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Female Founders: Will Their Ascent Change the Corporate World As We Know It?
By Leah Kinthaert
Earlier this year LeadersIn interviewed several diversity experts on the topic of inclusion in the C-Suite and came across an interesting phenomenon: many women, finding that they are being skipped over for promotions or even channelled into lower paying careers, are deciding to chart their own C-Suite paths by becoming Founders. I did some digging and found that this exodus was not just anecdotal, research backs it up. A 2016 survey from consulting firm Real showed that “among millennial female entrepreneurs, nearly 90 percent left their job in the corporate world to start their own business” and 2018 American Express research tells us that “the number of women-owned businesses increased nearly 3,000% since 1972”. A study from MBO Partners sheds even more light on the situation, finding that “a major way for women who are in professional jobs to really manage to work and be a parent” was to become independent with 75% of them doing so “in order to get workplace flexibility”. There is a combination of factors here: women who now “have equal, if not slightly greater, ambition than men” to move into top roles ranging from VP to the C-suite” see lack of access to opportunities for growth AND they are finding that the “demands of managing both (their careers and their lives) can’t be squeezed into a traditional 9-to-5 office job.”
In the book Dear Female Founder, a wonderful collection of letters from 66 Female Founders compiled by Lu Li, Tine Thygeson gives one of the most powerful, and empowering, rallying cries that I have ever read. Thygeson writes: “Rather than staying in a position where the current power structure makes it unlikely for you to rise to the top, make your own power structure. Change the rules.” With that in mind, I decided to try and meet as many Female Founders as I could, to ask them why they decided to “make their own power structures” and found their own companies. The ideas around exclusion and lack of opportunity in the corporate world certainly came through for some of the women, but I also learned so much more. The women I spoke to founded companies for reasons that are as unique and individual as they are, ranging from a desire to empower other women and change the traditional workplace culture to innovating a broken system in diagnostics and healthcare.
Sarah Nadav had this to say in Dear Female Founder: “The future does not belong to young white men. It belongs to a diverse group of people, who are courageous enough to fight to make a place for their voices to be heard and their projects to be built.” I am privileged to introduce you to fifteen female founders doing just that: Marija Butkovic, Founder and CEO, Women of Wearables; Rhonda Moret, Founder & President, Elevate For Her; Adelaida Diaz-Roa, Founder, Nomo FOMO; Shelley Zalis, CEO, The Female Quotient; Hannah Mamuszka, CEO & Founder, Alva10; Christiana Iyasere, Co-Founder, Dyrnamix, Inc; Charlotte Japp, Founder, Cirkel; Jes Osrow, Co-Founder, The Rise Journey; Erin Yoffe Halper, Founder & CEO, The Upside; Jenny Thompson, Founder, SafetyPIN Technologies; Theodora Lau, Founder, Unconventional Ventures; Jenna Guarneri, Chief Executive Officer, JMG Public Relations; Casey Erin Clark, Co-Founder Vital Voice, Diane Gilpin, CEO, Smart Green Shipping Alliance and Sara Vakhshouri, President, SVB Energy International. I hope you find their founding stories as inspirational as I do!
“I’ve become increasingly interested in wearable tech ever since I co-founded Kisha Smart Umbrella in 2014. I very soon realised there isn’t enough support for women in wearable tech, digital health, fashion tech, IoT, VR and AR industries. I knew there was a market for it because I had been in the industry for 2 years and known only a handful of women. They all wanted and needed visibility, advice, mentorship, funding, etc. On the other side, I knew there was a big problem with women in tech in general, and my co-founder at that time Michelle and I decided to fill the gap. That’s how Women of Wearables was born in 2016.
Today, three years later, I’m proud to say WoW has grown to a community of 20000+ members and 100+ partners in more than 20 countries around the globe. Our mission is not only to support and connect women in these industries, but also to encourage more women and diverse teams to participate in building hardware and software products as designers, product managers and developers or being founders of their own companies, as well as create more jobs for women in STEM. Of course, WoW is not just for professional women, but for anyone with an interest in wearable technology and providing women with a platform for growth.”
“I started my company for the simple reason that I wanted to empower women and elevate diversity.
