Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, once said that, "in the future, there will be no female leaders -- there will just be leaders.” And while that day grows ever closer, it’s not quite here just yet. In the meantime, we’ve put together a list of practical advice, tips, and takeaways from four women trailblazers that we’re honored to have in our community.
Rosie the Riveter. Amelia Earhart. Ada Lovelace. We could go on with the list of women pioneers, along with the iconic images that represented them, to highlight how female trailblazers have been breaking barriers in traditionally male-dominated industries. And speaking of one-sided industries, there’s no question that the tech and business community can still feel like a boys club -- but just like decades past, the Earharts and Lovelaces of today are changing the scales.
From fundraising to work-life balance, here are the insights, lessons, and takeaways they’ve acquired from nearly a century of combined experience.
- Fundraising? Try T-L-C
According to VC data company Pitchbook, only 2.2 percent of all female-only startups were funded in 2017. But despite the miniscule numbers, Karrie Sullivan (Founder, Culminate Health) believes that women entrepreneurs can better navigate the funding maze by turning to a source that understands their challenges better than anyone else -- other women entrepreneurs.
“If women are going to acquire more funding and more seats at the table then we have to do it ourselves. We have to have more women entrepreneurs and women investors who are specifically focused on women entrepreneurs. I think that number is growing and I think that if you take a look at the numbers, you’ll find that the success rate of women entrepreneurs who receive funding is much higher than that of their male counterparts.” – Karrie Sullivan, Founder and CEO, Culminate Health
It’s a perspective shared by Terri Brax (Founder, Women Tech Founders), who’s come up with an acronym to help women founders find raise money. She calls it TLC, or Tapping into networks, Learning from role models, and Choosing to be a role model.
“Working heads down can only take you so far, so it’s important to tap into female-focused organizations. I say that one of the things we’re most proud of here at WTF is our army of role models, which we’ve cultivated by asking female founders to give back. If you’re at a point on your startup journey that other women entrepreneurs aspire to, then it’s time to give back to others in the community and help move the dial.” – Terri Brax, Founder and CEO, Women Tech Founders
Sullivan adds that although many successful women founders want to give back, they still feel conflicted to do so because they want their experiences to be shared.
“As women entrepreneurs, one of the things we foster throughout our careers is the idea of self-reliance. There’s a benefit to that but a danger as well; it can give you the idea that things should be just as hard for others as it was for you. The reality is, when we’re able to take the elevator up, we need to come back down and support others instead of expecting them to go through the same experience. That’s how we progress.” – Karrie Sullivan, Founder and CEO, Culminate Health
- Fake it Until You Make it
Although this isn’t the best advice if you’re in the medical industry, it’s imperative for women entrepreneurs. There’s no doubt that women in the startup industry can feel like -- or are often made to feel like -- outsiders. But according to Sullivan, if you want a seat at the table, you have to act like you deserve it no matter what your inner voice might be telling you.
“You’ve got to walk into a room believing that you’re smarter than everyone else in there. As a woman entrepreneur, you’re going to feel that imposter syndrome, but you have to disregard it. For us, appearing confident is so important. And if it’s too hard to fake it, then I recommend going out and getting experience in male-dominated industries. Figure out how male entrepreneurs operate and what it takes to be credible with them.” – Karrie Sullivan, Founder and CEO, Culminate Health
Kayte Malik (Founder, Dresscode) echoes Sullivan’s sentiments and adds that women entrepreneurs must also take the initiative -- along with some risk -- to be heard.
“As a woman founder, sometimes you don’t know if you should act on something. Do it anyways. Do what scares you, ask those hard questions, and make sure people are paying attention. The fear of not doing anything is actually worse than whatever consequence you might have to deal with. I’ve been told I’m too ambitious or I talk too much, but people pay attention and when they see that I’ve done my homework and have a vision, gradually the other things disappear.” – Kayte Malik, Founder and CEO, Dresscode
- Shatter Stereotypes
Emotional and bossy. These are two tired stereotypes that women entrepreneurs continue to deal with. And while many founders of both genders are looking to dismantle these tropes, Olga Davis (Founder, iCOOK) believes that there’s one great way to shatter stereotypes -- just embrace them.
“Women being emotional isn’t a bad thing. There’s a positive side to that as well. I always feel and treat the people who work for me like family and I’m very emotional about that. Having a softer side gives you the ability to connect with your staff and develop a relationship with them, which is important if you’re running a business.” – Olga Davis, Co-founder, iCOOK
- Nurture Your Network
While the value of a network is important for any entrepreneur, it can often be the difference between success and failure for women founders. Additionally, it’s easier for men to network in the startup community simply because of their numbers. For women, that can be a more difficult task -- that’s one of the reasons why Malik encourages female founders to prioritize their network.
