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Female Founders: Maha Harper of ATLAS On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maha Harper.

Maha is one of the Founders at ATLAS Group London, a technology company focused on the digitisation of the construction sector. Maha has twenty-three years’ experience as a corporate lawyer in private practice and in-house roles specialising in cross-border commercial transactions — with a focus on the real estate and medical services industry.

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?

I probably have what you would call an “indirect” route to the tech world. My background is a legal one with a focus on the real estate and medical services industry. I started out in private practice but really liked my in-house roles better, as I really enjoyed the business side of things especially being part of the company’s business team.

My co-founder is the technical visionary for ATLAS and has been building hospitals all over the world for the last 20 years. In 2014, we were part of a Gates Foundation/Qatar Foundation/United Nations led initiative in Northern Kenya to build schools and healthcare clinics in the Kakuma community. We met with local stakeholders there to understand the challenges first-hand, and our mission was to present a detailed assessment to funding bodies.

It became clear to us that while funding bodies are committed to supporting positive interventions, and are ready to provide financing, they were really discouraged by previous projects that essentially cost too much and took too long. And that’s really where the idea behind ATLAS was born.

We thought: What if we could offer stakeholders a solution that went a long way in putting “four corners” around both time and cost when it came to delivering healthcare facilities?

If we could somehow make the project delivery process on a healthcare construction project more efficient — by interconnecting the design, procurement, and construction processes, saving both time and money in the process — then funding bodies would be far more likely to finance these positive initiatives. And given that 50% of the world’s population don’t have access to adequate healthcare services, there seemed to be a real need to do just that! So our idea really grew from there.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I have learned tons, but I’ll share what I learned about being an effective empathetic leader. And how sometimes our strengths can also be a weakness. I’m a big advocator of mental health and being compassionate, and in applying that to our startup I discovered how that can go right and how it can go very wrong.

It went right with our culture. I strive to lead by example in admitting when I’m in a funk, have made mistakes, or if I need a break. By being honest about that, we believe we’ve made a closer and more reliable team. We all work hard, and it’s important to discuss things like burnout openly and get support from each other. The way it went wrong was when I applied that empathy to things like hiring and firing. I was too accommodating in giving more chances and shied away from delivering harsh feedback. It took a couple of negative hiring experiences to realize that it was, unintuitively, one of the least compassionate things I could do. If you’re going to be accepting of people, you have to trust that they’ll accept your view of them and have a discussion. If they can’t do that, then it’s an easy choice what to do next.

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?

I now know why investors like to invest in startups with founders who have done this before! That’s because they know there are so many pitfalls and having someone there who has “done it before” is definitely helpful.

Having said that, there is nothing like “first-hand” experience to really help bring lessons home. Things like not always following my gut feeling (a mistake I don’t make anymore), underestimating the value of failure, getting frustrated when someone didn’t understand what or why we were building what we’re building — all great lessons.

But if you’re looking for something funny, I became somewhat of a running joke (in the nicest way possible of course!) amongst some of my friends — as at some point, I couldn’t really separate myself from the company. When I would meet up with people for lunch or coffee we would end up spending tons of time talking about the company and the challenges we were facing. After a while, I started answering the question “how are you?” with an update on the company. This caused a diffusion of identity between Maha the person and Maha the entrepreneur. Which was the cause of some well-placed good-natured ribbing from friends!

I now describe my coming to terms with this as the difference between the company being “me” to the company being “something I love that I’m working on.” It actually makes me more present and gives me the confidence to do great work without feeling that failure on a particular issue equals failure as a person.

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?

When you found a startup, there’s a part of you that expects people, with the right amount of persuasion and convincing, to hop on board and become as excited about your company as you are. This is something that is of course not necessarily true. Throughout the entire process of starting our company, I found that people don’t generally care about it as much as we did. They cared, but just not as much. And that makes sense of course, I mean — why would they? A company will always have a more special meaning to the founders than to the rest. And that’s okay.

The key is getting people excited enough to join you but not to be disappointing if they’re not as into it as you are. I never appreciated how awesome it was that people were choosing to put their time and money into helping us create something. And it’s so important to stop every so often and acknowledge how fortunate you are to have remarkable people spend their most valuable resource — time — helping you bring your vision to life.

And we have been infinitely lucky in that way. Starting first and foremost with our incredible Advisory Board without whose advice, time and effort, we would not be where we are now.

And of course being involved with Oracle for Startups has given us an amazing network of advisers and collaborators within an engine that really understands tech, engineering and the sector we are disrupting.

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 is no doubt that there is a very large masculine bias when it comes to entrepreneurial role models, especially when portrayed in the media. Whether or not women are aware of this, the bias has a real effect on their perception of business ownership and can discourage women from entrepreneurship.

This bias of course impacts banks, VC investors and customers’ perceptions of female entrepreneurs. Add on to that, the lack of female entrepreneurial role models and you can start to see why there are fewer women starting companies than men. And of course the challenges (for women in particular) in striking that good work-life balance is another big reason.

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?

One of the most consistent empirical findings is that childcare arrangements is one of the biggest deterrents for women when it comes to founding their own businesses, both for cost and practicality reasons.

I think we, as a society, really need to make accessible childcare arrangements more of a priority. Starting with employers really, as corporate culture (and how childcare arrangements in the corporate world are perceived) goes a long way in influencing governments on what they can, and should, do to help. Sheryl Sandberg told a great story once about how it should not be more acceptable, for example, for a father to leave work to attend their child’s sporting event, than for a mother who wants to do the same.

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?

According to the European Commission’s “Women in the Digital Age Study” (2018), startups set up by women performed 63% better than those founded solely by men.

That seems like a pretty good reason to me!

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

I’m sure there are lots of them! Like all founders are bold risk takers, have powerful personalities, etc. My favourite myth though is that founders are lone rangers. It’s much simpler to believe that one person conceives, creates, and sustains success, from start to finish. The reality, however, is much more complicated–and collaborative. There’s no doubt that successful founders know how to think independently and can act apart from the status quo. But being willing to act alone at the start isn’t the same as continuing to stand alone over time; nor does is it count for quite as much in the long run.

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?

In my opinion, the number one trait that you need as a founder is tenacity. You have to be tenacious enough to see things through, ride the highs (and the lows), and in the end, believe that what you are building is not only needed, but matters. But you also need to be wise enough to know when to let go, pivot, etc. It’s a fine balance.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. As founders, it easy to fall in love with your product. What we learned is that it’s much more important to fall in love with the customers’ problems and how to solve them.
  2. Sector experience is so important. You can develop the best technology in the world, but if you don’t understand what the end user needs, wants, and will actually use, then you’re just building great tech instead of delivering that “must have” solution for customers.
  3. Tenacity
  4. The ability to take on (and really listen to) people who don’t believe or criticize what you’re doing.
  5. Follow your gut.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

50% of the world’s population do not have access to adequate healthcare services. There is a massive need to expand healthcare infrastructure globally. We believe that offering solutions in both technology and design will enhance the capacity of health service delivery, reduce costs, and deepen the reach of healthcare services around the world

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.

Better access to healthcare globally.

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.

Sheryl Sandberg — because she’s Sheryl!

James Dyson — because he worked on 5, 127 failed prototypes before he hit the jackpot.

Elon Musk — because he ran out of money when funding SpaceX, Tesla and Solar City and I’d love to hear about his lessons learned.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.