There’s a lot of work to do before we see gender equity in business and entrepreneurship.
That vast majority of venture capital funding is given to startups led by men — only 2.2 percent of VC money raised in 2018 went to female founders.
While the number of Fortune 500 CEOs hit an all-time high this year, it’s still a really low number — just 33 of those companies are led by women.
There are many reasons why the numbers are so unequal. But the fact is we can do better and we must do better.
Diversity isn’t just good for society: it’s good for the bottom line. A 2018 Boston Consulting Group study found that increasing the diversity of leadership teams (by gender, age and other factors) leads to innovation and better financial outcomes.
To celebrate the women out there who are pioneering a path for more women leadership in business and entrepreneurship, we decided to look back at some of the amazing females we’ve spoken with over the last year.
Below, we’ve included some of the insights and takeaways they shared during Technori interviews. Their insights make good business sense for everyone, regardless of gender. But the learnings are unique in that they’ve arisen, in some cases, from challenges that a man simply wouldn’t have to face.
Here are some of our favorite business tips from some forward-thinking lady bosses.
- Know your target customer — you can’t cater to everyone
“We’re not trying to be the nail salon for all customers, we know who our end user is,” Kim said. “We are targeting this modern professional woman, we’ve built the business for her.”
Even though they are part of the demographic they’re targeting, Kim and Ale didn’t simply rely on their own experiences at nail salons. In fact, the two founders were relative strangers to manicures when Ale had her lightbulb moment. They also aren’t relying on current industry knowledge, which turned out to be lacking.
“In terms of data, no one we spoke to understood their cost structure very well at all,” Kim said. “We had to develop data systems to better understand…. And if we hadn’t developed those data systems, we would have had some sort of intuition, but we wouldn’t have known.”
→ Once you know exactly who you’re targeting, get ahead of your competition by collecting data that will help you make informed improvements that special person will love.
- Collect just enough data to get you started — and iterate as you go
Exactly how to get that data — and what to do with it — is Kelly Manthey’s specialty. She worked at digital-focused marketing agency Solstice for 10 years before becoming the CEO in 2018, so she’s seen how companies have had to adapt to ever increasing volumes of information.
“There’s a just-enough [data] sweet spot,” Kelly said. At Solstice, “We get right in front of the customer. We shadow them, we ask them questions, we put prototypes in front of them. We try to really understand and gain empathy for what it’s like to be you.”
Kelly recommends collecting just enough data to get you started. “Then we can use that information to inform, okay, this is what the first release or the first feature should look like. And then let’s get it out there, and let’s put the right mechanisms in to collect data and to watch it, and to see what happens. And then let’s iterate.”
→ Look for high quality data that’s insightful, instead of trying to learn everything at once, and develop as you go.
- Talk to your customers directly — and actively solicit feedback
Speaking of feedback, knowing which to incorporate and which to ignore can make or break your chances of getting your product out there. Candice Crane dealt with one retailer’s cool reaction to her rosewater soda-alternative Petal by demanding a chance to prove herself.
“He looked down at his calendar and said, ‘Are you here for a meeting? I don’t have anything on my calendar.’ I said, ‘No, but I’m here to make a meeting,’” Candice said. She persuaded the buyer to take 90 cases, and made sure they sold out.
However, Candice does listen to her customers — especially when her product was in the earliest stage. “I personally went into local stores, did demos and listened to consumer feedback,” she said. “That was my inspiration to create three new botanicals that aren’t so floral.”
→ Believe in your product and sing its praises to others — but don’t ignore the opinions of the people who’ll actually be using it.
- Listen to your early adopters
Those listening skills are even more important when your customer base is niche. Chrissy Bellman, CEO and founder of LEVO, set out to fix a problem that only a certain group of people were dealing with.
“We’re trying to solve the problem of oil infusion in general,” Chrissy said, referring to the fact that conventional methods involving mason jars and crockpots can create a giant mess.
But that doesn’t mean adding bells and whistles for the sake of it. “If our machine suddenly had zero buttons and you could only control it through the app, there’d be a lot of folks that would really struggle with that,” she said. “It wouldn’t resonate with them.”
Making her current customers into diehard fans is Chrissy’s projected path to mainstream success. “We’re trying to make infusion a thing,” she said. “We have a lot of champions, and that’s been awesome… Our platform encourages them to generate their own content and share it with their networks. There’s definitely a learning curve and an education that needs to come with it.”
