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Here in San Francisco, I’ve been feeling the winds of positive change picking up speed for women entrepreneurs. I am seeing more women take the leap into entrepreneurship, and more women persevere through the challenges that come with founding and running a company. In turn, as these women founders and CEOs are cognizant of hiring a diverse workforce – they help create more of a virtuous cycle. As economic empowerment for women increases it adds to GDP, increases job opportunities as new companies form, and creates incentives for all people to invest more equally in order to earn more consistent, positive returns. There is a clear moral imperative to increase equality, but sometimes people are unable to properly attribute outcomes to inequity versus chance or talent. This is easily demonstrated by the differences between men’s and women’s opinions on what causes certain gender disparities. Viewed as a purely economic issue, however, it is obvious that gender equality should be everyone’s goal.
As a whole, closing the gender gap would add an additional $1.5 trillion to the US economy alone. Even closing just the global economic participation gap by 25% by the year 2025 is calculated to add and additional $5.3 trillion to the world economy. Aside from the moral imperative of equality (which, lest we forget, should be the main driving force), the economic windfall for all people, men included, cannot be ignored. The benefits for men of female empowerment and gender quality are significant enough that it becomes a poor investment decision for all people not to actively push for the fair treatment of women in the marketplace.
But, even with the obvious benefits of enhancing women’s participation and success in entrepreneurship, when a woman has a good business idea for a traditionally male dominated space, she can face even greater challenges on the road to success. To dig into the problem deeper to look for potential solutions, I turned to one such outlier woman entrepreneur.
Before Mary Spio founded CEEK VR, a distributor of cryptographically authenticated immersive experiences and merchandise, she was helping giants like Boeing and Lucas Films develop industry-changing technologies that would revolutionize movie distribution. Although the technology is now used globally with films such as Star Wars, her path into the tech world began with a much simpler idea. “As a little girl growing up in Africa, we didn’t have much, but we did have a small TV. I remember watching a documentary on the moon landing and wishing I could be in the TV, actually walking on the moon.” Already Spiro stands out.
Spio, who built her impressive career creating content and technologies for companies such as Universal Music, Microsoft XBOX, and Clear Channel, is a deep space engineer, and has served in the Air Force, wanted to use her experience to create something different. “In 2014, while I was at Facebook, I got the rare opportunity to try on the Oculus Rift – a VR headset that Facebook later acquired for $3 billion. I was instantly transported back to being 10 years old again. This time, I didn’t have to wonder – I was actually walking on the moon. I knew if the simple act of watching TV could inspire me to become a deep space scientist, image the potential this device held for learning and humanity in general. It became my mission instantly to make access to Virtual Reality within arm’s reach for everyone.”
The issue for female entrepreneurs, particularly in the tech space where Spio operates, is that getting started can be much harder than it is for their male counterparts. Funding of female ventures is lean at best and paltry to non-existent at worst – all-male founders received 97.6% of the estimated $60 billion in venture capital invested in 2016. “The two major challenges that I’ve faced as a woman entrepreneur are the lack of funding and support. Because there aren’t as many female tech unicorns, it’s difficult to get support for women-led companies. Compounding that lack-of-funding challenge is the lack of support networks with real financial resources” said Spio.
Even when she found prominent female investors, they were often wives or daughters of successful male tech entrepreneurs, lacking real-world understanding of the challenges an emerging tech company faced. Women-led or directed funds would also attempt to push her focus towards women’s issues, nonprofit endeavors, or issues more “female” spaces such as education. “Startups have to build strong, sustainable businesses irrespective of industry. Unfortunately, many women entrepreneurs are forced to go where they will be given funds, so they stay out of areas where they could be tremendous assets for fear of not getting support.”
Spio, on the other hand, is a shining example of intelligence and ingenuity combined with a strong “bootstraps” mentality. Both smart and courageous, she went about implementing her dream in a different way than most business owners. “I am not your typical Silicon Valley prototype, so I couldn’t depend on the gatekeepers and traditional network of funds that are often dismissive of anyone that doesn’t fit the mold,” she tells me. “I solved the funding challenge by leveraging my network. Your network is indeed your net worth. It’s all about finding your tribe of people who believe in your vision and are willing to support you in your growth.”
Spio is careful to acknowledge that it is important not to assume that all rejection is based on gender. “Keep in mind, VC’s have their agendas and your vision might not align with theirs. If you are not a fit for them, it could be that you are not ready or that you simply don’t fit their thesis or plan.” That said, she knows that her business was able to succeed, in part, due to the inclusion of both men and women in her grand scheme to create transformative experiences and the types of content she wants to see in the world. “I was also able to get seed funding from savvy investors and diversity funds who realized the value of undervalued, yet highly performing, groups such as women. The returns are exponential because being different is an opportunity to open new, untapped markets that others simply don’t understand or see.”
This statement has proven itself numerous times over my own career as well. Even during my interview with Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang (article coming soon), there were occasions where we were discussing the complexities of women’s positions in society and the workplace and were able to fine-tune his messaging on communicating the positive impacts of UBI for women. This was certainly not because he was inadequately prepared or ignorant of these particular points. Rather, it was because he, having lived his entire life as a man, has very simply not lived through the experience of being a woman. This added perspective, coupled with his desire to learn from and include the thoughts and voices of women within the policy building process, is a large part of what will lead to lasting changes that benefit men and women alike.
Within that same arena, it is also an imperative for women not to unintentionally exclude men in the process of building a more equal society for women. This is particularly true of sectors where the share of women is historically low, such as startups and STEM fields. “Surround yourself with good people,” Spio says, “especially those who have successfully travelled the path you’re embarking on, irrespective of gender…Women tend to rely on other women only; that’s a big mistake, broaden your circles.” While women, quite obviously, benefit from the changing lots of women in the economic sphere, it is important to remember that men benefit from this change as well.
As Spio mentions, women are able to open up new markets, ideas, and businesses that currently go untapped because the present landscape lacks the diversity of experience to see those opportunities in the first place. Another way to put it: the likelihood of a man coming up with a highly effective bra design alone is low because he would lack the knowledge of the unique issues that women face when using that particular product. That said, the global bra market is predicted to reach $30.4 billion by the end of 2025, a number to heed regardless of your gender. The impacts that women can make in non-women-specific markets is considerably larger and something we should all be striving for. Of course, because we want to help our fellow humans, but also because failing to do so is the equivalent of slamming the door in opportunity’s face.
March 16, 2019 at 07:13AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs