Adeo Ressi, Founder Institute: Change Startup Culture to Encourage Women

Video Interview with Adeo Ressi, Founding Member of TheFunded.com

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Video Interview with Adeo Ressi, Founding Member of TheFunded.com.  TheFunded.com is an online community of 12,000 CEOs to research, rate, and review funding sources worldwide. Adeo also runs the Founder Institute, a mentoring program that helps entrepreneurs launch hundreds of world-class companies each year. The Institute is the eighth start-up that Adeo has founded or built, four of which were acquired and three of which are still operating.
You can find Adeo @ his blog or on Twitter @adeoressi or Founding Institute @founding

Transcript follows and video above.

  • Could you briefly talk about TheFunded.com & how it can make a difference to female startups?

Sure TheFunded.com is the largest directory of information on funding sources in the world. The vast majority of information is free. So you can see all the major funds, all the major angel groups, their preferences & things like that, all for free. If you want to see telephone numbers & email addresses you need to be a member & you also need to be a member to see some of the reviews that CEOs post. But we don’t basically care about gender or ethnicity at all.

I’ve noticed, its great!

We have probably 10% female CEO membership in TheFunded. And the reality is again, it could be 50% or 75%. There’s no bias at all.

  • And no limitation placed on it?

Yeah gender & race doesn’t factor into our admissions process to being a member of TheFunded. We only care that in fact you are a CEO or founder of technology company. When I say technology what I mean is some sort of company that has the potential to raise money from investors. So if it’s a restaurant chain, it’s not really appropriate for TheFunded community.

  • I heard that you were kind enough to say at TheFunded.com Showcase, that you were wanting to increase your female participation. Is that on the site or as far as your incubators go?

Theoretically there should be a 50% female founder rate. The reality is that right now, depending on who you ask, it’s somewhere between 2 & 7% of technology company CEOs are female. It might be a little bit higher reaching to 10% if you look at technology company founders because a lot of times female founders will take a secondary position in company management allowing the male founders to be the face of the company for fund raising & other benefits. But again that really makes no sense, so from my perspective there should be about half the population depending on where in the world you are, are female. And about half of the CEOs of startup companies should be female if in fact we embody the things that we say in startup culture which is equal rights etc. Now I think, with that said the largest obstacle in my view towards greater female roles as startup founders & more likely startup CEOs is that the investment community definitely does not favor female founders & female CEOs. Just look at the composition of investor groups & they are well over 90% male. I can probably name on 2 hands, the number of female partners at funds worldwide that have really taken a leadership role. In fact I can probably name on 2 hands the number of female partners at funds worldwide that I know. And maybe there’s a few more than that. So if the people that are funding are not 50:50, it’s pretty clear that the people who are funded are also not going to be 50:50. With that said we’ve taken some initiatives in another organization that I run called the Founder Institute, where we have no selection bias there as well, we do a couple of things. Number 1 we try to have the Institute itself be run by females half & half. So 30% of our chapters are run by females today. We’d obviously like to see that get to 50%. Obviously if we ourselves can say we have 50% of our chapter management being run by females, we obviously want to see 50% of founders being female. Again keeping in mind that we have absolutely no bias at all, second we do some extra marketing to females that are interested in starting a company. So we have partnerships with Women2.0 & other groups that focus on women & we use those marketing partnerships to build the number of females that apply to the program. Then we put them through the exact same filtration process. Given some names (I don’t even know gender half of the time), so a lot of people have foreign names so I wouldn’t even know whether they are male or female.

I know that’s the case for my name too, I often get mail for Mr Theodore Pemo (my name turned around).

Exactly, for us gender doesn’t even factor into it at all.

That’s so brilliant & so great to hear about the initiatives.

There are some realities that are different so we are graduating right now. We are enrolling about 20 to 25% female & we’re graduating about 15% female. The reason for the disparity is that I think our program is very hard, at least the Founder Institute program is very hard. It’s very hard for males, it’s very hard for females. It doesn’t matter your race, gender or other life circumstances the program is hard.

  • So it really filters people out?

Right, we try to make it hard because it’s designed to be a proxy for the real world. So for example right now we’re in the holiday period & we’ve asked people to not only work on their product through the holidays but prepare a year end board kit that they would normally have to do if they were running a startup. We’ve added 100 hours worth of work through the Xmas & New Year’s holiday 2 week period & the reality is if they were running a startup they would have to do that work anyway. So even though it’s a training program, we’re training them in a vocational way to be ready to run their startup. For whatever reason, we find that the females drop out a little easier. I’ve spoken with other women’s groups about why that is. And I think that a lot of females have perceptions that differ from male perceptions on the world. I think men expect things to be often times hard & sometimes women expect things not to be as hard. And I think women deal with things differently. If you look at how the women who run chapters deal with founders in their program, it’s actually different in many cases than the ways that men deal with the same thing. So I think there’s going to be a balancing where some of the norms have to change in how startups are done to attract more females in? Because if we just say hey we’re just going to give you stuff that you need to do in a startup regardless of gender, race, age & we see more females drop out, clearly the way that startups are being built & run today do not appeal to females as much as they do to males. With that said the way startups are built & managed will need to change to attract more females. Startups are very cut throat & maybe too cut throat I would argue? The work load is often excessive & its arguably too excessive. So I think if we can balance startup life a little bit more, that will also help attract females into startups.

  • So changing the startup culture is what your intention is?

Yeah it’s pretty clear that modern day startup culture was built & developed by men. And look what the net result is then, over 90% of the people who fund startup culture or who run startups are men. So obviously if you want to get more females involved, it cannot continue to be a male run & operated industry.

  • Do you have any ideas about how you could change that environment? Obviously you’ve been having some wonderful thoughts about this, which is really great.

