The D&I lessons corporate leaders can learn from female entrepreneurs

Startup mentor John Stapleton believes corporate leaders should move away from D&I literature and learn more from the "lived examples" of female entrepreneurs

John Stapleton, food entrepreneur and business mentor, discusses his unexpected role as an ally to female founders, why self-confidence is all that’s missing from their pitches, and why corporate leaders should meet female entrepreneurs to improve their own company’s D&I strategy.

John Stapleton didn’t intend to become a gender ally; that came later. After exiting businesses, including New Covent Garden Soup and toddler food brand Little Dish, he started Mission Ventures, a business accelerator for food and drinks startups – and the Good Food Fund, an accelerator to tackle child obesity.

Within the Good Food Fund, he has six startups that show promise, and three of them are women-led: “I don’t go out of my way to find female entrepreneurs; I go out my way to find good entrepreneurs. It just so happens that a small majority of them are female, and I think there are some interesting reasons for that.

“There are more role models for women in the food and drinks world, and there’s a tendency for female entrepreneurs to understand the consumer and design products that weren’t available before. They can be more resilient and tend to ask more questions, which is a smart thing to do.

“When you think you know everything, it’s good to challenge that. In my experience, they also have one eye on implementation, while men tend to set up a business first. Women tend to think about their team first while men get to that point when it’s too late; I know this as I’ve done it myself.”

Stapleton is careful not to imply that women entrepreneurs are predisposed to caution. But from those he’s mentored, he believes they make more thorough researchers who “don’t take things at face value and drill down on assumptions.”

Imposter syndrome and bias during pitching

If female entrepreneurs are tentative, it’s probably because they are less likely to access funding, including venture capital, than male-led startups. Considering that global VC funding to female startups fell last year, it’s no wonder that women may be cautious in planning their businesses.

Stapleton says he wasn’t aware of the funding gap before: “I thought everyone got a fair chance, I guess that’s the unconscious bias as you put it. I was shocked to hear of statistics against female founders for funding.”

In his experience sitting in on pitches, Stapleton’s seen imposter syndrome arise among his female mentees: “There’s a lack of confidence that makes them double-check their own homework. I’ve found that it takes them a while to justify what they’re talking about, but when they do, they’re really impressive.”

He’s also seen investors probe female entrepreneurs: “The response from investors is the assumption, ‘do you really know this?’ I’ve seen women then question themselves if they do really know what they’re talking about.”

Stapleton is also part of Food Works, an Irish-Government sponsored accelerator where he’s seen a “significant number of female entrepreneurs” come through its doors. His role there is confidence-building and “helping them get to grips with what they know already”and “teaching them to portray it confidently.”

“They, (investors), will challenge the pitcher,” says Stapleton, but “women know the answers, they just need the self-confidence while men are more likely to take risks and be more blasé about claims.”

But he doesn’t believe women should emulate their male counterparts, but instead “be clear about what they know and what they don’t know.”

Schooling corporates on D&I

Stapleton is a supporter of the UN’s HeforShe campaign, a global movement for gender equality. He says the banner is a good thing to get behind, especially for “white, middle-aged blokes” like himself who want to say something but aren’t sure how to say it and are anxious about causing offence.

Getting behind a movement is good, but how about applying this to organisations to give women a voice? Stapleton says awareness is key: “I didn’t realise that I was working with a disproportionate number of female entrepreneurs, I grew up in a matriarchal family, and if you do, you kind of assume the world is like that.”

Stapleton compares workplace gender diversity to an army general going to battle: “Why would you purposely leave half your troops at home and go to battle with the other half? It’s not just discrimination; it’s also not helping you win the battle either. As an employer, you start from that point and think what you’re going to do to change it.”

He says in smaller firms, an inclusive culture can be championed through leadership. Still, it takes a more “multifaceted approach” in a corporate: “Leadership must be sincere,” he says, “pointing to secondary examples won’t last, it will be easy to hide under the cover of tokenism and will become lip service to get activists off their back. D&I examples should start at the board, and it’s not just about female representation.”

Despite his role as a startup mentor, Stapleton understands how large companies work, having partnered with baking giant Warburtons last year to launch Batch Ventures, a business accelerator for baking startups.

In his future partnerships between startups and larger firms, Stapleton believes the educational opportunities for D&I will be huge where “senior guys,” including corporate board members, “can sit in with our female entrepreneurs and see how they do business.”

For Stapleton, it’s these real “lived experiences” that he believes will be useful for corporate leaders where they can it take back to their organisations and improve their own D&I: “They can ask themselves, ‘what does this statement mean for D&I in my office’?

“They can use real-life examples from these women who are making all the decisions in their businesses, it could open people’s minds about how young talented, and progressive female entrepreneurs work and draw conclusions from what they’ve learned.

“The thing is that corporates have their own D&I policy literature about bringing women into key leadership positions, but I say, ‘come and look at our cohort’ and see firsthand the benefits of having a diverse team.”

Stapleton has a point; if male leadership isn’t exposed to entrepreneurial women who are at the coalface of inequalities such as funding bias, how can they begin to understand the barriers to gender inequality in their own larger workplaces? Male board members may want to get more women into leadership positions, but unless they see female leadership exemplified, such as in startups, will they truly believe their own message?

Like he said earlier, making a change on D&I starts with awareness.
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