Rebalancing the Gender Scales in Tech: An Interview with Female Founders of The Future’s Liva Echwald-Tijsen
The achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal Number 5 on gender equality remains a pressing objective as the global community barrels towards 2030. And female entrepreneurship has long been identified as a critical boost to balancing the gender equality scales. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) 2016–17 Women’s Report, in fact, suggests that things are improving for female business owners around the world with 163 million women worldwide starting businesses in the last year alone.
However, while progress has been slow but forward-moving in numerous sectors, female entrepreneurship in the tech world continues to remain sluggish. And any gains made in recent years risk being entirely wiped out by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
According to a recent PitchBook/All Raise report, although female-founded tech startups now make up nearly 20% of all VC-backed tech companies, they still attract a lower percentage of all tech investment.
“What I see as a limitation for female founders is that we unintentionally have been designing our ecosystem for inequality,” says Liva Echwald-Tijsen, founder of Female Founders of the Future, a Danish non-profit association with the goal of promoting the number of entrepreneurs among women.
“If we want to solve the world’s problems by entrepreneurship, we must ensure that both men and women participate in setting a spotlight on a diverse pool of problems and take the perspective of all users on all markets.”
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 5-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 Liva Echwald-Tijsen to discuss the gender gap in tech, the limitations of women entrepreneurs in the current landscape of Danish start-up culture and how Danish female founders can benefit from the thriving New York City entrepreneurial ecosystem for women owned businesses.
Denmark in New York: Can you tell us a little bit about Female Founders of The Future as an association. What are you aiming to achieve for women entrepreneurs in Denmark?
Liva Echwald-Tijsen: Female Founders of the Future (FFOF) is a Danish non-profit association with the goal of closing the gender gap in entrepreneurship in Denmark and building a diverse business community for the future. FFOF works to make Denmark an even better place for anyone to start and scale their own business .
We want to ensure equal access to funding, networks, knowledge, role models and maternity leave for all entrepreneurs in Denmark. We have a focus on female founders as there is a huge untapped potential in having more women start and scale their own businesses. According to Boston Consulting Group, if women and men participated equally as entrepreneurs, global GDP could rise by approximately 3% to 6%, boosting the global economy by $2.5 trillion to $5 trillion USD.
We are on a mission to create structures where we intentionally design for equal access for all to get access to talent, innovation, new markets and sustainable growth. And we believe the entrepreneurial ecosystem must join forces to build the diverse thriving business community of the future. Why?Because diversity and innovation go hand in hand. Because business success and growth comes through working together in a diverse and inclusive team. And because diversity in the team is a must-have to make Danish start-ups ready for the global market.
I started FFOF back in August 2019, after I had been appointed the Ambassador for Women’s Entrepreneurship Day (WED) in Denmark. WED is an organization led by social entrepreneur Wendy Diamond in the US since 2013. With the Ambassadorship, Wendy Diamond gave me the mandate to start conversations on entrepreneurship and gender. Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Denmark 2019 became a conversation starter with ecosystem stakeholders on what role and responsibility each one of us holds for all of us to get access to the untapped potential.
Planning the event included mapping the stakeholders of the entrepreneurial ecosystem and conducting interviews with all types of stakeholders related to our educational system, incubators and accelerators, private investors to LPs, networks, NGOs, advisors, media, government, events and, of course, a broad swathe of entrepreneurs spanning the self employed to the IPOs. And the event resulted in ten recommendations on what ecosystem stakeholders could do to intentionally design for equality, diversity, and inclusion in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Diversity and innovation go hand in hand. Because business success and growth comes through working together in a diverse and inclusive team. And because diversity in the team is a must-have to make Danish startups ready for the global market.
With these ten recommendations we have been in conversations with representatives of all stakeholders and we have detected a great will to create a diverse business community. Even though some are more ready for action than others. This work has not become less relevant amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic difficulties.
In Denmark, only 25% of entrepreneurs are female. What limitations do you currently identify for female founders in Denmark and how do these show?
Liva Echwald-Tijsen: I have coached and facilitated workshops for more than 500 founders and their teams. Therefore, to start with, I would like to state that starting and scaling a business is challenging for all the entrepreneurs I have ever encountered. This is equal for both men and women alike. Especially if it is the first time starting a business. You might not have all the skills needed yet, therefore the learning curve is steep.
