potential by matching people accurately and fairly to their best fit job.
Here are Polli's words of wisdom for anyone looking to follow their entrepreneurial dreams.
Just Do It
Like many life milestones, Polli, who is now a mom of three, recognized that there was never going to be a perfect time to become an entrepreneur. "[It's like how] there's no good time to have a kid," she says. "It was the same with the company. It was like, 'Hey, there's no good time. I think it's just kind of like, 'Let's do it.'"
And taking a gung-ho approach is key to success, according to Polli. "Whenever you start a venture, you have to pour your heart and soul into it," she says. "You have to take all sorts of risks and make sacrifices. And if you're not going to be inspired by the mission at the end of the day, then there's no reason to [do it]."
See Entrepreneurship Like Parenthood
The difficulties and uncertainty of motherhood can offer an insightful glimpse into the experience of entrepreneurship. Why? Because that experience of jumping into parenthood and trying to get your bearings is quite similar to starting your own company, says Polli. "It definitely is this feeling of like, 'Oh wow. I just jumped off a cliff, and I hope there's like something down there that can help me—or that I grow wings in the meantime.'"
Efficiency and Delegation Are Key
Efficiency is critical to success. "Once you start having more and more responsibilities, the only leverage you have is how efficiently you get things done, making sure your time is utilized well," says Polli.
On that note, the entrepreneur feels she had to learn how to delegate to be even more efficient. "I was scheduling all my own meetings, and that's not being very efficient with my time," she notes. Polli realized by investing a bit of time to coach someone how to do a task she would have typically taken on herself, they could ultimately do it as well or even better than she could.
The lesson: "If you think you're going to do everything, you're constraining the growth of the business," says Polli.
Own Who You Are
At one point, Polli took her then 10-year-old to an investor meeting because the babysitter hadn't shown up. "Maybe not all investors would have reacted well, but I made a joke about it, and I said, 'Oh, it's our newest intern,'" she recalls. "And they all laughed."
That experience led to Polli's belief in the power of owning who you are. "At the end of the day, I think people respect that a lot more than somebody who is trying to be somebody that they're not," she says. "I'm not saying it's easy, but saying, 'Look, this is who I am—take it or leave it' is a better path than hiding."
And that idea goes hand-in-hand with her mission to help everyone realize their true potential in business. "We're human beings, and we all want to find our people," says Polli. "We all want to be liked for who we really are. Not for who we pretend to be."