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Female Founders: A Growing Force

By Christopher Steiner  •  Mar 8, 2017

The data don't lie: startups with women founders fare better than those without them. A First Round Capital study of its own investments showed that companies with a female founder performed 63% better than investments with all-male founding teams.

We are proud to say we have funded many incredible women founders at FC. But we're just part of a trend.

Twenty-five percent of startups in recent batches at Y Combinator, always a tech bellwether, have included at least one female founder, up from 5% in earlier days. Jessica Livingston wants to see that number at 50%. Sam Altman has said that YC has strived to get that number up not only for altruistic purposes, but also for greedy ones. Many of the best companies of the future will be founded by women, and YC wants a part of that. Some of that is already playing out: more than 10% of the YC companies now worth more than $100 million are led by women.

Another study found that women VCs are also better at picking the best startup teams that contain women. In short, if you want better startups, it's better to have a woman founder on the team. And when it comes to discovering and investing in these companies, female VCs often have a keener eye.

With a nod toward International Women's Day, we pinged some of the women whom FC has funded to get their thoughts on what's challenged them in tech, and what and who has inspired them, along with their most cherished accomplishment. We're grateful to have wonderful responses from eight founders who put time and thoughtfulness into their answers. Here's the full list of questions we gave them, and their responses:

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What stories would you share with first-time and aspiring founders (female or otherwise) who want to follow in your footsteps?

Tamara Bain, Chillabit, a social media app built for the unique lives of college students: Don't be intimidated out of a field because you feel like you're ignorant, behind or don't belong. It's easy to step into a first year computer science class and feel like everyone knows more than you do - a lot of the time they don't!

Laura Behrens Wu, Shippo, a shipping API and dasboard for eCommerce: When we first raised our seed round, we pitched 125 investors and got 115 no’s. We didn’t give up, and worked on gaining traction to prove that Shippo was a service that our customers needed. We believe that determination is one of the most important characteristics for founders to have. So that’s what I’d share with aspiring founders—don’t give up easily. Maintain persistence and focus.

Mariya Nurislamova, Scentbird, a monthly subscription that allows users to sample designer perfumes and colognes: It took us many months and 3 completely failed business models to get to “the one” model that ended up working. I clearly remember how the founding team (there are 4 of us) was sitting in the conference room one day with less than $10k to our names and a completely failing business model. We knew that whatever product market fit looks like, it wasn’t what we were witnessing– 30% fraud rate, slow sales and zero raving users. The story of Scentbird is very much a story of not giving up, despite all odds, rejection and failure. The right idea came from a conversation I had with Michael Seibel (currently CEO of Y Combinator). I was telling him how being in fragrance really sucks and its time to pursue something else after a year of failing. He heard me out and said: “Hold on right here. You are telling me that you will give up the industry that you have spent the last year learning about and building for? I don’t get it – you understand this market better than most people at this point – whatever you do, keep iterating within fragrance”. This was the best advice I’ve ever gotten – I didn’t realize that a year of failing at something weirdly puts you ahead of the curve just by the sheer understanding of what doesn’t work. I am really happy that we stuck with fragrance, despite all odds.

Lauren Schulte, The Flex Company, which makes alternative female care products that enable an active lifestyle: Many women are overqualified to be successful entrepreneurs but may lack the support system to tell them so.

I have never thought of myself as an entrepreneur. I’m originally from a small town outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Growing up as the oldest of five kids, we struggled a lot financially. As a result, I’ve always been pretty risk averse; I spent my career in secure marketing roles at big companies like Coca-Cola and IBM.

So, in 2014 when I got my idea for a new menstrual product, I was terrified.

I had no manufacturing experience. No product design experience. No co-founders. I had no experience raising money. My co-workers were quick to remind me that I’d never been a CEO. In fact, I’d never even worked at an early stage startup.

But what I did have was a deep passion for helping women.

Some of the most important traits of an entrepreneur are a burning passion, tenacity, and one simple belief: that you already have everything you need inside of you.


Where do you find inspiration?

Laura Behrens Wu, Shippo: Our day-to-day work is guided by the best interest of our customers. One of the most rewarding (yet challenging) parts of my job is listening to the feedback customers have about their greatest challenges, synthesizing their ideas, and interpreting them to the shipping providers in a way that makes sense for their business as well. Helping our customers tackle their biggest hopes, dreams and fears is an invigorating and engaging experience.

We’ve also found inspiration in looking at the paths and challenges of other API companies who  have made automation incredibly valuable and simple for their customers. Stripe and Twilio come to mind. We definitely aspire to be like them in terms of the positive impact they’ve had on their customers’ businesses.

Rachel ten Brink, Scentbird: I am infinitely curious about people.  I am fascinated by our customers, by social media influencers, by the other entrepreneurs I meet.

Dr. Katherine van Ekert, VetPronto, a platform to find house call veterinarians:  Living in San Francisco. Spending time away from people in the woods or by the ocean. Reading history, sociology, and biographical books.

