Female Founders Find a Home in Los Angeles

Caneel Joyce thought the perfect place for her business was San Francisco. After all, the former startup leader coaches CEOs and other high-level executives on powering through rapid growth, navigating difficult transitions, and approaching exits. Her background in tech, combined with the city’s proximity to Silicon Valley, meant that her client roster was always full.

But in 2015, Joyce relocated her business and her family 400 miles south to Los Angeles, where she joined forces with the coaching and culture firm Evolution. She’s been based out of LA’s WeWork Manhattan Beach Towers ever since that location opened its doors.

Why the move? San Francisco, she says, “was becoming so impossibly, narrowly competitive.”

“There wasn’t as much space to be a whole human being anymore,” she says, “especially if you wanted to have a family.”

Joyce is one of the many female founders who believe that the Los Angeles area is a better base for their business. And the data backs this up. In a report released earlier this month, WeWork revealed that 60 percent of its female members working for small businesses in and around Los Angeles are executives or sole proprietors. Another 32 percent are in management.

Women cite a host of reasons that helped them decide to put down roots in Los Angeles—LA’s entrepreneurial spirit, the professional opportunities, the physical and geographic resources that the city puts into play.

WeWork Los Angeles
In a report released earlier this month, WeWork revealed that 60 percent of its female members working for small businesses in and around Los Angeles are executives or sole proprietors.

There’s also support from local governments. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti has brought together women entrepreneurs to discuss how to attract more female-owned businesses to the city. In February he launched a diversity initiative whose first recipient was the Women in Entertainment Mentorship Program.

Lindsey Horvath, a member of the West Hollywood City Council, notes that her community “has a strong history of supporting women.” WeWork La Brea is located within her city’s borders.

Horvath says she and her fellow committee members are “committed to helping effect positive change that creates opportunities for women across sectors and throughout our city and the region.”

Female founders make their mark

Bian Li, founder of the startup incubator The Hungry Lab, loves the creativity and sense of possibility that permeates LA’s entrepreneurial community. She says it helps encourage female founders to make their mark here.

“LA’s a place where a lot of people come to escape old expectations,” she says. Li had lived around the world working as an investment banker, but when it came time to start her own company, she knew Los Angeles was the place.

“To be honest, I was a weather refugee,” she says, laughing. “But I always knew that I wanted to come out here, even when I was younger. I think there’s a lack of pretension here versus out east. And there’s a lack of preconceived notions. The entrepreneurial culture is more towards ‘Oh, let’s try this.’ I think it’s influenced by the creative aspect of where we live.”

WeWork Los Angeles
In Los Angeles, the distance from Silicon Valley and its intense competition has helped create a solidarity among female entrepreneurs.

Li points to some of the industries that predominate in the LA area—fashion, beauty, health and wellness—as being more female-friendly. WeWork’s recent study showed that its members are much more likely to work in these fields: Three out of four members in the LA area are part of the innovation economy, which includes creative fields like apparel, broadcasting, and entertainment. That compares to just 15 percent of all workers in the area.

Joyce says she sees a definite difference among her clients, who are less in the tech sector than they were in LA.

“A lot of my clients are tech-enabled commerce companies,” she says. “They’re direct-to-consumer brands. Some of them are more in the media and entertainment space. And, historically, these industries have had more women in them.”

The distance from Silicon Valley and its intense competition has helped create a solidarity among entrepreneurs.

“It’s not like every other person is in tech, so there’s this need for us to come together even more in LA, to find each other and to create a tribe,” she says.

Li agrees, saying that the question Angelenos ask themselves is: “What’s the opportunity here, and how can we all help each other rise together?” And that goes double for women.

A culture of inclusivity

Having a culture of inclusivity helps create more leadership roles for women in business. LA’s diversity—in 2016 it came in seventh in a ranking of the most diverse cities in America—inspired Shereen Youssef, who founded a nonprofit called Create a Smile, to make sure that her hiring practices were on point.

“It doesn’t get any more diverse than LA,” says Youssef, who is based at Irvine’s WeWork Spectrum Center. “And it’s really important to know the diversity, to understand it. I was able to look at my organization and say, ‘Do I have the diversity to reflect my community? Do I have enough talent from different angles to be able to provide for the families that we provide for?’”

Ensuring that her organization is welcoming is a priority for Youssef because Create a Smile works with the families of children with cancer to help make their lives a little more joyful. The idea is not to just give a gift, Youssef explains, “but also help them spiritually and emotionally to feel good.” She hopes that if they feel better, they’ll heal better, too.

Youssef relies on the community at her WeWork to help her find others with whom she can collaborate. She likes that “everyone is at the same level,” which she says helps foster a network of young companies helping each other grow. About 62 percent of the businesses at WeWork were started in the last five years, compared to 36 percent nationwide.

“My CPA is from WeWork,” Youssef says. “My website designer is from WeWork, as is my graphic designer. All of the vendors for our events come from WeWork. I kind of made it a pact with myself, because they provided such a great network. It was a great opportunity to meet people, so I just strictly went with WeWork.”

This type of top-down inclusivity is common in LA startups, and it helps foster diversity in the broader business community by ensuring that “non-typical” entrepreneurs are mentored and encouraged. Women in all fields tend to find one another and band together, creating the support systems that they need to succeed. So perhaps LA’s female workforce is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Get one woman to open a business, and she’ll help three others open theirs.

To help facilitate that process, Joyce runs a network called The Trust, which brings together “amazing women” eager to “relate to each other as whole people, and not just a slice of their identity.”

Joyce points to the inclusion language that one of the region’s biggest venture capital firms, Upfront, requires of its portfolio companies as indicative of how all kinds of companies are helping women rise through the ranks in LA.

The language isn’t just general platitudes about fostering diversity—it specifically asks that “at least one woman and/or member of a population currently underrepresented within the company shall be formally interviewed for any open executive position.”

That language is available online for other businesses to use, in order to help create further systemic change around who gets big infusions of capital to match their big ideas.

A collaborative atmosphere

That type of systemic change is critical, but sometimes smaller, more specific interpersonal networks help keep the women of LA doing their thing.

“I think compared to New York, say, LA is more collaborative,” says Whitney Bickers, who owns a store called Myrtle that sells clothing produced by independent female designers. “Everyone’s out to get their own in New York, and here it’s kind of like, ‘Let’s work on things together, let’s have an environment where other people are around me doing other things.’”

This collaborative spirit and willingness to share resources helped her design, produce, and launch her first in-house line of clothing: “That’s been a huge part of me doing my house line, is that I can ask other people, ‘How and where are you doing this?’ And they actually answer me.”  

Bickers originally came to LA to work in entertainment, but she couldn’t imagine how she could keep her job and also start a family.

Being an entrepreneur isn’t easy either, but it’s given her the opportunity to pursue her dream, which is, she says, the reason almost everyone comes to LA. Because this is a city of fantasy, where the restless and unsettled come to see if they can reshape the world, or at least their own lives.

“If someone else is not giving you a chance,” Bickers says, “I feel like there are a lot of people in LA who are like, ‘Well, then I’ll do it for myself.’”

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