1000 stories of brain dominance: what female founders bring to the table

Written by: Alan Clayton & Kelly Kirkpatrick of SOSV

Various research highlights the performance of teams that include female co-founders — they perform 63% better than their all-male counterparts, the fastest growing companies are 75% more likely to have a female founder, adding female representation increases firms’ net revenue margin, and microloans repayment rates are inordinately high among women recipients.

But what exactly is this “(double) X factor” that women bring?

Today, in honor of International Women’s Day, we decided to take a deeper dive into the characteristics and strengths of our female founders: The startup roles they play, how they execute those roles, and what they bring to the table as CEOs. Some of it might surprise you.

Assessing teams

SOSV has invested in over 700 startups globally, about 1/3 of which include at least one female founder. Thanks to the data collected from close to 1000 founders (188 women and 783 men) over the last 6 years, we managed to break down and clarify a part of what female founders contribute to teams.

SOSV’s main assessment tool is the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), built on the work of GE’s long time head of education, that neatly maps out a startup founder’s thinking style and behaviour into four quadrants: analytical (A) / practical (B) / interpersonal (C)/ experimental (D)

Four dominance quadrants of the Herrmann Brain Dominance Inventory (HBDI)

Expectations vs Reality

What might we expect?

We do our best to be gender agnostic in our investments, but common gender differences suggest we would find more communicators and planners among female founders (the typical “head of marketing”), less technical profiles, and possibly better relational skills than among the men.

What did we find?

First, female CEOs exhibit very comparable “experimental” and visionary traits to male CEOs. Of the 149 women founders whose job roles we know, 52% were CEOs, compared to 49% of males — surprisingly close!

Women are more often in non-technical roles: 59% of non-CEO women founders headed up Marketing or Operations, while only 29% were Chief Science Officer or CTOs (vs. 65% of men). One could argue that stems from the “funnel problem” (less women in STEM lead to less women in technical roles).

Life sciences and Food had more female CEOs (36% and 28%) than hardware and cross-border internet (~15% each). Again, one could argue that this stems from the same funnel program within the STEM areas: there more women graduates from biological sciences, as compared to computer programming and engineering disciplines.

In general then, women do seem to star as storytellers and communicators (marketing) or as project managers and implementers (operations), while male non-CEO founders are gathered around the workbenches as scientific officers, product managers, and software developers.

How were CEOs different?

Interestingly, when we isolated female versus male CEOs only, the gender differences among various quadrant strengths became less pronounced. Female CEOs are more technically oriented, scoring 30% higher than the overall female founder population on analytical strength, and bringing them closer in line with the male founder average. Female CEOs were also less relationally-oriented — scoring just 12% lower than their male counterparts, compared to a wider 16% difference in the entire founder population. Again, the experimental, ‘out-of-box-thinking’ scores were roughly the same.

The industry effect

SOSV invests across four main verticals: life sciences (in US & Europe), hardware, food, and cross-border internet in Asia. We isolated only CEOs who were part of SOSV’s vertical accelerator programs, resulting in a sample of 365 pre-seed CEOs, [77 women (21%) and 288 men (79%)]. We then looked at the CEO gender splits and characteristics among each of these verticals.

Some patterns emerged:

  • Across all verticals, CEOs have similar “experimental/vision” thinking. This dominance is gender and sector agnostic.
  • Food and hardware female CEOs tend to be less analytically-oriented than their male counterparts, compared to other verticals.
  • Female CEOs in the hardware and cross-border internet verticals tend to have stronger relational intelligences, focusing on communication and customer insight.
  • In food and life sciences, female CEOs tend to have more practical preferences. Is lab life and food selecting better for planners?

What do these dynamics look like in practice?

Case study 1: the mixed gender hardware team

In the two hardware startup examples below, the female CEO founder (right) delivers a strong pitch and sells the vision, while her male CTO profile has a strong complementary analytical and technical orientation.

Case study 2: all-male analysis paralysis

Below is an overwhelmingly analytical all-male hardware team. While they have a well-functioning robotics product, sales pipeline development and execution have suffered from the lack of a strong relational and pragmatic -oriented team member.

Case study 3: the balanced all-female biotech startup

Below is an all-female team in life-sciences. Two scientists with analytical strengths, both founders are also capable in the relational space, a traditionally weak area for deep tech startups. The CEO (right) has a stronger visionary emphasis.

The Last Word

Like many, we were intrigued by the various data suggesting that teams with female co-founders might perform better than their all-male counterparts. What our research across about 1,000 founders brought to light is that while the root causes are still unclear, female founders tend to bring much-needed organizational and relational skills, preventing startups from falling into analysis paralysis and/or geeky anarchy. Maybe that is, in fact, the “(double) X” factor.

We hope you enjoyed this article - please give us some applause so that other people can see it too!

Keep up with the latest VC trends by following our Medium publication: SOSV: Inspiration from Acceleration.