The Interview Issue: Crystal Grave

grave-crystal-17-092815-15col.jpg (Photo courtesy of Faith Blackwell Photography)

Crystal Grave, founder, president and CEO of Snappening, is one of just a handful of female tech CEOs in Indianapolis.

The 38-year-old’s journey has been rife with hurdles, but she’s managed to build an event-planning search engine that’s drawn more than a half-million inquiries for an estimated event value exceeding $1 billion since its 2011 debut. Last fall, she spent four months in California as part of the Women’s Startup Lab accelerator.

What led you to start Snappening?

I was helping a friend with her wedding. I knew that she wanted to have an outdoor function, and I knew, generally speaking, where she might be able to achieve that. But I needed a list of all the outdoor places in Indianapolis that had outdoor space so I could quickly go through it and make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything.

I spent hours looking online for a complete list of places in the city that had outdoor space and there’s not a single list. And, I was like, “Hmm. That’s annoying.”

After that, I realized I was sending the same requests over and over to the same companies. And I thought, “Why am I doing this process manually, one at a time? Why isn’t there a place where I fill out this request one time and it goes to everybody that’s supposed to get it?”

How was it being in Silicon Valley as a tech founder?

It was awesome, because in Silicon Valley everyone that you talk to thinks technology is interesting. In the middle of the country, people tend to think that technology is this ambiguous, weird thing. But there, it’s part of the lifeblood, thread and fabric of their society.

Where’d you stay?

I stayed in a hacker house, on a rollaway bed in the middle of a dorm room with a bunch of people, that cost $1,500 a month—for my cot. The place was being shared by five women. So there were two little rooms, and the total square footage of those two was maybe 15 [feet] by 20 [feet].

It was fun, because you were literally living it with people. It was great to meet people from all across the world, who were doing all kinds of amazing projects and startups.

The program was set up like a speed MBA, but I already have an MBA. So I didn’t need a second one. I needed specific things to take my business to the next level. So I had to go actively seek that out from my advisers outside of the context of the time in the office.

So the parallel I would draw is, no matter where you go, you have to figure out how to navigate the waters, how to be scrappy and how to get exactly what you need out of a situation. That was the biggest takeaway.

Any other takeaways?

The other big thing I’ve told people—and I think this is nice for Indiana folks to hear—is, you sometimes imagine that you’re going to get to Silicon Valley and you’re going to find people who are just way better than you are. You think they’re going to have way better ideas and way better experiences or background, and you think you’re going to need to catch up.

And really what I’ve found is, the leaders I had met in Indianapolis and the companies out here are just as proficient as those out there. The only difference is, there’s such a focus on technology there. There’s a focus on funding it, there’s a focus on supporting it, and it’s a paramount interest to the entire culture there.

So if Indianapolis wanted to replicate that tone and feel, they can do so easily if they decided to make technology the thread of our culture here the way they have with sports, agriculture, logistics and manufacturing.

Where do you think Indianapolis has an edge over Silicon Valley?

I think we as a city are incredibly good at coming together for the greater good of the city or an idea and working really hard as a team to make it happen. That’s definitely something that’s unique to people coming from the Midwest

On the flip side, where does Indy fall short?

There’s just not enough funding for enough companies. And when we pile all the major funding coming into the city in a handful of companies, that really makes it difficult for other companies to succeed.

If I’m in California and I can, without people blinking an eye, get access to $1 million to start a company, but in Indiana, people really scratch their chins about $200,000 to $300,000, we’re already starting at a much different level.

There’s been a national conversation on the dearth of women and minorities in technology. What are your thoughts on that?

I think people need to decide that they are going to put more money, effort, time and energy in things that look different from us—on purpose. So we would have to decide as a state, city or industry that we want to fund a certain percentage of ideas that are founded by women or minorities because we value that.

Elaborate on “on purpose”?

I’ll give you an example. On my team, we had someone producing some ads for intern recruitment. [This person]produced several samples, and every single sample she produced was a white girl. Every single one. And she was white. And I said to her, “I have a quick question. Was all the stock art of white people, or did you just happen to pick out white pictures?” She went to look and there were plenty of other nationalities that she could have picked out, but she just happened to pick out all white people.

Were there any challenges that you faced that a man in your situation may not have faced?

There are certain leadership styles that people expect men to have and certain styles they expect women to have. … I met with a funder, and the very first thing that funder said after meeting me was, “This would be so much easier if you weren’t a woman.” This was in this city. I met with another funder who said to me, verbatim, “If I had known you were like this, I would have taken this meeting with you a long time ago.” By “like this,” he meant strategic, matter-of-fact, not emotional, strong capabilities and balanced skills.

I have another friend who’s a female founder who was told by someone in this city that, “It’s always sweet when Carmel housewives come up with ideas.” And when people of incredible influence look at what you’re producing with that sort of cavalier nature about what you’re doing, as if it doesn’t hold the same weight as other things, it’s hard to not feel that.

In all three of those stories, probably none of those people will ever remember that they said those things, because it didn’t register [with] them. It’s a bias that’s skimming right under the surface of our consciousness, and we don’t even know we have it there unless we identify that, yes, we do, and that’s OK, because everyone does, and we’re going to stop and adjust for that.

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