Yes, I love the movies, which is why I throw in an occasional movie review in here now and then. Aside from comedy, my favorite thing to see is documentaries about extraordinary people and/or events. It’s similar to what I like to read: non-fiction stories that are stranger or more fantastical than what one might dream up. As they say in the business, “You can’t make this &#$@ up.”
Recently, I saw a new documentary called Maiden. I hadn’t heard about it before I went. I just looked up what was playing at my local artsy theater, The Rafael, where all the good documentaries show, and saw this was at a convenient time and I went. Frankly, I had no idea what it was about except that it had something to do with a sailing race. I love tales about the sea and remarkable ocean voyages – something about them really speaks to me. Maybe it’s the wildness of the ocean as compared to my relatively ordered life. Maybe it’s the human vs. nature thing. Maybe it’s the cute otters. Who knows? I especially love a good history-happening-in-the-ocean story, and I’ve read a slew of them; my most favorite so far is Shadow Divers though Ship of Gold was also pretty great. So, hey: movie, convenient time, ocean voyage. I’m in.
Imagine my delight when the story was even more up my alley than expected. Maiden is the story of the very first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Sailing Race (now known as the Volvo Ocean Race). As you can imagine, the themes around what women can and cannot do, at least according to men, were really interesting. I found the movie to be an incredibly compelling allegory about what it’s like to be a female entrepreneur.
For background, the Whitbread race goes about 39,000 nautical miles and the boats sail, as you can guess from the name, around the world from varying starting points in Europe with a handful of stops along the way. The race takes about 9 months to complete. The first race was held in 1973 and it has run every three years since.
In 1985, a 24-year-old woman named Tracy Edwards with some sailing experience tried to get herself hired onto a crew of the race. No female had ever before participated on any boat, despite there being dozens (maybe hundreds) of boats with crews of 8-10 or so each in prior race year. Not. One. Woman. Tracy managed to convince someone to let her on as a cook, where she was treated largely as a servant to the all-male “actual” crew. Interestingly, four other women held similar roles that year, but none were considered serious crew members and all were relegated to the galleys. So, in 1985 there were 5 women out of 230 crew on 23 boats. Let’s see – that’s about 2.5%. Sounds about right given that’s about the amount of venture money that women get in the entrepreneurial world today.
Annoyed by being marginalized and committed to being perceived a serious sailor, Tracy, at age 27, decided that she would enter the 1989-90 race with an all-female crew. She had no leadership experience; she had no boat; and she had no sponsors. She was nearly laughed out of the race by the men who run and participate in it, not to mention the journalists who cover it. But, of course, the movie wouldn’t have been made if the crew of 12 women had failed. Rather, they came damn close to winning. They came in first place on two of the four legs in their division of the race and damn near won the whole thing.
As I sat in the dark of the theater, particularly as someone who has watched female entrepreneurs struggle because of a system that is largely rigged against them (sailing pun intended), I realized I was watching the same story play out on the water (and the screen). It was particularly compelling because of the extreme challenge and danger of the race itself, but just served to highlight so many of the lessons that female entrepreneurs do not set out to learn but do anyway. Specifically:
The Fight to Overcome Imposter Syndrome and Self Doubt – While I am pretty sure all entrepreneurs experience some of this during their journey, women are the Class A experts at insecurity and self-doubt. We are trained from youth to believe we are limited, incapable, less than. So even in those moments when we are kicking serious ass, we wonder if we are good enough, deserving enough, able to reach the finish line. Tracy Edwards had this in spades. Despite the clear courage and amazing grit it took to not just enter the race, but take all the steps she had to take to make it happen and succeed, she had moments of crippling self-doubt and nearly gave up the Captain’s role because of it.
Lack of Community Support (mitigated by a person who finally believed) – When Tracy announced she planned to hire a crew, build a boat and enter the race, no one traditionally involved with the race did not take her seriously. It was assumed she could get no money (and the traditional funders did not prove the doubters wrong). It was assumed she did not have the stamina, and that she could not field a crew. And of course, there was this old favorite theme talked about among those in the racing world – how could a bunch of women in close quarters even get along for nine months? But someone finally believed in her, in this case a man, and took a chance, signing up to help her project manage the venture. As a result, she was able to share the management load and focus on the priorities needed of a leader: team and money. But the open laughter about Tracy’s and crew’s efforts was never far away and there were gamblers openly betting against them in the area sailor bars. She made this comment in one of the articles about the movie, “What is shocking to me now is that we just accepted that was the way things were and pretty much ignored it. Some were openly laughing at us, and that really hurt. It just proved how much we had to do and how important it was to succeed, because if we didn’t, it would be harder for women the next time.”
