Women Founders and Funders Share Their Startup Tips

Industry leaders discuss the value of storytelling and folding culture into the company charter.

March 21, 2017

| by Lily Clausen


Discussion between Caucasian and Muslim women

Entrepreneurs must build a compelling narrative for their companies — and themselves. | istock/mediaphotos

Are women entrepreneurs getting ahead? Yes and no. While more women are starting companies in the past decade, according to a Kauffman Index on Entrepreneurial Activity, they still certainly trail their male counterparts.

Stanford Graduate School of Business recently hosted both students and alumni at the 2017 Women Entrepreneurs Conference to focus on the big questions of starting up: How do you find funding? How do you build your team? How do you share your vision? The event featured high-level executives from Zendesk, Trinity Ventures, and Lever.

Here are their main takeaways, useful to anyone starting a company.

Build Team Values

When Selina Tobaccowala started party-planning website Evite, she and her cofounder didn’t think through things like company culture before building their team. Twenty years and several companies later, she thinks differently. “You have to be very deliberate about making your team,” says Tobaccowala. “If we have a value at our company, we have to have a policy to reinforce it.”

For example, she says, if a company values collaboration, the compensation should reflect that value and perhaps structure a bonus program tied to team performance.

CEOs should also model the values they say they believe in. She urges founders to consider the type of culture they desire and whether they can live by those values. During her time as president and CTO of SurveyMonkey both she and then-CEO David Goldberg valued time with their respective families, so they made a point to leave by 5:55 p.m. every day to be home with their kids for dinner.

“Step back and decide the things that are really important to you and then set those boundaries,” she says. It might be attending a weekly dance class with your child or spending mornings with your spouse. You must determine what’s meaningful to you and plan around it.

Tell the Company Story

In a small company, a lot of motivation comes from the leaders, so those at the company helm should continue to remind employees of what excites them about the company.


You have to be very deliberate about making your team. If we have a value at our company, we have to have a policy to reinforce it.
Selina Tobaccowala

Key to sharing your vision is becoming a great storyteller. “Storytelling isn’t just sitting around the campfire talking,” says Sarah Nahm, cofounder and CEO of Lever, a recruitment software startup. Company leaders can spend all their time evaluating mediocre candidates but, says Nahm, “storytelling is the only thing that will get you an amazing team.” Likewise, knowing a job candidate’s personal and professional story arc helps you figure out how you can determine if your narratives merge.

If your business has a clear and compelling narrative, it’s easier to imagine how your company story will be told when you’re not in the room. Laura Gómez, founder and CEO of recruitment company Atipica, urges founders to think about how a friend might deliver your company’s story if investors gather in your absence.

It’s also valuable to consider your own professional narrative. What is your story arc? Why are you here? When you post a job update to LinkedIn, how are people going to see your professional story come together? If you think through your own narrative — where you’ve been and where you’re going —you can become comfortable telling your own story. Gómez especially urges women who are returning to the workforce to “own their own stories.” More people need to share stories of success about re-entry to make it easier for others to return, she says. Through other women’s stories, you might learn about a necessary skill to develop to ease your way back to work.

Always Be Connecting — But Be Intentional

When Tobaccowala was trying to start one of her companies, she had no experience creating brands. She reached out to her network to ask for lunch and coffee dates with anyone who had experience building brands. The trick is to come to people with a specific ask. “Reach out with what you think people can answer and be specific,” she says. Don’t take it personally if someone can’t help you, but then leave the meeting with three names of people who could.

Mary Ray, cofounder and COO of MyHealthTeams, says to stay in touch with people in your network who are “athletes.” These are the people who have growth mindsets, those with the capacity to take on a lot. These athletes can come in all forms, so don’t discriminate based on where they are right now: He or she might be working in a different industry, or living across the country, or taking time off for caregiving.

Paint Your Vision

Freestyle VC partner Jenny Lefcourt shared an account of a meeting where, after an hour, she asked the woman pitching her a simple question: “What are you?” The entrepreneur then described the company in a clear, pithy manner. The entrepreneur explained that she didn’t want to over-promise and under-deliver. Lefcourt responded that a vision is not a promise, it’s a vision. Lefcourt suggests that founders start with a clear, pithy response so the vision doesn’t get lost in a long, unclear meeting.“Women can have a hard time putting out a bold vision,” Lefcourt says. “You have to paint your vision for us to get excited about it.”

To paint the vision of your company, Lefcourt urges founders to think of pitching investors as a sales gig. Your job, Lefcourt explains, is to look at the person across the table and educate them on why they should back you. It’s a business conversation — don’t take it personally. “If you try to start enjoying it and thinking of it like an opportunity to sit and learn from smart people, you’re going to come across as more likeable,” she says.

Build a Community

When women and minority VCs and founders work together, they help make each other’s lives richer, better, and fuller, says Fern Mandelbaum, Stanford GSB lecturer and partner at Vista Venture who received her MBA from Stanford GSB in 1988.

“We can all be a part of this virtuous cycle,” she says. “Key is to help each other and build this community, to build on the friendships we started today, and to be entrepreneurial. And by being entrepreneurial I mean to see and seek out opportunities, to be optimistic, to be passionate, to take risks, to be leaders, and to execute and act upon your ideas.”

Theresia Gouw, who received her MBA from Stanford GSB in 1994, and cofounder of Aspect Ventures, is hopeful that as women become successful entrepreneurs, they will go on to become angel investors and venture capitalists, and that will feed the pipeline of women in entrepreneurship. “I’m seeing a lot of the good early indicators,” she said at the conference. “I think we’re getting closer to a tipping point.”

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