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\Startup Life Analysis/

Why founders need founders

A problem shared is a problem halved.

By Sifted

On the last Friday of every month, Zahra Shah meets a handful of other female founders — virtually — to share some of the crap she’s been dealing with recently. 

From cofounder conundrums, to staff challenges, the 12-strong group share what’s on their minds and find solutions. 

“When women come together, they’re more collaborative,” says Shah. “They’re very willing to share.” 

The support group came together after the founders met during last year’s Google for Startups’ Immersion: Women Founders programme, during which they took part in ‘Founders Standups’ — structured hour-long meetings where they shared their highs and lows from the week, as well as challenges they were working on. Alumni of the programme, including Shah (who is the cofounder and CCO of Seers), were then inspired to make their own version in the form of support groups, where they continue to share struggles, setbacks, wins and failures — both business and personal — in a more intimate setting.

Zahra Shah, Co-Founder, CCO & Investor at Seersco (Privacy & consent management platform)
Zahra Shah, cofounder at Seersco, a privacy and consent management platform

“The biggest support is that these women can relate to the situation I’m in,” Shah says — like the complexities of homeschooling while running a startup, or the difficulties in using “female communication skills” to good effect in the workplace.

“When women come together, they’re more collaborative.”

It’s hard to stand alone

Deborah Choi, founder of plant care startup horticure and cofounder of the ‘Tech in Colour’ community for Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) female founders, agrees these spaces work best when members have plenty of shared experiences.

“Having participated in one accelerator where I was the sole female founder, and then participating in another designed for female founders, I really saw the difference in what I felt comfortable sharing about myself and the kinds of topics discussed amongst my peers,” she says. “For example, I felt more open speaking about my ‘hyphenated identity’ as a mother and also a founder when speaking with fellow female founders.”

After she finished the Google for Startups women founders programme in 2019, she and a fellow participant, Alina Bassi, founder of clothing recycling startup Kleiderly, wanted to create an even more tailored community. 

“It inspired us to do something similar at the intersection of race, ethnicity and gender,” she says.

Deborah Choi and Alina Bassi, alumni of Google for Startups Immersion for Women Founders, were inspired to make their own support group for BAME founders.
Deborah Choi and Alina Bassi, alumni of Google for Startups Immersion for Women Founders, were inspired to make their own support group for BAME founders.

“With close friends who are also BAME female founders, we’re able to talk more freely and candidly about microaggressions that arise in our fundraising or strategic partner meetings, and it’s just something that I don’t need to educate a fellow BAME female founder about; she gets it, because she’s experienced that too.” 

This is something Google for Startups was conscious of when thinking about how to structure an environment that allows for open communication. 

Especially in underrepresented groups there’s perceptible allyship and support, and shared experience which allows the founders to empathise with each other and build trust,” Mariama Boumanjal, Google for Startups’ startup partner manager, says. “The sessions become less about sharing successes and more about open and honest troubleshooting and learning, where most of the value is created.”

Leaving competition at the door

While founders can get pretty competitive, these female founder groups are reassuringly free of ego, says Shah — and they need to be, to encourage founders to really open up. “We don’t want anybody to feel judged,” she says. 

Each session of Shah’s support group follows a set pattern, and involves each founder sharing their current challenges so others can discuss learnings and best practices on how to solve that issue. The founder who shared her problem is given some steps to take over the following month by the other members of the group — and must report back in the next session. Nothing that’s shared leaves the four corners of the Google Meet screen.

It helped, says Shah, that she shared a problem in the first session, and set the tone for just how open and honest to be.

A problem shared

Shirley Billot, another Google for Startups alumnus, found not just emotional but practical support after sharing a challenge she faced in a Friday Founders session. 

When a fellow participant, Maria-Liisa Bruckert, SQIN founder, heard that Billot was struggling to launch her beauty business in Germany, Bruckert offered a solution. Bruckert and Billot partnered up, facilitating Billot access to the German market.

 

Maria-Liisa Bruckert, founder of SQIN
Maria-Liisa Bruckert, founder of SQIN

“We have a similar story, we share needs and a mindset, so it’s often easy and more flexible to work with each,” says Bruckert. “It’s so helpful to share questions with people in similar situations.”

How to make your own support group

What makes Google for Startups’ Founder Standups successful, marketing lead Michael Cavanagh says, is that the meetings are structured. Simple rules like limiting the group size (Cavanagh recommends 3 to 12 founders: “Any more and you start to not have enough time”) and keeping the time down to an hour makes it easier for founders to dedicate themselves to the session.

It’s this structure we’ve found that helps drive the conversation and unlock the shared knowledge in the room,” Cavanagh says. “This might be as specific as how to reply to an investor question, recommending an agency for something or how to find more balance.”

How do they know this format works? The proof is in the pudding, Boumanjal explains: “A lot of the groups we initiated continue to meet and share in the same format they used to when they were in Google for Startups programmes. Some cohorts stop meeting, and within a month come back together saying they really miss the time, space and support it used to provide to them.”

Notice who’s the most active and who is the least, and find ways to encourage those less talkative to chime in.”

For those looking to start their own support group, Boumanjal and Cavanagh recommend a set of tried and tested rules for engagement:

  • Stay focused. Make sure everyone is really dedicating their time to the group.
  • Everything shared is confidential. 
  1. Share openly.Model vulnerability; it’s good to start with one’s own experience in the past week and showing examples of how sharing has helped, both practically and emotionally,” Boumanjal explains.
  2. Be conscious of everyone in the room.Notice who’s the most active and who is the least, and find ways to encourage those less talkative to chime in,” Boumanjal says.

Learn more about the participating startups in Google for Startups’ Women Founders programme here. You can also find out more about what’s happening at Google for Startups by signing up for the newsletter.

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Google for Startups connects startups with the right people, products and best practices to help them grow.

Google for Startups