I have the distinct privilege of working with an accelerator at Communitech as an Executive-in-Residence mentoring a stellar group of startup companies. The companies inside this accelerator span a wide variety of industries, interests, and disciplines. The founders come from varied educational backgrounds and span a couple of generations. From one company to the next, the way that each sees the world and the problems that they are trying to solve are very different. Here’s the thing that they all have in common: they are all female-led. Only recently has anyone cared to pay attention to the number of female technology founders. In 2014, it was estimated that around 18 percent of tech startups had at least one female founder. Even fewer have sole female founders. Communitech was the first organization to house a female accelerator in Canada (there are a few in the United States). When I was asked to join the Fierce Founder Accelerator as the EiR, I will admit I had a moment of pause — am I signing up for a pink ghetto?
‘Pink Ghetto’ has been a term used to refer to jobs dominated by women. Would the companies picked for the program be only those female-specific businesses, or would they be businesses that anyone could conceive of and run that just happened to be founded by a woman? Would there be a ton of pink butterflies and girly branding?
I resolved to not overthink it, but to be grateful for the opportunity and see what I could learn, and what I could give back to these companies that would be useful. Critics say that female-only programs create this ‘lesser-than’ pink ghetto by putting women in a silo unto themselves. Or, the ghetto is created because these founders are treated as a problem that needs to be ‘fixed’ or given special support. Having now invested some time with the Fierce Founders at Communitech, I would say emphatically say that 90 percent of the problems that they face are the same as the problems that any other entrepreneur faces. However, at the same rate of 90 percent, they seek to solve the same problems with a different perspective.
The balance of the time — 10 percent — there are some useful ‘been there and done that’ lessons that I hope can save these veritable powerhouses the struggles that I have endured in my career that are rooted in gender politics and norms. For the record, growing up, I was ‘that girl’. In middle school, I demanded to be allowed to hold the diploma which was offered to the boys for graduation pictures, rather than the silk flowers that all the girls were ‘supposed’ to hold. At 17, I tried out for, and made, a local under-21 male-only field hockey team and was ‘the chick’ (with a stick!). I learned a lot from my teammates and cursed at a lot of the opponents and referees who tripped me on purpose, and called me out to shame me. And when I entered my career in business development at a tech company, I often was mistaken as the ‘PR girl’ or someone’s secretary.
In these circumstances, I looked at each challenge as a potential opportunity. First, at photo day I got twice the number of picture proofs to choose from because the photographer insisted that my mother would want the picture of me with the pretty flowers. Not! Next, in field hockey, I became a much stronger and diverse player. The boys played a different game than the girls and they had much to teach me. I earned the respect of my teammates (who at first made me work harder to be equal) but who considered me a secret weapon and knew I was good for a couple of goals before I would get pelted by our opponents. And finally, in my career, I let a lot of the sexist garbage roll off my back in the moment, or simply made light of the ridiculousness of it. My experience was that there were far more male allies than appeared on the surface. But I remembered those who had underestimated me, or dismissed me, and used that to my advantage. A few times, I may have even gone on fact-finding missions where I learned far more than I should have because I was deemed a ‘nobody.’
All of this is to say that the terms are getting better, but I am bloody-well impatient and it’s not happening fast enough for my liking! I’ve been thinking about the value of mentorship in two ways since I started at Communitech. First, from the point of view of someone that can see things from a similar perspective and the value and comfort that this can provide to a budding entrepreneur. But also, I recognize the value of a mentor who has a radically different version of the world. Both matter.
I believe that it matters that I can relay an experience from my past that is gendered if it helps someone overcome fear or uncertainty, or simply hears that this crap just happens and they need to get over it. This nonsense is not personal – but it feels incredibly personal in the moment. It’s hard to paddle upstream alone, yet lots of women have been doing it in whitewater rapids with a crappy canoe and a paddle that is past its prime. Lots of women in tech have been doing it – but no one I have ever encountered thinks that the extra challenges are fair or fun. I think that a perceived lack of support for the particular challenges that a female founder is encountering might be a contributor to holding women back.
Therefore, this issue is challenging for me. There is an undercurrent of condescension from both sides…the entrenched startup ecosystem that shouts ‘sink or swim in our tank based on our rules!’ with a dismissive chuckle assuming failure before anyone has begun. On the other side, there are many impressive female founders who did just that: played by a set of rules in place and won, who now look and say, ‘If I did it why can’t you?’
I think that it is the condescension from both men and women that can fuel a feeling of isolation. The reality is that every successful entrepreneur knows it is a tough road no matter your perceived privilege or disadvantage.
The fact of the matter is that venture capitalists are overwhelmingly white and male. It should come as no surprise, then, that they most easily connect and relate to the ideas of white and male founders of startups. The numbers bear this out: women-led US tech start-ups in 2014 saw just 8.3 percent of venture capital funding.
Other critics say that the bigger problems of accelerator programs should be solved. These are not challenges that are unique to women. This is a noble sentiment, but is there a way to play catch-up on this issue faster by injecting some female-only perspective? Can there be lessons learned in the process via a female-only accelerator that helps all accelerators with diversity?
Some accelerators, with a nod to some of the structures that limit the broadest scope of entrepreneurs from participating, are removing the requirement to relocate physically. It is one step, and likely many more need to be considered as the space matures and more ways to success are demonstrated as valuable.
I hope that, soon, the idea of a female accelerator is looked upon as antiquated and silly. I hope that the sexism that I have encountered will form useful lessons to no one, and I hope I turn into an old woman talking about the 10 miles uphill I had to walk in a snowstorm to get to school when any of these challenges are relayed. But until then, I do things every day to try and move the needle of making this less of an uphill battle.
Everyone can agree that it’s about trying to do anything to bring about the best ideas and commercialize them. That is indeed the game. Let’s ensure that the entire playing field is engaged and able to move the
If there are no women in your accelerator, you should be asking yourself why. Not why aren’t they applying (which puts the onus on them), but what about your accelerator makes it unappealing for women to apply? If you have successfully recruited female-led companies, if the women in your accelerator are dropping out or flying under the radar — why?
There is a long way to go in supporting female entrepreneurs. Women should confidently pursue their unique ingenuity, and the ecosystem should help them in a way that is useful to them. It’s impossible to establish equality in places where women’s voices don’t exist. Entrepreneurship is a means by which you succeed on the power of your own ideas and abilities. I’ll keep doing what I can do to assist – what will you