Advice to aspiring (female) founders
5 years ago I co-founded a startup, as a first time entrepreneur, first time CEO. Twitter acquired Aiden.ai in November 2019.
I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur. But if you had asked me when I was twenty years old, I would not have answered that I did. I just did not know it was an option.
For International Women’s Day, I want to write a post for women who have big plans. For my husband, who is the most feminist person I know. Not by his words, but by his actions. And of course, for my daughter and my son. May they be as bold as they want to be in their life choices, not as bold as what society en/dis-courages them to be, based on their gender.
I co-founded Aiden.ai in July 2016. Back then, I was married without children. Our first child was born in the middle of the startup adventure. I fundraised whilst being pregnant (and so can you), and our family unconventionally managed to make it work. Unconventionally because my husband looked after our daughter as a single dad for almost 3 months when the startup adventure led our team to move to SF.
Choosing entrepreneurship when you are woman means you will always directly or indirectly be asked: can you have it all?
When you’re a man, no one even thinks about whether or not you will want to have kids and can do that on top of your role of CEO. It’s uniquely ostracising for men (why doesn’t anyone care if they can be a dad and a leader?), and it annoys women that it’s an underlying concern of everyone else when they are involved, even when they chose not to have a family. A lose-lose scenario. I won’t start a debate about if it’s right or wrong. It’s unavoidable and real.
In my humble opinion the reason why fewer women choose CEO roles is because of the enormous pressure that is placed upon them, unconsciously, from the youngest age. As a mum now, I can’t help think how I can raise my children to make free choices. But I also think about what I’d tell myself at age twenty.
Here’s what I’ll tell my daughter and aspiring female founders :
1. You can achieve the unachievable
Only if you disregard where your abilities end, and go for the opportunities that you dream of, not the ones within your reach. You must be a newbie at some point before you can become an expert, so why wait? Every founder has been a first time founder, and every person who got a promotion with a huge step up in responsibilities has doubted themselves. “Will I be good enough?”. You will have doubts whether you aim high or you aim low. But as the saying goes:
“dreams will take you much further than doubts ever will”.
Secondly, I am amazed by the amount of young women who already think about how they will have a family and a career. Not your fault. Society, parents, the news, everything seems to push women to come up with a magical plan to have a career and a family years before it should even be on their minds. Imagine the amount of brain power that is dedicated to solving this impossible puzzle instead of applying to the jobs you dream of, or starting a company? So don’t only disregard where your abilities end, try to disregard that you may choose to start a family at some point in the future. Stay in the moment, don’t anticipate.
2. The individual is not greater than the system
You may find yourself stuck in an environment that isn’t supportive of your ambition.
Every day, ambitious women sacrifice their careers and dreams because of the system, not because they aren’t good enough. I’d need an entire blog post to delve into this point in more details but i’ll say this: I’m ecstatically glad that tech is driving forward a huge change by offering matching parental leave to both parents. That’s a game changer.
It does not matter how driven you are, if the system doesn’t allow you to organise yourself to support your career choices, you won’t be set up for success.
It’s akin running a marathon with an invisible fridge on your back, and be expected to cross the finish-line first.
Many of my female friends who have chosen ambitious careers in finance, VC or entrepreneurship come to realise that the glass ceiling not only exists but can also be unbreakable when / if you don’t identify or look like the majority of your co-workers.
There are generally two attitudes from women who witness this fact:
I don’t generally shy away from conflict if there is a chance of winning but I’d say this: be realistic. What are your chances of changing the company you work at? 10% or 90%? Then choose.
If you do choose to fight the system, it’s worth investing in building a strong network of allies before you ambition to change an entire, long- entrenched, mindset. You could lose your faith in humanity pretty quickly if you go at it alone.
It’s also ok to come to the conclusion you won’t fight this battle. The company you work at is too political, too patriarchal, too ruthless, too un-incentivised to change? Quit thinking you have to be the hero.
I’d recommend taking your talents and grit somewhere that values them. It’s their loss, not yours.
Or alternatively, consider starting your own company. The glass ceiling is far less present as so much just depends on you and you only (or your cofounders).
3. Success isn’t a one woman job.
There is no such thing as a self made wo/man.
My husband is 100% the reason for which I could do what I did. He supported me in every aspect of the adventure. He supported us, he believed in us. Not just philosophically. When we decided to start a family, we couldn’t afford full time help on startups salaries, and our close families lived in a different country. When our daughter was born and I had to travel to San Francisco from London for weeks on end, he took charge. Never complained, never explained. I was grateful and since I would have done the same for him, I did not realise how unique it was until I started looking around — back to point 2.
Letting people try something, even if it’s risky and inconvenient for the partner is often very gendered. How do we raise our sons and daughters so that they equally step-up if their partners require them to?
I was also often helped by many benevolent women and men who I built close relationships with throughout the startup adventure: founders, angels, VCs (who did or did not invest in my company). They gave me a few minutes of their time when I had nothing but attention to give them. Jean de La Rochebrochard , Sophia Bendz , carolineramade, Alexandre, Pierre Betouin, Laura Connell. And many more – merci! I’m forever thankful.
Invest in building those relationships along the way because grit and ambition alone only get you so far. Work friendships, filled with mutual respect and admiration take you much further.
I’m excited to see an ever growing diversity in both founders and c-level execs at large companies. I don’t know what the future holds for my daughter, but I know she’ll have lots of examples to pick from if she ever wants to consider entrepreneurship and asks herself: why not?
Wishing you all an inspiring International Women’s Day 2021, and here’s to women choosing the careers they want for themselves 🥂
Find me on Twitter @marieouttier
👀 Previous publications on IWD: