Before 1988, a woman in the United States who wanted to start her own company was unable to do so without a male relative to co-sign her business loan. That was the year President Ronald Reagan signed the Women’s Business Ownership Act, which, among other things, sought to end discriminatory lending practices against women.
Though it’s been nearly 30 years since the signing of that law, many women still face an uphill battle when founding and financing their own business ventures. The Circular Summit, which just concluded its second annual gathering in Houston, seeks to help women overcome those challenges by providing collaboration, advice and networking opportunities.
The Summit is a project led by the Circular Board, an virtual business accelerator founded in 2015 by entrepreneur and investor Carolyn Rodz. The organization is dedicated to providing mentorship, community and capital to emerging female founders. For this year's Summit, which took place on March 30 and 31, the Circular Board partnered with big-name businesses including Dell, Urban Decay, Johnson & Johnson and others to host panels and presentations gaining funding, making media buzz, and how to rebound from professional setbacks.
Jean Case, CEO, Case Foundation and Elizabeth Gore, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Dell
“I go to a lot of empowerment events,” said Elizabeth Gore, entrepreneur-in-residence at Dell. “And while I like the motivational aspect, there’s not a lot of ‘Here’s what to do next.’” Gore spoke at the Summit about having tenacity in the face of hardship. She also talked about the value of community that an event like the Summit provides.
“People don’t realize that with entrepreneurship, it is very solitary," Gore told SWAAY.
When you’re failing, you’re failing alone, and you’re failing in your head. The peer-to-peer mentorship here, getting out of your rabbit hole, is very important. A lot of folks here have faced similar challenges.”
Cindy Whitehead, CEO, The Pink Ceiling
One of the biggest themes of the invite-only Summit was inclusivity. Present at the event were founders from Mongolia, Sweden and other corners of the globe. One panel talked about diversity debt — the idea that companies that don’t start with diverse staff and boards find it much harder to incorporate diversity later on.
Sarah Salman, CEO of Salman Solutions
Unconscious bias is one of the biggest hurdles in venture capital, said Jean Case, CEO of the Case Foundation and chairman of the National Geographic Society Board of Trustees. Many venture capital firms are still largely run by white men, who tend to invest in founders who look like, and come from the same backgrounds as they do. Most capitalists only invest in their own geographical regions, centered around Silicon Valley. Yet women-led firms and diverse firms routinely outperform their counterparts.
“What we find is that women are seriously under-leveraged,” said Case. “Last year, only 10 percent of venture capital went to women-owned firms. Only 1 percent went to firms with an African American founder.”
Combatting that unconscious bias was one of the goals Jesse Draper had when she started her venture capital fund, Halogen Ventures, last August. Draper was already interviewing entrepreneurs on her internet talk show The Valley Girl Show when she made the commitment that at least half of her guests would be women in tech.
“I realized I could help this problem in two ways — one by interviewing 50 percent women in technology,” she said. “And then I also started funding them.”
“I’d find some interesting deals through the show and I’d write small checks — $10,000, $20,000 checks to these companies because I believed in them,” said Draper, whose father is Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper. To date, Draper has funded 17 female-founded firms.
“I try to support women primarily because I’m a fourth generation investor and I’m the first female, so you can see why I’m very focused on this problem," said Draper. "I grew up in this community of entrepreneurs and investors, and I was always the only girl (in the room). And you know, not a ton has changed, unfortunately.”
She added, “I’ve had men on occasion say things to me like ‘Don’t you think you’re limiting yourself by only investing in women?’” And I’ll say, ‘No, I saw 250 deals in the last two month. I really can’t keep up.
"I have so many minority business owners. It all goes together. There is so much data on how diverse teams breed success.”
With Halogen, Draper isn’t just focused on funding women-led companies. She also trying to encourage women with disposable income to invest in other women. “I do early stage investing, which is the riskiest,” she said. “And that’s where women are not getting funding. Many people, unfortunately especially women, write smaller checks to women.”
She went on to say, “70 percent of my fund is female investors. Someone told me that women wouldn’t write checks for my fund, and they have primarily supported my fund. There’s only a couple of us doing this so I think it’s important that we encourage more women to finance more companies. I also encourage women to take more risks with their money.”
Risk and reward emerged as another theme for the conference. On several panels, speakers shared their biggest setbacks and most humiliating moments. Sheila Marcelo, founder of Care.com, talked about being mistaken for a secretary when she poured herself a cup of coffee in a room full of businessmen. Eileen Gittins, founder of the publishing company Blurb, was nearly laughed out of the room for pitching a business centered on dead-tree books during the heydey of the dot com bubble.
Karen Walrond, Director of Mission Advocacy & Storytelling at Brené Brown Education & Research Group
Carolyn Rodz, founder of the Summit, said the quality of the audience in the room helped contribute to that level of sharing. “There’s a certain element of authenticity here, but it isn’t just for the sake of authenticity,” she said. “The startup world — it’s very glamorized, but most people are struggling. We (women) have to work a little bit harder. We have to figure out how to use our skill sets.”
The idea behind Circular Board and Circular Summit is to help make the connection between female entrepreneurs and the people who want to invest in them, both financially, and on a deeper level. “When I had my company, I had my circle," said Rodz. "The Circular Board is all about finding those people that support you, finding the people who have your back. As we find those people, our job as founders is to see you succeed.”
And while it might seem strange to hold a conference like Circular Summit in Houston instead of on one of the coasts, Rodz said Houston suits the Circular Board’s mission just fine.
“It’s very easy to tell the stories we always hear," continued Rodz. "Our goal is in trying to broaden that pool,” she said. “Half of our company is in San Francisco, so Houston didn’t make sense on a lot of levels. But where it did make sense is in bringing resources to the people outside of those communities.” And it’s working, she said. “I am proud to say we have never paid a speaker. Nobody has ever told us no. People want to support these women.”
Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.
In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.
What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.
Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.
Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.
While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.
According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.
In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.
Source-Alex Brandon, AP
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.
Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.
The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.