Startups are the best place for women to Lean In
Since the release of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, there’s been a slew of commentary on the issue of women in the workplace and why women and men need to all lean in together for the betterment of our economies, our families and our society as a whole.
I liked the book. Sandberg shares her experiences, good and bad, and errs on the side of being vulnerable, which I believe is one of the bravest things anyone, especially a leader of her stature, can do. Not only does she share her personal perspective, but she also fills at least a fifth of the book with research and references. This isn’t just one woman’s story. This woman clearly did her homework.
I’ve been surprised that no one has picked up on how Lean In dovetails so perfectly for women and opportunities in the startup ecosystem. Considered through that filter, Lean In could be a guidebook for anyone wanting to start a business.
Let’s break down the chapters and show exactly why the startup ecosystem is primed for women to truly lean in.
What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
Building a company is a scary prospect. Terrifying, in fact. But your ideas and your creations won’t come to fruition unless you lead them there. Your ideas need you to lead. The technology sector needs you to lead. The Ontario and Canadian economies need you lead. And other women need to see you lead as well.
Sit at the table
In your own startup, you own the table (or you’re renting it, at least). It’s yours and you decide on the hire, the culture and the team you’ll surround yourself with. Bro-gamming, sexism, nepotism: these things won’t flourish if you don’t allow them to. Imagine the impact you can have when you lead by example.
Success and likability
The character traits that put women at odds of being liked—such as being “aggressive,” “successful” and “relentless”—are precisely those traits that startup leaders need in order to ensure that their businesses make it and they are precisely those traits that investors actually invest in. Be unapologetic. Surround yourself with people who applaud determination and a bias for action. Leave the trolls behind.
It’s a jungle gym, not a ladder
The life and career path of an entrepreneur is certainly more of a jungle gym than a ladder, so why not jump in? There’s no linear path to follow to build and grow your business. Being flexible and adaptive will serve you well as you network and hustle. Besides, starting your own company means that you get to own that C-title.
Are you my mentor?
One of the benefits of being a bona fide startup is that you’re provided with a plethora of opportunities to find real, solid mentors. They may come from being a part of an incubator or accelerator program or they may come from the growing startup communities all over the world, but they’re there. You’ll find other successful women and men who will be interested in you, your business and seeing your business succeed. You won’t have to seek out mentors. If you do things right they’ll gravitate toward you.
Seek and speak your truth
Entrepreneurs need to have thick skin. You’re going to hear feedback, solicited or not, from just about anyone who you tell your startup story to. Be brave enough to be vulnerable. Be resilient enough to not lose your vision. Don’t falter on being authentic and passionate. And own that truth. Call yourself an entrepreneur. That’s what you are.
Don’t leave before you leave
Your business needs you. It needs your vision, your passion and your leadership. There will always be things happening in your life that will rightfully distract you from your business, including relationships, children and milestones. Build a support system around you so that you can be where you need to be, when you need to be. Plan ahead. But most of all, ask for help. If you don’t ask for any, you won’t get any.
Make your partner a real partner
Be smart about who you partner with in both your personal life and your business life. In both areas, choose someone who values you and your ambition, and who will support you. Choosing that equal opportunity partner in both places will ensure that everyone is in it to win it.
The myth of doing it all
Smart entrepreneurs already know this about running their businesses: you can’t be all things to everyone and you can’t do every task that your business needs. Hire smartly and outsource where you need to. Then remember those smart decisions you made for your business and make them for your personal life as well—and toss that guilt out the window.
Let’s start talking about it
This one’s pretty simple. If you see something that you don’t like, say so. If you want to change something, talk to people, share your vision and then ask for their help in changing things. Engage. Be brave. If you say something out loud, you’re likely speaking for another group of people who didn’t feel so brave. That’s risk-taking. That’s leadership.
Working together toward equality
Businesses succeed when there is a diversity of vision, talent and experience at the helm. All-women or all-men domains are never as successful as domains that blend demographics and skill sets. Connect with and welcome people of all backgrounds into your fold and the impact will ripple for generations. We won’t see any change unless we engage everyone in the dialogue.
Make sure you check out the Startup Bookclub on May 7 as we discuss Lean In with other ambitious, goal-seeking entrepreneurs like you. You can also join the MaRS Lean In Circle to stay informed about opportunities to meet and connect with other women who are also interested in leaning in.
Karen Schulman Dupuis
Karen Schulman Dupuis was the manager of business development in the ICT sector at MaRS. She has worked with startups and entrepreneurs for 15 years in information and communications technology, and brings together years of practical experience in the fields of sales, education, operations, business analysis, project management and marketing communications to tell compelling stories and generate results. See more…