On Friday 30th of October my colleagues from TECNALIA Ventures organised this month’s Entrepreneur’s Club session on the topic of Women Entrepreneurs. Though it’s true I have a keen interest on the topic of women in business, I am in no way knowledgeable about entrepreneurship so I was not only pleasantly surprised to be invited to moderate the session, but curious to hear what these honoured guests had to say.
After waiting a few minutes to see how powerful an enemy the splendid Friday afternoon sun would be, we got right to presenting the session and our four speakers:
- Monica Doddi, Managing Director and Co-Founder of the Women’s Venture Capital Fund
- Mónica Rodríguez, Co-Founder of Dynakin
- Yanire Braña, Founder of the MET Community
- Arantxa Arruti, Professor at the University of Deusto
Note: You can find a short bio of each at the end of this post.
We started out by briefly reviewing the business case for women in business, women in managerial positions and why special attention should be paid to women entrepreneurs: Indeed all the research shows that gender diversity significantly increases profitability, productivity, and return on investment, not to mention that 70% of consumer dollars in the US are controlled by women. For more information, Monica Dodi recommended the book “Women Want More” by Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre.
I was aghast to hear that in the United States less than 4% of venture capital (VC) funding is given to companies that have a women (yes, just the one!) in the partnership structure. Apparently, consciously or unconsciously, investors tend to invest in entrepreneurs they can relate to, in an attempt to reduce subjective risk factors.
This is in fact why Monica Dodi decided to create the Women’s Venture Capital Fund. I think we were all fascinated to hear about how – as much as a commitment to helping women entrepreneurs – it is a business strategy: “There is an untapped market, there are extremely high quality business plans, attractive investment opportunities and no-one is investing there. Without a doubt it’s a market niche for VC funds and we wanted to tap into that market.” You can also see how she explains her strategy in the 3 minutes video titled “Why should we invest in diversity?”
We moved on to talking about the skills required to be an entrepreneur, and as well as the classical skills one would expect to hear listed (communication, perseverance, commitment etc), our speakers spoke of a certain attitude: passion, optimism, self-confidence and no fear of failure. At this point, Arantza Arruti shared with us how universities are trying to adapt, and, in particular, how she tries to help students develop skills such as team-building, negotiating and public speaking through practical exercises and role-plays. Monica Rodríguez also recalled her beginnings as a young entrepreneur, in particular as she tried to convince clients (generally men of a certain age!) that she knew what she was talking about when it came to drug development and pharma companies. If she hadn’t had that determination, she would have given up back then.
Still regarding skills, we could not but mention the communication and public speaking skills that Americans have, and that we Europeans so envy. Indeed, young Americans (and Anglo-Saxons) learn to speak up in class, negotiate or debate while many Europeans still focus on written skills based evaluations. Our participants seemed to agree that involving young women (and young men) in sports and outdoor activities help build up their self-confidence and a more outgoing nature, and that these are skills without which an entrepreneur cannot succeed.
When asked if men and women entrepreneurs had different skills or needed to do different things to succeed, Yanire Braña quoted a World Bank report called “Women, Business and the Law” and shared her experience from working with entrepreneurs in Europe, the US and Latin America: “I think men and women more or less have the same skills. But when asked what support they need men will invariably answer money, while women consistently say they are interested in training coaching or mentoring. So I don’t think skills differ that much, but the perception of their skills, and lack thereof, are certainly different”. She finished by saying that in her experience there weren’t too many external barriers; the barriers that women face are internal.
The issue of mentors, role models and support systems also arose, and some insightful ideas were put forward: Indeed most of our speakers confessed their first role models were their parents, either because of the hardships they had suffered and how they had overcome them, or because their parents were well known professionals in a specific field. I found this a curious perspective because it goes to show how entrepreneurs themselves value the capacity to overcome challenges.
A fascinating debate ensued about whether women should mentor women or whether men should do it, and indeed whether it mattered, who did the mentoring. In the MET Community women often prefer to be mentees while men always come forward to become mentors. But the important part, in Yanire Braña’s opinion, is that young women entrepreneurs receive the support they require, regardless of who gives it, men or women.
Another topic broached was the infamous “born or made” debate, and it was a small step from there to the question of whether start-ups should be led by one entrepreneur who builds a team, or whether the entrepreneurial core should be a team. Monica Rodríguez shared her experience where she and co-founder Nerea Leal fell naturally into a partnership in which each partner brings different and complementary skills. “Nerea is much better at managing the team than I am, I am more focussed on the consulting side with clients. Our partnership was clear from the start and we each bring different things to the company.” Having participated in many different ventures, Monica Dodi was able to give us a broader view of her first entrepreneurial experience where she joined a start-up created by one person who had the idea – the spark – and later ones where the core team was necessary to ensure the growth of the project.
This led us to reflect on how in the US entrepreneurship is more focussed on making a company grow in order to sell it, while in Europe in many cases entrepreneurship is seen as a means to create employment, and ventures take on a more long term and permanent perspective. In other words while US entrepreneurs have their eye on the exit strategy from the start, for European entrepreneurs there is no exit strategy, the only exit is the failure of the business.
To wrap up, we asked our participants to share some words of wisdom with us (TECNALIA), to help us support our entrepreneurs. On the whole our guests agreed that our role is that of connector: connecting entrepreneurs with investors, researchers with companies, companies with technology and a forum like the Entrepreneur’s Club tries to do just that.
It was a really gratifying and inspiring experience (no pun intended on our corporate moto), that I am thrilled to have been a part of. I am very grateful to the Ventures team for allowing me to share the table with such awe-inspiring guests and my heartfelt thanks to our speakers for having shared their ideas, their experiences and their time with us. I already can’t wait for next time!
- Monica Dodi is an international new media entrepreneur, with a proven track record in creating, launching and building highly successful global brands. She is a graduate of Economics from Georgetown University and has a Harvard MBA. She was co-founder of MTV Europe, Head of Consumer Products for Europe / Africa at Disney, CEO and Co-founder of AOL’s Entertainment Asylum website, entrepreneur in residence at Software Technology Ventures and currently Managing Director and Co-Founder of the Women’s Venture Capital Fund.
- Mónica Rodríguez holds a PhD in pharmacology from the University of the Basque Country. She is Senior Scientist and Strategic Consultant at Dynakin Drug Modelling & Consulting and Co-Founder with Nerea Leal of Dynakin. Dynakin, founded in 2004 currently has 26 employees, 20 of which are women.
- Yanire Braña has 14 years experience in management, communication, gender and development. She has been supporting women entrepreneurs through mentoring, training and networking activities, and this led her in 2008 to found the not-for-profit MET Community, which targets women entrepreneurs in Europe, the United States and Latin America. She previously worked for the World Bank, the IADB and the Banco Popular.
- Arantza Arruti holds a doctorate in Pedagogy and Education in Leisure. She is currently responsible for international relations for the Faculty of Psychology and Education of the University of Deusto. Her expertise is in the design and development of innovative curricular activities and she has a passion for entrepreneurship and the profile of entrepreneurs. She also writes a blog.