5 Lessons in Fear for Female CEOs

By November 20, 2011

Being the co-founder and CEO of an early-stage tech startup is hard. It means late nights, early mornings, lots of sacrifice and fear. There is another layer of difficulty added when you are a woman in that position. For me, the biggest obstacle is finding other female CEOs to add to my network for support, ideas, and encouragement. This is not to say that men in the co-founder/CEO position are not willing to help me, but we tend to emulate those who are most like us. Women are taught to behave differently than men.

To be a CEO means you have to push your ideas out to the world, be ambitious about your company growth, and be fearless in the face of constant unknowns and doubt. It is a bit easier for men who have been taught those traits all their lives, but women learn these later in life. Women need other women to help them refine those qualities and coach them along the way.

The most important thing I have learned as a woman CEO is fear. I learned to embrace it, use it to my advantage, and stare it down. I think fear is what keeps a lot of women from entering the startup world because I know we are just as smart and ambitious as men.

I want to share five ways that fear has helped me forge ahead in the sea of male-dominated tech startups:

1. Get rid of the fear

We are always told, as women, that our looks hold a high degree of importance. We are constantly aware of how we represent ourselves to others, and what people think of us. In the startup world, you are fighting for attention among brilliant people with brilliant ideas. There is a fear that people may laugh at your idea or worse, at you, for thinking you could even compete for the VC money and a spot in the super hot tech accelerator. You start wondering what makes you so special and the fear starts to creep into your mind. That is when you have to be strong and just get rid of it. You ask yourself, “What is the worst that can happen if I do?” Usually, it is getting a “no” or not getting a response, or at worst, you are told your idea is worthless. So what? It is not the end of your life and your house did not burn down with the cat in it.

The best advice I was given was to ask myself why I am afraid and answer the question out loud. Once you hear your excuse to give in to fear out loud, it does not seem so frightening. I was scared to death the first time I pitched investors. I did not get the funding, they never responded to my follow ups, and I am sure my pitch was pretty bad, but I did it. I learned how to improve it for the next time. I have employed this philosophy each time I think fear is holding me back and it has not failed me yet.

2. Make fear your friend

Tell it hello, acknowledge it, confront it, and then use that energy for something else. Fear drains us. It makes us feel stressed, fatigued, and cranky. That is a lot of wasted energy that can be used to improve your product, pitch to VCs, and build a user base. It is okay to be fearful and recognize it, but it is not okay to let it consume you. Turn that fear into a motivator and challenge yourself to complete a scary task like pitching a VC. When you have faced it down and come out on the other side of fear, you become stronger and more confident each time. Those wins, in spite of fear, will make you a great leader.

3. Do not take no for an answer

I hear women take no for an answer all the time. I have heard women simply say, “Okay, well, thank you anyway.” The problem is that we are too afraid to ask WHY we got “no” for an answer. It may be painful or embarrassing to hear the truth but if you take the “no” and just walk away you are going to get a lot more “no” answers down the road. There are times when you have to accept that people won’t buy your product or fund you for any number of reasons, but you need to know why so you can improve your product, your pitch or even yourself. Sometimes the reason can make you uncomfortable, but part of being a leader is knowing when and how to improve without taking it personally. You do not have time to take anything personally, so use the feedback to get better because there will be another opportunity to pitch for funding or sign a big name partner and you will be better at it because you asked how to improve.

4. Do not fear your gender

It can be daunting to walk into a networking event or hack-a-thon and be the only woman in the room. I have been in those situations many times and wondered if I would be taken seriously or if people would look at me like a circus freak. You just have to accept that at this moment in time, you, as a woman, are among a tiny group of people in the tech world. In the beginning I had an overwhelming urge to turn around and walk out the door, but I visited point #2 above and forced myself to be present. Guess what? It did not kill me and it will not kill you. In fact, most of the men will not see you as a woman, but as a peer. Do not make your gender the focus. Sure, people may acknowledge that you are the only woman but after you start talking about your business, your gender does not matter anymore. What you are doing is paving the way for other women. Over time, you will start seeing more women showing up because you are there helping them to feel less intimidated. You are a leader and as such you have to take on the uncomfortable tasks that no one else will do.

5. Embrace the suckiness

Sometimes being a woman in the tech startup world really sucks. You hear about bias and discrimination and you get subtle remarks that are sexist in nature. It happens all the time and it will not change overnight. Embrace being a woman in a male-dominated field because you may bring something to the table that will radically change your industry. For instance, women-run companies tend to have better employee policies for both men and women. There is a stronger sense of camaraderie in women-led organizations and in many cases, female CEOs lead more productive teams. Yes, there will be times of suckiness, but believe in what you are doing and do not let the suck stop you.