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All too often, people in positions of power don’t recognize strengths that don’t present like the status quo. That top-down, command-and-control, loud leadership is not always the key to success.
As we (hopefully) are entering an era where there are as many different faces of entrepreneurship as there are companies, it’s important that we recognize that there is not one singular leadership style or manifestation of “strength” that predicts or defines success.
As a woman founder, I have the opportunity to present a more customer-centered and equity-focused example of a technology leader in my community. As a woman at the helm of an AI company, I know the importance of diverse leaders guiding the use of nascent technology to ensure that the tools and the economy we are building serve all people well and are deployed in ways that drive toward a healthier and more prosperous future for everyone.
It hasn’t always been easy being the only woman in the boardroom, but I remain committed to leveraging my authentic brand of “strength” to build not just a thriving company, but a thriving culture. I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way that may help other non-traditional entrepreneurs.
1. Use the data — it’s on your side
Remind yourself (and anybody else who will listen) that women are proven profit drivers and we have the data to back that up.
According to The Harvard Business Review, “firms with more women in senior positions are more profitable, more socially responsible and provide safer, higher-quality customer experiences.”
A Boston Consulting Group study that looked at five years of investment and revenue data showed that investment in startups founded or co-founded by women received less in average investment ($935,000 vs. $2.1 million for male founders), but they outpaced their male counterparts in profit generation over five years by 10%.
Why the disparity? Investors often tout their ability to “pattern match” and recognize strong leaders. That often translates to choosing underperforming men rather than following the data. Women are the smart economic bet. Founders — don’t wait for permission to claim your place as a leader, the data is on your side. Use it to your advantage in meetings, discussions, pitch decks and any place else that message needs to be heard.
As Pitch.com said, “If investors were looking at the data, they’d be doling out money to female founders left and right.”
2. Flip the script: Reframe your strengths
All too often, the language used to describe the unique strengths of women and underrepresented founders has negative undertones. I had to flip the script in my own head before I could really claim my place as a leader and I encourage you to do the same.
For example, female entrepreneurs are often referred to in soft language that downplays the strength of their leadership style. Women are “empathetic.” I think the more meaningful truth is that our lack of ego allows us to see the world through our customers’ perspectives and speak to the value they want to achieve. In this market, being able to connect with and understand customers is incredibly valuable. Take pride in that ability and showcase it.
Another great example: If someone calls you a careful or compassionate leader, they may not even realize the gendered language that implies. What others have seen as compassionate or careful, I see as deliberate and calculated. I focus on people because our people are the company’s greatest asset, not just because I can emotionally connect with them. Again, I flipped the script to frame what may be seen as “soft” into an asset for the company and the team.
When you’re faced with language that doesn’t sit right with you, do this simple exercise and flip the script to turn that negative into a strength. Believing in yourself and your strengths will help you sell your ideas.
3. Seek out diverse viewpoints and invite them to the table
I’ve made it my mission not only to succeed, but to create an environment where every individual on my team can thrive — to build a diverse culture where people know they are valued and safe and that collaboration is celebrated. It’s good for them; it’s good for the business; and it’s the right thing to do.
What that means is that I need to staff my senior teams with others that lead differently from me. Diverse backgrounds, strengths and styles lead to the ability to think more broadly as a group. I trust that I have seen all sides of the problem because I have surrounded myself with others who see healthcare and business challenges from a perspective that I might miss.
Again, diversity in leadership teams is not just “nice to have” nor is it solely for checking a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) box. There is proof that diverse teams — diverse in gender, race, ethnicity, age and education — perform better.
A Boston Consulting Group study found that innovation and revenue improve with diversity. The study found a “strong and statistically significant correlation between the diversity of management teams and overall innovation. Companies that reported above-average diversity on their management teams also reported innovation revenue that was 19 percentage points higher than that of companies with below-average leadership diversity — 45% of total revenue versus just 26%.”
As you staff your leadership team and identify your advisors, formal and informal, I encourage you to cultivate diversity in those ranks.
As female entrepreneurs, deep down we know we can create something and bring a vision to reality. We didn’t choose the safe or comfortable path. We chose one that requires resilience, strength (in all its forms) and maybe just a little bit of flouting convention. But the biggest risk is not being true to yourself and honoring your own personal brand of vision and strength even when the headwinds are against you, especially in this moment when the economy and our communities need more of us to step up, flip the script and take the wheel.