Being a female founder is still a competitive advantage

Opportunity passes by.
Opportunity passes by.
Image: Reuters/Yuriko Nakao
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Steph Korey, the co-founder of the e-commerce luggage startup Away, was about to give a talk at a conference of CEOs when one of the attendees approached her in the hall.

“Excuse me, miss, do you know where the main ballroom is?” In a sea of men, the assumption was clear: the woman was obviously a member of the event staff. 

Sallie Krawcheck, the founder of investing platform Ellevest, was in a pitch meeting with a male venture capitalist when he stopped her presentation short to explain the economics of managing financial advisors. As the former CEO of Merrill Lynch and Citi Wealth Management, Krawcheck may have managed more financial advisors than anyone else in the world, but that didn’t stop the investor from lecturing her.

Nearly every female founder has an anecdote about being overlooked because of her gender. But when female entrepreneurs are overlooked, so are female consumers. Women make up more than half the US population and control more than half of the country’s wealth, yet women founders received only 15% of venture capital in the United States in 2017.

Hiding in plain sight

For entrepreneurs like Krawcheck and Korey, others’ blind spots became business opportunities. Though not every female entrepreneur ought to design a product geared toward women, many of the founders that Quartz has researched for How We’ll Win have created products to address their own unmet needs. 

Women were twice as likely to start a healthcare company and founded far more consumer product companies than their male counterparts. But we also found women who entered male-dominated industries like travel or financial services were able to see opportunities hiding in plain sight.

“Though the narrative is often about the uphill battle women entrepreneurs fight, I see being a woman as a competitive advantage,” Alyssa Ravasio, the founder of the travel-booking site Hipcamp, told Quartz. “I look different from the other nine people that pitched [a venture capitalist] that day. I like being the CEO that people don’t expect to see.”

Up, Up, and Away

Korey started Away after noticing every luggage advertisement she saw featured a grey-haired man pulling a suitcase through the airport. “They must have just thought that a woman business traveler was an oxymoron,” she told Quartz. “All of the suitcases made for work trips looked like they belonged in The Terminator… they were boxy and robotic.” 

Korey and her co-founder Jen Rubio had traveled for work for their entire careers, so they designed a company with themselves in mind. Yes, their suitcases have some unique features like built-in phone chargers, but they were really able to differentiate themselves in the crowded luggage industry with how they built their brand. 

Instead of treating a suitcase as a mere utility item, they positioned Away as part of a larger movement to make the world more open and transparent—especially for women. They have an ongoing partnership with Peace Direct, an organization building peace in communities afflicted by conflict across the globe. They also produce a quarterly travel magazine called “Here.” The last issue featured articles on women solo travelers who hit the road after a breakup or tour companies that connect travelers with local female entrepreneurs

Though the suitcases suit both men and women, targeting women has allowed the company to break into a male-dominated market. (The 10 largest luggage brands in the world are all led by men.) Since launching in February 2016, Away has sold over 500,000 suitcases and raised over $80 million in venture capital from prominent VCs, including Global Founders Capital and Comcast Ventures.


Krawcheck started Ellevest after she noticed the lack of financial advice geared towards women’s goals. “Almost all financial analysts are men, and when they do speak to women’s financial goals, it’s always about ‘buying one less latte’ or ‘whether you’re investing like a Miranda or a Samantha [from Sex and the City],’” she told Quartz.

Initially, Krawcheck thought she would build a traditional robo-advisor, an investment platform that decides how to invest based on the results of an algorithm rather than the opinion of an analyst. She assumed the gender-investing gap existed because financial firms were not marketing themselves to women. But after doing hundreds of hours of research, she discovered that there were real differences in how women should be making their financial decisions. 

Ellevest’s algorithms take into account biological differences—women live longer than men—and professional differences—women’s salaries peak earlier than men’s. In an industry dominated by other robo-advisors like Wealthfront and Betterment, Krawcheck realized that an investment platform for women needed to offer a differentiated product—not just a more accessible website. Investors seem to agree. Since the company launched in 2014, it has raised nearly $50 million. 

Looking out, looking in

Being a woman doesn’t just change how founders look at their industry, it also impacts every facet of how they run their companies—from the benefits they offer to how they interview potential new hires.

“As women leaders, there were certain cultural decisions we made early on to make Away a place where we would want to work ourselves,” says Korey. “We developed our parental leave policy to be inclusive of parents who might choose to adopt, we created employee resource groups for underrepresented groups, and we standardized the interview questions we ask our job candidates.”

At Hipcamp, Ravasio wants to create a culture where managers acknowledge that employees have a life outside of work. “Sometimes making decisions from a values perspective might not be the best for short-term business results,” she said. “But ultimately, as a female leader, I think I’m well-positioned to play the long-game and make sure my employees take good care of themselves.”

Hipcamp offers some non-traditional benefits to employees like Ayurvedic cooking classes and meditation workshops, which Ravasio attributes to her maternal instinct to “take care of her people.” In previous jobs, she saw how a culture of sprinting led to burnout. For her, personal health and business results are inextricably related.

Woman first?

Still, the question remains whether or not it’s essential to make the distinction that female founders are, in fact, women. Shouldn’t a generous parental leave policy or a culture that promotes work-life balance be standard regardless of the gender of the CEO?

For Krawcheck, the answer is yes and yes. “I’ve never believed women should be treated differently than men, but I think it’s important for women to have visible role models,” she said. “If highlighting female founders inspires more women to start businesses of their own, I’m all for it.”

Korey agrees but also thinks it’s important not to silo female founders in a category that separates them from entrepreneurs at large. If we continue to treat female founders like a novelty, she believes we’ll reinforce the idea that their success in business is out of the ordinary.  

“I think of myself as both a founder and a female founder,” she said. “But if someone is putting together a list of, say, the best athletes, it’s important to remember that Serena Williams is not just one of the best female athletes. She’s one of the best athletes, period. I think it’s the same in business. I want to make sure people realize being a successful founder who happens to be a woman is not only possible, it’s normal.”