From weathering sexist comments at meetings to inventing fictional male co-founders to get the attention of investors, women business leaders detailed the sometimes unusual ways they persevere in a male-dominated startup world at a panel discussion.
Laura Berkner, the chief operations officer for the Madison caregiver software company Stimmi, was one of the three startup leaders at “Gender Equality for Tech Entrepreneurs,” a session held at the annual Forward Technology Conference Tuesday afternoon at the Memorial Union.
She said that when she looked for funding and resources for her company, people would constantly refer her to Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation, a nonprofit that strives to help women-owned businesses. Referrals to resources without a gender-specific mission weren't so frequent.
“Everyone kept saying, go to WWIBC. Go to WWIBC. Go to WWIBC,” said Berkner. “It was interesting to see that because we’re female founders, we got female-funneled...I don’t think that my gender (should) determine my opportunity.”
Berkner also said that she’s considered making up a male co-founder, “Bob,” to send emails. She thinks she’d get a better response rate on emails that way.
“Bob’s going to send the emails,” she said. “The reality is, those are the people who get responses. And I wish it wasn’t true. But there are enough studies out there that shows that this happens.”
Kristen Slack, the CEO of the online platform for academic professionals Prof2Prof, has had similar experiences: She occasionally gets her husband to sends emails on her behalf to vendors.
“When he sends an email, (vendors will) get right back to him,” she said.
Abigail Barnes — the CEO of Allergy Amulet, a company that develops a food allergen-detecting device — described a meeting with the CEO of a biopharmaceutical company interested in a potential partnership with her.
“I can’t tell you how many subtly misogynistic digs he threw at me,” she said. “He assumed that my co-founder was running the company.”
But because of the importance of the potential partnership, Barnes said she couldn’t call the CEO out on it.
“I don’t have the leverage,” she said. “I would love to say, you know what? We’re going to go with the other biopharmaceutical company that reached out to us.”
Those stories reflect the abundance of data that speaks to gender inequity in the U.S. when it comes to venture-backed startups — from the mere 8 percent of venture capital fund partners who are women, to the 3 percent of venture capital dollars that end up going to women-led startups.
“This is just the reality of the landscape,” said Barnes. “All of those statistics are not a surprise to me at all.”
She estimated that of the 100-odd meetings she’s had with VC partners, only two or three of them were with women.
Part of the panel discussion focused on what to do about gender inequality in startups. Barnes encouraged people to think about the larger picture — she stressed the importance of raising children in a way that doesn’t reinforce norms. She also stressed the importance of conscious consumerism, noting that all the clothes she was wearing were from female-led or founded companies.
“Every product that I buy, I try to support female founders,” she said. “Every dollar you spend is an investment in the world you want to live in,” she said.
The women on the panel also encouraged men to speak up on behalf of women when they see sexism playing out in a business environment, and vouched for the importance of forging networks and relationships with other female entrepreneurs.
Kaitlin Marquardt, a software engineer with the Madison startup Polco, moderated the discussion.