First it was Away, the fast-growing, direct-to-consumer luggage company with a $1.4 billion valuation. A story published in The Verge in December of last year exposed a toxic and emotionally abusive work culture fostered by co-founder and CEO Steph Korey. Screenshots of Korey’s belittling slacks to employees demanding that they work through holidays were included, painting a damning picture. Up next, in early March, it was Outdoor Voices. As the company failed to scale, news broke that its founder and charismatic face of the brand, Ty Haney, was stepping down. A Buzzfeed report about the toxic work culture Haney cultivated soon followed. “Ty is the root of the toxic culture and put people in place who executed bad behavior,” one former employee said. And finally, a week later, it was The Wing’s turn. A story in the New York Times Magazine described CEO and co-founder Audrey Gelman as “feminism’s most charming and relentless flack,” and quoted an employee’s experience working there as “Gaslighting 101.”
Three’s a trend, right? Each piece, published in quick succession, was an indictment of a female founder. The subjects were all young: Korey is 31, Haney is 30, and Gelman is 33. They are all white and well-connected. Each has a vibrant, frequently updated, personal Instagram telegraphing an enviable life. Their companies were all very well-funded by multiple rounds of venture capital. And each founder had built a buzzy, fast-growth brand that capitalized on its female leadership.
To be sure, some of the stories outlined inexcusable behavior. But there was also an undeniable schadenfreude-laced glee with which these pieces were consumed and passed around on social media. Though the particulars of each woman’s story were different, there was a prevailing sense of comeuppance. How else to explain the petty details woven throughout, like the anecdote about Audrey Gelman washing three dishes just to Instagram it, or that Outdoor Voices was spending $22,000 a year on fancy candles—especially when egregious stories of misbehavior around Uber founder Travis Kalanick and WeWork’s Adam Neumann were so slow to come out in the press, and far more incriminating.
Each founder had built a buzzy, fast-growth brand that capitalized on its female leadership.
It took years of stories (and one very viral blog post from former engineer Susan J. Fowler) about the pervasive and systemic sexism within Uber to finally catch mainstream media’s attention, not to mention stories about Kalanick’s own bad behavior (he was caught on video swearing at an Uber driver over rates, and joked about his ability to attract women to GQ as “Boob-er”). Meanwhile, a story about WeWork’s Neumann smoking marijuana on a private jet in front of his pregnant chief of staff (who also sued him for gender discrimination) only came out after he was ousted from the company.
It is a trend that many female founders find unsettling. In countless group texts and email chains, the articles were picked apart and debated: Was the coverage sexist? Did it expose a double standard? Were these “takedowns” coming all along? Deserved? Would a man have been given so much media attention for the same misbehavior?
“Female founders shouldn’t exist in a responsibility-free vacuum,” says Rachel Sklar, co-founder, along with Glynnis MacNicol, of the professional women’s network The Li.st. “There are things that should come out…But it’s worth noting that the standard for male founders is different, they tend to have a longer runway for this kind of behavior.”
In a post titled “The (Pink) Elephant in Tech Press” on The Information, the site’s founder, Jessica Lessin, wrote, “I do believe that reporters, employees, and the public are holding female founders to a different standard and are uncomfortable with how female leaders handle leadership and the stresses that come with it.” Take the example of Away co-founder Steph Korey’s aggressive tone with her team over Slack. “I think there are plenty of CEOs that probably communicate in the way that Steph Korey did but weren’t taken down in the public way that she was,” said Package Free Shop founder Lauren Singer in a previous interview with The Helm. “It’s just good learning to always communicate in a way—even if it’s a private communication—that you wouldn’t feel bad about being in the world.”
For a first-time founder, this treatment is discouraging. “This is my first time doing this, I’m sure I’m making all kinds of mistakes, and it’s really intimidating [to read these stories],” says Shannon Esker, founder of Esker, a natural bodycare line. “There’s no way we can get it right. It just seems like there’s no benefit of the doubt for women in these positions of power.” Esker says she has colleagues, other women who own companies, who are now scared of what she calls “being female #metoo’ed.”
