The statistics on total venture capital invested in women-led startups (2.1% according to Pitchbook) make one wonder: Who are these female outliers raising rounds?
Do they know a secret spell? Do they play golf and smoke cigars with the right people? Do they send children to the same playgrounds where the kids of Andreessen Horowitz execs make their mud pies?
Raising capital is even more challenging for immigrant women. Can underdogs succeed against the odds? With this critical question in mind, I spoke with more than 50 U.S.-based immigrant fempreneurs, all of whom have raised VC funding.
Here are just a few insights that I discerned:
Success Is Not Shaped by Any Playbook
The geography of immigrant fempreneurs who succeeded in the U.S. includes the whole world. Nigeria, Peru, Ukraine, Malaysia, Antigua, Iran, Israel, and Armenia are just a few of them. Diversity is the only common characteristic that they all share.
Some embraced entrepreneurship in their teenage years, while others didn’t think of leaving corporate careers until their mid-40s. Barr Moses, the founder of Monte Carlo, acquired her strength and discipline in the military. Others faced tremendous challenges in refugee camps and war zones.
Not all were equipped by their upbringing to adopt a hustler’s mentality required in the startup world. As a child, Kala Fleming, founder and CEO at Frontline Gig, was “protected as the precious family jewel.”
Her family encouraged her to do “princess things,” like spending time on the beach. Still, she grew up strangely inspired to strike out on her own and challenge the status quo.
Many successful fempreneurs had kids who were also an inspiration behind their startups. For example, Hafeezah Muhammad, the founder of Backpack Healthcare, closed her first $1.8 million round right after giving birth to her third child. Others chose a single lifestyle.
As one of my interviewees put it, “success is not shaped by any playbook; rather, it will be written by you and your unique experiences.”
Comfortable with Themselves and Embracing Who They Are
At tech networking events and during mentorship sessions, I frequently encounter female founders who struggle with insecurities.
Successful female immigrant techpreneurs have discovered a way to accept who they are. They made a conscious decision not to feel any shame about their accents or growing up in war zones.
They have become comfortable with “looking different, being different, sounding different,” with the hope that the world will embrace them.
That is a profound lesson. You have to accept and respect yourself to gain acceptance from others.
A Male Co-Founder Can Be Beneficial
Many successful immigrant fempreneurs recognized the benefits of having male co-founders. A FinTech entrepreneur, Ksenia Yudina, who put $160,000 of personal savings into her prototype, said: “It’s only recently that female entrepreneurs have entered the market. There are very few examples of successful women founders with previous exits, and this creates subconscious bias.”
Despite a background in finance and experience on Wall Street, it took Yudina almost 1.5 years to close her first round — longer than she expected. To tackle bias, she brought the male co-founder for the second time. The partners ended up raising $40 million in total.
A co-founder who helps you grow and raise capital in the current topsy-turvy market is a valuable asset. Accept support if you need it.
The Right Motivation Helps
Almost all successful women who participated in our project and shared their stories had a strong personal motivation to bring their startups to market.
One founder of a digital mental health company for children launched her business because she couldn’t find adequate care for her son during the pandemic.
Malobi Achike, a former resident of Minnesota originally from Nigeria, developed a DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) HR software after George Floyd’s murder.
A new mother, Priska Diaz, a designer by training, spent over three years creating the prototype of a device that feeds babies with air-free milk because her own child had digestive issues caused by bottle-feeding.
A young, ambitious entrepreneur, Jeni Mayorskaya, diagnosed with two reproductive disorders in her early 20s, launched her platform to assist working women with fertility issues. Her SF-based startup, Stork Club, offers services such as IVF, surrogacy, and adoption and has raised over $30 million to date.
We all are inspired by the stories of “billionaires overnight,” but entrepreneurship is a long game, and it can be draining at times. What helps to win is strong personal motivation and a desire to succeed for reasons beyond quick material gain.