Women founders Q&A – Learn how they’re impacting their communities, industries, and beyond
Today, we’re talking to six women founders and leaders about how they’re making impacts in their communities, industries, and beyond.
- Ritu Chakrawarty, founder of Graaphene, a solution for last-minute backup childcare. Graaphene is a mobile app that connects parents with trusted, vetted caregivers on demand.
- Caitlin Colgrove, co-founder and CEO of Hex, a platform for collaborative data science and analytics.
- Veronica Falzone, co-founder and CEO of Thumbo, live sports audience engagement software that helps teams improve their fan experience, while collecting actionable data.
- Leanne Linsky, founder and CEO of Plauzzable, an online comedy platform that offers live stand-up comedy for their fans.
- Anna London, co-founder and CEO of Chrysallis AI, a scenario-based learning platform with gamification powered by AI.
- Barr Moses, co-founder and CEO of Monte Carlo, a digital data reliability platform designed to monitor and offer alerts for missing or inaccurate data.
First up, Ritu and Caitlin tell us how the startup environment has changed in the few year since they both got started.
When you compare the startup environment for women founders today to what it was like when you were first getting started, what has changed?
Ritu, Graaphene – It’s remarkable how much the entrepreneurial landscape has changed in such a short time. The environment today is vastly more supportive than it was even in late 2020. Thanks to the efforts of various organizations dedicated to promoting and nurturing female startup talent, there are now many resources available, including incubators, accelerators, female-focused investment funds, and VCs, as well as advocacy and mentoring organizations.
However, despite these developments, inherent biases are still holding us back. A recent report by HBR highlights the kind of obstacles women-led startups may face. Shockingly, women-led firms still receive less than 3% of all VC investments.
To counter this, there has been a push to get more women involved in venture financing. Studies show that female investors are more likely to invest in female founders. But, as shown in this research, having support from female investors could actually make it tougher for female founders to raise more money down the line. Attribution bias is a big deal. When people see a female founder getting funding from a male investor, they think it’s because she’s competent and her startup is strong. But, if that same founder only has female investors, people are more likely to assume her success is due to her gender, not her competence.
Although we have made a leap and many of the recent developments are extremely positive and represent a significant step forward for female entrepreneurs, we still need to work together to be aware of these biases so we can create a more fair and equal entrepreneurial landscape for everyone.
Caitlin, Hex – My first few years out of college I really remember as peak “brogrammer” culture – it was one of a number of toxic traits that rapidly scaling startups often developed back then, many times unintentionally. It used to feel like you had to fit a certain mold to work at a startup (much less start one), and it was one that I personally never fit.
Over the years though, I’ve been really excited to see how many startups are thinking about building culture from day one, and the result has been that today you can find early stage companies that are welcoming of all sorts of personalities and backgrounds. Without some of those examples to follow, I honestly don’t know if I would have chosen to be a founder. We’re definitely far from perfect as a company or as an industry, but this is one trend I really hope continues.
Next, tell us about some of the obstacles you’ve faced as a founder. What did you learn about yourself as you confronted them?
Ritu, Graaphene – One of the most significant hurdles I encountered while bootstrapping the entire process at Graaphene was the lack of venture capital financing, which meant we had to run on a tight budget.
The one thing that I learnt about myself embracing failure with grace, having excelled throughout my academic and corporate career, learning to hear “no” wasn’t easy. However, in the startup world, rejection is inevitable, and I’ve learned to use each “no” as an opportunity to learn, pivot, and refine our approach. Staying laser-focused on our “why” and remaining committed in the face of setbacks and difficult circumstances has been the antidote to overcoming these challenges.
Veronica, Thumbo – One obstacle I have faced is finding quality talent to join our team. A strategy that has helped is getting to know the person beyond their qualifications, through asking questions that help me understand their passion for our company’s vision. A passionate team member is one who will have sustainable focus and drive, not just at the beginning, but all the time, because they care about our mission.
Another challenge I have faced is learning to be patient. For founders, there is not the same instant gratification that comes in some other roles. What I’ve learned about myself is that when I focus on self-created daily benchmarks, I can stay motivated and on goal every single day.
Lastly, as a woman CEO I have had to deal with overt sexism. Several people I’ve encountered assume my male co-founder is the CEO before even speaking with us. I’ve learned that I am at my best when I don’t let that deter me, instead using as fuel to ensure my voice is heard. I’ve also learned to prioritize speaking with diverse and like-minded mentors and potential investors.
