How to Become an Effective Female Founder

by Ao Zhang

As female entrepreneurs, the job is often more challenging. For instance, raising capital, only 2% of all American venture capital went to female founders in 2018. Despite the consistent unconscious bias, startups founded by women have outpaced their male counterparts in terms of financial performance.

Five fantastic female founders came together in Women Entrepreneurs Series of UC Berkeley’s chapter of the national Society for Women Engineers organization (SWE) to share their advice on how to become an effective leader. With appreciation to SWE organizer Asena Yildiz, WITI@UC proudly co-sponsored this event. Below are some of the key takeaways.

Caroline Winnett, Executive Director at SkyDeck

Caroline Winnett, the executive director of UC Berkeley’s SkyDeck accelerator, leads a program that hosts over 100 companies per year. She recently launched the $25-million dollar Berkeley SkyDeck Fund, which aims to return $1 billion to campus via a profit-sharing model. Prior to SkyDeck, Caroline was a serial entrepreneur and co-founded a pioneer neuromarketing company, NeuroFocus, which was acquired by Nielsen in 2011.

Tips from Caroline Winnett

1. Curiosity and thirst for knowledge are important to startup founders. She advised female founders to constantly be learning and to get more comfortable with uncertainty.

2. As a founder, you have to put all your chips on the table. When Caroline started her first company with her husband, they had a small child at home and used their family savings to run the company. Caroline even had to ask her parents for help with the mortgage. Luckily, the company worked out ultimately.

3. Founders should have the ability to recruit and work with a team. Founders should have the mindset that they want to attract the people who are smarter than they are. No one would be successful on her own, even Elon Musk who is talented at the world level strives to have smart people surrounding him.

4. Ask for help. When you have no idea what to do, you should never hesitate to ask others for help. There will be remarkable people willing to give you a hand. “Would you help me?” The worst answer you could get is a no.

Dr. Maria Artunduaga, CEO of Respira Labs

Maria Artunduaga is the Founder and CEO of Respira Labs, a startup focused on enhancing the quality of life for people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) through connected health and machine learning. She is a Harvard-trained physician-scientist, a former University of Chicago Plastic Surgery trainee, and recently completed two Masters degrees from University of Washington (MPH) and UC Berkeley/UCSF (MTM).

Tips from Maria Artunduaga

1. Confront challenges and enjoy your journey. “I thrive on challenges,” Maria says. “Throughout my life, many people have told me that I couldn’t excel and look where I am now! When someone says you can’t — go for it and prove them wrong!” Women tend to differ from men in that they are less likely to apply for a job unless they feel they possess 100% of the requirements. “Don’t overthink what could go wrong,” Maria says. “Just do it, because other people have done it. Worst case scenario, things don’t work out, but you’ve learned a lot in the process. Also don’t forget to have fun!”

2. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is an effective way to learn. When Maria found that she needed to learn about financial issues, she registered for competitions and partnered with two Haas MBA students who taught her financial projections. They ended up in the semifinals of the CISCO Global Problem-Solver Challenge, were invited to the Rice Business Plan Competition, placed in the top 6 teams in the Global Social Venture Competition, and won first prize in the “Hardware for Good” category in Big Ideas at UC Berkeley. “Getting judges’ feedback on your technology and business model is a great way to learn,” Maria says. “I see criticism as an opportunity to improve. Critiques also teach you to develop mental toughness and resilience.”

3. Leadership means recognizing your strengths and weaknesses. Maria’s medical training taught her that she had to be the savviest person in the room, but starting a company is a completely different story. She has had to learn to rely entirely on her team to deliver when they were under the gun. She also made an effort to learn about her teammates’ interests and expectations and uses their goals to motivate them to take the lead on projects for her startup Respira Labs.

4. Overcome fears. Maria comes from Colombia where women typically don’t argue with men who are their seniors. It took her more than 15 years to “Americanize.” She also realized that having a strong Spanish accent would increase her challenges because people are not used to having an educated Latina in the room. She signed up for accent-reduction classes and practices in front of a mirror and records herself every time she has to make a pitch. “Communication is key for a CEO,” she says. “I know that I tend to talk a lot! I’ve had to make a conscious effort to keep my statements clear and concise. I’ve also worked on my public speaking to get over my ‘tongue twisting.’”

Paola Santana, Founder of Matternet and Social Glass

Paola Santana, Founder of Matternet and Social Glass

Paola Santana is the founder and CEO of Social Glass, a software ecosystem using Artificial Intelligence to power high-performing governments. Prior to that, she was co-founder of Matternet, one of the first drone delivery companies, and a Dominican lawyer and public policy expert.

Tips from Paola Santana

1. Never wait for the perfect time. Women tend to worry about the right time―the right time to send an email, the right time to start a business, the right time to have babies, etc. “There is never a perfect time,” Paola said, “My effectiveness is thinking about it and getting it done right now.”

