Picture a group of female lone rangers, each silhouetted against the setting sun with broad-rimmed hats tilted sideways to shadow their faces and holsters slung low around curvy waists. Then listen for that sound – you know it – the high-note whistle in American westerns that signals you’re watching a badass and something dangerous is about to happen.
This rather stereotypical representation of a rebel…is not such a terrible way to characterize the empowered and stalwart women founders in Start-Up Chile.
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Start-Up Chile, or SUP as the government-backed program is called among fans, invites startup entrepreneurs from all over the world to spend six months in Chile bootstrapping their businesses with $40,000 in equity-free seed capital. In its first 3 rounds (including its pilot), SUP has welcomed almost 300 companies from over 33 countries. Yet only 26 of the 300 companies have female co-founders, and of that number, only 13 are founded solely by women. As the author of this story, I am one of those 13.
Maybe you’re not surprised. Perhaps you’ve already heard statistics like this one: Despite comprising 51% of the population, women make up only 3% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and hold only 15% of board positions. Or like this one: of 462 venture capital firms in the U.S., only one is led by a woman.
But instead of another article rehashing those grim statistics and hypothesizing the origins, let’s look at the bright side and hear from the actual female founders who are actively working on their businesses, and as a result, helping to change the game for the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Here’s what they had to say about participating in a startup accelerator far away from home.
Do you feel nurtured in the Start-Up Chile program?
“Exceedingly so,” says Canadian Charlotte Thornton (pictured right), who is building the first all-solar-driven refinery through her company Chebel. “I don’t feel any discrimination as a woman. SUP has managed, unwittingly, to write the book on nurturing for an incubator.”
“First, SUP is staffed with many dynamic female administrators. Then, it is run like a kindergarten,” she continues. “Whatever we ask for, they seek to facilitate; they are utterly respectful of our imaginations. Plus, they expect us to ‘pivot,’ unlike other incubators that want all their answers upfront.”
“I think one of the remarkable things about SUP is that entrepreneurs are incredibly generous with their knowledge,” says Carolina Andrade, the bright and bubbly Ecuadorian founder of Antu Design, which sells handwoven hats by Ecuadorian artisans. “It is amazing to be immersed in a world where innovative ideas are constantly revolving and the hugely talented people around me are pursuing their passions and dreams.”
Jennifer Turliuk, who runs Koru, an online marketplace that allows people to learn, share and trade skills, adds, “I love being a part of SUP because it has allowed me to build an international network of entrepreneurs that I can go to for support, collaboration and community.”
But how is it being one of only a handful of female entrepreneurs?
“I feel empowered,” says Shagun Malhotra (pictured right), relaying an oft-quoted sentiment among the women entrepreneurs in SUP. Shagun, who was born in India but now lives in New York City, runs SkyStem, a financial accounting system. “Giving me an opportunity like this validates that I am going on the right path.”
“As we are really only a few women, it’s definitely more challenging for us. We are forced to work hard. But one of the things we learn when we are in SUP,” points out Anne-Sophie Dutat, the French owner of Vulevu, a Latin American Daily Candy, “is that we are onto something quite huge with our businesses, and that we should think bigger and allow ourselves to grow in that direction.”
What do the men around you think?
“I find that guys treat me with respect,” says England’s Sarah Eaglesfield (pictured right) founder of a record label called Suddenvibe that makes Latin American and European sounds. “A few are intimidated at first, but the netglow soon fades.”
Do you ever get lonely?
“I think it’s not about getting lonely,” says Elsa Chang, the Hong Kong-born, Silicon Valley-based sole founder of RideMatch Me, a company that uses mobile technology to enable people to share rides anywhere. “But it is about feeling frustrated and helpless while working alone most of the time.”
Shagun agrees, “Being alone comes with the package of being an entrepreneur. Not only physically, but in your thoughts and decisions on how to make things move forward.”
“When things are not going as well as you plan,” says Elsa, “you tend to question if you are doing the right thing, especially when others don’t believe in you. But remember you have calculated your risks and tradeoffs before jumping onto the entrepreneur pirate ship. So if all else fails, you still gain an excellent learning experience.”
Any replicable coping strategies when you do feel alone?
“I go for a run and watch the Social Network again for inspiration,” says Elsa (pictured right) with a wink.
