The Different Life Trajectories of Women-Led Startups

This article was originally published at Take The Lead in February 2015.

Remember that great Fortune column by Warren Buffett a few years ago on how women are the world’s greatest untapped resource and the key to America’s economic prosperity? We might return to it as we think about what makes startups successful.

In his presentation at LEAN UX NYC last year, Trevor Owens (co-founder of Javelin, author of The Lean Enterprise), shared the slide below, originally from Paul Graham, showing the lifecycle most startups go through before they become viable businesses:

There’s a lot more to his talk and it’s an interesting one, but I’ve been thinking about this image for months.

My first startup, a media organization dedicated to knowledge sharing in the social justice space, didn’t have a chance of making it past the trough of sorrow. We closed after four years of writing articles and organizing dialogues for little to no money, and a couple of shout outs in O Magazine and The Boston Globe that kept our confidence up for a while. But still this slide rang true. And then it didn’t. It showed an incomplete picture. It had a few things missing:

This slide reflects where the startup community is stuck precisely because of what it doesn’t take into account. Or, to put it in lean terms, it reflects a problem that needs to be made visible and solved. Not a problem with women per se, but one relevant to the whole startup ecosystem that has to do with acknowledging and working with difference. A great example of this is the research we have about how investors are more likely to give to men than women who are pitching the exact same idea.

I call the problem “the lack of a gender equity lens,” but I’m not sure that’s it yet, not until we hear from more men, and more white moneyed men, on the topic. If you see the same gaps, these gaps have to do with the kinds of companies we collectively are capable of creating and the kind of ideas and work we’re willing to help make viable businesses. The problem when you leave a gender equity lens out of entrepreneurship or business development isn’t that men don’t create good businesses; to echo Buffett, it’s that you create the conditions for essentially wasting half the world’s talent. You stop businesses from being the best they can be, and you stop ideas that happen to come from women before they get off the ground.

Why are women’s business ideas important? Research tells us gender-diverse teams are smarter then homogenous teams. The New York Times recently published yet another article about this. Sallie Krawcheck, one of the most successful women on Wall Street, now Chair of Ellevate, said it best at S.H.E. Summit 2014: “Gender-diverse teams don’t necessarily make faster decisions, but they make more effective ones.” As my colleague Tuesday Ryan-Hart says, “We’re constantly looking for research to confirm what we already know. Research is important, but at some point you act.”

So, we’re wasting half the world’s talent and choosing to work in less diverse leadership teams in spite of research that we know this is bad for us. We would be more effective if we used the intelligence of women by proactively inviting women onto our leadership teams and inviting founders to show up in well-connected, moneyed spaces — and not just entertaining their ideas when they get there, but following their leadership. Zoom out and we might be more effective not only at building our own awesome, narrowly focused startups, but at solving more of the right problems in society. Not because women are necessarily more effective at anything, but because they bring different skills and talents by virtue of different lived experiences.

The challenge now is spreading what works in terms of making the startup scene more equitable and, for those who like the idea of gender and racial equity, but don’t know how to make way for it, merging the actual thought leadership on entrepreneurship with the thought leadership on bias, whatever form it takes, like this great video from the racial justice organization, Race Forward.

Did my super-idealist startup dedicated to knowledge sharing for social justice fail because I was a woman? Or a young, queer, woman co-founder of working-class roots? No, it failed for a bunch of reasons. But gender bias is a fact I faced and a fact women founders face every day. It’s a real roadblock. The story we need to stop telling, as Joe Nocero argued beautifully in his recent column “Silicon Valley’s Mirror Effect,” is that ideas are judged purely on merit. It’s not true, but we hang on to it, I think, because we’re scared of what’s next. We’re just not “ready” for women to lead, whatever that means.

For any man willing to take this problem on in partnership with women who are already fighting this fight, you’re ahead of the game. Until more people acknowledge this problem of gender inequity pretty much everywhere, I’m looking forward to supporting the work of entrepreneurs in this space (where founders and investors and thought leaders tackle business problems right alongside social ones, in and outside of organizations).

This piece has been adapted from a longer version. Read the full piece here, including links to groups and leaders shaking up the startup scene like Pipeline Fellowship, LEAN UX NYC, The Lean Startup Conference, and The 3% Conference.

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