Launch Lady Land

Last weekend, I attended Y Combinator’s second Female Founders Conference in San Francisco. Over 800 women filled SF’s Masonic Center to hear from past and current Y Combinator founders on topics ranging from how they started their ventures, to scaling their companies, to raising venture capital.

In total, we heard from 12 founders, all of them women. A few observations:

Women founders are keeping it in the family.

I was surprised to learn that almost half of the founders – 5 out of 12 – cofounded their ventures with a spouse or close family member. These include:

  • Jessica Livingston, Y Combinator: cofounded with her husband 
  • Danielle Morrill, Mattermark: cofounded with her husband
  • Tracy Young, PlanGrid: cofounded with her then-boyfriend, now-husband
  • Ruchi Sanghvi, Cove (acquired by Dropbox): cofounded with her husband
  • Adora Cheung, Homejoy: cofounded with her brother

Not but a few days ago, I came across this article, which highlights three female founders – Julia Hartz (Eventbrite), Michelle Zatlyn (CloudFare), and Adi Tatarko (Houzz) – whose companies are among the 80 tech ‘unicorns’ that have passed the billion-dollar mark. Who are their cofounders? You guessed it – in two out of three cases, their husbands.

I was surprised to find that these women were starting such successful ventures with family members, since this seems counter to the conventional VC wisdom that family and startups don't mix. I can’t draw any immediate conclusions, but this trend strikes me as interesting, and worth further exploration.

Women are founding ventures across a variety of sectors.

When asked during a Q&A panel, Jessica Livingston told attendees that female applicants to Y Combinator are starting the same types of businesses as their male counterparts, and last weekend’s panelists were no different. The founders we heard from are leading both consumer and enterprise tech businesses in a number of different industries.

However, I would be remiss to say that this is the case universally. I recognize that there is selection bias in that YC represents some of the best tech startups out there, and even more so, that YC likely elected only the very best ones to showcase. Last summer, working at a seed fund that only invests in female founders, I got the distinct impression that women were founding consumer businesses targeted at women customers. I am hopeful that with time and more role models to emulate, women will tackle a broader set of problems and markets.

Founders of tech companies need not be technical.

Just like many male founders of well-known tech companies are not in fact programmers – PayPal’s Peter Thiel studied philosophy and law, and his cofounder Reid Hoffman, who would later go on to found LinkedIn, studied cognitive science and philosophy – an engineering degree need not be a criteria for women to start tech companies either. (For more on this topic, I highly recommend this article.)

This is also not to say that female tech talent was not featured: Ruchi Sanghvi was the first female engineer hired at Facebook, and went on to lead the company’s development and launch of Newsfeed; and Kimberly Bryant, who earned her electrical engineering degree in the 80s, has almost three decades of computer programming experience. But overall – counterintuitive as it may seem given the ongoing debate about women, STEM, and Silicon Valley’s pipeline problem – I was refreshed to see both technical and non-technical founders on stage.

I’m glad to have had the opportunity to attend the Female Founders Conference. In addition to the panel speakers, I got to meet a lot of great women founders working on a variety of interesting ventures. And even though only 23% of teams applying to Y Combinator have a female founder, I am confident that with time and precedence, Y Combinator and its peer accelerators will continue to attract awesome female-led teams.