Recently, I participated in an all-female startup and small-business training seminar, Women Entrepreneurs Boot Camp (WEB), as the sole male speaker among 15 fellow presenters. When I was originally invited by Lynn Loacker to speak and was told I would be the only male presenter, as well as the only male guest, I didn’t think twice about it; it was simply a great opportunity to share my sales insights with other entrepreneurs. But as the event drew closer, an unfamiliar sense of nervousness came over me. And, I’m never nervous for these things.
I have to say, it wasn’t the average tech event experience. Yes, like most events dealing with entrepreneurs, there was a high level of drive, professionalism, and a diverse set of backgrounds and skills. But this event had a demographically different crowd and a refreshing tone and attitude to which I was unaccustomed.
I spoke for an hour alongside colleague and fellow panelist Laurie Jakobsen of Jaybird Communications about messaging and best practices in delivery, and then stuck around for an additional panel and dinner afterward. From these interactions over a mere several hours, I discovered two main differences between WEB and the normal “boys’ club” startup events that have unfortunately become customary.
Mission-driven vs. ego-driven founders
Although I certainly didn’t have a chance to meet every attendee, the ones I spoke with – and overheard speaking with one another — were driven by similar traits as other entrepreneurs: passion and hunger. But, as they described what they did, it was clear they focused on the why as much as the what. Most strikingly, when asked about her organization, every entrepreneur started with a version of: “I saw there was a real problem out there, and I started my company to try and make people’s lives easier, as well as my own.” They never started with how “revolutionary” or “ground-breaking” the company is, its impact on the industry, the amount of funding raised, or who the biggest customers were.
For example, a woman I spoke with before the event told me she had created her company Cocosine, which offers frozen food products focused on healthy, responsibly-sourced ingredients as part of kids’ dining options at school cafeterias, because she was fed up (no pun intended) with what children were being served at school. First and foremost, there was a sense of societal purpose — and capitalism was used simply as a vessel to see it realized. It was energizing – even humbling — as an entrepreneur to be around so many people with that level of zeal and humanity.
Not to say other events are filled with BS, but there was less posturing between the WEB members. There was a authentic desire to help, share, and be honest about one others’ businesses. Usually, when I sit in these workshops with different audiences, there is a wall of defensiveness, either surrounding ideas or reputations. In my experience with networking, male founders of early-stage startups will rarely reveal their challenges (“it’s all good”) because, in their eyes, it’s a sign of weakness. The protectiveness may break down eventually, but it initially costs time and energy on both sides.
The women I met, however, were candid and unapologetic about the issues they’re facing and were receptive to giving and getting advice. Additionally, they were more mindful than any audience I’d ever experienced. No one left the discussions to answer “I-need-to-take-this” phone calls, and everyone stayed for every session. That said, my favorite “less BS” moment was when literally everyone showed up on time and we actually started one minute early. In my whole career of doing similar events, this has never happened.
My main takeaway from the event was that, as an industry, we can, and should, be doing a lot more to support women-led companies and women leaders, including:
1. Ditching stereotypes during speaking opportunities
When you are a speaker or attendee at as many events as I frequent, you tend to get pretty comfortable being anywhere. However, at this event, I noticed more self-awareness for my own words and actions. Despite the sales industry being numerically dominated by men, I deliberately made statements and used inclusive examples to which anyone could relate. In fact, I purposely didn’t start with a self-deprecating, gendered analogy that pandered to men — or women — but instead focused on new-business experiences that everyone faces. I also avoided saying “you guys” and swearing (as much!), and instead used my tone of voice to emphasize key points.
It struck me that frequently, during sales presentations, men will make a parallel between dating and new business; even writing it now, it sounds off-putting to me. Maintaining that self-awareness for every future event, regardless of the audience, would be real progress. Understanding and being open to the ideas of every party, not just the ones with which you’re familiar, will lead to effective knowledge-sharing and, ultimately, greater innovation.
2. Holding up a mirror to your own organization
A high ratio of female-led brands use my company’s services. Of our five largest clients, three have either female CEOs or VPs leading the charge at their organization. We understand the existing community to support female entrepreneurs is growing, but as consultants and leaders, we have to do a better job of using our knowledge to help women continue to make their mark in the startup world. After all, only 1% of all privately held companies have a woman founder. This support starts within your organization, from job descriptions to training videos.
Granted, I work in sales — an industry dominated by men — but I am realizing that even the word choice for open sales positions has males in mind, blatantly using archetypal words like he/him/his, aggressive, and competitive. Look at your company’s “Careers” page. Does it use gender-neutral language and seek “qualified candidates”? If not, let your HR team know that they may be limiting their talent pool without even realizing it. As another example, I tried to find a training video with a female senior-level educator in it, and I struggled to uncover more than a small handful. Do you have successful, talented female supervisors? Use them in recruiting materials to attract and train others. Raise the bar and then rise to meet it.
3. Acknowledge we have a parity problem, especially in sales
Before we can make a difference, we have to recognize there’s a major issue and understand its gravity. Only 26% of roles VP-level and above are held by women, and when discussing sales specifically, that number dips to 21%. Let’s stop burying our heads in the sand and be more proactive…it starts at the top. If your organization has a poor ratio of female sales leaders, reflect on the culture you’ve created, regardless if it was purposeful or accidental, and strive for parity.
When I sat among 15 women at dinner, not once did anyone joke about or even acknowledge that I was outnumbered. And, I think I know why: Every one of them has been me at a different dinner — or a quarterly board meeting, or a weekly client call.
I hope my brief experience being the only guy at an all-women event challenges you to take a closer look at how your company could be doing more to support women. For change to happen, everyone needs to get involved in the conversation. Why not start one?
Jake Dunlap is CEO and founder of Skaled.