Fix the gender diversity gap in entrepreneurship? Focus on supporting female entrepreneurs who are starting a family.
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Sure, there are mentorship programs, female-focused incubators, books and podcasts to “lean in” or “lean out.” But how about policies supporting parents so they can actually found and grow companies, to ultimately diminish inequities in entrepreneurship.
Did you know the average startup founder is in their early 40s? And why are they mostly men? Because by the time a future entrepreneur cuts their teeth, builds the expertise, saves up to bootstrap, they’re right at the baby-rearing age window. And, by that “baby time” (let’s call it that, say) there are new choices that need to be made by women.
Women don’t have to make the same choices and considerations as men when deciding to start a family, I don’t care what you say.
How do I know? Because I’m doing it right now as a founder of a pre-seed company and a parent of a 3-year-old and 3-week-old, and it’s freaking hard. To prove it, I’m actually writing this in the old-fashioned way, by the sole “candlelight” on my cell phone in the Google Docs app, while feeding my daughter at 4 a.m.
Female-founded startups are not just a good thing to do in practice, they also deliver better financial outcomes. Pitchbook/All Raise and BCG have all done studies on it: Investing in women isn’t philanthropy, it is good business sense. We know that diversity within an organization is associated with more innovation, improved decision-making, higher revenue per dollar invested, and improved financial returns.
As someone who works with some of the most brilliant student entrepreneurs around as the Program Lead of Women Entrepreneurs (WE) Cornell, I know that it’s not that women in college or right out of university can’t be entrepreneurs (in fact that’s a whole other topic that I believe in strongly — check out my testimony at the Small Business Committee in Congress here), it’s that you increase probability of success when you have someone with experience, access to customers/networks/capital, and the confidence to tackle it.
However, the issue is that there are not enough policies and systems in place to help support women thriving as an entrepreneur once they start having kids, so the reality is that women don’t get over the initial hurdle of founding a company.
Stroll with me:
- “Let’s get pregnant”: This is not a magical time for most people. It certainly does not happen overnight. It took me almost 1.5 years to get pregnant with my second kid — oh, and I had an early pregnancy loss on my birthday while trying to found our company. Which life event should an entrepreneur focus on?
- “Hooray! I’m pregnant”: Indeed, I was ecstatic, but now begins the “powering through” stage. During the first trimester, there is nausea and pain, in addition to the chaos of another child, if you have one. I will forever remember frantically tossing my daughter to daycare just in time for an important meeting and a quick vomit behind my car. Male counterparts have a major leg-up: sleep, caffeine and lack of nausea.
- “Let’s stay pregnant”: While the second trimester gets easier, the third trimester is brutal. No matter how supportive anyone is, evidence shows that there is tremendous unconscious bias during this period. I pitched investors both incredibly pregnant and fearful of losing the deal. I wanted to win them over while diverting focus from the bump. The last three to four weeks of pregnancy are a toss up: you don’t know when your baby is coming and are uncomfortable physically. In a startup, three to four weeks is like a century, however, because every day counts.
- “Welcome baby”: Goodness, society really fails women entrepreneurs here. How the heck are we supposed to tackle this one? You want to take parental leave, but this is impossible as a small startup. We need a federal paid leave policy to help offset some of the costs and be able to afford to temporarily backfill without using precious investor dollars.
There are tremendous positives for starting a company as a new parent, many of which many employees only dream of in more “traditional” roles. As a startup founder, you:
- Are the boss;
- Set your schedule;
- Can work where you want;
- Follow your passion; and
- Make an impact: women are more apt to pursue businesses to satisfy societal issues.
All of these roles allow women to get back to work how they see fit, and also grow their company to create jobs, and then give back to those families that are engendering the growth of our economy, population and workforce.
This country deserves more, should do more, and can do more. Let’s support women and babies with paid parental leave and universal childcare support, which are both articulated in the American Families Plan proposed by the Biden administration.
If we want to increase the number of female entrepreneurs, this is the way to do it. If we want to tackle large societal issues with more financial success and jobs for our nation’s economy, let’s better support and take advantage of half of our population.
Andrea Ippolito is founder of SimpliFed, and a leader in entrepreneurship and health tech. She is also the program lead of Women Entrepreneurs (WE) Cornell, and has testified before the Small Business Committee in Congress.
Illustration: Dom Guzman
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