Five tips for women to build successful startups
Tech companies and startups are typically seen as a boys’ club. Almost half of all startups have no women in their leadership teams, and only 2.3 percent of venture capital funding in 2020 went to women-led startups. The tech scene has a dearth of female founders and is sorely lacking when it comes to supporting the ones that have launched a startup.
When I founded my first company back in 2009, it was very rare for a startup founder to be female. While the number of women-led startups has improved, doubling between 2009 and 2019, women still only lead around 20% of companies in this space. While the world celebrates International Women’s Day on March 8, it’s going to take more than a single day of recognition to help women founders thrive in the startup ecosystem. It will require a concerted effort every day of the year.
Truth is truth: being a founder isn’t for everybody. It is an unconventional lifestyle, and you have to get comfortable taking the initiative upon yourself. However, there’s also a certain freedom founders have — the freedom to lead a company in the way that works best for them. Female founders need to keep this in mind. They have the power to greatly influence company culture.
Increasing the number of female founders requires breaking stereotypes and changing assumptions that have developed from a predominantly male playing field. Here’s my advice for how women can forge their own paths to take an idea from the drafting table to the marketplace.
STOP TRYING TO FIT INTO THE STEREOTYPE
Being a female founder doesn’t mean you have to fit yourself into a mold that was created by male founders. Most of my trouble early on stemmed from my attempt to follow what I thought was the standard structure of a founder’s workday — working late, frequent travel to conferences, networking on weekends, and so on. But this didn’t fit at all with my nature.
If you want to go into the office early so you can finish up in time to have dinner with your children, you should do it. If you want to take a more collaborative approach to leadership, don’t feel like you have to dictate orders from above. If you prefer not to travel a lot, delegate that responsibility to someone in your team whose strong point is networking at conferences. This leads to the next point.
ELIMINATE STRICT POSITION DEFINITIONS
Don’t get stuck on rigidly defined positions in your company. Founders should be open to the idea of a multi-disciplinary approach to leadership where no one is saying “I don’t do that, because I just do marketing” or “I’m the CEO, that’s not my responsibility.” Encouraging collaboration at a high level boosts the performance of the whole team.
Assign responsibilities based on people’s strengths and what they enjoy doing, and not by some narrowly-defined position title. This way, everything that needs to get done gets done by the person best able to accomplish the task. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but as every employee becomes empowered and understands the full scope of what is happening in the company, their engagement will be higher.
MAKE A STRATEGIC DECISION TO HIRE MORE WOMEN
Usually, a majority male workforce grows unconsciously. Men hire people they know — and men know other men. When I and my male co-founders were starting our second business in 2012, we interviewed and hired people we knew from school — which happened to be all men. In 2019, we were 90 percent male. I was the CEO and the only female in the whole company. The moment I raised the question, “Why don’t we have more women on our team?” was the moment things started to change. I didn’t expect that just asking the question would have such a dramatic effect, but now our company is 60 percent female.
If tech companies want to be more proactive about hiring women, the leadership needs to have an open and honest dialogue and make a strategic decision to do so. Women in higher positions should raise the issue. Awareness itself has the ability to bring about change.
ESTABLISH SUPPORT NETWORKS
Support for female founders outside the workplace is as important as it is within the workplace. Women workers have been hit harder than male workers by the COVID-19 pandemic, largely due to the fact that women are typically the primary caregivers for children or ailing parents. Women who have started their own companies need to not be so quick to give up their professional aspirations and should be sure to explore alternative support for caregiving duties before deciding to decrease their work hours.
Support extends beyond familial needs, however. Emotional and professional support can come from other women who are going through the same kinds of experiences. For example, many online groups exist for women founders in the tech industry to exchange perspectives. Or you can join or establish a female founders group in your area to support and provide advice to each other.
CHANGE REQUIRES A CONCERTED EFFORT
Honoring women one day or even one month a year is not enough. There must be a determined push to support female leaders in the tech arena every day. As I have seen in my career as a founder of two tech startups, support for more women in the workforce at startups — and particularly at the top management level — has to be a part of the core values of the company. Sometimes, all it takes to start the ball rolling is asking the question: “Why don’t we have more women here?”
A rising tide lifts all boats. Tech startups founded by women have an average of 48 percent female workers — which is twice the number as the industry average. Having a female founder makes it more likely that a startup will have women in the C-suite. More female founders in the tech arena will lead to more women working in tech companies and more women in leadership positions. And that’s something to really celebrate on International Women’s Day.