“You can’t be what you can’t see”: Addressing gender imbalance in the startup ecosystem
Female founders are outnumbered three to one in Australia’s startup ecosystem because they often lack the support of a strong network of ‘door openers’, according to Fiona Boyd, the CEO of Heads Over Heels.
She explained that Head Over Heels, an Australian not-for-profit founded in 2010, provides female entrepreneurs with a “powerful platform” to scale – and otherwise achieve “outstanding results” in – their businesses by connecting them with influential industry and business leaders who, in turn, can introduce them to key players in their own networks.
Boyd said that more than 2500 connections have been facilitated through Heads Over Heels events and other ‘door-opening activities’, resulting in female led and founded businesses securing new customers, strategic partners, mentors and advisory board members plus a combined total of $23 million in investments.
Excluding alumni and its pipeline of emerging businesses, Heads Over Heels has 30 active ‘portfolio’ companies, selected through a screening process. Boyd explained, “We look for businesses that have plans and ambition to scale globally. They need to demonstrate they are solving a real problem and have a product or solution that can be applied to different markets within the next few years. Not all our portfolio companies will achieve that, but we definitely love working with women who have big dreams and ambitions.”
In addition to gaining access to Heads Over Heels’ network of 1000+ ‘Connectors’, Boyd said portfolio companies receive guidance and mentoring to prepare for pitch presentations at portfolio events.
“We assist portfolio companies with presentation skills, financial reporting, market/customer segmentation, branding, unique value proposition, and clear messaging, all of which are critical business skills required by women entrepreneurs to succeed,” Boyd explained. “This helps to increase the confidence and professionalism of the women who are pitching, which in turn helps them to achieve more successful outcomes both during and after the actual events.”
In conversation with Dynamic Business, Boyd spoke about the biases, unconscious or otherwise, that have meant that women continue to be under-represented on boards, at executive levels in corporations and within the startup ecosystem.
DB: What barriers do entrepreneurial women face?
Boyd: The underrepresentation of women in business leadership is a historical issue, which is having a generational impact. While this issue is slowly being addressed, several layers of unconscious bias (perpetuated over many years) still need to be unraveled – for example, a common misconception that flies in the face of extensive research is that women are ‘not financially astute’. Further, women are also not often natural ‘self-promoters’, which can be misinterpreted as a lack of confidence. As a consequence of both unconscious and entrenched gender bias, many women face difficulties when it comes to raising capital and forming a broad network of people who can make a real difference in their careers, including financiers, mentors, advisors, prospective clients or suppliers. Having access to an interconnected and powerful network has been proven to be one of the most important determinants of entrepreneurial success.
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