Female founders are a force for good: Women’s Entrepreneurship Day 2021

The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life and the procedure, the process is its own reward.

The words of Amelia Earhart. Spoken like a true entrepreneur, this quote captures her drive and focus. Her flying achievements are extraordinary, and demonstrate her strength and spirit as a female pioneer.

Today is Women’s Entrepreneurship Day 2021, and I’m also minded by the words of Hilary Clinton: Advancing the rights, opportunities, and full participation of women and girls is the great unfinished business of the C21st. Empowering women is one of the smartest investments we can make.

Women’s Entrepreneurship Day is an initiative founded in 2013 by Wendy Diamond, a social entrepreneur and humanitarian. She volunteered with the Adelante Foundation that provided microcredit to locally impoverished women in Honduras. This inspired her to start a movement that empowers women and alleviates poverty in 2013. In 2014, the organisation held its inaugural Women’s Entrepreneurship Day in NYC at the United Nations. The UN celebrates the day annually.

Wendy wanted to inspire women and girls to become active participants in the economy by creating a network of women leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs to initiate startups and drive economic growth, by building a community of like-minded individuals.

Yet despite Earhart’s achievements and Wendy’s initiative, and the impact of iconic female role models, female entrepreneurs with the ability, influence and passion to transform a generation are being ignored, with just one in five startups that receive investment being founded by a woman. Why? One reason could be that female entrepreneurs seeking investment for their new idea are likely to be almost entirely male faces. Just 13% of senior investment teams are women, and almost half of investment teams have no women at all. This surely contributes to a stark gender imbalance in the businesses that investors fund.  

The gender bias female entrepreneurs face undoubtedly deters many. Add to this the reality that women still take on a far larger share of family related responsibilities than men, and it is no surprise that so few female innovators take the plunge. While this is fundamentally unfair in a diverse, democratic and open-minded society, it is also economically short-sighted – research shows that the UK is losing out on £250bn of economic value each year because of the daunting barriers facing women entrepreneurs.

For investors, putting money into female founded startups makes financial sense, as there is substantial evidence that gender diversity fosters creativity and results in better decision making by encouraging new perspectives which men frequently lack or disregard. Yet women-owned enterprises represent less than 20% of UK business.

Many barriers are cultural and societal, however, female role models are plentiful, for example SlideShare (founder Rashmi Sinha), Cisco (co-founder Sandy Lerner) and Flickr (co-founder Caterina Fake). Then there’s Sylvia Plath, Malala Yousifazi, Margaret Cavendish, Marie Curie, Cyndi Lauper, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Garret Anderson, Siouxsie Sioux and Anita Roddick to name a few. But Amelia Earhart – the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic – is the stand out icon for today’s female entrepreneurs.

It was when Amelia attended a stunt-flying exhibition that she became interested in aviation, and meeting pilot Frank Hawks that would forever change her life.  Earhart took her first flying lesson in January 1921 and six months later bought her first plane, a two-seater biplane painted bright yellow – The Canary – and set her first women’s record by rising to an altitude of 14,000 ft.

Then in April 1928, she took a phone call: How would you like to be the first woman to fly the Atlantic? After an interview in New York, she was asked to join the flight. She left Trepassey Harbour, Newfoundland, in a Fokker F7, Friendship, on June 17, 1928, and arrived at Burry Port, Wales 21 hours later.  On her return, she was greeted with a ticker-tape parade in New York and a White House reception with President Calvin Coolidge.

The Atlantic crossing started May 20, 1932, from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, to Paris. Strong north winds, icy conditions, and mechanical problems plagued the flight and forced Earhart to land in a pasture near Londonderry, Ireland. President Herbert Hoover presented Earhart with a gold medal, Congress awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross – the first ever given to a woman.  In the years that followed, Earhart continued to reach new heights. On January 11, 1935, she became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific from Honolulu to California.

In 1937, she was ready for her biggest challenge: to be the first woman to fly around the world. I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system, and I hope this trip is it, she said. On June 1, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan departed from Miami and began the 29,000-mile journey. On June 29 they landed in Lae, New Guinea with just 7,000 miles remaining. Their next hop to Howland Island was by far the most challenging. 

