On Losing my Likability


There is no one, in the history of anyone in the world, who has stood up for what they believed in and remained liked by everyone.

In sophomore English class I read Death of Salesman by Arthur Miller and my teacher explained that when Miller referred to Willy Loman (the main character) as “well liked”- it was a critique, not a compliment. His life was an illusion propped up by phony people and the success that he longed for never came.

Apparently, it’s not just me and Arthur Miller who wrangle with the issue of being “well liked”- being agreeable and likable is important but complicated.

In the startup world, investors really make a big deal about the fact that they need to “like” entrepreneurs that they fund. So, getting investment can be about merit, but sometimes it is also kind of a popularity contest.

This didn’t really occur to me as a problem at first. I just accepted it in the way that you “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” I’m introverted, but I also genuinely like most people and I am willing to make an effort to be social (most of the time). I also understand that building a company involves having a certain amount of charisma and the ability to get people on board to work together on a shared vision. It is a crucial element.

Jeff Keni Pulver, my first investor, taught me the importance of speaking to everyone, connecting with new people and creating moments of synchronicity. I worked on this with diligence because it was hard for me, but it was worth it and I built networks that literally span the globe.

But there is a huge problem because being good at what you do isn’t always the same thing as being likeable. And being “likeable” means different things to different people- so social, racial and gender bias become real barriers. This becomes an impossible situation for entrepreneurs when “players” in the game become bad actors.

At an early stage of my startup when I encountered men who said terrible sexist things to me, I would push back right there in the meeting. Then I got feedback through my mentors that I was “abrasive” and “over-emotional.” I could literally see the bridges burning before my eyes. It was baffling and painful.

A huge question for me as a woman in tech became, “How do I retain my likeablility while still speaking my mind?”

For me personally, it has meant measured responses. I am willing to write and post about serious issues, without mudslinging and name calling. I am willing to speak up to the extent that I think the people across the table from me are willing to listen. I am willing to listen and share with all of the women and POC who are reaching out to me because they have been struggling too and I am making space for the men who are allies and advocates.

It has also meant that as I embark on my new startup (which is still in stealth mode and I have big exciting news coming soon), I am choosing who to work with very carefully. My cofounder, investors and strategic partners are all people who believe in me as an entrepreneur and in that setting, I can be as tough as a CEO has to be, while retaining my humanity.

For me publicly, I have had to really let go of caring if people like me. The response to my previous post has been amazing, and overwhelmingly positive but there is a very vocal minority who are extremely critical. It is amazing how quickly trolls and haters will try to diminish your accomplishments just because they disagree with something you said. What I really feel like I have done in the public arena is traded some measure of my likability for an even greater measure of authenticity. It has been a rewarding experience.

I am glad I did it but this is something that I am working to keep in balance as I launch my startup. I don’t want my issues as a woman to overshadow the important work that I am doing as an entrepreneur. Because at the end of the day, I want to be known and judged — liked or disliked — for the quality of my work, not my gender.

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© 2020 Sarah Nadav