Unquestionably, a powerful wave of women leaders is coming. With more women than ever graduating from college and continuing on to master’s and doctorate degrees, we project that the future of the workforce will be women.6 We want them to be prepared with the knowledge that they are more qualified than they know, and we believe that there are skills and traits that will make them more successful in their roles than they ever imagined. Their leadership may look different than traditional models—and that can be a positive thing.
Importantly, as with all leadership roles across sectors, men have traditionally been at the helm of purpose-driven organizations. With a critical influx of women pushing to the top of these organizations as entrepreneurs, directors, CEOs, and board members, we believe a new model of leadership will emerge. We further believe it crucial to examine the driving force behind their rise to the top and how their success is opening pathways for other women to follow. By telling their stories and exploring the traits and skills that helped them to succeed (without replicating a male-inclined leadership style), we hope to inspire the next generation of women to pursue and excel in a purpose-driven field.
Apart from our own personal curiosity, research on women is important for many reasons that have been independently confirmed, as outlined below.
1. Gender-diverse leadership leads to better business results.
Having more women in executive roles benefits the bottom line. Companies with women in at least half of their leadership positions deliver higher sales growth, earnings per share growth, and return on assets, according to a 2016 Credit Suisse report.7 For example, startups founded and run by women reported higher revenue figures than those run by their male counterparts. In fact, one study by the Boston Consulting Group showed that for every dollar of venture capital funding received, women-led businesses generated 78 cents; for businesses launched by men, the return was 31 cents.8
In the world of venture capital, a person or startup achieves unicorn status when a privately held startup company has a value (not revenue) of over $1 billion. Historically in the United States, these unicorns have been run by men like Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, who achieved unprecedented investments at a very early age. More recently, men from underrepresented backgrounds such as Byju Raveendran, the founder and CEO of the EdTech company Byju, have also achieved this milestone. Today, women are achieving unicorn status, securing phenomenal amounts of venture capital for their startups.
For example, Guild Education—an online education platform founded by Rachel Carlson and Brittany Stich—achieved unicorn status in November 2019, and in May 2021 the company raised another round of investment, bringing their valuation to $3.75 billion.9 But that isn’t the only example of a recent and highly successful startup led by a female founder. Spring Health, an organization that focuses on eliminating barriers to mental health care, has raised $300 million to date. Its valuation of $2 billion makes its co-founder, April Koh, the youngest woman ever (at the age of 29) to run a unicorn—barely beating out Shippo’s CEO, Laura Behrens Wu, for the title.10 We would be remiss to neglect to mention Whitney Wolfe Herd, the CEO and Founder of Bumble, who was the youngest woman ever to take a company public.11
Gender-diverse teams that include and are headed by women do get great returns, and these takeaways also support the notion that women bring enormous intrinsic value to the discussion of leadership.
2. Women lift one another up.
Women-led ventures are more likely to hire women, support women, and promote women across all levels of the company. In short, women-led ventures and teams help other women succeed. Nearly half of consumer service firms with women as founders have women serving in executive roles, compared with only 10 percent of companies started by men.12 Women’s success breeds more success, and as more women make the jump into the C-suite, surely more will follow behind these trailblazers.
Women lift each other up, and their presence in leadership improves business results. This leads to an obvious question: Why aren’t more people investing in companies founded or led by women? And if we focus on purpose-driven organizations, wouldn’t we want more women to be driving society’s most important social impact indicators?
A recent Deloitte and National Venture Capital Association study shows that women comprise only 12 percent of investment partners across the venture capital industry, resulting in a persistent funding gap.13 We believe that women receive less investment because, even today, they remain greatly outnumbered as investors. If there were more women fund managers, perhaps women would be announcing exciting IPOs because they received crucial funding in the earlier stages of their startup’s existence. While we wait for more women to break the glass ceiling in the investment world, however, we’re currently able to see women in positions of power supporting each other in different ways—as with mentorship. This, too, is a crucial way to lift women up. As entrepreneurial leaders, Kathy and I have personally witnessed and benefitted from the power of mentorship and hope to facilitate this connection for women in the future. In Chapter 9, Kathy explains why securing quality mentorship is so important for your career and how to identify great mentors who can support you on your journey to the top.
3. Women engage different skills and traits to be successful.
When Kathy and I were first promoted into leadership roles, it was evident that the positions had been created by and for men. Even with the best intentions, the culture and environment of these organizations pushed us to adopt certain leadership traits that felt inauthentic. For example, we were both similarly pressured to take large financial and budgetary risks in the name of elevating the company’s status rather than considering the organization’s unique position within the industry and trusting our intuitions. Sometimes we struggled to be heard when voicing our opinions on new initiatives that would break the mold or put a stronger focus on creating social impact. Independent decision-making was saluted, while healthy collaboration was uncomfortable and sometimes perceived as a waste of time. Eventually, it became clear that the expectation of us, as leaders, was to adhere to the conventional thinking promoted by the leadership standards of the time.
This pressure to adjust our leadership skills was not all bad, but it felt strange and sometimes counterproductive to embrace a new approach after having made it so far in our careers leaning on other skills and traits.
Looking back on our journeys through the lens of our research, our discomfort came from being pushed to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset more typical of men in our field—which, as we’ll discuss throughout this book, looks quite different from a woman’s entrepreneurial mindset. At the time, this discomfort was simply part of stepping into entrepreneurial roles that positioned men at the helm. Women had to adapt to traditionally male skillsets not only to excel but also to be taken seriously. These VP, CEO, or founder positions rewarded traits and skills such as risk-taking, an unemotional and tough-minded approach to hiring and firing employees, and decisive, top-down decision-making that rewarded independence and not interdependence. Deep inside, however, our instincts told us that our collaborative styles, calculated risk-taking, and empathy for our teams were part of what brought us loyalty and excellent results. Internal conflict was constantly present: Will I come off as too soft? Will they take me seriously if I suggest another way? Do I dare to try something new? Can I push innovative ideas in my own way?
Our goal to understand the unique combination of traits, skills, and life experiences that make InnovateHERs successful is deeply personal. This curiosity derives from the undeniable fact that women have innate skills and traits that are valuable, making us excellent entrepreneurial leaders. We have seen women excel and be empathetic, jumpstart daring new initiatives within an established corporate role, and collaborate across sectors to leverage the strengths of different organizations. We believe that with the great acceleration of women into executive positions, these skills will move into the limelight.
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