The gender gap that persists in Silicon Valley and throughout startups in general needs no introduction. Fewer opportunities, fewer CEOs, less pay, less respect – to name just a few issues familiar to women. Laundry lists of ails and acknowledgement of the gender gap are common. What you encounter less frequently are solutions in progress, conversations that go beyond paying lip service to the obstacles women face.
Not so in this morning’s Startups Live Coffee Hour with special guest Lisa Wang. Here she walks us through her projects designed to empower women and talks us beyond the initial difficulties of discussing gender, making it easier to effect change for all who genuinely want it and moving us closer to healthier startup ecosystems.
“Hi everyone! I’m Lisa Wang, the Co-Founder of SheWorx. We are a global collective of ambitious female entrepreneurs giving women access to resources, mentorship, and access to investors – to close the funding gap and help women build and scale successful companies.”
“We currently reach 20,000+ women, in 7 cities, and have hosted 100+ events around the world connecting women to mentors and investors.”
“How are you and your team connecting women to both mentors and investors?” questioned Stephanie Newton. “I ask because I know it is a super cool process that I feel everyone should hear about.”
“We do that primarily through our events,” answered Lisa. “Every month, we start our local breakfast roundtable discussions hosted in each city with 30 founders and a mentor (investor partner, sr. exec. or serial founder), focused on actionable, tangible topics on building your company. We also have our conference called the SheWorx100 Summit series, which brings together 200 female founders and 35+ top investors to build meaningful collaborative relationships that lead to real investment in female-founded companies.”
“I think in-person events are so important for the startup community at large,” said Ryan Rutan. “Do you think it is even more critical for women in tech?”
“I think in-person events are critical in this context because it is extra difficult for women to get funding (94% of investors are male, only 17% of funding goes to female-founded companies, and only 3% to companies with a female CEO).”
“The summit is the opposite of the pitch competition,” continued Lisa. “We turn competitive dynamics into collaborative ones.”
Unless you’re actively searching for sources of resistance, they’re not always immediately obvious. As it turns out, though, one obstacle thwarting women is easy to identify with.
“The number one thing holding many people back,” said Lisa, “and especially women, is mindset. Girls are trained from an early age to be perfect, and we are rewarded for following structure, not taking risk, and playing by the rules (the opposite of what it means to be an entrepreneur). We aren’t told to build, and break things, and fail and get better. So it [getting women excited about entrepreneurship] starts with training girls from an early age that it’s not necessary to be cautious and perfect, and that failure is a learning process.”
“Most men I know are taught the same thing,” said Wil Schroter, “and it’s not under the guise of holding them back – it’s more about protecting them from doing (presumably) dumb things. Why do you think women are more likely to be prevented from risk than men?”
“Psychological studies show that girls/boys are equally rebellious and risk taking naturally until they hit middle school/puberty,” said Lisa. “At that point, girls become increasingly self-conscious about how they are perceived by others and turn outward for validation, often this validation is gained by telling them to conform to certain standards of approval. Lots to talk about here!”
“I am sure you’ve seen it,” Steph jumped in, “but for those that haven’t, check out the documentary ‘Miss Representation’. I am pretty sure it is on Netflix. Won a few Sundance Awards and is super relevant.”
Responding to the psychological studies brought up, Wil said, “This is a common theme among many minorities, whether the issue is gender, race, education, income, etc. Starting from a negative position (odds stacked against you) is really tough. So it’s interesting to hear what helps shape the odds for folks at a formative stage.”
“How far ‘upstream’ do you hope to go with SheWorx given the above?” Asked Ryan. “Do you hope to reach a younger and younger audience as a ‘preventative’ measure – or will your focus remain on adults?”
“Our first focus is on women entrepreneurs, and to make them as successful as possible. The goal is to support women throughout their entrepreneurial journeys and to create an altruistic cycle where they come back to support the next generation of young female entrepreneurs. We’ve recently incorporated a 501c3 nonprofit that will help high school girls learn how to build, fail, and grow. That will be launching next year!”
“Aside from it being an amazing initiative,” Derion Lipford wanted to know, “how were you all able to scale your idea from the first event to today so quickly?”