2. Clarity leads to effectiveness. Paola insists on a two-level thinking. One is moonshot level — big idea which is the big vision for the company. The other level is Minimum Viable Product (MVP) — the thing you can do today. “I talk about something big like making the world a better place,” Paola said, “and I can manage it step by step.”

3. Negotiate at every level to get a YES. Paola said that she never leaves a conversation without a YES. She has a talking manual in her mind. Here is a sample conversation between Paola and an investor.

Investor: I am not going to invest in you.
Paola: Perfect! Give me feedback.
Investor: I don’t have time.
Paola: Ok. Introduce me to other VCs.
Investor: I do not know any VC which would invest in you.
Paola: Ok. Introduce me to someone in the government.
Investor: I don’t know anyone in the government.
Paola: Ok. Introduce me to a supplier.
Investor: Well, I don’t know them.
Paola: Ok. Introduce me to someone in Silicon Valley. You work here, you are based here.
Investor: Sorry.
Paola: May I reach out to you again in six months?
Investor: Yes.

Rachel Sklar, Founder and Executive Director of Pit Vidura

Rachel Sklar is the founder and CEO of Pit Vidura, developing the systems and technology that enable safe and affordable sanitation services in dense urban slums. She earned her Ph.D. in Public Health at UC Berkeley.

Tips from Rachel Sklar

1. Stay vulnerable, be open to address your weaknesses and ask for help. A lot of time people think that founders have the answers, but the truth is that founders have doubts too. It is fine to be the real you.

2. Stay true to yourself and your mission. Once your business turns profitable, investors start to knock on your door with fund offers. Rachel has turned down several offers from high-profile investors as she believes first and foremost in creating meaningful social change, and therefore scaling her company in a way that does not compromise the social mission for quicker wins in terms of revenues or profits. “I have to remember what I am doing is serving and empowering the urban poor, the forgotten ones living in informal areas and unsanctioned settlements,” Rachel said. “I have to consider the concessions and tradeoffs.” She would rather slow growth and ensure quality service for households. “Staying true is important, because you will feel good about yourself and your company at the end of the day.”

3. It is OK to say no. Founders have to know their limitations. Enough is enough. You need to care of yourself.

Sonya L Sigler, Founder of Practigal and Cataphora

Sonya L Sigler is an entrepreneur, specializing in operations, business development, and legal functions. She is a writer, speaker and has recently launched her leadership success coaching company. Prior to that she spent 25 years as an in-house intellectual property attorney. Her book WELCOME to the Next Level: 3 Secrets to Become Unstuck, Take Action, and Rise Higher in Your Career launches in May 2019.

Tips from Sonya Sigler

1. Be a role model for others, including your own children. Children can make female founders stronger and more focused. When Sonya started her company, she had three kids at ages of 1, 3 and 4 years, which forced her to be more focused and efficient. Sonya’s mother started her own consulting business when Sonya was 12 and Sonya worked for her in high school. “My mom was a perfect role model for me. When you can, include your children into your startup however you can, even if it’s sticking mailing labels on book packages. They see you in action and they can learn from you to become the next generation of leaders,” Sonya said.

2. Build a support system. If you are having trouble attracting investors, how do you keep the company alive? Sonya advised founders to have a Plan B, Plan C, Plan D or E. Don’t panic when you see other startups secure millions of dollars of investment, because everyone has a different journey. Incorporate your interests and maintaining your health into how you run your company. If you are unhappy or unhealthy, nothing will get done. Sonya has promoted the practice of the “walking meeting” to fit exercise in her busy schedule.

3. Lose the perfectionism. You must do the thing that you think you cannot do. Prioritize getting things done rather than getting them perfect. You can learn and iterate as you go. Sonya said perfectionism is the single most common obstacle that limits success for women founders.  

4. Cultivate and use your network. Men never think twice about using their networks, and they use it in various ways. They tend not to take things personally. “Women should start by asking for help from their network,” Sonya said, “and remember networking is not a one-way street. Be genuinely interested in others and provide value back to your network.” When Sonya started her legal career at Sega, she would put 5 business cards on her desk each Monday and make a point of reaching out to those people during that week. Over time, she has built a robust network. “Your connections can make a difference. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help!”

About the Author

Ao Zhang is a graduate student of the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. Previously, she worked as a business and tech reporter in China, leading two radio programs to national success. With a great passion for addressing the underrepresentation of women in the tech industry, she is working on developing inclusive leadership modules and case studies for workplaces at WITI@UC.

About WITI@UC:

The Women in Tech Initiative at the University of California (WITI@UC) strives to promote the equitable participation, persistence, and success of women in technical fields. We leverage UC’s renowned research capabilities across four campuses to develop metrics and data insights to inform effective best practices that improve inclusion. We foster the success of women’s participation in tech through new pathways, leadership skills, and a powerfully supportive network.

If you are leading a student group and would like to explore co-sponsorship from WITI@UC for an event serving women in tech, please email witiatuc@berkeley.edu.