Hurdles Encountered as a Female Founder
There are certain challenges that every entrepreneur can expect to face. From figuring out how to secure funding, hire employees, and plan a marketing strategy, founding a business is not for the faint of heart. But female founders face an additional layer of challenges that their male peers may never experience: fewer available mentors, investors who don’t take you seriously, or a bevy of misconceptions about how women should speak and behave.
Female entrepreneurs have come a long way, and the number of female-run businesses has slowly crept up in the past few decades. In 2018, women-owned firms made up nearly 20% of all firms that employed workers in the US. However, of those firms, the vast majority are owned by white women, highlighting the particular challenges that women of color face when trying to get a business off the ground. And when setbacks occur, they typically hit female and minority-run businesses the hardest. As a prime example, COVID-19 put a significant number of female-run businesses in a precarious situation. A recent survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce showed that women who describe their business’s overall health as “somewhat or very good” fell 13 points during the pandemic to just 47%, compared to a five point drop for male business owners to 62%.
There’s room for improvement, but there’s also reason to be hopeful. Many female founders are excelling, and there’s every reason to believe that women will be in the economic driver’s seat in the years to come. Here are some hurdles that a female founder can expect to encounter, and some tips on how to deal with them.
“Female founders face a lot of implicit biases, many of which may hurt their prospects. Funders and potential partners might think that a female leader will be less assertive, or less able to tolerate a high degree of stress. As a female founder, you will have to be proactive about addressing these biases, and make it clear to outside partners that you are more than equipped to handle the challenges of running a business.” – Heidi Streeter, Founder of Holiday St.
Few Available Mentors
“An unfortunate downside of being a female founder is that there are few women in similar positions. This makes it especially challenging when it comes to finding a mentor who will understand the unique challenges you face. Male mentors can be very helpful allies, and will give invaluable advice. But there are unique challenges that women face in the workplace, especially when they’re founding a business, and the lack of mentors who will understand your position can be a hurdle. I suggest female founders seek out a group of likeminded women who can support one another – there are a lot of professional networks out there that can help female founders find a solid support system.” – Cindy Le, Co-Founder and COO of Revela
Limited Access to Funding
“It’s a sad truth that many female-run ventures struggle to find funding, often more than their male peers do. Some investors simply want to invest in someone who reminds them of themselves, and unfortunately the majority of investors are male. This can make things especially challenging for a woman who is working to get her business off the ground, and she will have to work harder to secure funding. Luckily, there are investors out there who specifically seek out female-run businesses. Reach out to your network and make as many connections as you can, it will be invaluable when you’re looking to find the right investors.” – Maegan Griffin, Founder, CEO and Nurse Practitioner at Skin Pharm
“Unfortunately, many people have very outdated expectations of how women should behave. There’s still a belief that women should be circumspect and not put themselves forward. A lot of the characteristics that a successful leader needs to embody are not typically associated with female behavior. If a woman speaks in a direct manner, for example, it can come off as aggressive. If a female founder owns her successes and speaks honestly about the value of her company, it can be perceived as arrogant. We’ve come a long way towards shifting these expectations, but there is still more work to be done.” – Sarah Pirrie, Brand Director at Healist Naturals
“It’s true for women everywhere, but it’s especially true when you’re running a business: people will give you a lot of unsolicited advice. The subtext is that they don’t think you know what you’re doing, or they assume that you need help. While a lot of advice is certainly valuable and well-meaning, it can be discouraging to consistently have your decisions second-guessed, especially when you haven’t asked for the advice. Listen to the valuable advice, discard the less-than-valuable advice, and be confident in your decisions.” – Nancy L Belcher, Ph.D., MPA and Co-Founder of Winona
“Many women struggle with self-doubt, and female founders are no different. Building a business from scratch takes a lot of confidence and grit, and it often feels as though there’s no place for self-doubt in the business world. As a female founder, you’ll have to deal with a lot of people who don’t understand your vision or who don’t take you seriously. It’s completely normal to have periods of self-doubt, but remember what your mission is. Remind yourself of the need you’re filling or the gap you’re addressing. You have a specific field of expertise and a vision, the key is to stay focused and remember that you’re doing this for a reason.” – Adelle Archer, CEO and Co-Founder of Eterneva
