Anne Cocquyt, Founder of The GUILD (Photo Credit: Margot Duane)
Anne, you founded The GUILD, a global community for women to connect and support each other. What made you decide to support women in growing their businesses?
I’ve been in the male-dominated world for a long time. I am from the Stuttgart area and studied Computer Sciences in Tübingen. I’m a math geek, who likes systems and patterns. During my studies, I focused on statistics merged with economics. One of my majors during my MBA program was employee development. I later went into IT consulting. Being a female in a predominantly male environment helped me stick my head up – I learned to push back.
After traveling the world, I developed a risk-taking mindset and the curiosity to be an entrepreneur. I ended up in San Francisco eight years ago and realized that this is the right place for me and my ideas. But there was still a gender gap in the tech and startup world and I didn’t see many women like myself who started their own companies. That’s when I became very passionate about building my own community, launching initiatives and events for women to connect, and to support and nurture the female entrepreneurial spirit. I wanted to change the landscape and offer a solution. That solution was The GUILD.
Being an entrepreneur is tough. What keeps you going? What motivates you?
The entrepreneurial journey is a tough one indeed. You’re constantly going through crazy ups and downs. To be an entrepreneur of any gender, you have to love what you do and have to be 100% committed to the cause. For me, the motivation behind the Guild is to change the world to be a better place -that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I also believe it is our duty as female entrepreneurs to help empower and support other women. Having women tell me that they’ve made a meaningful connection or learned something new is true validation and keeps me going.
What are the three key characteristics that you believe to be most crucial to be a successful founder?
Be tenacious: As an entrepreneur, tenacity is an important characteristic you need to succeed. It may not be easy at times, but you have to keep doing what you’re doing. It is not the norm to found a company that ends up being bought within a few years for an insane amount of money. You have to keep going even when things get difficult.
Be humble: Keep an open mindset, keep questioning, and keep iterating. Don’t be arrogant, thinking you have the perfect solution. It takes trial and error.
Know your weaknesses: Hire others to close the gaps in areas where you might lack. You can’t know and be able to do it all, so be open to hiring people with skills you don’t have.
The startup world is still a male-dominated world. How has this impacted your entrepreneurial journey so far?
We still live in a patriarchal society – it is simply ingrained in our culture. This needs to be eradicated from the ground up for those who are older and for future generations. With the Guild, we are trying to get more female entrepreneurs into the funnel and pitch-ready. We also educate women on investing, leadership, and how to work on a board.
Women still own way less startup equity compared to their male counterparts, and statistics show us that women are working more hours when aggregating both paid and unpaid hours, considering they still cover the majority of time spent on household and caregiving. The time women spend on unpaid labor is time men get to spend on networking, building stronger connections, or simply relaxing.
The McKinsey report “Women in the Workplace 2019” reaffirms that we continue to have a huge gap when it comes to leadership roles. If you take a look at the pyramid of women in S&P 500 companies, you will see that there are only 5.8% of women represented at the top C-suite level. While the pyramid starts with women and men represented almost 50/50 at the individual contributor level, the number of female representatives diminishes more and more the higher we climb to the top.
I’m very hopeful that we can slowly close the gender gap. Imagine each woman who broke through a barrier in her career, would pull another woman up.
What is a typical reaction when you pitch the Guild to a man?
The typical reaction is: “I’ll tell my wife about this.” Younger men ask me more about the actual need and question “why women-only?” Older men know that there is more inequality than the younger generation, because the younger generation may not have seen it as much. We still see these inequalities within GenX (people that are born from 1965 to 1980) but hopefully, this will change.
At the very beginning of the Guild, I was wondering if we should invite men as allies and offer for them to be a part of the conversation. I asked my members and they said, “you know what, I think we need that safe space right now, and we’re not quite there yet.” The members of the Guild get to enjoy the safe environment of women’s only events or groups.
That doesn’t mean that we exclude men altogether, but we invite them as we see fit. Men still make up the majority of decision-makers. They need to be part of the conversation and develop an understanding of how they can benefit from a gender-diverse team. Many men are reaching out to see if they can speak at our events or run a workshop. We welcome that, but reserve the right to decide when it’s beneficial and when it isn’t.
Do you think a female founder has to work harder than or different from a male founder to convince investors in the fundraising process?
Getting an investment is not only about data, it’s about trust. First and foremost, you have to believe in the business and the people. Trust is usually built through shared experiences. If 87% of the decision-makers in VC are male and they hang out with other male friends doing the same activities, they have a higher chance of creating that trust relationship that can ultimately lead to investment. At the same time, people like to invest in ideas they understand.
Many investors come from an entrepreneurial journey themselves and they like to give back to the younger generation by passing on the advice that they’ve gained through their own experiences. If these experiences come from a very male-dominated industry, of course they are looking more into investment opportunities in that space. We need equality in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) for sure. Only 2.8% of venture capital went to solely female-founded teams in 2019.
It’s not that investors decide not to invest in an idea because you’re a woman, but because there is a lack of trust. That’s why we need many more women in the investment space as they can relate to female founders.
So there are funds that invest in female-founded startups. Do we just have to promote it more, or network better?
The funds for women are much smaller. There is a trend in more women looking for funding, resulting in an increase in women’s funds. But to invest in women because they are women is not a good value proposition for a fund. Investors want to know what they are investing in and why it is a high-growth market opportunity.
