Thoughts on female entrepreneurs

Why aren’t there more female entrepreneurs?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a while and its crossed my mind from time to time this year.

I can count on my hands the number of female startup founders I’ve met this year: Shelli Trung @3six5dates, Nikki Durkin @99dresses, Nicola Gracie @FitIntegrate, Demi Markogiannaki @weteachme,  Jamie Wong @Vayable, Jodie Fox @Shoesofprey, Lara Solomon @Stepslearning and a few others.

I think that females have some interesting business opportunities in the entrepreneurial space because they can see ideas that males can’t see and are unlikely to understand. They will also be able to address female market needs much better.

Some of the best startups that I have seen this year are by female founders:

1. Taskrabbit: This was born out of Leah Busque’s frustation of not having enough time available to feed her dog and buy dog food. Taskrabbit is a marketplace for services – things you want done fast. For tasks like cleaning, moving, delivery of food, IKEA furniture and assembly.

2. Birchbox is a wineclub for cosmetic samplers from Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp. You pay $10 per month for a box of samplers, and if you buy the full product, Birchbox takes an affiliate fee. I must admit I was highly skeptical of this business, and this is an industry, product and market which I don’t understand very well. What I do understand though, is a subscription based business model where you get new products every month, 45,000 subscribers with 50% subscription growth month on month. Its brilliant and also worth around $40mil =)

Another startup, Pinterest which caught my interest (excuse the pun) has male co-founders, but a growing and loyal female userbase. Pinterest allows you to “create a virtual pinboard – a place where you can post collections of things you love, and “follow” collections created by people with great taste”. It has huge adoption rate and stickiness with females. From the pinboards that I can see, they’re centered around female content (because its mostly females users). Its sends a signal that are unique opportunities for females that are still underserved by today’s websites.

My thoughts are why there aren’t a lot of female founders? This is my hypothesis so hear me out. I don’t think its any one of these factors, but a combination of them.

1. Shortage of female programmers: Tech startups are technical in nature and based on my experience, I don’t know of many female programmers. In the Australian startup scene, most people I know are male and I’m sure that this is repeated in startups scenes around the world. The female programmers I do know are not in tech startups but working in software companies / digital agencies / in house, etc.. Take a read of Jean Hsu’s blog post about her experience as a female software engineer and the lack of females in computer science. Historically, programming has been a male dominated industry which I believe is changing and could be the biggest factor in this list as to why there are not many female entrepreneurs.

2. Body clock and family responsibilities: Females have to think about families, marriage, kids, and these kind of responsibilities a lot sooner than men due to the female body clock. I believe this has some correlation with risk taking, and hence their views on risk. This affects women in all industries, but particularly in the startup industry as explained below.

3. Startups require an appetite for risk-taking: You have to be comfortable with the fact that you are going to earn no income for a while, have no job security and you are taking a leap of faith with your idea. Starting a tech company is an incredibly risky proposition, and the chance of success is so slim and most are destined to fail. This is an industry that is inherently risky and my opinion is that the less responsibilities you have, the easier it becomes to do a startup. This is a controversial point, because there are many small to medium sized businesses started by women so this may not be that valid of a factor.

4. Access to role models and networks: As there hasn’t been a lot of females historically in startups, there aren’t a lot of female role models to aspire towards. The majority of the interviews that I’ve seen and books I’ve read are about male entrepreneurs. A few female startup people spring to mind like Marissa Mayer @ Google who I’ve seen speak and Randi Zuckerberg. With the emergence of successful female startup founders this will encourage a wave of new female entrepreneurs. Having access to networks is also critical for the success of startups, and initiatives like Women 2.0 and Girl Geek Coffees will assist in that.

There must be some reasons to explain the lack of female entrepreneurs in the startup world and feel free to disagree in the comments below. Its worth also reading on Quora on the lack of female co-founders and how females are paid less than their male counterparts.

The situation will change as there are many successful small to medium sized businesses started by women. There are just many more opportunities now to start a tech startup at low cost, startups becoming more of a viable career choice, and increasing number of female engineers and designers which will have a flow on effect in a traditionally male dominated industry. I think its only a matter of time before this changes.

I’m out like 2011,

Matthew Ho

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on female entrepreneurs

  1. Hi Matthew,

    Thanks for the link–it’s nice to know it’s not just women who are thinking about these issues =). I can’t speak for “all the other” female engineers out there, but for me, it’s not really any of the issues you mentioned. For me, it’s less about “being a founder” than it is about making meaningful impact. I haven’t found something I want to fully commit myself to as a founder, and I don’t want to start a startup just for the sake of being able to slap “CEO” on a business card. I feel like I need to see more things and figure out what it is I want to pursue deeply.

    Anyways, just wanted to chime in and tell you my thoughts! Great post =)

  2. Hello Matthew,

    Great article! As a female co-founder of “Customise your own furniture online’ startup Evolvex ( I’d like to first wave my hand up MADLY to identify myself.

    Perhaps a controversial offering on my part but I think women are missing from the tech start up scene for some of the reasons you have identified (shortage of female programmers and role models) AND also because unless you have a male co-founder it is REALLY hard to be taken seriously. As a 25 y/o female I’ve experienced many patronising conversations from suppliers, only to have them do a complete 180 when they speak with my older and therefore-must-be-wiser male co-founder of our business. On many occasions we have the same message to send. I have no massive issues with this as in the end the result is positive but I do wonder how things would be if I tried to do things on my own or with another female co-founder.

    Perhaps because men prefer speaking with other men or perhaps it’s a validating factor to have a man around but I do think the male dominated nature of the scene means it is much harder for women to break through on their own then it is if she has a male co-founder. This doesn’t apply to all industries – fashion for example is very female friendly.

  3. WOW I thought we were a small group, and the list of ‘solo’ female startups I guess is even smaller.

    I particularly side with your point four here; finding another woman entrepreneur who has gone before you has been extremely challenging. I make it a point to go out and listen to them if/when I know they are speaking at an event.

    I personally have not been siphoned off in the entrepreneur space – at least not yet, but I recall being seen as ‘young and inexperienced’ in professional employment and when I started building my investment portfolio – and being only bite size at 150cm didn’t help my plight haha!

    But Janine Allis (Boost Juice) once said something to me that has stuck when I asked her about the challenges of being a female entrepreneur – “Any limitations you place on your gender are entirely yours – besides, men love helping us – particularly older men!”

    And I must say, there’s a lot of fun to be had playing in the male dominated space. I wish a lot more women would join me!

    Great read Matthew and thanks for the mention. 🙂

  4. I am told the shortage of females in IT problem, has a solution. I am told a trial was done and the numbers show it works but the idea got watered down to try and include all minority groups. Basically you inspire girls early, I think the age was from 7 or 8.
    A good friend explained it to me, but I have not read the research.

    Maybe the same would work for startups?

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