Lisa answered, “We have three core values: Ambition. Action. Altruism (AAA values!). The greatest fuel of our growth has been two things: 1. Pure execution 2. Intense focus on creating environments where women can not only access tools, but also the belonging and support necessary for their entrepreneurial journeys…
My Co-Founder and I met, and we created the first event the following week as a passion project. It has grown quickly because we formulated our event structures early on. Re. 2: we continue to evolve topics based on the needs of our community, so women are continuing to gain value and wanting to give back to help us. Finally, the last point is that we see SheWorx not just as an organization but as a greater movement for gender parity.”
Dr. Deborah Hecker, I imagine like many in the audience, was curious to learn what topics are discussed at meetings.
Lisa Wang explained, “The majority of the women in our community are female founders who are actively fundraising or expecting to in the next 6-12 months. So topics are often focused on core topics like fundraising, establishing strong cultural foundations, hiring and firing, getting press for your company, building and scaling your startup, all things that are tangible and generally gender-agnostic in nature, attractive to any ambitious entrepreneur.”
“We simply give women a priority seat at the table, where they’ve historically been denied one to discuss and access the mentors/investors.”
“Some examples: How to build a scaleable platform for millions, How to leverage media and community to build your brand, Breaking down fundraising into a sales process, How to Build Your Brand in Conjunction with Your Customer, Creating 7-figure Business Partnerships, Important Financial Modeling Considerations Before Fundraising etc.”
How to build real community is a daunting challenge for many (and a topic that turns up here in Startups Live chats). SheWorx is a fascinating example of growing community organically, but also willfully.
Steph asked, “How has SheWorx changed over time? Have you guys done anything to reach a broader audience / be more inclusive?”
“To start, we are still just barely 2 years old! (we turn 2 in July!) So we have been very focused on serving one community very well. That community is serious female founders who already have launched products/services, who are actively fundraising (or will be in 6-12 months) and have ambitions to build a scaleable company.”
“We’ve found that initially if you start bringing on too many (especially want-rapraneurs and dreamers) this dilutes the quality of the content and events.”
“If you could envision the ‘not too distant’ future,” prompted Wil, “where the efforts of SheWorks had major impact, what would be some common challenges that would be meaningfully overcome? And how do you see that happening?”
Lisa didn’t have to gaze into a crystal ball.
“I’ll start from what we’ve done to lead up to where we’re going. What we’ve done: From our summits, we already see 25% of women who attend receive follow-on investor meetings, and subsequent investment. From our NYC summit last week, we already had one woman secure her lead investor and is now getting into terms sheets (she had no leads prior to the event!) And we just started working with Crunchbase to create the first list of female founders fundraising so investors can no longer use the excuse ‘we can’t find women to invest in’.”
“Where we are going: the first area we will make an impact is in 1. closing the funding gap.
“I don’t believe the venture landscape boys club is going to change, especially in Silicon Valley, it is too heavily engrained. Currently the only type of funding where women outperform men is crowdfunding.”
“I believe that venture deals will become increasingly less significant over time, and one of our goals is to open women’s eyes to all the other types of funding out there (equity funding, traditional loans, family offices etc.)”
“So, it is to diversify the types of capital that people have access to, bring more exposure to these types of capital and get more money into women-founded companies.”
“The 2nd impact is actually focused internally on mindset (re. some of the above points, we touched upon on perfection). There will inevitably be external challenges, but one thing we hear repeatedly from investors is that women pitch differently, seem less ambitious, less confident, and while the statements themselves may not be fully true, there is something to be said about building up women to be stronger internally, to combat what I like to call the ‘not enoughness’ issue that shows up in how we pitch, present ourselves, etc.”
“And that internal strength comes from both the self and in cultivating a really supportive, altruistic community of women who are collaborating and not competing, so no founder ever feels like she is alone.”
“You touched on paths that aren’t venture funding,” Wil began. “Is it possible that you could make faster progress in advancing the initiative if you focused less on venture capital fundraising as an outlet? I say that because VC’s only write 1,000 new checks each year (surprising data btw) so maybe even that funnel is too narrow. Crowdfunding seems like a faster way to gain more momentum for example. We struggle with this for all startups btw. Sending too many people into too few opportunities.”
