Opinion Piece: Sponsorship is Key When Leaning In

While I entirely agree with Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” approach, I do believe that her methodology misses a critical component necessary in order for women to reach their goals, especially when it comes to building and scaling start ups. And I say all of this as a female executive founding my own company.

Lou Donnelly-Davy, founder of Scrattch and Noted.women is a member of Microsoft BizSpark.  

Don’t get me wrong. I think Ms Sandberg genuinely has the best interests of women at heart. I also believe that most of what she talks about is completely valid.

I do however think that she is oblivious to a number of important issues when it comes to women founded companies. I am all for women taking charge of their own lives, their own destinies and ultimately their own careers, but I am not sure all we need to do is stay engaged, find perfect partners and toss out the idea of having it all. To be fair Ms Sandberg has done an exceptional job of putting a stake in the ground and inciting discussion and debate around what the best course of action for this problem is. Sure, we may not agree with all of her approaches, nor may we agree that she is in the same position, as many families who have mortgages, laundry and a less than average pay cheque, as she herself points out. But I will agree that she has opened up a dialogue and listed a number of initial proactive first steps we can all adopt in some fashion to begin to make things better. She does not have all the answers, nor should she be expected to. It is now up to us to chip in and take the next step.

I will say that her list of “to do’s” is a little too simplistic for female founders. Like it or not, we sit within an historical context of inequality. It is impossible to change the ratio when we are expecting the majority of that change to come from within. One could argue the onus of responsibility should sit squarely on the shoulders of those who wish to incite disruption but as we know, no lasting and meaningful change can happen without discomfort and without challenging the status quo. It is vital that we empower not only those enmeshed in this problem but also those on the periphery to stand up and get actively involved.

Women raise 70% less money than men do because of their lack of access to capital, only 4% of all funded tech start ups are founded by women and only 12% of (US) Angel Investors are women. Leaning in is certainly desirable. In fact, it is imperative that women continue to stay connected to their goals in all areas of their lives. But in addition to leaning in I propose that we need to adopt a lean on approach to ensure that we see a radical shift to these numbers and a measurable and substantial change to female founders’ abilities to access both money and resources.

I am not talking about support groups. Nor forums. Nor mentoring. Nor holding hands and dancing around a campfire hoping and wishing the world would change so we could all be equal and live happily ever after.

I am talking of real, meaningful and deliberate collaboration and connection building in order for women to gain access to industry specific highly relevant individuals, capital and resources.

Like it or not, the kind of connections built in the higher echelons of business are easier to come by for our male friends than ourselves. It is not a gripe, nor a whinge, nor even an argument. It is a fact. By the very (historical) nature of what the status quo represents it is by default easier for men to build meaningful and relevant connections that ultimately lead to 1. an easier path to the top/  access to resources and capital and 2. maintaining the status quo.

We need to change how these connections are established by radically altering the way in which we approach the traditional view of networking and ultimately sponsorship. I’m not talking about seeking out the top women executives and asking them to be mentors. I am talking about shaking up how the referral process operates. Introducing a new paradigm and significantly reducing the need to be connected in some way to the old school boys network.

I am currently working on a project with some inspiring and talented women in DC and New York that will seek to disrupt the way women gain access to connections, capital and ultimately career and business success. We are not ready to give away much but you can find out more by joining our community.