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Thuy, Nora and Roberto check out the images after filming. (Samantha Andre)
Thuy, Nora and Roberto check out the images after filming. (Samantha Andre)

She Started It

Filmmakers discover resilience, grit and persistence are crucial for tech entrepreneurs — and themselves

By Cynthia Allum on December 7, 2015

Quick — in your mind’s eye, imagine a “tech entrepreneur.”

OK, do you have the image in your head? If what you’ve conjured up can be described as a white, hoodie-clad bro who’s seated on a conference stage or slogging through Silicon Valley, well, that’s an all-too-common perception. Without a doubt, a great deal of entrepreneurs in the tech industry fit that mold. But that’s the perception filmmakers Nora Poggi and Insiyah Saeed are trying to upend with their new documentary, She Started It, because there are many who don’t fit that Mark Zuckerberg-ish mold. The female tech founders who are out there are seldom put in the spotlight.

And, as Poggi and Saeed see it, women tech entrepreneurs deserve more attention in order to inspire the next generation of girls. To that end, Poggi and Saeed followed five powerful women (Thuy Truong, Stacey Ferreira, Sheena Allen, Brienne Ghafourifar, and Agathe Molinar) with their cameras for more than two years to capture what life is like for them out in the trenches, launching their own companies.

Poggi and Saeed have completed a rough cut of the documentary, but they still need to raise funds to pay for post-production and to screen, distribute, and submit the film to premiere at festivals next spring, and have launched an Indiegogo campaign to help them get the ball across the goal line. Poggi and Saeed chatted with us about filming the entrepreneurial revolution, and had some advice on what it takes to become the next Leah Busque, Michelle Zatlyn, or Julia Hartz.

Women in the World: What pushed you to make this film, and what do you hope it will accomplish?

She Started It: We wanted to focus on tech entrepreneurship in particular because tech is a trillion dollar industry creating products that are now shaping our everyday lives. The statistics are staggering — according to a Babson College study, mere 2.7 percent of venture capital-funded companies have a woman CEO, and 96 percent of venture capitalists are men. According to the study Sources of Economic Hope by the Kauffman Foundation, for high growth firms, “women usually account for less than 10 percent of founders in any given sample.” Why does supporting women entrepreneurs matter?  Women entrepreneurs tend to create businesses with a higher social impact and they reinvest in their communities a lot more, as shown in a study published in the Harvard Business Review.

Our goal is to reach one million girls with this film in 2016 and show them that if you fall, you can get back up. We want girls who will see the film to know that they can take risks, that failure is okay and that it is worth trying something you are passionate about. Studies show that girls give up on math and science when they get a bad grade in school, but boys don’t. Fear of failure hits girls the hardest and prevents them from going after their dreams. We want girls (and boys) to develop more entrepreneurial skills from a young age, resourcefulness, resilience and grit, no matter what career they get into.

WITW: Why did you select the five women featured in the film?

SSI: The five young women featured in the film all have unique paths that we thought the audience would be inspired by, and businesses that had enough traction for a story to unfold. When filming began, Stacey was just starting her second company, Thuy was starting an accelerator program and struggled with being an outsider to the system. Agathe brings a European twist — she is building her company in France, while many in Europe are leaving to go abroad to build their companies. Brienne is from an entrepreneurial family in Silicon Valley, who got a college degree at 18, but still has the challenges of being in a start-up at her age. Sheena is an African-American woman from the Deep South and shares her perspectives of being a woman of color trying to break into the system. Stacey and Thuy ended up being the lead characters because they gave us the most access which is key for a documentary.

Thuy Truong, Co-founder and CEO of Greengar, tests out her app with her team at incubator 500 Startups. (Sheetal J. Patel)
Thuy Truong, co-founder and CEO of Greengar, tests out her app with her team at incubator 500 Startups. (Sheetal J. Patel)

WITW: You filmed this in various cities around the world, including Palo Alto, Paris, New York, and Ho Chi Minh City. What are some similarities you found in terms of life for women entrepreneurs, and what were some differences?

SSI: Everywhere we filmed, women entrepreneurs seemed to have the same set of challenges. It was heightened in certain environments where there was less capital or just less people pursuing it. In Europe and Vietnam, there was less capital and less successful women founders to look up to than in Silicon Valley, but it did not seem to stop any of the women we talked to. Paris and Berlin now have created a welcoming environment for entrepreneurs, and sometimes women take matters in their own hands by creating their own support groups, such as Berlin Geekettes. Thuy, when she went back to Ho Chi Minh City, which is her hometown, had no problem raising money there, because she knew the culture, she had connections, and sometimes being a bigger fish in a smaller pond can work to your advantage. There is no place like Silicon Valley when it comes to raising money or being at the center of innovation, but the culture is not more welcoming for women. It is easier for a woman to get started where she has the strongest support system and the most connections, and that is probably true for any entrepreneur. Then scaling a business is another story.