Of course, the answer to “How did we get here?” is not as simple as sexism, though that is part of it. There are myriad factors that contributed to this trendlet of female founder “takedown” pieces that ought to be acknowledged. (Haney, Gelman, and Korey did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
Female founders face a level of scrutiny that men simply do not. More is expected of them, and less support is given. The Li.st’s Sklar points out how often it is assumed that women will dole out free advice (“Can I pick your brain?) or do panels (and pay their own way to get there) just to get exposure. In a conversation between Jessica Lessin and Kara Swisher on The Information, a follow up to Lessin’s “Pink Elephant in Tech” post, Swisher points out that while most founders are ill-equipped to be CEOs due to lack of experience, men have a stronger and more established male mentor network to fall back on for advice.
“There’s no benefit of the doubt for women in these positions of power.”
What’s more, female founders are often required to serve not only as CEO, but as influencer and ambassador for their brand as well, offering up a version of their personal lives to scrutiny in ways that men are not expected to.
Rebecca Alvarez Story, the founder of Bloomi, an intimate wellness brand and e-tailer, was strongly encouraged to have a public social media presence after she launched her brand. “I took an accelerator focused on minority founders and we were told that we had to have a public persona,” said Alvarez Story. “They told us that investors look to see that we are truly living the life, that our values are in line with our brand values.” So Alvarez, who has two kids and had mostly used her private Instagram to share photos of them, went public and dedicated time to creating a personal brand as well as growing Bloomi. “We [ women of color] are [seen as] higher risk for investment and I think investors try to find as many touchpoints as possible to de-risk that investment,” said Alvarez Story. “It’s a little unfair when I think about it.”
Outdoor Voices’ Ty Haney and The Wing’s Audrey Gelman each have around 100,000 followers on their personal Instagram channels. Haney, Gelman, and Away’s Korey all announced their pregnancies via their public Instagrams, mixing these personal moments in with their company branding. “Related news: there are TEN pregnant women making magic happen @away right now, how badass is that,” Korey wrote on her announcement post, while Haney added the Outdoor Voices hashtag #doingthings to hers. “Girlboss”-like brand values de facto become their personal values, and, as MC Nanda points out in a Business of Fashion article, “when the gap between that promise and reality is exposed, consumers can quickly turn.”
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There is a part that can be attributed to the media hivemind: When a particular kind of a story resonates, many related stories often follow. This is an industry that is often tasked with engagement and traffic goals. These are also all women and companies that have been vaunted by the media for years. “You’re either on the cover of Forbes or Inc. or whatever or nobody knows about you,” says Esker’s Davenport. “The media held up a few of these female founders and you see them again and again. They’re lifted up and glorified and then they’re set up for a takedown.”
And then there’s also the venture capital piece. According to the most recent data from PitchBook, just 2.7 percent of all capital invested across the U.S. “startup ecosystem” went to female founders, and that was an all-time high. The lucky few female-led startups that are flooded with, in some cases, hundreds of millions in VC money, are then expected to scale quickly. That pressure to grow at such speed can lead to cracks that can become full-on collapses.
As evidenced by the tiny percentage of funding that goes to women, the world of venture capital is a boys’ club. Sklar describes the culture as “work hard play hard” and always-on in ways that are off-limits to women, particularly those with children. “I thought I had to work nonstop in order to be successful,” said Deepti Sharma, founder of FoodtoEat, a corporate catering service that focuses on women and minority-run food businesses.
It’s a culture and system that upholds male models of leadership. Entrepreneur Aniyia Williams recalled being part of a LaunchX workshop for female founders where one guest speaker encouraged the women to “fundraise like a man.” “Someone was trying to help me and their help was trying to groom me to behave in a way that was not natural to me,” said Williams.
