Female Founders: Irete Hamdani Of askBelynda On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Pick the right people to work with. To go far, get people who share your vision and are in it for the long run, and are willing to go the extra mile. I had a co-founder at the beginning who was the right choice but as time went by I realized they didn’t have the time and budget to invest in the startup and that that was holding me back. We eventually dissolved the partnership but I wish I would have done it much earlier. I also had a marketing consultant that wasn’t a great fit and we discontinued the work.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Irete Hamdani.
Irete Hamdani is an entrepreneur and founder of askBelynda, a Google Chrome extension helping consumers reduce their carbon footprint by recommending sustainable products while they’re shopping online. She has a Computer Science MSc. with honors from Tel Aviv University and is an AWS Certified Associate Developer and Solution Architect. She believes in a greener future with the expansion of sustainable consumer goods. Irete resides in Denver, CO, with her husband and two daughters.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
We moved to the US in 2018 and I was both delighted and taken aback by the online shopping possibilities. Anything you want is at the tips of your fingers and your door within 1–2 days. At the same time, I was also on a personal journey to live a more sustainable life. I started looking into the products I was buying and found it hard to know what the right, environmental-friendly product is, without spending time researching. I’ve been in tech for 25 years and I decided to use my development skills and my growing knowledge of what makes products sustainable, to provide this as a product to others in the form of askBelynda.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Since starting askBelynda I’ve been fortunate to receive so much help from the worldwide community. These “angels in disguises” give me fresh perspectives that inspire me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It’s a whole new world for me. Starting the company, making decisions, and taking action. When I first began putting together the business plan and pitch deck I made many mistakes — not using the right terminology, the numbers didn’t add up, I didn’t tell the story right. I could barely follow the lingo. I have several advisors helping me out and I remind myself not to be embarrassed by my lack of knowledge. Like the wise one say, you learn something new every day if you pay attention. I always try to.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been given a lot of ‘gifts’ throughout the process. People who I don’t even know are more than willing to spend time with me and give me their advice. There’s this Facebook Group Startup for Startup that I go to almost every day. It’s a collaboration of VCs/Angel investors, new/established start-ups, and generally people who want to help others out. I would call out Noa Hilzenrat who runs the group and nurtures the platform as someone I’m grateful for.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
There are so many ways of looking at this. I was brought up to believe I can succeed in whatever I put my mind to. That if I decide on a path and put the work in, I will make it happen. There was a notion of gender equality in career paths between my parents. I don’t know if this was everyone’s childhood experience. Growing up, if you were told by society and especially your close family that you’re second best or shouldn’t go too far with your ambitions, then I can only imagine how hard it must be to overcome the self-doubt and take the leap to found and run your own company.
Second, my personal belief is that bringing up children is as important, if not more, than my career. I took a step back when they were young and only now when they’re a bit older do I have the time to invest in my own company. I believe that it’s harder for women to balance between family and career and that they should feel it’s acceptable to have different priorities at different stages in life.
Lastly, most women I know approach business (and life) from a more holistic point of view — letting intuition, emotions, spirituality, and other intangible aspects in. But that is not yet the place the business conduct is yet. It’s much more reserved and calculated. Navigating between your inner self and the expectations in the boardroom is not easy but I believe everyone can find their place.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
It starts with education — both the messages kids receive at school and the acceptance into universities. At all levels nothing should be classified as something that is only for boys / girls / men / women / white / people of color / young people / old people. All opportunities should be open to all.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Women make up half of the world’s population and therefore their representation should be in proportion to that. The women’s clothing business for example used to be run predominantly by men — how could that make sense? Change is coming, but slowly.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
There is the glorification of startups, especially when you see the valuations and exit numbers. It seems like everyone’s swimming in money. That may be the case for the selected few, but there is so much hard work that went into getting them to that point. And a large percentage fail in the first years.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
- Resilience — There are a lot of risks in building your own company — financially, emotionally, and personally. You need to be a person who is ready to face the moments of success as well as the moments of failure and ride them out without them taking too much toll on your well-being. People will tell you all the reasons not to do what you’re doing. You must stay strong. At some point, your team will grow and you will be responsible for the livelihood of your employees — something that comes with a burden you must be willing to handle.