WITW: What can the rest of society do to promote the image of a female tech entrepreneur, and to encourage more women to enter the tech industry? 

SSI: Things have changed so much in the last three years since we started — thanks to tons of great initiatives such as Lean In, Made With Code, Google for Entrepreneurs, Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code, and many more have helped in changing the perception of what the world thinks an entrepreneur looks like. Small things, like Getty Images Initiative to show more stock photos of women for media use and campaigns like #ILookLikeAnEngineer, have helped change things dramatically. Women like Elizabeth Holmes have been recently featured prominently in the media, and this has changed a lot.

However, there is still a lot to be done. The issue is multi-layered and requires a global strategy encompassing policy, education, culture, media, popular culture and more. Creating coding programs for girls, demanding new policies (such as pushing for CS education in the school systems in different states), company training to deflect unconscious biases, training more women investors, these are all crucial. In order to get more girls into coding classes, more women starting companies or investing in other women, we need to inspire them, show them what the opportunities are and provide new role models that look like them.

WITW: How do women lead companies differently than men?

SSI: Not to generalize, but from the past few years we have been documenting this — men and women definitely have different leading styles. Women leaders seemed to be more collaborative, and invite tons of feedback and advice and mentorship from people and their team with incredible loyalty from their teammates. Thuy, for instance, built a great team in Vietnam and wouldn’t blink twice to help her team with their personal needs if need be; she was known to raise money in a few hours for a lead developer’s family emergency.  They tend to solve problems inviting in suggestions from their team, and they tend to have more empathy towards their employees, which was good and bad. One of our characters, Agathe, struggled with this, and often felt she was “too nice,” in her management style. Women we met tended to be less risk averse and don’t brag about themselves or their accomplishments.

Men on the other hand, from what we saw, especially in Silicon Valley, really have nailed how to be confident leaders, when fundraising, when hiring, and often were risky enough to double salaries of lead developers to keep them on board, justifying their choices with their investors. We noticed that many of the men were good at focusing on a single task and executing fast, while women tend to multi-task, thought slowly and carefully about every move they made.

WITW: After shooting this film, what are your thoughts on work-life balance and motherhood as an entrepreneur?  

SSI: We have interviewed many strong women entrepreneurs who are also moms; Julia Hartz of Eventbrite, Rashmi Sinha of Slideshare, Anna Mongayt of Upstart, often they felt that entrepreneurship was a way to balance motherhood and their careers because they had control over their schedule. A lot of them started companies while raising their children. However, they all stressed the necessity of having a supportive partner. With the right support system, and even though it is never easy, entrepreneurship can be a great way to sustain a career as a mom. Most “mompreneurs” we interviewed mentioned that there is no such thing such as work-life balance, their entrepreneurial lives are often intertwined with their family lives.

Discussion between Thuy Truong, DP Roberto Daza & director Nora Poggi. (Sheetal J. Patel)
Discussion between Thuy Truong, DP Roberto Daza & director Nora Poggi. (Sheetal J. Patel)

WITW: What are some common pitfalls that female entrepreneurs encounter and how can they be avoided?

SSI: Lack of confidence is something that most women struggle with, and a lot of women entrepreneurs don’t promote themselves enough, they don’t think they are ready to pitch on stage, or they don’t ask for help. However they should not have to “act like a man” to be taken seriously and there is now a push for a more balanced view of entrepreneurship. It is going to take a lot of diversifying of the VC world and a big culture shift for women to be able to be themselves while pitching their businesses and still raising the same amounts as men without the same “bravado” attitude. Our advice to women entrepreneurs would be to not be scared of asking for what they deserve and to be confident in their own skin. Find out what your weakness is and work on it. If it’s public speaking, take a class. If you don’t know much about finance or company structure, google it.  It is also crucial for them to sustain strong relationships with mentors and reach out to other women for help, build their own support system.

WITW: You interviewed several notable women for this film, including the United States Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith. What was the best advice that you received?

SSI: Megan Smith said a memorable quote that has stuck to us, that was on her third-grader’s blackboard at school, which said, “In effort, there is joy.” All the women we interviewed insisted on the importance of resilience, grit and persistence to keep going when things get tough. We try to apply this advice to our own filmmaking process.

WITW: What advice do you have for women who can’t push themselves to take the first step in launching a company?

SSI: Just start! Don’t overthink it, take that first step — whether it’s learning how to code, getting your feet wet with an internship, or getting feedback on your prototype. As Stacey Ferreira, one of our main characters, says, “Just start somewhere and start today.”

Nora Poggi & Insiyah Saeed are creators of the film, She Started It, to be released Spring 2016.

This interview has been edited and condensed.