7 February 2018

Special report: Female founders

A crop of ambitious women are leading the formation of a new startup ecosystem built by – and for – women. It’s a milestone moment.

It’s been a momentous yet maddening time for women in business. Across the pond, the sexual harassment cases brought against Uber and Google were swiftly followed by the #MeToo movement.

Closer to home, report after report revealed how poorly women are represented across Europe’s startup ecosystem. In the UK, the BBC was shamed for its gender pay gap.

The statistics aren’t very pretty, either. Each year, only 15% of funding in the UK goes to female founders; women make up less than 20% of VC investors; and just 6% of European venture-backed tech startups have female CEOs.

Why, then, is the mood on the ground so buoyant?

In the UK last year, a rapid and unprecedented growth of events, networks, funds, courses and workspaces geared towards female founders started to emerge.

AllBright and Blooming Founders, both female founders’ networks, launched profit-making conferences over multiple days. New series of business talks such as Women Who, Future Girl Corp and Bumble Bizz took place at venues from Shoreditch House and the Ace Hotel to Google Campus. London gained its first female-focused co-working space, Blooms. The list goes on.

Mentorship schemes and professional development courses have also gained steam, meeting the appetite to learn new skills from women both working in and running businesses. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, investors are increasingly starting internal programmes to reassess how they fund women in business and, consequently, have started hiring more female partners.

Several fintech startups signed up to the government’s ‘Women in Finance’ charter, committing to have women in 30% of senior leadership roles by 2021.

If these ventures have the impact they say they will, many more women could soon have the money, skills and networks often required to start successful companies and take up leadership positions. The startup landscape will look vastly different.

Of course, there are many hurdles, from unconscious bias to ageism and institutional prejudice. It will take several years at best for many women starting businesses today to grow them successfully; for VC firms to reach an equal balance of female and male investors; and for exited female founders to become investors or mentors themselves.

It will be a long, sometimes frustrating journey, but the shift has begun. 2018 could prove to be a watershed moment for women in business.

The chosen few

On a drizzly morning in October 2016, 100 women gathered in a room in Shoreditch for a day-long skills workshop. All successful or aspiring female founders, they talked about their business plans, vision statements, social media and marketing strategies. Attendees were encouraged to network hard and keep in touch. Some women handed out their business cards immediately; those more sceptical held back.

Before the classroom sessions kicked off, they were welcomed by co-founder Sharmadean Reid. Hundreds of women had applied, she said, and they were the chosen few. Each attendee was assigned a number – following a tradition started at Harvard Business School. Together, they formed the Future Girl Corp. The group’s mission statement: ‘Inspiring the next generation of future female CEOs.

‘I wanted it to sound like something that would be in RoboCop,’ Reid explains to Courier. ‘I was really into big, 80s corporations. I wanted to convey the idea that, one day, there will be boardrooms of women and corporations of women – and not just startups.’

Amy Thomson, Future Girl Corp’s co-founder, adds: ‘It was born out of the massive need for support for women.’ Support would come through ‘not only understanding how to start a business and receiving factual information but also just from talking to inspirational women’.

When it comes to helping women start businesses, Thomson explains, one of the main challenges is self-perception. The business world is still male-dominated and, until this changes, women need to see other women in leadership roles.

Thomson thinks role models and support groups are key, as confidence comes with seeing ‘someone you can relate to’ – even if only on the grounds of a shared gender – succeeding in business.

As for skills and knowledge, Thomson believes the challenge is often less about what women know than what women think they know. To counter this, sharing information is essential, whether practical or anecdotal. Thomson says, ‘The biggest thing that kills someone’s confidence is when they don’t feel prepared.’

Many of the women in attendance in Shoreditch that day have gone on to become successful CEOs. Numra Siddiqui says the event motivated her to launch her restaurant residency, Empress Market, in Hackney last year. Up until then she’d been running a Pakistani street food stall for three years, but didn’t know how to move forward and scale the business.

‘It might be cheesy,’ says Siddiqui, ‘but [the FGC event] was really inspiring and morale-building.’ One month later, she ran her first supper club; she’s since opened a restaurant and cocktail bar residency in Hackney.

