Siran is the Co-Founder/CEO of Mirza, a femtech meets fintech company on a mission to close the gender pay gap. She firmly believes in the potential in business to be a force for good, and with the right match for bottom line and positive social impact, to plant the seeds for structural change. Siran graduated with a degree in Gender Studies from Harvard and had expected to go into academia or nonprofit, but what started as a short skills pursuit in the private sector turned into a passion for leadership, management, and operations. Siran built the driver support organization for Uber in New York and oversaw the support business for the US Northeast, before moving to London for a degree in Social Business & Entrepreneurship at the London School of Economics. With Mirza, she’s gone full circle and looks forward to bringing together her passions: women’s empowerment, structural change, and building a company of the future.

Q: What inspired you to found Mirza and what were the main challenges you faced?

Women's financial empowerment is my North Star. In a way, starting Mirza is the culmination of that driving force, my personal experiences, and my career up to this point. I'm an immigrant and daughter of a single mother. My mother was a biochemist in China, but in America, her education and experience didn't allow for continuing her work. Growing up, I watched my mother learn a new profession - in a foreign language, in a foreign country - and succeed against the odds. Today, she's a financial executive.

My mother's journey taught me the dignity in our careers and the value of women's financial empowerment. Working towards this mission has been in the back of my head since childhood, but it wouldn't be honest to say that I always wanted to be a founder and to start Mirza. My co-founder and I were inspired to start Mirza when the research and data spurred us to: we had been looking into the "pink tax," and the overall financial costs that women bear. Yet at the same time, we face the pay gap and motherhood penalty.

When we dug into the data, we realized that we can help, so we did. As for challenges, the biggest one has been coordinating a team virtually during a pandemic. We've been very deliberate in building a culture of trust and empowerment and ownership, and we definitely miss the kinds of team building that working in person allows. Another challenge is a mismatch in the speed we'd like to move and the realities in what's possible. First, both my co-founder, Mel, and I are firm believers in building for the true need and what our customers want. That means, we slow down, research, and listen at every stage. Those learnings then drive our technology, so the entire process can feel very slow when there's so much we want to do!

Q: Did you start the venture alone?

I'm so glad not to have started this venture alone! I have the perfect co-founder. Mel and I complement each other's skills and styles perfectly, and we have a working relationship built on constant communication. In a way, having gone into lockdown after starting this company together has forced even stronger communication: making sure we convey intent, emotion, tone in written, quick fire chats to each other as well.

Siran Cao

Q: In your opinion, what's the most effective way to close the gender pay gap?

The single most effective tool is policy change: first, legislated parental leave with dedicated, earmarked periods for fathers; next, affordable childcare; finally, pay parity reporting legislation. The US had this pay parity reporting under the Obama Administration, but it's no longer mandated by the EEOC. Breaking it down for what can realistically work in the States, then, closing the gender pay gap is a combination of data and policy.

Currently, we have the econometrics that simply state, here's the gap, for whom, and research on the mechanisms that drive the gap. However, there's a data gap for the interventions that work, so that's what we're looking to create with Mirza. We have a waterfall approach that's at once optimistic and realistic. Start by helping individuals make informed decisions around financial and career health, then pinpoint within organizations exactly how and where their policies and biases exclude working mothers, and finally, optimistically, build a coalition across public and private sectors that leverages our data to push for those policy changes.

Q: What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

Mirza is a pre-revenue baby! But our model is effectively B2B SaaS: we'll provide our tool through employers, and in return, they get rich data sets and reporting that currently doesn't exist. I want to make sure this is clear, though, that we will absolutely allow individuals to access our tool even if their employers aren't providing it. We're not going to exclude people from making informed, strategic financial and career decisions.

Q: Do you think luck played a role in the success of Mirza?

Absolutely. I think any founder's success is made up of luck, good fortune, and grit. Sheer luck is being born who you are, afforded the privileges and access available to you, and being in the right place at the right time. But being fortunate means making your own luck - in capitalizing on being in the right place.

Here's one example: our first investment offer emerged due to a personal friendship. I met David Dziekanski of Foursight Capital years ago at a fitness studio, Brooklyn Bodyburn back in the day, now SLT. We became friends pretty quickly in our shared love of that painful, painful class. We both have that appetite for pure intensity that extended from fitness to career. After one of our catch-ups, when I had given him the download on Mirza, David called a few days later with a proposal to invest in us. He wanted to start a fund, now FourSight, dedicated to women's health and financial health. It's out of sheer luck that I went to this fitness class in New York and bumped into David. But I'm fortunate in being open to striking up a conversation, getting to know him, and staying in touch despite now living in London.

Q: What are your goals for the future?

Personal goals: I want to deadlift 2.5x my bodyweight and do strict ring muscle-ups. I'm close on the former! On the latter... yikes. Bridging personal and financial now, keep my strong friendships to travel together and maintain the financial health to do so. Professionally, grow Mirza into a powerhouse that assembles the aforementioned coalition of companies, policy makers, and public organizations to drive deep, structural change. I'm hoping that final goal can help me achieve the dream - working with Elizabeth Warren!

Q: If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

As a leader, learn earlier that I have to tap into empathy at all times. I often jokingly call myself homo economicus, specifically from game theory with pure rationality and utilitarian approach. My rational brain tends to be my default, and I've learned over time to index on empathy instead of diving immediately into solutions. That applies across all realms of leadership, from being a supportive direct manager, to making and executing business decisions.  

Q: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Just one?! My mother is the biggest influence for me. Not only did she accomplish so much in her career, despite the roadblocks and the pivots, but she provided me a life that never once felt financially insecure.

As an adult, I now recognize just how hard it was for her, and I'm so grateful and blown away by what she pulled off. I have to mention two additional women: Elizabeth Warren and Stacey Abrams. I've learned so much watching Elizabeth Warren lead with empathy and listening to how she breaks down complex policy issues in a way that resonates with everyone. And Stacey Abrams inspires me to never back down. She has created a way to use her personal experience to dismantle structural inequalities.

Q: What are your favorite books?

Unbearable Weight by Susan Bordo: it taught me to recognize how culture shapes not just our identities, but manifests in our physical bodies as well. Black Looks by bell hooks: the interaction of spectatorship and "the gaze" with power and resistance? Pivotal! Finally, Song of Solomon. Toni Morrison is my favorite author, and Song of Solomon was the first book of hers I'd read. I think it was in middle school, when searching for one's identity resonates so clearly. And as a Chinese kid in a pretty white school, this book was the first time I felt seen.

Q: What's your advice for female founders who are just starting out?

Ask for help! You can't do it alone. Within your business, know early on what you do well and what you don't. Build your team around what you don't do well, and bring in that support early (interns are great!) Outside your business, reach out to ask for advice and support. The worst that happens is a no, and the upside is finding your greatest supporters. And don't be afraid of sharing your idea. I think there's a fear that someone else will steal the concept; but in reality, people are busy with their own work, and people want to help. You're more likely to get collaborators and to generate new ideas for you!