Women wield more economic power and influence in the U.S. today than at any time in history. Women are increasingly starting new businesses and leading corporate, philanthropic, and government organizations. However, the story about women’s achievements is often defined relative to men’s achievement, and much of the discussion is centered on obstacles women face in closing the gender gap. According to PitchBook, female-founded startups raised $10.5 billion in venture funding in 2017—a healthy number but still just a small fraction of the $85 billion raised overall.
While it is important to acknowledge, address and eventually close these gaps, it’s essential to celebrate the achievements of female founders and to learn more about the businesses that these women are building. Our Female Founders panel discussion in New York on June 13 was designed to do just that. We were fortunate to have five impressive panelists—Anna Auerbach, co-founder of workplace flexibility innovator Werk; Lara Crystal, founder of Minibar Delivery; Tiffany Pham, founder and CEO of Mogul; Geri Stengel, president of digital market research company Ventureneer; and Susan Tynan, CEO and founder of Framebridge. Through the panel’s conversation, three themes—psychology, purpose and people—emerged.
- Psychology: Susan described her big, ambitious vision for Framebridge, which was met with an “invisible layer” of those doubting her ability to build an empire (a prejudice faced by women more than men, in her view). With that vision comes the need to embrace risk and the prospect of failure. Failure is a very possible outcome for a startup; but she reframed what failure meant to her. She views failure due to negligence or poor ethics as totally within her control, and is comfortable with the idea of failure for other reasons. She also said that experience is a great teacher when it comes to the volatility of an entrepreneurial life—once she experienced a few low points and got through them, she grew less fearful of them.
- Purpose: Anna did not believe she had an entrepreneur’s mindset or what she described as founder DNA. However, she became obsessed with the desire to put more women in leadership roles and viewed flexibility as an obvious solution: If there are a greater number of flexible work environments that accommodate family responsibilities, there will be more opportunities for women to become leaders. Along the way, her vision about work/life balance expanded beyond just thinking about women. She realized that both men and women—families, really—could benefit from systems and support that allowed them to thrive simultaneously at work and at home. She felt obligated to build Werk because of this sense of purpose—she simply didn’t want to trust that another organization would see the solution as she did.
- People: A common theme among the panelists was an intense focus on people—collaboration, mentorship, communication, empowerment. Lara learned the importance of a supportive, empowering environment at her previous company, Rent the Runway, and has worked to create a similar environment at Minibar. She and her co-founder Lindsey Andrews have a strong partnership built on support, which has greatly informed the company’s culture and hiring practices. Tiffany said that Mogul’s 100% employee retention rate is powered by communication, collaboration and celebration. For example, she proactively brings quieter people into group discussions, and ensures that the team comes together frequently to learn and celebrate together.
Overall, the evening’s discussion was a great celebration of the unique perspectives that women and men bring to a new venture. It is no surprise that the most effective and successful companies tend to be those that embrace diversity and allow all of those perspectives to flourish together.
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