"It's about creating an atmosphere where we don't compare based on gender"

Janina Sundermeier, professor of digital entrepreneurship and diversity at Freie Universität Berlin, and her doctoral student Franziska Mattner have been researching female founders in Germany for some time. In this interview, they talk about diversity in the startup environment, VC capital for female founders, and political measures for more equality.

In 2020, according to data from Startbase, only 11.9% of startups in Germany were female. How do you explain this?

Janina Sundermeier:

In fact, it turns out that primarily existing stereotypes of who and what constitutes a founder are decisive for the low number of female founders. Men are still more likely to be associated with supposedly start-up-specific attributes such as "assertive", "risk-taking" and "fearless". As a result, the latter are more likely to identify with the job description and have decisive advantages in accessing important resources, such as venture capital, because decision-makers are also often influenced by stereotypical ideas.

What options are there to overcome these barriers?


The sensitization and qualification for entrepreneurial thinking and acting must become more natural for it, so that the start-up foundation becomes with adolescents a just as tangible job description, as for example doctor, kindergarten teacher or teacher.

And what can be done in the short term?

Franziska Mattner:

On the one hand, 'entrepreneurship' should be integrated as a subject into our school system at an early stage in order to learn the necessary knowledge and skills, as well as to develop confidence in them. Working with role models can help to get a 'picture' of what it means to be a start-up person or to understand why someone else has chosen this path and to evaluate whether this path is also an option for me. Beyond that, of course, our state can provide a variety of incentives.

What incentives could these be?

Mattner: Start-up scholarships - such as the EXIST start-up scholarship,

can help ease the step from permanent employment to start-up. For a period of twelve months the teams (max. three persons) receive a monthly basic salary including workplace, coaching and network. EXIST currently primarily supports technology- or knowledge-based start-up projects from the university environment. One possibility would be to expand the conditions and funding volumes (new target groups, types of innovations) in order to keep the entry barriers as low as possible. It would be interesting to see whether an additional 'women's edition' with female coaches, female investors, connection to female founder networks and target group-specific marketing could increase the proportion of founders per year.

Ms. Sundermeier, do you also think that politics needs to take more initiative to make the start-up industry more diverse?


In the foreword of the Female Founder Monitor from 2020, Brigitte Zypries says that despite all efforts, nothing has really changed so far in the female founder rate. I find this honesty remarkable, but I also see the efforts of various ministries. For example, I am part of the jury for the innovation programme for business models and pioneering solutions of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, and here great care is taken to ensure that relevant applications are assessed by a very diverse jury. These are important steps in the right direction and furthermore all political possibilities help to free the social image of a founding person from stereotypes.

On average, founders are 36 years old. To what extent does a desire to have children inhibit one's own start-up?


: In fact, many women start a business later, when they have already gained professional experience. That is actually also a very good basis. The fact that many women do not dare to take the step into start-up founding has to do with the socially shaped idea that every start-up is the first step towards private insolvency and that it directly requires vast amounts of resources to build up a company. These myths need to be dispelled and more offers are needed to show how an idea can be validated with simple means in terms of real potential.

I've just become a mother myself and would find it a nice addition if, in addition to all the baby fun classes, there were offerings that invited mothers to be guided and considerate of the newborn's needs to validate and further develop their own ideas piece by piece.

Do Do you also see social benefits from more female founders?


Since start-ups research new technologies, develop digital products, or bring forth business models that change entire industries, it is always desirable that the scene of those 'helping to shape' is structured as heterogeneously as possible. This allows the needs, wishes and ideas of different target groups to be better taken into account in product development. That's why I wish for a diverse, open, heterogeneous and sustainable start-up scene with lots of cool women and men.
Janina Sundermeier.

In order to successfully advance a start-up, female and male founders need capital. But female start-up teams in particular often lack it. Is there a need for a women's quota in the VC sector?

Sundermeier: The title of a US study, which analysed the conversations between VCs and founders, speaks volumes for the need for a rethink in the VC world: "We ask men to win and women not to lose"

. Still, it's always ambivalent with quotas. On the one hand, quotas are needed to address the symptoms of the distorted perception of the male ideal in the startup context. On the other hand, quotas do not necessarily cure the causes of the skewed assessment of men and women. The quota is only effective if the VC world is open to criticism and change, and doesn't just bring women on board to avoid a social media shitstorm with the next group photo.


