Female Founders – From Cal to Startup Success

Last Tuesday’s Newton Series Lectures featured a diverse and highly accomplished panel of female founders. All Cal bears, Doreen Bloch (Haas, ’10), CEO and founder of Poshly; Pauline Shuen (’89), former executive of Cisco and founder of Level Chinese; and Laura Gomez (’01), founder and CEO of Atipica; filled the hour with startup sagacity and life lessons thus far.

Doreen moved to New York right after graduation, where she worked at Second Market doing pre-IPO share trading. Her passion for media, aesthetics, business and technology sparked her idea to do big data for the beauty industry, and not long after, Poshly was born. To date, Poshly has collected 20 million data points from consumers to help cosmetic brands make better decisions on what to place on shelves.

Pauline had intended to go down the pre-med track at Cal but one Computer Science course at Berkeley forever changed the trajectory of her career path. Years down the road, her decision to work for 3Com, a small company that grew exponentially during her time there, turned her into a startup junkie. Since then, the survival instinct evoked by the startup culture has kept her hooked. In recent years, she has quit tech and brought analytics to education with her startup, Level Chinese, which brings quality Chinese education into K-12 classrooms.

Although Laura graduated with Developmental Studies and completed her Masters in Sociology, she stayed close to tech throughout her studies. This was also true in the physical sense, as she returned to the Bay Area to pursue her passion for tech and ended up becoming a head of localization at Twitter during its early stages. Her interest lies in in seeing how machine learning can parse data gaps, and that’s exactly what Atipica does – sentiment analysis on interrupting and eliminating biases in the recruiting process, as well as interrupting pattern matching. 

Perhaps contrary to what most would assume, it was stability that drove them to make their first steps into the startup realm. Pauline found that being in a small startup gave her more transparency about the ins and outs of the company, how much money was in the bank, and thus ultimately how secure her job was at any given time. Contrast this to working for a big tech company where layoffs could occur with very little notice. For Doreen, stability came from being able to rapidly accelerate her skills. In a small startup, it was not uncommon for her to find herself acting as VP of Engineering one day, and Head of HR the next. All this is not to say that large tech companies don’t offer this kind of expertise – Laura credits her experiences at Google and Twitter for getting her to where she is today. If anything, the takeaway for budding entrepreneurs is to experience both if at all possible.

As for the biggest challenges they have encountered as founders, Doreen considers adapting to the changing climate of each startup stage to be the most challenging. The perfect team for a startup at seed-stage may not be optimal for later stages, contrary to the popular notion that the same company members who start the race reach the finish line together. Another challenge she has run into is getting attuned to the rhythm of revenue generation. For Laura, it has been difficult to see so much competition emerge since launching Atipica. However, the frustrations caused by this have only driven her to execute more, and better.

If there’s one challenge they are unanimous on, it’s the challenge of fundraising. The biggest need for female entrepreneurs is at the seed level, not at Series A or B, and so getting the introduction to the venture capitalist or angel who believed in their idea was absolutely crucial. To add to that, at each new level, stakeholder and partnership decisions became more and more difficult. An entrepreneur can’t be afraid to bootstrap, and this is what Doreen found herself doing for two years – often pulling from personal, family, and any revenue funds she made to cover the accounts. At the end of 2013, she had a meagre $85 left in her bank account, but throughout it all, Doreen learned that fundraising depended heavily on strategy and networking. Because needs change at every level, she learned how important it was to constantly and strategically stay in touch with the right people, not just for funds but also to gain any advice she could get her hands on as a young entrepreneur.

What biases and opportunities have they experienced as female founders in a male-dominated field? The opportunities lie in the fact that there are still so many untapped sectors where data analytics could be applied. Doreen doubts her idea for Poshly would have originated without a female behind the wheel (97% of Poshly’s users are female). The tech industry is most certainly not an even playing field for female entrepreneurs but being female has actually helped Pauline, as an extra measure of respect is given to her when people realize she’s not HR or Admin and that she’s actually running the show. For Laura, the challenges of growing up as an undocumented immigrant from a low-income background have helped her to overcome any biases, challenges or fundraising woes thrown at her. With $2.1 million for Atipica thus far, the largest of any startup founded by a male or female Latino founder in the Silicon Valley, Laura’s story is a classic one of overcoming the odds. Just in this week, Atipica closed their $2M seed round and has hired their long-time SurveyMonkey executive as their first CTO! See the press release here.

Some fear that data analytics is an oversaturated venture, but Doreen, Pauline, and Laura’s successes and experiences prove that the concern is misplaced. Their respective successes prove that the real issue is that there are not enough female minds in entrepreneurship and technology, to bring in new ideas and tap into previously untapped sectors.

Watch the full lecture here:

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