As a woman of color, over the course of my career I often struggled with feeling that I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t smart enough, or just didn’t fit in. While working in the golf industry, not only was I the only women in the room, I was also the only person of color. But I learned how to believe in myself, became my own biggest fan – and as a result of my hard work and dedication – I found success. In fact I thrived. My cv as a marketing strategist includes working with high profile brands like Nike Golf, PGA TOUR, and the PGA of America. I also worked with high profile personalities including Billie Jean King, Kurt Warner, bestselling author Robert Kiyosaki and even Donald Trump.
I launched Elevate For Her & Elevated Diversity brands to provide professional development training to women and underrepresented populations, to strengthen their skills and empower their souls – so that they can become their own professional best.
“During my last semester at Southern Methodist University the first startup I was with, Villy Custom, was seeing some great success which meant that we had the money and need to move to a bigger facility. At the same time I was in an entrepreneurship class where we had to spend all semester working on a 50+ page business plan. At that time it had been a few years since my mom had moved us to the US to keep us safe from everything that was going on in Colombia. This meant that she had to start from nothing, taking jobs way below what she was qualified for to give my sister and I the best opportunities we could get. After years of seeing all of that sacrifice she did for us, I thought opening this company for her would be the least I could do to thank her. So, I founded Pawliday Inn because we had a great business plan in a great industry. We also had a facility to safely start on (rent free until profitable). Most importantly I created it with the goal to give my mom the ability to retire earlier and remind her she was a badass business leader, not just an employee.
My mom is now traveling the world and running Pawliday Inn, happiest she’s ever been. Being the badass that she is, she also used some profits to get into real estate and now owns several rental properties as well. She’s back to being her.”
“I started my own company because I was tired of following the rules that didn’t make sense, and conforming to shoes that didn’t fit me. When women reach middle management, or the ‘messy middle’, one of three things happen: 1. They rise to the top but have work-life balance issues. 2. They leave the workforce completely to raise their families. 3. They leave to start their own company, which is what I did.
I wanted to write my own rules and make the exception the new norm so that everyone could thrive at work and at home. So I created the uncorporate rules. I undid everything I hated about the corporate world.
For example, I created a no-regret policy, because I never wanted anyone to say shoulda, woulda, coulda. I encouraged my employees to never miss the important stuff, such as their kid’s soccer game, parents’ anniversary or going on a date. It required every employee in my company to create a relationship with their co-workers so they could cover for each other and be interchangeable, allowing each person to live their life with a support system at the office. We were a family and shared the good, bad and ugly. Most importantly, we did it with transparency, collaboration, and a whole lot of chocolate.”
“I started Alva10 to solve a problem in healthcare that I didn’t see anyone else solving – how to get diagnostics paid for at the value they provide to our healthcare system. If diagnostics aren’t paid at value, then investors won’t invest in the space; when investors don’t invest in a space; innovation stalls and results in technology getting locked out of the market, which is what has happened to diagnostics in healthcare. Instead of treating patients as if they are all the same, we could be using genetic, genomic, proteomic and other diagnostic information to determine what drugs to prescribe and what procedures to perform, but with the small exception of oncology, we don’t have the tools to do it so we are left with trial and error medicine. In the diagnostic industry, there has been a resignation to the fact that diagnostic tools will never be truly valued, and that fact has stymied innovation in our industry. At Alva10 we have created a model to quantitatively show how better utilization of diagnostic tools improve outcomes for patients AND economics for payers, enabling diagnostics to be pulled into the market, instead of being pushed out.”
“I founded an early stage biotech company for reasons both personal and professional. I am passionate about transformational science and the intersection of new science with clinical need and business opportunity. Bringing forward a novel technology that can impact the lives of patients and the healthcare community is a powerful thing to be a part of.
Participating in the early formation of a company – the creativity and energy that comes with building a team around a high-risk proposal, believing in and pitching your idea and seeing it come together has been a great opportunity for growth. I have learned skills that I didn’t have before, expanded my networks and met fantastic professional colleagues that I would not have otherwise.
As a woman of color, I often find that we are not given the opportunities to grow in our careers that others may be. We are often judged by our performance alone – with little attention paid to our potential. As a result, I have found that the next steps offered to me often are more of the same – ‘you have performed well in this role so let’s have you do it again,’ rather than, ‘you have performed well in this role previously, and have the potential to do more, let’s see what you can do in this larger role.’ As a result, I found that to really expand my career I had to create the next steps and roles for myself, as no one was going to offer it to me.”
