Lessons Learned at Y Combinator’s Female Founders Conference 2015

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Get bragging, work hard and think honey badger. Discover what else entrepreneurs discovered at this year's Y Combinator Female Founders Conference. By Becky Cruze (Startup Founder)

In January 2014, Y Combinator co-founder and partner JessFFC - Becky by signica Livingston announced that YC would host its first Female Founders Conference as a way “to gather together female founders at all stages to share stories, give advice and make connections.”

I attended the conference, which was held on Feb. 21 in San Francisco, for the second time this year. Here’s what I learned.

Female Founders in YC

Livingston kicked off the afternoon of talks by sharing a bit about the history of YC, as well as some current stats from the accelerator program.

She explained that the current Winter 2015 batch was the first in which they had explicitly asked about gender on the application.

The results showed that YC accepted startups with female founders in the same proportion as the applicant pool itself … in this case, 23 percent.

So Livingston and her colleagues understand that if they want to increase the number of female founders in YC, the most important thing they need to do is encourage more women to apply. (And on that note, YC is accepting applications for the Summer 2015 batch until March 27).

The Importance of Bragging

As has been well-documented, women often find it more difficult than their male counterparts to brag about themselves and their accomplishments.

The topic was addressed as part of a panel discussion of YC partners, including Livingston, CFO Kirsty Nathoo, and General Counsel Carolynn Levy.

Livingston shared that, in talking with female VCs, it seems as though the women who pitch their ideas and achievements don’t take as much credit for them as male founders. The panel seemed to reach a consensus that, while it can be hard to brag, the more you practice at it, the more comfortable you’ll become.

It was clear that Livingston was following this advice with her own presentation in which she “bragged” about how she created the part of YC that can’t be copied.

She said that when people in the tech industry (including the press) talk about YC, they usually focus on its structure (organizing the program into batches, the type and amount of funding, additional resources they provide, etc.). But the real secret sauce of YC, so to speak, is the culture and people. That’s what’s been hard for other accelerator programs to replicate, and that’s what she has been responsible for.

"YC’s culture was largely my creation," said Livingston.

She explained that in interviews for the program, her husband Paul Graham and the other male partners judged the ideas, while she judged the people. They called her their “social radar,” and for the first seven years or so when the program was still small enough that she was able to be present in all interviews, they respected her opinion about the character of the founders so much that she essentially had veto power.

With 116 companies in the current batch and more than 2,000 alumni, "YC is not just an investment firm, we're like a family," said Livingston. And “to the extent that it does feel like family, I'm its Mom."

Channel Your Inner Beaver and Honey Badger

The conference featured an impressive lineup of speakers, and you can (and should!) watch all of their talks.

But for me, the one that really stood out from the pack was the humor-filled presentation from Tracy Young, co-founder and CEO of construction app PlanGrid, which was part of the YC Winter 2012 batch.

Young explained that she’s really only had time to do two things over the past few years: work on PlanGrid and watch nature documentaries. She clearly drew inspiration from both for the entrepreneurial advice she offered at the conference.

Be a Beaver

Her first recommendation to her fellow female founders was to be like beavers, which understandably drew laughter from the crowd. But, as she outlined a handful of the animal’s characteristics, it became clear that it was an apt comparison.

Specifically, she said to behave like a beaver in the following ways:

  • Work hard
  • Be patient
  • Don't complain – The second you stop to complain, a competitor can come along and pass you by.
  • Obsess about every stick – For startups, Young said, this means being obsessive about your product, customer feedback and support, and internal policies and company culture.
  • Iterate and improve

Be a Honey Badger

FFC - Honey badger slideHer second recommendation, also inspired by nature, was to be like honey badgers, who she calls “the most brave, courageous animals I’ve ever seen”:

  • Survive – As seen in the slide above, Young explained how, if a honey badger gets bitten by a poisonous snake (which would kill humans), it will pass out for 8-10 hours, then wake up and eat that snake.
  • Stand up for yourself (especially against competitors)
  • Be brave
  • Support your family (meaning your startup team) – “When you don’t have a beta, you don’t have revenue, or you don’t have a product/market fit, what we had always for PlanGrid was each other. I had my co-founders,” she said.

Young closed by saying, "I'm just a girl from Milpitas, [who] went into construction and now I get to lead this amazing Y Combinator company. I’m telling you, if I can do it, you can do it, too."

YC is accepting applications for Summer 2015 until March 27. What are you waiting for?


About the guest blogger: A political communications grad from George Washington University, Becky Cruze runs a marketing and communications firm geared toward startups. She previously co-founded BeCouply, a tech startup backed by Mitch Kapor that helps couples have epic social lives. You can follow her on Twitter at @beckyloveshugs.