You’re Fired! Female Founders Are Still Fighting For Respect in Tech — Here is My Comeback Story!

Sheri Atwood
Dec 10, 2018 · 7 min read

The treatment of women across all facets of culture has been in the spotlight all year. But is it actually making a difference? A few years ago, I talked about gender bias in Silicon Valley on CNBC. Today, female founders are still not getting the respect they deserve in the tech industry. VC funding for female startups is down to 2.2 percent from an estimated 6 percent in 2015, and Fortune 500 female CEOs are 30 percent more likely to be fired or replaced compared to their male counterparts. Last year, I was one of them — and my company was then driven into the ground.

But I decided not to sit idly by. After a year of hard work, I not only bought my company back from the people who ousted me but made it stronger than ever.

The Back Story: SupportPay is Born

I built my company, SupportPay, from scratch because I needed a solution to help me track and manage child support and my daughter’s expenses. As a former Silicon Valley executive, I didn’t have the time to manage these things and was certain there was a solution out there to help. To my shock, there wasn’t. So the idea behind SupportPay was born: an app to make it easy for separated and divorced families to exchange money, without the drama or the fighting. As a single mom who had been sexually harassed one too many times in corporate America, I decided I wanted and needed to take my future into my own hands. I risked it all, and started SupportPay. I left behind my paycheck and lost my healthcare coverage. Without any parents and no spouse to lean on, I had no one who would save me or my daughter if this big idea failed. I had no choice. It had to succeed.

“You have been terminated from your position”

I officially started SupportPay in 2011. Over the course of five years, we raised over $7M in funding, built a team of 25, and grew our customer base to more than 40,000 people. In December 2016, I closed my Series A of $4M. In August 2017, I was terminated as the CEO of my company. Yet I couldn’t (and still can’t) say a word about what really happened. One day I hope to tell the entire story but for now, I can focus on what I learned. Most say that your first startup fails, I am lucky enough to take the lessons learned from my “first” startup and can now apply them to my second, while still focused on what I am most passionate about, helping parents and children.

In addition to the pain of losing my company, I ended up losing most of my “friends” as well. People who I thought would be there for me no matter what, whom I went out of my way to help and protect, business partners whom I did anything they asked of me, suddenly forgot who I was and never even reached out to see how I was doing. In fact, very few people reached out to ask me what happened. Instead, they made assumptions or took the word of others regarding the situation.

Needless to say, I was devastated. It was the darkest and hardest time of my life! If you only knew where I came from that is saying a lot! I simply did not know what to do. Many nights I wondered if I could face another day! I had put everything I had into my company — moved my daughter to a new city, spent all of my savings, risked everything. I had no backup plan, and I was fired with nothing to show for it. I had a teenager to raise and support and wasn’t sure what to do next. And for what? The most confusing part of my ordeal was that SupportPay started to tank when I left. The company lost most of its customers, the product no longer worked as it should have, and 20 of the 25 employees I had hired either quit or were fired, yet the company had more money in the bank than ever before. It didn’t make any sense.

It wasn’t over

In November 2017, just three months after I was fired, I found out via an email to all shareholders that SupportPay was being liquidated. Shut down. Closed. My hard work was not only really gone, but the parents who relied on us to help them with their child support would no longer have a solution. Swallowing my pride, I went back to the very people who had booted me from the company with an offer to help. My calls went unanswered.

But I couldn’t just stand by. I simply don’t have it in me. I knew I had to try everything and anything I could to save what I had built. I started looking into who would buy the SupportPay assets. What I knew, more than anyone, was that the code, assets, and IP are incredibly complex. This was not something that could just be picked up by anyone and successfully run. That was clear just by the fact that the company was liquidated after I was gone. Around the same time, I met another female founder who turned out to be my guardian angel. Not only was she there for support — she also offered to help negotiate the purchase of the SupportPay’s assets so I could buy my company back. In early 2018, I took out a personal loan and used all of my remaining savings to purchase the SupportPay assets and I formed a new company: Smart Family Tech, Inc. For nearly 11 months, I have been working to rebuild SupportPay — fixing the product and slowly winning back customers. I don’t have the cushion of angel of venture funding or extra money in the bank so my team is much smaller, but also more focused. Today, I can proudly say that we are doing better than ever, profitable, with 4x more paid customers and 5x more active users than ever before.

So why? Why did this female founder get no respect? There was no clear reason for destroying my company; it did not fare better without me and everyone lost — investors, employees and most importantly, the parents who desperately relied on us for a solution.

I may never know the answer but the data speaks for itself. It’s a topic most are afraid to talk about. It’s something that I wish I never had to educate my daughter about. But the facts don’t lie and the fact is that a white man, in my situation, has the luxury of making mistakes. Minority and female founders do not. If a white male founder messes up, 9 out of 10 times he is given the ability to learn from that mistake and continue to run his company. A study by Joan Williams has even given this a name ”prove it again” bias. In her study, she proves that in order to be seen as equally competent, women need to perform better than men. And when women are successful their successes are credited more to luck or circumstance than to skill. Their mistakes are noticed more and remembered longer. Story after story and research shows that minority and/or female founder has no more than one chance. If they make a mistake or disagree with their board members, statistics show they will be replaced. Is it because the expectations are so much higher? Is there a double standard when it comes to addressing mistakes? Is it because there are so few of us that the spotlight is on everything we do? Or that we receive such little venture money that the money we do get is given with a thought that we won’t deliver the return — even though all research shows minority and female founders and CEOs have a much higher rate of return than their white male counterparts?

I may never know the real reason but what I can say is: that “I’m stronger because I had to be, I’m smarter because of my mistakes, happier because of the sadness I’ve known and now wiser because I learned.”

Read here: 5 Lessons Learned After I Was Fired From My Own Company

By telling my story I hope we can change the way women and minorities are treated in tech. Studies show that most people who hold these bias’ don’t even realize it. My true hope is that this bias can somehow be overcome thru stories like mine. If nothing else, I hope my story inspires, even one person, not to give up, even when you feel all hope is lost.

Looking back on this journey, how far I’ve come, the trials and tribulations I’ve been thru and my road ahead I can honestly say that I made many mistakes, regretted many decisions and have been knocked down more times than I’d like to admit. My daughter had to witness what I have been through and I hope this has taught her that, despite everything I have endured, no one can take away my resilience, persistence, grit, and desire to succeed. Nothing good in life comes easy and the only way to achieve your goals is through hard work and determination. I believe Winston Churchill said it best,” Success is not Final. Failure is not Fatal. It is the Courage to Continue that Counts”.

The Courage To Continue!

Sheri Atwood

Written by

Founder & CEO, SupportPay. Single Mom & Entrepreneur.

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