Ask EVE: Supporting female founders

This article is part of a series of posts called “Ask EVE ” about concrete ways to support one another. This week, our co founder explores through her own experience, how we can be “sisters” to female founders.

By Sophie Le Ray, Co-founder EVE List

I have been an entrepreneur pretty much all my career and co founded my first venture with an all male team. Networking amongst female business leaders was random and not easily accessible back then.

Since I was in the business of connecting senior people, I witnessed first hand how seldom were the opportunities for women to raise their public profile and grow their professional network in traditional conferences or networking club environments.

We launched WIL Forum in Dubai in 2009 to fill that gap: a “gentlewoman’s club” for senior female leaders and entrepreneurs to grow powerful business networks, increase their public visibility, support and inspire each other.

In the past 25 years, the landscape has changed drastically and we have seen the rise of a fundamental pillar to reaching gender equity: women supporting women through business networks.

The underrated power of female networks

female networks

Research about access to leadership positions shows that despite having similar qualifications to men including education and work experience, women need to have an inner circle of close female contacts to achieve the executive positions with the highest levels of authority and pay.

“Women who were in the top quartile of centrality and had a female-dominated inner circle of 1-3 women landed leadership positions that were 2.5 times higher in authority and pay than those of their female peers lacking this combination.”

Brian Uzzi, Harvard Business review

The author suggests that women’s success also depended on a certain kind of inner circle, one in which the women were closely connected to each other but had minimal contacts in common, one that was as wide as possible, with little overlap, and much randomness to open up opportunities for new connections.

“There is power in relationships that extends beyond a generic introduction. When you create connections based on shared interests and goals, you’ll be more successful at your job, because people want to work with people they know and like”

Shelley Zalis, Founder of The Female Quotient

It is fundamental to create organised networks for professional women to access a wide support system, but also to advocate for policy making and transformational change across industries. Business women networks are formidable agents of change, impacting both individuals and organisations. 

It is a myth that women do not support other women.

My generation grew up with the imagery of the Iron lady who got to the top of the corporate ladder and once there, removed the ladder so no one ever has a chance to take her so hard earned position. 

Although we can all remember encountering such a stereotype, my personal experience with women in senior leadership has been quite the opposite. 

Most successful women I have met in my career were quick to share their network, time and practical support. 

They understood a fundamental principle of growth.

Reaping and sowing

women supporting each other

Those with a worldview constructed around the belief that there are plenty of opportunities, engage with others as partners, not competitors and share easily contacts, resources and encouragement.

Their network grows larger (and stronger) often beyond the boundaries of their industry. As a result, they extend their reach and benefit from the ripple effect of having a strong, broad group of supporters.

Those whose worldviews are based on the belief that opportunities are scarce (i.e The proverbial Dragon Lady), live in fear of being replaced, outshined, irrelevant. They network in a very transactional manner, choosing “strategically” in their industry, and according to their direct benefit.

Although they might see some success initially, lack of long term relationships narrows opportunities for growth

Obviously, these behaviours are present in both genders. However since we have seen earlier that women benefit in greater proportions of a wide network and considering the reality of gender inequality in leadership positions, we have an incentive to be more intentional and long term oriented in the way we support one another

To paraphrase my friend Rana Nawas in her awesome business podcast, “when one woman wins, all women win”.

Actions speak louder than words

women supporters

It is not a matter of resources but of WILL

Being an entrepreneur for over 20 years, I love it when I hear “I want to support you’. I encourage (myself) and the readers to ALWAYS follow through with actions.

We all can make a difference in another woman’s career, regardless of how much influence and connections we possess. 

How can we support female founders?

female event
“Game Changers” book launch

Show that you care.