Inappropriate Behavior and Questions
“As a female founder, you’ll likely deal with inappropriate behavior or questions at some point in your career. Whether it’s a well meaning question about how you’ll manage to take care of your family while running a business, or something more nefarious, female founders have to deal with questions and behaviors that male founders would never experience. Make sure you surround yourself with the right people, and have a strong support system in place.” – Lauren Kleinman, Co-Founder of The Quality Edit
Old Boys Club
“The old saying ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ is true, for better or worse, and it can create a tricky hurdle for female founders. In many industries, there is still an old boys club mentality, where men network with other men because those are the people they know and the people they trust. In many instances it may not even be a conscious decision, but when an opportunity presents itself, someone who is already well connected within a group will typically have an advantage. For female founders it’s important to network strategically, and to nurture those connections.” – Julie Harris, Co-CEO and Head of Coaching at Tim & Julie Harris Real Estate Coaching
“Female founders often have an especially difficult time managing work-life balance. Running a business, especially when you’re just getting started, may have you working around the clock. For women who have family obligations as well, it can feel as though you’re burning the candle at both ends. There are a lot of social expectations that moms deal with, for example, you may be the primary contact for your children’s school and doctor’s office, the one who is often called on in case of an emergency. Having a great support system is critical, whether it’s your partner, your family, or your chosen family. Delegate to them whenever possible. And remember, you can’t be a superhero. It’s okay to let the little things go. Figure out your top priorities, and go from there.” – Nathalie Walton, Co-Founder and CEO of Expectful
Lack of Trust
“As a female founder, it can be difficult to be taken seriously amongst colleagues and investors, especially during fundraising. Since the majority of investors are men, women founders are oftentimes judged unfairly for their gender differences. Compassionate and empathetic leadership style can be seen as weak, plans to grow a family can be seen as distractions, approaches to marketing can be seen as unnecessary. Extra proof in the form of KPIs needs to be shown to convince investors that the founder is capable of success. Critical strategic decisions are questioned with more scrutiny, while other ideas are just not understood. Our founder Ana Kraft faced many rooms of puzzled investors who couldn’t understand why women would ever want to wear more stylish looking safety shoes. Most didn’t understand the market need and could not trust the word of a female founder.” – Hayley Albright, Senior Brand and Customer Experience Manager at Xena Workwear
Underrepresentation in the VC World
“Female-owned and female-led companies are woefully underrepresented in the venture capital world. Because recent reports have found that women are in the extreme minority of startup companies, there has been a movement to increase the number of capital opportunities for women entrepreneurs. Financing a startup and securing funding is difficult under the best conditions, so initiatives that focus on female-led companies are crucial in helping these companies succeed. By focusing on funding opportunities specifically for women, you will have a better chance of actually securing capital for your business. The competition will be closed to the majority of other companies, which will automatically increase your odds of securing much-needed capital.” – Farissa Knox, Founder and CEO of RLM Media
Misconceptions About Your Work
“CoLabs is often inadvertently and mistakenly viewed as a cosmetics or skincare company. We’re a pharma and biotech company, and we lead each presentation to effectively dismantle that misconception. It’s important to us, as it is for all female founders, to effectively stand behind the hard work we’ve put into our innovation in this male-dominated field. Throughout multiple presentations of our technology and its various applications, we have stayed steadfast to showcase its need in providing effective topical delivery solutions. My cofounder and I stay true to our founding mission: Drug and chemical applications of any kind should remain at their target site for treatment and not be inadvertently absorbed and distributed elsewhere.” – Lisa LeBlanc, Co-Founder and Chief Operations Officer for CoLabs Intl. Corp.
While female founders do face additional hurdles to success, they also bring a lot to the table. Women are typically more team-oriented, and more thoughtful in their responses to difficult situations. Female founders bring a unique viewpoint and skillset to their business endeavors, and we can expect to see their share of the market continue to grow in coming years.