Advice for aspiring female tech entrepreneurs: a perspective from the developing world

bitani
Posted September 12, 2015 from Lebanon

I've read this nice piece, on startups in developing countries. Thought this is worth sharing.

The original piece is published in TechinAsia. The piece is written by Sophia Pervez:the co-founder ofClubInternet, a company that teaches the 4.3 billion “unconnected” how and why to use the internet. She’s @SophiyaPzon Twitter.

Women in Tech: 7 tips from an Entrepreneur

It is an open secret that women are outsiders when it comes to tech entrepreneurship, both in the developed and developing economies. In 1984, 37 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees were awarded to women. From there on, this number fell consistently, ebbing to a mere12 percent in 2012. Female founders in tech also remain quite a rarity. For example, in Silicon Valleyfewer than five percentof venture-backed startups are female-founded. This ratio, meager as it already is, falls totwo percentwhen including global tech hubs. It approaches zero percent where I come from – Pakistan.

A simplistic argument to explain away these feeble numbers is that women are not interested in technology. I’ve heard that argument often. I think the underlying reasons are obviously much more complex than that. Studies suggest that even if women do opt for tech degrees, many drop out before graduation due to a sense of isolation and hostility from their environment. The US Department of Education calls this theleaky pipelinephenomenon. Further along this pipeline, those women who do make it tend to takefewer risks, haveless financial backing, and are faced with a lot moreskepticism during fundraisingthan their male counterparts. That’s unfortunately the world we live in.

I am a female tech entrepreneur, brought up in a quintessentially traditional family in a developing country. A decade ago, when I opted for a degree in telecommunication engineering at university, I was met with quite a few raised eyebrows. This is in a country where female education is still considered questionable. Likewise, five years later when I decided to start my own company, most people I knew brushed it off as a “phase.” Now, having been part of the startup culture for many years in a country struggling with economic instability, security threats, and relentless gender discrimination, I feel I have learned a thing or two about the subject. I confess I still have a long way to go, but if I were to give advice to women starting out their own tech companies, I’d point out seven things. These seven points are applicable for women taking up tech entrepreneurship in both developing economies and developed economies, for many of the challenges we face are ubiquitous.

1. Embrace being a minority

We will remain a minority in tech entrepreneurship circles at least for the next decade. Hence we need to look beyond it. Overanalyzing our minority status only acts to distract us from the real task at hand: making an industry disrupting product or service. Being a woman is not a disadvantage – the sooner we believe that, the sooner our teams and investors will see that.

20 years ago, there were not many women in the corporate world; now examples of women leaders abound. So 20 years from now, the tech entrepreneurial gender landscape will also be much more balanced, but that can only happen if we all do our bit starting today.

2. Add the female perspective

Most successful startups come from addressing real issues. And a real issue can only be identified when it is experienced personally. Instead of suppressing our gut feeling on matters and trying to think like a man, I feel we can be better served by adding a female perspective to the problem being addressed. We ought not be deterred by antiquated thinking that goes along the lines of “that’s such a girly thing to say.” In fact, being women ourselves, we can also solve many issues only women experience – issues that remain unresolved because of thin representation of women founders in tech. So there’s real opportunity right there.

In a similar vein, sometimes women feel that in order to give the impression of being smart, they shouldn’t dress up. I know I used to wear glasses to work when I started working – not as a fashion or functional accessory, but to look “serious” enough. Such things don’t go a long way. We should not aspire to look less feminine just because we’re placed in a male dominated environment (discounting personal preferences, of course). Confidence is something that can make or break any deal with a potential investor, so we must be comfortable in our own skin.

3. Work harder

I started out at IBM straight out of college. While there, I was lucky enough to have a female manager who gave me a crash course in being a woman in tech. Her most memorable advice was to work harder to break stereotypes. Her reasoning was that when your vision and expertise shine through, gender bias tends to blend into the background. It’s probably one of the most effective pieces of advice someone has ever given me.

4. Assess life goals

Before starting off on a tech venture, we need to realize that running our own show requires mammoth commitment. Thus, any would-be female entrepreneur should assess her life and goals.

The chips are especially down in more traditional societies, where women are further weighed down by the expectation of taking on domestic duties. For instance,a World Bank studyshows that most women don’t enter startups in developing countries because of little acceptance from family and community, insufficient financial support, and motherhood. Thus an aspiring female entrepreneur must make sure that she has figured out what her priorities are before embarking on this demanding – yet rewarding – journey.

5. A little networking goes a long way

The best thing us female entrepreneurs can do – at virtually any stage of our startup – is to meet as many people as possible. Women tend to shy away from socializing, especially in traditional societies, where they’re used to remaining on the back-foot. Millennial women are a bit more successful at stepping forward in this way, but not nearly enough. It’s important for aspiring women entrepreneurs to understand that lack of networking just doesn’t fly in the startup world. Whether it’s to clarify an idea, get feedback, improve the business model, scope out potential hires, or get new customers, networking has virtually no downside.

Luckily, there are also a number of organizations focused on helping women entrepreneurs, in developing and developed economies both, such as Women 2.0, FITE, WIM, and Avinde. From experience, I know that reaching out to them can be very fruitful, since having the backing of an entire platform is much more effective than flying solo.

6. Help each other

Studies on workplace behaviorshow that women tend to get too competitive with each other and help out other women much less than men do. This needs to be called out and rectified. There are not many women out there in the land of tech startups as it is, thus the best way to help on-board others into this culture is by helping each other and sharing experiences. Such support will go a long way in eventually making the gender ratio more balanced. It’s a no-brainer.

7. Learn to hustle

By hustle, I mean finding smarter, novel, unconventional ways to solve problems. From experience I feel that women tend to have a higher tendency of toeing the line, and taking the typical route from point A to point B, thinking it’s the “right thing to do.”Out of the boxis not just a buzzword, it’s a way of life in tech entrepreneurship, and women would be wise in endorsing it in full spirit. Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss from Rent the Runway were not afraid to bring a male concept (renting tuxedos) to feminine fashion. Sandy Jen maxed out her credit cards when bankrolling Meebo in its initial days. The first thing Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso ever sold online was stolen. None of these ideas would have taken off without their founders’ hustle.

In conclusion, tech entrepreneurship is anything but easy and being a woman makes it even more challenging. We must not view ourselves as existing in a snapshot of time. Our life is a journey, and those enduring a tough time today may be the heroes of tomorrow. We must dare to dream. During my time as a tech founder, there have often been dark days where everything has seemed impossible. But in the end, it’s all been worth it.

the original piece can be found online at:

https://www.techinasia.com/advice-female-tech-entrepreneurs-developing-w...

Comments 1

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Lisa Anderson
Sep 14, 2015
Sep 14, 2015

Dear Bayan,

Thank you for sharing this article - these are great tips! It's heartening to see an increasing conversation about supporting women and girls in STEM/start-ups. The more we share articles such as these and do all we can to uplift women and girls' dreams, the more women we will see represented in these traditionally male-dominated fields. I especially love the tip about helping each other. It seems so simple, and yet in a competitive field, it's such an important reminder.

Warm regards,

Lisa