- Motivation — You need to be very passionate about what you’re doing. You need to celebrate your accomplishments and keep pushing through when you face challenges. You need to truly believe in your company and motivate others.
- Leadership — This is basic but worth mentioning. Leadership comes in many forms, not all leaders are the charismatic ones you see on stage at a conference, some are the quieter type that leads through the direction they’re taking the company.
- Decision Making — This is part of being a leader. You will need to make decisions daily. Not making a decision is also deciding. You need to be efficient in the process. You will make mistakes, learn from them, and move forward.
- Balance — Your work will consume your energy day and night. You need to be someone who remains calm and in control. There are so many cases of failing businesses due to burnout. Yes starting a business means a lot of hard work but you must make time for other activities a give yourself a chance to regenerate.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Pick the right people to work with. To go far, get people who share your vision and are in it for the long run, and are willing to go the extra mile. I had a co-founder at the beginning who was the right choice but as time went by I realized they didn’t have the time and budget to invest in the startup and that that was holding me back. We eventually dissolved the partnership but I wish I would have done it much earlier. I also had a marketing consultant that wasn’t a great fit and we discontinued the work.
- Be patient with the process. Things take time to structure the right way, to decide on the right path. We are all impatient to get to the finish line but it’s a journey. I started with building the product after I verified the market fit and then I thought to raise the required funds. The feedback I got was to get an initial customer base first to prove that the business model works. I’m focusing on that before I can start reaching out to investors.
- Outsource as much as possible. We all have our strengths and should use them to our advantage but we should be aware of the tasks that other, more qualified people should handle for us. I have an amazing marketing agency that I signed up with that is pushing me forward in ways I would never have been able to do on my own.
On the other side, there are menial tasks that drain our time and can easily be outsourced to freelancers. There are many platforms out there for freelance work — Fiverr, Freeup, Upwork. You should use them whenever you can. I’ve created a process for vetting the companies and products I’m recommending through askBelynda and using freelancers to gather the data for me. I still go over every little detail to ensure credibility but this saves me a lot of time. As soon as I get more budget I want to bring on developers to free up some of my time that goes into coding and developing the product.
- Learn and grow constantly. Whatever your background is, starting a company means endless new domains you need to become proficient in. There are many channels — Books, Training Sessions, Small Business Programs, etc… you can use to grow. Of course, you’ll need to prioritize your time and balance between the learning and the doing. I would advise against investing thousands of dollars in training programs. There are many free sources out there such as Freedom in Me that take you through 12 weeks of everything you need to start a small business. Out of the books I’ve read, this one ‘Believe IT’ by Jamie Kern Lima is the one I found most inspiring. Especially when we’re talking about female founders.
- Competition. You are going to have competitors. This is a good thing, it means there’s a market for what you’re doing. Yes, it can pose a threat to your business but use this energy to get better and bigger. When I started there wasn’t too much competition but now there is. Investors like to know who you’re up against and especially what is your differentiator compared to them. You should focus on your uniqueness and develop that. Be aware of the market landscape but don’t waste too much of your time on comparisons.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
The whole concept of askBelynda is to shift consumer spending to sustainable environmentally-friendly products. Every time someone prefers a more sustainable product we’re doing our bit in saving the planet.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Some things are hidden from us — what is the environmental impact of our consumption, where does all our trash go, and what is the damage we are leaving behind for future generations. I believe in transparency. Just like the FDA ensures every food and beverage has its Nutrition Facts printed on the package, I would love to see a label on every product that shows how much water, electricity, natural resource, etc… was used to manufacture, package, and ship that product and how recyclable it is. I believe this would have a huge impact, not only in forcing large companies to comply but also will change the consumption habits of the individuals.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
☺ Brené Brown is the first name that comes to mind. She is so inspiring and at the same time down to earth. She’s been a great influence on me.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.