Words of wisdom from three female founders to launch Women's Entrepreneurship Month. By Sarah Chang (Senior Board Member, CORE) and Qiuyun (Michelle) Tan (Executive Board Member, CORE)
Following closely on the heels of the Y Combinator Female Founders Conference in Mountain View earlier this month, the Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs (CORE – Columbia University’s entrepreneurship society) hosted three YC W12 alums (Kathryn Minshew, Olga Vidisheva, and Nikki Durkin) for a Story Series event last Tuesday to kick off Columbia’s inaugural Women’s Entrepreneurship Month.
The storytelling series covers everything from women in venture capital to leadership style, inviting speakers like Joanne Wilson of Gotham Gal and Anna Holmes of Jezebel. Its month-long initiative was launched to create more dialogue at the student level about women as entrepreneurs, and the overwhelming interest at Tuesday’s sold-out event mirrors the rising trend of female founders in the NYC startup scene.
“When we looked at the marquee speakers CORE brought to campus this year, they’re incredible people like Jack Dorsey, Alexis Ohanian, Ben Smith, Drew Houston…but none of them were women. We want to inspire and encourage women to challenge the startup gender ratio and thought that having successful female founders share personal anecdotes of both the good and the bad would resonate most with students,” explains Sarah Chang, senior at Columbia leading the Women@CORE initiative.
The speakers were encouraged not to give advice, but to share personal stories and pivotal moments that shaped their entrepreneurial journey. The energy from the audience certainly proved receptive to this approach.
The main takeaways from their tales:
Businesses Are Born Out of Personal Pain Points
Kathryn Minshew is Founder and CEO of The Muse, a career site that provides smartly curated advice and opportunities. She found inspiration from her own experiences after realizing that being on-the-job was never quite what she expected.
Growing up in the suburbs of Washington DC, Kathryn dreamed of being a secret agent for the CIA, but these hopes quickly changed after an internship at the State Department. Having worked in Rwanda through the Clinton Foundation and consulted at McKinsey & Company, she realized that none of these careers let her do what she loves best — taking ownership and putting in whatever it takes to make things succeed.
The Muse was born out of a personal pain point in the job search process: “I wanted to figure out how to visualize what my life would be like in all these careers.” With no available options, she simply built one with her McKinsey colleague, Alex Cavoulacos.
Olga Vidisheva, Founder and CEO of Shoptiques, also entered the startup world after a traditional corporate stint — investment banking at Goldman Sachs. After immigrating from Russia, Olga waitressed and modeled (including for a vacuum cleaner campaign) to pay her way through Wellesley — an early sign of relentless entrepreneurial drive.
As for the inspiration behind Shoptiques, Olga says that after working at Goldman until 3 AM, she “needed a mental break” and always felt an urge to shop. She noted that wherever she traveled, she would bring back unique gifts, plates, and trinkets from local boutique stores, but at home, the only available choices were mainstream brands.
While attending Harvard Business School, she realized the huge market potential of helping boutique stores establish an online presence and committed to the idea: “If I don’t start it, somebody else will.”
Nikki Durkin, Founder & CEO of 99dresses, had similar ambitions and moved to the U.S. from Australia to build her startup. A serial entrepreneur, Nikki started her first online business at 15 with her 13-year-old younger brother, designing T-shirts and shipping them from China.
With 99dresses, she identified a problem with the way women consumed fashion — inefficiency. Nikki explains that women buy dresses and keep them in the closet, but their shopping addiction drives them to buy more and more. 99dresses started out as a Facebook event exchanging clothes among Nikki’s 250 girlfriends to tackle this problem, but quickly spread to thousands of Facebook fans in Australia.
Y Combinator Was a Spontaneous Decision
Interestingly, two of the three women wrote their application to YC at the last minute. Kathryn started the day before, only after the request of her mentor, and Olga started literally 20 minutes before the deadline.
Kathryn asked a friend for advice but didn’t get a response until two hours after submission, telling her “Don’t write it like this, they’re gonna hate it.” The Muse still got in.
After hearing about the scarcity of female YC alums, Olga jokes, “I should have been more stressed out knowing it was a 4% acceptance rate for women! Or that I was the single founder, and my outsourced team was in Indonesia.”
