I was recently in a room that was all about female empowerment and filled with women supporting women. I was part of Project Entrepreneur’s 2017 Intensive, a project founded and supported by UBS and Rent The Runway Foundation to support female entrepreneurs from all over the United States.
While most of the workshops and presentations were about actionable, strategic ways to improve all of our respective businesses, there was an underlying current and sometimes openly discussed issue of why we female entrepreneurs were worthwhile convening together in the first place. After all, founders could have been gathered by industry -- and found it perhaps more interesting or illuminating to meet fellow founders of similar businesses or end-markets.
The reason we were gathered by gender is that female founders and entrepreneurs are still under-represented in relation to men when it comes to starting new businesses in this country. According to one Wall Street Journal report, women started less than 37% of the new businesses created in America in 2014.
Moreover, those companies that do get started by women, tend to be smaller in scale and revenue than those started by men. Finally, a pathetically small -- and declining -- percentage of these female-founded companies are ever funded by venture capitalists. This is despite the fact that female entrepreneurs have led to higher financial returns (at least when a decade of investments were analyzed by one early-stage VC firm, First Round Capital).
While these are good reasons why we should support more female entrepreneurship, it doesn’t explain what benefit there is in convening so many female founders in one place. There are at least 3 reasons I believe it is important.
First, role modeling is a huge deal.
Imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery and we often look to try to find the female role model or female mentor that we most resemble. Working moms look to see if there are working moms in the senior leadership teams of their companies. Similarly, female entrepreneurs need to see how other female entrepreneurs handle work-life balance. Women of color look for other women of color in leadership roles.The same is true of entrepreneurs. We need more female entrepreneurs now -- and successful ones at that -- if we want more female entrepreneurs in the future.
Second, the best support can come from those who have lived through similar experiences.
While every company and industry is different, many women face challenges that only other women can relate to. For example, the funding gap between male and female entrepreneurs is in probably no small part due to pattern recognition (aka unconscious bias) and the inability of a certain group of men to understand certain end markets or products and services that serve women, for example. Women can share with each other how they’ve surmounted similar hurdles in a way that no fellow male entrepreneur could.
Finally, women do really pay it forward to each other in ways that sometimes you may not get a man to do it. That’s not to say that advice from men is not helpful and incredibly important. But sometimes sharing certain hardships and vulnerabilities is a bonding experience that encourages women to help women in ways that are more generous. You may be able to build bonds with certain more experienced female entrepreneurs who take you under their wing because “you remind them of themselves at an earlier time.” This type of thing happens all the time in Corporate America and among male entrepreneurs. So it’s a pretty cool thing to see it happen among female entrepreneurs as well.
All in all, while I still hope that one day the playing field is so level that the idea of convening only female entrepreneurs will seem completely retrograde, there’s a lot of good that comes from bringing women founders together in one place.
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