It's time to hire more women in startups – your products deserve it

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This is a guest post by Inmaculada Martinez, (@inma_martinez) a principal at Stradbroke Advisors, an investment and innovation agency working with investors and entrepreneurs in digital technologies.

European startups are setting their footprint in the world markets with greater strength these days. It was great to watch Saul Klein’s presentation at Plugg recently, recalling the breath of innovation that many European entrepreneurs have regaled the world with. It was even better to see the great quality of startup presentations that took place on the day. But in my speech I went off on a slight tangent: it is time to hire more women into tech startups. The lack of them is now so obvious that is becoming a blatant sight for sore eyes in any VC portfolio.

When the media covers entrepreneurial activities it has often highlighted the lack of women entrepreneurs at the helm of startups. We are all familiar with the jokes about geeky boys doing startups, which the media loves. But the picture is bigger than that: women are missing from the top positions of most organisations and places of power, not just entrepreneurial ventures.

This monolithic reality is as old as the sun and I sadly feel that it’s going to take ages to change simply because it is too entrenched into the fabric of society. For a change like this, a complete and radical change of company dynamics, the world is going to need a social tsunami. An organic change can take decades. I do not want to wait any longer. I threw the toys out of the pram at Plugg. Now I am going to start yelling from the rooftops: GIVE ENTREPRENEURIAL WOMEN A CHANCE.

The best way to speed things up to create this change is in the organisations that begin their corporate lives with a blank page: startups.

Enterprises where innovation, change and challenges are the order of the day. If I was to launch this call, it had to be to them. Trying to tell GE, or Merrill Lynch, or BP to put a woman at the top to run the place would be like trying to convince a dog to give you his juicy bone. No way Jose. You get to those top-dog positions after years of political battles. Like any self-respecting Chieftain would do once at the top, you create even tougher rules to prevent your power being snatched. Not just by women: by anybody that wants to debunk you.

I am not asking for a change of power. At least not yet. I’d like to be more practical right now. I want two clear things: better products and better chances for women.

As a woman, I cannot live anymore allowing that 90% of the products I consume and purchase are created by men, and hence lack the ingredients that I know would appeal to me much more, as a member of 50% of the population.

Advertising does an amazing job camouflaging this reality with campaigns that sometime work – Gillette Venus razors, and some other times just annoys the whole female gender – pink laptops from you-know-who. I want design and services that appeal to me for real, that carry the creativity and talent that comes out of a female brain, a brain that is wired different to that of a man’s.

As a woman entrepreneur and running my own enterprises for now a decade, I also want social change. I want more women to be given the change to show how brilliant they are and the amazing value that they add to organisations and collaborative teams.

The world needs more women in startups because if these women in their 20s and 30s are given the chance to ignite the world with innovation and the power of their skills, there will be more chances of them entering the realm of power – monetary (if successful), corporate, even political (if they back politicians or get involved in philanthropy).

At Plugg, reactions to my ‘call to arms’ bursted out from people’s hearts the minute I announced it. ‘Yes, we need to hire more women’, was everyone’s consensus. But why not more women CEOs?

The steering position in a company is one hell of a ride. It is a hugely demanding occupation that I do not wish it forced upon anyone. You live enslaved to the whims of your board of directors, the swings of what the stock market does to your shares, the conference calls on the weekends, the 6.00am flights to foreign meetings and the dealing with individuals that live for the corporate kill and machiavelian intrigues.

You only do that for your baby, for the company you created if you manage to keep yourself at the steering wheel. Still, the hard truth is that no money or shares are worth having if you can’t see your children in the evening, or your weekends are interrupted, or you do not even know when you will be able to have a proper holiday or a rest.

The top, the top of power, is like Mordor in most of the cases because power, real power, if we are talking about helming FTSE100 corporations, corrupts. It is a tough place to survive if you are a man. It is even worse if you are a woman. I want women to make it there when it does not have to be like that.

Nowadays it’s still a bloody mess for everyone that dares. I did. Three times. I know what it is. It is enormous self-sacrifice for the growth and wellbeing of an enterprise. If it is well paid, when the depression kicks in the back of the taxi at 10.00 pm riding back home, it is the thought that at least you are (perhaps) making F.U. money – or perhaps very close to making it, if you have chances of a proper exit. It is a job for the brave, the few ones, male and female.

I am asking for a wider vision: the chance for more women to enter the entrepreneurial ranks and have the chance to show how awesome they are.

