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Female Founders

This appeal has been heard in the startup world for several years now, but it still remains primarily a male domain. But why is that, what still needs to be done, and what has already been done?

© Melitta Group: Melitta Bentz, inventor of the coffee filter
© Melitta Group: Melitta Bentz, inventor of the coffee filter

History is full of role models for female founders

It is often said that young women lack female role models who could encourage them to found a startup. Yet they abound, and their stories go far back in time. Ada Lovelace from the 19th century is considered the first female developer of a computer program. Melitta Bentz invented the coffee filter in the early 20th century, and the resulting company still bears her name. In the 1940s, Hedy Lamarr created the basis for the technology that is ubiquitous today under the name Bluetooth.

What this and many similar stories have in common: Their heroines did not receive the recognition they deserved during their lifetimes, or at least they were forgotten by the general public. Seen in this light, they are indeed missing, the really great role models that everyone knows. The Musks, Zuckerbergs and Bezoz', even if these men are certainly controversial. However, there are many indications that this could soon change.

The information about the proportion of women among startup founders vary widely and are sometimes quite contradictory. For example, the Corona pandemic in the USA is said to have led to a record 49% of companies being founded by women, while in Germany this figure has declined. In addition, it is often difficult to make a precise distinction between a conventional company and a startup. A startup is basically characterized by an innovative business idea, ideally with a high technology content, and strong growth potential, and must not be older than ten years. This is how it is defined by the German Startup Monitor, the most cited source on this topic in this country. The 2022 edition identified a 20% share of women in startup teams, a new high. Hamburg comes in at 23 % in this study.

So there is still a long way to go before we can talk about gender parity here. Irrespective of the question of role models, there are a number of possible explanations for this. It already starts in childhood, when boys are given more confidence and trust themselves more than girls. Risk-taking is part of startup culture, as is failure; it is generally assumed that up to 90% of startups do not survive the first three years. This failure rate is likely to be lower for female founders, as their business models are often better thought out and implementations better planned. At least, that's what a study by the Boston Consulting Group suggests, according to which every dollar invested in a startup with female founders brings in twice as much revenue as all-male teams.

However, this may also be related to the fact that women have much greater difficulties than men in closing larger financing rounds. In 2022, for example, 12.3 billion euros in venture capital flowed into startups (co)founded by women in Europe. But that's just 13.8% of the total pie. Women-only teams even received only 0.9%. One of the main reasons for this: On the investor side, male dominance is even greater than among founders. Men are more likely to invest in gender comrades because they seem to identify with them more easily. Another point that is closely related to the classic distribution of roles is the fact that startups with a high level of technological innovation achieve higher funding (Source: EY Startup Barometer). While the proportion of women among students is now over 50%, the figure in STEM subjects is only just over 30%. This is then also reflected in the preferred business areas of female founders. Food and other consumer goods are disproportionately represented there, as are industries with a social focus such as medicine and education. (Source: Female Founders Monitor).

© Female Founders Monitor 2022
© Female Founders Monitor 2022
© Laurence Chaperon: Verena Pausder, founder and business angel
© Laurence Chaperon: Verena Pausder, founder and business angel

The best way to close the funding gap for female founders is for more women to become investors. Female VCs are twice as likely to invest in female founder teams as their male counterparts. In 2019, Auxxo became the first investment company in Germany to finance exclusively startups with female founder participation. In addition, more and more successful female founders are getting involved as business angels, therefore as investors who support startups in their earliest stages. These include Verena Pausder, Lea-Sophie Cramer and Miriam Wohlfahrt, who thus serve as role models in two respects.

