My experience of Silicon Valley as a female startup founder

SweepSouth CEO Aisha Pandor on challenges, successes and why a great South African startup is as good as a great Silicon Valley one


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SweepSouth co-founder, Aisha Pandor

South African startups in 2015 raised US$54.5 million in capital, this is according to the African Tech Startups Funding ReportSweepSouth, an online platform that allows users to order and pay for home cleaning services, was one of the few female-led startups to get a piece of the pie.

In 2015 the startup completed a series of seed funding round barely a year after their launch in 2014 from a team of top tech investors, led by Vinny Lingham and Llew Claasen’s firm Newtown Partners and including Pule Taukobong’s Africa Angels Network (AAN) and Polo Leteka Radebe’s Identity Development Fund (IDF).

In January this year the team announced another round of funding from the Vumela Fund, as well as from its existing investors, Vinny Lingham and Llew Claasen’s firm.

'You never stop having to prove yourself'

Aisha Pandor is the CEO of SweepSouth and co-founder together with husband, CTO Alen Ribic. The duo were selected for the Silicon Valley-based accelerator programme, 500 Startups. They were the first South African startup to have been accepted into the global accelerator's program.

The program gave Pandor access to other female startup founders from Silicon Valley and around the world. An experience she describes as liberating.

She says while the Silicon Valley environment both celebrates and supports women entrepreneurs, outside of the 500 Startups ecosystem women were still underrepresented.

In the US women make up 30 percent of business owners, this is according to 2015 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, a study by the National Association of Women Business Owners. However, a report by the Center for Women’s Business Research quoted in Forbes, states that Hispanic and African American women are the fastest growing entrepreneurial segments in the country growing at rates of 133.3% and 191.4% respectively from 1997 to 2007. 

In South Africa, the number of female-owned SMEs stands at just 8%. This is according to the 2014 SME Survey conducted by technology market research organisation World Wide Worx.

The differences between the far more mature US entrepreneurship ecosystem and South Africa's growing one don't stop there. Pandor says while in South Africa there is far less of the "bro" culture, she still, however, feels pressure to prove herself as a woman CEO.  

Pandor talks to SME South Africa about what she has learnt from other female entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and why having something to prove and wanting to inspire other women provides her with additional motivation.  

Female entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley

We were fortunate to be part of the 500 Startups programme there, which has diversity at its core. This meant that my experience was that we worked in an extremely diverse multiracial, multinational environment, with many female mentors and partners.

I found the environment liberating, and women entrepreneurs we're celebrated and supported. For example, we had a room set aside for breastfeeding mothers.

This is a best case though, and while the greater Silicon Valley has recognised the need to be far more inclusive and to embrace diversity, outside of 500 Startups I still experienced visits to other startups and VC's where entire offices where male and/or white, and in this environment women rightly feel that they aren't represented or respected in the same way as male entrepreneurs.

What has helped grow black female entrepreneurship in the US

Grit is something that has been talked about quite a lot lately, that element of having faced adversity and been able to claw your way through it. It's something that entrepreneurs need to have a lot of to make it, and something that black women in particular often need to develop very early in life to get through regular exposure to racism, sexism, and being treated as if you're not good enough.

"Research showed that 85% of venture-funded companies don't have a female executive"

Challenges female entrepreneurs face in Silicon Valley

Their biggest concerns are not being taken seriously by male entrepreneurs and VCs, having to work doubly hard for the same results or recognition as males. Having to present to panels, to male VCs and face questions about their personal lives that male counterparts are never asked (about relationship status, family planning, balancing family life with startup responsibilities etc.).

In some cases, entrepreneurs have been subjected to sexual harassment as well.

Silicon Valley versus SA

I think South Africa has far less of the "bro" culture among startups, maybe only because our ecosystem is less mature. But this also represents an opportunity to prevent it from happening here.

On the other hand, as a female founder I do feel I need to prove myself more, and without fail, if I attend an event with a male member of my team, it's assumed that he is the founder, and questions are always initially directed towards him (until he points out that the CEO and founder is in fact, me).

I've also heard people make excuses for my success and try to separate it from the grueling work I've put into SweepSouth, and instead try to attribute it to my race, gender, or (imagined) family connections.

Female entrepreneurship and the funding issue

We've been fortunate to have a network of top-class investors that we've been in touch with, and we've been very measured and deliberate to only engage with investors who share our values, so my being a woman has never come up as an issue.

Not all female entrepreneurs are as lucky though, and having fewer female than male entrepreneurs, and a higher percentage of VC's with only male partners makes the situation worse.

Some stats from the Center for Venture research showed that 85% of venture-funded companies don't have a female executive, and women are CEOs of only 2.7% of venture funded companies.

The situation is changing though, and an increase in females being involved in angel investing for example, is having a positive effect.

Why female-led businesses perform better and why there’s still so few

It goes back to my point about grit, but also about having different perspectives to the rest of the typically male-run business environment. Having different insights can be a huge advantage, and this speaks to the importance of general diversity, not only gender diversity.

I also personally feel like as a woman, I have a lot more to prove and want to inspire other women with my success, which provides additional motivation to me every day.

"We realised that a great South African startup is as good as a great Silicon Valley startup"

The 'Lean In' factor

I agree that women should 'lean in", but it's also not always that easy, and the environments that males create can make it very tough. The movement assumes that women have freedom and are working in environments that will be receptive to this.

That said, I do think we should be fearless, but am reluctant to be prescriptive towards how women should act in the workplace, and believe men should also be taking responsibility for equality.

Opportunities for women in tech in SA

There are great movements like the Silicon Cape Women Subcommittee (which I am part of), which seeks to increase female participation in tech. Whilst based in Cape Town, the subcommittee supports women in tech countrywide.

There are also great initiatives like Empower Women, GirlHype, Project CodeX and Women in Engineering which are really accessible. The greater Silicon Cape Community as well as the StartupGrind South African chapter are also doing amazing work in making tech and the ecosystem generally accessible, but with specific events and initiatives focused on women.

What it takes to succeed in SA versus Silicon Valley

My experience was that it takes the same thing to succeed in both environments. It is equally hard whether you're in South Africa or Silicon Valley, the tradeoffs and specific challenges are just different.

No matter where you are, you need hard work, grit, smart choices, a great team, good support networks, and a bit of luck.

What the Silicon Valley exposure has meant for SweepSouth

It has given us access to great international networks which we can rely on for help, and also given us exposure to the world's best minds in the startup ecosystem in the form of 500 Startups partners, mentors and friends.

We realised that a great South African startup is as good as a great Silicon Valley startup, it's the access to networks and funding that can make the difference. It has also given us good local exposure and credibility.

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