“It can take awhile, but you want to invest time in finding a community that aligns with your business and start to grow your network from there. Tony Hsieh, Founder of Zappos, says that he spends more than 40 percent of his day networking. That’s been very effective for his business and as women entrepreneurs, that’s a really good mindset to have.” – Kayte Malik, Founder and CEO, Dresscode
Brax, who has helped many women network through WTF, says that finding a tribe -- and committing to it -- can bring about tremendous benefits for female founders.
“It’s worth it to spend time researching the best network for you. Every network has unique values, goals, resources, and strengths so really dig in and find what’s right for you. Once you’ve done that, then you have to immerse yourself. Volunteer. Lead. Give it all you’ve got and I guarantee you the effort will come back to you in spades.” – Terri Brax, Founder and CEO, Women Tech Founders
- Building Businesses, Changing Diapers
Signing up to become an entrepreneur means that you’re volunteering for a stressful, ambiguous, and work-intensive profession. Signing up to become a mompreneur -- well, let’s hope that you’re a fan of coffee. But despite the fear of losing all semblance of a work-life balance, Brax says that being a mother has worked to her advantage.
“There is no ‘normal’ when you’re a mom with a business. Your life will be one crayon away from crazy. Accept that. You’ll also learn to be razor focused on a dime. And truly, being a mom is the best training for keeping a perspective on what matters and why -- both in your personal and professional life. Let it guide you and ride your own wave.” – Terri Brax, Founder and CEO, Women Tech Founders
Sullivan believes that, when it comes to mompreneurship, it takes two to tango.
“We don’t necessarily talk about our partners as much as we should, but if it wasn’t for my husband, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do. My husband was a stay-at-home dad for two years when our kids were tweens and that gave me precious time to focus on my business. There’s this idea that mompreneurs do it all, but I think part of that credit should go to our partners as well.” – Karrie Sullivan, Founder and CEO, Culminate Health
- Parting Thoughts
As you may have already noticed, the author of this article is neither a woman nor an entrepreneur. As a result, we asked each of the featured entrepreneurs if there was something we forgot to ask or if they had any parting advice to share. Here’s what they said.
“Find that space in your life where you can truly be yourself -- where you can take down all the walls and all the barriers. I always recommend that women entrepreneurs take a vacation by themselves. There’s a sense of confidence and independence that comes from traveling alone and it can be an incredibly empowering experience.” – Karrie Sullivan, Founder and CEO, Culminate Health
“As a female founder, you have to be smart about how you leverage your resources, so I always recommend looking at the university that you’ve graduated from. Most universities today have some sort of business plan competition that’s open to alumni. This can help you build out key assets like a pitch deck, real-time feedback, a good network, and even potential hires. Also, one thing that many founders don’t take advantage of is their Alma Mater’s law school or law clinic, which can help you navigate through legal and regulatory services.” – Kayte Malik, Founder and CEO, Dresscode
“This isn’t specific to women entrepreneurs, but I think that all of us need to do more things outside of entrepreneurship that take our mind off of business. It takes at least 48 hours for me to stop thinking about my company so that means that I have to make a conscious decision and be intentional about unplugging. That helps me come back refreshed and ready to tackle the next big thing.” – Olga Davis, Co-founder, iCOOK
“Adversity can be our greatest advantage and so can education. There’s no substitute for knowing what you’re talking about. Google can be your best friend, and between podcasts, YouTube, and other free sources of information, there’s no excuse for not becoming an expert. Highlight your expertise and figure out how you can use it to reflect your personal passion.” – Terri Brax, Founder and CEO, Women Tech Founders
We hope these parting thoughts, along with the insights shared by these four pioneers, will help women entrepreneurs excel in their endeavors so that perhaps, one day, there truly will be no female leaders -- just leaders.
More about the women featured in this article:
- Karrie Sullivan, Founder and CEO of Culminate Health, an AI/Blockchain InsurTech product focused on empowering self-insured employer health care plans with the data and systems needed to negotiate with healthcare providers directly and take control of their healthcare costs.
- Kayte Malik, Founder and CEO of Dresscode, which merges fashion and technology to excite and educate women and girls about computer science, coding, and STEM.
- Olga Davis, Co-founder of iCOOK, an after-school hands-on program designed to teach kids and youth how to cook healthy, nutritious, and delicious meals.
- Terri Brax, Founder and CEO of Women Tech Founders (WTF), which tells stories and lessons to inspire, educate and connect women in the tech ecosystem, from aspiring founders to leading funders. Women Tech Founders uses storytelling, video and networking events to build deep connections, drive inclusiveness through profitability, and infuse diversity into tech.
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