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Why Female Founders Need Male Mentors

A panel of successful female founders and investors challenge the notion that women should stick together in start-ups.

Now more than ever before, female tech founders can find start-up events tailor-made just for them. Google and Twitter have sponsored coding camps for teen girls. And there is a plethora of women-only entrepreneurial contests. Often the theory goes, the more women stick together in a male-dominated field, the more successful they'll be. 

But that's not how it works in start-ups, argue some of Silicon Valley's brightest women. In fact, they have a different piece of advice for aspiring female founders: Find a male mentor.

On Thursday a panel of female entrepreneurs and investors spoke at the International Women’s Forum World Leadership Conference about how they found success in start-ups. The women suggested that they didn't get to where they are today by relying on other women for support or advice; men played an important role in their achievements.

“Male mentors for women are critical. It has been critical for me,” said Mariam Naficy, founder of e-commerce sites Minted.com and Eve.com (which sold to Sephora in 2008). “I’ve really worked hard on my male friendships and relationships and they have paid off tremendously. I think it’s a guys’ problem as much as it is a women’s problem. The integration [of women in entrepreneurship] has to be done together with men if people want to see more female business leaders and entrepreneurs.”

All of the clichés about women not being able to “win” in a notoriously risky and cutthroat start-up environment should be forgotten, these women argued. Only 18% of undergraduate engineer majors in the U.S. are women--but that shouldn’t matter. Venture capitalist and Stanford professor Ann Muira-Ko said female entrepreneurs should embrace those odds, not run from them.

“I’ve been a survivor of male-dominated areas,” Muira-Ko says. How did she survive? By learning from the men in her space. Whether it was in a computer science class or while working with start-ups in Silicon Valley, Muira-Ko says she made meaningful male connections (including working during college with then-HP CEO Lewis Platt) that helped her start angel investment firm FLOODGATE with male co-founder Mike Maples.

“The benefit of being in these male-dominated areas is that I’m totally comfortable in that environment," Muria-Ko says. "I would challenge the women of the future: Don’t let the numbers intimidate you. Don’t walk into a classroom and say, ‘There are no girls here, so I’m leaving.’”

Being outnumbered, however difficult, can also help female entrepreneurs in the long run, the panelists suggested. After all, start-up founders have to get used to being outsiders--they’re challenging social norms and disrupting the way things work in hopes of creating something bigger and better.

“You can’t care what other people think about you,” Naficy says. “One thing we can do if we want more female entrepreneurs is not insist that girls toe the line all the time. More women need to take risks and be a little different.”

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