A SEAT AT THE TABLE IS NOT ENOUGH
by Jennifer Iannolo
If we look at certain headlines around the globe, it seems women founders are enjoying unprecedented support and attention. There are programs everywhere to support women’s entrepreneurship in a feel-good march toward equality.
The results of these efforts, however, tell a very different story. According to Crunchbase, in 2019, a mere 2.8% of funding went to women-led startups, and in 2020, the number fell even further, to 2.3%. The numbers for 2021 are not much better.
There is a root cause we seem to keep stepping over, assuming we can somehow take a shortcut on the path toward an equitable world. It’s best captured in a phrase I hear throughout my global travels: “We need to give more women a seat at the table.” In other words, if we just get the women in the room, the world will change.
It will not.
Here’s why: Women didn’t build that table. We have no control over the seats, or the power dynamics, or the framing of the conversation that happens at the table. It’s why, when women ask for funding to scale our ideas and creations, we’re still asked how many children we plan to have as a condition of that funding.
In order to create an actual shift in the world, we must create a new table with an entirely different conversation.
I’ve spent the last decade of my life examining the roots of this conversation with women founders around the planet, listening for the things we’re missing as we try to move the lever. And from Nepal to Greece to Abu Dhabi to New York City, the same themes appear again and again.
We keep ignoring all the contexts a woman has to wade through to function as a human being, never mind as a leader and CEO. Societal cues. Family dynamics. Nature vs. nurture. We lead differently, but the world would like us to fit into a male-focused form of leadership, because it has been determined to be the best way. Which makes sense, given that men designed the system. This is not an attempt to lay blame, but rather to recognize what exists. And rather than being part of a system that allows for the nuances of our natural skills and abilities, we are expected to morph ourselves into the established order’s definition of leadership.
When we add to this the pressure to build a product and get it to market, then go for funding, and scale, without addressing all those contextual pieces, we are setting up women to fail.
With IMPERIA, I have made it a global mission to reframe this conversation.
This doesn’t mean the product doesn’t matter — it means that in the long term, it’s secondary to how the CEO will craft its future. Her company’s success in the marketplace depends upon her success in the C-Suite.
At IMPERIA we strip away those layers of social contexts and drivers to craft a woman as her own source of renewable, sustainable power. We call it Self-Directed Empowerment™.
Our decade of work is now bearing fruit. In 2019 we announced IMPERIA’s first global cohort at the United Nations, and this extraordinary group of women from 16 countries persevered through a global pandemic to achieve incredible results including exits, massive pivots to provide PPE, and global recognition as emerging leaders. But more importantly, they experienced themselves as a different kind of leader. Confident. Unstoppable. “I like the woman I am becoming!” will forever be my favorite piece of feedback.
Now to build on what we’ve learned from our global cohort, we have brought IMPERIA’s first in-person program to Scotland, where we can be in a room together to break down old contexts and build anew, providing fuel to a new wave of women founders. I’m so proud we’re able to share our conversation here in the growing ecosystem of Opportunity North East, where we will help build a community of support, resilience — and scalable companies.
On a personal note, this project with ONE is of particular significance to me. My mother was born near Inverness, and my grandmother welded bombs for the RAF in World War II, so my roots here are deep. I share the wisdom of these fierce Highland women in the work we do at IMPERIA, so this is a special kind of homecoming.
If you see me at ONE, I hope you’ll say hello and have a cuppa with me!
Jennifer Iannolo (ya-KNOW-low) is a global development catalyst for women founders and the first Entrepreneur in Residence at ONE Tech Hub. A lifelong entrepreneur, she is the founder of IMPERIA, an incubator uniquely designed for women founders on 7 continents. Jennifer shares her methodology in keynotes around the world, from corporate headquarters in Abu Dhabi to Harvard University and the United Nations.
Jennifer is a featured expert on women’s entrepreneurship for the U.S. State Department. She was selected to be in the first cohort for Backstage Capital’s Venture Capital Apprentice Program, created by Arlan Hamilton, and is an expert judge for Pharrell’s Black Ambition Prize. Her clients include Grammy, Oscar, and Golden Globe nominees, as well as Forbes 30 Under 30 burgeoning superstars. Jennifer is also a digital pioneer, and co-created the world’s first food podcast network in 2005. She has been featured in international media including Bloomberg Businessweek, the Times of India, and the documentary Eat. Drink. Cook. Jennifer is a graduate of the NYU Stern School of Business, and lives in NYC.
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