The Challenge of Getting the Right Team: As any successful entrepreneur or investor will tell you, having the right team is worth more than any other thing in the process. Tracy hired a team, some of which were highly experienced sailors and some of which were less so, but who seemed to be a good fit for the crew. Giving in to her own insecurity, she hired one woman to be the first mate, but essentially let her take over the role of captain, creating confusion for the crew. When this first mate proved an ineffective leader, she took the initiative to let her go, despite the fact that the race was close at hand and the crew was anxious about the last minute changes. It was a gutsy move on the one hand, but also the right one needed to ensure everyone was sailing in the same direction.
Money Follows Men: Tracy needed a boat, obviously, and spent most of the first two years looking for sponsor that would enable her to buy one. That process went nowhere while the all-male teams around her found plenty. She eventually resorted to two extreme measures: mortgaging her house and reaching out to an old acquaintance in her network who happened to have some cash on hand: King Hussein of Jordan. She met the King while she was stewarding on a charter boat some years prior with him as the esteemed guest. The two had hit it off on the boat and kept in touch. When she emailed him asking for support, the King and his wife, both quite forward-thinking individuals, provided the necessary additional cash. Despite the King’s support, Tracy still had to scramble for cash and didn’t have solid sponsorship (from Jordanian Airlines) until far closer to the race than was expected, leaving little time to ready the boat for the race. In other words, she was forced to do much with little in half the time. Sound familiar?
The Belief That Women Can’t Get Down and Dirty and Build Things: Even with the money she had managed to get, Tracy could only purchase a beat-up second-hand boat. So, she did what women entrepreneurs do and made the money go a long way by doing a lot of things the hard way. The crew of women literally tore the boat apart and rebuilt it for this treacherous journey while the male race participants watched with skepticism, certain that they had neither the skills to make the boat race-ready nor the ability to survive their own creation. Not only did they make the boat seaworthy and fast, but refitted it with lighter materials so the female crew could handle all of the work at sea.
You Have to Work Harder Than Men to Prove Your Merit: When Tracy and her crew successfully survived the extremely treacherous 1st leg of the race (from Southampton, UK to Uruguay), they were told it was a fluke. When they sailed into port in 3rd place they were called a “tin full of tarts” by a journalist covering the race and were asked about their boyfriends and if the girls were getting along. They noted that the male crews were asked about tactics. This just pissed them off and galvanized them to double down on their effort, which resulted in their winning the 2nd leg of the race, which ended in Southern Australia. This time they were told it was a “lucky leg” and their win was still dismissed as less than valid. It was not until they won the 3rd leg of the race, to Auckland, that they were suddenly seen as serious contenders. When they sailed into the finish line in 2nd place after the 4th leg, they were hailed as heroes. People finally realized that they were just as worthy as the male sailors, but a real inspiration for overcoming so much more than the men had to face.
Tracy Edwards and others from her crew tell the story first hand in the movie, Maiden, which was, by the way, the name of the boat. The movie also features actual film from the boat and the race taken by one of the crew. It is breathtaking. While female entrepreneurs don’t face literal death at work each day (mostly) like these sailors did (actually, two men from another crew drowned during the race), the constant drum-beat of skepticism and rejection create some pretty rough water for those who decide to take the journey. These women will find this movie a true inspiration.
I was particularly taken by comments Tracy made later in life about how she appreciated at a whole new level of importance what she had done after she had a daughter of her own. Today Tracy has taken the Maiden, refurbished it yet again, and created a foundation called The Maiden Factor which sails the boat around the world working with charities to provide an education for girls who don’t currently have that basic human right. Right now the Maiden is sailing to 32 places in 17 countries, stopping in San Francisco at the SF Yacht Club (if you are local) from August 19-30. I’m definitely going to check it out and definitely going to bring my daughter with me. She loved the movie, by the way, as did my husband. It is inspiring for one and all and highly applicable to the entrepreneurial community in which I tend to dwell.
In an NPR story that came out about the movie, Tracy said, “We had so much obstruction and criticism and anger,” she says. “Guys used to say to us, with absolute certainty, ‘You’re going to die.’…We all became very aware, as a crew, as a team, that we were fighting for all women, and actually anyone who’s been told they can’t do anything.”
Now that is a clarion call to female entrepreneurs if I ever heard one. Go get ‘em ladies.
You can watch the movie trailer for Maiden HERE.