Francesca Boccolini of SonicJobs: “Find your female role models”

Women tend to be more risk-averse than men when taking the leap and creating their own ventures. The risks, sacrifices required without talking about the rollercoaster of the journey can be pretty discouraging, especially for those who would like to have a family or have already one. As a part of our series about “Why We […]

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Women tend to be more risk-averse than men when taking the leap and creating their own ventures. The risks, sacrifices required without talking about the rollercoaster of the journey can be pretty discouraging, especially for those who would like to have a family or have already one.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Francesca Boccolini.

Francesca Boccolini is the co-founder of SonicJobs, number one recruitment app for service industries in the UK, that helps everyday thousands of people find a job.

Boccolini, who has been featured on Forbes as one of “The Top 100 Women in Tech to Follow in Europe,” holds a Masters in Science in Technology Entrepreneurship from the University College London, University of London, and Bachelors of Science and Masters of Science degrees in Business and Economics from Italy’s LUISS Guido Carli University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve always had a natural curiosity about technology and innovation. After completing my BSc and MSc in Economics and Business, I started my career as a Product Manager and then as Digital Marketing Manager in a big telco in Italy. I’ve been fortunate to work with talented people and close to the senior management on innovative digital and startup projects, which sparked my curiosity for the startup world.

I was fascinated by how quickly startups worldwide are changing the traditional economy and impacting how people interact and live. Think about how fast you can find a cab or order some food, clothes, watch a movie or even meet new people. It all happens in a matter of seconds.

After five years in a large organization, I was ready to accept the challenge to leave a managerial position, change my path and take a risk: To jump and try to develop my own innovative project for the world. From there, I decided to move to London to do a Master’s in technology Entrepreneurship at University College London (UCL) to create my own venture and become a leader in the startup world.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

True story!!!In a restaurant one day, I overheard a conversation from someone sitting nearby. The man was telling his companion how grateful he was to have found a new job. He went on to describe how getting the job had made his life so much better. And then he mentioned he’d found a job on our app. At that moment, I realized I was having a real impact on people’s lives and how grateful I was to make a difference.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When starting, my biggest (and maybe funniest) mistake was believing that coming out with a great idea was the most important thing one could do. When you start, you think things evolve linearly, which is far from what happens in reality. Truthfully, nothing goes according to plan, so making mistakes fast, learning, and adapting quickly is essential or perhaps more important than coming out with the next bright new idea.

Also, the journey is exciting, rewarding, but much more challenging than what we expect, so it’s essential to be with the right people along the journey. If there is a lesson in all of this, it is this: Surround yourself from time to time with the right people who can support you and accelerate that learning. And then do these five things:

  1. Find your female role models: you would be astonished to see how many great and inspirational women there are out there. You can learn how they managed to overcome obstacles in their career and succeed in a male-dominated industry.
  2. Build a network of supporters and find a mentor: they will help you get the support needed from time to time and handle the emotional rollercoaster.
  3. Talk to people who have done it before. They have made many mistakes and can teach you what to do and, more importantly, what not to do.
  4. Build a great team: Ideas are nothing without execution, and a great execution plan has great people behind. Surround yourself with people who have got the right skills, courage to create something new, and patience to keep going, especially when the going gets tough.
  5. It’s a long journey. Get ready to run a marathon where you don’t know where the finish line is.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My father is the role model and mentor who inspires me every day. He has passed on, but he set the example of greatness for me. He taught me the importance of patience and dedication in life and maintaining the courage to dream big dreams.

I’ll recount an episode that helped me at the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey. During one of my first pitch events, I was nervous about being on stage in front of an experienced audience of investors, including prominent VCs. I’d just finished my presentation when one of the VCs raised his hands and said, “I like the idea, I think you are brilliant, and this could be a great success story, but as a solo female founder, you will struggle to raise money to the point where you’ll eventually give up. And this is all our fault”.

Turning around, he asked the rest of the investors: “Does anyone agree with me?”. Everyone raised their hands. He smiled and closed, saying, “I’m sure you’ll find a great team, but in the meantime, don’t give up.”

I was utterly disarmed but also empowered at the same time. The lesson I took away from this was that solidarity and honesty can give us the power to learn more quickly and be more conscious about risks and what we need to succeed.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I have two books I’d recommend. The first, “Super Thinking,” written by Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann, is a book on mental models. The second, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” is by Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli-American psychologist well-known for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making. Both books teach you when and when not to rely on your intuition and take a more holistic and scientific approach to daily decision-making.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I do. “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: You haven’t” — Thomas Edison.

This quote reminds me that it’s not about how many times you try, and it doesn’t work. Making mistakes is part of the process. The only way is to grow and keep doing better and better. And, whenever it gets tough, and you can’t see the light, or it seems impossible to find a solution? Those are the moments when you have to go beyond what you think you are capable of. Trust yourself, be confident that conditions will align, and start playing in your favor again. So when you feel like everything is falling apart, keep trying even harder.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

My contribution to making the world a better place is my daily dedication to helping underserved people find a job. I’m particularly proud we decided to focus on an underserved segment of the market where few investors were willing to go because the margins were tiny. Investors at the time did not perceive the opportunity as advantageous.

Despite the pandemic, we are currently growing our revenue and expanding fast, so investors are now looking at us with great interest and admiration.

Beyond this, I work alongside female founders, organizations, and business angels to support other women to launch and scale their businesses.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Women tend to be more risk-averse than men when taking the leap and creating their own ventures. The risks, sacrifices required without talking about the rollercoaster of the journey can be pretty discouraging, especially for those who would like to have a family or have already one.

