Just over three years ago I started a company called Posse, a business idea that required technology. I never thought I was doing anything extraordinary, and was shocked to learn that only 3 per cent of Australians who launch technology companies are women. I’d started other businesses in other fields and gender was never an issue. Now, after three years at Posse, I have to admit it: being a female tech entrepreneur is different.
Sheryl Sandberg told the striking story of a Harvard Business School experiment in her book Lean In. Two identical resumes, one for an entrepreneur named Howard and the other Heidi, were shown to students. Both ranked as equally competent but significantly more people wanted to work with Howard. I’ve pitched to hundreds of investors around the world and can pinpoint times when a great meeting didn’t lead to an investment. And I’ve wondered: would it have been different if I’d been a man?
I suspect the answer would sometimes be yes – particularly in the US. But without performing a gender change, winding back time, and conducting the same discussion as a man, it’s hard to say.
In early 2010 I was invited to speak to a group of angel investors at a fancy dinner in Sydney. It was my first big chance to raise investment and I was nervous. I’d practised my pitch for days, arrived early at the venue and darted up the stairs. A shriek rang out from reception: “Come back!” The porter explained that this was a gentlemen’s club; to reach the event at which I was pitching, I couldn’t use the stairs. As a “lady”, I had to take the elevator.
The guests began to arrive and, as the room filled up, I felt uneasy. Something odd was in the air, but what? Then I noticed. In a room of 60 investors I saw no women. I’m not easily intimidated, but this threw me. At last, one female investor showed, we made eye contact and I felt relieved. She remains a mentor today.
The lonely road
My first year as a tech founder was lonely, for my friends couldn’t relate to my challenges. I encountered many new people, particularly as I raised investment. All were men, mainly in their 50s and 60s. Their advice was great, but the softer emotional support was missing. I suspect that male founders have quite different relationships with their investors. Maybe they’re invited to golf and the pub – that’s different for women. Now, we have more than 50 investors in Posse and every one is male. I’ve developed great friendships with many, and have formed a close group with a few other female tech entrepreneurs in Sydney, so I’m happy to report that I’m not lonely any more. But it took time.
The emotional roller coaster of running a tech company is a challenge, one that I handle differently from my male counterparts. Again this is just self-perception; other women may have different experiences. Naturally, I push myself hard: I’m responsible for other people’s money.
Early, when I was finding my feet, I’d work around the clock and made a few mistakes. For a while, I had an unfriendly board who hammered me close to breaking point. I’ve seen guys in this situation and they fight back; it’s their natural reaction and is expected. I’m not wired like that. I can become upset and that’s my way of releasing stress, but I soon learned this was unacceptable in a business setting.
As a woman, I think I bring different skills to a technology business. Most of our team are software engineers. They’re all male, and I’ve discovered the way I think and make decisions differs from theirs. I’m more people-focused and instinctual. I talk to customers, using this information to decide what they value about our product and what needs to be changed. When I present my findings to the engineers I have difficulty convincing them my research is valid.They want numbers. I believe that great start-ups are a combination of customer-based intuitive vision, and the ingenious application of metrics to engineer a good user experience.I’ve learned that to win over engineers, I must back up my assumptions with data. It’s a powerful discipline, for in combining the strength of both approaches we design much better products.
The advantages of being a woman
There are advantages in being a female technology entrepreneur. I’m the exception, so I suspect my business and I both receive more exposure than if I’d been a man. I’m frequently invited to speak at tech events and often I’m the only woman on the bill.I suspect that organisers sometimes make a last-gasp discovery: we don’t have any women. And, let it be whispered, business editors want their quota of photographs and stories about women. With only a handful of us out there, we probably get more opportunities.
Overall, the positives of being a woman may balance the negatives in this male-dominated industry. Being unusual can be lonely but it can be awesome. I raised $300,000 that night at the gentlemen’s club where I was one of only two women in the room, and went on to raise another $1 million or so through their contacts. Being a woman might have helped me. I’m sure it made me stand out.
We must inspire more women to launch technology-focused businesses, raising the profile of female entrepreneurs. Then younger girls may view technology as an attractive career option, with more women drawn into early stage investment. I hope I can be part of that next wave. It matters.
Why? Because the entire industry will be enriched by our customer-based intuitive vision.
*Original Article by Rebekah Campbell: http://www.brw.com.au/p/entrepreneurs/rebekah_campbell_have_different_FlQrkreM9jOUdg20wCHNMI