Top Takeaways From The “F” Factor: Fueling Womxn Founders

Mar 9, 2021
Two women smiling speaking during a live streaming zoom event.
7 mins | 1509 words
Author: Jennifer Campbell
Fearless, fundraising, fellowship: F-words considered at kickoff to International Womxn’s Week

“If information alone were the answer, we’d all be millionaires with six-packs.” Business expert Mandela Schumacher-Hodge Dixon borrowed that quote from author Derek Sivers to explain to a group of entrepreneurs and angel investors marking International Womxn’s Week why accountability is important when advocating for underrepresented entrepreneurs.

“The information’s out there,” Dixon said. “I can Google how to raise capital. If that was [the answer], we could all just follow that and [we’d] be good. But it takes more than that. Don’t underestimate the importance of setting up accountability structures to get people to move, to get people to improve.”

Dixon, who was the keynote speaker at Invest Ottawa’s International Women’s Week kickoff event titled The “F” Factor: Fueling Womxn Founders, is the creator of Founder Gym, a training program for underrepresented entrepreneurs.

Founder Gym, which services 25 countries on six continents and has helped raise more than $80 million for its founders, is designed for “women founders, Black founders, Latinx founders, Indigenous founders, LGBTQI founders, veteran founders — anyone who comes from a non-traditional background who has historically been left out of the opportunity to navigate and utilize venture capital to scale businesses.”

Having a sense of community in business is also incredibly important, Dixon said in a discussion with Shavonne Hasfal-McIntosh, senior lead of diversity and belonging at Shopify and a member of Invest Ottawa’s board of directors.

It’s probably the thing I underestimated the most,” she said. “People come to Founder Gym and say ‘I just want to raise [capital] so I’ll come to this program and you’ll teach me how.’ But they stay for the community. They keep coming back.”

Dixon said there’s real value to being around like-minded people who are highly ambitious, high-performing and “work to win,” but also share obstacles with you.

“They experience the same biases and the same stereotypes as they enter this world that’s predominately dominated by white men,” she said. “Having other people who are going down this path for the first time is important for morale and a sense of belonging.”

When she worked at the venture capitalist firm Kapor Capital, she co-launched a diversity and inclusion pledge and now she works with such firms to “bake inclusion and diversity into the DNA.” Like her Founder Gym audience, Dixon sought investment in the early days of her business, and she is now an angel investor who also has venture capital experience so she was able to speak to Ottawa-based founders and would-be investors alike.

Asked how Invest Ottawa can make the biggest difference for unrepresented founders, she said the best thing they can do is understand the founders’ needs.

“Before I launched Founder Gym, I interviewed hundreds of founders — people all in different ends of the spectrum of business acumen. It really helped me get clear on I was going try to [help.]”

She decided that though her clients faced multiple challenges, she should focus on one and chose access to funding.

“If I could really teach underrepresented founders how to navigate fundraising, that could give them the capital so many of them needed, but [that help] also came with a network, branding and cachet. It’s really this cheat code that a lot of people don’t fully understand.”

On the topic of technology, she said when the pandemic hit, she leveraged her Silicon Valley contacts and hosted a Zoom meeting with her founders to let them know “in real-time” how the industry was adapting. Her learning from COVID so far is that nothing is guaranteed — except change.

“Life can be unpredictable no matter how bullet-proof you think your plan is,” she said. “So go back to basics. A business is a product or a service that solves people’s problems to the degree that they’re willing to pay for it. Paying attention to what’s happening with the people is a pandemic-proof skill.”

And entrepreneurs are already well equipped to deal with a pandemic because they’re resilient, she said.

“Entrepreneurship is a survival skill,” she said. “If you can turn a dime into a dollar no matter the market conditions, you’re good.”

As part of her response to COVID, she launched a “Money Magnet” program, which teaches founders how to capitalize using other streams of income, specifically revenue.

That said, there’s no underestimating the importance of angel investors, she said, addressing the angels on the Zoom call directly.

“I’m here as your lovely fairy GodFounder to remind you that you are so important to the ecosystem, and to underrepresented founders. Founders who don’t fit the mould may be written off if they use a typical list, so angel investors are incredibly important.”

