Most startup founders say they benefit from mentors, but not one woman came up in the list of the top eight ‘recommended’ mentors for founders, as published in the first version of the 2023 Startup Muster report.
But given the “top eight” list was based on numerical data garnered from a survey of the startup sector, including close to 585 startup founders and a total 1100 founders and supporters, seeing an all-male result come through was hardly surprising.
Actually, it made a lot of sense. Not just because men are still more likely to be founders than women (women made up 27% of the founders surveyed), and not because women don’t mentor other women and get involved to support – I can say first-hand, and based on plenty of people I’ve interviewed and met over the past ten years, that women absolutely do mentor others.
Rather, the all-male list made sense because men overwhelmingly hold the keys to accessing money.
And it should be seen as a symptom of a sick Australian startup community.
While there are a growing number of women in VC and a (slightly) growing number of women founding and exiting businesses, these shifts can’t make up for the cold, hard result of the male-dominated money network in Australia. Just three per cent of private VC funding went to all female-founded companies in 2022, while just ten per cent went to companies with at least one female founder in their teams.
Regardless of a founder’s gender, you can understand why male mentors — who are significantly more likely to have accessed and benefited from capital in the past or know plenty of other (male founders) who have — would seem like a more compelling proposition to have as a mentor. If you ask founders who they believe are the best mentors, you’re essentially asking about “aspirational mentors”. An aspirational mentor is likely to have a higher profile, especially in and around accelerators, incubators, VC funds and on social media (which many on the all male list do). They are also likely to have stronger personal connections with already successful and established founders, including those who have exited businesses.
So why wouldn’t “the most recommended mentors” be the ones that fall into the category of having “the most access to money”? While there are plenty of other areas of support required through mentoring, much of that happens on an ad hoc basis, and even if a mentor can give advice on ‘marketing’ the mentor’s appeal is likely to increase with how much-perceived support they might be able to offer on accessing capital, which makes sense, given accessing capital remains a critical challenge for founders. Support around better understanding funding opportunities and funding networks would likely come from those who are still firmly in the majority of who have access.
The all-male mentor list has, unsurprisingly, sparked much controversy over the past few days. It’s fair for the survey researchers to highlight that this was a quantitive result, and they therefore couldn’t help or adjust the outcome to suit our desire and need for diversity on such lists.
But they could have, in the writing of the report, offered more analysis and commentary on the fact an all-male list emerged rather than the one line in brackets that said, “Let’s hope for more gender balance” in the future. Hope is a terrible strategy for anything generally, but it’s especially fraught regarding diversity and inclusion efforts. Why not offer more background on why an all-male list has emerged? Why not dig into other data areas to examine what other gender differences might be contributing?
Why not seek to lead on addressing the gender imbalance rather than declaring you hope it will somehow sort itself out over time?
Startup Muster has, consequently, addressed the controversy by updating the report one day after its release to include a women’s list of mentors, which includes (in order) Adeline Chu, Joanne Jacobs, Sharon Hunneybell, Julia Spicer, Kate Jenkins, Kylie Gerrard, Elizabeth Kaelin, Lynda Coker and Rachel Neumann. The survey organisers took on the feedback, and sought to address it — a move that should be commended — with co founder Murray Hurps declaring on LinkedIn that he would, “rather screw up and fix quickly than just screw up”.
But again, the all-male recommended list is the symptom; how about addressing the actual disease here? How about leveraging the research to understand better why women receive just a tiny fraction of VC capital? That seems like the real opportunity for research now and into the future, and an opportunity that will be more industry-changing and beneficial than a list of best mentors.
Australia’s startup ecosystem can’t be described as “thriving” when just three per cent of VC funding goes to female-founded teams. There is nothing robust or healthy about concentrating venture capital overwhelmingly into one group.