Gender Equality Week and what it means to me

Gender Equality Week is an opportunity to celebrate the amazing contributions that female entrepreneurs have made to the world, and continue to make. However, we still have a way to go before achieving equality for female entrepreneurs, and this is especially evident in industries such as tech.

Suzanne Noble is the founder of VSU-funded business Frugl, London's marketplace for local events and daily deals on web and mobile apps. She is also one of our Virgin StartUp ambassadors. Here she reflects on her experience of running a business as a woman in tech.

Back when I was a PR Director, the inequality, at least in my working life, was not so glaringly obvious to me as it is now. PR is, by its very nature, predicated on being a good communicator. Women are, by nature, good communicators and so the sector tends to employ lots of women, especially at the consumer end. Getting work was about being good at what I did – yes it was about knowing how to work a room and charm people but, ultimately, I got results and that is why  I succeeded.

I entered the world of startups because I had a good idea. I didn’t do it to be in ‘tech’. As far as I’m concerned this is a new business and it happens to make use of technology and requires a development team to keep it ticking over. Essentially though, Frugl is about buyers and sellers. I get this stuff.  So perhaps I could be excused for thinking that I’m in with a chance. If it was all just about a good idea that has a market, I might be. But this tech stuff, well it’s complicated.

For starters, working in technology as a woman, and an older woman at that, is akin to being the only one at the party in fancy dress. In this cool, new world of business startups where geeks in t-shirts are the gods, you’d think the community was open to all. It is. But it isn’t. Turn up at a tech gathering and you can see them thinking, “Whose Mum is she?”  My discomfort isn’t anecdotal or imagined. It’s backed up by statistics: Women account for only 17% of IT professionals in the UK.

It’s even worse if you’re chasing funding. “Between 1997 and 2013 in the US (where funding for technology is much more readily available than here in the UK) the number of businesses owned by women grew 1.5 times more than the national average. Venture-backed companies led by women brought in 12% more revenue than those headed by men, according to research from Babson College. Even so only 2.7% of all venture-backed companies have a woman CEO. That’s 183 out of 6,517 companies or $1.5 billion out of the $50.8 billion invested between 2011 and 2013.”

In a recent interview, Sarah Turner, head of pro-female investment syndicate Angel Academe said, “Entrepreneurs Startup DNA found that male entrepreneurs are 86% more likely to successfully raise VC funds and 59% even more likely to secure angel investment than their female counterparts. The link between a lack of women on the investor-side and this comparative lack of success by women in raising funding seems obvious to me.”

I’m an optimistic person so this stuff doesn’t upset me, however it does present me with questions about how can I help change this, so that other women will feel they’re ok in being here.

So here’s what I’m thinking:

First, and most obvious, I need to do everything better than my male counterparts. While Frugl operates on a shoestring budget, I have to make every penny count. Salaries need to be as lean as possible. Marketing spend maximised to achieve the absolutely lowest user acquisition cost. Our pitch deck, financial information and business plan have to be gorgeous, typo free, sensible while being ambitious and enticing. There simply is no room for slacking. That may be true of all businesses but if you’re a female founded one, even more so. Your business needs to be as irresistible as it needs to be tightly strung.

Surround yourself with great people and try, wherever possible, to employ 50/50 men and women in your organization.  This is really, really hard to do in practise.  Pip Jamieson, who runs The Dots, said it took a lot of work to find a great female developer to balance her team. Notice the word ‘great’. What we’re not talking about here is making poor hiring choices to address the gender in balance in your organization. At the moment I’m failing on this one myself and desperate to put it right so if you know any female digital marketers, please do let me know.

When it comes to funding, I’ve realised that 99% of the male investors that attend pitch or networking events are not going to invest in women, even if your business is irresistible. Mainly this comes to an unconscious bias. They’re looking for a Mark Zuckerberg type guy and women don’t fit the stereotype. Know this is not just me working this out over time, this has actually been said to me by investors I have met.

At the same time, women working in finance are not going out of their way to invest in women either. This may seem counter-intuitive until you realize that, for the most part, women working in finance are not entrepreneurial by nature and are, generally, risk-averse. What this means is that, if you’re a woman looking for money, you need to be looking in other sectors with a dominance of women in director level positions. While I have no evidence to back up that this tactic will work, my intuition and my own experience tells me that there are likely to be more women working in creative industries interested in Angel investing than are currently doing so; they just haven’t been targeted.

So yes, it’s a situation that sucks and will continue to do so. Finding funding means looking in less obvious places for money.

Yes we should support each other. Women do undermine other women. Sometimes when the going gets tough, the nails come out and we resort to fighting rather than standing by each other. When we stand together we are stronger for it. You get back what you give. If it weren’t for the women I’ve met since starting Frugl, I wouldn’t have the developers who came recommended to me. I wouldn’t have the PR opportunities that have come my way and I would be much worse off personally as well as professionally.

I’d like to imagine there are investors who in the true spirit of the tech community, embrace people who don’t fit the norm, including women over forty. I wonder sometimes if part of the problem is that there is a still a view that this tech stuff is pioneer territory and therefore the men need to slash through the undergrowth to show us how it’s done. But no, it’s 2015 and this tech stuff is supposed to lead to greater democratization. No, it has to change and it will change but we’re going to have to do a lot of pushing.

Find out more about Global Entrepreneurship Week 2015