  • Do your homework – Visit her website, educate yourself on what the person does – it sounds evident but if I had a penny for each “supporter” who had no clue what my company was about, I’d be very rich.
  • Make time to attend an event, a presentation, a launch party. Entrepreneurs replenish their energy tank on their community’s love for what they do. Seeing your face will give them the extra boost when they get tired or discouraged. And God only knows how much energy is needed as an entrepreneur!
  • Once you know about the product/service and you are convinced, share what her company does on your social platforms/write a thoughtful post/an email to raise awareness. Most entrepreneurs (female founders even more since access to funding is gender biased) bootstrap everything, so leveraging your network is very valuable to them. And if you do it for them, they’ll surely remember and do it for you when their company becomes the next unicorn.

Show you believe in the venture – the BIGGIE!

one to one mentoring
  • Facilitate connections to useful resources –  such as media, investors, potential customers. You know someone that knows someone who can be a breakthrough for your friend’s female founders. I remember vividly the first person who opened his (it was a man) Rolodex and introduced me to the right people. It made a big difference mentally and practically.  It gave me confidence my business made sense enough to others for them to introduce me to important business connections of his, and it kick- started a partnership with the government of Monaco at the time, which took our business to the next level.
  • Invest $ – Even a small amount, most ventures started with seed money from friends and family. Nowadays crowdfunding platforms are giving even more chance to founders who don’t have this access. Even a small amount goes a long way both in terms of self belief and in practical terms. 10 dollars will buy an email hosting service, 30 dollars, a web domain. So no amount is not enough. In the hardest time of my entrepreneurship journey, when I felt I had reached rock bottom, a woman I had known through my work and who had become a good friend proactively lended me money, asking nothing but a handshake. This angel not only gave me a breath of fresh air financially but she even more so saved my mental health at the time.
  • Buy the products made by her company – it goes without saying, but if you can, if you have the use of it, buy their product, and give feedback on it.

Give your time

  • Volunteer to help if you can with your expertise – whether you are an accomplished entrepreneur yourself, or you have a specific skill that could contribute to support and grow her business, offer to do so! Since we started EVE List, we have received specific technical support that would be way too costly for our budget. Amazing people taking some of their precious time to help us with SEO, branding, research, data analytics, public grant funding. This is invaluable and makes up for massive leaps of growth!
  • Invite her to a lunch or massage – we hurt our bodies and our minds with long hours, and delay too often a vital break. Another friend of mine (we started our friendship through my business also) at the exact same dark period of my business life, started inviting me on spa and lunch dates. I would have never allowed myself to do it and can’t explain how grateful I am for her care. It was like an oasis in a desert! Another friend gave me a voucher for a massage as well, telling me it was time for me to receive. This refreshed my soul like nothing else.
  • Check in from time to time – Starting and leading a business can be lonely, and soul crushing at times. Most days, it’s not instagramable AT ALL. So it feels really good to receive a note of encouragement, a kind word, or simply a “ how are things for you?” Most entrepreneurs I have met (myself included) have very strong defense walls built around them. We live in “I am in control” mode and it’s really hard to ask for help. 
  • Offer to mentor if you are yourself a seasoned entrepreneur – Although we learn from our own mistakes, having a more experienced person to speak to and ask advice is a very important factor of growth and can prevent many pitfalls. It is also a great source of encouragement to share with someone who knows and has been there. 

Say no when you can’t

saying no
  • There is nothing worse than people offering to support you and not doing it. I think this one is self explanatory enough.
  • We are not fragile – we get it if you can’t help. What is really useful to us is to set expectations. Personally I love people who are direct with me so I don’t waste any time expecting something that won’t come. 

With EVE List for example, we very much need support.

We are not going to close the gender gap on our own. To reach our objective, we seek support from people who are doing what they say, and even if it is a small thing, it is great. It brings us one more closer.

We are all EVE

women supporting women

At EVE List, we look at being pragmatic with every new feature we start. We are a small team with a big mission. So focus is key.

Our main goal is to measure the state of gender equity in the workplace though the EVE Score, and this will keep us busy for a while. 

In the meantime, we are set on growing a community of “stars” who share the same desires and values and are willing to grow one another with their insights, experience and resources.

Join us in closing the gender divide.