I don’t have a Geordie accent like Cheryl Cole but I’ll say it anyways in slightly Spanish-peppered English: “C’mon everybody, let’s see it. Women are worth it and it is time you let us show it”.

  • Damon Oldcorn

    Good article, well written, with the right intentions. But ” Still, the hard truth is that no money or shares are worth having if you can’t see your children in the evening, or your weekends are interrupted, or you do not even know when you will be able to have a proper holiday or a rest. ”
    Would indicate that to truly compete they must get past this point, as there are plenty of people who will, whether it is the right or balanced thing to do. Remember wrting an article in my magazine column some 15 years ago pushing the exact same theme. Does not mean it is not worth fighting for, but shows just how hard the change will be.

    • Inma Martinez

      Before I CEO-ed a startup in Finland, I was of the same thinking: that you HAVE TO work crazy late hours in detriment of your loved ones, that you CAN’T take weeks-long holidays.

      Truth is, the Nordic region, from Norway to Finland functions like clock-work even when people leave the office at 4.00 pm and the month of July shuts the countries down. What we need is CEOs that manage their commitments with more common sense: knowing that spending winding down time with their families is good for business, too, not just themselves – do you know the divorce rate in Investment Banking? Exactly.

      We need to realise that it is not about pouring hours-on-end on the job but learning to do the same job BETTER and more time efficiently. Who said that meetings had to be 1 hour long?
      If Jorma Ollila managed to build the power house that NOKIA became in the early 2000s with Finnish-style CEOing, we need to be able to do the same.

      What I was keen to highlight is that perhaps if women are allowed to insert themselves into organisations, at least at executive committee levels, the changing of the rules will allow for a better way to be a CEO in the future.

  • Rodolfo

    Are you implying that women despite being 50% of the population and 20% of MBAs they are somehow unable to start companies on their own or join a founding team so I should give them preferential treatment when recruiting?

    When I was looking for talent to bootstrap my company the male/female ratio of people looking to join a startup was 20/1 and see above for the low number of MBA applicants as well.

    It’s not a demand problem but a supply problem at least in the startup world.

    • Inma Martinez

      True. Women entrepreneurs are a very scarce thing, just like straight men in the Fashion industry, believe-you-me.

      What I am implying is that perhaps if you had in your heart that hiring women was to be a MUST for your business – for example, your radar would start highlighting better where those women are in the room you are networking at, or someone would recommend you a good event for women entrepreneurs you could attend to check things out.

      Your brain is a funny thing. Not until you make him aware of something it does take notice.

  • Carsten Kolbek

    I would love to have more women entrepreneurs in our startups. In fact we are in the process of starting a chain of Health & Beauty shops in UK using a great – but still male – team because we do not have access to women entrepreneurs!!!

    When we attract entrepreneurs and CEO to join our startups we always go for diversity and in fact we have nearly ten nationalities represented in our current team. And it has clear value.

    The challenge is still the lack of women. So if you are out there please contact us!


    • lauren

      I AGREE!! WOmen is what we need. A WOman is a woman who is full of wow-ing power, in love with life, brilliant and determined.

  • Agnes

    Greetings from the base :I am a 25 years old female wanne-be computer scientist (Dipl. Inf. in a year hopefully).
    We are out here!
    I`ve met some very promising talents in the last years who are definitively able to move something.
    Right now, the amount of women in technical PhDs are increasing which reflects the 20% women in computer science / bioinformatics at my university (University of Tübingen).
    Additionally the C3`s in Berlin have been visited by far more women over the last years and the numbers are still growing. (C3: conference by the German Chaos Computer Club)
    At least in (German) computer science, something is obviously changing.

    As a daughter of a father currently working as someone two levels under a CEO, I know what it feels to work in this “old” system. My mother is alone from Mon – Fri since 18 years, raised us four kids on her own and maintains the “base” for my father so his focus is solely on work.
    This is insane.
    And after 15 years of economy and management lessons at Saturday morning breakfasts I am quite sure, we covered every aspect of the problem: it`s the system.
    There are so many people out there, who just can`t let go of things. If you improve your organization and invest the free time in a healthy relationship, your work should stay at the same high level with less stress.

