Numerous studies have confirmed what many female entrepreneurs already know: Running a business is hard, and running one as a woman is harder. Research has long shown that women struggle more than men to access startup and growth capital, achieve work/life balance, and push past fears of failure.
But several more recent research efforts point to an important factor that can make it easier: a supportive community of fellow female founders. Connecting with other women entrepreneurs promotes feelings of inclusivity and validation, while at the same time increasing knowledge and helping lift business growth, studies show.
Unfortunately, women often struggle to find mentors and tend to lack the professional networks many men have. To help change that, Project Entrepreneur — an accelerator run by the foundation tied to fashion business Rent the Runway — is working to create a supportive community of women entrepreneurs.
How, specifically, can the right network help a woman entrepreneur scale her venture more effectively? How can those interactions alter the decisions she makes along her startup journey?
To find out, we spoke with four Project Entrepreneur accelerator participants about the work they do, and how fellow female founders have helped them reach new heights.
Co-founder and CEO of Floss Bar
Her Business: Prior to starting up, Sadej worked for several years at a hedge fund in Connecticut. While working 13-hour days, she frequently struggled to schedule personal business like dental check-ups. That gave her a business idea. In 2017, she started Floss Bar, an online platform for booking individual cleanings and company dental events. Initially, Floss Bar was focused on providing convenience and empowerment through beauty, she says, but it has since evolved. “We’re now more focused on social mobility,” she explains, pointing out that people are often judged in job interviews and other social settings by the health and attractiveness of their teeth.
How Community Helped: The connections Sadej made through Project Entrepreneur have been “exceptionally useful,” she says. Specifically, several of the women connected her to businesses that might want to hire Floss Bar to help their employees. Meeting potential partners and clients this way “really helped open up more channels” for Floss Bar, she says, paving the way for her to expand her business, help more people and make a larger social impact.
Founder and CEO of Secret Code
Her Business: Secret Code was created to help young girls “literally see themselves as heroes of powerful industries” on the pages of personalized children’s books. Customers choose protagonists’ names, skin colors and hairstyles, and Secret Code turns them into characters that inspire girls to imagine themselves as everything from scientists and politicians to filmmakers and astronauts. A former advertising executive, Lecocq was inspired to start her business after working on an ad campaign for mobile service provider Verizon that highlighted the lack of women working in science, technology, engineering and math.
How Community Helped: Lecocq says she got as much out of Project Entrepreneur’s educational resources as she did from talks with her fellow participants. Both have helped her prepare for her first fundraising effort, which she will kick off this fall. They also made entrepreneurship as a whole, and pursuing investors in particular, feel more accessible. “Not previously knowing any entrepreneurs, many aspects [of starting and growing a business] seemed more complex and mysterious than they were,” she says. Having advisors probably “saved me 6 months of errors.”
Founder and CEO of Leche Lounge
Her Business: Conduff’s business was born from many frustrating experiences trying to pump breast milk while navigating college and professional life. The former lawyer decided to start a company to solve the problem — she sells “lactation stations” to businesses so employees can pump in private. It has also provided her an opportunity to make far-reaching, long-lasting change for working moms. “I firmly believe that Leche Lounge is … empowering women where they are right now,” she told us. “And that is very important work.”
How Community Helped: Conduff says she benefited greatly from having empathetic, understanding people to talk with about the ups and downs of running your own business. “Many of us have experienced similar [negative] feelings at different times in our journey, and we are able to give thoughtful suggestions from a place of trust and vulnerability.” The connections she made weren’t temporary, she adds. Members of the group still check in with one another frequently “to celebrate, share what we are looking forward to and express what the pain point is” at any given moment, she says.
Co-founder and CEO of NaTakallam
Her Business: NaTakallam is a social enterprise that creates jobs for refugees as online language tutors for individuals, businesses and schools. Sara’s motivations for starting the company were both practical and personal. “The Syrian refugee crisis has produced a devastating 5.5 million refugees facing innumerable challenges and hardships, especially Syrians in Lebanon, my country of origin,” she says. She wanted to offer these refugees work opportunities, while building a profitable business and helping other Arabic speakers who fall out of speaking it regularly practice the language. Since starting up in 2015, she has helped more than 100 refugees find work.
How Community Helped: Sara says she learned how to better handle the marketing of NaTakallam, as well as the paperwork and other logistics, from female founders with more experience. And before the accelerator, she says she struggled to balance her humanitarian mission and the need to grow her business. Now, “by leveraging tools of a business mindset and being efficient,” she’s confident she can achieve “rapid growth.”