Article by April Lipatan and Claire Doussard
We all know the workplace is male dominated.
We all know that women are minorities when it comes to the C-suite.
Beyond the obvious issues when it comes to women in the workplace, we wanted to bring something new to the table by exploring other subtleties when it comes to women and leadership in entrepreneurship.
Do all women feel the same in the workplace? What happens when they come from different backgrounds, cultures, and countries? Is the situation of women really so grim?
To address some of these questions, Claire and April, Sciago’s female co-founders, have decided to do a comparative interview where they answer the same questions and compare their answers. Here we go!
So what does it mean for you to be a woman entrepreneur?
Claire: For me, being a woman entrepreneur these days is the equivalent to being a young and inexperienced worker, learning to overcome the challenge of meeting a client that is generally white, male, and in his 50s. Firstly, because, right from the start, I am not who this type of client expects to meet, especially considering the nature of what we offer at Sciago. Indeed, they are not used to seeing a young woman selling high-quality, and costly R&D in the urban sciences. The clients I work with are most likely much more acclimated to working with senior male partners from firms like McKinsey and EY.
One of the results is that some of the potential clients I meet don’t even realize they sometimes make sexist comments, or change their behavior as they engage with me, and so I can’t help but wonder if it’s because I am young and a woman.
Furthermore, I believe that being a woman can therefore lead to self-doubt : Did my client behave a certain way because I am a woman? Because I am young, inexperienced or performed poorly? Did I have the right attitude in front of him? Am I over thinking all this?
And, I have to admit, it gets quite exhausting to be always questioning myself in these ways.
However, to be a woman also means that I am contributing to the increasing statistics in female entrepreneurship, and I like this aspect of it. I think it’s important to be the example for other women who are still hesitating to launch their own company. And, to this regard, I do believe I carry a certain responsibility.
April: So when I decided to go in on this joint adventure, I didn’t come out with guns blazing at every man in the room. For me, being a woman entrepreneur held no specific priority or conscious preconception in my mind. This might be because, along with being a woman entrepreneur, the biggest obstacles for me are being an immigrant co-founder with a language barrier. For those of you who don’t know, I am half Filipino half American and come from the U.S. I came to Paris 4 years ago and started collaborating with Claire on various urban projects since then. So I have always had this perspective as an outsider, living and working in an entirely different environment than I had ever experienced before. For me, being a woman entrepreneur is just adding another mental hindrance on top of being an immigrant.
The pressure of the personal challenges I face have led me to develop a certain mindset as I continue to pursue professional endeavours – I try to drop the preconceptual baggage of feminism in the workplace and, instead, examine these situations within their own unique contexts, adapting as things come along. By doing this, the point isn’t to be blind to important issues addressed by the current feminist movement, but I think to hyperfocus on it (as the media so efficiently does) would be a distraction, and would therefore be doing women a disservice.
How do different cultural norms and conditionings influence your idea of the female entrepreneur?
Claire: In France there is a gap between what people think about the female entrepreneur and the reality of it.
I think generally speaking, French people are pretty open-minded about female entrepreneurship. I’ve never heard any of my relatives, friends, or colleagues say that women were any less capable than men when it came to entrepreneurship. They were always generally enthusiastic and supportive of what I do. There are also plenty of public incentives and private programs to help women who want to develop their startup in France.
However, I think it is still hard today to find strong female role models. 32% of French companies have been created by women (which is not bad compared to other countries). This number won’t be increasing any time soon since only 18% of French women want to create their own businesses, so there is still a lot of room for improvement. And if the whole world knows about Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, I would really appreciate to see more strong French female figures (like Cécile Schmollgruber or Roxanne Varza).
April: For the first part of my childhood, I was a “military brat”, moving all over the world every couple of years, going wherever my father was stationed. I had a very different and open idea of life at a very young age. I saw images of women from all backgrounds in military uniforms being just as assertive as men, all the time. In my perception, everything was possible and anyone, including minority women, could achieve anything.
Another important influence on my perception in terms of cultural norms is my heritage, which is a mix of two cultures: American and Filipino. Men in the Filipino culture very dominantly play the role of the person in charge of making all important decisions in/for the household. Growing up, this didn’t only mean my father, but my brother was also in charge of me since he was the oldest and a boy.
Now, as a woman entrepreneur, I know some of the reasons why I have follower qualities in some cases, vs leading ones in others. But other less-explainable behaviors I believe come from cultural conditioning – like the way I overdo my body behaviors, take stances, or over think what I’m wearing.