On top of that the amount of choices to be made are high and this creates a knowledge gap that you must learn to bridge fast. And even though it is often thought that entrepreneurship is all about solving problems, it is just as often about how you as an entrepreneurial leader navigate dilemmas and make wise choices. To bridge the knowledge gap it is essential to have access to networks, role models and both Googleable and unGoogleable knowledge. At the same time, access to funding and talent can become a game changer in scaling your business. This is equal for all.
Then you ask me what limitations I currently identify related to gender.
Well, I wish I had a complete well-documented overview of limitations related to gender and entrepreneurship in Denmark. The truth is that we know quite a bit about what is going on in other countries and only a little when it comes to our male and female entrepreneurs in Denmark. The good news is that change is comes when you get the facts straight.
What has been well documented is the lack of access to funding, networks, knowledge, role models and maternity leave for female founders in the EU and specifically access to funding was already well-documented by Unconventional Ventures in 2019.
What I see as a limitation for female founders is that we unintentionally have been designing our ecosystem for inequality with a lack of transparency in our ecosystem and repeat stereotyping of what a true startup founder should look like, act like and focus on. Based on historical data, where male-dominated teams have provided the foundation for our dataset on successful startups, we all forgot to do what true entrepreneurs do. That is, challenge our assumptions on why there are not more female founders; ask what information has been left out of the dataset, on which we make our choices to invest, time, money, network, energy, knowledge in a founder; ask why it looks like this; make active choices; and take action by starting with a MVP and build, measure, learn.
How are you expecting the Female Founders in Tech masterclass will support Danish female entrepreneurs?
Liva Echwald-Tijsen: This combination of the Online Task Force combined with the four-day Masterclass in NYC is intentionally designed to give access to funding, knowledge, networks, new markets and ultimately new business.
I expect that the founders making an active choice to apply and invest in this program can expect to develop the entrepreneurial leadership skills needed to take their business to the global stage. In this program, we curate a line of speakers and facilitators that give access to the unGoogleable insights into entrepreneurship and local NYC market entry.
We will not teach you what you could have learned on a YouTube video or read on a blog post. You will not only be sitting still, listening to keynotes. The founders coming to NYC will be the ones working, moving, talking, and listening. You will be learning from both like-minded peers from Denmark and the US while being introduced to a valuable network of insightful and wise leaders in NYC.
Why is it a crucial matter for you to ensure that more women start their own businesses in Denmark?
Liva Echwald-Tijsen: The world is facing multiple problems and we are in need of value-creating solutions to move forward. Problem solution fit is the core in entrepreneurs can take an active part in creating value for all of us
Before problem solution fit there must be problem founder fit because it is crucial that the founder truly understands the problem to find the solution and a founder market fit to ensure the understanding of the market and its users to create value.
If we want to solve the world’s problems by entrepreneurship, we must ensure that both men and women participate in setting a spotlight on a diverse pool of problems and take the perspective of all users on all markets.
We unintentionally have been designing our ecosystem for inequality with a lack of transparency in our ecosystem and repeat stereotyping of what a true startup founder should look like, act like and focus on.
When I hear people say “there are not enough women in C-level and board rooms” it could be easy to think, “let’s change that by changing corporate cultures in existing organisations.” This is where we see predictions that state that this will take more than 100 years to change. Here entrepreneurship offers a golden opportunity to speed up this process by creating “Born Diverse” start-up team, boards and cultures to create the diverse business community of the future.
What strengths, that you see in New York City’s start-up culture, are you hoping the Danish female founders will benefit from?
Liva Echwald-Tijsen: In Denmark, we like humble bragging when talking about our own accomplishments. Boldness is not naturally in our culture. What we Danes could learn from NYC start-up culture would be the boldness.
So, let’s boldly close the gender gap in entrepreneurship, by supporting more women to start and scale their own business. Let’s create a diverse startup ecosystem, by fostering collaboration between ecosystem stakeholders to intentionally design for diversity. And let’s create the diverse business community of the future by supporting startups to be “Born Diverse” start-ups.
Emilie Haaber Lynggaard is the Strategic Communications & Press intern at Denmark In New York.