Gold Medal Gymnast Takes On Gender Equality In Silicon Valley: Fighting Bias Through Investment
Forbes, Amy Blankson
January 25, 2018
Elite athletes are known for their work ethic, their endurance, their passion, and their unparalleled drive to achieve. So, it’s not that surprising that an All-Star gymnast would be drawn to the cut-throat, sink-or-swim world of tech entrepreneurship. But what would happen if that elite athlete was a female in a male dominated sport—what challenges would she face? How would she do things differently? And what can we learn from her about how she sees the world?
Meet Lisa Wang, a Hall of Fame and four time United States National Gymnastics Champion, Yale Graduate, Forbes 30 Under 30, Host of Enoughness Podcast, and CEO of SheWorx, a global platform that empowers female entrepreneurs. Lisa is no stranger to achievement — but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t had to work for it every step of the way.
In fact, Lisa’s entire life would have been completely different if it weren’t for a pivotal moment in the third grade. Tired of choosing her courses last simply because her last name was at the end of the alphabet, Lisa (at nine-years-old), rallied her fellow classmates and persuaded her teacher to let the second half of the class choose first. She chose rhythmic gymnastics for her course of choice. Her determination and desire for equality started her on her path to athletic glory and would continue to drive her education and career as well.
After retiring from a successful career in gymnastics, Lisa went on to attend Yale University. Upon graduation, she was immediately recruited to be an analyst by a top New York hedge fund. Despite her coveted role, Lisa realized she was happiest when she had independence and creative ownership. Lisa began her path to becoming an entrepreneur and soon realized that path was not for the faint of heart.
While many may assume the dedication of an Olympic athlete is unparalleled in the business world, Lisa recognizes parallels in the grueling work that goes into every startup. She faced a seemingly never-ending uphill battle that began the moment she set out to raise funds for her first tech startup. It became apparent very quickly that the investor landscape was predominantly male (94% to be exact). Given that only 17% of female-funded companies receive venture funding (and only 3% to those with a female CEO), Lisa knew that the odds were stacked against her and she would face serious challenges ahead.
Lisa recalls walking into one of her first meetings with an investor who walked over to her 35-year-old white, male COO and completely ignored her (the CEO) based on the assumption that she was simply an assistant. These are the moments she warns, that you simply cannot prepare for, when your value is completely diminished without even saying a word. Sadly, Lisa’s struggles as a woman in the tech landscape don’t stop there. She shared that on numerous occasions she’s been invited to have drinks with an investor, only to have him make inappropriate romantic advances. While Lisa’s stories are not unique to the startup world, there certainly is an imbalance of power between investors and struggling entrepreneurs that further perpetuates gender inequality.
Today, we continue to live in a world where the default leadership model favors the white male CEO. Even with some of the best leaders exhibiting ‘feminine qualities’ such as empathy, authenticity, and community, they are almost always overshadowed by more ‘masculine’ overconfidence and competitiveness. But, Lisa believes that this leadership mold will eventually crack. Instead, she advocates for a new leadership model based on empathy and actively seeks female leaders and technologists who will help redefine the way we work to create a culture that fosters engagement, collaboration, and sustainable growth.
Drawing on her own first-hand struggles to find capital, networks, mentors, and quality knowledge on her path to becoming an entrepreneur, Lisa founded SheWorx, a global platform that supports 20,000 female entrepreneurs, connecting women with top investors around the world, and sharing their stories. The goal of SheWorx is to democratize access and provide the right kind of funding for female entrepreneurs. This means exploring alternatives beyond male-led venture capital firms, such as crowdfunding, traditional loans, family networks, and most recently, opportunities within cryptocurrency. Lisa knows that there is not a lack of capital for these aspiring female entrepreneurs, but simply a lack of awareness and exposure to these opportunities.
SheWorx aims to empower female entrepreneurs by:
- Offering Summits in cities across the globe to help female founders who already have launched products/service (or who are actively fundraising or will be in 6-12 months) to build scalable companies.”
- Working with Crunchbase to create the first list of female founders fundraising so investors can no longer use the excuse ‘we can’t find women to invest in’.
- Engaging men in conversations about how to solve this problem collectively. Lisa explains, “We actively try to bring in 50% male mentors and are never exclusive of any gender. After all, if 94% of investors are men, it only makes sense for us to engage male champions who want to work with us to create a new world order.” There are some tremendous example of leaders taking a stand for women’s rights, particularly around issues of harassment for women in tech (see how LinkedIn Founder Reid Hoffman called other VCs to sign a Decency Pledge).
- Encouraging female founders to embrace a mindset of “enoughness.” Lisa explains, “Girls are trained from an early age to be perfect, and we are rewarded for following structure, not taking risk, and playing by the rules (the opposite of what it means to be an entrepreneur). We aren’t told to build, and break things, and fail and get better. So it [getting women excited about entrepreneurship] starts with training girls from an early age that it’s not necessary to be cautious and perfect, and that failure is a learning process.”
SheWorx is only two years old, but these strategies have an impressive track record to date (25% of women who have attended past gatherings have receive follow-on investor meetings and, in many cases, subsequent investment too). However, Lisa believes these changes are just the tip of the iceberg and it will take a global movement to change the funding culture of startups worldwide.
Image: Lisa Wang, Founder of SheWorx, Photo credit: Michelle McCormack