Being an entrepreneur is challenging enough. But as a woman, startup life is more complicated. In 2016, the VC funding that went to women founders was a paltry 2.9 percent. But despite these odds, we see women founders who have persisted in pursuing their passion for entrepreneurship.
So what got them to start up and what are the challenges they face in a male-dominated scene? I spoke to four Singapore-based women founders about their startup journeys and their perspectives.
How did you begin your startup journey?
A tumultuous experience
Roshni Mahtani, the founder and CEO of Tickled Media, said her startup life was tumultuous. According to her, “Half of the time [it was] nerve-wracking, the other half was downright thrilling. But all the while, it was exhausting,”
Mahtani shared that she had her fair share of epic mistakes. She recalled the time when she was on vacation and the whole team resigned on her. “I was heartbroken, but I also knew that it was a wake-up call,” she said. “I took a good, long look at what I had to fix in my company and went right to short-term firefighting and long-term planning.”
Lena Quek founded Babykins when she experienced her pain point, literally. After giving birth to her child, she realized that being a parent was a monumental change and that there was no shortage of pain points that needed addressing. She created an app in response, which helps parents and extended caregivers track and understand their babies’ development.
She credits her husband as her number one supporter. He reminds her that it is the journey that matters most, regardless of the result. Of course, there are days where he jokes, “Maybe make this a hobby instead?”
After struggling to get an objective assessment and quotation for legal work in a previous business, Cherilyn Tan founded Asia Law Network, a platform that facilitates the engagement of legal services in Asia.
It was natural for her to be an entrepreneur, as she was brought up in a family of business people. According to her, “Understanding business concepts and trying to do things on my own started really young [since I started] taking on leadership roles as a student and dreaming and making things happen in my immediate circles.”
The drive for innovation
Dr. Wenting Sun‘s career as a trained scientist crossed startups, MNCs, and research institutions. She always wanted to find the best way for people to use and benefit from technology. To create a solution smart enough but easy to use for everyday business is what drove her to the startup scene.
“The unlimited potential of continued innovation and being able to oversee how the science is applied to solve real-life problems is something that intrigues me,” she said.
She is the founder of Optimate, a marketing automation solution utilizing advanced science.
Sun’s family and friends have given her a lot of support—from putting up a connection to giving her the freedom to explore entrepreneurship to the fullest.
Why do you think female entrepreneurs have less funding?
Tan finds that male VCs, who are the majority, are used to male entrepreneurs’ styles which tend to be more aggressive and forward. Females, however, generally tend to adopt a different strategy in business because of different strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, these unique strengths are mistaken for weaknesses.
Quek agrees with Tan. “As a woman entrepreneur, I value work-life balance and family time, but this doesn’t necessarily affect my productivity and performance,” she added. “I work hard during the day while my kids are at childcare, but after hours and weekends are sacred family time. I think more businesses and employers—startup or not—need to realize that being a mother is a full-time job and we need to think about sustainable practices to support women in the workforce.”
Mahtani, on the other hand, cited various VCs who have backed many female founders. But she also admits that they are still the minority.
She found that this comes from a misguided mindset. When it comes to funding, VCs automatically ask how the female founder balances motherhood and work, despite what stage in life they are in. “It’s an indication that no matter how far we’ve come, the workplace is still seen by many as a man’s world, and the home, a woman’s.”
She also discussed her findings from surveys. A JWT market survey, for example, showed that women do not see entrepreneurship as a way to gain financial independence, with only 11 percent of women wanting to start a business. Another survey by the NUS Entrepreneurship Center also cited that far fewer girls aspired to be entrepreneurs than boys.
In order to overcome mindsets, she thinks there needs to be a conscious shift in mentality and a showcase of female role models.
What can we do to resolve gender discrimination in the startup world?
Apart from receiving less funding, there are other forms of gender discrimination. The four founders shared with me some interesting anecdotes and what they did to overcome discrimination.
When Mahtani started her company at 25, she noticed that people didn’t take her seriously. “I would go to meetings with male business owners in their 40s and they wouldn’t even look at me, directing their questions to junior male employees instead,” she exclaimed.
According to her, gender discrimination is “a many-faced, ever-evolving monster.” But ironically, businesses have so much to gain from being managed by women. She cited the 2017 BNP Paribas Global Entrepreneur Report which showed women outperforming men in personal net worth and primary company turnover in the “Elite Entrepreneurs” category. In her opinion, everyone should be rallying to have more women entrepreneurs across all industries.
According to Quek, on the other hand, when she works with engineers, she sometimes feels they think, “Oh no, another female who doesn’t know any better.” But once she shows them she understands the technical jargon and respects their working styles, that feeling usually dissipates.
“Being a mom has definitely taught me to grow thicker skin! Faced with the necessity of breastfeeding (or pumping) wherever and whenever, I’ve learned to tune out any outside judgment and criticism. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and it’s the same for business as well. There will always be a lot of different views on how you should run your startup, but at the end of the day, you should always trust your own instinct and hard work.”
In her recent article, Tan wrote about how certain men will use their dominance in the marketplace to take advantage of fellow female colleagues.
She feels strongly about voicing up these issues, saying:
“By speaking up, we will be able to stop these men from doing more harm in the marketplace. Speaking up may not mean going to the media; it may mean first going through institutional means of resolution, bringing the issue up to the board or HR, and if nothing is being done, seeking resolution in other means.”
Sun, on the other hand, doesn’t feel discriminated. But according to her, people often give her surprised looks when they find out she has a PhD and is a CEO. To resolve this, she uses data to tell the story. She said that when it comes to numbers, there is no gender segregation and that our ability to consistently deliver results is key to overcoming discrimination.
Any advice to female entrepreneurs?
Tan initially doubted herself when she was recommended to be on a board of a company. In this light, she advised women to be bold, put themselves out there, not worry too much, and hustle like the men would anyway.
Mahtani recommended three points:
- Be ready to give it your all and to be in it for the long haul. Find something you’re passionate about, something you can live and breathe.
- Don’t underestimate the power of your network. You may perceive entrepreneurship to be a lonely road and think that asking for help is a cop-out, but don’t let your pride get in the way of your success. Mistakes are such a huge part of this journey, so learn from those who’ve already walked your path.
- Never, never, never give up. There is always a solution, even if that solution is an exit strategy. Just don’t throw in the towel. Keep at it.
This is the 20th article of the “Startup Advisory Clinic” series.
This article first appeared on Tech in Asia.