What it’s really like being a female founder in the digital industry
Starting my agency was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Business ownership offers all the advantages you might hear about. You can do what you love every single day with your own passions and goals in mind. In addition, with your own business, you set your own schedule (it’s unlikely I would have been able to swap my studio in East London for Greece for a month last year without this flexibility we’ve established at my agency). Most of all, you feel pride in what you’ve built and achieved.
There is an increasing appeal to this lifestyle. More than 582 million people are in the process of starting or running their own business, according to the latest Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. However, any entrepreneur will know, even with the long list of benefits, it's not all sunshine and rainbows. Starting a business is incredibly challenging.
Even though starting a business is challenging for men and for women, women still, today, do not have equal opportunities. The statistics support this. In Europe, women make up 51% of the population - but they lead only 14.8% of start-ups.
Some of the reasons give rise to even more of the barriers that women face. In 2021, female entrepreneurs received just 1% of venture capital investments. The same research found that for most women in Europe, starting a business relies on their savings and family contributions, while male entrepreneurs are three times more likely to seek financing from banks.
In other words, funding is a huge problem. Again, this is proven by expanding the number of female juries to 50%; the European Innovation Council increased the number of female-run startups receiving Accelerator funding from 8% to 29%.
Even as corporations become more aware of gender inequality, biases against women still persist. The point is to recognise, even when it's difficult, that not everyone starts from the same point and then, make adjustments for imbalances.
This isn't just a call to action for men. In many ways, this acknowledgement also needs to come from women. Recent research proves unconscious bias persists even in women-dominated industries. According to this study, women are still mindful when expressing authority and downplaying their accomplishments.
Imposter Syndrome - the psychological experience of doubting your skills and experience, even when the evidence is contrary - is closely correlated with these internalised biases and, as such, is more common among women. Nearly two-thirds (60%) of women have considered starting their own business but haven’t due to feelings of imposter syndrome.
It's something I can relate to. After I founded Célibataire last year, despite having been a founder before, I felt self-doubt and fear that the agency would not achieve what I knew it was capable of. Leaving the familiar is scary, and you question your capabilities. When your agency gains traction and success, it becomes easier to manage. Even so, it's easy to allow negative feelings and worries to creep in again.
In order to empower female founders, we must address the more tangible barriers, such as the funding deficit, and showcase role models for women to 'see it to be it'. However, we also need to work to tackle the mindset that women - and men - were born believing to be true.
The perception that women need to be less risk-averse and more ambitious, for instance, needs to be challenged. In reality, resilience, self-development, and innovation are essential leadership skills. It is not necessary for women to 'be men'. They need to believe that they can succeed. And they can. Despite the low percentage of women in entrepreneurship, research shows that digital start-ups owned by women are more likely to be successful than those owned by men. Moreover, investment in female-founded start-ups performs 63% better than that in exclusively male founded ones.
Think about it. I have met inspiring women in business at virtually every networking event I attend. The best thing you can do is attend these events. This is not only to meet women you aspire to, but also to cultivate a support system. Having someone who has been in that position before provides you with the soundboard you need to talk about your fears or worries. It is helpful for us to talk about imposter syndrome and to remind ourselves of our value, for example.
Doing so will help us attract - and retain - female representation in digital. In our sector, this is pivotal, considering the absence of women has potentially very serious ramifications. Not just to an organisation’s bottom line, but to the future of developing technologies. Technology reflects the values of its developers, and that of the information they draw from. It is clear that having more diverse teams working in the development of such technologies might help identify biases and prevent them.
Every day, more and more barriers are being broken down for female founders. But implying ‘equality is close’ isn't helpful. Rather than just acknowledging that more equality is needed, we must challenge biases (including our own). That’s the truth of being a female founder in a digital world.