Three Ways to Bolster The Innovation Ecosystem for Women
When the topic of encouraging more female leadership in the startup economy arises, discussions usually center on what women entrepreneurs should do differently. How they should present with greater authority, or how they should “dress the part” for their next investor pitch. Put frankly, how they should adopt any manner of different behaviors.
I would like to change the narrative. The solution lies as much with us—as a community of peers, investors, service providers, and technologists—as it does with the entrepreneur herself. We all bear some responsibility for creating a more diverse startup community.
Regardless of gender, no one succeeds alone. Every prominent tech mogul will cite teachers, former bosses, and family members who guided them in their journey toward their recognized and honored achievements. Those of us in leadership roles within this industry need to understand and embrace the role we play for others, including women, who dare travel down the tumultuous-but-fantastic path of technology innovation.
Three tenets offer a starting point for creating a positive environment for female tech entrepreneurs:
Check Your Bias At The Door
Many women tech entrepreneurs come up with compelling ideas. But they run into significant obstacles when attempting to secure funding; especially if the business concept targets a female audience. They often hear a VC, who more often than not is male, tell them, “I don’t understand that demographic, so I’m not a good fit for you.”
Investors know only too well how to challenge assumptions in any business plan, validate opportunities, and drill down to uncover a startup’s “secret sauce.” Possessing specific end-customer experience, while always nice to have, does not disqualify them from funding a particular company. Expertise in ecommerce, software, customer service and device manufacturing all carry across multiple end markets.
To say, “I don’t understand that demographic” may feel true. But would not understanding the 18-to-24 demographic preclude you from investing in a business like Snapchat?
The fact of the matter is that most VCs are male. So check that bias before the meeting begins. Focus on listening and asking a lot of questions about business and technology fundamentals. The answers may reveal an opportunity in a market that other investors are ignoring, and an entrepreneurial star—who just happens to be female—worthy of funding.
Meet Us Where We Network
Entrepreneurs are coached to develop personal and professional networks of people who can help them advance their careers, raise capital, build companies, and solve various business problems. But many of the people that these entrepreneurs are trying to reach, those who have “been there, done that,” stop building out their networks once they achieve success. They fall back to their existing, “old guard” connections.
So don’t take networking for granted. Developing a thriving innovation economy takes a commitment by its leaders to mentor the next generation of innovators, including women. Rather than expecting them to come to you, seek out forums where women are already coming together to support and coach each other. Some of these forums in San Diego include UC San Diego’s MyStartUpXX and Athena’s Technology Special Interest Groups. As a community we must also commit to holding events that seek to bring together diverse groups of individuals to brainstorm ideas, and make a commitment to creating “safe spaces” that emphasize listening and coaching over broadcasting opinions. In addition, it is vital that we continue to recognize and celebrate the achievements of women already pioneering their way in tech through marquee events like Athena’s Annual Pinnacle Awards.
Keep The Bar High
While it is important that we take time to encourage and educate female entrepreneurs, it does not mean that we change the standards by which we evaluate innovation. Successful entrepreneurs thrive on the challenge of launching a new venture and pride themselves in overcoming myriad financial, operational and marketing obstacles. Female innovators are no different. Instead, we as collaborators, investors and advisors must work to ensure a truly level playing field exists for both men and women. We do this by putting aside assumptions about the individual and focusing on the quality of their idea. Ask the hard questions, expect informed answers and take pains to provide actionable and specific feedback whether you are assessing a pitch, participating in a workshop or engaging in mentoring. Everyone benefits when we do.
(The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Ms. Gasser.)