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The Instagram trap: Social influence is helping women build brands—as long as they follow the rules

Entrepreneurial women are finding that they have unprecedented influence, whether or not they want it.

The Instagram trap: Social influence is helping women build brands—as long as they follow the rules
[Illustration: Cecilia Castelli]

Tyler Haney was fed up. Last November, she was trying to fill an executive role at her athleisure company, Outdoor Voices, and had brought in an external recruiting firm. Haney had been clear about what she was looking for, but the recruiters seemed oblivious to—or disdainful of—her wishes. So the 30-year-old founder and CEO went on her In­stagram account and posted a sweaty gym selfie to her nearly 50,000 followers with an impassioned caption: “I may look sweet and people call me cute . . . but underneath it all I am a BEAST. It’s wild how many people try to chip away at this strength on a daily basis.”

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The message was nonspecific in a way that prevented any controversy. And it was more about energizing her users than selling product—though perhaps those goals were the same. Broadcasting her discontent was a risk, but a calculated one. “People loved it,” Haney says. The post drew nearly 6,000 likes.

Haney, whose company raised $34 million in March 2018 for a total of $56.5 million in funding, is a formidable entrepreneur. But she’s also a social media maven whose customers enthusiastically follow her exploits, whether she’s taking a hike in Outdoor Voices’ two-toned leggings or hitting the Country Music Awards red carpet in a tulle gown with musician boyfriend Mark Wystrach. “I’ve made an effort to make [followers] feel better about themselves so they keep coming back,” she says.

Many of today’s young female entrepreneurs are as comfortable narrating their morning routines on Instagram Stories as they are leading financial negotiations in boardrooms. Some have mastered the art of social media to the point of amassing tens—and even hundreds—of thousands of followers, becoming the sort of brand ambassadors that companies have traditionally paid to align with. Though these founders may not fully embrace the much-loathed designation “influencer,” they are plenty influential.

Only 2.2% of the overall $130 billion of venture capital raised by companies last year went to female founders. And yet, or perhaps, because of this scarcity, it is female entrepreneurship that is drawing disproportionate attention, especially in today’s era of post-#MeToo reckoning in the workplace and wider culture. If a decade ago the media was fixated on male startup founders in hoodies and flip-flops, today it’s reveling in images of GirlBoss Rallies, Bumble Bizz networking events, and female coworking spaces such as the Wing, where the photo ops are abundant. As a result, female entrepreneurs—even those with just a few thousand followers—are finding their voices amplified.

The female-founder-as-influencer phenomenon didn’t emerge overnight. Investors have long sought out entrepreneurs who embody a certain kind of “magnetism,” says Kirsten Green, founding partner at nine-year-old venture capital firm Forerunner Ventures, which has invested in a number of high-profile, female-forward brands over the years. “As a founder, you’re going to have to move mountains,” she says. “You’re going to have to compel so many people to get on that journey with you,” including investors, employees, and customers.

[Illustration: Cecilia Castelli]
When Forerunner offered seed funding to Emily Weiss, in 2013, a year before she launched her Glossier cosmetics brand, Weiss had already developed a following through her highbrow beauty blog, Into the Gloss. “Emily’s social media presence was the biggest asset she had,” Green says. “It gave me a sense of her aesthetic and her ability to capture her customers.” Today, Weiss has nearly half a million followers on her personal Instagram account, where she posts product-launch announcements along with vacation selfies and astrology memes. Under her direction, Glossier has cultivated an outsize social following of its own, which helped the direct-to-consumer brand surpass $100 million in revenue last year.

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It has become fairly standard for investors to look for early signs of a founder’s charisma on social media, especially when the founder is a woman. Sutian Dong, a partner at the Female Founders Fund, which backs women-led companies, consults entrepreneurs’ Instagram accounts to vet them and see how they might engage with their customers. “On Instagram, you can create community, which, historically, women have been better at doing,” she says.

