According to data by the Latvian Startup Association Startin.LV, in 2022, 23% of startups in Latvia had at least one female co-founder, while 7% of startups were founded by women exclusively. Not great, not terrible – in Estonia, only 17% of startups had at least one female co-founder, according to last year’s statistics.
Houston, do we have a problem?
I asked four Latvian female founders and C-level executives that have fundraised or are currently in the process to share their experiences and viewpoints on the situation. Four honest and empowering conversations later, I had a list of “what’s it really like”. Here they are.
#1 You'd better be prepared to prove your worth
While some may argue that it’s the specifics of the startup world per se, according to all four of my interviewees, being a female pitching a startup to potential investors requires extra preparation. Mainly because you might need to go the extra mile or two to be taken seriously.
Agnese Veckalne, Longenesis‘ COO and the Chairwoman of the Board at the Latvian Startup Association, says that gender stereotypes still play a role. Women might feel they will increase their chances of being seriously considered if they pay more attention to appearance and tone of voice. “That said, this unfair feeling of not fitting in may pay dividends. I’ve also noticed that female founders spend more time preparing startup pitches, which helps with confidence and building credibility. When talking to startup founders in pitch competitions, men more often say that they “threw something together quickly”, while women admit having rehearsed their pitch quite a lot.”
LemonBoost.vc‘s Deal Flow Manager Marta Rautenschild shares this opinion. “Being an industry expert with significant professional experience, I still have to explain, justify and prove why I am worth listening to and should be taken seriously. I have to be able to argue my point of view – in fact, my point of view as such is unimportant. What is important is how I can justify it, the facts on which I base it.”
It’s important to note here that none of the statements in this article apply to all investors and VC funds – nothing ever does. But it’s also important to acknowledge that fundraising as a female founder in Latvia is likely to require more work than if you’re a guy pitching your startup. It’s all about the ideas, yet sometimes it’s also not.
#2 We all know someone
One of the unifying phrases I caught in all four conversations when I asked about experiencing a different attitude in fundraising due to being a woman was, “I have heard stories”.
Anna Ramata-Stunda, Co-founder and CEO of biotech startup Alternative Plants, tells me that she has been lucky not to have encountered such a case herself, but she’s heard enough stories from female founders around her.
Jekaterina Romanova, a serial entrepreneur with three deeptech startups up her sleeve – Correcty, SmartClast, and PrintyMed – remembers that when she first started her startup journey, she felt quite a lot of skepticism directed towards her. “It likely was less because of my gender and more because of my age, or maybe the combination of two. When I started my first startup journey with Correcty, I was 18 years old. Now, when I’m 25, I see a difference in how I’m perceived.”
Jekaterina adds that she partially understands the suspicion she received back then: “There’s a big difference between who I was with my first startup and who I am now with my third. I can kind of imagine why I was looked at with skepticism then – today, I talk to investors completely differently.”
Discussing this matter, Agnese from Longenesis says that she’s faced a good kind of different attitude due to being a woman – encouragement and support. However, she’s heard of cases when an investor asks a female fundraiser how she plans to balance business with managing a household.
“I would like to stress, however, that from what I have heard and from talking to people in the startup environment, such investors are rare. And if they do appear, you just walk away from them – it is an old-fashioned mentality. It’s not even worth explaining anymore that this is a misplaced question,” Agnese adds.
Marta tells me that despite being on the capital side of fundraising, she’s dealt with notable sexism. “I’ve been asked to make a coffee for a group being the only woman there, to which I asked back if I look like a barista. I’ve listened to men discussing why a woman is not good as an entrepreneur but is a good manager because she’s too afraid to make mistakes.”
She also stresses that there are reasons why many women in the local startup field will deny the presence of sexism in the ecosystem. “Due to the high level of violence against women in Latvia, we’ve come to identify certain sexist things as normal. We’re unfortunately used to some forms of it – verbal abuse, for example”. Marta adds that women in Latvia should be more vocal about gender inequality and express their personal opinions louder.
#3 It depends on the industry
Another conclusion I drew after talking to the four Latvian female founders was that gender balance and investor attitude differ among startup industries. It’s important to mention that three out of the four female entrepreneurs I talked to represented deeptech industries.
Anna gives an example of biotech as a women-dominated field in the Baltics. “We have many outstanding female scientists, professors that are known internationally. Historically, there has been a strong female presence in the industry since the 1970-80s.”
Agnese points out that Longenesis pays attention to gender equality and succeeds in walking the walk, not just talking the talk: “Our team has a strong gender balance across all teams.”
Jekaterina adds that she sees more women now in more male-dominated industries – “IT, deeptech, those kinds of fields”. She’s also observed that if a startup operates within the commercialization of science, there’s a high chance of having a woman in the core team.
And yet it’s also not all that sweet. Having founded three medtech startups, Jekaterina often speaks to male doctors that are middle-aged or older. She admits facing a different attitude due to being a young female entrepreneur. “In PrintyMed, I have a female colleague who’s older than me, works in medicine, and has a medical education. It brings credibility, the doctors talk to her, and we can move forward with the startup,” adds Jekaterina.
#4 Community holds great power
An empowering community where honesty and open communication are essential is one of the key elements in eliminating gender discrimination in the local startup ecosystem. All four interviewees unanimously agree on that.
“Everyone needs a community, regardless of industry. And when it comes to startup ideas, you especially need fellow enthusiasts to validate the idea and start building a business. Likeminded people will help you face the fear. I strongly suggest joining programs and communities to find your kind of crazy people that are ready to dive into the startup world with you,” Anna tells me. She also emphasizes that Riga TechGirls are doing an amazing job building a local female tech community.
“We need a community where women support women in business. And we need men there, too – knowledgeable, supportive, empowering men. The Latvian startup ecosystem has such men in it, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet them,” says Marta. “And more importantly – we have to accept that there are gender inequality issues in the Latvian startup scene, and only by talking about them can we come up with solutions.”
Jekaterina mentions the EIT Health Women Entrepreneurship Bootcamp, which she recently participated in, as a great example of an empowering community for female founders. “I’m also part of the Commercialization Reactor. Five years ago, there were maybe two teams with women on the management board. Now, every second startup has either a female co-founder or core team member in it.”
Despite the gloomy parts of reality, there are reasons to stay hopeful for a shift toward achieving real gender equality in our startup ecosystem.
The amount of female-focused startup programs, grants, and related opportunities is increasing. Women have more and more options to receive targeted mentorship and support. Plus, it’s not just local initiatives but EU-level regulations that strive for gender equality, and that gets the ball rolling.
However, the support that women receive shouldn’t in any way display women as incompetent. “Women are not helpless people that need to be pushed in the right direction,” emphasizes Marta. “All we ask for as women is to be valued for our knowledge and experience and to have the opportunity to work in the fields we’re interested in. It’s the bare minimum.”
Knowing the unequal presence of women among startup founders in Latvia, I also asked the interviewees to share some tips for women thinking about building a startup. The bottom line was – just do it.
“Instead of looking for reasons not to do something, just go and do it. Apply for that senior position. Found that startup. The startup ecosystem is very supportive – email your questions, ask a startup founder or manager to meet up for a coffee, and you’ll be surprised how much support you can receive,” encourages Agnese.
Jekaterina adds to the same beat: “When I started doing anything startup-related, I was 18 years old, and I learned everything along the way. The opportunities are there – if you don’t do anything, you can’t learn anything. Think less, do more, and follow your calling because it’s worth it.”
This story was first published by Labs of Latvia and is reproduced by kind permission.