Just because you are a woman doesn’t mean you’re going to create a profitable business. There are cases however where women-led companies create better profits and much better return on investment because they’re doing more with less money.
Do you think you have a different approach to certain business problems being a woman? If so, how did you manage to express it?
Most of the engineers I work with are male, especially data science engineers. As a woman, I am not only looking at the results but also asking what the data is that leads to a certain decision. If we trust a machine to make predictions, we have to insert the right signals and features. Otherwise, it will not spit out the right results. I catch myself thinking about this more often than my male engineers, who tend to analyze and code without questioning if we are even putting in the proper data in the first place. That’s why we see a lot of bias in AI projects. I’m a big proponent of getting more women into data science. We need to have different perspectives represented in data sets to make better decisions. Sometimes a woman makes a different decision than a man because of past experiences. AI is similar to our brains, full of experiences and pattern recognition.
For example, when it comes to job postings at Amazon, there are more male candidates suggested as the right fit. That’s because the “perfect pool” of engineers they’re looking at is 80% male. To me, that’s like the logic of a three-year-old. As a woman, I look at a more diverse picture.
If you could work some magic and change a few things immediately to bridge the gender pay gap and end the old boys club culture, what would you do?
I would like to see what would happen if we set quotas. What if we say 50% of all investments need to go to women-led startups? Or each university has to have 50% of women graduating in each program, including engineering and computer science? What kind of trickle-down effect would that create? If that would be the goal, funds, energy, and resources would probably be targeted differently. That is not the case at the moment, but I’d be curious to see what effects that would have. We would teach more about investing in universities and expose children to entrepreneurship early on. We would compete for female talent, for female entrepreneurs, and female investors. I’m not saying that is the solution, but I think it’s an interesting brain exercise that might help start implementing some of these ideas.
Goldman Sachs just announced that they’ll end the era of all-male, all-white corporate boards, and California has a law that requires at least one female director on a company board. I don’t believe in government involvement that much, but I think all CEOs of the big companies, the Jeff Bezos’ of the world, should sit down and think about the world they want to create. What’s the society we want to create and what is our role in that? Since we live in a capitalist system, there is a fear of a financial disadvantage if other companies are not changing. To create change, we have to move in the same direction together.
Why are diverse teams more successful than homogenous teams?
If your team reflects your end-users, you’re going to create better products. Homogenous teams are not creating products that the diverse population wants. Hence, a diverse team creates a benefit for the company. A team with diverse backgrounds, also comes with a diversity of thought. If you have different people thinking about the same problem in different ways, you come to more and perhaps even better solutions. At first, it might be tricky to work with a more diverse team, especially when you have a small team, but in the long run these teams outperform in terms of ROI and success.
Why do you think women are more hesitant than men to found companies?
I think it relates to what you’ve been taught from the very beginning – pirates are for boys and princesses are for girls. I believe education is an essential factor as well as the media. Fewer women than men pursue careers in science, engineering, or math, even though girls outperform boys at school in these subjects. Society teaches us that math isn’t necessarily a cool thing for girls. If you’re a girl, smart in math, you’re considered a nerd. As a girl, you’re popular if you’re “the pretty cheerleader.” If you’re not, you don’t get a boyfriend. It’s important for girls to be popular and have a boyfriend. All this is supported by media, by literature, by advertising.
We should give young boys and girls entrepreneurial and prototyping challenges as well as STEM challenges. The non-profit organization Iridescent has a “Curiosity Machine” that introduces kids to scientific methodologies through art and science projects. I’m also on the advisory board of Unboxd, a media publication that highlights women in STEM in “Vogue-type” photographs to re-associate beauty and intelligence through the voices of inspiring women.
Why are German female founders more hesitant compared to other cultures and what would be needed to change this?
The German culture, in general, is very risk-averse. That holds true for both men and women. Germans are detail-oriented and focus on getting things right. They don’t like to put something out there that’s only 80% ready as they fear the reaction from society, family, and friends. Not getting it right or ready is considered a failure. That it sticks with you. It creates a scar. Failing in Silicon Valley is completely fine, it’s almost a trophy or something to brag about. The German founders that come to the U.S. without their families and friends have much more leeway to fail than they would in Germany.
What are three tips you would give an aspiring young woman who wants to get a seat at the table and/or is about to start her own company?
The entrepreneurial journey is an exciting journey. Be prepared, stay excited, and enjoy the ride. It’s a rollercoaster with many ups and downs. You need a good support system, a community that you can trust and can ask for advice. That’s one of the reasons why I started the Guild. I wanted to give people a community and to not feel alone. Female entrepreneurs from all over the world tell me that they feel alone, but you’re not. Lastly, run your numbers, because unfortunately, I see a lot of entrepreneurs looking at it through rose-colored glasses.
About Anne Cocquyt
Anne Cocquyt is a serial entrepreneur with a great passion for helping people achieve their career goals and launch their dream businesses. She founded The GUILD, a global networking platform for female innovators and entrepreneurs. Anne used to work for Fortune 500 companies in senior roles in innovation and supervised international multi-million dollar projects in IT. She switched multiple times in her career between corporate roles, entrepreneurial endeavors, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. In addition to mentoring at German Accelerator, she coaches rapid prototyping classes at the University of San Francisco and startups at Singularity University. She is also on the advisory board of the digital health startup CircleOf, for example.