Why a Seat at the Table Will Never Be Enough

If we look at certain headlines around the globe, it seems women founders are enjoying unprecedented support and attention. There are programs everywhere to support women’s entrepreneurship in a feel-good march toward equality.

The results of these efforts, however, tell a very different story. According to Crunchbase, in 2019, a mere 2.8% of funding went to women-led startups, and in 2020, the number fell even further, to 2.3%. The numbers for the years since are not much better, and on average we’re at about 1.9%.

Why are the numbers not adding up? 

There is a root cause we seem to keep stepping over, assuming we can somehow take a shortcut on the path toward an equitable world. It’s best captured in a phrase I hear throughout my global travels: “We need to give more women a seat at the table.” In other words, if we just get the women in the room, the world will change. 

It will not.

Here’s why: Women didn’t build that table. We have no control over the seats, or the power dynamics, or the framing of the conversation that happens at the table. It’s why, when women ask for funding to scale our ideas and creations, we’re still asked how many children we plan to have as a condition of that funding.

In order to create an actual shift in the world, we must create a new table with an entirely different conversation. 

I’ve spent the last decade of my life examining the roots of this conversation with women founders around the planet, listening for the things we’re missing as we try to move the lever. And from Nepal to Greece to Abu Dhabi to New York City, the same themes appear again and again.

We keep ignoring all the contexts a woman has to wade through to function as a human being, never mind as a leader and CEO. Societal cues. Family dynamics. Nature vs. nurture. We lead differently, but the world would like us to fit into a male-focused form of leadership, because it has been determined to be the best way. Which makes sense, given that men designed the system. This is not an attempt to lay blame, but rather to recognize what exists. And rather than being part of a system that allows for the nuances of our natural skills and abilities, we are expected to morph ourselves into the established order’s definition of leadership.

When we add to this the pressure to build a product and get it to market, then go for funding, and scale, without addressing all those contextual pieces, we are setting up women to fail.

With IMPERIA, I have made it a global mission to reframe this conversation.

What if, as we develop women founders to rise and scale, we focus on the person rather than the product?

This doesn’t mean the product doesn’t matter — it means that in the long term, it’s secondary to how the CEO will craft its future. Her company’s success in the marketplace depends upon her success in the C-Suite. 

At IMPERIA we strip away those layers of social contexts and drivers to craft a woman as her own source of renewable, sustainable power. We call it Self-Directed Empowerment™.

Our decade of work is now bearing fruit. In 2019 we announced IMPERIA’s first global cohort at the United Nations, and this extraordinary group of women from 16 countries persevered through a global pandemic to achieve incredible results including exits, massive pivots to provide PPE, and global recognition as emerging leaders. But more importantly, they experienced themselves as a different kind of leader. Confident. Unstoppable. “I like the woman I am becoming!” will forever be my favorite piece of feedback.

What’s Next?

Last summer we launched our first in-person cohort in North East Scotland, and were able to observe the difference in interaction from our digital cohort. Now we are scaling around the globe as we build a new kind of hybrid that we think is critical to building a global ecosystem of women founders and funders. 

We are part mindset incubator, part think tank. 

We now have women from 20 countries participating in our programming, and our goal is to partner with every accelerator on the planet that has a woman founder sitting in a seat. Our work is a complement to what accelerators are trying to achieve, but with a mindset specifically tailored to women founders and the unique challenges they face (we’re looking at you, 99.1% of funding going elsewhere). 

The road ahead is daunting but exciting as we embark upon the critical gathering of research, and the further development of our programming. I hope you’ll continue to join us for the ride.

An original version of this article appeared on the blog for ONE Tech Hub in North East Scotland, where Jennifer was their first Entrepreneur-in-Residence in 2022.

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Wednesday Wisdom takes a deeper dive into the core concepts of IMPERIA’s work, helping to strengthen you from the inside out as you scale your vision.

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