Women in Startups: A Conversation
Statistics suggest that gender parity within European founding teams isn't expected until 2139. SymbiaVC Investment manager Marlis Baurecht shares her own experiences and discusses strategies that could accelerate progress for women.
In the Austrian Start-Up Monitor 2022, a slight improvement regarding female founders was recorded. In 2022, there was a marginal increase of 2 % in the proportion of founding teams consisting of both male and female founders and an additional 1 % in purely female founding teams. This implies that in approximately 39 % of founding configurations in Austria, there is now at least one woman. But industry variations are huge. Biotech, ICT, and physics show much less female representation. Despite progress, it is true that if the goal is to achieve a 50 % share of female founders, there is still a long way to go.
What are the reasons for the slow increase?
The startup arena remains predominantly controlled by wealthy, white males. This is not surprising considering that 70 % of founders invest personal funds in their startups. Coming from a position of financial independence is a game changer. And, of course, there is a gender-specific risk aversion, especially among those juggling childcare responsibilities.
What can be done to bring more women into founding teams?
There’s no simple fix, especially at the educational level, how boys and girls are raised differently. However, financial incentives have shown promise. At the Austrian Economic Service (AWS), they implemented a policy where the full 20 % of possible funding were paid out only if there was at least one woman on the team. This simple rule led to significantly more women in applying founding teams.
How do start-ups benefit from these regulations apart from the financial incentive?
As entrepreneurs, it’s not super easy to build up diverse teams. We often start with friends or recruit from our alma maters, so providing incentives for more conscious team selection can benefit everyone and is definitely a good investment also from a macro point of view.
You emphasize diversity as a key success factor. Can you provide an example?
I’m truly impressed by the Swedish company MODVION, which specializes in producing large wooden wind turbines. At SymbiaVC, we are making significant investments in this promising startup. Maria Lina Hedlund is the Chief Financial Officer and manages customer relations. She handles an incredibly complex cap table. What’s even more interesting is her partnership with Nordic Node, an all-female consultancy for startups and scale-ups. This collaboration has created a fantastic network.
What were your experiences working together with these women?
I’ve noticed that women, in general, appear to be less selfish. They take pride in their strengths and openly acknowledge their failures. They tend to be more authentic and integral. These qualities are enriching for any team and contribute to long-term success. In a rapidly changing world, no company, whether a startup or an established one, can afford to disregard the diverse pool of approaches and values.
Speaking of scalability, what is your take on female networking?
I firmly believe in the power of female networks. I’ve cultivated networks in Sweden, Chile, and of course, in Austria. However, it’s important to recognize that many women, including myself, are juggling various forms of care work. Networking demands time, and that’s a resource often in short supply. But in this business, there is no way around networking. It’s a vital priority that women must establish actually in any career. I’ve also never understood why some people are secretive about their networks. I’ve always been eager to share my contacts whenever possible, and it’s genuinely rewarding to witness women, especially, reaching top positions through these connections.
Let’s discuss care work. How does the idea of a “mother-gap” rather than a gender gap align with your experiences?
During my time at AWS, I oversaw a team of 60 employees, and not a single woman returned to work full-time after maternity leave. This is a pity but also understandable. I had to return to full-time work for personal reasons, and I could only manage it with the help of my parents. Honestly, I envied a bit the part-time working mums, but this decision comes with certain risks, especially financially. The challenge is that raising children comes with a heavy ‘mental load’ which mostly falls on women. Apart from basic childcare, also managing little things like birthday gifts, shopping, doctor visits, and outdoor activities etc. is essentially a managerial role on the side. Only a few can afford to delegate such tasks to others, such as hiring a nanny. I sincerely hope that the younger generation challenges the traditional division of labor, leading to a more balanced arrangement between men and women in childcare.
On gender equality: Pfeifer, founded by a woman in 1948, has women in leadership roles to this day. Does this impact the structure of SymbiaVC?
I don’t have extensive insight into the corporation of Pfeifer yet, but regarding SymbiaVC, I can confidently say that I’ve never felt any less on par with my male colleagues. We all share the same goals and work together towards a common objective. We maintain an entirely open and supportive environment.
Your view on the “female quota”? Should personality be the sole factor for career advancement, in your opinion?
Indeed, that would be the ideal scenario. However, until unpaid care work is evenly distributed, we’re not there yet. By promoting women to top positions, I’m signaling as a company that I also consider the needs of women, such as flexible working hours and the option for remote work. This approach aims to bring as many people as possible into employability.
What advice would you offer women wanting to start a startup?
From my experience, I’d recommend that for highly innovative startups, joining public incubators like the AplusB (Academia Plus Business) centres as quickly as possible is a wise move. Once you’re in, you gain better access to both grants and consulting services. Before seeking private investors, gaining experience from university and public funding sources can be highly beneficial. And of course, we at SymbiaVC we ar e always open to assisting founders. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you feel like we could fit together.
Thank you for the insightful conversation, Marlis.