Revealing the Dirty Little Startup Secret It's time to innovate innovation and get rid of our antiquated ways of thinking

By Helene Berkowitz

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I'll let you in on a little secret: not every startup founder is a 22-year old white male living at home with his parents. Some of us are – wait for it – women, and within that small circle, there's an even smaller one that barely makes a blip on the radar: mothers.

It's like a dirty little secret we aren't supposed to admit – that we have children and families – while we create biotech companies, law firms, AR & VR technologies, and software engineering teams.

Startups = Innovation

What is innovation? It's creating new technologies, or doing something in a better, more efficient, or affordable way.

And yet, many believe innovation must be done in a cookie-cutter way, like a verbal Paint by Numbers set:

  1. Describe your product
  2. Research the competition
  3. Design a marketing plan
  4. Fundraise

…And so on.

Life is rarely mentioned. What happens when you're on a call with an investor and your son gets sick at school? Who handles things at home when you're abroad representing your company at a trade show or startup competition? If you're a female entrepreneur, you give a lengthy explanation about how you handle it all. If you're a male entrepreneur, the question is never even asked.

  1. The Challenges

The cookie-cutter method brings unique challenges to working mothers. I recall being told more than once, "Yeah, most people doing this don't have kids, so..." or "Good luck with that" in an obnoxious, negative, sarcastic "you're-never-gonna-make-it' tone.

Dr Gitanjali Swamy, Managing Partner of IoTask LLC, recalls her years of study at Harvard Business School. It was in the mid-2000s and Gita had a 1-year old baby. The admissions office told her, "You won't be able to survive the program; it's tough." Gita replied, "Do you say this to every man who has a family?" At the time of the class, Gita remembers roughly 900 students with an almost equal male/female ratio. While about half of the male students had children, just 3 female students did. 3 out of 900.

At the time, no woman had won Harvard Business School's Business Plan Contest. After female students complained about this, the award was given to a startup that manufactured custom-made bras for large-breasted women. The reason? The winning female entrepreneur was told, "that's what women are good at". This despite other submissions from women-led startups in fields like biotechnology and analytics.

We do a great disservice to women when we continue to adopt these stereotypes and preconceptions.

2: The Positives

Multi-Tasking in Business and Life

There's a famous picture of a woman cooking dinner while holding a baby, talking on the phone, and helping her kids with homework. Those same multi-tasking qualities that make women successful at managing families also make them successful at running companies. As one male corporate leader said, "The best managers are women with small children because they're more organized and efficient."

Margarida Pereira-Müller is CEO of Infobus, a Portugal-based communications company. When her youngest son was just 5 weeks old, Margarida was invited to attend CeBIT, one of the largest tech and computer expos in Europe. She confirmed her attendance; on the condition that she could bring her newborn baby since he was breastfeeding. During a dinner speech, Margarida's son started to cry. The speaker said, "It looks like an attendee brought his dog with him". He simply couldn't fathom someone bringing a baby to a business conference.

Let's Innovate Innovation

Let's stop using the cookie-cutter method. Innovation, after all, requires out-of-the-box thinking. Schedule networking events later in the evenings (6 pm is "the witching hour' for parents) so that entrepreneurs who are also young parents can attend. What works for 1 does not work for another, and flexibility can be the key to a successful launch/acquisition.

If we kept antiquated ways of thinking:

We'd never have Waze because paper maps work just fine.

We'd never have WhatsApp because calling and texting on our phone's texting program is good enough.

We'd not have Amazon because we can buy clothing, books, and electronics from a store.

It is possible to be both an entrepreneur and a mother. Perhaps it's time to innovate innovation.

Helene Berkowitz

Founder and CEO, ReceetMe Ltd.

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