Throughout 2017, practical business events for women started to take place all over London. FGC continued as a series of free monthly talks expanding on the subjects covered in the one-day event. ‘It’s not always the most sexy information, but it’s relevant and important,’ says Thomson. Topics have ranged from financials and legals to community building.

‘I wanted to convey that one day, there will be boardrooms of women and corporations of women – not just startups.’  Sharmadean Reid, Co-founder, Future Girl Corp

Thomson says FGC started as a response to more funding opportunities arising for women and not, as might be expected, as a means to fuel them. ‘We saw a huge trend in investment into female founders, and also a need for more infrastructure to help make those female founders successful.’

Building blocks

In November 2016, Debbie Wosskow, then-CEO of house-swap site Love Home Swap, and Anna Jones, then-CEO of the publisher Hearst, announced the launch of a new venture, AllBright. The company wanted to provide the infrastructure that the female founder ecosystem needed. ‘Making the UK the best place to be a female leader,’ ran its mission statement.

According to research carried out by AllBright, one in 10 women in the UK are interested in starting a business, but far fewer than that do, feeling they lack access to the necessary finance, skills or networks.

In offering this, Wosskow sees an opportunity to ‘combine profit with purpose’. Her involvement brings serious commercial clout: she sold Love Home Swap for £40m last year and she sits on the Mayor of London’s Business Advisory Board.

AllBright has been quick to make its mark. Last year, it trialled a crowdfunding site for female founders, raised money for a small fund (and backed eight female-founded businesses), put on a six-day festival of events in London and Manchester with 1,000 attendees, launched a training academy and, most ambitiously, is due to open a women-only members club in Bloomsbury in February 2018.

While there have been hiccups – its crowdfunding site failed to get traction, and it came far short of raising its fund’s £10m target – AllBright has largely delivered everything with polish and professionalism. For the events, for example, AllBright attracted an impressive crop of mentors – including Pip Murray, founder of the fast-growing peanut butter brand Pip and Nut – and speakers at its summer festival have included Local Globe partner Suzanne Ashman and beauty brand founder Liz Earle.

For Wosskow, ‘The AllBright Club is like what might happen if Soho House and WeWork had an enlightened baby.’

Tale of New York 

No doubt Wosskow and Jones were also motivated by the runaway success of The Wing. Based in New York, the women-only members club received a £24m investment from WeWork just one year after opening its first site.

The Wing’s particular brand of expensive, pastel-coloured feminism has proven successful. The actress and writer Lena Dunham is one of 1,500 members, while the waiting list stretches into the thousands.

And a second site in SoHo – with a conference room named after Blanche Devereaux, a character from US sitcom The Golden Girls – has just opened.

Not everyone is a fan – and by no means do all its members use the Chanel-sponsored beauty room on a day-to-day basis. But the WeWork investment certainly threw the ‘niche’ sector of women’s workspaces into quite a different light.

AllBright is hoping to bring a similar allure, prestige and aesthetic to its club. Its founding members include influential women in tech, media and politics. There will be a cocktail bar, cafe, library and beauty room, along with workspaces and bookable meeting rooms.

At £600 per year, plus a £250 joining fee, an AllBright membership is more affordable than The Wing’s £1,700 annual fee – but still rather exclusive.

Underserved market

Lu Li, who started female founders’ network Blooming Founders in 2015, thinks WeWork’s investment into The Wing proves there’s an underserved market here.

In October last year, she opened London’s first female-focused co-working space, Blooms, near Old Street. The majority of women in her 2,000-strong network, she says, typically have very different needs to those that most co-working spaces cater for.

Visitors to Blooms might initially think it doesn’t seem so different from other co-working spaces. After all, there are desks, sofas, meeting rooms and more than a few pot plants. Yet there’s also a crèche, at least three visibly pregnant members and, on the day Courier visited, just two men.

Blooms offers cheap, flexible membership packages, costing £25-200 per month. (WeWork’s hot-desking option, by comparison, is £500 per month.) Members can choose to work from Blooms full-time, or just when needs be.

‘Practically speaking, women who are starting out are quite savvy with their money,’ Li says. ‘They have to be, because 80% of them are bootstrapped – investing their own money rather than raising investment – so they think twice before spending anything.’

