Despite the gender disparity in funding, Carolyn Rodz is deeply committed to getting female-run businesses the capital they deserve. To help level the playing field, the energetic entrepreneur is focused on providing women with resources men tend to have organically accessible to them.
Elizabeth Gore, entrepreneur-in-residence at Dell; Carolyn Rodz, founder of Circular Board
“We realized when we looked at the start up economy that women weren’t participating in resources at same rates as men,” says Rodz, founder of The Circular Board. “When applying to accelerators and going after capital, women simply weren’t getting the same traction. We wanted to figure out how to actually move the needle.”
After doing some research, Rodz and her team determined it wasn’t due to a lack of ideas, but rather a lack of advocacy for women from those influencers who could help streamline the funding process.
“So much of what happens in the startup space centers on our networks, and because women aren’t active in those networks it’s hard to get those referrals,” says the three-time entrepreneur, who has successfully raised billions in capital for various initiatives.
The Circular Board, which was launched in 2015, was created as a way to close the gender gap, and give women access to “mentorship, content, community and capital, and connection” they needed to start multi-million dollar businesses and ignite growth.
Partnerships have been a driving force behind Circular Board’s rapid growth, including Dell Technologies, Johnson & Johnson, Urban Decay, Guggenheim Partners and United Nations Foundation.
Rodz says her goal was to “start from scratch” and create a self-reliant ecosystem that mimicked what many business men enjoy without having to think about it. The goal was to help capture the strengths of women, one of which is fostering an environment of collaboration rather than competition.
“The traditional startup world tends to be very competitive, and women are shying away because they felt they weren’t ready for that,” says Rodz. “Even though we are performing at the same level, women are more risk averse. We think about the opportunity for failure and we don’t oversell. But once we get past the hurdle of raising capital, women are fantastic leaders. We are empathetic, collaborative, and great at taking input from others.”
Rodz, who was recognized by Entrepreneur Magazine as a 2016 “Woman to Watch” and is a TEDx speaker, says after meeting many female and male entrepreneurs, she realized that while men like to look at big picture then drill into details, women prefer a step-by-step frame work. Since the launch, Rodz says there have been many learning lessons along the way, including navigating cross-cultural businesses and providing flexible working enviornments for women with families.
The Circular Board not only provides access to industry-specific mentors, but it also helps women learn everything from working with lawyers, applying for grants, to navigating crowd funding. In addition, all Circular Board members have access is for life.
“It’s a very accessible group in the fact that everyone has my personal email, and cell phone number,” says Rodz. “We meet up when we’re in the same cities, and like to connect in person when we can. Most new companies come to us now through referrals, almost entirely. We have an open enrollment process. It was really important to us that there is no constraint based on who you know or who you are connected to.”
According to Rodz, an important element of the Circular Board comes in the form of supporting women in developing countries. “We never decline a company because of an inability to pay,” says Rodz, adding that firm is actively expanding in Latin America and is focused on India. “Our hope is to democratize access across the board.”
Among the innovative ideas The Circular Board has helped fund include a line of solar bikes, as well as a senior care facility in Mongolia.
“This woman is opening the first privately-owned chain of senior care facilities in every zone of the country,” says Rodz. “Drug access is a really big deal in Mongolia, and here is someone working to improve access to pharmaceuticals.”
“There’s a lot more happening with smart technology,” says Rodz about today’s company trends. “It’s getting more functional and beginning to work in our everyday lives. Also, looking from an impact perspective, it’s been more about how to solve bigger problems and get more inclusive in terms of who we are taking to the next level.”
According to Rodz, the overall goal of The Circular Board is to help ramp up the launch process by helping members determine what to streamline and how to identify priorities by women who have been through it.
“The burden lies on the company going through the accelerator,” says Rodz, in terms of the brass tacks associated with brand building. “They have to ask for what they need. Some founders ask for a lot; constantly asking for support, following up with every tool, and they are the ones who benefit the most. Our goal is here is the frame work and here is the process and best practices. But ultimately we are not the ones running the company.”
When asked about current projects, Rodz has plenty on her plate. She is currently prepping for the Circular Summit, an invitation-only event for high-growth entrepreneurs, held March 30 and 31 in Houston, Texas. She is also focused on Pitch With Purpose, a global pitching competition (think Shark Tank with a humanitarian edge), held in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, to encourage women entrepreneurs to "embrace the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit." Eligible businesses will be judged on scalability, impact on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, innovation, strength of team and overall presentation. Winners receive $15,000.
Looking to the future, Rodz said she is focused on technology, as well as offering more resources to Circular Board members.
“For us it’s about refining and growing the accelerator,” says Rodz. “We are going to keep supporting female-run companies and find more of them.”
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."