Why the world needs more women entrepreneurs: an interview with Linda Weston.

Hello, True Story readers! I’m starting a blog post series that’s near and dear to my heart: why the world needs more women leaders. This series will feature interviews with women who’ve made a significant difference in various sectors. First up is Linda Weston, a woman who’s well known in the Oregon entrepreneurial community.

Linda currently runs Rapporto, a strategic consultancy that advises CEOs and executive directors looking to scale and grow with efficiency and purpose. Previously, Linda was president and executive director of the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network, where she oversaw a slew of programs and events that engaged more than 55,000 participants across Oregon and SW Washington. Before her post at Oregon Entrepreneurs Network, Linda had the very cool job as general manager of the Portland Power, a pro women’s basketball team in the first-ever women’s professional basketball league. So it’s safe to say that Linda knows a thing or two or three about women in leadership roles.

Below is my interview with Linda. After reading, you’ll see why she’s such an influential leader for women – and men – in the Northwest.

What’s your experience in working with women entrepreneurs?

My experience is that women, by their nature and by societal norms, are problem solvers. We’re juggling a million different things at once and at the same time, we’re solving problems – which is what entrepreneurs have to do. I think there’s a misconception that most women entrepreneurs are creating food products or make-up, but the reality is that women are involved with everything from software to food products to products for kids to bioscience to distilleries and brewers.

Any stories to share about women entrepreneurs you admire?

I think Emma Mcilroy, CEO and founder of Wildfang, is a great example: her perseverance and her belief in what’s she’s doing and her ability to build a brand. Jaime Schmidt, founder of Schmidt’s Naturals, is another great example. She created a company that she sold to Unilever and now she’s investing in other women entrepreneurs. I also look up to Monica Enand, CEO and co-founder of Zapproved – she really persevered. I think initially investors were dismissive of the company Monica was launching, but she stayed the course. And now look at her.

Over the years, have you seen an increase in the number of women entrepreneurs?

Absolutely. 20 years ago, I was almost always the only woman in the room. Slowly over time, that’s improved. Maybe that’s because the ecosystem has changed – there’s more help, there’s better access to capital, there’s more support for entrepreneurs in general. Now that there are more women entrepreneurs who are seeing success through growth, funding, and visibility, more women are inspired to become entrepreneurs. But the reality is that you can’t be what you can’t see.

Any general differences you see between women entrepreneurs and men entrepreneurs?

Women entrepreneurs are incredibly collaborative – they’re willing to help out and mentor each other. They coalesce around each other.

What’s the number one thing that holds back women entrepreneurs?

Having a family can be a challenge. We hear about men entrepreneurs who work all day and pull all-nighters. Women with families don’t usually have that luxury. In our society, women are still the ones who are mostly responsible for childcare – taking them to school, driving them to soccer practice, you know what I mean. Those obligations can be daunting, especially for younger women. For a lot of men entrepreneurs with kids, they figure “that’ll get taken care of.” They don’t worry about childcare for the most part.

Why do you think it’s harder for women entrepreneurs to get funding?

Funders typically fund people who look like them. Let’s face it. Most funders are white men, so it’s less likely that women or entrepreneurs of color will get the same attention as white men. I do see that slowly beginning to change. I think there’s been enough visibility and discussion that investors are becoming more aware. There are now some funds that focus on investing in women and entrepreneurs of color. Hopefully, that’s a trend that will continue, and we’ll see more of those. But it’s not just about addressing equity in investments. We also have to address issues of equity in terms of bank loans and SBA loans.

We’ve all read the horror stories about women entrepreneurs and men VCs, particularly in Silicon Valley. Are these situations singular or do you think there are some systemic issues at play? If so, what are they?

I’ve heard horror stories and the sexism involved. Some stories I’ve heard are as basic – and bad – as asking for sexual favors in return. Recently I read about two women entrepreneurs who couldn’t get meetings with potential investors. So they decided to make up a fake male partner. After that, they got meetings.

The way I see it, until there are more VC women partners at firms, this going to continue to be an issue. It’s slowly beginning to change. There are now funds run by women that are focused on funding women. There’s definitely data to support why this is important. For example, there’s well-established data that corporate boards with a better balance of female and male members are more successful than boards that aren’t balanced.

But overall, I think the situation is systemic. Frankly, it mirrors the current business world in which white, middle-aged men run the show. Until there’s a sea change, things will continue to be the way they are.

What do you see as the future for women entrepreneurs?

As more women entrepreneurs become successful – by gaining visibility, gaining funding, and eventually selling their companies – this will inspire up-and-coming women entrepreneurs. And for the women entrepreneurs who have a successful exit, they can then mentor and invest in other women ventures.

If you could change one thing in the entrepreneurial world that would help women entrepreneurs, what would that be?

It’s all about access to capital – and not just equity investment. They need access to all kinds of capital.

What was the most frustrating thing for you to witness in terms of what women entrepreneurs face that perhaps men entrepreneurs don’t? 

What I’ve seen is a lack of belief in a woman’s ability to successfully grow a company. And of course, that perception isn’t accurate. It just seems women entrepreneurs have a higher threshold to cross than men entrepreneurs do.

Why do you think the world needs more women entrepreneurs?

I think having a better mix of women and men entrepreneurs makes us a healthier and more successful society. I just think women see issues that men don’t necessarily see and vice versa.

What advice would you offer to women entrepreneurs?

Don’t be afraid to take that leap of faith. Ask yourself: what’s the worst that can happen and then figure out a way to overcome that challenge. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and seek mentorship from both women and men. I think men need women and women need men.

Any final thoughts to share?

I encourage women entrepreneurs to follow their dreams. And I encourage funders to listen to these women entrepreneurs – and give them a chance.