By Falon Fatemi for Forbes
Founding a company is no easy task, no matter who you are. But founding-while-female brings obstacles that your male peers don’t have to deal with.
According to PitchBook, in 2016, venture capitalists invested $58.2 billion in companies that had male founders. Female-founded companies received only $1.46 billion. When it comes to loan approval, female entrepreneurs experience rates that are 15 to 20 percent lower than men.
Daunting, isn’t it? Like virtually everything else in life, entrepreneurship is more difficult as a woman than it is as a man. Now imagine taking on those odds all by yourself.
When I founded Node without a partner, I was sure that my ambition would impress investors. I even felt confident that I could take the emotional beating. I’d been the youngest employee at Google during my time there, so how hard could solo founding be?
Very hard, I quickly learned. At the time, I didn’t understand why seasoned investors told me to find a co-founder. Without a co-founder, every rejection felt personal. Every offhand comment about my gender seemed not just negligent, but malicious.
What I did wasn’t easy, and it’s not right for everyone. But I’m here, and I’m proud of the company I’ve built. Ultimately, I succeeded because I overcame four challenges that solo female founders face:
Just like life, business can be awfully lonely without a partner. There’s nobody to split the work with. Nobody to help you put rejections in perspective. Nobody to remind you why you love the work you’re doing.
Loneliness isn’t just a personal problem, either. A Harvard Business Review article cited a survey in which half the CEOs questioned experienced feelings of loneliness. Of that half, 61 percent felt it hurt their performance. And when it comes to first-time CEOs, almost 70 percent of those who experience loneliness believe it hinders performance.
Don’t assume you can handle it alone. Rejection is painful, period. Find an emotional confidante — or several — to lean on. To get through my own funding phase, I shared my struggles with my husband and my closest mentors. Take it from me: There’s no shame in asking for help.
2. Single-founder stigma
Despite contrarian examples like Mark Zuckerberg, Silicon Valley seems to think single founders are less successful. Former Y Combinator president Paul Graham even spent part of his stepping-down speech recommending that every entrepreneur get a co-founder.
Yes, there are plenty of successful duos out there. Without Steve Jobs’ salesmanship and Steve Wozniak’s tech skills, Apple might never have been. But that doesn’t mean single founders can’t be successful. You just have to be self-aware. You have to know your strengths and weaknesses, and you have to objectively evaluate whether they suit the stage of your company.
Still, being a solo founder isn’t the same as founding in a vacuum. Find advisors who can shore up your strengths. I lean on Mark Cuban here. As an advisor, he’s taught me about everything from data-driven selling to discipline to philanthropy. He was one of my earliest supporters, and he’s still on my team today.
When you’re a lone founder, people always think you’re looking for a co-founder. Often, they think they should be your co-founder. It’s flattering, sure, but most of them have no idea what being a co-founder actually means. Less flatteringly, others assume that you, as a woman, need a man by your side to succeed.
This challenge is all about communication and dedication. Be clear about the roles you’re recruiting for, but also be willing to do some self-educating to show that you’ve got what it takes as a single founder. Mike Hagen, founder and CEO of Undrip, felt he could have impressed people he wanted on his team with designs, which he was already good at. But he learned code so he could create a fully functional product on his own. To recruit successfully, single founders must be scrappy and self-motivated.
4. Inappropriate interactions
As a nontechnical female solo founder, I’m an anomaly. I recognize that. But that doesn’t mean I want to be stared at or prodded with questions like a zoo animal. While fundraising, I found myself fending off inappropriate situations more than I’d like to recount.
Fundraising shouldn’t involve sexist stereotypes or inappropriate questions. But if you’re a single female founder, I can almost guarantee it will. Stand up for yourself and your ideas with as much grace as you can muster. When I met with Nadia Rashid, a VP of sales for Marketo, she spoke about her previous experiences as a woman of color in “boys’ club” companies. She worked hard to fit in, but it made her feel powerless and incapable.
If you let your voice be silenced, your ideas will never materialize. And the people who don’t appreciate hearing from your unique, authentic self are not people you want to work with in any capacity.
Whatever difficulties you face, don’t let them discourage you. Today, I can proudly say I’ve secured $16.3 million in financing for my company. I hustled, and I got the money I needed to make Node happen.
If you’re ready to boldly be a single female founder, don’t let anybody hold you back. Just realize that you’re going to deal with some ugly, unfair situations. But you’re going to overcome them, just as I did. You’re going to show them just how strong a woman on her own can be.