Old Main at Knox College
Still from documentary "She Started It."

Insiyah Saeed '03 is co-director and producer of the award-winning She Started It, the first feature-length documentary film on women tech entrepreneurs that shows what happens behind the scenes of running a tech start-up as a young woman.

Why did you commit to this project and what do you hope to accomplish?

As a journalist, I've always been interested in compelling stories to tell, especially about entrepreneurship.

After moving to the Silicon Valley, I began to notice the untold stories of incredible women entrepreneurs. When I met my co-founder Nora Poggi in 2013, we felt compelled to produce a documentary following the real life stories of women starting tech companies, the first film of its kind.

We wanted women and girls (or anyone interested in entrepreneurship!) to watch this film and think, "if she can do it, I can do it!"

Our goal was to give our audience a deeper perspective into the day to day challenges and joys of being a tech entrepreneur.

The film explores themes of confidence, career choices, STEM careers, the importance of family support and mentorship for women, gender bias in technology fields, and opportunities for young women in technology. Of these, which do you think is the biggest issue that keeps women from becoming entrepreneurs and reaching their goals?

Nowadays there are fewer barriers than ever for entrepreneurs trying to pursue their dream idea - whatever the outcome may be. There is an abundance of resources for all aspects of entrepreneurship: for developing prototypes, for finding avenues for pitching their ideas, and for learning best practices from the experiences of others. The biggest issue we found during our research is that many people, and women in particular, were afraid of failure. We explore the theme of learning to fail well in the documentary, as a prerequisite to becoming a resilient entrepreneur.

Another issue we found faced by women was the lack of exposure to what it means to work in the tech field. The impression most women had was that it would be "too hard" or that being in tech involved sitting at a computer all day. I think those impressions are rapidly changing, with the sheer amount of outreach efforts from organizations such as Made with Code, Girls Who Code, and countless universities. Programs by Facebook, Google, Dell, Intel, Code.org, and many other organizations and conferences have sprung up to highlight STEM fields and their importance for the next generation of women. We hope our film also contributes by providing a close up perspective on what it means to be a tech entrepreneur.

In addition to the five entrepreneurs, you interviewed notable women in tech fields as well as young girls. Could you share one (or two) pieces of advice from these women that you think all young girls should hear?

Danae Ringelmann, the co-founder of Indiegogo, has a great quote in our film that resonated with so many, especially with young girls in our audience: "And don't wait for perfect. Try to learn from your mistakes. Try to keep going. Because really entrepreneurship is not about having a brilliant idea, it's about having the persistence and the perseverance to keep trying again until you solve the problem that you're trying to solve."

Another one of my favorite quotes is by Stacey Ferreira, one of the stars from our film, from her TechCrunch talk: "When you are learning, you are not really failing." It puts the idea of failing into a new perspective and it really resonated with old ideas I had about failing. Often we work so hard to prevent failure—in any aspect of our lives—when what we need to do is welcome it as a way to learn.

Are there skills you learned at Knox that benefited you or gave you a unique perspective on this project?

I learned early on at Knox what it means to take initiative when starting a project and how to have the determination to complete it—I would say this helped me a lot throughout the film project and throughout my life. Knox has always supported independent projects through Richter grants and various other programs, and continues to do so today. Also, the open environment to debate openly on various topics with other students, and the open door policy to talk to professors in an intimate setting is similar to how it is in Silicon Valley. That open exchange and the ability to easily engage with others is how great ideas are conceived and is a wonderful quality of Knox.

Do you think a liberal arts education (like the one you received at Knox) is an asset to women thinking about becoming entrepreneurs?

Definitely. What's especially great about Knox is the supportive community, its professors, and its adaptability to bring in innovative ideas, speakers, performances and new programs for its students. For instance, one new and innovative program, which did not exist when I was a student, is StartUp Term, where students gain hands-on experience in entrepreneurship. Knox's ability to provide these opportunities, with ample room to grow ideas and projects on campus, are especially great - and I benefited a lot from that exposure. Marilyn Webb, one of my favorite professors at Knox, was instrumental in helping me explore these opportunities as a student, and we are still connected today.

Entrepreneurship is not just having a great idea, but it's also having the support to execute that idea—and Knox helped connect us to alums like Carol T. Craig '89, an amazing entrepreneur and engineer who without hesitation became a co-producer of our film!

Your website notes that your goal is to reach one million women and girls with this film in 2017. How are you reaching this population and are you on track to meet this goal?

Our film has screened at 16+ festivals, 250+ screenings at corporations, at schools, colleges, universities and conferences (with more events in the pipeline) and through those events we have reached a significant number of people and had the opportunity to have quality discussions and impact. Corporations, across multiple worldwide offices, including Microsoft, Google, Adobe, Salesforce, Survey Monkey, Lyft, and AIG pledged multiple screenings as part of their diversity and inclusion efforts—which also boosted our numbers. Now through educational and digital distribution worldwide we hope to achieve our goal in 2018 and beyond. Anyone can support us in reaching our screenings goal by booking a screening on www.shestarteditfilm.com for their school, community or corporate event.

What is the AFS program and how are you a part of it?

I'm excited to share that She Started It was selected by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the USC School of Cinematic Arts for the 2017-2018 American Film Showcase, America's premiere film diplomacy program! I will represent She Started It when invited at Embassies around the world starting fall 2017. Film envoys teach topics related to the film at programs produced by consulates around the world to enhance our relations with the host countries. I'm excited to be part of the program this year and humbled that our film was chosen.