Pink walls and free tampons 

Li insists that the impact of the aesthetics of the workspace also shouldn’t be downplayed. ‘You should be in an environment that makes you feel at home. ‘Historically, the business world has been created by guys, for guys,’ Li continues. That’s carried into startup workplaces too.

While WeWork doesn’t intentionally design or advertise ‘male-focused’ spaces, in some respects it does just that. After all, an environment that offers free beer on tap but not, say, free tampons has been created with a specific consumer in mind.

That’s not to say that Blooms’ decor necessarily appeals to all women – and no men – or that any workspace could. Rather, it has been designed with the typical Blooming Founders’ member in mind: there’s a beauty room (apparently used more regularly for meetings than makeup), several sofa areas for informal networking and, yes, a few pink walls.

Lauren Brener and Frances Para-Mallam, founders of two-year-old digital agency Duo Creative, are full-time, founding members of Blooms. They spent 18 months renting space at a WeWork site. But for Brener, ‘Over time it lost its original flair and lacked personal touch, becoming ever more corporate.’

Blooms, by contrast, ‘hit home on a number of elements which modern co-working spaces fail to recognise’. The lower price was a big draw, as was the fact that ‘it feels like an extended living room’.

Sexist? Elitist? 

Such female-focused ventures have their detractors. Like The Wing, the AllBright Club has been criticised for its price tag. The business is ‘unashamedly profit-making’ says Wosskow; nevertheless the £600 annual fee sits at odds with the company’s overall messaging, which claims it wants to help all female founders.

‘AllBright is here to turbo-charge women’s journey to equality,’ stated one recent newsletter from the brand. Although the club does offer a small discount for under-27s, it feels quite exclusively designed for a woman of a certain age, background and income.

The same problem is true of the scores of courses launching for women in business, many of which cost hundreds or thousands of pounds. It was for this reason that New York-based Courier columnist Phoebe Lovatt decided the events and networking sessions run by WW Club, the global women’s network for creative professionals she founded in 2015, should be free.

‘There’s a danger of perpetuating the elitist “old boys club” cycle that we should be seeking to break,’ she says. Greater equality and diversity can have commercial implications, too.

‘If you’re being really cynical, it comes down to the bottom line,’ argues Anisah Osman Britton, founder of 23 Code Street, a coding school for women.

It’s been proven time and time again that the more diverse you are the more you help the bottom line. Take products and services: when you have a workforce that represents the society you’re working for, you start to build for everyone, not just for people who look like you.’

Some female founders, however, are sceptical about the benefits these moves claim to bring. Focusing on ‘upskilling’ women can reinforce unhelpful – and untrue – stereotypes that women are less business-savvy than men.

Other founders lament such tokenistic gestures, worrying they create new forms of exclusion, segregation or elitism.

Nicola McClafferty, investment director at VC firm Draper Esprit, once worked in a female-only space. ‘Most rooms I walk into, I’m outnumbered.

‘It was nice to be in a different environment for a change. But women should be benchmarking themselves against anyone in the workplace.’

Osman Britton is no stranger to criticisms of reverse sexism. ‘I have an issue with female-only workspaces, but not an issue with female-focused spaces,’ she says.

‘And there’s an important difference. “Female-focused” just means trying to create a culture where women feel accepted. Our tactic is more to say that we need a workforce that represents our society.’

Beyond women

It’s a notion that Li agrees with. While creating spaces that appeal to and advance female founders is a key priority for her, she’s also designed Blooms with the UK’s growing number of freelancers and part-time business founders, of all genders, in mind.

‘Ultimately I’m looking to [cater] for this massive shift in society – people starting their own businesses,’ she says.

Graham Rittener, founder of Barcelona-based design lab Zinc, is one of the six men who are members at Blooms. His country-hopping schedule doesn’t fit most co-working spaces’ inflexible templates, so he prefers Blooms whenever he’s in London.

Between 2008 and 2016, the number of freelancers in the UK increased by 43%, from 1.4 million to 2 million (of which one in five work in London). The number of new businesses also grew 8% from 2015 to 2016.

