Celebrating Female Founders: International Women's Day 2021
McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report shows that, before the pandemic, despite women remaining dramatically underrepresented in positions of leadership – especially women of colour – there was slow but steady progress.
Now, six years of gains could be erased in the wake of Covid-19.
Women, in particular, have been negatively affected by the pandemic. The United Nations has warned that the pandemic could set gender equality back by decades. Women, especially women of colour, are more likely to have been furloughed or lost their jobs, grinding their careers to a halt and jeopardising their financial future. The support networks that made it possible for women to work and care for children have been upended.
As a result, more than a quarter of women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely. Companies risk losing women in leadership roles, and future women leaders.
Although this is a blow to gender diversity in the workplace, there are some positives. Flexible, at-home working has never been so accepted. And there’s an opportunity for companies to invest in this culture and create a more empathetic and equal workplace for all.
This year’s IWD theme is ‘Choose to Challenge’.
A challenged world is an alert world. Individually, we're all responsible for our own thoughts and actions - all day, every day. We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women's achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world.
From challenge comes change.
In this spirit, we decided to seek out and celebrate the contributions and successes of women challenging the status quo. From tech to beauty and finance, we’re sharing some of the most extraordinary female founders and the incredible work they do leading game-changing brands. All of these women have chosen to challenge the industries they work in, and are working towards creating a more equal world.
GINA GUTIERREZ & FAYE KEEGAN, FOUNDERS OF DIPSEA
Gina Gutierrez and Faye Keegan are the founders of Dipsea, a tech company focused on elevating the female sexual experience.
It’s no secret that men are pretty well-catered for in terms of erotic content. But Gina, previously a brand and design strategist, was fascinated by the idea that sexuality is as psychological as it is physical: there didn’t seem to be anything out there that catered for a millennial market of curious, explorative women. She was also struck by the intimate power of audio as a medium for storytelling.
“Dipsea empowers you to tap into your sexuality more accessibly, and on your terms. We’re re-imagining sexuality as mind-first vs. body-first, and helping people spark their own erotic imaginations.”
Faye and Gina took this mind-first approach for erotic content and made it sexy – not just to listen to, but to look at. The branding of the app is classy, contemporary, and cool: the polar opposite of what perhaps comes to mind when you think of this space.
All of Dipsea’s stories are edited in-house and come from a trusted network of writers and voice actors. One of the most important parts of the process is ensuring that listeners feel safe: like active participants.
“How do we make sure the partner that [the narrator] is talking to sounds empathetic and trustworthy? How do we make sure that she’s really feeling herself? How do we make sure the environment that she’s in feels really conducive to that experience, so she’s not threatened from a privacy perspective or she’s not feeling uncomfortable with anything?”
It’s safe to say this is probably not at the forefront of the mind of, shall we say, ‘traditional’ porn creators. It’s worth noting that the founders of Dipsea avoid using the word ‘porn’, favouring ‘erotica’.
Refreshingly, Gina says that it hasn’t been a problem breaking through to the male-dominated tech world. Men are receptive to the product, often expressing surprise that it didn’t exist already.
Dipsea says its stories are relatable, feminist and celebratory. Again, marking an almost exact polar opposite of most of the mainstream content out there.
GEORGINA GOOLEY, CO-FOUNDER OF BILLIE
Georgina Gooley, former advertising exec, is the co-founder of Billie, a body-positive shaving brand. Billie was founded on the basis of protesting against the ‘pink tax’ – products for women costing more, just because.
Georgina and her co-founder, Jason Bravman, saw a gap in the market. Marketing for women’s razors felt dated and out-of-touch. Why should the idea of seeing a razor used on actual hair be such a radical idea, instead of it pointlessly gliding up against smooth, tanned, hairless legs? And heaven forbid we should entertain the idea that women might use it anywhere else. Armpit hair? Doesn’t exist! Bikini line? Don’t be silly.
Georgina also found the idea that women should have to pay more for a product “offensive and totally absurd.” She decided to focus on eliminating the sexist pricing strategy, launching the Pink Tax Rebate, which offers money back to women as a way of reimbursing them for the Pink Tax.
With Billie, she was determined to eliminate this sexist pricing strategy. Her team launched the Pink Tax Rebate, which is ostensibly a program designed to reimburse women for the years they spent over-paying for pink razors, but which is actually just a clever way of marketing a referral program.
Last year, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission took action to prevent Billie from being acquired by Procter & Gamble, on the grounds that the merger would eliminate competition in the wet shave razor market. The two companies have decided not to contest the decision.
