Like many entrepreneurs, Nicole Kendrot turned a problem into a business opportunity. In her case, the problem was student loans—not just the amount of debt, but managing the payments. Her solution: to design a mobile app to track multiple loans and gamify the payback process so users can earn cash incentives. And like many startup founders before her, Kendrot came up against two more hurdles: time and money.
Fortunately, Kendrot is a good time manager and was able to successfully juggle her full-time work at Cloudberry Creative, a New York-based interactive design firm, while developing her concept. As for funding, Kendrot entered her app idea—dubbed Centz—into a competition sponsored by the U.S. Treasury in partnership with the D2D Fund and the Center for Financial Services Innovation, where she snagged the $10,000 grand prize.
Now all she has to do is find a backer to fund the next stage of refining the app to get it to market. Easier said than done, as finding capital is especially tough for young, female entrepreneurs. But the startup scene is rife with other challenges for even the most ambitious women.
One (obvious) part of the problem: It’s still a man’s world. Despite pronouncements that the workplace is rapidly becoming devoid of dudes, male entrepreneurs outnumbered women 3.5 to 1 between 1994 and 2010, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kendrot just applied to YCombinator's seed funding program —one of about 4 percent of women founders who throw their hat into its digital startup ring.
Here are a few ways women entrepreneurs say they've tackled the particular challenges they face in the startup world:
Pitching at ’s DEMO Fall 2012 last week, Macy Koch says that ratio felt more like 100 to 1. Like at most tech events, that helps when you need a bathroom break. But as the lone woman among the five cofounders of RecBob, a Facebook app that manages adult sports teams, she’s often relegated to the "mom" role (even with no kids of her own). "I am the person who tells the guys what color pants to wear," she quips, then adds, "In the sports arena people assume men are the leading force in these products." So when it comes time to pitch, she says, people tend to focus on RecBob’s CEO, even though she worked with multiple startups during college. And at 23, Koch says, "People instantly question my judgement and experience."
To meet that challenge, Koch does her homework and is "very vocal," tricks she’s had to master in effort to stand out. "I read a lot more," she says, something that helps her point out examples of successes and failures to make her case. "With an arsenal of information, it shows you are credible and you deserve to be heard."
Play the Game
It’s not always easy for women to chime in when they’re surrounded by guys, especially at pitch events, says Lauren Bigelow, CEO of Growth Capital Network and executive director of the Accelerate MI Innovation Competition. That’s why she’s a fan of competitions. Bigelow says the feedback entrepreneurs get from pitching at a competition is a "great way to take your lumps" and get practice presenting your business plan. What’s more, she says, "You have national-level VCs paying attention to every piece of your pitch because they are scoring your product." In Bigelow’s experience helping hundreds of businesses take their first steps in competitions, there is no pressure on the investor to invest so they can offer a more in-depth critique and targeted suggestions.
Bigelow’s also seen women shrink or go blank in the face of criticism or tough questions. While not as bad as the red-faced dude who gets belligerent at the mere mention that his concept needs work, Bigelow says that women should practice fielding zingers, if possible on the presentation stage. "You get used to the lights and the feel of the room," she advises so you can avoid the dry mouth, deer-in-the-headlights shock of standing up there.
Andria Trivisonno is learning how to leverage being in the minority. Now in her sophomore entrepreneurial venture with Spent, a platform for retailers to send targeted recommendations to shoppers, she was one of only two female cofounders participating in the recent Iron Yard accelerator program in Greenville, S.C.; her business partner Terry Horner is a guy.
"I stand out a little more," she says. "I like it." That’s why Trivisonno was the one heading to Silicon Valley to drum up interest for Spent. She says, "If I email someone, it’s not coming from just another man."
She’s not afraid to buck the techies’ dress code of hoodies and jeans, either. "I want to show my personality and I like fashion," she says of her choice to wear skirts and heels to meetings and presentations. "But I want to get noticed for what I say, not what I’m wearing," she adds. That’s why Trivisonno says she’s learned to show her passion for her work. "Don’t let underlying fear drive you. Push past it. Everyone is trying to prove themselves."
Bring a Friend (Or 20)
Together with her cofounder (and former colleague at athenahealth) Katie Vahle, Rebecca Palm estimates she did about 30-40 pitches to different groups for their startup CoPatient. "Out of those [we presented to] maybe one or two were women," says Palm. That made Palm feel well prepared for taking the stage at Startup America’s DEMO Fall 2012 last week and presenting to an audience of "people who were not just like me."
Working with Vahle for years in product strategy at their former employer helped the two understand how best to perform together. "Women are different," Palm says. "We tend to have more collaborative decision-making style." But more important was the support. "It’s impossible to [start a company] alone," Palm admits. "The highs are so high and the lows are so low, being friends helped incredibly."
Similarly, the two leaned heavily on their existing network to drum up support and funding for their project. Even their former boss, the CEO of athenahealth, is an angel investor. "No one would recommend someone who they didn’t think was really terrific," she notes.
Bigelow, of the Accelerate MI Innovation Competition, says building and leveraging those business relationships are essential to entrepreneurial success. "You are not playing gender politics. Your goal is to get your company funded," she says. "So if you’re an emotional person, have someone else do the pitch."
[Image: Flickr user Notvalid]