In April 2018, Elon Musk’s fans and followers raised $7,609 via GoFundMe to buy the long-suffering entrepreneur a new sofa.
A TV show had revealed that Musk was sleeping in his office, on a narrow and uncomfortable-looking sofa with a single pillow, while his company Tesla was under the pump to hit a manufacturing target. A few months later, The Wall Street Journal would open its article on Tesla’s production struggles with the same sad image: “On a chair next to him was a white caseless pillow that he used while sleeping on the floor under his desk.”
It’s what we’d expect from Elon Musk though, right? A tenacious and successful entrepreneur who reports a punishing schedule of up to 100 working hours per week?
The narrative of successful entrepreneurship goes something like that: work hard, work long, no excuses. But there are barriers to entry to playing that game that are obscured by the idea that all it takes to make it is white-hot, high-frequency grit.
It takes more than grit
To be an entrepreneur, you need capital: either you have it already or can convince someone else to give it to you. Most funding deals are done through warm introductions, so having the right connections is a tremendous advantage. You’ll also need enough time and energy to dedicate to realising your idea.
Privilege plays a huge role in whether a person has access to those things or not.
Musk-esque success stories assume that founders are unencumbered by the pulls of life outside their startup: caring responsibilities, participating in relationships, looking after their health and running a household. They are also obtuse to the security of social safety nets, including parents, partners and wealth to fall back on.
This narrative exists because entrepreneurs are expected to be male, and therefore traditionally unencumbered by caring and domestic responsibilities. They are more likely to have wealth to cushion their risks — the gender pay gap in the UK was 17.3% in April 2019, with women spending more of their earned income on their families — and are more likely to attain funding.
“VCs are 13 times more likely to fund startups that come via ‘warm introductions’”
The UK VC & Female Founders report last year found that less than 1% of VC funding in the UK goes to startups run entirely by women. This is in no small part because men are more likely to have connections that would lead to funding: managers, directors and senior officials are almost twice as likely to be men (14%) than women (8%), with just 32% of FTSE 100 directors being women.
“The people who get introduced to VCs by high-quality connections are the ones who get to meet with VCs,” said Sequoia’s Pat Grady, speaking at HubSpot’s INBOUND15 conference in 2015. Those founders who can wrangle introductions are also far more likely to receive funding; a report from Diversity VC and the British Business Bank found that VCs are 13 times more likely to fund startups that come via ‘warm introductions’ than those which make ‘cold’ pitch deck submissions.
The college dropout trope
People with these privileges — usually white men — are then more likely to project the idea that business success is a meritocracy, because for them, all conditions for success aside from the effort they can put in have been met.
It’s why so many business commentators fawn over Mark Zuckerberg as a college dropout first, and a wealthy and well-connected Harvard student second, if at all. It’s also why so many founders plaster LinkedIn and Twitter with their motivational stories-come-brags, which, says Twitter account @founderbrags, have become a genre in themselves.
“The idea that we can succeed with nothing but our own brilliance and determination is a PR masterstroke.”
The idea that we can succeed with nothing but our own brilliance and determination is a PR masterstroke that obscures not only the barriers created by gender discrimination, but of all social and economic inequalities, including race, class, disability and more.
If it weren’t for the financial support of my partner and his mum, I wouldn’t be where I am today, in the second year of running my startup. My partner subsidised my living costs for a few months last year and, in my most dire hour of need, his mum paid a month’s worth of our bills. Their support is a privilege and a part of my company’s story.
Addressing the privileges that have propped up your journey doesn’t discredit your hard work and capabilities, but makes narratives of success more authentic and constructive. It helps to shine a light on how we can make the journey to entrepreneurship more accessible.
Monica Karpinski is the founder of The Femedic, a media and research platform for women’s health that analyses where digital health content is failing and how it needs to change.