Howland Island is a mile and a half long and half-mile wide in the Pacific.  On July 2 the pair took off. In the last radio message Earhart reported We are running north and south. Nothing further was heard from her. A rescue commenced and became the most extensive air and sea search in naval history. On July 19, after spending $4m and scouring 250,000 square miles of ocean, the search was called off.  In 1938, a lighthouse was constructed on Howland Island in her memory. On 5 January 1939, Amelia Earhart was declared legally dead. Neither the plane nor bodies were recovered.

Women account for just 20% of UK small business owners, but the unprecedented energy and attention around diversity and gender equality for entrepreneurship makes this a moment when extraordinary progress is possible. We short-change women if we set our sights too low. Hark back to the earliest days of American democracy, when Abigail Adams (wife of John Adams, and mother of John Quincy Adams) urged the architects of the Constitution to remember the ladies. Now is the time.

So on the back of the memory of Amelia Earhart, I believe our goal should be to expand women’s power and influence in entrepreneurship. I think of power and influence as the ability to make decisions, control resources, and shape perspectives. It is something women exercise in their homes and in their communities, and they can have the same impact on business and be a force for good. Reflect on some of the research:

Female founders outperform males The business case for funding female founders is simple: female founders outperform their male counterparts. A study from Boston Consulting Group evaluated 350 companies, revealing that for every dollar of investment raised, female-run startups generated 78 cents in revenue, whereas male-run startups generated 31 cents. Women outperformed their male counterparts despite raising less money on average ($935k versus $2.1m). This data is consistent with several other studies.

Female founders are less motivated by money Entrepreneurs have a host of different motivations for starting out. According to research by Illuminate Ventures, these motivations differ among males and females. Specifically, males are nearly eight times more likely to be motivated by financial gain – 15% of male entrepreneurs are motivated by financial gain compared to only 2% of females.

Contrary to popular belief, most successful entrepreneurs see money as a by-product of ‘success’. They have a strong desire to create something meaningful and to have a positive impact on the world – to make it a better place. When entrepreneurs are intrinsically motivated, they’re more likely to go the extra mile and persevere through the inevitable obstacles that riddle the entrepreneurial journey. Thus female entrepreneurs have a better impact on the world.

Females are more likely to prioritise social responsibility Mounds of data indicate that female-led startups are more likely to prioritise social responsibility initiatives. Research by University of California has found that companies that have women founders are more focused on environmental, social, and governance issues than companies with no female leaders.

Leadership LSE research shows intuitive female founders see people in a different light, in terms of potential and enabling that potential to grow. They also generally move away from the hierarchical archaic structure of one person leading at the top with an approach that seeks the democratisation of leadership as a collaborative effort in an organisation.

So – is a ‘good’ startup a ‘female’ startup? There are vast differences between how men and women respectively run businesses, but the above tells me it is. With two key changes, we can accelerate the female founder opportunity and impact:

Close the gender funding gap The gender funding gap is staggering. Only 9% of venture capital goes to female-led companies and a mere 17% of startups have a female founder. Astia (a US VC firm), shared some remarkable statistics to consider:

  • 64% of VC backed exits had at least one female executive
  • Teams with women outperform teams without, according to MIT research
  • There are also huge economic benefits with Deloitte predicting a potential £100bn boost to the economy over the next ten years from closing the gender funding gap.

Democratise and diversify the investor community I’d love to see more diverse investors, because then I think we’ll find the diverse founders that already exist. I’d like to see democratisation in startup venture funding. This is where we hit a brick wall though, as the whole model of how we fundraise and how we gain the capital to grow and scale is where the real bone of contention is. We know men and women think differently, so harness the diversity and address gender bias in investment decision making. Bluntly, we need more emotional intelligence in credit committee meetings, and not just a token woman on the board or in the corridors of influence and power.

The world will always remember Amelia Earhart for her courage, vision and groundbreaking achievements. In a letter to her husband, written in case that final flight proved to be her last, her brave spirit was clear: Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.

Today, on Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, celebrate the talent, ambition and endeavour of female entrepreneurs. As Cyndi Lauper sang, Girls just want to have fun, so let’s make it happen in the startup community.

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