Why do women still comprise the minority of successful founders? What can be done to change this?
At a glance
We asked Hambro Perks’ Kate Burns and Memery Crystal Chair Lesley Gregory to share their insights into what it takes to be a successful founder.
It’s assumed women are under-represented in senior management roles and as founders. Is this true? If so, how big is the shortfall?
Kate: “About 30 per cent of our portfolio is run by women. That’s pretty good. I would love it to be 50 per cent, but 30 per cent seems to be the sticking point. And that’s not just in the portfolio but in general representation. How can we get more female founders into deal flow? We need to start asking that question more.”
Lesley: “The reality is, in law there are more females than males joining at the graduate level, but the senior board level is still male dominated. So when it comes to appointing senior board positions, sometimes there just aren’t that many women to choose from.”
“I have seen it many times. Boards draw up the qualities they are looking for, and then struggle to find that type of individual. They discover that the right female, with the right level of experience, just isn’t out there.”
How should the culture change to remedy this?
Kate: “I’ve seen good progression in my sector. When I was at Google, I had the benefit of working with incredibly smart female leaders. But we were mostly on the business side. In engineering and product – the creation and ideation side at Google – women were fewer than 10 per cent.”
“That was recognised as a cultural challenge and unfortunately it comes down to the education system. Girls at school are not drawn to coding or engineering. So I see women running consumer-led B2C firms or retail – which is great. But I would love to see more coming through the tech ranks.”
“We need to encourage girls. To show them that starting companies is an option for them, and that they can come up with great ideas and be entrepreneurial.”
Lesley: “I think a lot of the problem in law comes back to providing the support to enable women to continue their careers after they start a family. Returning to work after maternity leave is hard. You have to prove you can generate the same level of client service to rebuild trust among your colleagues.”
“Today, we can do better. We can support women returning to work, while not placing them at a disadvantage (or indeed advantage) over their colleagues who are in different domestic situations.”
Kate: “It’s with great sadness I’ve seen many women fall away because of this. It’s a real loss to society to lose that talent. But it can be a great opportunity too. Entrepreneurship is flexible. If you want to juggle a family and a career, you can control own hours and so on. I’d like to see more formalised schemes around facilitating that. I think we’d all benefit from seeing more women founders coming from that demographic.”
How can women help fellow women in business with mentoring and networking?
Lesley: “I struggled with a lack of senior female role models when I was in the early stages of my career. This type of support didn’t exist then. That’s why I have put in place support networks through which females can find help and advice if issues arise.”
“Memery Crystal’s Women in Business Network is a good example. It gives our clients and contacts the chance to meet inspirational senior women and like-minded individuals. Sometimes just hearing that someone else has been through your situation is all you need to keep on track.”
Kate: “I do feel a responsibility to help women flourish. I just took it for granted when I started here that women would need support from another woman. Especially someone who has worked in industry for 20 to 25 years; someone with experience and also empathy. I think it means a lot to the female founders that I work with. I work very closely with one female founder. She has most of the answers, but I provide a sounding board. And it’s very mutually fruitful.”
Are women different to men as business leaders – for example, in pitch scenarios?
Lesley: “Women bring different qualities to a board, which can add huge value to its decision-making and leadership. These qualities are often understated and overlooked.”
“Having women on boards also reflects a firm’s overall attitude. It reveals a desire to support females in the workplace, which will attract a diversified pool of employees. That in turn leads to a more effective mix of individuals and skills.”
Kate: “I definitely feel that women do bring something different. It’s more natural for them to be empathetic and patient. They can also be very self-deprecating, and tend not to promote themselves with vigour as men do. But that can be a great quality. They put their teams forward and tend to be more inclusive. But don’t get me wrong. I’ve worked with women that can be brutal! Real dynamos.”
“In pitches, I don’t think women focus as much on the big idea as men. Men present the big world-changing idea without really substantiating it, while women can get stuck on detail and tend to be ‘too’ truthful on numbers. It’s safer but doesn’t get investors really excited. So what I do is show them that, yes, this is a big idea so let’s think big – with all the diligence and the numbers you prepared to support it.”
Lesley Gregory is Memery Crystal’s Chair.
Kate Burns was formerly director of Google UK, Ireland and Benelux, and head of AOL Europe. She is now a VC at Hambro Perks.
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