Katharine Wolf is the CEO of Odetta, a company that creates on-demand technology solutions while providing women with global virtual work and community.
I was born in London but grew up in Washington, D.C. My parents were an ex-pat couple. I am one of four quadruplets. We were on the front page of the local newspaper and, later on, Good Morning America. My dad, always entrepreneurial, reached out to diaper companies to see if they would cover our costs. No one responded. There’s a TV clip of us at the time that captures the chaos.
My parents sent us all to different schools based on which one would fit our learning styles. I was really into history and English. Later, in high school, I got interested in math. I had been told that I was really bad at math. Then in 11th grade, a teacher told me I was incredible at math. It was a 15-minute conversation that changed my entire view of myself. Because he told me I could do it, I ended up minoring in math in college and later getting a masters in a math-heavy economics degree.
It taught me the power of one person. Taking a small interest in someone’s life can transform how they view themselves. People have a large capacity for change. It becomes important to us when we perceive we are good at something.
My dad started a business in France, and we were going to move, so I transferred to boarding school. Later, I went to college at Middlebury. I loved being around everyone speaking so many languages. I was a double major in French and economics with a minor in math. I felt complete freedom because no one knew I was a quadruplet. I studied abroad in Paris for my junior year at Sciences Po. I almost stayed in France because I loved it so much.
Right before I graduated in 2002, I spent the summer interning at Deutsche Bank. I applied for the job because my older brother had also worked there and liked it. It was really intense. I was voted “most likely to leave” by my training class because I wasn’t a traditional investment banker. I was interested in the Peace Corps and the U.N. After that summer, I was given an “exploding offer” that I had to decide on in 10 days. I stayed for four years.
It was an eye-opening experience. At that time, equity markets were frozen, and debt markets were active. I was pulling all-nighters. For two and a half years, I worked every day and routinely got four hours of sleep. But there was real camaraderie. I realized it was not my purpose in life, but I vowed not to leave until I could figure out my purpose. I wasn’t going to do something with my life that was subpar.
I transferred to Paris with Deutsche Bank. It was my ultimate dream. I started working on equity deals and leveraged finance. We were raising money and doing roadshows. It was awesome. I didn’t want to be an investment banker, but I was working in Paris.
I started to volunteer with Deutsche Bank’s community development fund and learned about microcredit. I love lending but wanted it to be purpose-driven.
At that point at a conference, I met a guy who worked on creating microlending banks in Asia. He said he was going to Manila and I was free to come. I quit my job, and within two weeks, I was on a flight. It was another reminder that one individual could profoundly impact your life. I was ready. It was the right timing.
Next, I moved to Vietnam. I met a woman, and we started a bank for women called the Sisters Fund. Neither of us knew what we were doing, but we had enthusiasm. We lived in a hotel above a bookshop in Dien Bien Phu and raised capital from people in the U.S. We started off making $80 loans. The default rate was zero for the first two years.
We learned it’s important to be enthusiastic. But I didn’t speak the language, and it ultimately required local people to operate it to succeed. The bank is still running, but if I went back there, they would have no idea who I am, and I think that’s wonderful.
I returned to the U.S. to attend business school at Stanford and then the Kennedy School at Harvard. During those four years, I invested in myself. I was around a lot of people who wanted to make the world better. I have an incredible peer group. Many are deeply committed to some kind of change and going through life together.
I graduated at 32 with a lot of debt. In my final year, I helped start a healthcare company called Organjet. We were attempting to move organs around the country for transplants. I thought I would build that company when I graduated. I was obsessed with the idea. But I had a falling out with the co-founder. It was my first professional failure, and I found myself lost and directionless.
I ended up working for a social impact fund but realized I was more of an operator. I didn’t have any ideas or capital, so I got a job at a tech company that provided credit to small businesses. I spent four and a half years there and learned how to build VC-backed businesses.
It was a hard time. I knew I wanted to do my own thing, and I had learned not to be scared. By 2017, I started working on ideas for the female economy – products or services that hadn’t been designed because of bias. I had come to the idea that jobs were the engine for growth. And there was a huge opportunity for women.
By 2018 I was ready to launch Odetta. The idea was to match women in developing countries who were highly educated but had limited opportunities with clients. I was living in Brooklyn and made the decision to get rid of all my stuff and move to Jordan. Jordan has more women than men graduating from higher education, yet a female labor force participation rate of 18%. I needed to understand why.
I didn't know anyone but met people quickly through cold emails, Facebook groups, and visits to local universities. I was trying to figure out the skill set we should focus on. It was pretty easy to find my target market. But it was hard to find clients, so I moved to San Francisco.
We built organic systems with Excel spreadsheets. Early on, I was embarrassed it was so basic. But ultimately, our process led to something magical and beautiful. People try to make things too complex. The fact is that anyone could have built Odetta, but no one else did.
My first client came through a friend from college. My second client was from a friend in New York. Our third client was Google, which came via a classmate from business school. Once we told people we worked with Google, things became easier. Now we have 350 clients and provide work to 400 women around the world, mostly in lower-income countries.
Anyone could have done it. But no one else did.
I am super connected to my purpose. We are having a profound impact on these women’s lives. Many women on our platform would have great jobs in tech if they had just been born elsewhere. Instead, many of them face unbelievable physical and emotional challenges.
Our first hire, Urooj, had worked for international NGOs before having to move to rural Pakistan when her husband was assigned there by the military. She could not work in a traditional office and needed flexible working hours with two young kids. Now she has hundreds of people reporting to her as our Head of Account Management.
Once a year, I take off a lot of time, from three to six weeks, to reflect and reconnect with my commitment. I love not being reachable. It’s important as a founder. It’s also important that things don’t fall apart when I leave.
In my head, I’m building Odetta for the next 30 years. Slowly, not in an unsustainable way.
My siblings think I’m adventurous. They are very supportive. Dad is still an entrepreneur. He is 78 and raising a series A round to start a company that builds nuclear reactors. Mom is a writer and finishing her first book. My brother James is a founder in the organic health space and also works with my dad. My brother Andrew is an entrepreneur in Singapore. My other brother Jeff is an academic researcher in Berlin. My other brother John works in real estate in New York.
I read a lot. The most influential book I’ve read is "Mountains Beyond Mountains" by Tracy Kidder. That transformed the way I think about change and impact. Change is best on the individual level.
We’re launching an invitation-only, highly curated network of the world’s best CEOs. We're only letting 500 leaders join at this time. Apply now.
Katharine Wolf is the CEO of Odetta.