“Kids with basketballs > seats on NBA busses,” added Ryan.
“Yes, I absolutely think the focus should be less and less so on VC funding. The unfortunate reality currently is that the media has glamorized VC funding, and most people want to follow it b/c that’s what’s celebrated. ‘Ambition’ is still defined by money and titles, and less so by impact (which is what we find many women are simultaneously optimizing for). So we are at the stage where we do bring in big name VCs, (human psychology still wants to hear from the big names), but we are diversifying the conversation by inserting those other sources of funding. For example, our NYC summit panel was 1. Joanne Wilson (super angel) 2. Hayley Barna (Birchbox Co-Founder turned VC Partner at First round) 3. Pelli Wang (SeedInvest – equity crowdfunding), and 4. Katherin Ritchie (runs a network of family offices).”
Seizing on a different thread of conversation tugged on by Dan Rockwell, Lisa had this to say about patterns in the types of ideas the women are pursing –
“We honestly see a huge diversity in types of companies that women are pursuing, and we’re proud of that! It’s not just what many consider ‘women’s topics’ like fashion, beauty, health products & services (which I love!), but we have many women in FinTech, VR, iOT, AI, content/media, all over the place! The common traits are simply that they have ambitions to be a multi-million/billion dollar global business (they think big!), that they have proven they are doers and executors (they take action!) and that they give back to the community and are openly supportive of how they can help other women in the community (altruism).”
It might sound silly on the surface, but men not knowing how to help women is certainly another aspect of why gender disparity exists. Even knowing how to talk to the issues can raise complications that are intimidating for men.
Speaking eloquently on such matters, Ryan offered: “One of the (many) challenges I have is knowing how to help empower women in a way that is both genuine and fundamentally aligned with how *women* want to be helped. I don’t want it to come off as patronizing, or placatory, etc. What tips do you have for men who want to participate in the solution – but as contributors, not controllers?”
“Love this question! I was just talking about this with someone because we hear many people who simply talk about being aware of the problem, but don’t do anything about it. Listen carefully to them and empathize with what they are telling you. Be careful not to project your way of thinking on them.”
“It’s about having the hard conversations, and I think it’s less about men talking to women, and more about men having the hard conversations with each other.”
Being aware that when guys go out to lunch that you invite your female colleague, being aware of the topics that are discussed so it’s inclusive (I have been to way too many lunches when we talk about the last sports game I did not watch or making fun of some chick from last night) and having productive conversations to notice when someone is being patronizing or biased towards women. As one of our SheWorx attendees said, ‘I know 110% what it’s like to be a woman, so I don’t need other people telling me how hard it is.”
“When it does come to supporting women and talking to them, I think it’s always about removing the personalization of the outcome. It’s not that ‘_you_ were like this or that resulting in this or that outcome’ It’s that ‘this is what happened, ok let’s analyze it, how did that make you feel? and how can we make sure you’re ready for it next time it happens?”
“I think comments about appearance are something women find simultaneously flattering (yes), but also want to be not just complimented on those things. I was discussing recently about how women are never called ‘geniuses’. It is inherently a word used for male geniuses. A woman is significantly more often complimented for her outward appearance than for her inward qualities and contribution to work.”
“I think it’s been engrained in each other to say the simply thing (both men and women!), but even digging in a little deeper can be really helpful.”
When nudged to provide those chatting with anything else specific that individuals can do to help you move the needle, Lisa Wang responded –
For anyone who’s interested in reaching out and helping in the good fight, you can email Lisa Wang at: Lisa@sheworx.co and find both her and SheWorx on Twitter @lisawang007 and @sheworx.
If you’re interested in coming to any events—hit up www.sheworx.com. And to join the SheWorx global members group, just apply at the top right corner!
Keith Liles is a freelance writer who loves travel, music, wine, hiking, poetry, and just about everything. He practices saying “yes” to life vigorously, rehearsing for the phone call when he’s asked to tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Follow Keith on Twitter @KPLiles.