“Bring your bikini” – female founders lift the lid on the UK startup scene’s sexism

From investors offering sexual invitations to people not taking them seriously, UK female founders face a huge sexism problem

“Bring your bikini” – female founders lift the lid on the UK startup scene's sexism

Sophia Matveeva had a bad feeling. At the time she was searching for investors to support Enty, her fashion tech platform enabling users to access the professional advice of stylists. Having recently connected with an angel investor, she became concerned when he asked her to meet up at a health club. “So I sent a message asking [what the details were] and he wrote to me, ‘Don’t bring your laptop, bring your bikini and we’ll talk about the business after a swim,’” Matveeva remembers. She declined his invitation. 

But this wasn’t the only occasion something like this happened. “I’ve actually ended up in situations where I was made to perceive something as a business meeting that the other person then tried to turn into a date,” Matveeva reveals. As a female founder at the beginning of her journey, she repeatedly faced this situation. “You don’t even know if they ever intended to invest or if they even had the means to invest,” Matveeva continues. “Not only is that insulting but also it’s a real waste of time. As an entrepreneur, the most important thing you have is your time and your energy. So if somebody is taking that away from you under false pretences, that’s basically stealing.”

She’s not alone in experiencing situations like these, with many of her friends and contacts having experienced similar things. “It’s unfortunately just a part of what it’s like to be a female founder,” Matveeva says. Indeed, 78% of women tech entrepreneurs have either encountered or know someone who’s faced sexual harassment in the workplace, according to VC firm First Round’s survey of 869 US founders. 

Over the years, there’s been a multitude of these sort of stories coming out of Silicon Valley. The Tinder co-founder Whitney Wolfe, now CEO of dating app Bumble, left the company after co-founder Justin Mateen allegedly harassed her. The styling service provider Stitch Fix’s founder Katrina Lake was reportedly coerced by Lightspeed Venture Partners to sign a non-disparagement agreement after one of the VC firm’s partners made unwanted advances towards her. And there’s a wealth of other reports like it. But while most research and well-known cases are based on American examples, stories like Matveeva’s highlight how UK entrepreneurs face similar situations.

Matveeva believes this is one reason why many women leave entrepreneurialism. “It’s humiliating,” she says. Comparing it to the way rape victims often put the guilt on themselves, she believes many female founders blame themselves for the sleazy behaviours of others. “You can very often walk away thinking what did I do?” she explains. “Did I present myself in some way? How did I get myself into this situation? And, especially after it’s happened a few times, how do I keep on getting myself into these situations over and over and over again? So you can think that you don’t know what you’re doing and that you shouldn’t be in this game. It’s very mentally and emotionally draining.”

And with entrepreneurship being challenging in general, she’s convinced it means many women abandon the pursuit of startup success because of it. “This just adds an extra layer of difficulty and I don’t want to say it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back cause it’s not a straw but more like a small forest,” Matveeva argues.

But disrespectful behaviour like this isn’t the only obstacle facing female founders. They also have to deal with the sexism of investors in general with 28% of women entrepreneurs in Britain and Ireland having faced discrimination, according to a survey of 200 founders across the territories conducted by workspace accelerator Huckletree. Even more discouragingly, only 9% believed they have equal opportunities as men to find investments. 

They aren’t wrong. Female-founded startups get less than 1p for every £1 of VC investment in the UK, according to research undertaken by the British Business Bank together with British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association and Diversity VC,  the non-profit organisation promoting equality in the VC industry. One of the reasons cited in the February 2019 report was due to investors simply not seeing women-led businesses as often as men-led ones. In 2017, 61% of VC firms didn’t see any all-female teams and 24% didn’t see any women at all. 

To make the investment situation even more troublesome, most investor teams are predominantly male-dominated with just 27% of employees at VC firms women, according to research from Diversity VC. Of those women, only 18% were in a position to actually influence investment decisions. 

For Ashleigh Hinde, founder of Waldo, the contact lens delivery startup, this discrepancy among investors made her very aware of her gender. “It has made me think about my body language,” she reveals. “I think [there is] quite a lot of personality that comes to the table and generally [you must] learn to use your body language to bring [out] your presence and make sure you’re getting your point across [and being] more direct than what sometimes feel natural.”

