April 11, 2019

What I've learned from a year of working with female founders

Female entrepreneurs need to bring their business plans down to earth and stop taking setbacks so personally

Jana Bakunina

4 min read


A year ago I cofounded a venture capital fund focused on female founders. Here are my four takeaways from working exclusively with women:

1) Women are told they aren't ambitious enough — and so are overcompensating.

I see a lot of business plans from women with no connection to reality.  

Earlier this month I saw a pitch deck which promised half a million pounds of enterprise subscription sales this year, growing to four million next year and more than tripling the year after. The business is yet to gain any traction in terms of signing up paying customers. Understandably, I was a little sceptical.  

I think this is partly because women are constantly told they need to be bolder and more ambitious to compete in this world. It’s true: every investor wants to see business potential and attractive returns. Bold pitches can work.


But backable founders need to show they have the grit to succeed, not “blue sky thinking”. Women need to understand that having an actionable plan is in the end what is going to impress investors, and they should not pitch something unrealistic just because they think it's what a man would do.

2) Women are more likely to take things personally. 

The only reason I can get away with saying this is because I’m a woman myself. But over the last year, I have had many candid conversations with female founders who talked to me about their trials and tribulations. Without naming names, I can think of three or four that were taking rejection and setbacks far more personally than I think a man would.

It’s true, running a business is exhausting. I always advise founders to take good care of themselves because entrepreneurship is a marathon not a sprint. Sprinters put everything they’ve got into a race which is over in just a few moments. Marathon runners must be able to pace themselves, have a race strategy and the flexibility to change tactics along the way.

But I think the problem is that too often I see women who give their all to their businesses and forget to keep a steady pace. As a result, they may burn out or take disappointments personally before bouncing back.

Clearly though, this is not the whole picture! There are a great number of women that handle this brilliantly and their passion is more of a strength than a weakness.

Olivia Wollenberg, the founder of Livia's, which creates healthy snacks, is particularly great at giving 100% and not letting it all affect her too much personally.

She has built an incredibly engaged community on Instagram through being authentic and sharing every aspect of running her vegan treats business. When she was preparing to launch her latest product, Dunx, Olivia showed her followers how cookies were being baked and packaged through Instagram stories.

Her fans knew she was getting up before dawn to get to the factory and watched her putting in the hours to get the product into stores. As a result, when Dunx appeared in supermarkets, it became an instant hit with Livia’s fans posting their own images and stories on Instagram praising the product.

3) Women really care about the team they are building. 

Last year we backed Olio, a peer-to-peer food sharing business, which tackles food waste. 

Its founders, Tessa Clarke and Saasha Celestial-One, are a great example of female chief executives who invest time and effort to find the right talent to help their businesses thrive. 

Most people they hired came from the existing Olio app users, which means the entire team is 100% mission-aligned to save surplus food from getting binned.


Tessa and Saasha were also determined to hire a female React Native developer for their tech team. 

“It was really important to us because we are building a mainstream product, so our team needs to reflect today’s society,” said Clarke. “We also believe that once you have a diverse team, you will be able to attract the very best diverse talent going forward, and that creates a significant competitive advantage for the business.”

4) Female entrepreneurs make money last. 

I am often impressed by what female founders achieve on limited capital. 

Last year I met Amy Williams, the founder of Good-Loop, a video advertising solution which delivers higher engagement for brands by donating half of their advertising revenue to charities. 

The business raised some money from angels and Collider accelerator and has been running ad campaigns for TOMS, Unilever, Nestlé and Coca-Cola.  Like many other female founders, Amy made money last and achieved promising traction. Funding a woman is not just about giving her startup capital — it’s about helping her believe in herself.

The flipside of careful cash management is that sometimes founders miss an opportunity to capture the market. 

This applies to consumer products and services where it often makes strategic sense to make an aggressive marketing push to focus on topline growth. It takes talent and experience to make the right call at every juncture. Entrepreneurs I like working with are those who have the talent, resilience but also humility to admit mistakes and change tack quickly. 

As an investor, I’m proud to support women and help them flourish. It’s been an exciting journey so far and we are just getting started.