“I started my company CIRKEL, because as a young person working in media and advertising, I felt a true lack of older mentorship and guidance. It didn’t matter if the mentorship came from a woman or a man (I ended up getting both in the ways of my parents), but it was important that I got career advice from people who had decades more of experience than I did. As a result, CIRKEL is a platform that connects interesting people from different generations for mutual professional and personal growth. CIRKEL currently exists as a networking event series, but it will soon offer a career development product that curates intergenerational matches for more meaningful two-way mentorship.
I’ve seen old companies struggle to keep up with innovative new startups due to lack of diversity, so I knew that if I ever wanted to start my own business, it would need to be diverse in every sense: age, gender, race, and sexual orientation. I have a team of amazing people working on CIRKEL who represent many different perspectives. The power of intergenerational connections benefits everyone, so the team building those connections needs to represent those different walks of life as well.
My biggest surprise in the early stages of starting a business is that people assumed that since I was a female founder, I had created a product that was only for women. So instead of being hyper aware of including more women, I find myself being aware that I’ve included enough men. It probably speaks to the amount of by-women, for-women companies that have started in the past few years, but the preconception puts a limit on CIRKEL before people even know how inclusive the company is (it’s for anyone who is engaged in developing their career). Male founders never have to deal with the assumption that their product is by-men, for-men. The market for female-only communities has become becoming saturated, meanwhile CIRKEL’s cross-generational community is a really unique offering that doesn’t have direct comps. The female founder stereotype boxes the brand in for a specific segment of consumer before people realize how many different types of people could benefit from CIRKEL.”
“I decided to (co)found my organization, The Rise Journey, for two key reasons. One, my work in HR, recruitment, and people ops with a Diversity, Equity, and inclusion foundational mindset will have a larger impact with the ability to work in tandem with organizations rather than working for just one company. This means I can iterate on the work in my 9-to-5 role and bring a more refined and tested product to our clients. Two, I found a co-founder, Jessica Lambrecht, who is passionate and invested in the same arena but from a totally different perspective. This allows us to work in parallel but not overlapping. Having a partner has been key for my mental health and wellness (and hers as well) –previous solo-consulting work in a different arena only exacerbated issues. Our work allows me to both be present, curious, and invested in an area of passion and action and that is key for personal, professional, and organization growth.
The difficulties I found with solo work are (still present as I consider my coaching, public speaking, and my personal brand all solo work) around motivation, paradigm shift thinking, and honestly, having someone who will challenge my ideas and preconceptions in a safe way. Whenever Jess and I don’t agree, which is more frequent than I anticipated when starting out, we’re able to have a full discussion and still come to a conclusion we both support and can unite behind. If it doesn’t work, there is no ‘I told you so’ only ‘what can we do better next time.’ A huge component to this is also about having difficult conversations. We facilitate this work with out clients, in our 9-to-5, and consistently with Rise. Questions/topics like: should we continue this business and why? what is success at this level? At the next? partnerships with other people and orgs: will it benefit us? Them? Does it help us to our end goal? what does the bank account look like? will this client embody what we do and want to perpetuate? And so on.
With solo work you have to be far more proactive to seek those conversations out, and even when you do, you’re taking action on your own. As for motivation, I personally live/work/love/thrive with depression and anxiety. This has colored a lot of my past and present and is something I’m very aware of as part of my future work. Having a partner who can empathize, energize, or leave me alone as needed has been an immense help. We see each other as people first and business partners second.”
“Prior to launching The Upside, I grew a successful career as an independent marketing consultant within the private investment space where I enjoyed complete flexibility and control of my work/life balance while also earning a nice 6-figure living. I started my family during that 7-year stretch, held my baby’s hand through two open heart surgeries (he’s doing great now!) and miraculously maintained my clients at the same time. I could never have managed a full-time job during that difficult time and was incredibly grateful that I had the type of business that allowed me to put my family first and still hold on to the work I loved. After hearing more and more stories of smart women–and especially moms–leaving the workforce because they felt they had to decide between working full-time or not working at all, coupled with clients constantly asking me to refer them to other high-level consultants like myself, I decided to launch The Upside to support other independent consultants in achieving success and connect them to like-minded companies seeking best-in-class flexible, scalable talent. Our mantra at The Upside is this: one single connection can change a person’s life. We work hard to prove this every single day at The Upside by connecting members to each other for support and advice, and connecting companies to our highly-pedigreed, talented members.”
