Over the last 20 years, the number of female-led businesses in Australia has only increased by 3%. The State of Australian Startup Funding 2021 report demonstrated how the underrepresentation of women in entrepreneurship trickles down the pipeline:
- The percentage of equity funding deals with female founders involved only increased from 18% to 19% over the last year.
- The total capital invested in startups with at least one female founder decreased from 28% in 2020 to 22% in 2021.
- 83% of angel investors in Australia are men.
More broadly, women are less likely to know someone who is an entrepreneur, making them less likely to become one themselves. When successful entrepreneurial role models are visible, there’s a multiplier effect; more collaborations, confidence, funding opportunities and available resources tend to appear.
We asked 9 founders from the AirTree fam to share their best advice for those looking to follow in their footsteps and who they look to for inspiration.
Cofounder and CEO of Thematic
On the need for visibility: Women face plenty of biases every day. I don’t see any way of fighting it other than publicity. If you are a minority, talk about your achievements, and be in the public eye. If you aren’t a minority, help lift up those around you. Give them the help they need. Then be loud about their success. We need to normalise the fact that anyone can start a company or be a leader.
On good advice she’s been given: This week, I met Weili Dai, the cofounder of Marvell, a multi-billion dollar semiconductor company. She’s an immigrant and a mother of two kids who co-founded a tech company with her husband in 1995. Recently, at 60, she co-founded an AI startup. She is full of positive energy and happy to share her learnings. One piece of advice she gave me is to be more open to exploring opportunities and take time to understand the full picture of what’s possible.
On her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs: Just do it. If you think you might enjoy being a founder, try it out. The easiest way to get started is to speak with lots of potential customers first.
Don’t quit your job until you hear loud and clear that there is a problem that people want solved as soon as possible.
Ask them how much they would pay for something like this and what they would need to see before buying.
Keep researching until you are sure this idea has legs. You will probably go through several ideas until you hit the right one.
Cofounder and CEO of Regrow
On comparing yourself to others: Whether you allow yourself to think that you are not old enough, not young enough, not white enough, not black enough, or you’ll be disadvantaged because you identify as a non-dominant gender for a “typical” founder, you’ll always be able to see the differences between yourself and others. What is important is to try to look at what you have in common with the role models or operators you admire and build your communities to support each other and grow, rather than look at differences and create divisions.
On who inspires her: Topaz Conway is a phenomenal startup operator, advisor and investor. She’s taught me many important lessons as an early-stage founder; one of the most important is always knowing that you have options, and can push back and renegotiate.
On building a supportive network: If you’re an aspiring or acting female founder, keep building your network of female founders, advisors and operators who can help you on your journey and help you connect with other founders who may be a few steps ahead of you, to share and learn from each other’s experience.
Founder and Finance Controller at Abyss Solutions
On forging a gender-equal workforce: I feel there’s always been a gender imbalance within Abyss in Australia. The nature of Abyss generally attracts more men than women. We have recently seen a much smaller gender imbalance in the Pakistan office. And one of the drivers behind this is there’s a female team lead who is actively hiring more females and promoting females in the business. In another one of our offices, there’s a sizeable portion of female engineers. How cool is that? We can overcome challenges by talking to people and inspiring them through our positive actions, as I've done. We countered the bias by finding the brightest females and encouraging them to participate more and take on leadership roles.
On the power of visibility: Coming from a country where you don’t see many women come out and face the world, those who did were like brave soldiers in a field. I’ve observed females who run universities and colleges. I have a friend who has a Ph.D. in Physics from Cambridge University and is a Professor at Dallas University. I have a coach who is a CEO, and she helps people become good leaders. These are all women with a prominent role.
On challenging stereotypes: Women are great leaders because they’re compassionate, considerate and great communicators. I’ve faced cultural obstacles as a female founder. I came from a different background and people didn’t see me as if I were one of them. My husband and I started the business together and the community imposed this idea on us that couple-founder businesses never succeed. The way we’ve overcome this is to just ignore it and believe in ourselves. Take baby steps and keep up the good work that you’re doing.
Founder and CEO of Brighte
On being bold: I think there’s still a bias around how women are expected to act. When I look back at the things I regret, I wish I’d been even bolder and pushed harder instead of trying to be amicable and please many people. I needed to be less of a gold star person and forge my own path even more. I believe mistakes are lessons, and there are times to play it safe and times to be daring.
On who inspires her: I have always admired other successful females and was very motivated by Kim Jackson’s story. Kim did a lot of very male-dominated things and was often the only female in a room, and she wanted to change that with Skip Capital. By celebrating and promoting the stories of successful female founders, I hope it will encourage other women to be bolder and more determined in their own journeys.
On the founder journey: As a sole founder, the journey can be lonely, and the journey can be tiring, and you need really great people around you so together you can get the best outcomes. They can inspire you, and when you’re exhausted they can really push you and they can help share the load. You can then be more resilient in how you approach problems and setbacks. And then, when there are wins, it’s about celebrating wins with the team.
Cofounder and CXO at Mr Yum
On taking the leap to startups: When I told my Dad I was leaving my successful marketing career at L’Oreal to go and start a startup, he feared that I would be “like one of those TV stars in those hit TV shows that leave to chase bigger and better things only never to be seen again.” Ouch. He came from a very different generation and now supports me 100%, bursting with pride. I know he would never have said that to my brother, though. Unconscious gender bias within families will no doubt be holding many women back still.