The initial success in Australia for Nikki forced her to seriously consider dedicating to the business and building a product to solve a long-time problem. At 18, she didn’t have any experience building a product or a team, and had some early setbacks with two potential founders: “I remember it was raining. These two guys walked off leaving me in the rain. It was a nightmare.”
But YC was her ticket to the US, and she managed to both find and convince a co-founder to fly with her for the interview, all within 10 days. 7 minutes into the 10-minute interview, she recalls a surprise: Paul Graham goes, “Are these real dresses or virtual dresses?” Then he turned to his wife Jessica Livingston: “Will you use it?” She responded, “I’m not the target market.”
Being Bold Beats the Odds
Kathryn described her mentality walking into her YC interview as being bold and relentless, with no shortage of dreaming big: “We see you’re never gonna like us, you’re so wrong, and we’re gonna tell you why you’re wrong, and we’re gonna succeed anyway.”
Echoing similar thoughts, Olga stressed that getting a “yes” is a privilege you might not have, so you have to be prepared to do everything to show them first, before they’ll understand.
The Power to Present Yourself is in Your Own Hands
Olga says that if you’re the founder and the one who is going to create a billion dollar business, your first job is to believe in yourself. Otherwise, even with the best qualifications or profile in the world, no one can believe in you.
Kathryn also acknowledges this challenge, explaining “People put me in a box and label that box. When I go to networking events, sometimes people who don’t understand will ‘pat me on the head,’ telling me it’s so nice I run a career site.”
It’s said that YC never accepts people from Business School, Finance, or content-based startups, (and rarely women, given the statistics), yet these three founders have made it, largely because of how they wrote a label for themselves.
Know the Difference Between “Need to Exist” and “Cool”
Making the distinction between ideas that really need to exist and ideas that are just cool, Kathryn says there are things you’re passionate about at the moment but might not be interesting in five years. She recalls toying with the idea of a collaborative travel business like Vayable but deciding against it: “Once you’ve been working on it for a while,” she says, “the clarity will come.” Now she says she can’t imagine doing anything else.
Stressing that businesses need to make money, Olga reminds that at the end of the day, “You’re building a business, and it’s crucial to know if your pain points are big enough markets.” These three women are lucky enough to have a large number of people who have the same need, but it’s important to focus on the market and financial viability.
Similarly, Nikki believes if a business model has the potential of changing something fundamental in our lives and can fix pressing problems, it’s worth carrying out: “People pay me to make them happy.” She sees 99dresses’ larger mission as changing the way women see fashion and reducing environmental waste.
Be Prepared to Counter False Preconceptions
When The Muse went to particular VCs in the early days, the co-founders were greeted with the preconceived idea that women built small companies. Kathryn says she’s also “been to tons of VC meetings where they try to make it a date,” but it’s incredibly important to convince them otherwise: “Women can build billion dollar businesses,” says Kathryn, then you have to set out to prove it.
There also are challenges with male investors who may not be the target demographic for the company. Sometimes, they may fail to see why the product or service is relevant, but as long as you realize this, it alone shouldn’t discourage the idea.
Olga and Nikki were able to play the female stereotype to their advantage (VCs knew the product wasn’t built for them though had wives who loved shopping so there must be a market), but Kathryn needed to convince investors who hadn’t looked for a job in decades to see how job search was broken.
People would ask to her face if women cared about their careers that much, especially after they got married. With the popularity of The Muse, she now has the evidence to say: "Guess what, hundreds of millions of women in the world really care about their career."
By inspiring and encouraging more women to consider entrepreneurship and launch their own companies, these YC alums may be the force behind the tipping point towards gender equality in 2014, as envisioned at the YC Conference by Jessica Livingston, Founder of YC.
But ultimately, the goal is that one day, these women will no longer be known as “Female” Founders of their wildly successful businesses, but, simply, as Founders.
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About the writers: Sarah is an undergraduate at Columbia and senior board member of CORE, leading the Women@CORE team. She’s currently an intern at The Muse and has worked in business strategy and innovation at the Virgin headquarters in London and business development for startups in NYC. Qiuyun (Michelle) is an undergraduate student at Columbia University majoring in Economics with a concentration in History. She is an Executive Board Member of CORE, and the Co-Editor in Chief of the student entrepreneurship blog at Columbia University.