→ If you can perfect the product with a picky market, the mainstream should be a breeze — once they catch on.
- Don’t be afraid to go really niche
committing to a client base that rivals see as too small.
“About 2014 or 2015, we saw offices get more casual. Everybody was going after this really casual lifestyle — jogging pants, untucked shirts, things like that,” she said. “We saw other companies walking away from the customers who have to dress a certain way for work every day. We thought it was a perfect space for us to play in — and own it.”
But you still need room to grow within your small-but-devoted audience. Allyson points out that The Tie Bar stay in close contact with their customers through surveys, social media, and product tests in their stores. And it’s that feedback that prompted a significant change. “We pivoted into apparel because when we talked to our customers, we found that they actually didn’t think of us as a tie company. They see us as a menswear brand,” she said.
→ Thinking small can work, as long as you make a strong impression.
- Build a strong connection with customers
Speaking of thinking small but perfectly formed, if you’re committed to limiting the inventory you sell, you’d better level up your customer service.
In 2014, Monica Royer launched Monica + Andy — selling GOTS-certified baby blankets — with her brother Andy Dunn, co-founder of menswear retailer Bonobos. In addition to providing a carefully curated selection of products, instead of an overwhelming number of options, Monica worked to create a store that’s centered around parents’ feelings, especially new moms who are looking for “experiences and knowledge,” as she put it.
“I wanted a place with cookie crumbs on the floor, where people would bring their families over the holidays,” Monica said. “We had a vision for bringing experiences to life.” Monica + Andy stores host activities for children and parents, including prenatal yoga and story times. “That has been such a significant component,” Monica said. “We’re hoping to build a connection to customers that goes beyond the product.”
→ Choosing to be an expert instead of a generalist can make you a cult favorite: but make sure your commitment to your customer comes out in every aspect of your brand.
- Know when to pivot — and what needs to change
Monitoring customer interactions with your company might push you to reshape your next release or how you present your stores — or it might inspire a total strategic pivot, as Desiree Vargas Wrigley experienced.
Originally she built her company Pearachute on a model similar to ClassPass: helping kid-centric companies move their unsold event tickets. But a few years in, Desiree realized that she could do more for her customers than just pass on leftovers.
“I do believe in doing one thing and doing it well, when that one thing is killing it. But we recognized that the class pass model has a lot of fundamental flaws, and so we had to evolve out of it,” she said.
Now Pearachute partners with companies including Ticketmaster and Eventbrite, as well as independent organizers, to provide parents with a full calendar of activities. Adapting her model gave Desiree the opportunity to expand her goals. “We see ourselves as a new kind of media player within the category,” she said. “We’ve been calling ourselves the Amazon for family entertainment and enrichment.”
→ If your model no longer feels right, evolve before you go extinct.
- Recognize strengths as well as weaknesses
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it — upgrade it. Elizabeth Harz became CEO of babysitting service Sittercity in 2017, but the company was founded way back in 2001 by Genevieve Thiers, who was a student at Boston College at the time. When Elizabeth took over, she had to figure out which parts of someone else’s vision to keep and which to discard.
“Leveraging technology to make it easier for parents to take care of their kids, and sitters to find the work that they love — all of that was rock solid and I didn’t want to disturb that at all, just build upon it,” Elizabeth said. “You don’t want to lose the passion of that founder-led startup, what makes the company great, and its core values. But at the same time, we have global ambitions. You cannot scale significantly if you run things the same way.”
In addition to relying on the team she inherited, Elizabeth introduced new hires: “we brought in a lot of complementary talent from other organizations that had also scaled.”
→ Bringing a company into a new phase of its life doesn’t have to mean abandoning everything that came before: examine the talent you have and hire people who can fill the gaps.
- Be the change your industry needs
Learning from knowledge gaps doesn’t only apply at the company level. Nicole Staples and Sonali Lamba co-founded bridesmaid’s dress retailer Brideside because they recognized that the main player in the industry, David’s Bridal, wasn’t capitalizing on emerging technology to make things easier for brides.
So Brideside stepped in. The company has brides fill out style surveys in advance, so by the time she and her entourage arrive to look at dresses, “she and her friends can go from 600 potential products to the three that work best for everyone, solving that paradox of choice,” Nicole said. “Getting them to the right answers quickly has been a big part of succeeding in this category.”