In the absence of any other clear roadmaps to success, many female founders feel shoehorned into the one that’s already been laid out for them by their male counterparts. And when women successfully copy this model—fundraising ambitiously, scaling aggressively, being ruthlessly demanding of their teams—they are more likely to be judged, called out, and canceled. Because that behavior, though it may be key to success in a VC-centric world, is not tolerated in our patriarchal society when it’s exhibited by women.
“They’re lifted up and glorified and then they’re set up for a takedown.”
Of course, it’s also worth remembering that to be “taken down” you have to have been in a pretty privileged place at the top. The startups at the center of these recent stories were all helmed by young, attractive white women with extensive networks who were then funded by big, traditional VCs. Part of that privilege is tied up in these founders’ whiteness and the access it affords them.
FoodtoEat’s Sharma points out that the VC system funds women of color at much lower rates than white women, and is reliant on personal networks to raise a “friends and family” round of funding that is often inaccessible to women and people of color. “I didn’t have a built-in network,” said Sharma. “It’s a luxury to be able to go to friends and family.”
According to data and research organization digitalundivided’s ProjectDiane2018, a demographic study focusing on minority women founders, “since 2009, Black women-led startups have raised .06 percent of the $424.7 billion in total tech venture funding,” while LatinX women have raised .32 percent of funding.
Bloomi’s Alvarez Story says her solution is to no longer talk to the big VCs. “They undervalue founders like me,” she said. Said another way: a founder who isn’t white and isn’t a man and doesn’t come with familiar networking touchstones like Harvard Business School or experience at a “Big Five” tech company. “They are pattern-matching,” said Alvarez Story. Now, she says, she only schedules meetings with prospective investors who have diversity in their portfolio or come recommended by other women of color.
Perhaps the answer to avoiding the kind of spectacular rise and fall that VC-backed companies tend to experience, and to creating a system that is both kinder to and more inclusive of women and femme people from diverse backgrounds, is to build a better system.
Zebras Unite is a non-profit—soon to be cooperative—that presents an alternative to the unicorn-obsessed venture capital world. Aniyia Williams, who is a co-founder, explains that it is a network of over 5,000 founders across the globe with a focus on social impact. Members have access to a fund as well as affordable debt and equity through a partnership with SecondMuse Capital. “We were seeing by and large that people weren’t getting funded either because of bias or it wasn’t aligned with what they were trying to build and there weren’t a ton of options,” she says. The culture created by VCs is also an issue. “We’ve seen venture-backed companies make morally questionable decisions; they are extractive of the communities they are intending to serve, of their own employees, or they are displacing—think of Uber or Lyft,” says Williams. “There are a lot of ramifications.” What Zebras offers is a community for companies that “care about more than just making returns for their investors.”
It’s a culture and system that upholds male models of leadership.
When there are more routes to success, routes carved out by women and people of color who were never really encouraged to take the main road anyway, you can imagine the ripple effects: Leadership models built around empathy and collaboration instead of ruthless ambition; success defined by how a company treats its workers and its community instead of YoY growth numbers; a working life that accounts for, well, life and children.
Alvarez Story recalled being told by a male CEO that she was “brilliant” but was too emotional to have a successful company. Two years into running Bloomi, she notes that her style of leadership is rooted in authenticity and flexibility. She gravitates towards working with other mothers, she says, “because we have this layer of empathy.” It’s not the unyielding and overworked style she saw modeled by male CEOs in corporate culture, but it’s working for her. And why not others, too? If we hold up more women’s stories (instead of the same handful of women over and over again), if we listen and learn from them, then we expand and ultimately shatter the narrow model of what success looks like. What’s more, women who fail to live up to that version of success don’t get torn down. Before COVID-19 upended her business, Sharma considered her company, FoodtoEat, a success. “I was profitable, I paid my employees, I have a mission-driven company,” she said. “Success needs to be redefined.”
Leah Chernikoff is the former digital director of ELLE magazine.