I think the question is, what's the problem? Are there simply no female founding teams for investors to invest in? Do the ideas or business models of the female founding teams not match the growth targets of those who invest? Is there a selection bias based on gender? That is, men tend to 'trust' other men and women tend to 'trust' other women?

I always find diversity more exciting, so - a resounding yes to that, even for the investor scene. Furthermore, I would find it super if the start-up selection process includes SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) & ESG criteria (the standard for sustainable investments) in addition to their growth targets.

Franziska Mattner.

In which areas do you think female teams are better than all-male founding teams?


In all of them! (laughs) There are studies or reports that compare women's and men's teams, however, I don't know what this brings us, except to sharpen the 'fronts'. The point is to create an atmosphere in schools, in the trades, at universities, in the workplace, on supervisory boards, in politics - in which we don't compare on the basis of gender, but in which we promote the potential of the individual. Who contributes when, at what time and how in professional life, family, household, etc. - here we certainly need more openness and flexibility from us as a whole society.

What tips would you give to young female founders?


Go for it! Find out what kind of support services are available in your area. If you are studying or have studied, the university's start-up centre is a good first port of call. In addition, there are events in many cities that are organised via the meetup.com platform and many chambers of commerce also offer support. All of these are first points of contact to gradually find out what offers exist for the respective start-up phase. In addition, here you usually meet people who are open and unreservedly facing a start-up foundation, at least more unreservedly than possibly their own parents or friends, who may have little to do with this path.

Mattner: There are now many good places to go, e.g. founder networks with mentoring such as Female Founders, WomenTech Network, FeMentor or teamnushu

but also podcasts, accelerators, events, meetups or trade fairs, which make a strong case for women in the start-up scene.

From who can you learn something from as an aspiring female founder?


I think the answer to this question is always very subjective. Of their personalities and mindsets, Dr. Sophie Chung (Qunomedical GmbH) and Farina Schurzfeld (Selfapy GmbH) have been very inspiring to me and the participants in my events. Of course, I am also a big fan of the female founders whom I am allowed to accompany closely on their way as a mentor, such as Jaane Henning and Johanna Lubig, who will digitize couple therapy with Recoupling.

What are the coolest ideas (startups) you know of from female founding teams?


From the Strascheg Center for Entrepreneurship, the start-up center of the University of Applied Sciences Munich come, for example, Long Hair Girls, Jesango or nearbees. Other names that often come up in the media are Verena Pausder from Fox and Sheep, Ida Tin from Clue, Julia Bösch from Outfittery, Lea-Sophie Cramer from Amorelie or Milena Glimbovski from 'Original Unverpackt'. There are so many incredible great and exciting stories. You can listen to a few of them in our new university podcast fIVE, which launches on 15.03.2021.

Are there other countries where female founders have it easier?

Sundermeier: In a study from 2016, colleagues from Hohenheim examined the rate of female founders in the 20 leading startup ecosystems worldwide. Berlin ended up in last place, while the first four places were occupied by American ecosystems, such as Silicon Valley. Nevertheless, I would be cautious about concluding that female founders have it easier there. The VC study mentioned earlier with the insight "We ask men to win and women not to lose"

is based on data from the US and shows that there are reservations about women in the startup context there as well.

Nevertheless, the American mentality is different and the idea that anyone can make it from rags to riches obviously also affects the self-confidence with which start-up ideas are implemented in the USA. Just like the motto "You can have it all".

Thank you so much for the conversation.

About the people:

Prof. Dr. Janina Sundermeier

Janina Sundermeier, Professor of Digital Entrepreneurship and Diversity at Freie Universität Berlin, serves as an ambassador for "Women's Entrepreneurship" within NFUSION, the Entrepreneurs Network of Freie Universität Berlin. In addition, she has led the initiatives "Hello DIversity! Conference 2019", "WoMenventures" and" Digital Entrepreneurship Hub" and thus advocates for more diversity in the start-up scene.

Franziska Mattner

Franziska Mattner, who has been a lecturer at Munich University of Applied Sciences since 2016, teaches Business Model Design, Innovation and Design Thinking. She is also very involved in the SCE, the university's start-up centre, where she initiated the start-up podcast "FIVE", among other things. Currently she is doing her PhD on the research topic: "Female Entrepreneurship & Online Education".

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