My idea of the female entrepreneur wasn’t fully formed when I started my business, and still isn’t fully formed. But having actually entered the playing field and started to learn about the beauty and bitterness of being a female in the business world, has, for me, better shaped my idea of the female entrepreneur. And one important realization I have made is that my perception of the female entrepreneur is one that is constantly being developed as I continue to learn and contribute from my own personal experience and others’ everyday.
What is it like to start-up with another female co-founder?
Claire: It’s amazing and challenging at the same time. April and I are both strong headed women, we both know what we want, and it can sometimes lead to conflict – as is probably the case between any partners.
However, even though we are pretty confrontational, we always respectfully tell each other when something is wrong, or when we disagree on something. We are not the backstabbing kind, contrary to what most people can imagine about what’s happening when two women disagree, and I think we are both pretty good about communicating.
We are also very complementary in terms of personality, and we both have very special super powers. I think very quickly, and I am super rational and efficient when it comes to organizing and managing our team. April is amazing at reading body language, and understands the emotional aspect of any situation.
I also noticed in the coworking space that startups tended to have generally cofounders from the same sex. I don’t know if we did it on purpose, but, since Sciago’s beginning in 2016, we had 7 women working on the project compared to 5 men. It is also interesting to note here that we are working in the tech and R&D industry.
April: It’s empowering. Yeah, I think that sums it up.
Just knowing about the suffering of women today and in the past, especially in terms of business, I cannot help but to be empowered by it all. Right now is such an exciting time to be alive as a woman entrepreneur. There are many incentives and programs where women help women in the startup world and it feels incredibly energizing to be a part of it all. It feels like we are all making history together. But, we need to make sure there is a balance in all this hype.
A while back Claire and I took the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and found that we were almost a perfect compliment to each other’s personalities. I believe that no matter what gender you are, the most important diversity in the workplace should be in terms of skills and behaviors, especially if you want your professional relationship to flourish. Being a female or male co-founder has nothing to do with it for me. What is most important about Claire being my co-founder is her passion and commitment to lead Sciago and her unique ability to deal with each situation with authenticity, efficiency and clarity.
How did your education and family upbringing affect your path that has led you to be a female entrepreneur?
Claire: Well, there weren’t any entrepreneurs in my family, as my dad didn’t go to High School and worked for a major train company, SNCF, his whole life. My mom worked primarily as a nurse before becoming a teacher, that was after my sister and I were born.
I wasn’t educated to become an entrepreneur, or to take risks for that matter. But, my parents always supported me whatever choices I made. They did, however, question my choices a lot when they didn’t have enough information, or were not familiar with a specific situation. As the entrepreneurship world is new to them, I think they tend to worry a lot, as they can also see I am overworked, overstressed, and I still do not have a stable financial situation at 29.
And then there’s the fact that my parents and I can also see all of my friends getting married, buying homes, and having kids – This is what society expects at this age, right?
At some point, I do still want a more stable life for myself, with kids and a nice apartment/house. It might be because I have seen my parents and my other relatives live relatively good and stable lives with their families, which I have to admit looks comfortable. But not for now, I still have time to do what I want in my life. We can choose to do what we want, when we want.
April: As I said before, I had a unique experience growing up: Filipino, American cultural influence and a male dominant, military family life. But I should also add that the last part of my schooling was in North Dakota, where agriculture dominates the economy. The farm culture I experienced also made an impression on me, as the women of this region still typically stay at home, take care of the kids, cook, clean, and garden. But, despite them fulfilling the very stereotypical female role, there is also a very strong, almost masculine, side to these women. I think this is why I was a bit of a “tomboy” growing up, and why it’s still hard for me to wear dresses to this day.
Today, as I plunge into the world of entrepreneurship, I feel proud, proud to be an educated woman leading a team, creating jobs, and breaking the social norms. Its empowering to be a woman in this day and age. My upbringing and education have all made an impression on me, for better or for worse, but I am in the position I am in today because of all the people who have crossed paths with me in this life, man or woman.
As we wrote our responses to these questions, we noted that our backgrounds really made a difference in our perspectives. We conclude that in our experiences, there is no standard for the entrepreneurial woman. We all have our own experiences that shape our perspectives for better or for worse.
What is your stereotypical woman entrepreneur?