On May 5, 1809, a Connecticut woman named Mary Keis made history. She became the first female inventor to secure a patent in the United States for her invention of weaving straw with silk and thread, thus laying grounds for cost-effective manufacture and paving the way for women inventors in the nineteenth century.
Over two hundred years later, as we celebrate Women’s History Month, women may have no trouble getting a patent, but we are still fighting to make our voice heard in the male-dominated leadership arena. The ice is broken. But we are still fighting for the chance to propel our inventions, business ideas, and creations from a place of equal opportunity.
As women leaders and founders, what can we do today to help one another beat the odds regardless of social, gender, and racial privilege?
I talked to seven award-winning female leaders and founders to find out.
1. Back yourself up with a support network
The problem with women leaders, founders, and executives, is that more often than not, they find themselves in roles and companies that make them the only woman in the room. Placed within such constraints, women leaders often miss out on the mentorship and support network allocated to their male colleagues.
Helen Norris has served as the Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Chapman University in Orange, California since June 2014. With a computer programming background and a 20-year experience in Higher Education Information Technology, Helen’s life is centered around technology. Leaning back on her own struggles, today she is actively engaged in empowering women in tech through organizations like Women in Technology International and Advancing Women in Technology.
“From early in my career I have often been the only woman on the team or the only woman in the room. That can lead to a sense of isolation in the workplace. The number of women in leadership roles in technology is still pretty small, with some studies showing that while there has been some improvement, fewer than 20% of CIOs are women.
One of my techniques for dealing with isolation is to build a strong network outside of my own organization. I think it is critical for women in IT to develop and maintain networks for many reasons, including career growth, support, and keeping current with trends in the industry. It’s also a great way to pay it forward — to be there for others who might need mentoring or advice in their own careers.”
Success tip: Mentorship and online communities for entrepreneurs remain the fastest and safest business propellers, regardless of gender, age, and race. Jessica Alderson, co-creator and CEO of Syncd, a dating app that matches compatible Myers-Briggs personality types and a top 10 female entrepreneur according to Yahoo Finance, says, “One of the biggest challenges I have faced as a woman is the lack of female role models in tech. The ones I have met are intelligent, supportive, and just all-around amazing people, but are few and far between. I recently took on a new role as the UK lead for Women in Tech which has opened up a whole world of amazing, supportive female role models. I would suggest finding a close-knit community of women to anyone facing a similar challenge.”
2. Get comfortable asking for help and learn to set boundaries
For women leaders, multi-tasking is a habit we quickly fall into and are reluctant to let go of. Women leaders often heap responsibilities upon themselves and feel distraught asking for help, both when it comes to “traditional” female responsibilities and work chores. Asking for help makes women leaders feel weak and vulnerable but it shouldn’t, says 2021 Forbes Next 1000 nominee, Indy Maven CEO and co-founder Leslie Bailey.
“The biggest challenge I’ve faced in my career journey as a woman is getting in my own way. Sure, there were plenty of times that men underestimated me or passed me over but that really becomes a problem when you allow people to treat you a certain way. But what I mostly mean by getting in my own way is how I made sacrifices too easily sometimes. I always felt that I had to say yes to get ahead. Though my husband and I both work from home and are parents, for the longest time I took on the traditionally female tasks of making dinner, leaving work early to pick up kids, starting work late because I was doing things around the house. The moment I started looking at us as equals (despite who makes more money — shocker, it’s him) I stopped taking everything on myself and have been able to focus more on my business and career. I also learned to say no to tasks, requests, and other asks that don’t serve my needs and goals.”
Success Tip: Both at home and at work, learn to say no to things that aren’t vital at the moment. Ask for help and partnership. This act does not make you seem weak or incapable of fulfilling your task. On the contrary, dividing responsibilities is the mark of a mature and respectful leader, regardless of gender. You’d be surprised how often the people around us, from family members to colleagues would love to help and to know their input is worthy and needed!
3. Focus on hard work and soft skills
What do you think counts more on your CV — hard skills per se, or soft skills? When asked, 97% of employers said that soft skills are on a par with or even more important than hard skills. Judging by the fact that all leaders and founders display uncanny soft skills, this is barely surprising.
Crisis management, a key soft skills for any leader, is something that Toni Harrison — gold medalist in crisis management at The American Business Awards (The Stevies”), multicultural agency founder with two decades of industry experience, and CMO at fintech startup Fair — is familiar with not just in business, but in life too.
“As a young Black girl, I was frequently reminded I had to be twice as good to get half as far since I am Black. I suspect that fueled my ambition and helped me ascend to senior positions more quickly. In tech, fewer than 2% of executive leaders are Black. In marketing/PR only about 5% of the entire workforce is Black. In marketing and communication, we have to sell ideas to connect with consumers.
