The Female Founder Advantage in Startups

by Rania Nasis

Enough about “cracks” in the glass ceiling. We’re wielding sledgehammers; cracks seem beside the point now.

Don’t get me wrong. We have a long way to go in a “traditional” sense. Sure, more women are running Fortune 500 companies than at any previous point in Fortune 500 history, but that figure amounts to a paltry 5%. Instead, let’s take a closer look where it matters: The number of woman-owned startups in the United States has increased 74% over the past 20 years. Especially in digital health.

Why? Good ol’ traditional gender roles. Women have historically served as CMOs of their families, the chief medical officer in charge of choosing primary care physicians for spouses, pediatricians for kids and eldercare for parents. We face the brunt of childcare, daycare, parenting and healthcare; and the sheer drudgery of all that on-the-job training has made us irreplaceably experienced innovators of digital health.

Take Maven, for example. Founder Kate Ryder noticed how the healthcare system seemed to go out of its way to work against working women, particularly poor working women of color. So, in 2014, Ryder founded a virtual health clinic for women and families that is now valued at more than $1 billion. “I want to be able to show up to every person who is thinking about starting a family, or in those early years of building their family,” she said in an interview with Goldman Sachs earlier this year. “And we’re showing up in a way you need us to show up.”

Because entrepreneurship affords founders and CEOs a way to effect meaningful change, close the pay gap and lead on their own terms, it is becoming an increasingly attractive option for more women. Determine your hours, your salary and your mission? Please, and thank you!

New Girls’ Club

Since the decade before the pandemic — and continuing today — women have been starting businesses at five times the national average. Woman-owned businesses have generated $1.6 trillion in revenue each year, outperforming the national average.

Yes, sometimes we’re mistaken for arm candy, as Anne Wojcicki discovered when she was both the cofounder of 23andMe and Sergey Brin’s wife (guess which of those titles trailed the self-made billionaire like toilet paper on the bottom of her shoe?).

And, while female founders still face steeper barriers to funding than men, times they are a-changin’. According to the New York Times in an article November 2, 2021, “This year, start-ups with female founders … have raised more venture capital dollars and have executed more exits at greater values than at any point in the last decade. Start-ups with a female founder raised more than $40 billion through September, almost double the amount invested in companies founded by women in all of 2020 or 2019.”

This growing number of female founders is supported by a growing number of female funders interested in investing in their peers. And mentorships, angel groups and networking groups are creating a new girls’ club that rivals the old boys’ club.  

Bringing Home the Bacon

Studies have shown female-founded businesses deliver more than twice as much per dollar invested as those founded by their male counterparts. These startups also generate 10% more in cumulative revenue over a five-year period. It should surprise no one that those who ask for directions find the big, fat exits.

McKinsey shows that “gender-diverse” businesses are 15% more likely to financially outperform the industry median. And studies like How Diverse Leadership Teams Boost Innovation” continue to prove that companies with women in leadership roles surpass the more male-dominated ones in profit and healthy work culture.

Particularly noteworthy is that last point: culture. In the era of the Great Resignation, workplace culture is shouldering a bigger piece of overall success.

“A flexible workplace is inherently inclusive and can substantially increase the diversity of your talent pool,” writes Alex Schrecengost, founder and CEO of Virtual With Us and Culture With Us. “Seek out the ideal talent, not the ideal arrangement, because everyone has a different lifestyle and goal, and everyone should truly have a seat at the table.”

Women have been incredibly successful at doing just that. Spanx founder Sara Blakely even teaches a Master Class in entrepreneurship and building a strong workplace culture.

So, while it’s true that starting a company isn’t easy, it isn’t impossible, either. What makes an entrepreneur successful is passion and drive — traits shared in equal measure by both women and men.

Rania Nasis M.D., MBA, is the founder and CEO of Super Awesome Care, a tech-enabled healthcare platform for kids with food allergies and their families. A physician entrepreneur and digital health expert, her mission is to bring the best food allergy care to all families, when and where they need it.

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