Highlights: In Depth – Founders, Investors and Enablers

Female founders are a small but growing part of the start-up ecosystem. What are the unique challenges they face and what are some of the initiatives in place to help them succeed?

Diving deeper to better understand the tools available for female founders to succeed, Anuscha Iqbal, Co-Founder and CEO, Spotii moderated the discussion with guest experts: Roberto Croci, Managing Director, Microsoft for Startups Middle East, Turkey & Pakistan; Sara (Sacha) Haider, Principal at Global Ventures; and Smeetha Ghosh-Jorgensen, Founder, Cashee.

Sara (Sacha) Haider: The global average of startups with at least one female founder is only 20%. Why aren’t there more female founders? Some of the issues are related to investors having a gender bias and others are related to more support being needed and a still evolving ecosystem.

Smeetha Ghosh-Jorgensen: As a female founder in this region, I found the UAE very helpful in starting a business on my own. However, as an expat away from my own ‘home’ networks, I feel I lacked proper support in solving problems.

Roberto Croci:  We must build an entire ecosystem with founders, mentors, investors, resources, networks, which needs to be led by entrepreneurs with a long term and inclusive perspective. This should be active with events and engagements, dynamic and growing. Some recommended initiatives and investors supporting women founders in the region are TiE Women, Majid Capital, Global Ventures, TiE Global, TiE Dubai, She Impact and UN Women.

Sara (Sacha) Haider: Some tips that will help female founders are: 1) ‘doing better’ which involves providing information and data that shows investors how well your business is doing; 2) ‘looking better’ which involves building content to add value, a personal story and important PR around your business; 3) ‘connecting better’ which enables you to have more effective networks to avail of the best ecosystem support.

Smeetha Ghosh-Jorgensen: It is important to put yourself out there, reach out and ask for help. Don’t let any lack of networks be a barrier. You need to have people for emotional support as well as those that can be a sounding board for ideas or help trouble shoot problems.

Sara (Sacha) Haider: A lot more needs to be done to change investors’ mindsets regarding the existing internal gender bias. When investors screen founders in terms of gender, they use a different language to discuss female versus male founders. Women already struggle to obtain funding at seed level, and by the time they get to series B or C, the number of surviving female founders drops considerably.

While there are specific challenges that female founders face, some of the programmes for them can exacerbate the problem. Once you have a tag of being a ‘female founder’ attached to your success, even though it is independently commendable, it sometimes takes away from your achievement. The rhetoric in the market is that these founders were funded because they are female or because the investor is fulfilling a quota. It is important for investors to fund female founders, but by doing proper due diligence and understanding the merits of the business and make it known that they are investing in this.

Roberto Croci: This is the classic debate of ‘quota’ vs. ‘merit’, yet it is important to enable women as significant contributing members in the economy. Women founders, like other business leaders, need to use their voice and share their story. Enablers and investors need to have the same principle as in leading a team, measuring your success with the success of others. So set conditions by which female founders can succeed.

Other important considerations are around the need for increased education, diversifying organisations for better decision-making, giving more visibility to role models, building support groups, allowing for failure, and bringing awareness about biases. The latter needs to be highlighted whenever it happens because this helps in changing mindsets.

Smeetha Ghosh-Jorgensen:  As we are in the process of growing and developing our team, I do intend to bring more women on board, with a merit-based lens, but I will make my business a platform to hire more women. Furthermore, I believe that a business that has a good balance between genders is a stronger business.

Sara (Sacha) Haider: Founders need to accept that fund-raising is a continuous journey, and they need to stay in that mindset, at least until the business becomes quite profitable. Investors are taking longer to make decisions, so start planning six months ahead. Stay in touch with your investors, keep the communication channels open, send them regular updates and set up calendar invites for catch-up calls. And finally, be a connector and help solve problems or find the right support for others. This does result in positive payback in the future.

Roberto Croci: All relationships are partnerships and helping others before asking for help yourself is an important value to practice in this world where everyone is networking or selling something. However, it’s the story you share and how you develop all your relationships to create mutual value and meaningful connections that will carry significant impact in the long run.