Beating the Odds: 3 Female Tech Entrepreneurs Share Advice on Building Great Companies

It’s hard enough for anyone to launch a business. But female entrepreneurs in the technology industry face particularly daunting challenges. Whether it’s raising venture capital while pregnant in a male-dominated industry, hiring teams that reflect their company’s customer base or offering products and services that specifically target women, it’s a pretty steep climb for female entrepreneurs.

In the last few years, Silicon Valley has come under fire for what some women say is a sexist environment. A 2014 study by Babson College showed that the proportion of female partners in American venture capital-firms declined from 10% in 1999 to 6% in 2014. And a 2016 survey of 220 experienced women titled “Elephant in the Valley” reported that 90% of women interviewed had witnessed sexist behavior at company off-sites and/or industry conferences, while about 87% of them had heard demeaning comments from their colleagues.

“It would be hard to look at numbers anywhere in the world and not conclude the cards are stacked against women when interacting on a founder level,” said Nadia Boujarwah, co-founder and CEO of Dia&Co., a personal styling service for plus-size women. Boujarwah was speaking to a standing room only crowd at the CornellTech@Bloomberg speaker series on February 7.

For over an hour, Boujarwah spoke alongside two other successful female entrepreneurs — Katia Beauchamp, co-founder and CEO of Birchbox, an online, subscription-based beauty and grooming retailer aimed mostly at women, and Brit Morin, co-founder and CEO of Brit + Co, a media company that “inspires and enables” women to be more creative—about their experiences as women in business.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your elevator pitch for a women-centric business?

Katia Beauchamp, Birchbox
Our insight was discovering beauty and better shopping. In 2010, less than 5 percent of beauty products were sold online, so somebody was going to win in this category. Now we deliver beauty products in a box, as a subscription service, to women who we believe are not obsessed with beauty.

Nadia Boujarwah, Dia&Co.
I co-founded Dia&Co. two and a half years ago based on the belief that women of all sizes want to participate in fashion. Sizes 14 and up constitute 67 percent of the population and 17 percent of all apparel dollars. That was the fundamental equation, along with a personalized shopping service.

Brit Morin, Brit + Co
As adult women, we suddenly find ourselves not creative anymore. My company empowers women to be more creative, offering more than 100 new pieces of content daily, classes and products.

Is fundraising harder for women entrepreneurs? Some suggest one tactic is to just use your initials—not your full name—so investors don’t know you’re a woman.

You shouldn’t lie. Of course, they will also eventually meet you. I raised money while pregnant in my last trimester. Be yourself and use that to your advantage. Be authentic. Stand on the strength of who you are and leverage that for the company. Show them you know the problems in the category and the audience being served.

Be powerfully relevant with potential investors. We told them there’s a difference between building a company that’s loyal to the product and one that is loyal to the customers you serve—and that’s the 80 percent of women who are not obsessed with beauty.

It’s definitely harder to pitch a business as a woman. But what everyone understands is traction. We build products around customers and connections to customers, and that’s how businesses that change the world have always succeeded.

Given the unique challenges that women face, do you identify with the Silicon Valley dogma that your company can change the world?

When women say they want to “change the world,” people think they are starting a non-profit. Nobody would think that about a man. Women are more realistic about what they can achieve. There haven’t been many female entrepreneurs, and we need more of them to give us the confidence that we can do it.

You have to have audacious goals. Building Dia&Co. was about creating a big business, and wealth, and changing the world because of the capitalistic view of life—that capital can accomplish many things. We serve the majority of women who a majority of retailers ignore. We are not building a small business, but one of enduring appeal.

We have 4 million active customers, so that’s where the audacious goals come into play. As you get bolder, there is often skepticism about whether you are grounded enough, while a man is seen forever as a “visionary.” Well, why not build the largest beauty retailer in the world?

How do you maintain a good work-life balance?

As a female founder and a new mom, there were always fears I might ditch the company or suffer from post-partum depression. Or, for some reason, get hit by a bus. It’s stressful and difficult to raise a child and be CEO, but every woman should have that choice.

I was pregnant with twins and thought, “What the hell is going to happen?” I never stopped thinking about the business every waking hour. You don’t sleep anyway. Now, as a mother, I believe I am a far superior leader, and more creative.

The most important thing as a businesswoman is to stay focused on what you are doing now, and then think about the next step, new challenges and experiences. As long as you live one moment at a time, you can live with the anxiety and worry.

How do you support women and encourage diversity at your company?

We are 70 percent female employees, and represent every ethnic background. On our website, we showcase real women, not models. They are sitting in our office already, so we don’t have to seek them out.

We are 80 percent female. We represent our customers. And if you truly live and breathe your customers as we do, in our veins, then they have to be at the table, literally. We are based in New York City, and when people come into our office off the street, they think they’ve arrived on a different planet.

What is the worst advice you ever received as a female founder of a company that sells mostly to women?

Someone asked, “Why don’t you start this company with your husband?” They thought he could help make it more successful when, in fact, he doesn’t know anything about media.

There are many preconceived notions about our women customers, so I politely decline advice from anyone who has absolutely no idea about them.

Thirty seconds into a discussion about Birchbox, an angel investor asked, “Do you really need the box?” It’s an essential part of our product offering. My response wasn’t polite because he was so profoundly not communicating.

You can watch the entire discussion here.