Start-ups are mostly a man’s world

Without thinking, name the first “entrepreneur” that comes to mind?

Honestly, who was it… If it was a woman, then you should honestly run for Parliament, or become a priest, or follow some other higher calling as your indiscriminate, open-mindedness is clearly being wasted on whatever you’re doing right now.

Admittedly, when I think of well-known entrepreneurs, it’s often a man’s name that comes to mind. This, of course, applies when describing a lot of well-known people, but there is something about start-ups that seems to sit better with men than women. It maybe because they suit a man’s ego or possibly because men are generally on a stronger financial footing – neither of which are particularly attractive arguments.

Jo and I obviously took a keen interest in the smoothie, dairy and drinks’ markets with Lashbrook Lassis, and they seemed just as much dominated by the less-fairer of the sexes than any other sector. Innocent was obviously set up by a trio of blokes, Oppo Ice Cream was a couple of guys, Brewdog was a couple more blokes and the list seemed to go on and on.

I remember we toyed with entering the Virgin Voom Business Awards in 2015. Whilst we demurred in the end, we still followed several contestant’s progress throughout the competition. And I was surprised that out of the 9 businesses that reached the final, 8 of them were founded by men. I thought at the time that whoever put this shortlist together did not take a moment and think, “hang on a minute, doesn’t this seem a bit one-sided”.

But what exactly is the problem with having so many men starting businesses. Well, like in any situation, the disproportionate view of a single group will often overlook or ignore that of the minority. Matters that often impact women, such as childcare, form little part in shaping the ethos of new businesses. Furthermore, the lack of parity between sexes can lead to discrimination and sometimes abuse.

The impression that a female founder can have is notable. I remember listening to the founder of Stitch Fix, Katrina Lake, who built a company that sends out a collection of clothes each month to subscribers. When Lake became pregnant, she was adamant in taking her full maternity entitlement of 16 weeks leave despite the temptation of returning early. Setting this example sent out the message to employees that their fortunes within her company would not be influenced by taking such leave.

This culture clearly contrasts with other start-ups. For example, WeWork was set up by a couple of guys that offered office space to small businesses and start-ups. It is currently being sued by a female employee who accuses the company of mishandling a case against two employees that groped her during two different company-wide events. Another example is Uber, which fired 20 employees, including some senior executives, after a sexual harassment investigation found a toxic culture that emanated through its workplace.

It also worth noting that the aforementioned Lake experienced harassment herself by a partner within a prominent venture capitalist firm which she was seeking funding from. Lake was then asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement after she complained about such harassment. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual experience. Jennifer Hyman, CEO of Rent the Runway, which provides dresses for one-off occasions, has spoken about her harassment by someone who was an investor. Whitney Wolfe, successfully sued her former employers at Tinder for sexual harassment after leaving the company and setting up her own dating app, Bumble.

It is concerning that start-ups, which many hold up as representing the latest and greatest in all things, including workplace culture, have been embroiled in numerous high-profile allegations of discrimination. Start-up founders are often visionary and single-minded in building their businesses, and as a result, will overlook the need for a robust human resources department. Yet without one, there is little to negate an adverse culture developing within the workplace when it is dominated by any one single group.

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