It’s a chicken & egg situation of course because the startup world today is what it is. So it’s got males that fund in the vast majority of both angel & venture sources. And it’s got males that are running the vast majority of companies by buy in. Now you have a bunch of female movements, but what’s happening there is its almost creating a separate universe.

Yes, which is not so great!

Which is not so great, I agree, where you have female funded & female run. So it’ll be like these are the female businesses & these are the male businesses. What do you do? Do you change the gender mix & hope that changes the way that things operate? Or do you change the way things operate & hope that that will change the gender mix? I don’t think that you can just universally change the way that things operate though maybe? You certainly can do it with certain types of regulations & things like that. But that’s never a good way to change anything, right? So I think the best solution is, even though it’s a bit of a chicken & egg, would be to bring more successful females into the mix even if it’s not a very conducive environment for the way that they look at the world. Then their world view will start to change how things are done. Arguably that’s how corporate America changed & that’s how many other institutions that have been male dominated in the past changed.

  • Right so using that female influence & power to affect the startup environment is your idea to be successful?

Right, right. It’s starting to happen slowly. There are fantastic females that have run very successful companies like Techcrunch etc. For us, what we try to do is get a percentage of every graduating class containing female founders. Get as many as possible locations of the Founder Institute run by female facilitators as we refer to them. And try & get as many as possible female mentors in the program to help the combined male & female students or founders who are building companies through the initiative. With that said, I think we are achieving success. There’s no question that today we are the largest female incubator in the world in terms of number of female led companies started & in terms of pace of companies that are started by female led entrepreneurs.

  • You did mention earlier that there is some sort of bias or challenge as far as the funders go. Could you talk a little more about that, about how you’ve seen it or your experience?

You know it’s bad. Many of the female founders that I know personally have been extremely discouraged. I don’t know first hand obviously, I’m not a female founder.

  • But you’ve had feedback from members?

Yes, first of all I am completely unbiased in every way. I’m happily married with a beautiful young daughter. So obviously I’d like to see startups have more females if just for any reason future career path for my young child. So many of the female founders that I consider my friends, have told stories that you would obviously guess. They often get meetings for the wrong reasons, potentially their looks or something of that nature. A lot of times they may even do an investment based on looks & things like that. Then the second something goes wrong, they’re eliminated very quickly. When things go wrong people are eliminated pretty quickly in the venture industry no matter what. But it’s pretty clear that the shoe drops faster based on the experiences I’ve had with female founders.

Wow fascinating! Incredible.

  • With those challenges that we are facing as women entrepreneurs with venture & angel funding what are the opportunities that we have? It’s so great to hear your story about the Founder Institute & TheFunded.com (obviously I’ve been plugging away there too).

The reality is that just because something is hard, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. There’s definitely a spectrum of somethings too hard it becomes impossible whereas if something is hard enough, it makes you better for going through it. I think female entrepreneurs definitely face an environment that is on the border of almost too hard but hard enough that it makes you stronger. There are some advantages to being a female entrepreneur that haven’t been discussed. There are many disadvantages for sure, but there are some advantages. For the most part the females that I’ve dealt with in startups have stronger, innate management ability. They also have female specific networks that they can tap into, such as GirlsinTech or Astia & many others that certainly don’t exist for men. The females who are in funding positions are good targets to talk to about funding opportunities. There are definitely advantages to being a woman in technology but I would say that it’s quite hard. Definitely it’s on that border line of almost being too hard to being doable. Hopefully if you make it through, you’re going to be a better founder & CEO. There’s no question about that.

  • So I gather really what we’d be seeing are the pathfinders at the moment. Those women that are breaking through are the pathfinders, that are making it easier for other women?

Yeah but it will never be easy. It’s incredibly hard for men, it’s incredibly hard for anyone. It’s never going to be easy. It’s true that there are pathfinders as you call them & they may make it somewhat easier but it’s not going to be that much easier.

No & what you’re saying is correct, for everyone it’s difficult but as you said there is that extra challenge of being a woman. Obviously this year (2010) this conversation has really been a current conversation in the press & in all these different organizations & groups. I think that obviously that is also a sign that something is shifting in the culture.

Yeah to some extent just talking about it, is good but you should just do something about it! If a famous angel investor says ‘There’s not enough women in tech!’ well there’s an easy way for you to fix that, you just start investing in women led companies. To some extent it comes from the top, so look at your own
organization first. As I said when we have 30% of our facilitators are women. I would like to see that be higher. I’m not going to bias anything.

  • But you’re open to that experience?

Absolutely, I’m not going to say you’re qualified & you’re qualified but since you’re a woman we’re going to pick you over you. But also you have to look holistically at what you have. We’re very fortunate in that a lot of great women now come & said we’re going to lead chapters. So if there’s an inspired woman out there who wants to lead a chapter, come talk to me, we’d love to have you inch up the percentages up to 50%.

Written by
Pemo Theodore

Pemo Theodore is a Media Publisher & Event Producer and a great people connector.. She is Founder/CEO Silicon Valley TV which has served the San Francisco Bay Area for 11 years! She has produced Silicon Valley Events for Investors & Startups for 9 years. Pemo loves to video interview venture capitalists & founders to engage the human behind the success stories.. She has been Executive Producer of FinTech Silicon Valley for 5 years, organizing twice monthly FinTech talks & panels in San Francisco & Palo Alto. She believes in learning through a great discussion with experts in the domains. Pemo has a talent to bring the right people together and is an incredible networker. Pemo's events have been seen as supporting Venture Capitalists & Angels in sourcing great deal flow from startups who attend her events. Many founders have received funding through meeting investors at her events. Her favored medium is audio & visual media and she has built up a great body of work of podcasts & videos of panels & interviews in Silicon Valley.startup ecosystem.

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Written by Pemo Theodore