Is it really harder for women to start up a business?

I was watching a documentary on women entrepreneurs in China. Almost every other statement in the documentary was asking the women entrepreneurs if they found it harder as a woman in this journey, if being a man would make their business life easier and so on. I am not sure if there is a cultural issue at play here, or if the way in which the questions were asked predisposed the women to answer in a certain way. I came away with the understanding that it was definitely harder for women in China to start up a business. So I asked myself if it was also the same in Singapore?Screen Shot 2018-05-27 at 8.13.44 pm

I had an immediate reply for myself. But I thought to survey my friends. So I did up this survey on my facebook page to collect some data. I received 42 replies in total (not counting myself) 42 is definitely too small a sample size to give any real significance. But I thought at least it gives a sense of how people in the ecosystem feel on this topic.

Some demographic data to take note: 42 respondents:

  • 31 women and 11men;
  • 33 founders/co-founders, 9 from the eco-system.
  • Age group wise, 2 >45yo; 18 of age 25-35; 22 of age 36-45.

(I should have asked for marital status, and if they have any children. From the comments to the survey post, I realise two very apparent shortfalls of the survey: a) marital status and having children are two great factors for women to consider when starting up a business; b) scaling vs starting up – scaling is another conversation which I did not cover in this survey)

64% feels it’s equally hard

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64% (27 out of 42) feels it’s equally hard, and 36% said it’s harder for women. What’s interesting to note is 70% of those who say it’s equally hard are WOMEN (of almost equal weightage between age groups 20-35 and 36-45) I personally belong to this camp too. From my own journey, I don’t recall any incidents where I was sidelined due to me being a woman. The challenges I faced were largely due to my youth, inexperience, non gender based issues.

Key reasons why it’s harder for women

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The heavy male dominant nature of the ecosystem is the top reason cited by 11 women (and 2 men) as the reason why starting up is harder for women. That also probably explains the 2nd highest chosen – the innate societal biases of people against women.

One incident came up to mind when reading these responses. A pair of startup founders were pitching to us to seed fund them. One of the founders was late, and so he did not hear how Der Shing and I made our investment decisions (both of us have to say yes for anything to go ahead) So he came in half way when his partner was presenting, and then he started showing us the demo. While his partner was ensuring both Der Shing and me were engaged, the late guy largely ignored me. I could not see his screen at all, and he didn’t even bother too much when Der Shing asked him to shift the laptop towards me. I asked some questions, and his responses to me was dismissive. When we were wrapping up, Der Shing repeated my questions and told him if I am not satisfied with his answer, he would not have our support in any way. From this incident alone, I wonder if it’s a case of “Men are just more comfortable with men” or “unconscious bias against women.”

Too many little voices in women’s heads

There were three women who reflected that the hardest part is actually due to themselves. I am one of these women who have many little voices in my head – all the whys, why nots, what ifs and so on. The self doubt is endless, and just spirals away in the minds constantly.

A little trick that I do now to manage the many worries. I write them down in a column, and a relevant solution or attitude to manage them in the next column. When I first started doing this, I thought I would have tones of stuff to write on the “worry” column. But surprisingly, it’s usually just one or two things, and with very easy to execute solutions against them. I realise, when they are purely in the mind, they “hover” and seem unsurmountable. But after you pen them down, and it’s really just that few things. Visually the short list with the solutions next to them really help to calm me down.

More women need to step forward to help the women

6 respondents said that the women in the ecosystem are not doing enough to help other women founders, while all 15 respondents said definitely more need to be done. They suggested having more role models, and feature more successful women-led startups, more women founder support groups. One interesting suggestion is to have more cross-pollination between women founders – be it STEM, FinTech or any vertical.

I agree we have very few real women role model supporting the ecosystem. But that’s really the outcome of us having really very little exit stories to-date. And for those known profiles who are doing well, they are still 100% in the game and need to focus on their core business.

While I am not active in any of the women groups, I do know there are quite a few out there. It definitely will take some effort for one to move around to search for the most suitable. There are also non-female based groups. EO and YPO are successful examples of business clubs that are great for peer to peer learning and support.

Which is the hardest part of starting up?

While 33% said forming the team is hardest, 21% said it’s product market fit, and 14% said “all of the above”. Funding and Selling tied for #4 spot. But I would caution against drawing any conclusion here. What’s considered the hardest bit in a startup journey is really a function of personal strengths vs weaknesses, and unique to the situation each startup is in.

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To conclude, it appears from my small survey that most people don’t find it harder for women to startup in Singapore. That’s a good testimony to our ecosystem. However, for the 1/3 that do feel it is harder, they point to male centric behaviours and structures that consciously or unconsciously exclude women. A smaller number feel it is women ourselves who make it harder with our internal voices and by not helping fellow women. This gels well with my personal experiences over the last 18 years first as an entrepreneur and now as a full time investor. It will be interesting to see whether this opinion changes with marriage, kids and during the scaling up phase of the business.


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