It was worse than I thought, but also better than I imagined.
First, the “worse than I thought” part. In the spring of last year, I was invited to speak at a publishing industry conference in New York City. As often happens, I was approached by a group of people who wanted to meet and ask questions after the talk. But this time, it was different. This time I was surrounded by swarm of young women who had obviously come to the event together.
They were on a mission.
Instead of asking me whether I would read their manuscript, or if could I introduce them to so and so literary agent, or what did I think of their magazine concept, they inundated me with questions about how I became a three-peat, venture-capital financed female CEO in Silicon Valley.
Their questions ranged from what did I think about Kickstarter, to the value of NDAs, to what to wear to a VC meeting. But the one that slayed me, the one that kept me awake all night, the one that broke my heart to have to answer was, “Do you think my odds for getting funded will be hurt if I have an all-girl founding team?”
Sadly, my answer was “Yes.” The odds are not in your favor.
I went on to encourage them to create the company they dreamed of, with the ace founding team they had assembled, and pursue the market opportunity that they had identified and quantified. They were young, smart, clearly focused and on a mission. But my heart was heavy because I knew they were walking into the ring with their hands tied. Ugh.
I went back to my hotel room, and being on West Coast time I tried to distract myself with Stephen Colbert and James Corden. But I could not stop thinking about the female funding question.
I took to the Google.
Now I was on a mission. What exactly was the state of funding for female founding teams? I had founded Blurb, the self-publishing platform, in 2005 with an A round of $2 million and thereafter took in an additional $19 million in VC and debt equity financing. But it was now 2016 and I hadn’t needed to raise funding in quite a while. So, what was the state of the state?
The answer: not good. As in — OMG I can’t believe it is this bad — not good.
Here’s what I learned
According to Pitchbook, in 2016, VCs invested $58.2 billion in companies with all-male founding teams. All-female founding teams received just $1.46 billion. In total, 5,839 male-founded companies versus 359 female-founded firms were financed.
There is no world in which those are good numbers, especially given that women make up 47 percent of the total workforce in this country. Worse yet, the trend had declined; the percentage of VC funding that went to women in 2016 was lower than each year (but two) over the past decade.
Of course this is a two-sided problem. Side A is the sad state of investment dollars that currently flow through to female entrepreneurs. Side B is the supply side of that equation: the relatively narrow pipeline of qualified, smart and confident women who are prepared to launch successful companies.
However, as I was Googling into the wee hours of the morning, I could not find out how many women were showing up, raising their hands and seeking financing. Only 369 female-founded firms got financed — but out of how many? The fact that there was NO DATA on the supply side made me fully appreciate the situation. Perhaps the gender bias was so deep — whether conscious or unconscious — that gender was completely discounted in the data capture?
So, right then and there, I decided that I needed to do something about these paltry numbers. And given my background as a female CEO who has raised VC financing across three tech companies, (and grew my last one to over $70 million in revenues,) I thought I might have something to offer.
Now on to the “better than I imagined” part.
Since I couldn’t find the answer to how many all-girl teams were raising their hands for financing, anecdotally I knew the answer was “not nearly enough.” Thus, I figured if I could focus on building not just a pipeline, but a tsunami of confident, prepared and experienced female entrepreneurs who would start hitting the marketplace within the next five years, that might start to make a dent.
I got lucky. The answer was right in front of me: Gen Z. This generation, born between 1995-2012, has grown up in a time of great uncertainty — post 9/11, economic recession. The result is that they are remarkably mature, self-directed and resourceful. Just think about it: the oldest Gen Zers were 9 years old when Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook. Shark Tank launched in 2009; it’s been on TV their whole lives.
And critically, this generation grew up with the iPhone.
According to Sparks & Honey, a division of Omnicom, 72 percent of high school students want to start their own businesses. The study further reports that a DIY culture and access to crowdfunding shapes their goals for work and employment. They are realists, want to create things (instead of just share), and expect to work for their success (instead of “being discovered.”) They have learned that traditional choices don’t guarantee success.
So that evening in the hotel, I germinated the following thesis: what if we could build a mobile starter kit, focused on Gen Z girls and women, that enabled them to build and grow real e-commerce businesses on their phones. They would be coached on all aspects of starting and growing an e-commerce business in context — in the app itself with lots of videos, supported via the community and inspired through live Facebook events with executive mentors.
Then, instead of showing up at the table as would-be entrepreneurs at the age of 26, what if these young women had been entrepreneurs since their early teen years? What if they could talk about their wins and failures and speak to marketing and experience design, customer acquisition and market testing, and metrics and analytics — all from the voice of experience?
The business research is clear: women are judged on what they have actually done, and men on their potential (Source: McKinsey and Catalyst.)
Time to level the playing field.
Eileen Gittins is CEO and co-founder of Bossygrl, as well as founder and executive chairman at Blurb. Previously, she was CEO of Personify and Verb, both venture-backed tech companies in San Francisco.
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