Focusing on bridesmaids over brides was also new for the industry. “We flipped the David’s Bridal approach, which was gown first, on its head,” Nicole said. Their reasoning is that there’s only one bride but multiple bridesmaids — so instead of a one-off purchase, you’re reaching as many as four or more future clients in one go.
→ The lesson: just because something has been done one way for a long time, doesn’t mean that’s the best way.
- Support your employees so they can support you
Sometimes the most transformative change comes from within. Colleen Curtis, CCO of The Mom Project, wants companies to support employees who are working parents, so that they, in turn, can better support and grow the company.
“It’s built on the insight that 43 percent of women will step out of the workforce at some point after having children for caregiving duties, and that ultimately the economy and businesses are suffering because of that,” Colleen said. “So you’ve got your tech stack and that’s how you operate your business. You have the mom stack, or the working parents stack: what are all these solutions that you can put in place that ultimately solve or ease the pain for some of these things?”
This approach has ripple effects. “Once you start showing that respect for this segment who’s in this acute period of their life, that reverberates to the entire population that’s within your company,” Colleen reiterated.
→ Invest in addressing the needs of your employees and you’ll inspire them to give more over the long-term.
- Take the time to get your long-term vision right
Another entrepreneur looking to help women navigate the hurdles that can slow their careers is Georgene Huang. Georgene founded jobfinder site Fairygodboss in 2014 specifically to help women find jobs in companies that are committed to gender equality.
“If you find a job on the site, it means that somebody cares about hiring women, and they do it,” Georgene said. “Every job listing includes its company’s employee review ratings.”
Georgene sees Fairygodboss as more than a site: it’s about building a community. But that doesn’t just happen overnight — and it definitely doesn’t continue to happen without perseverance. “A community doesn’t just form out of air, spontaneously,” Georgene said. “You have to do a lot of things to nurture it, cultivate it, observe it.”
You also need to let it breathe on its own. “You can’t control how a community evolves,” Georgene pointed out. “You can nudge it, but then it spreads as the market develops.”
→ If having a community around your brand matters to you, make sure you stay in touch which your users — but also accept that it has to have a life of its own to truly thrive.
- Actively work on diversity — for hiring and beyond
Creating truly diverse workplaces requires effort and commitment from employers. . Stella Ashaolu launched WeSolv in 2017 to help companies take a more active role in addressing biases in their hiring processes. WeSolv produces competitions that companies can use to test MBA students, with the intention of eliminating explicit or implicit biases that might crop up when judging potential future employees only by looking at resumes.
While an approach like this can make it easier, like most things in business, it still comes down to doing the work. “Companies do have to be ready to make the changes that bring more diversity,” Stella said. “And then, once they get diverse folks in the door, how do they make them feel included as a part of their culture, make them stay and continue to multiply that effect? I think it starts with having real intention, not just lip service. Not just something that’s talked about, but is lived out.”
She points to WeSolv as an example. “We live it out through things like how we run meetings, how we engage with one another, what we value from a culture standpoint, what we reward from a business standpoint, the metrics we track. All of those things must be related to the outcomes we want.”
→ You have to stay the course and follow through to get the results you want, whether it’s for workplace diversity of anything else.
- When in doubt, seek out mentors
Whether it’s creating diverse workplaces or reaching other mission-critical business goals, you can leverage knowledge from others who have done it before.
For Jenny Farver, CTO of Lightstream, that has sometimes meant turning to colleagues outside of her organization for help. Jenny, an MIT PhD who has held leadership positions at Popular Pays and Civis Analytics, said the tech community is especially eager to offer this kind of support.
“When I felt thrust into a job or unqualified, I found a CTO group that was very helpful, in terms of mentorship. It’s still a great resource,” she says.
→ No need for imposter syndrome. Look for people who have done what you’re trying to do and ask their advice. Or create a forum where you can ask for input.
- Build your brand WITH your community
The conventional wisdom is that you create a brand and then build a community of people who like what your brand is all about. Melissa Hartwig, CEO of Whole30, thinks that’s a bit like putting the cart before the horse.
“So often when we think about it, we’re delivering a product to the customers and then customers are giving feedback to us,” Melissa said in an interview at the G2Reach conference in Chicago “What I’ve done is built the bus with the people riding.”
Melissa’s philosophy is that you should share the journey with your community. Have a clear vision, inspire them to travel along with you, but be transparent about what works and what doesn’t along the way. That approach will enable you to “build the trust that you really need to succeed in a world full of busy, crowded, loud social media,” Melissa said.
→ Be open with your community and build your brand together.