The Realities Facing Female Founders

We recently hosted the second episode of a six-part podcast series we’re doing with Silicon Valley Bank. In episode two, Lean Startup Co. Chief of Staff CJ Legare spoke with Claire Lee, Head of Early Stage at Silicon Valley Bank and Liz Curtis, CEO & Founder at Table + Teaspoon about the realities facing female entrepreneurs today.

Liz Curtis, CEO & Founder at Table + Teaspoon and Claire Lee, Head of Early Stage at Silicon Valley Bank (Left to Right)

Building Her Own Rocket Ship

Liz Curtis didn’t always intend to be an entrepreneur, least of all in the world of entertaining. In fact, she was studying to become a lawyer when she started Table + Teaspoon — a blog that featured decorating ideas, entertaining tips and recipes. The blog was initially just a creative outlet for Liz as she pursued her career as a corporate litigator, but eventually, it became a much bigger idea that she launched into a business.

In 2013, while she was still practicing law, Liz decided she wanted to build something “rather than tearing things apart,” the latter of which she felt she was doing as a lawyer. Liz pivoted on her career and started interviewing with startups to do something — anything — to hop aboard their rocket ship. But after verbally agreeing to join a startup about to launch their new app, she “realized that she’d rather build her own rocket ship.”

So in 2013, she left law behind and started looking at what tech-enabled solutions were needed in the entertaining space, a huge market lacking any innovation and thus ripe for disruption. After getting her hands dirty and exploring a little bit of everything in the industry  — catering, interior design, flowers, weddings — she landed on her current business model which she describes as “Rent the Runway, but for table settings.” The bootstrapped idea launched as a prototype in the Fall of 2016, went nationwide in 2017, and late last year she started raising her seed money, which, according to Liz, “is the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, including taking the California bar exam.”

“While raising capital is hard for all startups, it’s even more challenging for companies with a female founder or co-founder.” Click To Tweet

Welcome to the Single Digit Club

Liz grew Table + Teaspoon very organically from the outset. She thought that the work she put into launching and building the company would be the hard part. But it wasn’t. “Convincing enough people that my idea would work and that they should take a risk on me is exponentially more difficult,” she says.

When Claire first met Liz, she admits that it took her a little while to get her head around it. Even though Claire was in the target market, she was skeptical about the idea at first. The thing that really sold her was Liz. “She never gave up,” Claire says, “she convinced me this is a real thing.”

After meeting with Liz, Claire not only was sold on the idea, she was sure that Liz had what it took to convince other people that Table + Teaspoon was valuable, viable and that people were going to buy it. Liz had the right amount of passion and determination behind an already solid idea. Those qualities are something that every entrepreneur needs — especially females.

“While raising capital is hard for [all] startups,” Claire says, “it’s even more challenging for companies with a female founder or co-founder.” Since SVB launched its Women in Tech report in 2014, female founders have received more money and we are seeing more entrepreneurial women in leadership positions, but not by huge margins.

“To be honest, I think the single digit club is a real issue,” Claire says, referring to a term that she coined in reference to the data about women in the startup world. In three distinct areas — the percentage of female general partners at venture capital firms, the percentage of venture capital money that goes to women, and the percentage of women in senior, decision-making positions — women are taking less than 10% of the pie — so, single digits.

It’s sobering data that Silicon Valley Bank is keeping a close eye on. But Claire remains optimistic that we may be at a tipping point where we’ll begin to see larger margins of change. She hopes that by publishing the data in the Startup Outlook Report every year, the industry will recognize that things need to change, and fast.

The Argument for Fewer Queen Bees and More Allies

However, change isn’t known for being easy. Liz is acutely aware of what the numbers and studies say about the different hurdles women have to face compared to men. One Harvard study on venture capitalists found that gender bias was present in the types of questions females were asked. Men were traditionally asked promotion style questions (“What’s your vision for the future?”) while women were more often asked prevention style questions (“How do you plan on not failing?”). But more than just the phrasing, there’s a direct correlation between how much money participants ended up raising based on the types of questions they were asked. Alarmingly, male and female venture capitalists ask these biased questions at the same rate.

The issue clearly isn’t just men vs. women, Liz points out. The competition for the scarcity of resources in the industry has created what’s known as Queen Bee Syndrome. “If you’re trying to access something that’s limited, then you’re naturally going to be competitive around that,” Liz points out. Women started 38% of the companies in the United States, and while women went from comprising 5% of venture capitalists in 2016 to 9.6% this year, funding for female founders has remained around 2%.

Liz doesn’t think the disparity between the rising number of female investors and stagnant percentage of dollars going to female founders is necessarily a conscious decision women are making. Rather, she thinks it’s women who have worked hard to become venture capitalists and are trying to “keep their seat at the table” by taking on characteristics of traditional VC’s – men. Data indicates that once there are enough women at the table, they will overwhelmingly support one another, but Liz notes that this begs the question, “how many are ‘enough’ and how do we get there?”

Claire thinks that in order for real change to happen, we — men and women — need to identify as a tribe. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the amazing advocates and mentors and friends and supporters I’ve had throughout my life and career,” she says. That includes men who are as committed to helping change the system. She believes that if we want to see a shift in the status quo, men have to be a part of the conversation. “If we have a critical mass of…change agents and we really address these issues, and if we’re intellectually honest with ourselves, then I think we can change things,” she says, adding later, “I’m absolutely determined to make [the] single digit club a thing of the past.”

“The women who I’ve met have been mind-blowing in their willingness to help.” Click To Tweet

Trusting Your Gut While Navigating the Road Ahead

But Claire and Liz remain optimistic and hopeful for the future. Claire is encouraged by the wave of innovators she’s seen who are jumping the corporate ship to make their big ideas work. People like Liz.

Still, they both admit that it’s not an easy road. Liz knows first hand what it takes to succeed, and advises entrepreneurs to know what you’re giving up in order to follow your passion. Things like vacations, health insurance, and your social life may go out the window while you work to build your business. But, Liz adds, if you can deal with those hurdles, founding a company that will change the world “is such a unique, fortunate place to be in life.”

One thing that’s helped Liz is having amazing mentors, allies and advocates along the way. And, while both women agree that men can absolutely step up and help women succeed, for Liz, women have been her biggest allies. “The women who I’ve met have been mind-blowing in their willingness to [help],” Liz says. They’ve written checks, mentored her, answered questions, and offered advice.

And while Liz is grateful for all of the help she’s received, she’s learned to weed through the feedback to only take and apply what she feels works best for her. “I had to realize that not everyone’s advice is advice I should take,” she says.

Claire wholeheartedly agrees. She thinks that it’s important to get all the data, but to know when to trust your instincts and stick to your gut. “You have to have grit,” Claire says, “You’ve got to banish the doubt [and] really believe in yourself.”

Did you enjoy this companion blog? Catch the full podcast below!


If you’d like to read the full transcript of CJ Legare’s conversation with Claire Lee and Liz Curtis, you may download it.

Thanks to Shannon Lorenzen for contributing this piece. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your organization,
Lean Startup Co. can help.