It just has to Stop!
This is a blogpost I have written with a dear friend and former colleague of mine, Julia Youngs. I asked Julia to co-write the blog for two reasons. The first one is that she has, during the time we have worked together, been a persistent reminder of the challenges female entrepreneurs face so that I knew that she could add to the content. The other one is that she has a way of elegant phrasing content so that the message stands loud and clear without anyone being able of “walking away” saying "that it is just someone who is really pissed”. Keep in mind; we are not pissed, just frustrated that too many great business opportunities founded by women don’t go far enough because female entrepreneurs are not taken seriously.
“So, you only work with female entrepreneurs?” We knew immediately how this question, posed by an acquaintance, was going to end. “That must be good for you” they said, “how sweet”. And there it was: the dreaded sweet that often accompanies other disparaging words like nice, lovely, or cute when people talk about women entrepreneurs. We’re sure the comment wasn't ill-willed, probably just a conversation starter and nothing more, nothing else. But it didn’t sit right. Because the acquaintance's comment speaks to how easy and pervasive it is to use trivializing, charity-centered language to talk about women entrepreneurs. Beyond affecting how women entrepreneurs are perceived, we know firsthand how this type of outdated, misogynistic language affects how they are mentored, supported, and funded and – perhaps more importantly – how women entrepreneurs think about themselves and what’s possible for their lives and their businesses.
For Lena this comment came on the heels of spending an amazing month in Jordan working with over 100 incredible women entrepreneurs (which she shared about in previous blog posts). There she met women founders with bold visions for their companies, a keen eye for their market opportunity, and the energy and drive to execute. She also saw over and over the systemic barriers that were holding them back; from investors that didn’t take them seriously, to men belittling their accomplishments, to internalized narratives around their own possibility. Some of the women were building companies directly informed by and related to their experiences as women, but not all. All had the passion it takes to succeed, knew their customers inside and out, and had gone out and done the work to validate their market opportunity. They were exceptional women and exceptional entrepreneurs who wrestled daily with both of those identities.
There is no shortage of articles and studies about the dismal landscape for women in entrepreneurship and venture capital. Of the top 100 venture firms around the world only 7% of partners are women. Recent data from Crunchbase showed that global venture investment in women founders and women-led teams decreased by a whopping 27% in 2020 with only 2% of the over $300 billion global venture dollars invested going to women. These numbers are of course only more enraging for women founders of color who received only 1.2% of total VC funding in the US in 2020, although they accounted for nearly half of the total investments in founders of color. And good luck on finding the data for investments in LGBTQ women founders or disabled women founders, it’s hardly tracked.
But that doesn’t mean that products targeted towards women aren’t being funded. In spring of 2021 various corners of the internet were both enraged and amused by the absurd “Pinky Glove” idea presented by an all-male team on the German equivalent of Shark Tank. To the shock of many the product, a disposable pink glove designed to keep women's hands clean while removing tampons, received €30,000 investment from the show. Outcry was swift and varied. People criticized the absurdity of the idea and how it further stigmatized menstruation. They also criticized how blatantly it highlighted the discrepancies in funding for women entrepreneurs and mocked the types of companies we expect to be designed for and by women: pink, cutesy, sweet, silly, and ultimately superfluous in the market.
Together we have worked with hundreds of women entrepreneurs with bold visions who are both leading companies informed by their experiences as women, and disrupting sectors with ideas completely unrelated to their femininity. But still, we see over and over women entrepreneurs typecast as cutesy, sweet, and ultimately, not serious entrepreneurs (while for Black women entrepreneurs, they’re more likely to be typecast as “angry” in addition to these other stereotypes). When we talk about women entrepreneurs in these ways it trivializes the products we expect to be targeted to women and the types of companies we assume women should lead. It allows investors, mentors, and supporters to overlook and underfund the exceptional women building companies across sectors. And, most pressingly, it diminishes the landscape of possibility for what women founders think they can achieve for themselves. While changing how we talk about and interact with women founders isn’t in itself going to fix the challenges faced by female entrepreneurs, it is a vital step in building an inclusive ecosystem where women entrepreneurs can see their products and ideas valued, celebrated, and funded.
Julia Youngs (she/her) is based in New Mexico and currently works as a Program Manager for Microsoft’s Global Social Entrepreneurship initiatives. She is passionate about supporting creative and social entrepreneurs and building more equitable entrepreneurial ecosystems. She is also a doctoral student at Oxford University. All opinions expressed are her own.