Tech startups are filled with eager founders; the majority of them are men. Rare is the female founder—rarer still are women of color. As a female founder of two companies, a woman of color, and as a parent, I have seen young girls excel at STEM at an early age. I know it’s possible to be a woman leader in this startup culture.
But, when I attend conferences, whether in person or virtual, I see rooms filled with men. The lack of women founders makes me wonder: are women losing the drive to climb to the top or not getting the support to break the glass ceiling?
I came to the start-up life after working at multinational companies, where I was stymied by slow-moving corporate culture and the 9-5 life. I wanted to challenge the status quo, to redefine a problem or innovate a solution, and I wanted more than a corporate job could give me. I founded one technology consulting company, and am now co-founder of Everyday Life, a life insurance platform aimed to get insurance to middle-income people largely ignored by insurance companies.
Today, I am using what I learned from big corporations and from incredible men and women in start-ups to mentor and support women with big dreams.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way:
1. Don’t apologize for being assertive
In an industry dominated by male founders, women are aware of being stereotyped. Speak up, even though others may confuse your ambition with you being difficult. Startups require a 150% commitment. Don’t apologize for being assertive to meet deadlines and achieve goals just because you are a woman.
This has come into play when making the hard decision to let people go. Start-ups thrive with A+ players, as everyone has to go above and beyond their roles and responsibility when you’re building a company from the ground up. When I’m running my companies, I look at the bottom 10% of performers each quarter, evaluate whether they’re capable and committed to our shared vision and success. I address my concerns directly to give them an opportunity to improve. It’s always hard to let someone go.
2. Be authentic
Tech start-ups are notoriously difficult. Disagreements with your co-founder, investor or business partner are common. If you’re a female founder working with another cofounder, don’t hold back when speaking your mind. In my experience, the most successful ideas seem outlandish at first.
I practice doing this on even more tricky turf—at home when I meet my relatives during my visit to India. They are very traditional, and at first balked when I was outspoken about gender equality when it comes to work, chores and child-raising. Now, they just accept my point of view and adapt to gender equality not just at work but at home, too. Don’t be afraid to be authentic and share your craziest ideas.
I practiced that when I was part of a leadership team that hired consultants to make difficult decisions instead of taking personal ownership of the uncomfortable decisions for the company. I pushed back on the idea of hiring consultants for key strategy decisions, instead advocating for personal responsibility for decisions and all the repercussions in coming months. Even though it was a difficult change initially, it was good for the team to hear reasons from myself instead of hiding behind the consulting crew.
3. Hire for diversity
Your customers aren’t one race, gender or age—why should your workforce be? Diversity brings creativity and innovation. Women, especially women of color, are grossly underrepresented in the technology industry. I’ve hired a lot of women who had dropped out of the workforce to raise their kids. Hiring managers were skeptical, but I saw great dedication, and great results. As you scale your team, hiring diverse individuals will make your organization stronger. A diversified group can bring innovative ideas that are much needed to grow a startup.
4. Don’t let other people’s opinions get in your way
Entrepreneurship is a challenge, to put it mildly, and tech startups can be especially brutal. You’ll hear several “no’s” before a single “yes.” I’ve seen women wilt, lose confidence and be discouraged by criticism. When I wanted to start my first company, I sought the advice from my mentor. He questioned whether or not I could be successful. I had just moved to the US, and had a two year old child. I was a technology expert, with little experience in business. That was discouraging. But I realized that in twenty years, I don’t want to have to say “ I wish I had.” Instead, I want to say, “I’m glad I did.” Most successful entrepreneurs are only successful after a few failed attempts. Failure can teach you more than your success, so don’t give up on entrepreneurship too easily.
5. Always be networking
Even in our virtual world, attending a networking event and talking to a stranger about your company is uncomfortable. I’m an introvert who trained myself to be an extrovert. Women tend to struggle with networking more than men, primarily because there’s a significant lack of other females in the room. Try to embrace networking opportunities, whether you’re with friends and family or at a professional event. You never know when something useful will come from those discussions. I’ve met everyone from fellow hiking enthusiasts to investors by putting myself out there. I don’t brag, but I’m not shy about who I am and what I have to offer. Practice your story and be prepared. Make it rich and not an elevator pitch—you’ll boost your confidence.