March 30, 2023
Tale as Old as Time: The Gender Gap
Alumniii Founders share their experiences with gender bias in the startup ecosystem.
By Mary Kilcoyne
Palo Alto, CA. The sun’s rays dance across the dining tables as the waitstaff hustles to accommodate the lunchtime rush. The air buzzes, from both the literal chatter of patrons and the intangible electricity of Silicon Valley. Alex Cusell checks in at the Host Stand. She is escorted to a middle table, set for two; a man rises from his seat to greet her.
I was thrilled when we were introduced, and I am over the moon to be meeting now. Thank you for this opportunity. I am eager to share more about Jisell and to learn from your experience.
I’m glad you could join. Actually, I was concerned after our introduction. You know, if you continue along this path, you will negatively impact your future children. Have you considered that? A child needs its mother after all. If you want to be “in the scene” so much, why not just get a job at a startup? I don’t foresee you finding investors anyway.
That true, albeit paraphrased and truncated, story did not take place decades ago. It happened in 2022.
“Since that day, there have been many times when I’ve encountered challenges as an entrepreneur. I think back to that lunch. I think about how many women before me have had to sit through lunches like that and how many more are yet to come. It immediately lights a fire in me to push through all the difficulties,” Alex Cusell (MSTV ’22) said. “Unfortunately, I’ve had many other experiences like that one since.”
Entrepreneurship is an arduous path, paved with rejection and failure yet still traversed by enthusiastic founders driven by a vision to make something better, be it a service, process, product, or experience.
For founders who identify as female, the path is even harder – as evidenced by the quantifiable data on funding and in the qualitative experiences relayed by three alumni founders from the Integrated Innovation Institute:
Alex Cusell, founder of Jisell, a universal gift card e-wallet; Chelsie Hall (MIIPS ’18), co-founder – alongside fellow Tartan Sheyda Demooei (MSECE ’16) – of ViralMoment, a social listening tool; and Shreya Agarwal (MSTV ’21), founder of Selfbest, a productivity platform.
"Many VCs and even potential customers are in disbelief that someone like me can run a SaaS-based startup on my own. I was prepared to defend Selfbest for its credibility, how it works, metrics, user adoption, etc. but I was surprised by how often I am not taken seriously. The perception is still there that a woman cannot run a ‘tech’ startup on her own," Agarwal said.
In its 2019 policy paper on Dissecting the Gender Gap in the Funding of Start-ups, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization comprised of 38 member countries, found that startups with at least one female founder received a third less funding than male-led startups and were 50% less likely to be acquired than those founded by men only.
“I've noticed that I don't get a shot as frequently as male counterparts who are performing in similar roles. Studies have shown that women are more frequently judged on what they've accomplished, whereas men are judged by their potential. I've got to come with receipts,” Hall said.
Agrawal also addressed that reality.
“I believe in showing by doing. Whenever I’ve faced challenges, I have demonstrated my ability through participating in competitions and conferences and showcasing what value we have been able to create with Selfbest. Having evidence of your work is like carrying your report card around till the perceptions have changed.”
Crunchbase conducted a 10-year review of funding to female founders and found that the amount of invested dollars to female-only founders remained stagnant between 2010 and 2019 hovering around 3%. (It dropped in 2020.)
Venture capitalist (VC) firms are yet another area where gender inequality reigns. Women in VC reports that only 5.6% of VC firms in the US are women-led.
“It’s been working with VCs that I've really noticed the scrutiny. A small percent of VC dollars goes to all female-founded teams. I'm so grateful to have investors and advocates who took a bet on me, Sheyda, and ViralMoment's vision,” Hall said. “There's not a pipeline problem; there is a broken rung.”
VCs aren’t benefactors; they invest to make a return. Based on the funding statistics, one might conclude that male-founded startups deliver that ROI. However, an analysis by the Boston Consulting Group revealed that female-founded startups perform better, earning 10% more in cumulative revenue.
“If I could go back and choose not to attend that lunch, I wouldn’t change a thing. It opened my eyes to the reality of Silicon Valley. It opened my eyes to the fact that I need to be 10 times better than any man in order to succeed. Most importantly, it taught me that that's exactly why I must do it. It is significantly harder for female entrepreneurs. If I let that stop me, I am validating their judgments. If I let that drive me, I am casting a vote for equality,” Cusell said.
On the whole, the path to equality seems more arduous than the path of entreprenership. Crunchbase did uncover a hopeful trend: From 2015-2019, almost 9,900 startups with a female founder raised an initial funding round, almost doubling the count from 2010-2014.
Hall offered this advice to aspiring female entrepreneurs, "You are amazing - remember that. There is a whole world out there to tear you down, minimize your accomplishments, and make you feel like your ideas and contributions aren't as good as someone else's... Screw that. Keep going. If you don't have a seat at the table, either bring a chair or go build your own table. If someone isn't 'your people,' move on quickly. Find your camp and dig into them, and don't keep trying to please people or get noticed by people who aren't for you."