Jen Rubio, cofounder and chief brand officer of luggage startup Away, began documenting her travels on Instagram long before she started her company. Today, she is both a travel tastemaker and an aspirational female entrepreneur, with 36,000 people watching her hustle to meetings around the globe. She’s become so influential that Nike recently sponsored a post on her account. “We’re all influencers at this point,” says Katherine Power, cofounder and CEO of Clique Brands, which includes the Who What Wear fashion site. “An Instagram account is like a homepage—I think of it as the first point of entry for my brand.”

For women, however, this kind of exposure raises a host of complicating, gendered considerations. “People sometimes [don’t realize] the affability that women have to have in this world,” says Jessica O. Matthews, founder and CEO of Uncharted Power, which provides renewable-energy infrastructure to developing communities. Matthews’s social presence is nascent, but she’s aware of how she presents herself online. “I know a lot of guys who are seen to be tech geniuses, and they don’t shower. I don’t think any woman could get away with it,” she says. In a medium that often emphasizes image over substance, looks matter: “The reality of the situation is, I have to make time to build my go-to-market strategy and get my weave done. There’s no world where anyone’s going to be okay with me looking like boo boo the fool,” she says. As a black female founder, Matthews feels the burden of representation even more acutely. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” she says. “I have to, to a certain extent, be willing to live out loud [on social media].”

Even when Instagram is being used to spread an empowering message, certain stereotypes are perpetuated. Often, female entrepreneurs must traffic in self-deprecation, conveying “a little bit of relatability,” says cultural critic and brand strategist Aminatou Sow, cofounder of the popular Call Your Girlfriend podcast. She has noticed that while male CEOs seem comfortable posting selfies taken aboard private jets, women tend to relegate posts that reveal their newfound lavish lifestyles to private accounts, or forgo them altogether. Outdoor Voices’ Haney says she’s conscious of not appearing too “daunting” on social media and avoids flaunting her success.

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There are practical hazards to tying your company’s image to your own. Polina Veksler and Alex Waldman, cofounders of the clothing company Universal Standard, which is known for its 00-to-40 size range, have both opted out of social media. To become the faces of Universal Standard would mean typecasting a brand whose entire ethos is to be untypecastable. “There’s a Chanel girl, an Armani woman,” Waldman says. “There’s no Universal Standard woman.” A founder’s personal failings can also be catastrophic to a company when their brands are intertwined. Period-underwear startup Thinx is still trying to recover from accusations two years ago that its flamboyant cofounder, Miki Agrawal, sexually harassed employees and created a hostile work environment. (She stepped down as CEO in 2017.)

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Being a brand ambassador can also be extraordinarily time-consuming. It’s perhaps not coincidental that many prominent female founders have deputies or top executives with quiet or nonexistent social media presences. Haney recently hired sportswear veteran Pamela Catlett as Outdoor Voices’ president and chief operating officer. Catlett has no Instagram account. Jen Rubio’s Away cofounder, CEO Steph Korey, is less active on social media. Drybar founder Alli Webb is the voice of the brand, while CEO John Heff­ner runs the company day-to-day. At the rising apparel brand Cuyana, the labor is often split between cofounders Karla Gallardo, the CEO who is less public-facing, and Shilpa Shah, who handles branding and serves as a spokeswoman. “I get the privilege of connecting with our audience,” Shah says, “because Karla has created the time for me to do so.”

For some female founders, even dabbling in the social media game is not worth the risk. Katerina Schneider, founder and CEO of the female-oriented vitamin brand Ritual, made a decision to avoid it completely. She admits that her team frequently suggests that the company might benefit if its customers had insight into Schneider’s experiences as an entrepreneur and a mother.

“When I speak at events, I tell women that they don’t have to choose: They can have kids and grow a business,” Schneider says. But she’s not interested in turning her private life into a showcase. “I don’t want to spend my time thinking about my outfit or the lighting or how my face is going to look in a selfie,” she says. “I prefer to spend it developing the best possible product.” For female founders in the age of Instagram, that’s an increasingly daring choice.

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