Women-led Startup Founders — Transforming the World and Inspiring Change

Advances in history are made by many people taking incremental steps, often over decades

By Bernadette Hyland, Founder & CEO GeoHealth.us

Image credit: Women Who Tech

Since June 2015 has emerged as a month to make history in the U.S. for more equal representation within our civil society, I offer these reflections on the progress of economic growth driven by women-led startups and those remarkable men and women who support them.

Last month I joined over a hundred women-led companies in the inaugural Women’s Startup Challenge. The challenge aims to “showcase innovative and disruptive ventures that are solving problems for people, businesses, and the planet,” per its organizers.

Transforming the world and inspiring change — Can women women-led companies take on that noble and lofty goal?

I asked myself this very question a decade ago when I was invited to speak at a local DC area economic development forum called “Breakfast with Experts” organized by Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology (CIT). The panel was titled “Resources for Growing Technology Companies.” I joined a panel with three men, two CEOs and the CIT facilitator. In 2005, I was co-founder and CEO of a innovative graph database company. I’d bootstrapped the company from zero to several millions dollars per year, had a 22 person staff based in Brisbane Australia and Reston Virginia. In 2003 we’d taken a round of early stage venture financing.

My two colleagues were what the tech industry calls “professional CEOs.” Back in 2005, that was shorthand for a [male] executive who parachutes into a funded startup, answers the investors’ demands, often kills the esprit de corps by reducing burn and restructuring the cap table, occasionally ejecting a non-compliant founder who gets in his way. To be fair, professional CEO’s often bring business acumen and a network that helps high growth companies.

At the start of the breakfast forum, the three CEO’s were asked to introduce ourselves. In briefly describing our pioneering graph database company Tucana Technologies, I mentioned my company’s commitment to mission with a margin, in so many words. The CEO sitting next to me quickly retorted, “well my job isn’t to solve the world’s problems, it’s to increase shareholder value.” Right I thought to myself, but can’t we do both?

I kept my thoughts to myself and continued to grow tech companies that have social benefit baked in from the start, not bolted on as an afterthought, if at all. Based in the Washington D.C. area, we have plenty of pressing issues to address on healthcare, human services, education and energy, to name but a few.

A decade later, the tides have turned. Women Who Tech, a project by the RAD Campaign, is focused on championing women in technology and startups who have sustainable business models and are making a difference. Women Who Tech’s most recent initiative is the first-ever Women Startup Challenge, in partnership with Craig Newmark of craigslist and craigconnects, and investors Joanne and Fred Wilson. They have a powerhouse Advisory Board that includes:

Allyson Kapin, named one of the Most Influential Women in Tech by Fast Company, and a top Tech Titans by the Washingtonian;

Lisa Stone, awarded by Fortune, ‘Most Powerful Women Entrepreneur’, BlogHer and SheKnows Media Co-Founder and Chief Community Officer;

Craig Newmark, one of the major tech and social disruptors of the 21st Century, founder of craigslist and craigconnects;

Sarah Kunst, Entrepreneur, partner at Fortis Partners, advisor and philanthropist.

The Women’s Startup Challenge is helping women “crowdfund money for their startups and pitch their innovative ventures that are solving problems for people, businesses, and the planet.”

Despite being a serial entrepreneur for 15 years, this was my first experience crowdfunding. I’ve raised venture funding for a prior company that had a respectable exit to a Fortune 100 company. But crowdfunding is different — It is very public and can be exhilarating and at times, frustrating. A founder must be brave to go before friends, family and colleagues and tell them why their support means so much. Leading a crowdfunding campaign requires alacrity and social media savvy, skills that may not come naturally to tech company founders.

During the crowdfunding campaign, I reached out to a DC-MD-VA network of over 600 CEO’s called Mindshare of which I’m a member. I mentioned that “women-led startups have 35% more ROI than tech companies founded by men.” I received an immediate, highlight in yellow, response from one [male] CEO:

“Did you know that when you solicit for funding you shouldn’t alienate 50% of your prospective investors?”

A few other male CEO’s piled on, “and even if that were true, you should support it with a reference,” I was promptly told by another member of the CEO mailing list.

I replied that it was not a zero-sum game. For example, my success doesn’t detract from my male colleague’s success. It was merely an observation that women-led companies are under represented in technology and receive less funding than male-led tech companies. Further, I shared that finding female role models at my first job at HP in Sunnyvale was pretty easy (36% of HP’s leadership was female in the mid-1980's). Unfortunately, that didn’t hold true when I moved to Wall Street in the early 1990's. There appears to be fewer women in positions of leadership than when I graduated university with an engineering degree in the late 1980's and I’d like to help change that.

A number of men and women on the CEO list chimed in and said they took no offense at my reference to a reasonably well known statistic. The study by the way is titled, “Women in Technology: Evolving, Ready to Save the World” co-authored with Lesa Mitchell, VP at Kauffman Foundation and Professor Vivek Wadhwa, who holds titles at Stanford and Duke universities. Stanford Law School published the most comprehensive summary of Professor Wadhwa and Ms. Mitchell’s study. The 2013 study draws on online surveys of 500 women, concludes that women-led high tech start-ups are “more capital-efficient, achieve 35% higher return on investment, and — when venture-backed — generate 12% higher revenue than male-owned tech companies.”

My unintentionally controversial comment kicked off a flurry of donations that catapulted GeoHealthUS to the #1 position of the crowdfunding campaign, until just minutes before the challenge ended. GeoHealthUS finished #2 out of 180 companies. The Women’s Startup Challenge raised an impressive $365k.

“It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us, as the confidence of their help.” — Epicurius

The trajectory of GeoHealthUS, an Arlington VA based women-led, veteran service disabled owned B Corporation, has been accelerated in the last several months by people who are putting their money where their mouth is. Each donation lifted my team’s spirits — each contributor sent a message of support by their actions, and oftentimes by their supportive comments.

Regardless of whether or not the Women’s Startup Challenge judges deem GeoHealthUS worthy of the $50K cash prize at the sold out pitch event on 6/30/2015, I’m deeply grateful for the hundreds of retweets and for our contributors. GeoHealth.us received support from over 90 people — including the founder of open source micro-controller hardware company Arduino, arguably the next most disruptive technology after the Web itself; a leading open data academic focused on the impacts of environmental exposure after a bout with breast cancer; and a generous local plumber who said “Always try to help trustworthy people help others.”

The reach and grassroots impact of crowdfunding is truly amazing and CrowdRise gave us a great platform making it easy. As a female tech entrepreneur, I’ve walked alone at times, but I’ve always taken “a seat at the table” and advocated that all companies, small and large, should balance profit and social impact. What a difference a decade makes!

I’m deeply grateful to be part of a national community of women tech change makers, disruptors and startup entrepreneurs who are transforming the world and inspiring change — because if not us, than who?