“After nearly 20 years as a leading executive at a direct-to-consumer health company, I knew I wanted a new challenge – and it was time to let the next generation have their opportunity. I wasn’t sure what I would do. I started consulting but it wasn’t right for me. I took a vacation to enjoy some downtime and figure out what was next. When I returned home, I discovered the dog sitter I had hired online had not stayed with my dogs. When I confronted her about it and told her she had to pay me back, she faked her own death. (Yes, seriously…) I had already been concerned about how I could trust someone I found on an online marketplace, and knew other people must be dealing with the same challenge. So I looked into how I could build deeper trust online and SafetyPIN was born.”
“I am the founder of JMG Public Relations firm, an award-winning firm for both new and established brands. I started my firm four years ago out of the sheer desire to be my own boss. When you become an expert in any field, you realize you have the gifts and the talents to be a leader and mentor to others. At some point, it felt that it was my time to stand on my own and to create something that would last a lifetime. In terms of company culture, I knew when I started the firm that I wanted to create an environment that was nimble enough to keep up with the ever-evolving media landscape. To do this, I wanted the office to feel like that of a start-up company. Where everyone has flexible workspace, it feels casual, there’s constant collaboration, and it’s a place people enjoy coming in to work. When employees are having fun and are enjoying their jobs, they produce great results, so their clients are likely to be happy with their performance and it creates a robust ecosystem.”
“The United States was a country founded on hope, by immigrants that moved here in search for a better life than where they were hailed from. Hope that if we are willing to work hard, we would have a financially secure future. Hope that if we plan ahead, our wealth would outlast our longevity, and we could leave our legacy to the next generation. Unfortunately, having an equitable future may have become an unattainable dream for many.
Yet, despite the increasing economic divide, many of us continue to face the daily grinds, clinging onto the hope that things will turn out differently. We keep chasing the dream for ourselves and our loved ones – even when it seems to elude us.
It is with this aspiration for equality that Unconventional Ventures was founded. We strongly believe that everyone should have a chance to try and succeed, regardless of their demographics, where they are hailed from, and what social circles they belong to. We want to leverage our extensive network and knowledge of the industry to bring awareness to the challenges that we face as a society. We believe that there are ample opportunities for startups and incumbents to work together for the social good; that technology can be leveraged to improve equality and drive inclusion in our increasingly divided society.”
“My cofounder Julie Fogh and I started Vital Voice Training as a reaction to the sexist, confusing, contradictory, and incredibly unhelpful conversations around women’s voices – and the traditional “solution” presented by both laypeople and coaches: “just learn to put on your serious voice (i.e. speak like a man)”. Our backgrounds are in professional acting, and we’re bringing the tools of the actor to our clients to help them show up with power, authenticity, charisma, and confidence on THEIR terms. They get to decide how much they want to fit into a current system or challenge it – we equip them with the knowledge of how their voice and presence work together, and the beautiful range of choices they have at their disposal. We’re now five years in, and along the way, we’ve met incredible people with world-changing ideas. The fact that we get to be a part of their team and help them be heard in the world still lights us up every day.”
“It was a big decision to start my own company but one that I couldn’t avoid. I’d been working alongside some other good people who had to step away. What was I to do? Walk away from all the brilliant solutions, designs and network we’d created? Or step up and lead the initiative.
As I mulled over the options I was plagued by self-doubt, fearful of taking the leadership position, but in the end the ‘if not me, then who?’ won the day. Four years on and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I get to shape my business the way I want to, to create an inclusive and collaborative culture. It’s critically important women shape the world, we’ve been side-lined for far too long – and look at the mess we’re in.”
“I started my business almost 10 years ago when I got married and followed my husband to live in the US. Before moving to the US, I had both academic and professional experience in the energy sector. However, as the DC area (where my husband’s job is located) is not exactly a hub for the country’s energy industry. Therefore, I faced different obstacles in pursuing my passion for the energy industry. I didn’t want to give up what I really liked doing.
So I decided to embrace these challenges and turn them into an opportunity. It took at least two years of hard work and constant networking to understand the new dynamics of my surroundings, the contours of the DC regional ‘intellectual/consultancy economy’ and to identify gaps that I could fill with my background and expertise. I started by defining my capabilities and what competitive advantages I possessed.
These smaller steps helped me find the network I needed to establish and build the path I wanted to pursue. Tirelessly working on building my vision, despite all the challenges, risks and uncertainties I faced, was truly a joyful journey. It is one that I would never have experienced if I chose an easy and convenient path.”
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