Michelle Morrison
  • Years in Tech


  • Current Role

    Marketing Lead, IDEO.org

  • Place of Origin

    National City, CA

  • Interview Date

    February 12, 2016

I believe survival favors a clever generalist. Holding roles from Marketing to Human Resources to Product, I’ve had the pleasure of working on problems worth solving, teams worth building, and products worth using. I recently left Square after 5 years to lead marketing at IDEO.org. I also organize design lectures at Designers + Geeks.

So, let’s start from the beginning. Tell me a little bit about your early years and where you come from.

I grew up in National City, about 15 miles north of the border in San Diego. It’s predominantly Mexican-Filipino neighborhood, which is great because our family is super diverse. Mexican, white, filipino, a little of everything.

I grew up poor with divorced parents, Welfare family, zero dollars. However poor we were, my family maintained strong values. Mom cared about church, the arts, and education. She wanted to see good in the world. We grew up with this contrasting view that from within a rough neighborhood people really believed the world is a beautiful place.

I moved to San Francisco for college to study industrial design. My dream was to make really cool plastic products. I knew I needed to be a maker. I had to go away to school because my sister was expecting her first child and needed space in the house to raise him. A mix of interest, affordability, and distance made SFSU the right choice. I had never visited the school or city. I just made my choices and packed my bags. That’s how my life in San Francisco got started—in totally blind faith.

What were your first years in San Francisco like? Were you at all cognizant of the Silicon Valley tech machine, or were you in your own academic world, or just trying to survive?

A little bit of everything you just said. When I first arrived, I was paying for my own education which resulted in full-time school and two jobs. I was working at Lori’s Diner serving burgers to drunk people on the night shift. During the week and on weekends I sold sequined cocktail dresses at French Connection. Looking back, I should have doubled down on school and not work. Sweat equity is all I knew. In my sophomore year of school, at the bottom of the recession, I needed to get out of the craziness that was two jobs and school, so I took a full-time product distribution job with Apple and so it began.

Wow. So, you have gone from that to industrial design to startup land. Walk me through that whole winding course.

During the recession my school went bankrupt, cutting my program. I didn’t finish industrial design school, but I had gotten far enough to know something about the industry. I knew the different facets of the discipline and I knew I could hustle. I worked for the world’s leading industrial design firm, Apple Inc. I had a good job and school wasn’t really feeding me as much as work, so I took the path of growth and fully committed to work.

I had tunnel-vision for work. I worked as hard as I could to get promoted, get raises, and take over bigger parts of the business to the point where I was coaching new hires on how to optimize their warehouses and their workflows, how to save the company money, and how to just do smarter business.

Three years in, I got married and moved to San Diego. Within a year, I was divorced and on my way back to San Francisco. I was young and career thirsty, and didn’t want to have an ok life in San Diego. I wanted a great life in San Francisco. I’ve always been fiercely independent and felt that I had to defend that through career and identity.

Upon returning to San Francisco, I stayed with Apple two more quarters. I was going through a personal rebuild and wanted to continue to grow. I was recruited to join Tiffany & Co. by someone I admired, someone who I thought would build me up—so I took the leap. No more than a year in at Tiffany’s, an old colleague from Apple gave me a call. They had just joined the marketing team at a tiny startup called Square. I came over to the office for lunch, saw the electricity across the team, and knew I needed to join. That was the moment I got on the rocketship, so to speak.

So you were a very early employee at Square. What is it like going from little startup to IPO?

It’s kind of insane, and it’s hard to say succinctly. I was a 100th hire. I’ve worked on everything from support to product, to product marketing, growth, even HR. The company has grown from small and scrappy to a big global organization. My focus has always been to build the business, to work on undefined problems. I will say that every ounce of energy I’ve put into building the company is exactly what I’ve gotten out of it. I joined the company with the intent of building something good in the world. That’s still the goal and there is still a lot of work to do.

What in general have been the most exciting things about your work? What things were you really proud of and what activated you?

I’ve spent the past five years building tools for people who are not accounted for by standard banking systems. I’ve had the privilege of working directly with small businesses, getting to know them and their life stories, their philosophy, and their hustle and everything that they put into their business just so that we could build the right product for them. I have made connections with letterpress artists in Greenville, SC to surf shops in New York City to a family run bar in Austin, TX. It’s changed my view of what the American Dream is today. Small businesses are much like startups in the way sweat and scrappiness get the job done. It’s been such an important life experience that has colored my view of the amazing entrepreneurial world we live in.

Do you think you have some sort of quality, some sort of personality trait that has allowed you to take on, blind challenges? You just do it, and own it, and end up doing it really well. Where does that come from?

When you come from nothing, you have nothing to lose. Because I don’t have your typical pedigree, I have to maintain a constant state of learning. Beginner’s mind! I have design sensibilities, but I’m strong with business operations and strategy. I’m not an expert at anything, but I’m not allergic to anything either. If you acknowledge that, you ask the right questions, and you’re willing to learn while you’re making things happen. People around you will invest in you. People will answer the questions you have if you’re brave enough to ask them. Know that’s the hardest part, acknowledging what you don’t know and be willing to learn – it might also have something to do with the fact that I am an INTJ.

When did you turn your attention towards the community? You manage a really successful event in the tech design world. What was the impetus?

