Calling Claire Shorall a lifelong learner is an understatement. Her passion for supporting individual and collective learning, growth and success has been a constant across her days as a student-athlete at Rice University, to more than a decade teaching high school, working in venture capital and mentorship and now as the co-founder and CEO of Topknot, a startup bringing the power of coaching to women everywhere. We chatted over email about her journey and some of these key experiences that have shaped who she is today.
You ran track in both high school and college. What lessons from running do you use regularly as a founder? How has it shaped your attitude on competition?
I credit track for shaping so much of who I am, so its lessons are never-ending. With that said, there is one lesson that I think of frequently. Track performance is very easy to measure. The distance, the surface, the number of competitors — they were all essentially constant. Unlike other sports, there were no judges whose biases could sway outcomes or teammates whose efforts impacted your own. Much of track is you against the clock. What I appreciated when I was training and competing was that I could play with various levers that might impact my performance — a heavier training load, more speed work, healthier habits — and the results would be evident in my times. In growing a startup (and life), progress can be much harder to measure, “fitness” tougher to test. Systems are dynamic. Lots of factors influence your performance, many outside of your control. Even though I crave the simplicity of shaving seconds off of my time to see my growth, I take solace in knowing that consistent good habits and a balance of hard pushes and rest will lead to better results, albeit harder to quantify.
As for competition, I always ran my best when others were counting on me: in track, that meant relays. And I always felt best about our team’s performance when we were racing others at their best. I recently was at the Olympic Trials and the first three finishers all became Olympians, but in the pursuit it was clear how many people ran their personal best time or out-performed expectations. Good competition makes you better, and winning isn’t the only objective.
Even though I crave the simplicity of shaving seconds off of my time to see my growth, I take solace in knowing that consistent good habits and a balance of hard pushes and rest will lead to better results, albeit harder to quantify.
Not all tech founders are also award-winning teachers. What drew you to teach for many years at the high school level?
I decided to do Teach For America out of college with the thought that I would complete my two-year commitment and then figure out what was next. Teaching is the most challenging work I’ve ever done, but it’s by far my favorite. I feel most alive in the classroom; my favorite subset of humans are teenagers. I taught full-time for five years, and have taught at least one AP Computer Science class for the last six. I feel fortunate that my subsequent roles allowed for the flexibility to start my workdays at a school site. I taught last year remotely, but this fall is my first since I was three years old not going back to school. I’m mourning it a bit, but I know that my teaching career is only on pause, not over. In the meantime, I still try to play an active role in my hundreds of former students’ lives.
The move into venture capital after teaching might seem unrelated to some but based on your experience what common thread exists between the fields?
I got to work in venture because the general partner of the fund knew my work leading computer science for Oakland’s public schools intimately. When I first started in venture capital, I felt a bit like I’d been dropped into the deep end without floaties. I had been at the top of my previous field, and I could barely keep my head above water. In trying not to panic, I leaned in on things I am exceptional at: connecting with people, understanding their motivations, pushing their thinking, and creating community. I’m also prolific on email — inbox zero daily or bust — and care a ton about the numbers. It turns out that those things translate to venture, from deal evaluation to portfolio services. I am forever grateful for the opportunity, and a lesson I took away is that success in one domain begets success elsewhere.
Topknot is working to make coaching accessible and approachable. What myth about coaching are you most excited to utterly crush and why?
I want to dispel the myth that coaching is for people at the top. Everyone can benefit from coaching. As I understand it, the bias in serving those who have already made it is largely influenced by the expense. In designing Topknot, we wanted to bring personal growth to women in the most impactful, yet affordable way we could. Our system, which relies on full participation from members of our community supported by our programming and content, makes that dream a reality. Everyone deserves to find their purpose; to know what it means for them to be fulfilled; to be acknowledged as the expert of life; to go after what they want. We’re going to make that happen.
As my followers know, my startup wisdom comes with perhaps too many photos of my pets. But is there really such a thing?
You regularly share insights, experiences and feelings about your founder journey across platforms. What have you learned from being publicly open and authentic about these milestones?
Building in public has become a bit of a buzzphrase, but as much as possible, if I think I have something to contribute to the conversation, I try to put it out there. You never know what will come of it. For example, when we shared about our pre-seed fundraise, there were a few founders who reached out to me, some of whom are now friends. If I can help to create more access by sharing my knowledge or experience, why not try? As my followers know, my startup wisdom comes with perhaps too many photos of my pets. But is there really such a thing?
Pet photos, startup knowledge and a teacher’s drive for access and equity? Total trailblazer. Connect with Claire on OwnTrail to start a conversation, ask her a question and/or appreciate her journey!