“The journey is not always easy, so you have to believe that all the effort and setbacks will be worthwhile,” she says. To aspiring entrepreneurs, she offers this advice: “Don’t worry about planning your career too much. Life isn’t linear, and you need to be open to opportunities as they present themselves.”
SHARON CHUTER, FOUNDER OF UOMA BEAUTY
Former LVMH executive Sharon Chuter founded Uoma – which means ‘beautiful’ in Igbo, one of the main languages of Nigeria – to create an inclusive beauty brand that focuses not just on a diverse shade range, but on who is buying them.
Sharon explains that she ‘fell into’ beauty, after changing her mind several times about what she wanted to do. “There are only four professions in Nigeria: doctor, lawyer, engineer, or disappointment.”
She discovered she had an aptitude for business when, as a teenager, she started to question why no international beauty brands existed in Nigeria. She contacted hundreds of brands, asking to be their distributor. Revlon responded, which led to a start in beauty – an industry she found that appealed to both her business and creative sides. She worked her way up from the sales floor to the C-Suite, before creating UOMA.
UOMA is an outspokenly ‘antiracist’ brand. Sharon believes that every business now needs to stand for something.
“My brand is not a place to escape from what’s going on in the world. It’s a place to immerse yourself in what’s going on in the world. Making the world a better place is not a part-time job, it’s a full-time commitment. Every brand should stand for something. If you don’t stand for something, then you really need to rethink your place in 2021!”
MELANIE PERKINS, FOUNDER OF CANVA
If you work in digital, chances are you’ve used Canva. The design app, valued at $8.7 billion, is one of the lucky few businesses to have significantly increased its valuation during the pandemic. Today, Canva boasts more than 10 million registered users in 190 different countries.
Its CEO and founder, Filipino-Australian Melanie Perkins, is Australia’s third-richest woman and the youngest Aussie billionaire.
Melanie came up with the idea for Canva in 2007 when she was still a student. After teaching people how to use InDesign and Photoshop, she realised there was a market for a non-complex design program that was accessible to all. She and her co-founder, Cliff Obrecht, took out a loan and brought in a tech team to create a program that made it easier to design yearbooks.
"I realised that in the future design was all going to be online and collaborative, and much, much simpler."
ANNE BODEN – FOUNDER OF STARLING BANK
Anne Boden founded Starling in 2014 after a 30-year career in banking. Her vision was to create a bank without the bureaucracy and give customers helpful tools to manage their finances, utilising tech to make it quicker and easier than ever.
Starling has won Best British Bank at the British Bank Awards for the past three years. It was the only challenger bank to get through 2020 stronger than it was at the start – and it’s set to become profitable by December 2021.
Her former business partner, Tom Blomfield, launched a ‘coup’ in February 2015, eventually departing from Starling, taking its directors with him to create rival Monzo. Ouch.
Ann calls this Starling’s “near-death experience.” She has documented the experience in a book, Banking On It, which was serialised in the Times. It’s an extraordinary story, one which is made all the more extraordinary by the fact that Anne isn’t exactly what you’d expect when you think ‘fintech disruptor’. As she puts it in an interview with The Guardian:
“I’m a woman. I’m 5ft tall. I’m Welsh. I’m middle-aged. I’m from a very ordinary background and I’m the sort of person who’ll chat to somebody in the ladies! Fintech start-ups are all young white guys with goatees – usually with rich parents. People did think I was crazy, that no one ‘starts a bank’, especially people who looked like me, but I’d reached the stage where I was prepared to fail. I was 54 and confident enough not to care if somebody said I was stupid.”
“Fintech is first about finance and there are hardly any women in that. In a boardroom of 20 people, there might be two women. There are hardly any women in tech either. Those that are [in it] tend to be in marketing roles. When you put that together with entrepreneurship, there are very, very few women fintech entrepreneurs. I understood how it worked, but there was nothing I could do to change me. I just had to pretend it wasn’t the case.”
In the UK, just 1% of venture capital goes to all-female-founded teams.
Starling now has 1.8m customer accounts, over 1000 staff, and women filling 40% of the senior roles.
“I think it’s important to focus on what you have rather than what you don’t. I’ve had a great career. I’ve done lots of stuff. I’m proud of what we’ve built. I wish I could help more women understand that you don’t have to conform to the stereotype to be happy, to be successful.”
At Matter Of Form, we are in the business of partnering with brands to help design what's next. We are inspired by innovative brands with strong founding spirit and even more so, by individuals who drive change whilst tackling archaic, biased systems.
So for women, what is next? Well, post-COVID, in the drive to rebuild better, we expect there will be many more brilliant women leading innovation across all industries, bringing inclusive design to the forefront and more equal representation.