We’re excited to launch Female Founder Stories, a collection of interviews with 40 of Y Combinator’s female alumnae. We asked them about things like how they got started, their experience at Y Combinator, their experience as female founders, and what they wish they'd known when they were younger. As you'll see, their answers are fascinating, both individually and in their variety.
This is the biggest collection of interviews with female startup founders I've seen in one place, and as a result we have an unprecedented opportunity to notice patterns in their experiences (and just as interesting, where there aren't patterns).
One of the most consistent patterns is how many founders wished they'd learned to program when they were younger. Some wished they'd even known it was an option, and many others knew it was an option but were either intimidated or felt they’d somehow missed the window. "Don't opt out of computer science because you think you are behind," one founder said. "You probably aren’t."
We got an interesting variety of responses when we asked the women whether being a female was advantageous or disadvantageous in their roles as founders. Some felt they had been harmed but as many felt it was an advantage. Interestingly, many said it got them attention for being unusual, and that they'd used this to their advantage. Others felt that being female did impose some barriers, but didn't let it get them down. "Given how hard it is to be a founder (male or female)," one said, "gender disadvantages are probably just a rounding error."
One surprise was how varied the founders’ backgrounds were. I know all these women and even I was surprised how varied their paths to Y Combinator were. If you wanted evidence contradicting the myth that YC only funds one type of founder, you could not do better than read these interviews.
Not surprisingly, most of the women were domain experts solving a problem they themselves had. That's something that tends to be true of successful founders regardless of gender.
When I started Y Combinator back in 2005, I was one of a tiny minority of women in the venture business, and from the start I've made sure YC had an environment that is supportive of women. It wasn't even a conscious decision. To the extent there was one partner in charge of YC's environment, it was me, and as a woman myself I would not have tolerated anything else. And as YC has grown, so has the number of female partners. Now there are four of us and we are not tokens, or a female minority in a male-dominated firm. At the risk of offending my male colleagues, who will nevertheless understand what I mean, some would claim it's closer to the truth to say that that we run the place. As YC funds more and more startups, Kirsty, Carolynn, Kat, and I are dedicated to maintaining an environment where women feel welcome and can succeed.
The number of startups we've funded with a female founder has grown from a trickle when we first started to about 19% in 2014. In the most recent batch (W15), we asked about gender on the application form for the first time. The percentage of startups we accepted with female founders was identical to the percentage who applied. (And this happened organically; we didn't check the numbers until after.) Which implies the percentage of female founders we fund will increase in proportion to the percentage of female applicants.
There are two ways I think YC can have the most impact in increasing the number of female founders. First, we need to continue to do what we’ve always done: to help individual female founders’ startups succeed. Those women will then become role models who inspire other women to make the leap and start startups too. To serve as role models they need to be visible, so we're also focusing on showcasing YC’s female alumni through interviews like these and events like our Female Founders Conference.
I said at the first Female Founders Conference last March that I thought 2014 would be the tipping point for female founders. I still think I’m right, and our hope is that these interviews will be part of what makes things tip-- that they will both inspire more women to start startups (and please apply to YC!) and also inspire some who already have started to keep going.
Startups are hard. They are not the right thing for everyone. But what makes them the right thing for you is whether you are driven enough, not what gender you are, and that's one of the clearest patterns in these interviews.