There’s no question the pandemic’s disproportionately affected women. Many hard-hit industries were over-indexed for female employees. And with few childcare options and extended remote schooling, millions more women have dropped out of the workforce to care for their kids.
But the pandemic’s disruptive effects have also led to a wave of entrepreneurial activity, as some have used newfound time—from lost or reduced work hours or time saved by no longer commuting to an office—to pursue business ideas. U.S. Census Bureau data shows applications for the employer identification numbers, which entrepreneurs need to start a business, have surpassed 3.2 million so far this year, compared with 2.7 million at the same point in 2019, according to reports.
And many women are among them. A recent survey by the global women’s network, AllBright, found one in three women in the U.S. have plans to launch a business, 40 percent of them with the goal of gaining more autonomy and being their own boss.
Getting funding for entrepreneurial ventures may be challenging though. After climbing steadily, global venture funding to female-founded companies is down by 27 percent in 2020, compared to mid-December last year, according to new data from Crunchbase.
I spoke with serial entrepreneur Debbie Wosskow, cofounder of AllBright—a female community with clubs in London and Los Angeles and a digital platform offering courses, events and other resources for enterprising women—about the rise in female entrepreneurs and how to better support them.
Your recent survey found that in the midst of the pandemic, 1 in 3 women in the U.S. have plans to launch a business. Why do you think the number’s so high?
Because the pandemic has been such a big catalyst for change, and more women in their careers have been negatively affected by the virus. We’ve been hit harder by the redundancies [or layoffs] and by having to give up work for lack of childcare.
I think many women see this as a window of opportunity to do something they’ve always wanted to do, or to be able to juggle all the balls more easily once the pandemic is over…There’s the sense that focus and purpose and standing for something—using your work time to really count—has been exacerbated in 2020.
We know there are often additional hurdles for female entrepreneurs. Can you talk about the disparity in funding for women and what needs to be done to change that?
Only about 2 percent of VC funding goes to female-founded businesses. We need to empower more women with the confidence to raise capital and equip them with the resources they need to do that effectively.
How do you overcome the gender bias that many female founders face?
There’s an education piece around the ways questions are asked and answered around this. On the other side, only about 2 percent of partner-investors are women. We need more female investors in the room, too, to level the playing field. The knowledge around raising capital is really important.
We also need more women entrepreneurs to tell their stories and as many female success stories as possible because then when we are in the room, the expectation is that women are building businesses that are going to win. I think there’s still some perception that women are building businesses that are not for profit.
How is AllBright working to change that?
We launched the FoundHer events with HSBC. [The digital summits] educate women on the requirements for raising capital, the options available and let them hear firsthand from entrepreneurs in each session as to how they did it and how they grew their businesses.
We’ve been running pitch days for the past three years since our initial inception and that is driven by our personal mission to try and close the gender funding gap. And this year it has further evolved into these global virtual summits that speak to funding but also inspiration. We really believe you have to see it to be it. Local founders have been giving aspiring or established female founders the tools and inspiration to help them to get their business ideas going.
Next year, from speaking to our community and having experience around the nuancing of various female founder stages, we’re going to do more. More female founder-focused franchises, more events—virtual and in real life, we hope—and content that’s tailored to women at various stages of her entrepreneurial journey, whether they’re just starting out or planning their exit strategy.
We need to empower more women to start businesses because there are so many benefits to having more female-founded businesses in the world economically, socially and all the rest.
What was your experience raising capital for AllBright and for previous ventures like LoveHomeSwap?
My whole career has been spent pitching to men. There are no horror stories for AllBright. But when we set out three years ago, we had an objective that we would try in every capital round for the business to have 50 percent male and female investors in every round. We would have been able to fund one of the loos in one of the buildings if we’d stuck to that. Because it [venture capital] is about 95 percent male.
Enlightened men are an incredibly important part of this journey. It’s really important that you have men who appreciate that backing women is a great economic decision. But I would like to see more female investors in the room.
You raised an additional $18.8 million last year. How have you seen the reception from investors evolve over the years?
I think #MeToo was the wind beneath our wings to some extent. And if you fast forward to 2020 and everything that’s happened in this seismic year, including topics like Black Lives Matter, it is a broadening conversation now around diversity and inclusion in a way that it wasn’t three years ago.
The zeitgeist has also moved to make front and center the issue of gender bias and female contributions to the economy and diversity and inclusion. You have to do less explaining about the why than probably even three years ago.
What prompted you and cofounder Anna Jones to start AllBright?
AllBright was borne out of a conversation I had when I fist met Anna at a party. We were set up by a mutual friend who said we should be friends. Anna was the first-ever female CEO at Hearst U.K. I was a serial entrepreneur in tech, which is very male-dominated. You bond over life, children, the universe, where we live, sequined dresses, whatever… What came from that was a friendship with a purpose. We shared views on the lack of gender diversity in our respective fields, on the, frankly, criminal statistics on the lack of VC funding that goes to female-founded businesses and the lack of gender diversity in leadership. There are more men called John than female CEOs.
We pledged we would do something about all this and build something that empowered women to have a seat at the table. AllBright was named for Madeline Albright who said, ‘There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.’
How has AllBright evolved since you launched in 2017?
On every level, it has been amazing. It’s incredibly hard work. But we’ve had incredible support from our community and that’s what keeps you going a lot of the time…
We moved our narrative and understanding of what women want from being physical spaces for women to network in and make connections into much more of a digital female network with flagship physical spaces. And we’ve grown a digital community of hundreds of thousands of women around the world.
You listen and take into account what women want and you do your best to incorporate that into an evolving business model. This need for education and connections is what led us to launch the AllBright Academy, and realizing in this year that women need to feel inspired and build connections—and much of that from the living room—is what’s driven us to offer the digital membership.
It’s a real combination of profit with a purpose that drives us. This is unashamedly a for-profit business. We think there’s real financial returns to be made in the white space that is building better networks for women… But it feels different as business number four for me because you just care so much. At the beginning of the pandemic when no one was leaving the house, so many people told us, Keep going because you’re keeping us going.
This Q&A was edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.