By Kaitlin Tait, YGAP General Manager, Impact
It was about a year ago and I had arrived a little early for a speaking engagement. I was sitting down to do some work, when another female speaker arrived and quietly confessed how desperate she was for a wine to take the edge off her nerves - an all too familiar feeling for me.
I’d spoken at my fair share of panels, speeches and workshops, but for years I’d struggled to kick the fear and anxiety I associated with putting myself out there. I was incredibly passionate about my work but somehow always felt that the passion and expertise that I’d crafted over the previous eight years rarely translated into confident eloquence on stage. My audiences weren’t necessarily disappointed (I was on my way to mastering the art of ‘faking it until you make it’) but I always disappointed myself - constantly comparing myself to my impressive orator of a husband and the inspiring, confident, and well-spoken people I surrounded myself with. Unfortunately, this trend extended beyond just speaking engagements and into my day-to-day work experience.
For years, I had been navigating the rewarding yet challenging reality of starting a non-profit. In our early twenties, armed with relevant masters degrees and a healthy dose of idealism, my husband and I booked a one-way flight to Kenya, eager to ‘change the world’. We were on a mission to get the all-important on-the-ground experience most people drawn to working in International Development dream of. Nearly two years, three bouts of malaria, a curse from a witch doctor and a death threat later, we left East Africa with the realisation that true, sustainable social change is driven by local leaders with local solutions to the challenges faced by their communities. It wasn’t up to us to be Africa’s heroes. Rather, it was up to the incredible Kenyans and Tanzanians we met with great ideas and a deep understanding of their communities who simply needed the support, resources and confidence to get their ideas off the ground. And so we started Spark* International to find, accelerate and support these local leaders as they improve the lives of people living in poverty.
Fast forward five years and we joined forces with YGAP, creating a dream team which to date has helped 287 entrepreneurs grow the impact of their ventures and improved the lives of almost 300,000 people living in poverty. Entrepreneurs like Felix Kimaru of Totohealth who is providing an innovative, low cost SMS advice service to expectant mothers from conception through the child’s 5th birthday with the goal of reducing infant and maternal mortality. In a country where only 60 per cent of women are delivering their babies in a hospital and a similar percentage of children are vaccinated, Totohealth is seeing 93 per cent of their users deliver in a hospital and 90 per cent of babies receive their vaccinations. When Totohealth first started, they were reaching 300 women. They now are reaching 30,000 parents.
But this entrepreneurial journey for me was anything but smooth. In the early days, I battled with a strong case of imposter syndrome, questioning my ability at every turn while I watched the men around me ooze confidence. And I wasn’t alone. In every accelerator program we ran, I saw many of the same tendencies in the women-led ventures we supported and this concerned me.
Even more concerning was the reality faced by most women who pursued entrepreneurship or positions of leadership. In the startup world, there are around 131 corporate run accelerators, and a staggering 87 per cent of these are run by men. Y-Combinator - one of the world’s leading startup accelerators - has invested in more than 700 startups, but just 13 per cent of these are led by women. When it comes to venture capital, women receive only 3 – 5 per cent of the funding available and less than 5 per cent of venture capital firms are led by women. In Australia, just 20 per cent of startups are female founded and less than 30 per cent of tech roles are filled by women.
When we look at women in leadership more generally, the statistics are equally concerning. Women hold just 12 per cent of the world’s board seats and only 4.6 per cent of Fortune 500 CEO roles. Across the workforce, women are earning today what men were earning 10 years ago.
It’s clear the cards are often stacked against women as they venture into entrepreneurship, and we wanted to do something about it. So we developed SHE – an accelerator program aimed at finding and supporting women-led businesses improving the lives of women and girls living in poverty. A program designed by women to specifically address the unique challenges women face when trying to step up and lead in a decidedly male dominated field. A program supporting women like Lucy.
Lucy is a Kenyan entrepreneur and in Kenya, girls miss 3.5 million learning days per month due to lack of access to sanitary products. This contributes to high dropout rates in schools with serious social and economic consequences. Many communities also lack clean water, which leads to hygiene related illnesses. As a result, many young women do not always have access to clean underwear, let alone sanitary products. In response, Lucy developed SanPad - an innovative 70 per cent bio degradable two-in-one pad-pantie. The product is affordable, hygienic and disposable, negating the need for soap and water. Through our SHE program, Lucy has access to entrepreneurship training, ongoing support and funding to help her keep more young women healthy and in school.
Does it make a difference? Absolutely. The women we’ve worked with report huge benefits. In an all women forum they feel more willing to open up with honesty and vulnerability about the difficulties they face navigating gender discrimination or the daunting realities of pitching to an all male boardroom. They share techniques for approaching these situations, encouraging each other to use their feminine approach to their advantage, rather than feeling the need to emulate the men around them. They discuss the challenge of balancing work and family, drawing on the strength of other women in the room who are walking the same journey and facing the same barriers. Most importantly, we see a shift in mindset around what they are capable of. They see other women who’ve done it, and realise ‘if she can, I can’, feeling the power of a whole new tribe of women who have their back.
This year, we want to take SHE across the African continent to reach many more Lucy’s, but we are not the only cause for celebration. There are incredible groups right here in Australia and around the world working to balance the scales:
• One Roof is a fantastic female centric co-working space in Melbourne giving women-led businesses access to a feminine space, events, entrepreneurship support and expert advice.
• The Criterion Institute is pioneering gender lens investing, encouraging companies and organisations to see investments they make and how they make them as a tool for creating a more equitable world for women.
• Through global research, tools and services, events and other programs, Catalyst exists to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion.
• And there are other legends like Springboard, Scale Investors, and She Starts, doing incredible work here in Australia to ensure female founders are getting the support and funding they need to grow.
To go back to that night when a fellow female speaker was reaching for the alcohol to calm the nerves, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t. I was calm, collected and confident. How did I get there? It has most definitely been through the vulnerability, honesty, and support of countless other women who have given me strength. Who have reminded me time and time again of what is possible, and that I have something unique and valuable to offer.
Now, as I plan to start a family and bring new life into this world, I still have cause for concern. Concern that my future daughter will not be afforded the same opportunities as my future son. That, like the many women who have come before her, she may be a minority around the boardroom table, in her STEM classes, and in the startup world.
And yet, I have cause for celebration, because I do believe that things will be better for her, thanks to the incredible groups who are tirelessly fighting to give women and girls an equal chance at success. Groups who are going beyond just counting the women at the table and are instead attempting to truly understand what women need to thrive. Groups providing the environment, policies and procedures, financial capital and social support to do so.
It took me a good five years to find my feet and confidence as an entrepreneur. Through our programs, we aim to get women there faster, helping them grow better businesses that create a better world for women and girls. Join us at YGAP. The Future is female.