How to foster diversity in the start-up ecosystem - with Dr. Tina Ruseva
Tina, you’ve been an active player in the start-up ecosystem for 12 years now. As an entrepreneur, mentor, speaker, and writer you inspire many people out there. This is also shown by the fact that over 13,700 people follow you on LinkedIn. Would you tell us more about what drives you?
I believe that entrepreneurship is the most powerful way to shape the world. Being a founder for me equals being a builder. I see it as a chance to help solve today’s most pressing challenges - with the power of technology and purpose-driven organisation. No doubt, their solution requires every skill, every experience, the entire community. This is why I actively engage for diversity & inclusion in the workplace.
Your company is called Mentessa - a community platform that helps organisations connect for know-how exchange, mentoring, and collaboration based on skills. Could you tell us more about the crucial role of community and why mentoring is so important especially for female founders?
As human beings we have the inborn desire to belong. Thanks to social media, the word “community” today is overused, but what it actually refers to psychologically, is our need to be part of something meaningful, to have the opportunity to grow, and also to give back. Here is why mentoring is so closely-knit into the DNA of great communities. It helps maximize the individual potential in the group and offers ways for self-actualisation. A company with a culture of mentoring is a company with a culture of appreciation, support, and giving chances – an inclusive community. This is exactly what female founders need, but also every person in every company.
For us mentors are the cornerstone of the XPRENEURS program. They work with our start-ups on a voluntary basis sharing their knowledge, guidance and network with our teams in order to provide the most appropriate and relevant support while also challenging them. Talking about challenges: What are the biggest obstacles that you face as a female entrepreneur?
To be honest, when people ignore me, laugh at me, or discriminate against me, that’s nothing that I would call a challenge. Also I have a lot of privileges, too: as a white person, a young woman, or because I can speak loud and clear.
This is why, I often can’t tell if my experience is due to my gender, my cultural background as an immigrant, my look, my age, or even my character. Sometimes I joke that I have marginalized myself more often for being an optimist than for being a woman.
Everyone should be a feminist as helping a woman means helping a child, means helping a community. But my biggest challenge is not that I am a woman, but that I am a parent. And that people can’t accept that “I smile too much” and still am really damn good at what I do.
We at XPRENEURS are constantly striving to increase the number of female founders and the diversity in our teams. But the statistics confirm that there are still more male founders. Why do you think that fewer women are founding start-ups?
Our society is built on a faulty social contract – on the assumption that tons of unpaid work of mostly female caregivers, household helps, and educators, would be carried out at home, for free. It’s hard to stay professional if Kindergarten is closing every other day or your kids home school for 11 months! And it is especially hard to do it in a young company without funding because you happen to be in the tiny 2% of VC-backed female-led businesses.
If you look further though, you will see that women around every industry are underpaid, undervalued, and suffer a higher risk of poverty, criminal, or sexual assault – from sports to arts. This is a systemic issue which we can’t solve for the start-up ecosystem in isolation, but need to address globally and for every girl and every woman.
What do we need to change the startup ecosystem to foster diversity in general in the start-up ecosystem?
The same thing we need to increase the share of women elsewhere: an inclusive ecosystem.
We need low barrier micro-grants for female and underrepresented founders.
A quote for female founders at publically funded initiatives and programs.
Quality and harassment control for the coaching and mentoring offers.
As well as education around unconscious bias that helps more people learn to respect and value different characters, pay attention to privilege, and create further policies and resources to help the ones that need them. It is not only female founders – it is also men, e.g. introverts, or people of color who get neglected.
Last question: What is your advice for other women starting up companies?
I don’t care what people think and always play the long game. In the long run being polite, big-hearted, and helping a lot always pays back. I conquer challenges by building a strong community of supporters around me, making an effort for great personal relationships, because this is the secret of happiness, and by working harder and better every day. Also, I learnt to open my mouth and stand up for my rights when I have to. My final advice is to start everything, including a company, with the desire to contribute and not for the shiny perks of it. Those won’t last too long.
Thanks so much Tina for this exciting interview. To all future founders and start-up enthusiasts who want to learn more about purpose driven entrepreneurship: Check out Tinas book “Big Heart Ventures: Purpose-driven Entrepreneurship for the Next Age of Technology”.
Wanna be the next rising start-up team by becoming part of the XPRENEURS incubator program as well? Find more information about our program here.
Or are you interested in joining us as a mentor? Click here for more information.