Falon Fatemi has worked with some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley. A quick glance at her resume reveals Fatemi started as a young tech wiz who has collaborated with, and learned from, several of today’s top entrepreneurial giants.
A brief recap: At 19, Fatemi was the youngest employee to ever work at Google. Meanwhile, she was enrolled as a full-time student at Santa Clara University. A few years later, she left to do strategy consulting for startups, all while making super valuable connections. “I was also helping with getting a lot of matchmaking between people, companies, and resources,” Fatemi said. These connections were so impactful that she decided to start a company that intros businesses and people to each other – or the right resources – at the perfect time.
Today, she’s the founder of Node, an artificial intelligence start-up that has raised more than $21 million in funding. The company’s goal is productizing, as Fatemi calls it, “serendipity.” The way she thinks about Node, she said, is: “What if we could leverage cutting-edge AI to essentially make sense of the world, understand what’s relevant to you, and suggest opportunities to you that you didn’t know existed?” (Think of it as a kind of sophisticated Google).
Girlboss spoke to Fatemi about what it’s like to learn coding skills from Google employees, how she learned to let go of her plan-everything tendencies, and the fearless attitude you need for networking. Here’s her pro advice for entrepreneurs who want to stand out.
Was working for Google just another job you were applying for at the time? Or was it something that just made sense for you, like, ‘This is the field I want to go into, Google is the place to be at?’?
It was totally serendipitous. I was 19, a sophomore at university. This is in June of 2005, there weren’t really that many startups. Google was relatively unknown, and my somewhat career plan was a path towards investment banking.
When I took a class taught by serial entrepreneur Mary Furlong, I got recruited to do a research project for Microsoft. And in this research project, I ended up getting recommended to someone very senior at Google based on how I performed. I was about to take a job in investment banking for a summer internship, but ended up taking the job at Google.
How were you able to manage being a college student while taking on a demanding internship?
When you’re young, you don’t need that much sleep.
How were your first days at Google?
In my interview process, they basically asked me, “What is it that you want to do?” And I said, “I wanted to learn everything.”
I’d learn a concept in statistics at school, and I would apply it to a numbers analysis I was doing for Google’s two different product lines. And I learned how to code from the Google employees. So I really used it as a way to actually enrich my educational experience.
The main theme in my life that’s also led me to where I am today, starting from that job at Google, has really been around serendipity. How to create serendipity, but also ultimately know how to productize it. When it comes to sorting your career path, I think part of it is really being able to open your eyes to the opportunity that’s right in front of you. And part of it is just asking for what you want, or saying “yes” to things that you didn’t even know were possible.
You’ve mentioned you’re a planner. Was it difficult for you to deviate from your preconceived career plan, or was the opportunity at Google so exciting, that you said, “Never mind, forget that”?
My parents were immigrants from Iran. They took a lot of risks, they came to this country with nothing, and built an incredible life for my brother and I. They never wanted us to have to do things the hard way. They wanted us to play things safe and be able to get the advanced opportunities they gave us.
I think there’s a sense of comfort in having a plan. If I don’t know what my next job’s gonna be or what my path is, that’s scary. What am I gonna do with my life? And I think that experience of just saying, “yes,” and being open to opportunities, and taking advantage of it and ending up at Google, actually led me on a completely different path to entrepreneurship that I would’ve never been able to plan for.
And if you focus too much on what you think the plan should be, you miss out on all these amazing opportunities.
Did you face that same kind of decision-making situation when you decided to leave Google, and do your own thing?
“I really cut my teeth on what it means to work in startup land.”
When I left Google, I joined an early-state startup that’s now doing very well, and really cut my teeth on what it means to work in startup land. And it was a little bit scary. I left money on the table when I left Google. But I learned more in the first three months in that startup than I did the last four years at Google, because I was doing seven, eight jobs, that before I would go to different teams to basically execute on.
When it came to starting Node, you had this encounter with investor Mark Cuban (also known as billionaire Mark Cuban) a few years earlier and you didn’t quite know who he was at the time. What was that first interaction like?
Again, another example of serendipity. I met him six, maybe seven, years ago at an event at SXSW and we were introduced by mutual friends. We started having a conversation about different market opportunities, latest and greatest technologies, different business ideas, and I thought I was having a conversation with a really, really smart guy.
We built a relationship over time, and I made a selfless introduction that resulted in something magical for him and the other party, Dropbox. Eventually, when I started my own business, he was an amazing supporter and partner.
What’s it like to navigate those kinds of relationships with other successful entrepreneurs and business people when you’re a young woman in often older, male-dominated fields?
I think I ground myself in the fact that everyone is human. No matter how successful someone like Mark Cuban is, at the end of the day, he’s a human. He has a set of flaws, but he also has an amazing set of strengths. And there’s so much to learn from with people like that. Understand who you’re talking to, understand the experience that those people have.
“You can ground yourself in the reality of, everyone was once you.”
You can ground yourself in the reality of, everyone was once you. Everyone was once in your position, and the only way that you’re going to be able to learn and grow is through interacting with people. Ultimately, you’ll find that as much you think you get value from them, you could actually provide value to them, too.
Is that part of the advice you give to young women on networking?
Absolutely. I don’t want to make this too much about men and women. But when you look at the differences between how men network versus how women network, men are fearless. They’ll apply for jobs that they’re not qualified, the data proves this, whereas women won’t. They’ll constantly try to punch above their weight, whereas women won’t.
“Every job I’ve gotten, I made a case for why that company should hire me.”
I’ve never applied for a job in my life. Every job I’ve gotten, I made a case for why that company should hire me. I pitched myself, “This is the value I can provide to your business, and why you’re lucky to have me, too.”
What is your superpower? Where is the opportunity you see? And package that up, and sell that. Sell that in a way that’s mutually beneficial to the other party.
You have a knack for putting people together with opportunities and each other. Could you talk about that as your own superpower and how that relates to Node?
I think we all know at a personal and professional level that the right opportunity at the right time can be life changing. The way this happens is through a lot of sheer luck, group force, or just being in the right place at the right time. And I think there really has to be a better way.
I set out to essentially productize the intuition I had behind making meaningful connections that resulted in these transformative outcomes for individuals and businesses. That’s really the genesis behind Node. It’s, “What if we could leverage cutting edge AI to essentially make sense of the world, understand what’s relevant to you, and suggest opportunities to you that you did not know existed?”
When you need to decompress and make sure that you’re showing up as your best self, are there any tricks or practices you engage in to help you reset and center yourself?
I do my best to set boundaries. Unfortunately, I still have to work sometimes on weekends. But I, at least, try to take Friday night and Saturday off. That’s time for my family, that’s time for my husband, that’s time for me, and that’s when I really try to disconnect.
I also work out a minimum three days a week. I won’t schedule meetings super early in the morning because I need that time to work out, and that time to be Zen. I’ll block time for trying to organize my internal meetings on one day of the week. I really try to organize the context switching that I have to do as a CEO so I can minimize that energy. You know, your energy will deplete from a product meeting to an investor pitch, to a sales meeting, to whatever. That’s very, very hard for anyone to do.
I saw that you describe yourself as “a professional nerd.” What are you reading right now?
One is my entrepreneurship Bible, Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Anytime I am facing a challenging situation or just feeling like, “Ugh,” overwhelmed by work, I read some chapters in that book and I realize, you know what? I’m not alone.
Any last bits of advice that you maybe would like to leave with our Girlboss readers?
You just have to believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one can do that for you.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Correction, Sept. 6, 2018: This post has been updated to reflect the correct university Fatemi attended. She went to Santa Clara University.