On the importance of visibility: When I was studying marketing at RMIT University, Sharon Thurin, founder of the healthy snack brand, Slim Secrets, came to talk to us about starting a business from nothing. She’s a normal woman, with children and no superpowers. She made me think, if she can do it, so can I! It shows the importance of women sharing their entrepreneurial journeys.
On her top 3 pieces of advice: 1. Imposter syndrome is real and felt especially by women! Know that everyone feels it and learn how to overcome it, so it doesn’t hold you back. 2. Done is better than perfect. 3. Grow and leverage your network. It takes a village.
Cofounder and CEO of Mr Yum
On the unconscious biases women founders face: There’s an unconscious bias that women founders are non-technical. In a world where product-led companies often win, this implies the female has a less important role amongst the founding team.
On being inspired by her cofounder: When I first met Kerry, I told her I had a girl crush on her. She’s always had an ambitious edge and a risk-taking bias. She’s teaching me to be more gracious – I’m a work-in-progress. I trust her decisions and she trusts me. I couldn’t imagine building Mr Yum without her!
On her tips for aspiring founders: Start now. Don’t hesitate – we don’t have time to waste. It always takes longer than expected to land on your feet. I founded my first startup when I was 28, which was 7 years ago. I wish I had started a few years earlier!
Founder and CEO of Lived
On using adversity to fuel your fire: The biases that women founders face are real—not perceived. Women-led startups received just 2.3% of VC funding in 2020. There are a lot of factors that contribute to this: less representation historically for the next generations to model and learn from; the balancing of family responsibilities and child-rearing; gender inequality more broadly (which impacts education and socio-economic outcomes); and of course, the uninformed view – that’s CLEARLY disproven – that women founders don’t make phenomenal business leaders.
In my experience, as someone who grew up in adversity, and as the CEO and founder of Lived (a platform to support people to overcome some of life’s toughest challenges—starting with alcohol—by connecting with each other); I know that there can be no greater catalysts for determination, drive, motivation, strength and resilience (some of the most critical ingredients for a successful founder), than adversity and connection. While we have a long way to go to even the playing field for women in business, I would encourage all women founders to transform this adversity into fuel for their fire. With that, we become unstoppable.
On the inspiring women in her team: Lauren Sneddon (Lived Head of Marketing) & Danne Lim (Lived, Head of Operations) make up a powerful part of our leadership team. The most inspiring thing they show me each day, is what I call “people-first leadership’”. They don’t guard their power or assert distance from others. They connect, ask questions, mentor, offer advice, support, get their hands dirty and share the goodies with others around them. This is because they not only have confidence in their own abilities but get energised by the potential they see in others, too. While they’re relentless about seeking the best outcomes, they’re not ruthless with people. They are clever, kind, and capable, and as they say, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” In any early-stage business, this type of leadership drives a company and its people forward.
On being authentic: Don’t ever buy into the belief that you need to behave like a “man” to succeed or be taken seriously as a leader. Instead, embrace all of the unique qualities and strengths of your personality and bring this into business with you. Showing emotion and vulnerability in business are strengths, not weaknesses. They allow you to connect with others more, learn faster and bounce back from the inevitable challenging times. Believe in yourself, back yourself, and your power will organically shine through.
Cofounder and CEO of Reejig
On the common challenges faced by female founders:
- Navigating a male-heavy investor network. Women need to actively ask for intros – people want to help, so find those who are connected and aling to your vision.
- Women tend to not inflate forecasting and valuations. Be ambitious and have a definitive and stretch target, then meet and exceed expectations – delivery is everything. Do your homework and know market valuations.
- The assumption that you’re a “part-timer” if you have kids. We need to challenge old-school thinking and create a culture that encourages family and work. Believe it or not; you can have a baby and still work!
On her advice for aspiring founders: Get shit done. Don't think, just do. Don't waste the moment.
On who inspires her: Mel Perkins. Why? She never gave up when no one would give her a crack, because she so deeply believed in her idea!
Founder and CEO of theright.fit
On the biases female founders face: I think there are several very deliberate biases facing female founders, like being asked about their plans to have children, and then more unconscious ones like investors investing in their “likeness” – people who are similar to them in skills, interests, background, or the stereotypical assumptions that men are more decisive, technical, strong and logical and females more emotional, caring, submissive, etc.
On who inspires her: Pocket Sun from SoGal Ventures, the world’s first female-led millennial venture capital firm, that invest in startups in North America and Asia Pacific. As a minority (Chinese female LGBTQI working between Singapore & America!), she is incredibly aware of the challenges that face female founders and is a firm champion of female-founded & led companies. She’s driven, wildly successful, open and always proactively offering support and connections.
On overcoming obstacles: I think female founders are less inclined to ask for help for fear of seeming like they are foolish or unqualified. They’re more likely to suffer from “imposter syndrome” (likely reinforced by the deeply pervasive cultural norms telling women they are not “enough”). Female founders need to proactively seek mentors, supporters and champions and be more forthright in asking for the resources, advice or connections that they need to succeed. I also think we need to align with and work with people in the space who are champions of female founders (like AirTree!), and LPs should back funds that show diversity in their portfolios.