“I’ve grown to realize that it may be okay to be a quite co-founder, but it isn’t okay for me”
About three weeks ago, women from all over Silicon Valley and the US came together for YC’s first Female Founder’s Conference (FFC). Overall, it was a good event. Truly. I’ve never seen so many like-minded women in the same room before. It was a day of sharing battle stories, networking and reinforcing that startups are hard work. In the words of Adora Cheung, the Founder and CEO of Homejoy, “It’s like you are always sprinting a marathon, and there are hills and mountains… avalanches.. and the finish line is always moving”.
Adora’s honesty about struggling to find the right problem to solve really rang true with me. The idea of Homejoy didn’t actually come about until after her stint at YC. My company, SnowShoe, has an amazing technology, but we struggled while in Techstars (Boulder, 2013) to find our “killer application”. It wasn’t until after our program ended that we became really confident in the market we were going after. Thus, it was refreshing to hear both Adora and Jessica Mah’s (CEO of inDinero) stories of how hard it is, coming out of an accelerator, to know you are solving the right problem.
Not quite a homerun…
Although, I personally related well to both Adora’s and Jessica’s talks, and every speaker at the event had high points of their own, I also came away a little disappointed. Some of things that most bother me about being a women in this crazy tech-startup world were never discussed.
You guys aren’t married, are you?
“You guys aren’t married, are you?” — as a female co-founder who started her company with a male friend, we are asked this question all the time. Yes, we are both married, but to different people. Maybe I’m biased but I don’t think it’s a fair question to ask. The more times I hear it, the more annoying it becomes. Would you ask two male co-founders that same question? Does the answer really even matter at all if we build a kick ass product and we execute on it correctly?
Jessica Livingston stated that 34.5% of female founders have significant others for co-founders. She even mentioned that if you are looking for a technical lead either you should teach yourself to code (a statement I liked) or look to your spouse (a statement that left me bewildered).
Are those the only options? Does this mean that young, ambitious women should look for life partners who know Python or Ruby? I’ve met a lot of developers, and I typically love working with them, but it doesn’t mean I would want to date them. I’ve already married a non-developer. Does that mean I can’t start a company? Why is this a message we are giving to women?
Why can’t we empower women to learn how to write code themselves or create meetup groups that make it easier for women to find technical co-founders? Is it impractical to think that a female, non-technical founder can go out and hire a 10X developer?
Yes, creating a company without a technical co-founder is super hard and definitely not recommended, but it’s also not impossible and suggesting matrimony as a solution is a terrible idea.
Fundraising Gender Bias
The FFC also had a panel on fundraising tips and strategies. As a co-founder who has not led the fundraising process for our company, I thought it was interesting to hear the perspective of women who have gone through the process.
There was, however, a moment of awkwardness when the moderator, Kristy Nathoo, asked if any of the women have experienced gender biases while out fundraising. It was as if the air was suddenly sucked out of the room. None of the women wanted to be the first one to answer.
I applaud Jamie Wong the founder and CEO of Vayable, who said she’s not only been called very attractive while at a VC meeting, but also admitted she was once patted inappropriately at a meeting. Michelle Crosby, the founder and CEO of Wevorce, told her story about an investor that told her, after investing, that he wouldn’t have made the investment if he had known she was pregnant at the time. Michelle responded brilliantly by asking “What do you mean by that?” – making the investor realize what he said was completely inappropriate.
I found each women’s story and tips helpful, but again, I was disappointed that no one mentioned how few women-founded companies actually get funding.
Several women mentioned that YC gave them an unfair advantage, because getting into YC is in it’s own rights a level of credibility. However, in 2013 women-founded companies only represented 13% of VC deals, and last year, only 20% of 2013 YC companies had a female co-founder. Does anyone else think these numbers are ridiculously low? Did you know that more women are turning to alternative funding mechanisms like crowdfunding? AtIndiegogo, 42% of successful campaigns were led by women, but Indiegogo’s user base is 50% women — is this even progress?
I’m not saying fundraising is ever easy. Even for men it’s incredibly hard and time consuming. I’ve seen my co-founder struggle through every round we have raised. But, why is there such a huge lack of VC and angel funding for companies founded by women?
Are there too few women VCs?
Are there too few women mentors to help guide their peers through the process?
Or is it something else?
