The Women Founder Conundrum and why we are doing something about it 💪

Anaís Cisneros
12 min readMay 25

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A picture of my mother and me at a soccer game. She was the first entrepreneur I met.

It’s been a few years since I became a venture capitalist. Previously, I was a consultant in financial services, an early-stage startup employee, and a founder. It was around that time, during the pandemic, that I started looking at pieces of what I would now define as the ‘Women Founder Conundrum’.

During my beginnings, I joined several calls aimed at founders, and noticed I was the only, or one of three, women in those calls. Later, I would join WhatsApp communities and after looking into the members, realize that I was in groups where 95% of the participants were men. I had always assumed up to that point that the main reason why I had encountered situations where there were less women in the room was because I was in finance, or because I joined the intersection of finance + tech within fintech — but these groups were for founders that worked in all industries.

Moreover, when looking into how to obtain capital for my venture, I noticed that even in Europe, a region that is usually highly regarded for gender equity, most VCs had very few women, if any, and barely any firm had any women who were in decision-making positions. Additionally, reading tech news, I was made aware that globally, female founded startups receive only 2.3% of total venture capital funding and that in the case of mixed teams, the International Trade Center found that globally only 8% of founders of high-growth tech startups are women. While I don’t blame any of these things for not continuing my business, (that’s a whole other story), I started to realize then that something was off.

At a later point, I came across an article stating that in 2020 the amount of funding going to women entrepreneurs in Latin America was 0. Reading something like that hit home for me, not just because of my previous experiences but because of what it meant for others.

I believe there is a certain indirect effect from not seeing people like yourself succeed; in other words, you cannot become what you do not see.

Women are problem solvers; when things get tough, we usually figure it out. Nowadays, the number of women pursuing higher education has risen, and the gender parity index (GPI) in tertiary school enrollment was 1.14 in 2020, which means that more women have graduated from higher education than men. This is a trend that has been progressively increasing:

Currently, at a global level, there are more women graduating from higher studies than men.

There are even some interesting stats on what this look like for LatAm, here:

Ever since we got access to education and basic rights like voting, opening bank accounts and owning property, the numbers of women starting businesses have continuously risen. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s 2020/2021 Women’s Entrepreneurship Report, women make up 42% of the global entrepreneurial workforce, and this rate has been steadily increasing in recent years.

As a believer that intelligence and talent is evenly distributed across genders, the state of women entrepreneurship in tech is something that took me a while to wrap my head around. If we are more educated than ever, and have many more rights, then why are more of the world’s largest companies not started or led by women? I call this the women founder conundrum.

I gather here 3 statements that summarize the plausible causes of this complex problem:

🤔Causes of the problem

1. Women are “risk-averse” 😱

This is something that I have heard voiced by many, including some women founders themselves. I don’t precisely agree with it. Women are not born risk-averse; this is a learned behaviour and as such, is influenced by the environment and circumstances around us.

From a very young age female narratives are often centered on providing stability and being caretakers of their families and societies, always working for others but not getting compensated for it. There is a big difference between being asked or being expected to do something. In the case of women, there are many expectations that make it especially challenging to consider a career in tech entrepreneurship as a viable path. Furthermore, when women do decide to take more risks at work, they often face negative consequences which make them less likely to take risks in the future. A well-known example of this is Hillary Clinton’s campaign, for which her communications director explained that although no male presidential candidate ever had to hide their ambition, Clinton’s ambition during her candidacy made people “uneasy”.

Societal pressure adds to this, since even though things have improved, there are still a lot of stereotypes and biases in society. In a survey of over 500 tech industry professionals, 76% of women reported experiencing bias in the workplace according to Women Who Tech. Breaking stereotypes is the type of change that takes generations to settle. When it comes to women entrepreneurs, this definitely plays a part. In a study run by Dana Kanze, it was found that 67% of the questions posed to male founders are promotion questions, while 66% of the questions posed to women were prevention questions.

