As businesses the world over struggle to bounce back from the COVID-19 crisis, female-founded tech startups find themselves with a double burden: rebounding from the economic shocks of a pandemic while also battling the the historic gender inequities that have existed in the sector since time immemorial. According to NASDAQ, only 2.8% of funding capital was awarded to woman-led teams in 2019, while this category makes up 42% of all companies in the US. In other words, there is still a long way to go to reach the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal Number 5 on gender equality. And, as as we enter the final decade to achieve Agenda 2030, there is a growing need to accelerate.
Enter Female Founders in Tech 2020, a new partnership between Female Founders of The Future and Denmark In New York’s Trade Council team, Digital Hub Denmark, and Health Tech Hub Copenhagen, featuring a hybrid five-month program designed to educate, elevate and rebalance the gender scales in a post-COVID-19 tech industry.
Denmark In New York caught up with Victoria Bager, Commercial Advisor in Tech at the Consulate General of Denmark in New York to discuss the thoughts behind the program, how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the landscape for businesses in tech, and what the thriving New York City entrepreneurial ecosystem for women-owned businesses can teach Danish female entrepreneurs.
Denmark in New York: What are the thoughts behind the Female Founders in Tech 2020 five-month program and why is there a need for such an initiative?
Victoria Bager: With the pandemic and global crisis affecting export across sectors worldwide, it’s crucial to prioritize and support early-stage tech companies. The world is turning towards more digitally intelligent solutions powered by emerging technologies.
In Denmark, we have a large pool of talented entrepreneurs but they are critically skewed to male, successful fundraising by female founders is limited, and only a few female role models exist within that space to inspire more women to join the eco-system. Especially in the tech sector, the obstacles faced by women are magnified. We’ve gathered empirical findings via questionnaires and interviews with Danish female entrepreneurs in tech in relation to FFIT 2020 that supports those broad statements. This is why there is a need for a long-term startup program supporting a minority within the Danish startup eco-system providing access to capital, mentorship and partnership opportunities to startups.
FFIT 2020 is a customized startup program for Danish female founders and their co-founders of any gender to participate in a six to eight month-long program focused on helping their start-ups survive times of crisis and thrive in the aftermath. Our unique partnership between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, the non-profit association Female Founders of The Future, and other similar organizations opens up worldwide access to funding, start-up eco-systems, advisors, and industry experts across borders. The support to launch this program has been huge. The program also includes virtual workshops to develop commercial, entrepreneurial & personal skills, mentorship and social online events.
What tools can the participating entrepreneurs expect to gain from the FFIT program?
Victoria Bager: Foremost, the FFIT 2020 cohort will learn from each other. When we launched this program back in February 2020, we had around 100 female entrepreneurs show up. At one point, a woman came to me saying: “I can’t believe we have so many women entrepreneurs working within tech. Where do they hide?”
We’ve experienced that building a virtual safe space where ambitious women in tech can share their honest struggles, test ideas, receive honest feedback, and ask for advice from each other, is one of the most valuable takeaways from joining the program. We call it the “Founders Circle” — a concept developed by our program partner, Liva Echwald Tjisen.
There is a need for a long-term startup program supporting a minority within the Danish startup eco-system providing access to capital, mentorship and partnership opportunities to startups.
When we talk about specific tools, we respect the individual needs of each founder. Fourteen startups with different industry focuses ranging from pre-seed to Series A have been handpicked for the program. We believe everyone brings something to the table and innovative thinking stems from diversity. That is why we created an Online Task Force to enable one-on-one advisory throughout the program period to address their individual challenges. This means our Founders can expect to receive help on parameters including developing or improving go-to-market strategy and scalability in their business model; testing and receiving feedback on investor pitches in front of a VC panel to identify any remaining issues or areas for improvement; optimizing structure, defining focus, and daily workflow within the company; sharing best practices for sales and funding in an international setting; building custom market research; learning how to build a strong board, recruiting talent and strengthening their teams in times of crisis; high-impact coaching; and accessing a global network of VCs and investors, startup eco-systems, industry experts and advisors.
One aspect of the FFIT 2020 program is that we are able to extend our one-on-one advisory after the program officially ends with its Masterclass in New York. Our ambition is to continue our relationship and become a more integrated part of each startup’s business. We want to act as a dedicated alumni support team in Copenhagen and New York. The idea is to become a “glocal” (i.e. global but local) resource to those who show exceptional growth potential and to make aspiring female entrepreneurs reach their full potential by working closely together, opening up our networks and using our knowledge to scale businesses beyond the Danish borders.
What prompted the focus in female founders and why is it such an important area for the Trade Council to work in?
Victoria Bager: As part of the Consulate General of Denmark in New York we strongly believe in supporting the SDG agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations. One key area that we have decided to focus on is Diversity and Gender Equality . This is also one of the drivers behind the program and the motivation to push for change in the Danish start-up ecosystem.
As New York is one of the leading global cities for female entrepreneurship, we also feel that we’re in a unique position to help Danish female founders get a head start. Beyond that, we want to help Danish female founders expand to the US, share the knowledge and expertise within the tech startup eco-system in New York, provide access to a broad network of successful female founders, VCs and large pools of funds dedicated to female entrepreneurs by the City of New York.
Since we are based in New York it was quickly obvious to us that FFIT 2020 was an initiative that we simply had to launch!
What are some of the obstacles within female founders in tech in the light of the current COVID-19 crisis?
Victoria Bager: In general, they are the same practical challenges that male founders in tech experience. This includes extending run rate by raising capital, customer acquisition and maintaining a healthy work-life balance, recruiting new employees as the business grows at an unexpected speed due to COVID-19 or handling their teams when employees get isolated, pivoting business models to the new reality, and new ways of working as top priorities.
As New York is one of the leading global cities for female entrepreneurship, we also feel that we’re in a unique position to help Danish female founders get a head start.
Fundraising in particular was highlighted as a major challenge and the global pandemic could likely widen this gap as well. Despite the odds, women-owned businesses have been making progress: funding for female-led startups increased by 10.6% to a record 3.3 billion from 2018 to 2019. But this modest progress could easily be lost by the global pandemic, a consequent recession, and systemic biases.
What do we need to ensure in the future to better the landscape for female founders in an otherwise booming tech industry?
Victoria Bager: If governments, investors and startup leaders around the world take simple steps to show that they care about the diversity of entrepreneurship, the results could be extraordinary. With FFIT 2020 we want to demonstrate that small actions on a micro-level work and accumulate to achieve greater change.
But to change the status quo will require support from male allies. So far, we have experienced only affirmative interest in the program from male investors, corporate leaders, and startups like Seed Capital Denmark and the Founder of Kahoot! among others. To ensure a better landscape for female founders, we need to secure collective effort and partnership between public institutions, private sector and public organizations to get more female entrepreneurs within tech. Our goal is that FFIT 2020 in six months from now will stand as an example that this is 100% achievable.
Emilie Haaber Lynggaard is the Strategic Communications and Press Intern at Denmark In New York.