Business, Events, Startup, Technology

A First-Timer’s Thoughts on Montreal Startupfest 2016

© Sun Knudsen

There’s something natural about “Firsts” being the theme of a startup convention. Startups are factories of firsts – first drafts, first investors, first sales. Startupfest 2016 took this spirit of firsts to heart, declaring “Firsts” to be the theme of the festival. They were also, in a bit of cosmic irony, rewarded with another first for the efforts: the first time a Startupfest was interrupted by rain.

It was also my first time at the Montreal Startupfest, so I’ll cop to not being entirely sure what to expect. I unfortunately can’t offer much of the long view of how this year’s festivities stack up historically, but from an amateur’s perspective, here’s what stuck out to me.

The Gender Ratio Is Still About 3:1

I’ll preface this by saying that this is through no fault of the Startupfest organizers themselves. Quite the opposite, in fact: the entrepreneurs invited to speak over the course of the festival were much closer to gender parity than the attendees themselves. That said, the demographic makeup of the startups at the festival are a sobering reminder about how far advocates of female entrepreneurship have yet to go, with a gender ratio hovering around 3:1. Even as women make strides toward representation in the industries represented at Startupfest, when it comes to being the founders and CEOs of a startup – particularly in tech – there are still substantial challenges facing female entrepreneurs.

Collaboration is Key

I was fortunate to have the chance to speak to several female entrepreneurs while at Montreal Startupfest and in each conversation, they reiterated a common theme: the need for female entrepreneurs to collaborate, not just compete. This kind of solidarity is vital, especially in the face of the significant structural challenges that women still face in the business world, let alone as founders and CEOs seeking funding in a frequently ignorant and bigoted VC world. Without exception, the female entrepreneurs I spoke to suggested that I send other female entrepreneurs their way.

The value of these kinds of interactions is difficult to overstate, in two different forms. On the one hand, one-on-one mentoring connections provide not only powerful role models but sources of advice from other women who have had success in business, making the often daunting path ahead with one’s business a little less intimidating. On the other hand, collective support networks like Theli.st and, yes, LORI.biz, can channel the wisdom of their members to form a flexible network of advice and cross-promotion. These connections are not incompatible – the former often develops in an environment that promotes the latter – but they are both hugely influential in the lives and businesses of female entrepreneurs in often male-dominated fields.

Keep The Long View

People draw inspiration from individual stories, from people they can relate and project themselves onto. We love narrative, triumph, ambition – all things that the stories of individual female entrepreneurial success stories provide us. It’s important, however, to keep the long view. When I spoke to Janice Taylor, CEO of Just Be Friends, she stressed the importance of changing people’s expectations and the norms that we unconsciously obey and promote. The archetypical “tech startup CEO” for far too many people – our readers likely included – is still the twenty-something white male Ivy League dropout in a hoodie and jeans.

I don’t say this as an accusation – norms are something that we unconsciously process and internalize, and to some extent or another, we all participate in these archetypes. But that doesn’t mean that we should not be conscious of them and, without shaming ourselves or others for buying into these norms, be active in attempting to transform them within ourselves and our communities. Telling the stories of individual female entrepreneurs, as we do at LORI, goes towards this end, but Montreal Startupfest reminded me that it really isn’t the end in and of itself. We must be careful not to let individual successful women be used as cudgels rather than ladders for future entrepreneurs. The success of profoundly impressive women like Kate Gardiner, Janice Taylor, and Marie Chevrier is not counter-evidence to the serious structural problems that each and every woman faces when starting a business, nor should their success be used to invalidate the efforts and failures of others. Those of us who want female entrepreneurship in Canada and beyond to prosper have to keep the long view – the challenges women face are bigger than us, bigger than any individual’s successes and failures, bigger even than the greatest of our heroes.

If the women I met at Montreal Startupfest 2016 are any indication, however, it’s that these challenges can be overcome, one startup, one mentor, and one dream at a time.

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