Additionally, there is a lack of role models and networks for women who look to build businesses. In the US, the land of Venture Capital, only about 12% of decision makers at VC firms are women, and 65% of firms still do not have a single female partner. This increases the difficulty for women entrepreneurs to build professional networks, for reasons like homophily (previously mentioned). A phrase I have heard multiple times is: one cannot become what one does not see, and indeed, it is very hard for someone to want to be something they cannot see. Women entrepreneurs in tech are still very few, according to the Women in Tech Index (2021) by the World Economic Forum, the percentage of women starting tech companies varies widely across counties, ranging from less than 10% to over 30%. This further decreases the chances that the new generations of women aspire to become tech entrepreneurs.

2. Power and access to capital is not there for women 😖

To this, I would say: It holds partial truth. As I mentioned in the case of biases, some changes take generations to happen. Historically, women have had limited access to capital and these compounds. Imagine, it’s only since 1974 that women have had the right, through the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, to open a bank account on their own in the US. This one of the many examples of why capital has historically been held by men.

By incorporating concepts such as homophily, the outlook for women seeking to acquire capital appears less promising. Before I go further on this argument, I would like to reflect on homophily, which in the words of Claire Diaz-Ortiz, is “why a vegan VC is more likely to invest in a vegan food tech, a gamer is more likely to hang out with gaming founders, or a parent is more likely to invest in a parent marketplace. People gravitate towards what they know”. This is a very human tendency, since we tend to like and trust things we understand and/ or can relate to. However, this is incredibly impactful in investing.

Early-stage investing is the ultimate proof of trust, because you are putting your money on something that is still pending proof of success. At a basic level, an early-stage investor evaluates two things: market and team. Analysing how big a market is, is relatively objective as numbers and logic can be measured. However, analysing a team can be quite subjective. Some shortcuts on evaluating teams are: looking into where people studied, previous employment, and anything that can give support to the idea that the team has done something similar before and how this will contribute to them succeeding in building a venture scale business. Homophily can then enhance unconscious bias when evaluating teams and reduce the chances of success in obtaining capital for all teams that do not resemble the evaluators.

3. Childbearing increases the complexity of starting something new 🤰🏻

Sometimes, people refer to what’s called the motherhood tax. The motherhood tax refers to the financial disadvantages or penalties that women may face in their careers and earning potential as a result of becoming mothers. While the situation has been improving over the past few years, women are still considered the main caregivers for children, and this usually happens when they are in their most productive years.

I don’t want to overemphasize this because I know that women who have children can achieve exceptional success compared to peers. A good example is my own mother, who built business after business and through that, was able to provide for both my brother and me. I have seen many examples of women who started businesses after becoming mothers as well as women who started businesses out of problems they identified as mothers, a good example of that is the Honest Company from Jessica Alba. Jessica saw an opportunity when she realized the products she was using at her household could be damaging to her baby.

What I am saying here is that while it is feasible for women to both be mothers and successful entrepreneurs, it increases the complexity of both tasks and that deserves more awareness. A study by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor found that women entrepreneurs are more likely than men to cite family responsibilities as a barrier to starting a business. In the United States, 42% of women cited family responsibilities as a reason for not starting a business, compared to 29% of men.

There are several other factors that contribute to the challenges women face, specifically, looking to start businesses. However, I think it’s about time we focus on why this is relevant to us all in society, regardless of whether we are men or women.

Why this is relevant to us all 🌎

  1. Women are community catalysers 💪

A community catalyser is someone who initiates and drives positive change within their community. From a very early age, women are encouraged to care for others. We take care of our siblings, our parents, our children and when we build companies, of our employees.

Women on average tend to do hard things better. According to a multi-year study of leaders and employees from approximately 5,000 companies, in close to 100 countries, by a 2:1 margin, followers said that women leaders versus male leaders are able to do hard things in a human way– for example, in the context of having to navigate the complexities of the pandemic on the workforce. Moreover, in this analysis two key traits of women leadership were identified: wisdom, the courage to do what needs to be done even when it is difficult; and compassion, the care and empathy shown towards others, combined with the intention to support and help.

When we look at the businesses started by women, most of them tend to be impact businesses. When saying impact business, I am referring to ventures that besides generating profits, also create a positive social or environmental change in society. The GEM Women’s Report 2021 found that women entrepreneurs tend to be more driven by creating a positive impact on society than their male counterparts. Personally, I like to say that nearly every other business started by a woman is an impact business in one way or another. We currently see a higher concentration of women entrepreneurs devoting their time to solve societal problems, such as climate change.

