Advice for female founders: How to change startup culture from the inside

Jun Axup
Jun Axup
Jan 16, 2018 · 3 min read
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It is well known that women are underrepresented as startup founders. Companies with female founders outperform all-male teams in regards to investment returns, but only 17% of startup companies have at least one women founder and only 10% of venture funding went to these companies.

The lack of women in entrepreneurship is deeply rooted in cultural problems, such as discouraging girls from STEM fields at a young age, imposter syndrome of not thinking we can be leaders in a field, and biases in the workplace that hinder us from climbing up the ladder.

Despite many forces working against us, women entrepreneurs are tough. We constantly break down barriers and fight for what we want. It isn’t always effective to promote radical societal change, so we must take a hard look at the system and change it from the inside.

Here is some practical advice for changing the system.

Networking

The unfortunate truth is that men and women network and socialize in different ways. As women are minorities in the investment world and many technical industries, it can be uncomfortable at times to conform to the way men socialize.

Networking is everything in entrepreneurship. No investor would write a check purely on idea and execution. They must believe that the founders have the drive, passion, and skills to bring a company to fruition. Hence, every social gathering or party contributes to relationship-building.

There are various ways women can get exposure without having to “get beers”, such as:

1) Attend more events and always check in with people you know. You can build relationships over time.

2) Use social media and writings to establish thought leadership in the field.

3) Bring a colleague to one-on-one meetings to ensure the meeting stays professional.

4) Network with other women entrepreneurs and investors. They often want to help. Ask for advice from role-models.

Managing Cognitive Biases

Both men and women have been socialized with certain biases. A video from Pantene captures many of these biases for women in the workplace, such as misattributing a women’s confidence as bossy. Women receive micro-expressions constantly, but very few are brave enough to speak up. The reality is that most men (and some women) aren’t aware of their actions or the implications that it has on other people. So, as a society, we can change these behaviors by helping others become aware of their cognitive biases.

Of course, calling people out can be accusatory and could hurt the relationship. Instead, turn the question around and approach it with curiosity. Mirror the words that were said and allow the speaker to re-evaluate their own biases. For example:

Investor: “I didn’t realize you had such a prominent role at the company.”

Women entrepreneur: “Oh? What do you mean?”

This approach is more effective, polite, and could even build trust and bonding.

Gain Support from Male Colleagues

It is important to be open about issues with your male co-founders or colleagues. They can be tremendous at supporting you, but most men simply aren’t aware of the micro-expressions and networking differences that women face day-to-day.

I’ve heard stories of investors talking only to the male CSO while ignoring the female CEO. In this circumstance, the male CSO should realize what is happening and redirect the attention and conversation to the CEO by saying “our CEO can answer this question for you”.

Additionally, establishing a female founder’s credentials right away is helpful, but listing one’s own accomplishments can come off as bragging. Instead, have male colleagues introduce the female founder and list all her impressive accomplishments.

While some conversations with male colleagues might be difficult, open communication is key to any relationship. Don’t let issues bottle up, and often the outcome can surprise you.

Through identifying and discussing issues that women entrepreneurs face, we can begin to change societal expectations and biases, and make a more women-friendly startup culture.

Jun Axup is Scientific Director and Partner at IndieBio. She has a PhD in chemical biology and worked at several startup companies, where at 3 of which she was the only female on the team. She mentors female founders and holds lunches to discuss issues and build a strong support network. IndieBio is proud to have over 40% of companies with at least one female founder and strives to increase this number.

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