Reflections from moderating a female entrepreneurship panel
- by Gail Wong
Started my day in the company of great women, moderating a female entrepreneurship panel, jointly hosted by Antler and Ladies Investment Club (L.I.C.). The esteemed panellists included some amazing female founders and women in business including Grace Clapham, TEDx Speaker, Co-Founder of The Change School; Joanna Wong, Founder in Antler's inaugural cohort, CEO of All Woman Co.; Prerna Sharma, Antler's Director of Talent Acquisition; and Tanya Rolfe, Founder of L.I.C. and Head of Corporate Sales at Gifts Less Ordinary.
The day before, all five of us gathered in our virtual “green room” with a common intention to encourage and inspire female “wantrepreneurs” to take the plunge, through sharing of stories and personal insights. This article synthesises three themes around the transition from employment to entrepreneurship from this conversation, sprinkled with some post-panel personal thoughts.
1. Leadership: accepting responsibility for ALL aspects of the business
In contrast to the corporate world, starting a venture means wearing multiple hats outside your domain expertise, giving up a steady pay check, navigating unstructured environment with uncertain outcomes and limited resources. The most commonly-stated hesitation that I hear women express can be distilled down to:
“Am I enough?”
- whether measured in knowledge, skills, experience, network, money or time
In my transformative coaching experience, the alternative to striving to be "perfect enough" (a lost cause) is a dance between self-awareness - which both Grace and Joanna touched on in different ways - and growth mindset (theme #2 which we’ll explore further below).
Be objectively honest with yourself about who you are
In practical terms, identify your skills, strengths, environment and personal influences and accept them as valid facts. It will then become crystal clear what complementary knowledge, support, resources and partners to seek - all of which collectively elevate your business.
While contemplating her career switch, Joanna realised she was surrounded by more corporate folks than entrepreneurs. Entering the Antler program provided the community she sought and indirectly led to partnering her present-day co-founder who manages operations (sourcing, supply chain), while she devotes her energy to areas of passion - product, marketing and customers.
Doing the work to articulate your personal voice will distinguish you as a leader. Further so with your business vision, strategy and execution capabilities. Startup life offers autonomy, purpose, excitement, financial upside and more. However, the greatest of these is self-actualisation. Honouring your unique perspective and mission helps power the everyday drudgery. Hearing about the impact of your product or service from customers goes beyond economic value and social proof. It affirms yours and your brands’ reasons for existence. As a servant leader, I couldn't agree more.
2. As one person, accept that you can’t do everything (well)
Feedback can be hard to receive initially, especially when you’ve poured every ounce of yourself into an endeavour and come up short. The troughs of entrepreneurship can feel so vulnerable in this way.
Beware of perfectionism amplifying your weaknesses. It’s easy to pigeon-hole your capabilities and resign yourself to that fact. (e.g. “I don’t know about financials. My husband handles it”). Studies show women weigh their proven competencies heavier than men, especially so when it comes to evaluating opportunities.
Reshma Saujani suggests that this is rooted in systemic cultural programming and proposes a powerful reframe. Instead of equating shortcomings to a measure of your worth, think of it as a beacon to grow your knowledge in that area. For what is entrepreneurship, but the school of life?
Such resilience, humility and adaptability were cited by Prerna and Tanya as important qualities in startup leaders. A receptive CEO who values diverse input, knows they can sometimes lose the trees for the forest, is a joy to invest in and partner with. Another trait was “likeability” - this is a dimension I’d like to explore further amongst L.I.C. members in our discussions of ongoing deals. I've learnt through my angel and venture investments that any decision process transcends business plans and analytics. Rather, it is rooted in my intuition about the company and my trust in the founders themselves.
3. What catalyses that leap into entrepreneurship?
Grace shared an interesting statistic from The Change School: 95% of the time, big changes are sparked by a major life events such as relocation, marriage/divorce, health setbacks, loss or births of loved ones.The stunning clarity from having your world rocked jolts you out of denial and fear. In those circumstances, one starkly confronts the sheer unworkability and pain of the status quo, to the point that change becomes imperative. A drastically altered life sparks deep reflection about one’s legacy, and the commitment to take new actions aligned with that. 5 years ago, I asked myself
Which would I regret more,
10 more years on Wall Street dominated by the fear of the unknown and bound by conventions of success, OR
10 years of uncertainty, trying, occasional failure (and I could write a whole piece about how we define success and failure…), discovery, personal growth?
How could I tell my daughter to be fearless and bold with her life decisions if I copped out from cowardice? I've clawed myself back from postpartum depression - and what for? A joke I partook in in post-panel mingling goes like this,
Go for it! What could happen?
What could you lose?
To conclude, taking the plunge is no cavalier decision but my observation of business owners over the past three decades since observing my parents, affirms this:
Every person who took a chance on a venture has never looked back. Even if some go back to employment later, they are genuinely thankful and credit the journey for the wisdom they have gained and better people they have become.
Gail Wong is the co-founder of L.I.C. connecting women investors with female-led businesses seeking partnership and funding. She is the Singapore champion for SheEO, a global community of radically generous women transforming how we finance, support, and celebrate women-led Ventures.