AllBright is also keen to provide space for this growing sector. ‘15% of the UK workforce is freelance already, so you have this sense as an entrepreneur of where the opportunity is, and take things in that direction,’ says Wosskow, who plans to open at least two more AllBright clubs in London and Manchester this year.

Yet the current ecosystem around startups, says Li, is tailored almost exclusively to high-growth, capital-intensive businesses. It belies the fact that many founders are growing businesses more slowly – and, often, more securely.

‘The further you are from the two young white guys – one with a computer science degree, one with a business degree – in terms of gender, skin colour and background, you’re [disregarded] by the current ecosystem,’ she says. ‘I think Blooms as an infrastructure serves those people.

Community matters

In November 2017, Li ran her first two-day conference for female founders. Hundreds of women, and some men, congregated on the top floor of the Havas Media building above King’s Cross.

Talks ran through how to pitch to investors, working during motherhood, managing growth and building a diverse culture; there were legal workshops on expanding to the US and VC term sheets; an Ottolenghi-esque salad bar lunch, and gin and tonic-fuelled networking to close.

The conference developed out of frustration, Li explains. She was frequently being asked to speak at other, male-dominated conferences on token panels about ‘female entrepreneurship’ rather than ‘business’.

Her ambitions for the conference were similar to those of FGC: she wanted the event to start ‘open, candid, genuine conversations’, give aspiring founders role models and offer practical advice, tailored especially to those at an early stage. ‘From an ecosystem perspective, that’s where you have to work to lift people and get them to the next level,’ Li says.

Some attendees told Courier the talks were too basic; others found it frustrating that questions about work-life balance or parenting recurred (a topic audience members rarely ask male founders). Many said they found it refreshing to hear honest accounts of other founders’ highs and lows.

Girl gangs

Many successful female founders talk about the value of surrounding themselves with other women who are also starting businesses, for advice, support and candid conversations.

‘The women that you pick up on the journey, who are going through the same thing, have really helped me along the way,’ says Wosskow.

‘It’s quite hard to access a very open and transparent approach to what really happens when you’re starting a business,’ adds Jones.

It’s relevant to note that most women starting businesses are solo founders – 70% of the Blooming Founders network run businesses alone – making these support networks even more valued.

‘It’s an isolating experience. It can feel like no-one really understands what you’re going through,’ says Siddiqui. Meeting with other female founders gives her ‘a support structure and a sense of camaraderie, that we’re not alone in our mission’.

That’s not to say that advice and support can’t come from men; many female founders attribute much of their success to their male mentors. ‘I think 50% of the people who help us are men, if not more,’ says Osman Britton.

Nevertheless, there’s a common feeling that women’s networks create a safe space, to ask questions and receive honest answers.

It was partly to kickstart this network-forming process that Thomson and Reid set up FGC. ‘[We] built our networks up over time. Your success is [down to] the people around you.’

The new networking

‘We had this idea of a business school, with alumni, who would create a self-fulfilling cycle,’ says Thomson; successive generations of female CEOs forming break-off groups and mentoring one another. The ironic name, the neon pink and blue logo and the event format was all very deliberate, says Thomson, and very different from the typical business school. ‘You can centralise a community around an aesthetic because people relate to it.’

The notion of relating to a business event, as a woman, is a relatively new concept. ‘Turning up to a big networking event – where quite often people are just standing in great big circles, lots of guys in suits – doesn’t feel like the kind of environment [women] thrive in and feel comfortable in,’ says Wosskow.

Increasingly, networking is shaking off its awkward image, and gaining new professional skills has kudos. Naomi Oluleye, who ran four panel events to market the launch of networking app Bumble Bizz, thinks personal development is having a moment.

‘There’s definitely been a shift. People are really wanting to learn and educate themselves constantly,’ she says.

Incidentally, Oluleye is a member of Blooming Founders – and one of the 100 original members of the Future Girl Corp. Her first two clients when she took her events business independent came through the FGC network. Looking ahead, expect more women’s networking events, workspaces – and maybe even free tampons – to continue to rewrite the rules of the startup scene.

‘There’s going to be a massive, positive shift,’ says Amy Thomson of FGC. ‘There are incredible female leaders out there, and they’re starting to speak out a lot more.’

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