Women Entrepreneurs: “Turn Your Difference into an Advantage”

Stanford lecturer and investor Fern Mandelbaum discusses the climate for women entrepreneurs and the value of creating an inclusive culture.

December 09, 2014

| by Loren Mooney


Students talking together

Students at Stanford GSB chat during a class. | Saul Bromberger

The class Entrepreneurship from the Perspective of Women began as a short seminar about a decade ago. Since then, it has been taken by hundreds of people, most of them women. Lecturer, entrepreneur, and venture capitalist Fern Mandelbaum began teaching the class last year, and this year helped expand it into a full-quarter course.

While she hopes to change the name — “Would you call a class Entrepreneurship from the Perspective of Men? Of course not,” she says — the core principles remain the same: Confidence is key, diversity is an asset, and an entrepreneur’s psyche can be just as important as her business plan.

We spoke with Mandelbaum about her course and the current climate of entrepreneurship. Excerpts:

What’s the single biggest challenge for women entrepreneurs today?

Believing in yourself, that basic tenet. So much in life is about confidence. Business. Parenting. Sports. That’s why my personal title for the class is You Can Do It. Confidence is what allows you to try it in the first place — it enables risk-taking, thinking big, perseverance. A lot of people say confidence trumps competence. I’m not sure that’s true, but it’s just as important.


So many women wrestle with confidence, from the time they’re little girls until the time they’re my colleagues. But if you don’t believe you can do it, how will others believe?
Fern Mandelbaum

Women are often good at coming up with reasons why they shouldn’t try something, or have what’s called the imposter syndrome. Some CEO women entrepreneurs say, “It’s luck” or “I’m not even sure how I’m doing this.” So many women wrestle with confidence, from the time they’re little girls until the time they’re my colleagues, and I’m 52. It comes up all the time in my class. But if you don’t believe you can do it, how will others believe?

What works really well is honest confidence and a bit of humility.

You tell your class that managing your own psychology is critical for entrepreneurs — how do you do that?

First, you have to be mindful of your emotions so you can address them. Women, for example, are more likely to take criticism personally and often sit on the sidelines. They have to see that they’re doing it in order to address it, say, “Whoa, I am sitting on the edge of this room” and get back to the table.

It’s important to have a positive outlook and enjoy the process. Know what makes you happy. You have to let go of other people’s judgments and figure out what you need, and what’s important to you. You’re going to be a much better leader if you’re a positive person. I know entrepreneurs who hit the wall mentally, and everyone at the company feels it.

Whether it’s your intention or not, you create your company culture and set the tone from the top. One of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is just letting a culture happen. Creating your culture is just as important as tactical parts of your business like establishing partnerships and pricing your product, and people don’t often think about it that way.

There’s been a lot of news lately about gender inequality in the technology industry. What’s the current funding landscape like for women entrepreneurs?

There is an unfortunate double standard — did you see the Pantene shampoo ad from a year or so ago? It shows men and women in the exact same business scenarios, and he’s seen as confident, but she’s seen as pushy. He’s dedicated if he puts in long hours, but she’s selfish.

There are many articles on women having a hard time getting funding. But I’d rather focus on the fact that there are a lot of amazing female venture capitalists, including Maha Ibrahim, Sharon Wienbar, Annie Kadavy, Heidi Roizen, Kirsten Green, Ann Miura-Ko, Aileen Lee, Theresia Ranzetta and Patricia Nakache, who I doubt have any unconscious biases toward women founders. And there are also lots of men who couldn’t care less if you’re a woman or a man; they just want to fund the best ideas and teams.

And yes, there are still some guys who will ask in a meeting, “Are you planning to have kids? Well, how are you going to run a company and do that?” But there are many women — Julia Hartz, Amy Chang, Amy Pressman — who are doing it, who are raising money and running successful companies while raising kids. Were there people who didn’t think they could do it? Absolutely. Are they being incredibly successful? They are. Let’s focus on those women.

Do you think that the climate has changed, or is changing?

The climate seems to have gotten a little worse recently. There are so many articles about sexism and biases in tech; seems like a new one every day. The Snapchat founder’s “frat emails.” Or Uber’s negative male culture. But by all of this getting out, it’s made everyone more aware, and hopefully less likely to perpetuate those behaviors.

And I do think it will get better, in part because of the heightened awareness but also because there are more women who want to be entrepreneurs and leaders, and the more there are, the more things will change. Plus you’ve got many excellent books like Lean In and The Confidence Code, and we’ve reached a point where you just can’t ignore these issues anymore.

We need great women leaders. There are reams of data about how having a woman board member, a woman CEO, and/or women on the executive team will improve a company’s financial performance. Some people say, “Well, I tried to find a qualified woman.” But qualified women for those positions do exist. Half the population is women; 42% of the Stanford business school class is women. That’s the highest it’s ever been, and I’ve met many of them; they are truly awesome.

You talk about how women can use being different as a strength rather than allowing it to be a weakness. How can women do this?

It’s a mindset. You can either look at being a woman as, “This is terrible, there are unconscious biases, what an uneven playing field.” Or you can turn your difference into an advantage. When I was 13 I received my black belt in Taekwondo, and among other things, I learned to take negative energy and redirect it to my benefit. “I’m going to be the only woman in this meeting, and maybe it may be awkward and some people may not want me here, but it will certainly be easier for them to remember me.”

There are other advantages, too. Women are often considered better listeners, intuitive and innovative, who create more collaborative cultures at their companies. And when you’re trying to recruit, those companies with women at the top have an easier time recruiting other great women. And given that many of the people you’re selling to are women, women leaders may help you be more attuned to your customers.

Your class features 25 guest speakers — who do you bring in and why?

Of the 25 speakers, 20 of them are women CEOs and VCs, from places like Eventbrite, Ditto, Medallia, Wildfire/Google and Scale Ventures, who come and share their stories. The men who come and speak are also incredible. For example, Steve Loughlin from RelateIQ has created an awesome culture at his company — it’s so mission-driven. People love working there, men and women. Last year he mentioned something that happened in a meeting that speaks to his culture: A woman made her point, a male team member made the same point five minutes later, and Steve said, “Joe, Jane just said that.” They left the meeting and Steve said to Jane, “Next time you’ve got to stand up for yourself.”

The VC perspective is also so important. The students learn how they hear things and how to communicate in meetings with VCs. One of my speakers, Annie Kadavy, a recent grad who’s working at CRV, shared some tips, like how she’ll sit forward in order to take up more room, instead of shrinking back in her chair. I’m not saying you have to act like a guy. That’s not it at all. Be yourself. But be confident, and know that you belong in that meeting as much as anyone else.

Male students make up less than 10% of your class — do you think more men will want to take it in the future?

I do. Men are interested in becoming great leaders and learning how to create an inclusive environment. We all want to understand these issues, and it’s very important for men to be part of the conversation. And they are definitely going to be better managers if they understand how women are feeling.

And definitely from the standpoint of managing your own psychology, enjoying the process, setting the culture, and being authentic — those are just as relevant for men as for women.

Stanford GSB Lecturer Fern Mandelbaum has founded and been involved from the very early stages of several companies, including Skyline Products, Kanjoya, Greystripe, Popchips, Accompani and StarMaker, and is a general partner with Vista Venture Partners, investing in companies like PicnicHealth and Gridspace. She received her MBA from Stanford GSB in 1988.

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