The Trials And Tribulations Of A Woman Tech Founder
Cultivating your tribe outside of your job – but still inside the industry – becomes a necessary step to fill that relatability gap: Neha Sampat
I didn't plan a career in technology. I planned an interesting life. "Never be boring" is my mantra, and that, and a bunch of twists and turns, led me to become a three-time tech founder and CEO.
In my early twenties, I moved to Silicon Valley and started my own tech PR firm with a group of friends. We were successful up until the aftermath of 9/11 shut us down. That was a blow, but at that time, I was swimming in the confidence of youth and saw nothing but opportunity.
As my career progressed, I became more aware of "reality." The tech ecosystem is magical; you're surrounded by energy, ideas, and innovation every day. On the flip side, it can be exclusive.
A large part of my focus has been trying to tear down that exclusivity for myself – as a non-techie, Indian-American woman – and for other women hoping to do the same. Here's some of what I've learned along the way:
Representation and Relatability Matter
If we're not filling the pipeline with girls and women interested in tech early, we're not getting adequate representation in mid-and-later career stages. And, guess what? That leads to fewer women leading tech. This is a ground-up problem.
From a female tech founder's perspective, it can be a lonely place. You're typically in a room full of male engineers or the only woman speaking on a panel (we call them "manels"). The advice you get from men is critical, but it might not accurately represent your full female experience — as a wife, partner, mother, caretaker, or very involved aunt.
Cultivating your tribe outside of your job – but still inside the industry – becomes a necessary step to fill that relatability gap. I've done this by participating in accelerators, founders' networks, industry events, university programs, and more. It helps us envision ourselves in a world that may sometimes feel out of reach.
Funding for Female-Led Tech Companies has a Long Way to Go
The pandemic played a large part in slowing down incremental gains in female funding, but there are larger forces at play that have nothing to do with a virus. And it goes back to lack of representation.
There are alternative sources of funding like friends and family. But if you don't come from a wealthy background or didn't attend a top business school, it's more complicated than you might think.
Being an outsider manifests itself in many ways, and funding is one of the biggest. Look for the VC funds sprouting up today that are committed to changing the makeup of the ecosystem by only funding female-led tech startups. Some to consider are The Fund XX, Female Founders Fund, and India's Kalaari Capital.
Unconscious Bias is Very Real
Let's go back to men controlling 88% of funding decisions. That doesn't mean they'll always only support men and purposefully do so. But it does mean that they are working with a layer of "pattern matching" that contributes to unconscious bias.
Pattern matching allows people to make quick and informed decisions based on experience. The danger is when that pattern matching boxes you in. Think: "The last Silicon Valley male founder in AI brought me great returns. Let's look for the next male Silicon Valley AI founder to do the same."
Before you know it, you have a whole lot of founders that look the same.
Last year, I met with a group of female founders in Austin. A hot topic was how women-led companies exploring fundraising options are often pigeonholed as "lifestyle" companies. Meaning, investors back off because they assume the women founders are just in it "for now" (to sustain their lifestyles) instead of "for growth." Another topic we all agreed on: men get asked about company vision, women about work-life balance.
Bias is everywhere. Prepare yourself to be confronted by it, and don't allow your ambition to be curbed by it. There's always another path to your end goal.
"When you do achieve those goals, celebrate your accomplishments. But also lift others up along the way. Think about who you can mentor to get them further along in their career. Share your experiences at conferences and your learnings through social media. Don't let others succumb to the same mistakes you did. And most importantly, invest in other female-led companies.
It's up to female tech founders to force change faster. And the only way we're going to do that is to work in tandem to build an equitable tech entrepreneurial ecosystem that values women."