I recently attended an event encouraging women to get involved in the startup ecosystem at the new Sydney Startup Hub. While I applaud the aim of the event, I left with my blood boiling.
It is hard to believe there are still tales being told (by women!) suggesting female founders have husbands who are out working big, important jobs and therefore they need to take care of the kids and house while trying to start a business…implying they need all the help we can give them. This is not only patronising, but wrong and counter-productive.
It can be done
I was until very recently a female founder of an enterprise tech platform based in London. We were VC-backed by one of the most respected early stage venture capital firms in London, Passion Capital, and I was lucky enough to have Eileen Burbidge, called the Queen of Tech, as our Non-Exec Director.
Our customers included Microsoft, LinkedIn, Capita, PwC, NHS and others. Against a backdrop of uncertainty with Brexit and a snap election called, we weren’t able to close some big deals therefore didn’t have enough revenue for our next investment round. So here we are, back in Australia.
Oh, I also have three children and a loving husband who also happened to be my cofounder. Did that ever stop me from doing what I needed to? Not at all. While it is not easy, to be a successful entrepreneur you need to find ways to overcome obstacles. One of our very experienced (male) angel investors even said it was a good thing, as it forced us to switch off and take time out.
We don’t have a shortage of female founders in Australia
One of the things I have found surprising coming back to Australia is how well represented women are both in the corporate and tech worlds compared to my experience in the UK. A survey recently published by Startup Muster indicated 25 percent of founders in Australia are female. Data from the largest database of startups in the world, Crunchbase, shows that globally 17 percent of all startups have a female on the founding team. In the enterprise space in the UK, it was more like 1:20 founders I met were female.
While there is room for improvement, it is important to recognise we are doing well compared to the rest of the world. That’s not to say we don’t need more – both male and female founders. But it suggests we don’t have systematic biases that are preventing women from believing that they can and should turn their idea into a startup. The more female founders we have, the more other women will also be encouraged to take the leap.
We need more female investors
According to a report by the Female Founder Forum, an initiative run by the Entrepreneurs Network in the UK to encourage, support, and promote female entrepreneurship, only nine percent of investments made in British startups went to female-founded businesses, with male-founded businesses 86 percent more likely to receive venture capital funding and 56 percent more likely to receive angel funding. Comparable data for Australia is difficult to come by, however a recent survey suggests Australian venture capital firms are much more open to supporting businesses with female founders.
I was fortunate to have the support of many other incredible female founders, some of whom are now considered ‘unicorns’ – the term used to refer to a tech business with $US1 billion valuation. In almost all cases we had a story to tell of a bad experience with investors. I don’t mean receiving a ‘no’, that is par for the course, I’m referring to at times blatant sexual harassment. There are no laws to protect you when you are asking for or have taken someone’s money. You do however always have a choice on who you work with. You will be working with your investors for a long time with many ups and downs, so you need to make sure you are very comfortable working with them and feel well supported.
There is plenty of data demonstrating that female-led businesses are more likely to be successful, so smart investors know they need to respect female-founders. However if we want more successful female-led businesses in Australia, we need better representation of female investors, especially angel investors who are crucial at the early stages of a business when greater support is needed. In Airtree VC’s self-reported list of angel investors in Australia, out of 207 investors only 9 are women.
If you want to help, become a mentor and then become an angel investor
Alex Scandurra, CEO of Stone & Chalk shared the results of their recent research on how to encourage more female participation in the startup ecosystem. He said to encourage more women to become angel investors, the first step is for them to become mentors and build an understanding of how to work with and support startups.
We achieved what we did with the help of many incredible people who generously gave their time, shared their experience and networks, and provided invaluable advice. But for every amazing person who helped, there were three who either provided bad advice or asked for money, equity or both in exchange for very little value. Unfortunately some of these people were part of accelerator programs.
If you want to help a female founder, or any founder for that matter, listen, understand what their needs are, and leverage your skills, experience and, most importantly, your network to help fill the gaps. Remember that what works in a corporate context does not necessarily work for a startup, in fact the best startups are successful because they go against the norm. And, most importantly, always respect that they were brave enough to take the leap.
Female founders, you’re doing great, keep going!
Running your own tech startup is hard, seriously hard. And as the business grows, it doesn’t get easier. Founders often refer to it as being on the rollercoaster ride, you overcome one major hurdle only to face into the next. But the beauty of the journey is that each time you overcome a hurdle, you are better prepared for the next one.
If you are a female founder, while it might not always feel like it, you are doing great, just keep going! Ask for help, listen carefully, but always make the decisions you believe are right for your business. No one knows your business better than you do.
Faith Forster is a female founder of an enterprise tech platform who has recently returned to Australia from the UK. Prior to this she was a consultant with PwC working on some of the most difficult challenges in corporate history, including working directly for a Board member at RBS after they were bailed out, setting up new operations in Iraq, and working with BP after the Gulf of Mexico crisis. She founded the Sydney Enterprise Tech Meetup to connect corporate innovators, enterprise-focused startups and investors.
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