“My journey into tech is paved with purpose and passion. The racial disparities in health that were exposed and widely reported as the pandemic grew are equally concerning and alarming in finance. Fintech has the power to quickly transform the systems and practices that contribute to the racial inequities in finance, such the wealth gap which shows Blacks and Latinx pay more than twice the amount in bank fees, even though the average whites have 8x the wealth and far less debt. This brought me to a new path as Chief Marketing Officer for Fair, a fintech startup aimed at reducing racial wealth and opportunity gaps. As Fair CMO, I’m a crusader for closing racial wealth and opportunity gaps.”
Success Tip: We’re used to the fact that in business, it’s hard work, not only talent and brilliant ideas, that is the breadwinner. But for women leaders coming from a minority or underprivileged background, the amount of hard work, perseverance, and dedication are twice or thrice that of a standard white male from an average background. Especially in the “man’s world” of fields like fintech, women are under a lot of stress to make their achievements count. If you’re a woman who is passionate about a field that has a lot of piled-up misogyny, your best weapons are psychological preparedness (don’t underestimate the amount of challenge so you’re not crushed by it), professional growth, and investment in important soft skills like crisis management, negotiation, and communication.
4. Learn the art of funding (and crowdfunding)
Female. immigrant. tech. founder. For most people, just one of those nouns in their CV would’ve been enough to give up on their goals. But not for Elnaz Sarraf, Founder & CEO of ROYBI Robot — the world’s first AI-powered smart toy to teach children language and STEM skills.
Recently, Elnaz’s product has been named one of TIME Magazine’s Best Inventions in Education, made it to the 2019 CNBC Upstart 100 list as one of the world’s most promising startups, and is on Fast Company’s 2019 World-Changing Ideas. But times weren’t always happy for Elnaz, an Iranian immigrant recently named Entrepreneur of The Year in Silicon Valley.
“When I was raising funds for the Roybi seed round, I heard so many rejections that often, I thought to myself if what I am doing is right. There were plenty of people who told me I should just stop trying or try other future ideas. Some said that it is not worth losing all my money over this idea and just finding a 9–5 job and then working on something else in the future. All these comments were quite discouraging. It got even a lot more difficult when I ran out of money and had to call my friends and ask for help. However, I firmly believed in ROYBI. Fast forward, I was able to eventually raise $4.2M financing in our seed round in 2019 without even a fully functioning prototype.”
Success tip: Fundraising is one of the toughest aspects of growing a startup. Experts agree that in order to successfully raise funds, you should send the message about your product/service far and wide. Connect to all the people in your network you haven’t spoken to in a while and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You may also want to look into crowdfunding. As Sukhi Jutla, another female entrepreneur who raised £439,840 for her startup, MarketOrders, via crowdfunding says, “Don’t make assumptions about whether pe.ople have money to invest! I learned quickly that there were many people who were willing to invest large amounts but I hadn’t been telling them I was raising so I assumed they were not likely to invest.”
5. Focus on achievements. Results will follow.
As women in business, we know a lot about the infamous gender gap. Many of us either struggle with it still or have felt its burden upon us. But to paraphrase poet Robert Frost, the best way out of the gender gap is through it. This is something Anna Miranchuk, Product Manager at MightyCall and Network Products Guide IT World Awards, Women in IT silver medalist is keen to point out.
“The more varied an ecosystem is, the more stable it is. This is vital not just in biological terms, but in professional terms as well! I am confident that gender plays no ultimate role in a woman’s career as long as she is a professional in her field. Surely, there are certain aspects and management styles that vary when it comes to men and women leaders. Women are naturally good communicators, and this can be very helpful in leadership roles. But the main secret is to do work that captivates and transforms you — in that case, you can become successful in any field! At MightyCall, we have people from diverse backgrounds, both men and women, who’re passionate about what they’re doing.”
Success tip: If you’re a woman leader or founder, creating a diverse ecosystem around your team is an important aspect not just of diversity, but team productivity. The more diverse the voices representing and speaking up for your company, the more productive your mutual work will be. However, if you’re in a situation where you’re the only woman in the room, focusing on your professional skills and disregarding “well-meaning advisors” who recommend you to go back to the kitchen counter is the safest bet when it comes to eliminating gender bias.
Society at large still has a way to go before accepting, prizing, and encouraging the full input that women leaders, founders, and inventors can make in the world. But today, as ever, our best weapon is our togetherness.
Behind every successful woman is a tribe of other successful women who have her back.
Time to own the battle, girls.
Angela Yurchenko is a business journalist and classical musician. In her personal writing, she shares stories of the human experience through the lens of emotional intelligence, philosophy, arts & culture. Find more of Angela’s writing on Medium and on her blog, Birdsong.
Image courtesy of Alexander Suhorucov.