Congresswoman Delbene on Starting Drugstore.com

This May DC’s Startup Grind chapter joined chapters around the world in committing to host a female speaker, Congresswoman Suzane Delbene. (Actually, this was our second female in a row, and second congressperson.) Congresswoman Debene represents the 1st district of the state of Washington, but her career began in 1989 at Microsoft.

After ten years building Microsoft’s marketing she went on to help found Drugstore.com. She was CEO for Nimble Technology, overseeing its acquisition to Actuate in 2003. She then returned to Microsoft before beginning a new career in nonprofits, and now public service.

Female Role Models Start at Home

Delbene’s life was ripe with female entrepreneurship potential. Her story hit a personal note with me, as the daughter of a working mother. She was from middle America background: the youngest of five, born in Selma, Alabama, her parents divorced when she was young. Delbene was lucky in that her “single mother” was a leader, and able to support her family: She was a pilot and became a university professor. Delbene calls her mother a “pioneer”, with a STEM background and drive that inspired her daughter.

Her mother remarried another pilot; Delbene almost ran out fingers naming the states she grew up in. When her stepfather lost his job, her mother decided the family should start a toy store in Colorado, first inspiring her entrepreneurship.

When Everyone Thinks Your Wrong

Asked about her experience as a football reference, “in a white, male dominated field”, she answered, “It was some of my best training for life. You do the best you can, and if someone doesn’t like it, you usually get a loud response – but you have to decide. You’re in the position, you make the best decision you can. You don’t always have perfect data, but you have to make a decision. This is where people often go wrong, in the legislative process too, they don’t make a decision.”

After working in biotech, Delbene made the move to technology rather surreptitiously through an MBA program: She was a Microsoft summer intern. During her career there she worked on firsts like “electronic messaging”, Windows ’95 and the first Internet Explorer. “You got to focus on products, and understanding customer needs.” She also worked on embedded devices, learning about the software products running everything from sewing machines to gas station pumps.

The Perfect Mix for Entrepreneurship Success

Speaking about her inspiration for founding Drugstore.com she says, “At that time, folks were looking at how technology could change commerce. One of the places people go to buy things is the drugstore. It’s all one of the places people don’t want to go.

On her successes, she cites the “bubble market”, where it was easy to get financial backing and her team. “My boss and I, at Microsoft, we went together to help start Drugstore.com, and we had a great team in pharmacy, in technology and in retail, and it was that great combination we needed.” Brian cited Aileen Li’s research on former coworkers being a factor in creating “unicorn” companies.

On funding she says, “It was a time when things were moving very quickly. It was really the concept. We didn’t even have a temporary website or anything like that. The concept was there, people understood the opportunities there, but also knew other people might think of that idea. At that time it was really who could get to market first with ideas. There was an impatience at the time.”

Asked about whether it takes an “ex-Googler, the equivalent of an ex-Microsofter at the time”, to gain credibility in today’s startup market, she answers simply, “It’s all about having great people. You don’t get a ton of people when you’re starting up a company, so you need great people.”

For the full interview, watch the video.