"Digital education and STEM promotion for girls are essential because they create the basis for equal opportunities, especially in the startup scene. For me, awakening enthusiasm for technical professions and technology at an early stage is the key to success, so that more women start tech companies."
Verena Pausder, Founder and Business Angel
© Franziska Krug for Deutscher Gründerpreis: Dr. Anne Lamp and Johanna Baare, founders of traceless materials
© Franziska Krug for Deutscher Gründerpreis: Dr. Anne Lamp and Johanna Baare, founders of traceless materials

Hamburg's female startup scene has a lot to offer

There is no shortage of female role models in Hamburg's startup scene also. The most awarded startup in Germany in 2021 was traceless materials, founded by Dr. Anne Lamp and Johanna Baare. In 2022, the success continued with the Hamburg and German Founders' Awards, among others. All the awards were for a plastic alternative made from plant residues. Localyze closed one of the largest financing rounds in Hamburg in 2022. Founders Hanna Asmussen, Lisa Dahlke and Franziska Löw received 35 million US-dollars for their platform that makes it easier for employers to bring in skilled workers from abroad. Localyze's strong international focus is noteworthy, and the team was already able to secure a place in the renowned Y-Combinator accelerator in Silicon Valley in 2019.

© Rieka Anscheit: Sina Gritzuhn, founder Hamburg Startups and initiator of STARTERiN Hamburg
"Startups by women actually cut across all industries. Many startups cannot be assigned to just one sector; for example, there are business models that focus on e-commerce but also have a strong tech connection. Recently, the topic of "impact" has gained enormously in importance overall, the desire to make the world a better, fairer place. Women seem to feel particularly drawn to this. About 30% of the female founders we surveyed fit into this category. Particularly pleasing: 30% of the startups with at least one female founder also have a tech connection at a minimum or focus entirely on technological solutions."
Sina Gritzuhn, founder Hamburg Startups and initiator of STARTERiN Hamburg

Hamburg's female founders thus cover pretty much all areas. And they are increasingly coming into the public eye. In the last year and a half, the pitch competition Female StartAperitivo has developed into a crowd puller and from a local to a nationwide event. For the Hamburg semi-final on June 14, female founders can still apply until May 31. The grand finale will then take place on July 6. The application phase for the Gründer*innen Pitch, which will take place on May 9 as part of the OMR Festival, is also still open until March 13 . Finally, on March 30, the STARTERiN Hamburg 2023 will be selected in three categories.

© Mathias Jäger/Hamburg Startups: the finalists of Female StartAperitivo 2022
© Mathias Jäger/Hamburg Startups: the finalists of Female StartAperitivo 2022

Hamburg's range of networks, advice and support programs

Women know how important networking and mutual support are for business. One nationwide network is encourgageventures, which brings together female investors and founders. In Hamburg, they meet to exchange experiences at a Ladies Dinner, for example, and organize meetups where they represent their interests. The Startup-Unit of Hamburg Invest sees itself as an interest group for all those interested in founding a company, but there, too, head Veronika Reichboth is increasingly focusing on female founders. The same applies to IFB Innovationsstarter GmbH, whose Hamburg Investors Network launched Female StartAperitivo, but is primarily known for its funding programs. InnoFounder, which is aimed at startups in the founding phase, recently adopted a guideline from which not only, but enhanced, women can benefit. Whereas previously at least one person from the team had to work 100% for the startup, part-time startups are now also funded.

© IFB: Heiko Milde, Managing Director IFB Innovationsstarter GmbH
"Among the startups that apply to us for funding, we are increasingly seeing women on the team, and all-female teams are also coming to us more and more frequently. To make it easier for women to found startups, we have explicitly adapted our offerings to the needs of women. This applies, for example, to topics such as maternity protection and parental leave. In addition, with our successful nationwide pitch event series Female StartAperitivo and the Academy for female founders and investors, we are helping to ensure that even more women found startups and receive investments."
Heiko Milde, Managing Director IFB Innovationsstarter GmbH

So a lot is happening in Hamburg, and politicians have also recognized the signs of the times. Hamburg's Second Mayor Katharina Fegebank sums up the plans like this:

© Pressestelle Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg: Hamburg's Second Mayor Katharina Fegebank
"The Hamburg Senate has made it its goal to support female founders even more in the future. This includes access to favorable infrastructure and space offers as well as the offer of micro-loans in order to close financing gaps and create an access for women founders of new businesses with low capital requirements. It is important to me that we create optimal framework conditions that convince women to start their own businesses. We want to strengthen start-up skills and awareness through more entrepreneurship education. To this end, we have decided, among other things, to establish the Female Founders program. The aim is to use various formats to expand know-how for business success and increase the chances for female founders to obtain financing by establishing contact with investors and promoting mutual exchange."


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