Ritu Narayan, Zum, scheduled or on-demand rides and care for children: I find inspiration in narratives. Narratives of our customers whose life gets impacted by using Zum and service providers who are able to get meaningful employment on our platform. For example, it still resonates with me what one of our customers, a single mom, had once said about the service "Being a single mom I was never able to attend executive meetings in person since they were held earlier in the morning and my 6 year old daughter's school opened at 8.15 am. While everyone in office always said it was fine to be present remotely, I knew my absence was masking my hard work and affecting my career prospect. Since I started using Zum, now I can just have a Zumer babysit my daughter and drive her to school while I am able to attend meetings in person. It has changed the trajectory of my career".  As an entrepreneur, there can not be a bigger driving factor than such narratives.


What was the turning point in your journey as a founder?

Tamara Bain, Chillabit: Getting into Y-Combinator was a huge turning point. It was our first major recognition as a company and really legitimized what we are working towards.

Laura Behrens Wu, Shippo: It might go without saying, but shipping technology was not a childhood dream of mine. My co-founder Simon and I stumbled across shipping as a business hurdle purely by accident. During our graduate studies, we built a little ecommerce store to supplement a high cost of living in SF. We found that there were many platforms and tools that supported the ecommerce merchant experience seamlessly— all the way up until shipping. Shipping was, by far, the most difficult, opaque, and costly hurdle that we encountered up until that point.

So that was the first time I realized shipping was a pain point, and we decided that we would build a business that would solve this problem for others.

Mariya Nurislamova, Scentbird: I’ve been running companies for more than 8 years now but my first attempts at entrepreneurship have been in the industries I wasn’t passionate about.
And then one day I was sitting down with Sergei Gusev who would later become my co-founder at Scentbird telling him that I am sick and tired of running businesses that don’t feel like a true calling. So he asked me what would I rather be pursuing, what is that business that I could give my all to. I said it had to be fragrance, but I didn’t know where to start. He said fragrance it is – and came up with our first business model for Scentbird next morning. My life hasn’t been the same since.

Lauren Schulte, The Flex Company: My turning point was the moment we met true, passionate users of FLEX. When we looked into their eyes and heard their intimate health stories, we realized our mission. We believe in a world where every woman loves her body. As long as periods are something that women dread, we have work to do.

Dr. Katherine van Ekert, VetPronto: Realizing that I wasn't going to be heard (small and large scale) unless I spoke up.

Ritu Narayan, Zum: The turning point was when we raised our first round of financing. We were at a stage where financing was the only key to unlock the next phase of growth. It was a great feeling that someone believed so much in your dream that they were investing in you to bring it true. It also came with a sense of huge responsibility, to make confidence placed in you live. Also a very encouraging fact was around 30 of our early user registered as accredited investors and participated in our FundersClub raise.


What is the idea/experience/accomplishment related to your company that you are secretly most proud of?

Rachel ten Brink, Scentbird: Besides creating a new way to experience the fragrance category, spotting the impact of social media influencers early.  Of course we can't say we were the first but we were pretty early on and spotted talented influencers that have blown up since

Michelle Lam, True&Co, an online retail site allowing shoppers to find perfect-fitting bras by answering a simple quiz: We launched our new product Second Skin in just under 4 months from concept to market, complete with our first TV commercial. A usual bra takes 12 months to launch!

Dr. Katherine van Ekert, VetPronto: Putting our employees' needs first and foremost when we think about our org structure and scheduling.

Ritu Narayan, Zum: An accomplishment I am very proud of is about laying a strong foundation and a business model that works. We are in a space where the common route is to burn tons of money with break even nowhere in sight. We took a fundamentally different approach and built acquisition channels that were contribution margin positive. Impact of such action was big as the competitors who had raised 10 times more money burnt their cash and were not successful while we executed far more than them in far less raise.


Who are your heroines?

Tamara Bain, Chillabit: Grace Hopper, inventor of the first compiler and a rear admiral in the United States Navy. Total badass.

Mariya Nurislamova, Scentbird: Sheryl Sandberg – for scaling a tech company like a boss; Meryl Streep – for profound authenticity in everything she does; Estee Lauder – for not being afraid to roll up her sleeves and do the ground work that it takes to build an empire.

Rachel ten Brink, Scentbird: My mom, Leslie Blodget (who built Bare Escentuals from nothing and was an early influencer/ story teller), the founders of Urban Decay (one of them Sandy Lerner was a co-founder of Cisco Systems and Wende Zomnir is a creative genius)

Michelle Lam, True&Co: I discover new ones all the time. At True&Co., we love functional design that is truly innovative and catapults an industry forward. My most recent favorite is Stephanie Kwolek, the woman who invented Kevlar.

Ritu Narayan, Zum: Madam Curie (who I consider icon for women in STEM) and my mother for breaking barriers and paving the path for the next generation, particularly women.