Leanne, Plauzzable – Feedback. Everyone wants to give feedback to a founder. Filtering all the feedback and advice can be not only time-consuming, but confusing. I’ve learned that customer feedback always gives me the most helpful insight into my desired results. I ask open-ended questions and let the customer talk. Anytime we question features or user experience (UX), I can count on my customer to give me the right answer.
Anna, Chrysallis.ai – One of the biggest obstacles I’ve faced is limiting beliefs. Mindset is everything. Being a woman is only a limiting factor if you allow it to be. Where there is not an opportunity for yourself, create one. Don’t wait to get asked to the table. Pull up your own seat and sit there and let your voice be heard.
At one point, I was told to add a male cofounder to the team to attract investors, as only 2% of funding goes to female-led startups. I was also told to put a man in charge, because a male-run company is perceived as having lower risk. Instead, I chose a female cofounder. Not because she is a female; rather, because she has the knowledge, skills, and abilities to get the job done.
Together, she and I developed and launched a beta and have been able to drive hundreds of users to the platform. We’re looking forward to setting the example for how female-led companies can help change the mindset of investors and venture capitalists and pave the way for more women-led tech companies to be the catalysts for innovation and transformation.
Also, what makes you excited about or gives you hope for the future of women-owned and led startups?
Ritu, Graaphene – We have the momentum to create a more equitable world that our upcoming generations deserve, and it all starts with acknowledging and celebrating the contributions of female founders. Founders are a special breed, requiring courage and tenacity to bring a new idea to fruition.
But when it comes to exceptionalism, women founders stand out. They not only take on the same multi-faceted roles as male founders, but they also face unique challenges. Limited investment dollars mean that they must bootstrap their startups while juggling household and caregiving responsibilities, often starting later in life. This extra power to overcome adversity, combined with fresh perspectives and innovative strategies, makes female founders invaluable and exceptional.
There is a growing awareness of what value female owned businesses bring, and that’s driving a shift towards supporting diverse talent. Incfile’s recent report reveals that for the first time, women entrepreneurs are growing at a rate that outpaces their male counterparts by over 20%, with a 76% growth rate among women over 65. This inspiring data gives me hope that we will soon see a more gender-equitable world.
Barr, Monte Carlo Data – In 2023, more than 10% of Fortune 500 companies are led by women – an all-time high. It’s a really exciting time to be an entrepreneur, and I’ve been so inspired by the founders and operators I’ve had the pleasure to meet in the AWS community. There are a lot of problems out there to be solved, and I have full confidence that these individuals will be at the forefront of the next generation of industry-leading companies. At Monte Carlo, for instance, I have been privileged to work with some of the best women in their field, and we’ve only just gotten started scaling and leading the data observability category.
Finally, what advice do you have for young founders who want to start their own company?
Barr, Monte Carlo Data – As a startup founder, speed is your biggest advantage and focus is your biggest challenge. There are always a million things you could be doing, and just a handful of areas where your time and attention matters most – lean into those areas, move quickly, and scale them as far as you can before moving onto the next area. Ask yourself what will it take to get something done today instead of tomorrow, for instance: “What will it take to ship this new feature this week, instead of five weeks from now?” At Monte Carlo, our two operating principles are “speed and focus” for this very reason.
Caitlin, Hex – This journey is not for the faint of heart. You’ll face countless rejections and setbacks, and you’ll have to summon the strength to say “no” many times before you finally hear a “yes”. It will test you physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But if you’re truly obsessed with solving a problem, if it’s something that you feel in your bones is worth fighting for, then you’ll be able to endure the challenges and stay the course.
Leanne, Plauzzable – Never be “above the broom.” It’s the opposite of the “It’s not my job” mentality. For example, if the floor needs a quick sweep, I pick up the broom and sweep it. If I answer the phone and a customer asks a question, I will help them.
Don’t make your customer step into a pile of construction debris because using a broom is not written in your job description. Don’t make your customer go through the process of being transferred to 2 or 3 other people because you don’t work in customer service. Take the call and listen to the customer’s question. If you don’t have an answer, go find one and come back to the customer with it. A good leader shouldn’t ask of others what they aren’t willing to do themselves.
Ritu, Graaphene – Focus on PCP – Problem, Customer, Perseverance. And when it comes to perseverance, Steve Jobs once said: “You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.”
For technical founders: do a stint as an engineering manager. Learn hiring, performance management, etc. Engineering management is really hard, and it’s even harder if you have to learn how to be a manager at the same time as learning how to be a founder. I’m really grateful for my management background because once we started to gain traction it really helped me accelerate building a really strong engineering team.
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