By now, we’re all well-aware of the fact that women in tech face more barriers than their male counterparts. Although we all acknowledge this, the reality is that actual progress has been painstakingly slow.
The issue isn’t just about a lack of women in leadership roles either. It permeates the venture capitalist (VC) community, and frankly it poses an existential threat to the companies they lead. The numbers paint a grim picture: Only 11% of VC funding goes to female founders. This issue has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as a mere 26% of female founders report having at least 12 months of runway, compared with 38% of male founders.
This hits home for me as a female founder and CEO. My co-founder (also a woman) and I raised our first capital round more than 10 years ago, pitching to all male investors. Unfortunately, in the several rounds I’ve raised since then, I’ve yet to see much progress in terms of other women in the room.
So, how can female founders navigate these challenges for themselves and for other women? And what can the broader tech community — men and women alike — do to improve equity? Here are three areas we should look to for progress.
Investing in networks that support the entire ecosystem of women in tech
No matter who you are or where you are in your career, having a strong network of mentors and peers is incredibly powerful. This likely comes as no surprise; and yet I know that for myself and many other female founders, a professional network isn’t so easy to come by or often not prioritized for women. Simply put, female founders have fewer peers, which makes finding those connections more challenging. Despite how important this is, I know that I personally did not make the time to invest in my network early in my career. It’s something I’d change if I could go back.
If you’re a female founder, one of my top pieces of advice would be to tap into your network and take time to constantly expand it. The good news is that today, there’s a growing ecosystem to support women in tech. Organizations like YPO facilitate targeted member networks for women, where you can connect directly with others facing similar challenges or with the same experiences. There are also several organizations founded on the specific mandate of supporting female founders and funders, such as All Raise and Chief.
Plug into these communities — attend their events, take advantage of mentorship programs, and support their initiatives. The connections you make could help you find a new adviser, a potential partner for your company, or even an investor. And when the time comes, you’ll be able to help someone else advance her own career too. Hint: Men absolutely can play a role in this!
Challenging investors on diversity
By definition, raising capital is about the dollars. But in reality, it needs to be about more than money. You need to find investors who share your vision and your core values, and this is especially true for female founders.
While I noticed the lack of diversity in my very first pitch meetings 10 years ago, I didn’t vocalize this until our most recent round. I was adamant about bringing on diverse investors. It can be challenging to stand firm on this, but when I did, I was able to find VCs who shared that same commitment to diversity and who shared my vision more broadly. That’s invaluable — for the future of your company as a founder and for making this the norm rather than the exception.
By definition, raising capital is about the dollars. But in reality, it needs to be about more than money. You need to find investors who share your vision and your core values, and this is especially true for female founders. ”
— Rana el Kaliouby, Ph.D., Co-founder & CEO Affectiva share
For those in the investment community, I encourage you to make diversity a priority — diversity of gender as well as ethnicity, cultural background and perspective — both on your team and in your investment pipeline. Given the disparities in the industry today, this is not something that will happen by accident. You need to be deliberate in making diversity a consideration in everything you do. I’m grateful for the VCs in my network who have done this, and who set an example of what the future can look like if we collectively commit to change.
Considering the role of male allies
This issue affects all of us — not just women. It’s a well-known fact that diversity is good for business and drives innovation. It’s safe to say that this is something men and women alike can get behind. And rightly so: Men have an important role to play as allies, and there are a lot of amazing male allies out there today.
I know from personal experience that the male allies I’ve met over the years have made a huge impact on my career. They’ve brokered introductions to strategic partners and investors on my behalf and served as trusted mentors as I’ve navigated the challenges that come with founding and leading a company.
If you’re a female founder, don’t underestimate the power of creating your own personal “board of trustees” made of men and women alike. And for the men reading this, recognize that you have an important role to play in driving change. Your allyship will not only support the female founders and funders around you; it will advance the tech industry toward a future where we’re more successful and the products we build are more effective. This doesn’t always require drastic action — offering your time, your counsel, or an introduction to someone in your network can have a lasting impact.
No matter who you are, I urge you to ask yourself this: What actions can I take to improve equity in my company, in my industry, and the ecosystem at large? If we all started by taking one small step, our collective impact will be significant.
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