As a consequence of the inequality in VC firms, female founders can struggle to persuade them to inject capital into their businesses. “Most of the people that you’re pitching female consumer products to would not use your product,” argues Matveeva. “So when you then describe how it works, they will say ‘Well I wouldn’t use it’ or ‘I don’t understand’ or you know, they’ll say ‘Let me ask my wife or let me ask my sister.’” 

Although, having a product that isn’t predominantly targeting women is no insurance against investors acting inappropriately. Hinde has been the sole founder of Waldo since 2016. Nevertheless, early on an investor encouraged her to find someone to partner up with. “He said, ‘Normally we prefer there to be more than one founder and, actually, my advice is to get a male co-founder because you’ll probably find it easier to raise money,’” she remembers. 

Having grown up surrounded by strong women and a family of entrepreneurs, she’d never believed her sex would diminish her chances to succeed. “It just made me feel angry because I [wondered] what this mystery male co-founder could do and what on earth he would have done to progress the business,” Hinde recalls. “And there were no other credentials brought to the table other than the fact that this co-founder should be male. It would’ve been a different story if he’d said that the co-founder has experience in something I don’t know about like web development, supply chains or logistics, something that actually spoke to the skills of what that other person might bring on board. [But] the only reason was because of gender. That’s no reason for anybody to get a role.” 

Similar comments also occur in later startup journeys. Emma Sayle is the founder of female-centric sex community Killing Kittens and has spearheaded the launch of the SafeDate app. She’s been running the first company since 2005 but throughout her career she’d struggled with people not taking her seriously. “When I started there was that kind of idea of this silly little girl launching some silly little business just for fun,” Sayle remembers. 

Even in the summer of 2017 when the scaleup raised a £407,168 equity crowdfunding round, people kept asking her when she’d “get a proper job.” Around the same time, she’d hired Hadleigh Bolt as Killing Kittens’ new COO. But that seemingly only made things worse. “He’d send me the messages that he’d got from people saying ‘When are you going to become the CEO, you’d make a great one.’” she says. “And this is from people investing in our business that I’ve never met assuming that now it’s a serious business it needs to be a man in charge.”

So are things becoming better? It depends on who you ask. Some would point to things like the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements as well as exposés about tech’s struggle with sexism like Emily Chang’s book Brotopia and argue how they’re pushing for change. “It brought the whole topic into the limelight in a big way and I think it has really shed a light on the fact that this behaviour is absolutely unacceptable,” says Hinde of the campaigns. She suggests that it’s demonstrated how even the biggest heavyweights can fall. “More than that, it’s caused women to think more about the topic as a whole and to not be afraid to speak up,” Hinde continues. “Only when founders speak up about the experiences they’ve had with different investors can the ecosystem become a lot more pure and can filter out the bad eggs.”

However, Matveeva is unsure if pledges made by investors and people in the community to clean up their act to support more women will count for much. “In general it’s lip service,” she argues. “A lot of people say the right thing but they don’t actually do anything. Still, the fact that they’re saying something at least is an improvement.” 

That being said, she points towards investors who are going out of their way to support female founders with their network and advice. One example, is Chris Tottman, general partner at Notion, the London-based VC firm, who’s launched the FiftyFifty Pledge, an initiative to make attendance at tech events evenly split between men and women. “I like that because it’s very practical,” Matveeva says. 

Even more encouragingly, more female founders are finding success despite these issue, which is great for the next generation of entrepreneurs. “Having people who inspire you is really important for entrepreneurs in general,” Matveeva suggests. “It’s really good to have people who are ahead of you but not so far ahead of you that they‘re already up in heaven.” With new networks like AllBright and Blooming Founders making it easier for aspiring business leaders to connect with these women and seek their insights, the future looks even brighter. 

So, while there’s clearly many things that need to be improved for female founders to succeed, here’s hoping we’re moving in the right direction. 

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson

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