Women entrepreneurs offer tips for starting a business

Founders share lessons learned and how to navigate the inevitable challenges that come with their gender

Starting a company is no walk in the park. Between coming up with a killer idea, perfecting your pitch, securing funding, and scaling a company, the path is fraught with challenges. But for women in the startup space, those challenges can be even more plentiful. 

“I don’t think gender itself inherently poses unique difficulties for women to succeed,” says New York-based Food Labs member Sue Zhou, the founder of Byrdfood. “It’s the societal gender imbalance and the associated biases that create constant challenges for entrepreneurs who find ourselves looking different than most other people in the room.”  

Zhou, who founded her healthy snack company to make healthy food choices easy, delicious, and accessible, says that as a minority female founder, she is all too familiar with these struggles. 

Sue Zhou, creator of Byrdfood. Photograph courtesy of Byrdfood.

We asked some founders about the challenges they face, as well as advice they have for fellow entrepreneurs, regardless of gender. 

Secure proof points

In the U.S., less than 3 percent of venture capital goes to companies started by an all-women team. It’s a sad reality that until we see large-scale change in the venture capital space, women have to work harder to secure funding than men. 

“You have to do more to establish credibility, just to get a fraction of the funding,” says Rachael Kim, the founder and CEO of Project Untaboo, a company on a mission to destigmatize period products. Kim, who is based out of WeWork 1411 4th Ave in Seattle, says that it often takes data and proven success to be successful: “You need a solid base of proof points, evidence, time, and money.”

On impostor syndrome

Women and other minority groups are more likely than men to experience impostor syndrome, a term coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes that describes a feeling of phoniness and “a fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”

Shayna Schmidt of Livekick. Photograph by Stefanie Delgado/WeWork.

“I definitely struggle with impostor syndrome,” says Shayna Schmidt, the cofounder of Livekick, a two-way streaming fitness platform based out of WeWork Labs at 142 W 57th St in New York. But, Schmidt says, in times of uncertainty she pushes through by reminding herself: I belong here. 

Start somewhere 

The first step in starting a business is to come up with a winning idea. As a successful entrepreneur herself, Schmidt’s mother gave her this advice: “She told me to find a need and find a way to fill that need.” 

Schmidt encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to think about what isn’t working in their lives and find ways to fix it. Chances are, it’s not working for other people as well. 

Once you have a killer idea, it can be easy to become overwhelmed with information. “It can be easy to get bogged down trying to do all the research and get all the advice before putting your ideas into the world,” says Zhou. You may never feel like it’s a good time to start your company, but if you wait for the perfect moment, you may miss your shot.

Progress over perfection 

It can be hard to balance the desire to nail a project with forward movement, but Tara Hankinson, the cofounder of Talea, a craft beer company based out of WeWork 511 W 25th St in New York, offers advice based on her own experience: “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress.” 

Tara Hankinson, cofounder of Talea. Photograph courtesy of Talea.

Hankinson says it’s easy to feel like every pitch, presentation, meeting, and interview needs to be perfect, but this can lead to unrealistic expectations and crippling anxiety. Zhou agrees: “Perfect is truly the enemy of good, so don’t let perfectionism stop you from taking the first step,” she says.

Break down tasks 

The thought of tackling a whole project at once can discourage entrepreneurs from getting started. “The enormity of [launching something well] can be paralyzing,” says Carmel Hagen, the founder of plant-based food company Supernatural

“I spend a few days at the beginning of each quarter laying out an extensive plan across all areas of the business, then turning that plan into weekly actions,” she says. While this planning takes time, Hagen says that having this road map for what’s ahead keeps her from feeling overwhelmed. 

View obstacles as opportunities

“There are always going to be obstacles and challenges,” says Sarah Ribner, the cofounder of Piperwai, a company that sells deodorant made completely from natural ingredients like coconut oil and activated charcoal. “Think about these obstacles as learning opportunities,” says Ribner, who successfully pitched her product on ABC’s Shark Tank

Not everything will go according to plan, so it’s important to make the most of every situation—whether it’s how you envisioned it or not. “This will help you do it better next time and apply your learnings elsewhere,” she says. 

Trust your gut 

As an entrepreneur, you know your business better than anyone else. Use that knowledge to your advantage and trust your gut. “Your intuition is your strongest tool,” says Ribner. 

She admits that there is a time for data and analysis, “but there are unexpected challenges that will come your way. Intuition can help you navigate them.”

Every entrepreneur needs to know their why—what gets you up in the morning? Knowing this will help you push through the difficulties of entrepreneurship. “That’s what drives you and fuels you,” says Kim. For her, the mission is to contribute to humanity by enabling equality. 

“I chose Project Untaboo as my medium,” she says. Keeping her motivation top of mind helps her succeed. 

Fake it till you make it

“The main challenge for women entrepreneurs is a design problem,” says Hagen. “We’re building our companies inside a framework we didn’t help create.” Historically, the space has been dominated by men. 

“For me, being a woman of color female entrepreneur is just understanding that you will always feel like you’re trailblazing,” says Kim. There may be times when that pressure becomes overwhelming, but when all else fails, fake it till you make it.

Rachel Mosely contributed reporting.

Jenna Wilson is a senior associate on the social media team at WeWork and a writer for Ideas by WeWork. She writes about impact, sustainability, and WeWork’s employees around the world.

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