Finding Female Co-Founders: Creating Legacy and the Right Chemistry
A report this year examining 1000 CEOs concluded “The most stunning point that stood out from the research was just how few female CEOs there were.” This off-kilter gender arrangement in business leadership shapes social outcomes; it has real impact on the diversity of innovation, decisions, products, and opportunities.
How do we increase gender inclusion in technology and beyond? And why should we — why does it matter? Well, one practical way to address this issue is expand the likelihood of finding a female co-founder. This is not just about balancing out numbers. This is about sourcing competent partners and strengthening the concept of female foundership.
Female-led businesses have been correlated with better financial performance. So not only does it make sense to have women in leadership roles to shape products and services for the broader community, it also generates a legacy impact.
What I mean is that today’s young women require female role models.
If you look at recent NHS data reporting the alarming number of young women who are battling serious stress and emotional setbacks based on their perceived self-image, it becomes clear we need substantive, positive impressions that give girls — even from a young age — the firm belief that they can achieve equally as their male counterparts, who incidentally do not report the same self-esteem issues. This trend is not limited to the UK. According to the Guardian, “The mounting evidence of low self-esteem among British girls reflects a trend in many other countries in recent years of more and more young females suffering from anxiety and depression.”
Although the data focused primarily on body-image topics, it leads to me wonder about a few things: 1) Might some women, or men, want to help solve this problem through startup solutions? After all, these girls are reporting that social media is part of where the problem begins. 2) How else could we chip away at these self-image issues? How could we reinforce a larger social movement hinged on the power of positive female role models?
A Berlin Meetup Connects Female Co-Founders
In this spirit of international inclusion and supporting future generations of female entrepreneurship, I was keen to check out a Berlin-based Meetup organized by Heike Gäbler called “Looking for Female Co-Founders”. Heike explained that her goal was to create a Meetup for women and men alike. “It’s for everybody who’s looking for a female co-founder. It’s an event that deals with founding a company & co-founder matchmaking where a substantial role is female.”
Although founders can also be CEOs, Heike clarified an important distinction between them: a founder creates the idea and brings it to life, while the CEO leads crucial business activities, and can importantly challenge ideas. This Meetup focused more on the founder type but there is overlap with women who pursue high-level careers within corporate structures.
I’ll dive right into insights from the Meetup’s star guest speaker, Julia Derndinger. Julia was crowned the “‘die Gründertrainerin’ (the founder trainer)” by German Business Magazine. She has over a decade of experience in successful entrepreneurship and investment and has coached founders both independently and inside startup accelerators. Her method involves mentally sparring with clients to push them to develop ideas and formulate solid business models and quality teams.
From an interview with Julia conducted in German where Heike moderated, here are my key take-away messages to share with you. (Any translation errors introduced are my own.)
Why look for a co-founder if you are enough of a proven leader?
Maybe you have all the technical competence you need, or you never need to take a sick day. But if you are human like the rest of us, you need both: a well-rounded team, and some flexibility to your schedule. No matter whether you search for your competent founding partner inside or outside of a social environment (for example at a conference), you need to vet the new partner carefully.
How do you best handle this? Create a system or process to determine answers to questions like the ones below. It takes time to clarify upfront but it helps to make a checklist where you discuss topics below. Check out Julia’s full checklist in at the end of a recent article she wrote.
- How will you make decisions?
- Who gets shares?
- What roles do people play?
- What would happen if you split up?
- How much time and resources do partners have to devote?
- Think about family challenges or other circumstances that factor into what resources you can offer.
Tip: You need a shared vision for the future with your co-founder, not just an idea. The vision should be clearly stated, and not just a thought held in the mind.
Part of the shared vision is ensuring you are targeting the right markets. Don’t put 1–3 years in only to then find out you have a bad match between you and your co-founder, or you and your target.
So what does a good co-founding team look like?
It means you and your co-founders have different competencies but the same, or similar, values. While it works to mix personality traits like extrovert and introvert, ensure that your values align about topics like generosity, being opportunistic, what kind of workplace environment or culture you want. Also consider lifestyle choices, if one person is a heavy smoker or late partier and the other not, it could create a conflict in terms of working hours or habits.
Julia encouraged going with your gut. If you have to think too hard about it, the match may not be right. Trust your instincts.
Tip: If you and your co-founder are not truly aligned in terms of vision and values, don’t bother hiring anyone else.
Speaking of personalities, can people change who they are?
Short answer: you can only change yourself. But one thing that CEOs tend to do is over-commit, say in order to provide a pleasing answer to an investor, without informing their whole team. So how one organizes their team and prioritizes tasks for the best outcome is vitally important.
Regarding teams, why are some dysfunctional and how can that be avoided?
A good team mixes types of people: thinkers vs. makers, analytical vs. impulsive. Teams featuring diverse styles make a company tick better, for example, some people’s strengths focus on customer care while others on marketing. But ultimately having ‘team players’ is crucial overall.
What’s In a Name?
Julia says sometimes the term CEO can seem overbearing for a tiny startup. In German, this can be substituted with “ein Kapitän”, who steers the ship. This is the person with an understanding of the design and strategy, and decision making power and ability. She warns against collective decision-making because a startup should move fast.
Julia says, “Most startups die because they did not decide fast enough, not because they didn’t make the right decision.”
So how can you best organize a team?
Start working together on a short project, like a 4-week timeframe. Use it like a ‘Probezeit’ or trial period. Rely on a checklist (as always) and honest communication. Watch what happens: does the person really deliver as they state?
Tip: Ask yourself, What can I do? What do I need? What can I give? Practice your pitch about yourself with yourself. You should be able to clearly encapsulate what you offer in a few sentences.
Extra tip: Don’t restrict yourself to looking solely for the co-founder. Consider seeking out a peer group that can help strengthen your idea. Speaking of that, check out this opportunity to connect with others and refine your message.
To recap, however self-evident these points may appear, they’re worth stating. That’s what happens when I hear a kernel of truth – I think yes, of course, that is how it should be!
We SHOULD know what we bring to the table, know our strengths and where we need to supplement, how to communicate and build teams, and support more inclusion while doing all of this.
The Berlin Buzz
At this Meetup, I met some remarkable women who lead important organizations here in Berlin.
One of these key players is Karin Heinzl, Founder and CEO of MentorMe, an organization that incidentally connected a few women in attendance that evening. MentorMe is an NGO whose mission is to enhance professional development for women through mentoring, training, and networking. With monthly exchanges between volunteer mentors and young female mentees (anyone from University up to 7-years of professional experience), the year-long program provides practical experience and career-shaping.
Another impressive example of a female founder doing social good is Natalya Nepomnyashcha. Her Ukrainian family roots and self-driven education led her to found Netzwerk Chancen, a non-profit and non-partisan dialogue platform for representatives of politics and civil society with the goal of developing solutions for equal education opportunities for all children in Germany.
Organizer of the Meetup, Heike Gäbler, closed with some forward-thinking ideas that captured my curiosity. She has a personal big vision to increase data awareness by offering related basic courses for women. She sees that a data-driven mind state is necessary in the modern economy. Understanding data analysis, data science, machine learning, and programming will make women more competitive in the job market and prepared to deal with the challenges of a constant increase in data collection.
Feel free to share comments, ideas, or names of female co-founders and CEOs who deserve recognition. Thanks!