2. The tech entrepreneurship opportunity is now 👩🏽‍💻

The barriers to starting a business in tech have lowered considerably: access to information and resources have made it easier for people to upskill themselves, cloud computing and SaaS platforms have decreased cost infrastructure, storage and computing power, tools have become more user-friendly through interfaces for non-technical people (like no-code), the funding opportunities have increased at a global scale (you no longer need to be based in SF to access to VC funding), and digitalization strongly made its way into consumer’s lives after the pandemic.

I am certain that women tech entrepreneurship is an unavoidable trend. The tail winds are there: women are more educated than ever, we win a bit more parity on a daily basis, and with the aforementioned barriers of tech entrepreneurship having been lowered, I can assure we will continue to see more women becoming tech entrepreneurs.

However, I do not think this change is coming at the right pace. As mentioned in the challenges section of this article, change can take a few generations before we see real gender equity. As a technologist, I am in a hurry to make sure other women notice this too and that after noticing it, they have equal opportunities when pursuing tech entrepreneurship. We are living in one of the best times in history to start technology companies, and I want this to be an option not just for me, but for my friends and future generations of women.

3. Gender parity will give us the best returns 📈

I grew up believing I had equal opportunities granted to all my male peers. I went on to have a career in consulting and finance, pursued an MBA and went into tech. However, the further I would advance, the more I realized that while on the surface things might seem better in the post “Me Too” era, often as a woman I don’t have a say in the way people evaluate my work or career pursuits. What concerns me the most, is the fact this is not an isolated fact for me, but a constant experience whenever talking to women in positions of leadership for businesses.

Now, I could sit here and complain about how everyone in this world deserves equal rights and that is fundamentally true, but I want to twist this narrative and share the opportunity we see at Amela (thanks for the extra reminder, cofounder). There are several studies that mention the positive impact of diversity in terms of financial performance, decision-making, talent acquisition and customer insights. As an example, a study by McKinsey on teams with gender diversity found that companies with more than 30 percent women executives were more likely to outperform companies where this percentage ranged from 10 to 30, and in turn these companies were more likely to outperform those with even fewer women executives, or none at all. A substantial differential likelihood of outperformance — 48 percent — separates the most from the least gender-diverse companies. Furthermore, there is evidence from VC firms that companies with a female founder performed 63% better than their investments with all-male founding teams. This is a direct quote from First Round Capital’s 10 year report which also added that if you look at First Round’s top 10 investments of all time based on value created for investors, three of those teams have at least one female founder — far outpacing the percentage of female tech founders in general.

Call to action: Yes, this is for you! 🫵

Let’s summarize

This leads me to my call to action at the end of this article. Over the past two years, I have been building a community for women founders, Amela, on the sidelines, together with my cofounder Michelle Fischman and a team of volunteers. The more we build for founders that happen to be women, and the more we realize the opportunity we are sitting on. We stand in front of a complex problem, the women founder conundrum, but also in front of one of the most underestimated opportunities of all times.

At Amela we are tackling this problem methodically with a comprehensive solution, the women founder ecosystem. I will probably write an article on the pieces that come together to build this but for now I invite you to do several things depending on your profile:

  1. Investor 💵: Invest in Amela itself 💜 as an angel and/or in our +240 founders as a VC and/ or as an angel. Our founder community is in Latam and some outside of Latam.
  2. Founder in tech 🙆🏽‍♀️: Join our community through our application. We started in Latam and now are making moves to support additional geos.
  3. Don’t know where to classify yourself 😛: You can follow our journey through our different links.

They say it takes a village to create change, and we say it takes a community to move things forward. Let’s work together to shape a future where every woman can aspire to be a successful founder. This isn’t just about creating a better environment for women, it’s about creating a better world for us all. Because when women win, we all win.

As for me, I am extremely excited to dedicate the next chapter of my life to solve something that will provide tangible change to society, to the life of people like my mother, my founders, and the next generations of women coming our way (yes, that includes your future daughter 😉).

💁🏽‍♀️ You can follow my journey and more musings on Twitter and connect with me on LinkedIn.

👉🏼 Follow Amela on Twitter & LinkedIn.

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Anaís Cisneros

Tech enthusiast and diversity advocate