“All sole founders have a co-founder in their families. SUP substitutes for our families right now. So, when I feel alone, I go have two or three pisco sours with ‘my family’,” jokes Anne-Sophie.
“I write long emails to friends, to strangers, to imaginary friends,” says Sarah. “Sometimes, I’ll even write a real letter, with a pen and paper. It’s more personal than being on a social network. You can really get it all out about how you’re feeling and what’s happening.”
What are the biggest challenges that you think female founders face?
“Not knowing enough about technology to talk the talk,” notes Sheryl Ryan (pictured right), the American founder of Greenopedia, which provides information on sustainability to people who want to make a difference.
“Or fighting the perception that you’re not tech-savvy, even if you are,” she continues. “It’s empowering to see the look on your programmer’s face when he tosses some technical jargon your way… and you toss it right back!”
“I would suggest every woman founder take a one-day beginner class in WordPress, HTML, CSS or SQL, or that you pick up a For Dummies book,” adds Sheryl. “It sounds intimidating, but it’s empowering to understand. Suddenly, you feel the world open up a bit more.”
“Participating in incubator programs away from home is tough on relationships and families,” states Jasmine Aarons, a Stanford University graduate who works in Southern Chile on Voz, which helps Maphuche women weavers make clothes with high-end designs.
“The only reason I was able to fully participate in Start-Up Chile is because I have intentionally chosen to put my work ahead of my personal life for quite a while. Very few women, including myself, want to stay in this position for long, though” she says, expressing a popular viewpoint about the perceived difficulty in achieving work-life balance for women entrepreneurs. “But if more incubators provided support to families, this would encourage more talented women to participate.”
What words of advice do you have for budding and currently bootstrapped female entrepreneurs?
Shagun: “Things don’t have to be perfect before action is taken. Action before clarity. Once one action is taken, the next one becomes easier.”
Sheryl: “I’m a huge fan of Meetup. When I left my very-secure job to start my business, I didn’t have a clue where to begin. So I just started attending meet-ups and asking questions. You’d be surprised how many people there are eager to help you.”
Charlotte: “Check out Astia, a community of experts committed to accelerating the funding and growth of high potential, high-growth, women-led startups. Just to know they are out there is encouraging!”
Carolina: “Research shows that only 9% of people seeking angel funding are female founders and yet the odds of receiving funding are the same irrespective of the gender. We have to start asking.”
Jennifer: “Apply to SUP – even if you are not sure that you can get in. Try taking a few initial steps towards your business idea and then submit an application. As they say, you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket!”
The next round for SUP is open and closes April 3rd. Take Jennifer’s advice and apply, especially if you are a woman. Let’s finally balance the gender scale in at least one accelerator in the world. Go to www.startupchile.org for more details.
Full List of Start-Up Chile Women-Only Founding Teams (in alphabetical order)
- Jasmine Aarons, USA, Voz; Empowers Mapuche weavers in Southern Chile to make clothes with collaborative design innovation.
- Carolina Andrade, Ecuador, ANTU Design; Sells handwoven straw hats from Ecuador and works with artisans to develop leather and textile products.
- Krista Canellakis & Marisol Garcia, USA & Chile, Crowdplaces; Crowdsources innovation in urban community spaces.
- Elsa Chang, USA RideMatch Me; Uses mobile technology to enable people to share rides anytime, anywhere.
- Anne-Sophie Dutat, France, Vulevu; Offers lifestyle tips and deals on restaurants, romantic weekends, fashion products, etc.
- Sarah Eaglefield, England, Suddenvibe; Introduces European music to Latin America and vice versa through own record label.
- Shagun Malhotra, USA SkyStem; Develops solutions to improve the accounting ecosystem.
- Tara Roberts & Sejal Hathi, USA, girltank; Connects and supports young women social entrepreneurs and innovators.
- Sheryl Ryan, USA, Greenopedia; Provides sustainable information to people who want to make a difference.
- Charlotte M. Thornton, Canada, Chebel Companies; Builds the world´s first all-solar-driven refinery.
- Emily Toop, England, Radical Robot; Designs interactive iPad storybooks to help young children learn to read.
- Jennifer Turliuk, Canada, Koru; Helps people learn, share and trade skills.
- Rebecca West, USA, Por Mano; In stealth mode.