    I don`t mind going into industry after i got my doctor degree but only with my own rules. I work for fun and to earn the living for my family. If this system scares the hell out of women for being pregnant in the wrong “situation in life”, this can`t be the future.
    Every time I talk to really clever women about their future plans and we touch the point “marriage”/ “pregnancy” they just don`t know. We don`t have that many day care centers here in Germany. If we don`t earn enough to pay these institutions, what do we do with the kids?
    And this is in my opinion the huge problem, why nowadays most of them don`t go into startups.
    I`ll solve this problem, when it`s needed to be solved.

    So we are here ^^ and I am convinced, there will be some movement in the next years.

  • Artem Pylypchuk

    The explanation is simple:
    Women never do tech startups. If they did, they’d have the top position and could hire themselves whoever they want. So, as all startups are done by men (who seem not to want a women in their team) – this is what we get.

  • Jonny

    It takes serious commit and a nerve of steel to start-up and run an internet business. Lots of women have it, but lots don’t as well.

    As your comment “the hard truth is that no money or shares are worth having if you can’t see your children in the evening, or your weekends are interrupted, or you do not even know when you will be able to have a proper holiday or a rest.” shows, some women are not willing to make the sacrifices that many men are or to succeed in business. Having a holiday sunning oneself on the beach for two weeks is something that the majority of the world’s population don’t have and can be sacrificed for business success.

  • Damon Oldcorn

    “What I was keen to highlight is that perhaps if women are allowed to insert themselves into organisations, at least at executive committee levels, the changing of the rules will allow for a better way to be a CEO in the future.”

    Allowed to insert themselves? – suggesting positive vetting as was practiced so successfully in the US for Blacks, would again be a big ask. Its a bit like social mobility in the UK under this government, most of those opportunities have gone backwards not forward. Again agree with the overall sentiment that females add a different balance which can be positive for start ups.

  • Julie Meyer

    We won’t have more women running start-ups until there are more women VC’s and angel investors backing women to do the CEO job. Men evaluate women differently; women evaluate men through their lenses. Many men are hugely pro-women entrepreneurs, but the first point still stands. The [sad] truth is that we simply need to support those women out there who are running their own start-ups [Polly Gowers of Everyclick who recently closed a funding round, etc] so that as and when they succeed, more men simply see that they were foolish to have let those backable women not receive their funding and support. Men don’t do anything that isn’t in their interest, so we have to simply demonstrate that it is in their interest that women succeed as start-up CEO’s. That is how we’ll get the virtuous circle of more women running start-ups successfully going.

  • Mila Sukhareva

    I second Julie, women have less access to the VC’s money.
    In spite of excellent track records and success stories, women with already running startups get funded harder than even half-baked startups with men CEOs.

    Are there examples of VCs funding European (especially German) startups lead by women?

  • Sue Harrison

    I agree with Julie. I have just successfully raised angel investment and all of our investors are men. That is not because women didn’t like our business, it’s because there were rarely any women in the audience when we presented. Men do stereotype women. One angel investor asked us when we fitted in doing the ironing. Would he have asked a man that question?

    • Mila Sukhareva

      I and my partners (who are all men) also raised angel investment, but it’s quite difficult to talk with VCs about more serious investments. At least in Germany. They do stereotype women.

  • Nancy Ahola

    I think that tech in general is still a boy’s club. They drink together, tell dirty jokes and lend money to each other. I went to a networking meeting here in Finland and I was only 1 of the 2 women in the room among 35+ men, all in the tech field.

    As women, I think that we are taught not to be aggressive. If we are, we’re seen as “pushy” or “a bitch”. But if a man does it, he’s a “trendsetter”. One of the things in this industry is that women need to show that they are just as smart, motivated and brilliant as any man. But it will always still be difficult.

    But no matter what, I still want to start my tech start-up and show that women can do it well!

    • Fact checker

      Hi Nancy – thanks for sharing.

      I have a few quick question for you. You mentioned how you were only 1 of 2 women at a networking event…did you consider this an advantage (hey, you stand out!). Any ideas why there were not more women at the event?

      From another perspective, I think the companies in the room would really welcome some additional diversity (not just women, but all types of other nationalities, etc).

      in the meantime, maybe being the only unique person in the room could be an advantage

  • Kacie

    I’ve encouraged my husband as he’s worked in tech startups over the past several years and the atmosphere of creativity and innovation is contagious, so I have a newly-launched tech startup as well. As with most guy-started tech startups, it’s centered around something I know and love, and it solves a “problem” in my community using innovative and sharp technology. I’ve bootstrapped it to where it is today, but my efforts to raise even a tiny bit of angel investing have fallen on deaf ears. I haven’t gotten great feedback, but I think it’s pretty safe to assume my product is unappealing because I’m talking about quilting (albeit modern) and not something like bar-crawling or check-ins. I guess the 30 million quilters world-wide (at least 4,000 of whom are active bloggers) don’t make up a significant enough market.

