Yesterday I attended a panel at the Women: Inspiration & Enterprise Symposium (WIE) and had an awesome time. In case you aren’t familiar, the WIE Symposium was founded by Donna Karen, Arianna Huffington and Sarah Brown last year. The event is meant to explore the question of “What it means to be a woman now” through panels and lectures with women (and men) across all different industries and professions. Some of the speakers at the two-day forum included Nancy Pelosi, Ted Turner, Deepak Chopra, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Padma Lakshmi, Kelly Cutrone, Rebecca Minkoff, Tamara Mellon, Gayle King, Cynthia Rowley, Fran Drescher, Christy Turlington, Georgina Chapman, and Randy Zuckerberg.
I was lucky enough to attend a panel called “Women’s Internet Entrepreneurs: Is There A Woman’s Ghetto?” which was moderated by Gina Bianchini, the former CEO of Ning and the founder of Mightybell, and featured Randi Zuckerberg, the former marking director of Facebook, Dana Levy, founder of Daily Candy and Lauren Leto, founder of Texts From Last Night. Instead of a typical panel in which the four speakers sit at a table in the front of the room while the audience sits in the back row, Bianchini decided to change it up and have everyone form a big circle and go around and introduce themselves. The women discussed various topics brought up by both Bianchini and the audience which was made up of mostly budding entrepreneurs of all different ages and backgrounds.
As for the hardest thing about starting your own company Lauren Leto said, “I think just sharing your idea with other people over and over again. You literally have to put on a mask everyday because you have to say and get people to believe that you think your vision is perfect. I think the hardest thing is just relying on yourself. ” Dana Levy echoed the sentiment that you have to completely rely on yourself. “It sometimes really feels like you’re in a vacuum. In the early phases when you aren’t getting feedback from the outside world and the isolation is very tough.”
Gina Bianchini, who is now involved with her third start-up in her role as founder of Mightybell, said this is not a field for the soft-skinned. “You have to figure out your level of mental toughness. A lot of people call your baby ugly in the start-up world,” she said. “It is not sane to do this. You can always make more money doing something else. No one will give you credit for doing something important with the world. You cannot do jack shit if you don’t have revenue that far exceeds your cost.”
It was great to hear all these lessons and tips from entrepreneurs who had succeeded but what about the name of the panel? “Is There A Women’s Ghetto?” when it comes to female internet entrepreneurs? This panel was timed perfectly with Mashable journalist Jolie O’Dell’s recent tweet that women entrepreneurs are not helping themselves by starting companies focused on traditionally womanly things like fashion, shopping and babies. I asked the women of the panel if they agreed with this statement and whether they felt they were at a disadvantage or an advantage being women in this space? Randi Zuckerberg said she loved O’Dell but that it was very wise choice to start a business you have insight into instead something you know nothing about. With her new events space start-up she plans to cover fashion events and she doesn’t think that makes her company too feminine. “If you are taken seriously you, as a woman, do have a competitive advantage, but I wouldn’t have one if I said I was going to go do an auto start-up or start a brewery.” Leto said venture capitalists do fund these female entrepreneurs because they know that women know how women consumers work better than anyone, but you still have to prove yourself. “I think it is a hard time to be a fashion start-up but a good one to be a [female] entrepreneur.”
Finally, Gina’s best advice for people entering the insane world of start-ups is to try to focus on the things that you can control because there is so much that you really can’t. And even though, in this world of heavy connection, you can automatically compare yourself to everyone, do not do this. It will drive you crazy. Start-ups are really about “hustling and people calling your baby ugly.”