Community building, for me, is the idea that you can always build the city you want to live in. There is a lot of commentary on what’s happening in San Francisco—tech bros versus artists versus families. There are these stereotypes that the media loves to commonly use as if they’re not living in a city of diverse people with diverse problems and perspectives. I believe if you want to see more art galleries, you should open an art gallery. If you want to see more artists in San Francisco, you should definitely patronize artists. If you want to see more women in tech, hire them. If you want to build a community—a safe community where people can come and be their nerdy little selves and eat pizza and make new friends and wear name tags and talk about your ideas every month—you’ve got to kind of create that space for yourself if it’s not already there for you. Be the change! That’s what Designers + Geeks, the conferences, Room & Makers, everything I’ve had a hand in building has been in service of—building the community I want to live in.

Have you seen tech culture change since you’ve started your career, for better or worse?

There are more voices in the echo chamber than ever before. Headlines used to be about what people were doing to make the world a better place. What people were building. What people were enabling other people to do. At this point, I think tech press has taken this noisy turn to only comment on the bad, focus on gossip, and create this skewed celebrity of what people are here working on. The reality is that jobs are more exciting than ever. Technology is moving in exciting directions.

What has your experience been as a young lady in tech?

I’ve had life changing opportunities in tech. At the same time, I’ve faced outright sexism that has held me back in some ways. I went from growing up in poverty to a thriving career in fintech, and I am still pushing up against that glass ceiling. Tech has changed my worldview – I can do so much more now for the world in my career than other paths could have afforded. Building technology allows you to focus on what you value and create tools to amplify whatever that is. As a woman, sister, daughter, human, I have access to tools and intelligence that change the world—that is so powerful! We work with the world’s smartest people, which is why it is even more infuriating to see sexism and discrimination happen in the workplace.

When did you want to start investing more time in women in Tech?

When a woman invested in me! She was one of my first bosses at Square. She was someone who hired me knowing that I had no experience. There was an insane amount of work to do so she told me straight up, “You are smart, and you have a lot of potential, and if you work hard, you will succeed. But you have to work hard.” She totally took a risk on me. That was the turning point. After that, I felt that I had to pay it forward to other women with great potential.

In early 2012, we started the women’s group at Square. We hosted an event that celebrated women entrepreneurs inviting both colleagues and customers to join. We had women owned and operated businesses selling their goods, friends and family of Square shopping, champagne and cake. It was glorious! The event was particularly special because many of these women had never celebrated International Women’s day before and even fewer men had been invited to join the effort. It brought together our entire community to support and uplift women entrepreneurs. It was a small investment that would shape how collective Square celebrated diversity.

What do you think it takes to survive in tech?

It takes a sense of self. I acknowledge that the odds are stacked against me—and I use that disadvantage to fuel me and push me forward.

Survival, particularly for women, requires a desire to work really hard with a thick skin. When something unfair happens, take any disadvantage to fuel your own progress. Double down and work harder. Prove that you’re indispensable. Don’t let bias paralyze you. Constant friction is certainly exhausting, but does have a profound ability to shape strong character.

It was Maggie Mason who put it all into perspective for me. She asked ‘How local is your feminism? Is it for you? Like, do you want a raise? Are you trying to set an example for your company? Are you trying to turn the world around and really be a bleeding heart martyr for women? I think yes to all. I definitely want fair pay. I want to see change for all women. I think you can invest your energy at different levels at the right time on the right cause.

How do you feel about the state of tech in 2016? What really excites you and what frustrates you?

Excites – I’m excited about totally new technologies. VR and AR, consumer biotech, democratization of tools. There are new canvases for us all to work on. New worlds to be invented.

Frustrates – The noise and doubt in the media about technology companies. The comms industry pokes and prods at what the next ‘unicorn’ will be or who is failing or who is raking it in. None of that matters because the headlines do not push the work forward. It creates noise and distraction to those who are actually rolling their sleeves up.

How do you think your background and life experiences shape the way you approach your work?

There’s no doubt that growing up poor gave me a real sense of hustle. I have always been totally obsessed with money because we didn’t have any. When I was in elementary school I would make my dad buy me a box of candy from Costco, and then I would sell it at market price to all the kids in the neighborhood so that I could finance my own interests. That same hustle drives me today. I can wear a lot of hats at Square, I can run Designers + Geeks, I can plan cool product conferences, I have my art studio and practice, I can focus on feminist initiatives, and still build a happy home and social life. Growing up with nothing makes you want to make the most of any opportunity that presents itself.

Let’s see. How do you think women can be assets to each other in the industry?

Women have the obvious opportunity to build each other up. Investing in women is probably the highest yielding effort any of us can make. I fight twice as hard for women on my team because natural empathy doesn’t always exist amongst other leaders. I believe that men, women, grandmas, grandpas, people who are know, have ever met, or are related to women should fucking invest in women.

What are your goals for 2016? What are you working on, either for work or for yourself?

I am hoping to work on bigger problems, take bigger risks, fewer but more meaningful projects. I’ve just made the leap from leading creative strategy and operations at Square to work on poverty relief at IDEO.org. I’m moving from newly minted IPO to work with this amazing non-profit organization. I believe that we all have only so many working years, and when we can afford to, we should put those years towards the change we want to see in the world.

What advice would you give to ladies hoping to get into tech or those who are just getting started? What you wish you had known in the beginning?

I wish I had known that every skill within an organization can be learned. In the beginning, I totally worshiped my engineer friends. I saw them as next-level smart and failed to acknowledge that they were just humans with different skills. Skills that I could learn too. I went from business operations to HR to product to marketing to design—all skills learned on the job! If you’re just starting out, when you meet someone who you perceive to be smarter than you, try learning what they do and see how far you get.