I'm angry, saddened and unhappy with the state of startup entrepreneurship in the technology sector.
Female startup founders received less than 2 percent of the Venture Capital their male founders did in 2017. Female founders own just 39 cents for every dollar of equity male founders own. One in five female founders surveyed recently report inappropriate behavior of sexual nature from investors.
Entrepreneurs always see opportunity in adversity. It's a type of cerebral jiu-jitsu to shift the negative momentum of a challenge into a positive result. So I decided to reach out to three people I've met through entrepreneurship and investing: Michelle McBane, Nicole Verkindt, and Marie Chevrier.
McBane, the managing director at StandUp Ventures, is a veteran venture capitalist with 20-plus years of experience with early stage technology startups. Verkindt is the founder and CEO of offset market exchange OMX--we met on the set of my TV show The Naked Entrepreeur and bonded over our work with Dragons' Den (Canadian Shark Tank). OMX is a leading procurement platform that specializes in measuring, tracking and reporting on total socio economic impacts of complex spend and supply chain. Chevrier, who runs a startup called Sampler, was one of the first female software founders I ever supported through Ryerson Futures, the startup accelerator seed fund I support.
I asked each the same question: If the best entrepreneurs find opportunity in adversity, how have you been able to turn the added adversity associated with female entrepreneurs into a positive advantage.
"Diverse management teams--including those led by women--have a unique opportunity to break through some of these biases. Applying a different lens to markets, customers, and talent will open to the door to truly breakthrough opportunities. Just look at Bumble. They built an incredible company by simply considering how women would want to take control of the dating experience. It seems self evident in retrospect."
"Being a woman, older, younger, or another race or background than the individuals leading an industry can be a major advantage. While you might have all the details on how the industry works, you may have always had this sense or feeling that you were not fully accepted into the 'club' at the top, which can give you this freeing ability to disrupt it. If you frame it in this way, you will start to see that more diverse teams, leaders, boards, and entrepreneurs can bring a big advantage. The enemy should be 'group think,' which by definition is a group of people who think the same way. A monogamous background of people, often same ages, gender and backgrounds will ultimately lead to an organization's death. This is how we should be talking about the female advantage."
And finally, Chevrier's response:
"Being the only woman in a room often allows me to share a perspective that stands out and I'm proud of that. The good news is that I have seen a major increase in the number of women I see at tech events in the last few years, and there's kind of this unwritten rule that we should right away go ahead and introduce ourselves. I've met most of my closest startup friends that way. I'm so grateful for that."
The female founder (dis)advantage
Nothing is ever going to completely offset the difficult road paved by female founders over the last 100 years. The sexual harassment, the inequalities of funding, the misogyny--none of that can be minimalized.
I take some small comfort in seeing these three women turn adversity into opportunity. All three are black belts in entrepreneurial jiu-jitsu. After all, they essentially said the same thing: Innovation comes at the intersection of domain knowledge and fresh perspectives. Hire balance to driving innovation and entrepreneurship. Strategic advantage can be gained by rethinking the female founder (dis)advantage.
With that in mind, here are three great takeaways for any woman founder (or aspiring founder):
- Skate to where the puck will be. Use your outsider status to bring fresh perspectives, capture fresh opportunities and offer new more value propositions. But be aware. You will need courage for this. Because your perspectives are fresh, the majority, the incumbents, those who lead the field either won't see them, or will discount them in order to cement their position.
- Double down on gender. Follow Chevrier's lead and engage with others traveling the same road. Seek out other woman at conferences, clubs, and industry associations. Bond over your homophily. Leverage your minority, even it's your only commonality. Use your position in a way that the majority can't.
- Lean into the numbers. Modern startup wisdom says the best entrepreneurs solve problems they experience themselves. By being your own customer, you have access to unique insights. At least half the planet's population is female, and if most startups are run by men, you have an opportunity to leverage this imbalance. This means most woman run-ventures are contrarian plays for investors. Lean into it--that's where the big money is. Own it.