    Also, regarding the point about no money being worth it if you can’t see your kids in the evenings: I know I have the drive of Gary Vaynerchuk and could put in the time and energy to make my business go crazy (or “crush it,” if you will). But I also value my role as a wife and a mom more than my role as an entrepreneur and I need more than a few minutes a week with my husband and son. Investors are giving money to the wrong people if they’re only investing in entrepreneurs who will sacrifice their families and all other responsibilities in the hopes their business will pay off big. Success in business and life isn’t defined by how many hours a person works or what the bottom line is, it’s defined by quality of relationships – be those relationships with clients, vendors, investors, coworkers, friends or family members.

    Thanks for the article – I completely agree. The tech world would be stronger with more women in leadership, whether they come from new start-ups or from smart hires.

  • hmmmmm

    Sorry inma, but this post doesn’t really advance the debate, it just says “it’s hard running your own business”.

    “The chance for more women to enter the entrepreneurial ranks and have the chance to show how awesome they are.”

    If you’re an entrepreneur, why ask for an opportunity that you are meant to take? Why all of a sudden does everyone need to be nurtured? This is business, after all. It’s competitive. There are boys’ clubs. Get over it! The internet is an enormous place.

    • Inma Martinez

      I wrote the post because in most cases people go on shrugging their shoulders up a la française and do NOTHING. Specially in Europe. Specially in the UK. Culturally Europe loves to live stuck in its old ways until someone comes and long and raises the issue.

      Here is the DEBATE:

      1. Yes, July went to one of the top show-stoppers: that because there are less women lending money, the women entrepreneurs get less chances to be in their trust/peer mindset.

      2. Men tend to hire along the same lines: they feel more attuned and connected to other men. At Innovate100 London the CEO of Shutl apologised to the audience for showing his Board and Exec Management slide full of men’s mugfaces and refered to the company as “A BIT OF A SAUSAGE FEST” (his words). INDEED this type of unbalanced situations sticks out like a sore thumb but I raised the important issue: THE FACT THAT COMPANIES WILL MISS OUT IF THEY DO NOT HIRE FEMALE TALENT because we really are two different kinds of humans. I went for a world of BETTER PRODUCTS.

      3. The CEO debacle. In the industrial revolution no one gave a damn if the workers ate at 12 noon or had a break let alone took holidays. And all good Christian people went to bed thinking they did enough just providing employment. The corporate world – thank God- has evolved and now employers made you work just 7 hours a day, with 1 hour lunch and 20-25 days of paid holidays. The notion is that people need to rest, people need nourishment during the day. WHEN THE HECK ARE WE GOING TO REALISE that having a LIFE after work will decrease the RATE OF DIVORCE, children will grow up with better upbringing and less abandonment, and ABOVE ALL, people will be MORE EFFICIENT AT WORK?
      This is not a Martin Luther King Dream that I had last night; THIS IS HOW SCANDINAVIA LIVES and their GDP and public sector is doing bloody well, thank-you-very-much.

      I am advocating for a WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE:

      a. Women are a great asset to hire into executive management. Please try to scope some more CVs from women and put them into action. YES I am asking for this just like women have had to ask for pretty much EVERY SOCIAL RIGHT THAT WE HAVE (otherwise we would still be at home not voting and not having the rights to our own bank accounts, marry whomever we want etc.)

      b. Leading at CEO level needs to start changing to a more EFFICIENT way to work so that ANYONE, men or women, can have a HALF DECENT LIVE.

      Is this asking too much? I don’t think so.

    • Inma Martinez

      Oh, and I forgot:

      Does anyone watch MAD MEN on BBC4?

      How are the women treated at the agency? In New York (not some bunny town) in the 1960s? (not THAT LONG AGO?)

      IT SUCKED.

      I am being nice. I am asking politely. Some will do it because they also realise like me that this trend is not bringing about the best results.

      Others will go on with the sausage fest – I love you Tom Allason, you rock, but I don’t think that for too long.

  • Damon Oldcorn
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