She said it’s hugely important for investors to write the cheque, but underrepresented founders also need the angel’s mentoring and branding help. Even if you can’t help them on a specific problem, someone in your network probably can, she suggested.

“Why not open your Rolodex and let them have access to that?”

Her final word of advice for angels looking to help underrepresented founders?

“Make it easier for people to find you. If you want to focus on women, Black founders or certain sectors, put that on your LinkedIn profile.”

And for entrepreneurs, she recommended that women not undersell themselves, but also cautioned against “pretending you have it all together.

“I think I overcompensated and wasn’t as vulnerable as I needed to be — especially with my investors. [At Founder Gym,] we work on how to balance credibility, authority and respect with the people you’ll be coming into contact with, but also how to let your guard down and say ‘This is what I don’t know, can you help me?’ The people on the other side are experts. They can take the wide view of everything.”

For both groups, she recommended having a personal mission statement that outlines who you are, what you want to accomplish and who you want to be and then figure out what business best serves that. After that’s nailed down, write a business mission statement.

“Being [one’s] whole self is one of the perks of being an entrepreneur,” she explained. “What has grounded me is knowing who I am and what I want to do and Founder Gym is very connected to that.”

She also advises all Founder Gym members to have a “receipt box” or a historical record of their achievements. They track what they’ve done that other people can’t do and the things they’ve done that they didn’t know were possible.

“There will be doubts,” she explained. “You need to be able to open up that box to remind yourself who you are and what you’re capable of.”

The “F-words” the event considered were those that impact women entrepreneurs and business leaders who are fighting to survive in a pandemic — fundraising, fearlessness, fast, fellowship and fighting burnout.

Sonya Shorey, Invest Ottawa’s vice president of marketing and communications, kicked off the afternoon by talking about how the pandemic has disproportionately negatively affected women, particularly those from marginalized communities.

“This issue impacts all of us — our economy, our society and our community,” she said. “Recent research shows women make up 39 percent of global employment but account for 54 percent of overall job losses. Taking action now to advance gender equality could add $13 trillion to global GDP by 2030.”

Invest Ottawa CEO Mike Tremblay and Susan Richards, co-chair of the Invest Ottawa board, updated stakeholders on how the organization is faring with goals to advance women. Tremblay noted that Invest Ottawa’s board is gender-balanced and he reported that in its Pre-Accelerator Program — a 10-week boot camp — 11 of 20 pitch competition awards were given to women founders or co-founders. In the Accelerator Program, 12 of the companies, or 19 percent, were led or co-led by women. That number may seem small, he said, but it’s a 50-per-cent increase. He also listed a number of programs that have high female participation (see sidebar.)

Angel investors Julia Elvidge and Jennifer Francis, of the Capital Angel Network, spoke about the SheBoot investment-ready bootcamp for women founders. They launched the camp last year for the first time and handed out $200,000 in funding to the winners of the pitch competition. Applications are now open for this year’s program.

A panel of women leaders then spoke about the challenges they’ve faced in business.

Describing her response to the pandemic, Thusha Agampodi, head of engineering at Tread, said solidarity was important but that while we’re all in this together, “some of us are in a yacht and some are just in the water.” Julia Slanina, founder and CEO of Treehouse Medical, said she takes her self-reflection time very seriously and often journals. Andrea Winter’s team at Martello Technologies gave a HeadSpace meditation app subscription to all employees. Ashleigh Kennedy, founder and CEO of Neurovine, said she finds balance through her children. “Having a family and running a startup enhance each other,” she said. “My kids are seeing our entire company dynamics.”

Watch the full recording of the event:

Additional recommendations:

A reading/listening list from Mandela
  • Follow British author and former monk Jay Shetty on Instagram
  • Red Table Talk on Facebook Watch
  • Podcast: How I Built This with Guy Raz
  • The Alchemist
  • A New Earth
  • Awakening to your Life’s Purpose
  • The Game of Life
  • Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People
  • Autobiographies by Michelle Obama, Booker T. Washington, Barack Obama
Back to Blog