“Where the girls at?” I asked point-blank to a crowd of more than 60 spectators—and directly at the four judges seated in front of me. That question was how I started off my final pitch at a recent Startup Weekend. In short, it encapsulated my whole weekend—a weekend that was by, for, and created to encourage women to step up and into the startup space.
All Startup Weekends are 54-hour “No talk. All Action” events. You have 54 hours to pitch your idea, form a team, and by Sunday evening have a MVP (minimal viable product) to present to a panel of judges. However, at Startup Weekends around the world, the events have mirrored reality. Women were not showing up, and if they did they were always in the minority. They weren’t the ones pitching ideas. They kept their hands down.
Sounds vaguely like the Harvard Business School gender experiment that’s been making rounds, right? The school “gave itself a gender makeover, changing its curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success.” Similarly, Startup Weekend—Women’s Edition was born of the desire to boost the number of women actively contributing, and I could not have been more excited to sign up. As a GOOD Fellow spending the year focused on entrepreneurship education to empower girls, I was thrilled to be attending an event focused on encouraging women entrepreneurs—who I can presume were all once girls!
However, a few days prior to the event, the butterflies started. The emails from the organizers were pouring in, and all of them encouraged attendees to pitch an idea. Each pitch would be given in 60 seconds—no more, no less—to a roomful of potential team members. My mind was a running headline of questions: How could I possibly tell my story + spark inspiration + explain my idea in sixty measely seconds?!?
I’d just embarked on my Fellowship year and I found myself thinking, “I don’t have a well thought-out idea!” To calm my self-doubting nerves and get a feeler for the weekend, I decided to attend the pre-event happy hour. And to my great surprise, all the women I spoke to over our brimming cocktails were feeling the exact same emotions. I felt myself nodding along to the sentiments expressed that night, from fear of pitching to a roomful of strangers, to wanting to attend this particular startup weekend because of a notion that it would be more collaborative vs. competitive—and because being with a roomful of women somehow felt like a great first step into a unknown and often male-dominated world of startups.
Here are the key insights I took away that should be applied beyond Startup Weekend Women’s Edition in businesses, schools, and society:
1. Create a safe “risk-taking” zone.
“I can’t do this.” I heard that statement countless times over the weekend. From self-doubt to pure fear, one thing has to be made clear: whether it is raising your hand in a classroom to pitching in front of a stranger crowd, IT IS SCARY—for men and women. But women tend to succumb to the fear and take the backseat. However, at Startup Weekend Women’s Edition, this “risk” of pitching or putting yourself out there felt more safe. I felt shielded from the big, bad real-world of startups, gender bias, and herd mentality.
The female lead of the team that won first place wasn’t even going to pitch, but the push and encouragement of fellow participants and the “why not?” mentality gave her that extra courage. And while there has been backlash to social experiments that influence gender bias, and although bias continues to exist, these curated and “safe” environments are an amazing tactic to get woman to step forward and take that leap, even if it’s a micro one.
2. Bring the “Other” Together.
Women came to this event because there would be other women. I asked one of the event organizers, Andrea Bouch, why she decided to organize it. Her answer was simple: “I was tired of being the only woman in the room,” she said. Her answer resonated deeply with me. I, along with a lot of other women, decided to come to Women’s Edition so I didn’t have to feel like the “other.” Yes, there were men there as well, but women were the majority and it felt like a community from night one. Each attendee encouraged the others to pitch and put their ideas out there!
3. Encourage both collaboration AND competition.
There was a general collaborative vibe over the course of the weekend, and many of us wondered, “Is this because it’s a Women’s Edition event?” I can’t say for sure, but I do know that, because of the collaborative spirit, I joined forces with two other team leads to form the largest group—with 12 women—at the event. Yet it was the competitive element that forced me to critically think about my strengths and what I could immediately offer to my team.
For example, as much as I love details, I had to admit that no, I probably couldn’t create an illustrator image in the time allocated. I could, however, hold together a team of 12. Management and presentation skills are my strong suit, so my team nominated me to be lead. In a high-pressure and competitive environment, the bullshit is cut and you have to quickly identify your strengths and weaknesses. For an aspiring entrepreneur like myself, that sort of feedback loop to own my strengths and flaws is invaluable.
If we start incorporating some of these changes, we can make a dent on the saddening statistics—only three percent of tech firms are founded by women. My team’s idea “MentorChat” (connecting women to girls via a video-chatting platform) tied for third and I walked away feeling incredibly empowered, not because the idea is ready for market, but because the weekend—and my team—inspired a sense of “I CAN DO THIS.”
We need more “Women’s Edition” events all over the world to inspire more girls and women to stand up and take a risk—even if it is just pitching your inkling of an idea to a room of strangers.
More about Yeturu, in her own words:
I’m GOOD’s first Fellow, and I’m on a yearlong mission to discover the best practices in entrepreneurship education, and figure out how they are (or aren’t) empowering middle and high school-aged girls. Want to learn more? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.