Day-to-Day Gender Biases
I have my own stories I could share — none quite as dramatic as Jamie or Michelle’s experiences. As a non-technical, non-CEO co-founder, I wear many hats – primarily business operations, business development, and customer advocacy.
But let’s be honest, I do all the jobs that no one else wants to do and I do them to keep the company running. I’ve been called “mom” several times by former employees and even my co-founder. I’ve been to networking events where older men have been a bit too touchy, and I’ve sat in on more than my share of meetings where the other man in the room wouldn’t make eye contact with me or only interacted with my co-founder.
The Quiet Co-Founder
It’s these occurrences that sparked my “quiet co-founder” syndrome — a phrase brilliantly coined by Jessica Livingston at the FFC. I’ve often lacked the confidence I needed to be a more outgoing co-founder and leader. To be honest, starting the company in Madison, Wisconsin, I didn’t have many great female entrepreneurs to look up to. “It’s okay to be the quiet co-founder…. but you will be ignored by people who can only hear loud voices.” -Jessica Livingston
Jessica’s statement hit home for me, because that’s exactly what I’ve been for several years. My co-founder has a very loud voice, and he has been the defacto face of the company. All this time, I have been obsessed with making sure the company is where it needs to be, and I have lost touch with where I need to be. I’ve grown to realize that it may be okay to be a quite co-founder, but it isn’t okay for me.
Being quiet won’t help get SnowShoe’s name out in a crowded startup ecosystem.
Being quiet won’t help me grow as an individual, whose life will go on after SnowShoe comes to a conclusion.
Being quiet won’t help other female co-founders who struggle to find the confidence they need to start building their dreams.
I don’t want female entrepreneurs to be quiet – pretending that there’s no gender bias in Silicon Valley. Sheryl Sandburg has made us realize that there are only 4.6% of women in Executive roles in fortune 500 companies. In Silicon Valley, Men with advanced degrees earn 73% more than Women in the same industry and with the same degrees (according to Silicon Valley Index).
All of these statistics demonstrate the problem, but the causal relationships are harder to suss out.
Lack of mentorship?
I believe there’s a lack of mentorship in the tech community for women. We see so few women who make it to the Top Of The Ladder and even fewer have time to spend mentoring future women leaders. Sheryl Sandburg spent a lengthy section of her book explaining that men should be mentors to women as well, which I agree with, but it’s almost harder to find a male mentor than a female one.
A big reason why my co-founder and I decided to apply to Techstars was that it is a mentorship-driven accelerator. Coming from Wisconsin we didn’t have a strong list of successful entrepreneurs we could turn to for advice. I was really excited for the possibility of working with women who were once in my shoes, but I was in for a shock when that didn’t happen.
During our Techstars experience, there were only 4 women working full-time on the startups in our class, 1 female “hackstar” — it was awesome to have a women developer — and 1 female associate. There were only 2 female mentors (Sue Heilbronner and Nicole Glaros) and the only women who spoke in front of our whole class during the summer were Nicole, a women from TriNet (a sponsor talk), and Stephanie Palmeri from SoftTech. That was it! The fact that I can specifically remember every female appearance at Techstars is pathetic. My favorite part of the program was the founder stories, almost every week a new speaker would come in and give HIS founder story. There was never a women who came in to give HERS. Not even some of the women from earlier Techstars classes.
Could Techstars not find more female mentors? Are women too busy juggling the responsibilities of work and life that mentoring isn’t a top priority? Do YC and 500 Startups have the same imbalance?
FFC and the future
Even if you quote “Lean In” ad nauseum, it doesn’t mean that obstacles won’t still be in your way, or that there won’t be gender biases you’ll confront. It’s really important for women to not be afraid to share their struggles or feelings and it’s far past time for women to stand up and be peer-to-peer mentors. If we don’t share our personal experiences, how do we expect it to get easier for future women? We need to be educating Silicon Valley and the rest of the world about the importance of funding women-lead companies, and why women make excellent leaders.
The Female Founders Conference was great for it’s first year, and I think it can grow to fill an all-too-obvious void in the discussion about gender biases in the entrepreneurial community. I also think it can be a launching point for finding female mentors.
That said, I think there was a really important message that was missing throughout the event. I wanted to see someone to get on the stage in front of the core of the female entrepreneur populus and shout “See how few women are funded? See how poorly we’re treated. See how shitty these stats have been for the last fifty years? They are about to change – and they are going to change because of us.”
This post was originally published on the Medium blog