“Congrats, you’ve been nominated for Best Female Entrepreneur of the Year. Do you want to accept the nomination?” said the guy on the other end of the phone. Despite the inherent compliment, my gut feeling wasn’t pride and excitement. It was concern.
The box you don’t want to be in
“Hmm, can I think about it?” I responded, and asked “why isn’t there a category for best Male Entrepreneur of the Year?”
There isn’t. Nor is there one for Best White Entrepreneur, Best Entrepreneur from Copenhagen, nor for many other categories that we assume to be strong.
So with the presence of a category for Best Female, and one for Best Entrepreneur from the Outskirts of the Country it’s hard not to feel you’ve just been given a handicap. That you’ve been placed in a position of weakness, rather than of strength. Hardly a desirable box to be in.
An awful story from today’s world
Normally I don’t accept invitation to talks/features/interviews/groups starting with the title “female.”
It’s not because I don’t face additional challenges as a woman in business, I do. But I believe it’s better to try to prove people wrong, than to risk being seen as someone who complains. After all, it’s hard to be successful no matter your gender.
But inequality is there—even if it’s probably hard to spot as a (white) male, which the majority of decision makers and business leaders are. For all these reasons, I don’t talk much about the glass ceiling. Neither do most other female business leaders I know. This has the innate danger of making it appear as if the challenge is solved. It isn’t.
Recently a C-level female acquaintance of mine told me her story. She’s a top executive in one the country’s largest companies and has over 1,000 employees under her. She had been invited for her first-ever board position. It was a small firm, way below “her level,” but she was interested and went to see them. After a good long chat with the CEO, she asked as an afterthought “is there a specific reason why it’s a woman you’re inviting to join your board?” The CEO replied, “we figured that if it was a woman, she’d be happy to join for a bottle of wine.”
She’s much nicer than me. I would have shoved said bottle of wine down his throat unopened.
I won’t tell more stories, this was just to demonstrate that the issue isn’t historic.
Perception is everything
In my inner heart I have to admit that I’ve also declined the invitations because I was afraid. Afraid that people would suddenly notice that I was a woman. An alien on management level!
On an unconscious level we have images of how people in certain positions should look and act. That’s a basic survival mechanism that enables us to process millions of inputs a day—we put people into boxes. In my world—the tech startup world—the image of a fundable entrepreneur is made of the majority of previously successful tech entrepreneurs: male, young, white, able bodied, programmer, extrovert and tall.
Falling outside this mental picture is an additional challenge for everyone trying to compete on the same playing field. I’m fortunate to live in an enlightened part of the world where opportunities are almost equal. Almost all of my good contacts, fellow founders and management colleagues are men. And I am fine with that. I have a fabulous time working and doing business with men. Most of them treat me as their equal, because they’ve experienced that I am as skilled as them. But I do rely on them thinking of me as someone who can contribute, accelerate growth, hire and fire. If they thought of me as weak, I’d be finished in business.
Therefore any job, speech or interview that puts me in a position where I get associated with the less-skilled-in-business—as we inherently consider women to be—is something I’ve considered dangerous, especially earlier in my career. It’s dangerous, because it might impact the box people put me in in their mind. I need that box to be “strong, proactive, talented” if I’m to have a shot becoming really successful. Not “female, nice.”
That’s why I prefer equal positioning: having a woman on the program, on the board, in the management team, as the winner of a general prize, or on the panel. Not there because she is a woman, but because she has demonstrated talent. If we do this, people get used to seeing women in another light. None of the women I know, want to be on the board just for being a women.
I must have had 50 invitations for speeches, about female business topics, but instead I insist on talking about Becoming An Entrepreneur (of any gender), or decline the invitation.
So I said yes, with nervousness.
I’ve worked my butt off to get here—long hours, personal sacrifices, big risks, even bigger pressure—for more than 15 years. And I can’t help but to feel a little nervous that I am jeopardizing all that to make a political point.
And, on the other hand, it would be selfish not to accept it.
As I was considering whether or not to accept a young woman called me. “I’m one of the ones that nominated you,” she said. “And I understand you may be ambivalent about a Female prize, but you’re one of the only role models I have, and I’d really like you to accept so more women realize that there are others who’ve done what they dream of, someone they can identify with, so they dare to try it,” she elaborated.
The right role model matter
The conversation has a profound impact on me. While not feeling at all I can live up to being anyone’s role model, I recognized that I would never have dared myself, if it weren’t for my own role models. I’ve relied on many people who are further than me both for learning and bravery, especially those who’ve dared to be candid and honest. That required bravery from their side. So if someone can get a bit of self-confidence from my journey, then surely I should “man up” and enable that.
The thing with role models is that they only work if you can identify with them. That’s why it ridiculous that the whole world uses Mark Zuckerberg as a reference case to promote entrepreneurship. Unless you’re a young, white, male, middle class developer you’re probably unlikely to identify with the talented Zuckerberg. And let’s face it, that’s hardly the demographic that needs help. We need to tell more entrepreneurial stories about people who are local, of all ages, in all industries, from all background, so everyone has role models they can relate to. (For this I was stoked of the bravery of Apple CEO Tim Cook who announced publicly that he is gay).
The box is open for every one
So in the end, I’ve accepted the nomination.
I am sure I won’t win, so this is probably the last you’ll hear of this. You won’t see Female Entrepreneurship as my new favorite topic either. I am a businessperson, a business leader and an entrepreneur, that’s the box I feel I belong in.
But I hope there is space for diversity in that box. Regardless of gender, color, nationality, sexual orientation and age, I hope there’s space for those who’ve got the talent, and are willing to work for it.