The fact that the startup world is still predominantly male — according to estimates from Crunchbase, less than 20% of startups have a female founder — is at this point common knowledge that many have resigned themselves to. But tech journalists Nora Poggi and Insiyah Saeed are trying to change the playing field by relying on a deceptively simple tactic: inspire the next generation through film.
Their new documentary, She Started It, follows five female Silicon Valley entrepreneurs — Stacey Ferreira, Thuy Truong, Brienne Ghafourifar, Agathe Molinar, and Sheena Allen — on a 2.5-year journey of ups and downs in their attempts to build new businesses. The film aims to make its audience members find parallels between their own lives and those of the characters, hopefully motivating new women to enter what can be an intimidatingly gender-skewed field.
I spoke with Nora and Insiyah about the film, its mission of inspiring a new generation of women, and their own struggles as female filmmakers in a predominantly male industry.
Jessie Fetterling: What made you want to create this film spotlighting female tech entrepreneurs?
Nora Poggi: On my end, it’s really one specific event — the Women 2.0 Conference in 2013 — that prompted the feeling that we needed to do more. That’s where I met Thuy, one of the characters in the film, and saw all these women that had great success but are not being talked about at all. The first instinct I had was trying to find a way to showcase these women and inspire the next generation.
Insiyah Saeed: I was at the same conference. After that and after meeting Nora, we realized that there are no women entrepreneurs who show their day-to-day lives on screen. When we met these women and saw what they were doing, we realized we needed to document this. That process and their struggle are relatable. When we started [making the film], we also saw the disparity in the numbers and saw how much more money men raised compared to women. Some of the characters in our film were looking for $150,000, up to $1.2 or $1.5 million, for the first seed. At the same time, we were talking to guys who were going after $5 million and $12 million without blinking an eye.
Jessie: Why did you choose these five specific women for the film?
Insiyah: We were actually already covering these women, as we were both covering tech. Nora had written a piece about Thuy, and I met Brienne and talked to her to see if she wanted to be a part of it. We also needed to find people who wanted their story on screen. It’s a very difficult time to be filmed — you’re very busy, very tired — and we needed people who wanted to let you in and were bold enough to do that.
Nora: Also, age is the main difference in our movie. We could have just interviewed women who already made it, and we do interview them to provide expert views, but the film was about how to inspire younger girls. Showing these 20-something women coming into their own was really inspiring. It allowed the viewers to think ‘she could be me in the next couple years.’
Insiyah: A lot of women don’t realize they can be business-minded early on. You go to high school and college and, after that, try to think of what you want to do for a job. By the time you’re 30, you’re a bit settled. But what happens with guys is they get their foot in the door around 16 or 17, and they already have enough experience to try and start something. We are trying to change that mindset and tell girls that maybe in college, you can try to start your own business.
Jessie: What obstacles did you have to overcome as female filmmakers in a predominantly male industry?
Nora: There are a lot of parallels between making a film and building a startup. We noticed all the sexism in the tech industry, and it’s well-documented, but it’s also difficult for women filmmakers. It was an interesting parallel that we ended up sharing with our characters very often. For myself, I was new to the industry, so I don’t know how much different it would have been if we had been men. As usual, though, we have to prove ourselves so much more — not only as women but also being young and being first-time filmmakers. From what I understand from other people we talked to, just like in tech, it’s easier for men to fundraise for just an idea. The topic being so groundbreaking and something that hadn’t been done before, I think it would have been easier to raise money if we had been men. We’ve been learning that you have to be more aggressive with pitching and asking for the money that we deserve.
Insiyah: I completely agree. We started off just how any normal business would start, and then we set out and we raised money from people. I think a lot of people just didn’t know how we were set up and that we were a company starting a film. I wonder if first-time filmmakers who are men don’t get that, and people automatically think they’re capable. A lot of guys don’t have training and don’t have all that, and they’re able to raise money.
Jessie: What made you believe in yourself and remain confident during the filming process?
Nora: I think on my end, what helped is seeing the progress. It’s hard when you don’t see the end of the tunnel. Having those milestones: We have a great trailer and people are responding, and then okay we have a film, and oh we got money from a great person. Those milestones help you understand that you’re making progress, even when it doesn’t feel like it.
Jessie: I love the title of the film. Who came up with the name and why did you choose it?
Nora: I had a couple titles that I was brainstorming on a flight from San Francisco to Paris. This one we tested with friends in tech; everyone said it was chic and liked that it was a play on words.
Jessie: I see that your goal for the film is to reach 1 million female viewers by 2017. How close are you to that goal, and how have you tried to reach it?
Insiyah: We have a distribution strategy to try and obtain that goal. We are on a screening tour, trying to get to 100 universities. That is the first level of outreach, and by 2017, we’ll have it fully distributed. Hopefully this year and next year we’ll be touring.
Nora: Educational distribution is the main thing. When we go to these schools in person, we want to have that direct impact.
Jessie: After working on this documentary, what do you see as the future for women in the tech/startup world?
Insiyah: There are multifaceted levels to the tech industry. Almost every major college campus has investment funds; that has changed significantly in terms of what will happen for women in the future. I think things are looking up on the investment side. Right now, 95% of venture capitalists are men, and only 4% are women. We hope to make a tiny contribution [to this statistic] when they see our film. Film has the power to change minds, and we hope to inspire people.
Nora: Portfolia with Trish Costello and Female Funders with Katherine Hague are syndicates that try to help women invest together and try to demystify the process of investing. One of our co-executive producers, Kelly Keenan Trumpbour, also founded See Jane Invest, a venture capital firm that invests exclusively in women-owned startups. Little by little, things are changing, but as Cindy Padnos, founder of Illuminate Ventures, put it when we interviewed her, ‘The more women role models that we have, both as investors and entrepreneurs, the more dollars we’re going to see going into women-led companies.’