Swing Out Sister: How Women Founders Can Shine in 2021 and Beyond
Above: A tree planting event at a World Tree farm with investors: (from left to right) Michelle Bonsu, Marlene Lewis, Kevwe Omologe, Emily Lewis.
“Sisters are doin’ it for themselves,” sang Aretha Franklin in 1985. “We’re standing on our own two feet and ringing our own bell.” That powerful call to women to stop hiding in the shadows of men is now thirty-five years old. Yet, it is still as relevant today as it was then.
While many women have come out of the kitchen and into the boardroom, there is still a long way to go. While women represent 40 percent of entrepreneurs1:
- Female founded start-ups received only 2.7 percent of venture capital in 20192
- Women entrepreneurs received only 9 percent of the investment overall3
- Only 12 percent of venture capital decision makers are women4
- Only 7 percent of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs5
- Women make $0.82 for every dollar that men make6
These are pretty gloomy statistics, especially when women-founded companies have a proven track record for performance:
- Investments in companies with female founders perform 63 percent better7
- 70 percent of the most successful funds have female partners8
- 80 percent of purchasing decisions are made by women9
So, what’s a girl to do? How do women founded companies make their mark in what is still very much a man’s world?
This year World Tree became the highest funded female-founded company on Wefunder. We raised over $2 million and became the third most funded company on the platform ever. Here are three things I’ve learned on our investment journey.
Prepare to Knock Their Socks Off
I joined World Tree as Chief Operations Officer in 2015, alongside founder Wendy Burton. Our vision was to transform forestry with a fast-growing tree that we would give to farmers for free, train them to grow, and harvest for profit.
It never occurred to us that gender would impact our ability to attract investments and build the business. In retrospect, that was naive. We were disrupting the bluest of blue industries — forestry — with a business model focused on cooperation, sustainability, and profit-sharing.
Our tree even had heart-shaped leaves and a female name: The Empress.
Wendy would come back from meetings shaking her head, “They didn’t even listen,” she would say after talking to rooms full of foresters (all men).
We started doing pitch events, with audiences that were 95 percent men in suits. We prepared like our lives depended on it. Our materials, pitch decks, financials, and offering documents were first class. We knew our stuff and it showed.
It was common to walk into a room at 9 a.m. and be totally ignored. We would pull our shoulders back, walk to the front of the room, and start talking. After a few minutes you could hear a pin drop: we had their attention.
Heart-centered Business is Good Business
Our core mission at World Tree is to “Elevate, Educate, and Innovate for the Planet.” We value people and we value Mother Earth. Our business is designed to address big issues like climate change, poverty, and deforestation. We value our team, our farmers, and our investors as real people and part of our mandate is that our employees love their lives.
In Aretha’s day this focus on people and the planet would be called fluff and nonsense. Today, it’s called good business practice. Sustainable, regenerative businesses make more profit, have better performance and more robust share prices than their counterparts.10
Running a heart-centered business comes naturally to most women, and this is a strong suit that will continue to help us make an impression in the market.
Surround Yourself with Good People
As a female founder, your most important role is to maintain the company’s vision. This is easy at the start, but gets harder over time especially when you are in the crunch of raising capital.
If you are a woman who is good at multi-tasking and someone who is reliable at getting things done (most women entrepreneurs are) then sooner or later your vision is likely to get lost in the mix. You will be burning the midnight oil working on contracts, offering documents, and marketing materials. Things you could hire other people to do at least as well as, if not better than, you.
Hiring good people to take care of the day to day will be critical for you to keep the vision alive. Save your energy for meetings that will really bring the company forward.
Last year 21 female-founded tech companies broke through the $1 billion evaluation mark. These “unicorns,” along with thousands of other successful women entrepreneurs, have been leading the way for our next generation of women in business.
Across North America there are accelerators, pitch events, and angel networks set up purely to focus investment dollars on women owned businesses. Women are supporting each other and the more we do that, the closer we will get to a level playing field. As Aretha said:
“Can you see, can you see, can you see,
There’s a woman right next to you…ho ho… ”
Article by Dr. Cathy Key, President of World Tree USA LLC, an agroforestry company that grows trees for the purpose of carbon drawdown and timber production. Dr. Key oversees the Company’s operations in 5 countries.
With a PhD in Anthropology, specializing in the economics of cooperation, Dr. Key brings a unique perspective to the way we can do business. She has presented World Tree to Canadian and US audiences on the stage of conferences including the Social Finance Forum and Sustainatopia, as well as investment groups in cities throughout North America.