How Startups Can Be Empowerment Tools for Women

What kinds of businesses are leading the charge toward equality and workplace flexibility? Starts with an 'S.'

learn more about Mabel Imala

By Mabel Imala


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Millions of women across America aspire to have successful careers and raise families. But, finding the balance to merge those two paths is a difficult challenge which requires support and mentorship, as well as flexibility and understanding from employers.

Related: Why the Online Marketplace Is Perfect for Women in Business

Certainly, Yahoo's Marissa Mayer, former Pearson CEO Marjorie Scardino and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg all prove that it is possible to be a strong female leader in the corporate world. But these women are still part of a tiny, high-profile minority.

I was shocked, when I researched the matter, to find just how scarce female C-level executives really are: Only 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions are held by women.

That's where startups come in. The good news is that, in startups, we're seeing the beginnings of a cultural shift toward a working environment that encourages and develops female talent -- a great goal to think about this week of International Women's Day.

As a married mother of three young children, I've personally worked hard to carve out a career for myself in a competitive market and am grateful for the opportunities that have come my way.

I now occupy the CEO's seat in a startup and feel right at home in the entrepreneur community.

So, what are the challenges that women in the corporate world still face today? How can they surmount them? And what are some ways women can realize their potential in the exciting and motivating world of startups?

What's wrong in the corporate world?

For many women in this country, the American Dream seems to come with a few caveats. In the corporate sector, despite steady movement toward gender equality and improved pay conditions, women still earn only 81% of their male counterparts' salaries. There is no good reason for this disparity in 2015, especially now that women in the United States are actually more likely than men to be college graduates.

Things get even worse for U.S. women who want to start a family. In terms of maternity leave, women can expect 12 weeks of unpaid leave, which is far behind other countries like the United Kingdom, where women are paid for up to 39 weeks. This makes for some very tough descisions and complicated financial planning.

Related: 5 Unstoppable Female Entrepreneurs Making Their Dents on the World

What's more, rigid working hours, demanding schedules and what seems to be an increasing discriminatory attitude toward pregnant women in the workplace are all factors making it harder for women to succeed.

Not that things are a bed of roses in other countries: A survey of 2,000 mothers and 500 managers in the U.K. found that 60 of female respondents there felt that they had been "sidelined" at work after announcing their pregnancies, and 40 percent of managers surveyed admitted having to think carefully about hiring a woman of child-bearing age.

Although there are many successful women in large corporations, the obstacles that still lie in women's career paths really hold them back. There is hope, however, for recent graduates and those of us who have been working on our careers for a number of years -- and that hope lies in the startup community.

How startup culture is empowering women

Startups today are taking a huge step toward equality and the empowerment of female employees. They're fostering cultures that pull down the old paradigms, and create an open and meritocratic space for everyone to develop his or her skills. And that means that women entrepreneurs -- especially those with children -- can more easily move forward in their careers and show the world what they're all about.

Startup culture is one that is generally freer and more accepting of irregular hours and work locations, and both women and men with families benefit. In my own case, working in a startup has enabled me to schedule my work around family life (rather than the other way around).

This is the sort of supportive working environment that's hard to come by in long-established corporations. Yet workday flexibility allows both my husband and me the freedom to work without making that tough choice between career and family that many couples face.

Startups also have a burgeoning culture of openness. This was underlined earlier this year by news of a trend of startups' workers tweeting their salaries under the hashtag #talkpay. Promoting transparency in this way and to this degree is something quite unheard of in the corporate world.

In fact, startup attitudes are changing and online movements like that of the salary tweets will inevitably lead to greater fairness and accountability across the board.

In startup culture, the big buzzword is innovation. Can you make the move from the corporate work to a startup environment? That depends on your motivation and determination. But the most important quality you can demonstrate to your new employer is adaptability and the willingness to put forward your ideas -- no matter how small or new those ideas may be.

So how do you set out on your own?

If you want to take the entrepreneurial route, you will need a different mindset altogether:

Turn your business idea into a passion. Throw yourself in the deep end and live it, remembering that this won't be easy. If your expectations are too high,nyou may become demoralized when things don't work out as planned. Creating a viable and healthy business has to be your aim in the early stages, rather than making piles of cash.

Check out Intel's Diversity Fund. The fund is a resource for underrepresented entrepreneurs and focuses on minority groups and women. The fund invests in both early-stage and established startups, so if you have a business plan and meet the criteria, you may well find this channel a great way to get your idea off the ground.

Find a mentor, male or female. And make use of the resources available to you. Having someone guide you through tricky business decisions, investments and contracts is invaluable in your startup's early stages. Find someone close to you who has lots of experience, or contact an organization like EBW2020 (empowering a billion women by 2020).

EBW2020's "peer-to-peer mentoring circle" is useful for first-time (or even seasoned) entrepreneurs, and the organization's app helps you connect with similar business owners across the world. You can also find out about events happening both online and offline and learn a lot about running a business.

Discover and learn -- and don't be afraid to unlearn. Attending conferences and networking to meet other similarly minded women can only be of benefit to you. Women Entrepreneurship Day (WED) gathers women leaders to form think tanks and expand their businesses, using socially beneficial initiatives in multiple countries.

Wendy Diamond, founder of the movement, predicts that, "Women-owned businesses are set to increase by 90 percent in the next five years. We need to change the status quo because lifting women creates economic opportunity and vitality, locally and globally."

Also see the excellent publication, Women Who Tech for news, events and resources and the publication's exciting startup challenge.

Related: 4 Inspiring Stories of Women Entrepreneurs From Around the World

In sum, startups provide women with a transparent and supportive environment. Entrepreneurship overall is a fantastic opportunity, and there are a growing number of resources for women to get started. The future is wide open; it's time to take the initiative.

Mabel Imala

CEO of

Mabel Imala is the CEO of Deeskus () which is an online grocery delivery service catering to traditional African, Caribbean and Latino foods – the first of its kind. Mabel has been instrumental in helping Deeskus scale its operations and expand its presence nationally and globally, and has also managed sales, marketing and business development. She lives in Virginia with her husband and three kids.

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