We often think that being a founder is not compatible with having a private life, that to become a successful founder, we need to embrace the old businessman or banker stereotype.

But more female leaders are showing us that being a successful entrepreneur and leader, a wife and a mother is possible.

We must look at those positive examples. We must encourage a new generation of women to be more aware of their possibilities. We must help them find those tools they need to build successful businesses and be accomplished and successful women in their private lives. Here are three examples of female leaders I think your reader will find inspiring:

We must focus on these positive stories and examples to empower women to build the confidence they need to embrace courage. Women need those role models to speak loud and open up about their real stories, their struggle throughout the journey, and how, time after time, they overcome it without losing confidence. There is never a silver bullet, and it’s more often that grit, self-belief, hard work, and supporters by their side contribute to their own luck/success.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

I mentor and support women who are looking to launch their own business, sharing my experience, learnings, and tools to help them think bigger, find the confidence they need and ultimately succeed.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Many stats are showing how female-led organizations are more profitable, perform better, and have higher profit margins compared to male-led companies.

In particular, in a study of over 350 startups, Mass Challenge and BCG found out that “businesses founded by women deliver higher revenue, more than 2 times as much per dollar invested, than those founded by men, making women-owned companies better investments for financial backers”.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

We need more women to become decision-makers at any level of the organization. To achieve this and fight biases against women, we must have rules, 50/50 parity in the boardrooms, 50/50 capital allocation, and government incentives to increase tax relief when investing in women. We already know the importance and impact of diversity on business performance, how this can positively affect the economy, and why entire societies benefit. Here are six things that will empower more women to become founders:

  1. Impose a 50/50 parity rule in the boardroom: More women decision-makers.
  2. Place more women as VCs, partners, and decision-makers in investment funds. Why? Because there’s a financial incentive to close the gender gap when it comes to venture capital. Greater diversity yields higher returns. According to a BCG study, women-founded startups are the horse on which VCs should be betting. They found that for every dollar of funding, these startups generated 78 cents, whereas male-founded startups generated only 31 cents. Yet, the data shows that VCs don’t trend towards women, at least not at the rate of mixed-gender or male-founded startups. Not only is there a gender gap in which startups receive funding, but there’s also a significant gap in women investors. Fewer than 10 percent of decision-makers at US VC firms are women. Even though dozens of firms have made concerted efforts to diversify their ranks, with so few female decision-makers at US VC firms, only 105 investors out of roughly 1,088 were female.
  3. Fiscal incentives for investments in female-led businesses: similar to the SEIS and EIS schemes in the UK, the benefit of tax relief should be higher for business angels and investors who invest in women. Can we think of women coming together to create a petition and get as many as possible (women and men) to sign it to make it more actionable?
  4. Incentives from other operators in the industry like accelerators: should include offering better investment conditions (higher upfront capital, free services, support) when the startups have one or more female co-founders.
  5. More government incentives for women who start a business can take the forms of grants, mentorship, and other business services.
  6. Empower through education to shape the next generation of female leaders: “Worldwide, women are more educated today than at any point in history, but we are still not as educated as men.”

Women have less courage and confidence than men. They tend to underestimate their abilities and potential, and this often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Data shows that women need more encouragement when considering starting a business, and they should get encouraged. There is still a bias against women in fields like tech and science and we need to close the gender gap.

We need more organizations, universities, accelerators, and no-profit associations to provide education, courses, content, and support for women of any age. Most of the classes (I’m thinking about coding courses) are dedicated to the younger crowd and university students. Still, it’s essential to consider that more and more women of any age want to start their business and have the capabilities to do so. So offering education at any level is imperative, helping them acquire the more advanced skills they need and empowering them to take the plunge.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would build a network of supporters for less privileged founders. I’m thinking about successful entrepreneurs, investors, executives, and other operators in the startup space coming together to mentor and offer practical support to women coming from a less privileged background. Thus, who would struggle to get the attention of the ‘elite of successful ones.’ For example, if you get into YC, you already receive a lot of attention and fantastic support, but what if you are not in that 0.01%?

In this sense, a lot has been done thanks to the incredible effort of organizations that help women nail their pitch, find an audience of investors, and raise capital. An example of an extraordinarily effective organization doing this work is Women Who Tech, founded by Allyson Kapin. What is incredibly valuable in Allyson’s work is her desire to focus on unrepresented female founders.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Lebanese-American economist most renowned for his book “The Black Swan”.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Your readers can find me online in social networks such as LinkedIn and Twitter and, of course, as co-founder of my company SonicJobs. We have just been cited as one of the Top 200 Female Powered Businesses in a recent JP Morgan report, published in April of this year. That study identifies and celebrates the United Kingdom’s high-growth and female-powered business changing the economic landscape. I have also participated in various interviews and online articles talking about female founders and VCs.

I would close in saying this: I think it’s essential to see more resources for moms and women at different stages in their life. It’s easy to take an intensive coding course when you are in school or at University, but we also need to remember those who have families. And here we know how hard it is to run a business and have a family, so support for moms is crucial.

We must not exclude women with families from the empowerment movement. (I still feel that if you are not highly privileged (with a full-time nanny, for example) and can afford constant support for your family, your chances of being included in the ‘race’ are highly reduced or limited. As I was saying a few weeks ago, the idea of a successful businesswoman/female founder is still really biased. This imaginary “successful businesswoman and founder” is projected into their male founder counterpart, usually a ‘white male banker’ or introvert engineer. We can do better than this. We must do better than this.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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