advertisement
advertisement
advertisement

These women entrepreneurs are working to help each other succeed

For women entrepreneurs, finding networks of their own–much like the “mafias” of homogeneous founders spawned by tech exits–can be key to their success.

These women entrepreneurs are working to help each other succeed
[Photo: undefined undefined/iStock]

When Polly Rodriguez started sexual wellness company Unbound, she struggled to find her place among male-dominated tech entrepreneur circles. “It was hard to be taken seriously in general because of the products that we were selling,” Rodriguez says. “And I grew up in the Midwest from a lower-middle-class background–so there was no one in my life that had started a business before.”

advertisement
advertisement

Instead, she turned to some of the enclaves for women founders in New York. “I think that’s how I ended up building a massive network of female founders,” she says. “I absolutely would not be here today if I didn’t have them to turn to.”

You’ll hear similar accounts from other female founders, many of whom feel shut out of more traditional networks of mentors and entrepreneurs. (Not to mention they’re starved for venture capital dollars, which are largely reserved for male founders: In 2018, just 2.3% of total capital went to women entrepreneurs.) Elle Huerta gave up on general networking events while starting Mend, a self-care app for heartbreak. “It was always interesting to me that a lot of people–men especially–couldn’t be imaginative about something that they didn’t have direct experience with,” she says. “This is something a lot of us experienced, so after a while, I stopped going to those events because they were just a waste of my time. I was like, ‘It would be more valuable for me just to go home, focus on building my company, and get traction so that I can be taken seriously.'”

For these women, building out networks of their own–much like the “mafias” of homogeneous founders spawned by tech exits–can be key to their success. In Silicon Valley, the moneyed alumni of tech heavyweights–and soon, the likes of Airbnb and Uber–have long offered guidance and financial backing to their peers and friends. For investors, entrepreneurs with that pedigree can seem like a sure bet. “They are looking for any indication or sense of validity because they’re inundated with pitches,” Rodriguez says. “You see time and time again that the generation of PayPal and Facebook went on to fund the next companies that went on to fund the next companies. And that’s largely because the VCs are like, Well, if he did well there, he’ll do well here, too. For women, we don’t have those examples to point to because all of us are basically first-time founders.”

Rodriguez often felt that potential mentors and investors in the Valley evaluated her work largely on the merits of her tech stack, and how it ranked against tech companies in more traditional verticals. “But I think women get it,” she says. “They get that making products is really hard. Branding is hard. Marketing is hard. It just doesn’t demand the same respect in the world of Silicon Valley when it comes to mentorship.”

What Rodriguez and Huerta also found was that female entrepreneurs were more candid about the challenges they had faced. “One of the reasons we bonded was because we all have this shared experience—the categories that we were in were ones where it was harder to raise money,” Huerta says of a circle of women entrepreneurs she frequently turns to, which includes Rodriguez. “But I have continued to really cultivate the relationships I have with my friends who are female founders of companies because they are so open and honest.”

If female founders tend to share more about the hurdles they’ve faced while fundraising or, say, hiring, Rodriguez believes it’s partly due to a lack of confidence. Finding a group of women founders who talk candidly about their experiences can also help silence one’s inner critic. “I think women are so much more forthright because we are more pragmatic,” she says. “We have to be. So when an investor is pressing you and is like, ‘Is there a possibility that this will fail?’ Most women are going to respond with, ‘Well, yeah.'”

advertisement

Eva Goicochea, the founder of sex essentials startup Maude, has found these groups invaluable but wishes male peers were as forthcoming. “I would say the real value comes from the honesty around the topics,” she says. “I would love for men to be in the room if they would say they don’t have everything figured out. So yes, I’m pro-women and pro-women’s groups, but I’m also like, ‘Can we all just be honest about what it takes to build a startup?'”

What competition?

Of course, carving out a female-friendly space isn’t just about camaraderie—it’s also good for business and helps lay the groundwork for a new ecosystem of female founders and investors. When Mend tested an ad-supported model of its app in late 2018, Huerta broached Rodriguez, who agreed to sign on as their first advertiser. (As a company in the sex tech space, Unbound has to contend with countless ad regulations, so advertising opportunities are harder to come by.) “I know Unbound really well,” she says. “I know what their mission is, and I believe in what they’re doing. So I have no problem introducing that brand to our audience. I can feel good about that, and it’s mutually beneficial.”

On Valentine’s Day, Mend put out a gift box, for which she collaborated with a number of founders in her network, including Unbound but also the minds behind vitamin startup Ritual and feminine wellness care brand Queen V. And in February, Mend hosted an event with Maude in its Brooklyn space, free of charge. “That kind of thing makes such a big difference when you’re a startup and don’t have a big marketing budget,” Huerta says.

Unbound and Mend have both also benefitted from tie-ups with founders and companies that are much further along. Mend has done multiple events with social networking platform Bumble. “Being able to plug into that audience has been huge for us,” Huerta says. “For them, we’re a drop in the bucket. So when a company that’s really been able to scale collaborates with smaller female-founded companies–which they’re doing all the time–that really helps.”

And according to Rodriguez, having Zola founder Shan-Lyn Ma as an investor and adviser for Unbound has shown her what it must be like to have the boys’ club at your disposal. “I didn’t know what a good adviser looked like until she became one of our advisers,” she says. “She opened up her network to me in a way that I was like, ‘Oh, this is how the men do it.’ She sent off a bunch of emails–and when Shan emails somebody, they’re going to take the meeting because she’s been so successful.”

In other words, this isn’t the one-upmanship that the likes of Lyft and Uber engage in. These founders recognize that as more female founders rise to the top–and clock billion dollar valuations–it boosts all female founders. In fact, some of Unbound’s “fiercest competitors” in the sex tech space are also Rodriguez’s closest friends. “Ultimately, we’re not competing against each other,” she says. “We’re competing against the patriarchy.”

advertisement

Huerta says that she sees a shared target audience across many of the companies run by her peers, especially as they invest more in, say, offline experiences. “We’ve all built digital communities, and we’ve also seen the value of bringing those communities offline and bringing them together,” Huerta says. “The likelihood is low that you’re going to be on a dating app, break up with someone, and buy a wedding dress all at the same time, but we have the whole ecosystem covered. So when we bring those people together in real life, a lot of times it does make sense to introduce all of our brands.”

One frustration for Goicochea has been that investors seem to either assume all female founders are friends or try to pit them against each other. “Women are supposed to love or hate each other, and there’s not much in between,” she says. “They almost make you feel like there’s only one seat for one woman in one category at the table.”

But the female founders boasting $1 billion valuations help prove otherwise. “They’ve built huge businesses in spaces that probably got dismissed early on,” she says of startups like Glossier and Rent the Runway. “Like, ‘You can’t build a billion-dollar lip balm.’ ‘Who’s going to rent clothes?’ But their businesses are amazing. It takes these champions and trailblazers to make it easier for all of us.”

advertisement
advertisement

About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

More