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Tech Nordic Advocates’ International Mentoring Programme is looking to emulate Canada’s top-down approach and transform Denmark’s under-performance when it comes to gender equality in entrepreneurship.
Years of stagnation and false dawns have been the story until now, despite conscious efforts to bridge the gender gap. However, after monitoring Canada’s approach to rectifying a similar situation in 2020, there was a realisation that a change of tack was needed.
Tech Nordic Advocates (TNA) is the Nordic arm of Global Tech Advocates – a global digital/tech platform that spans 18 global tech hubs and thousands of tech leaders from Silicon Valley, across the Nordics, London and the rest of Europe, and as far as Australia.
Having worked on the women-in-tech agenda with different approaches for some time, the organisation’s partnership with Canada affirmed that dedicated grassroot-level events, networks, workshops and education targeted towards women founders-in-tech were useful for the women involved, but they were only highlighting the existing problem as a small network, rather than promoting women’s involvement in the broader startup landscape.
“This traditional bottom-up approach was just placing extra emphasis on the issue at hand – which is tech entrepreneurship being dominated by men, historic biases and cultural inhibitors,” said Jeanette Carlsson, CEO of TNA.
“We would host an event, inspiring speakers would explain the problem, solutions would be put forward, and everyone would come away from these grassroots networking sessions feeling positive. But then the next event would take place, and it would be the same women attending, discussing the same issues, and coming away with the same answers.
“It was almost like Alcoholics Anonymous – everyone was there for the same reason, but that reason was a lack of exposure, process, opportunity and proper infrastructure support to nurture talent or supercharge businesses led by women into the ecosystem – the very thing that this bottom-up approach was now solidifying.”
By not widening the conversation to the actual problem areas – male peers, the investor community, venture capital funds, incubators – the issue was just being recycled. This ultimately contributed to an end result where women accounted for only 4.2% of new entrepreneurs in Denmark in 2020.
Shift in emphasis
Only Japan and Italy registered worse representation among OECD countries last year, and Sweden’s outlook wasn’t much better at 5.8%. For a region synonymous with strong social values, a penchant for equal opportunity and renowned digital ingenuity, it was a wakeup call for TNA and the wider ecosystem.
Carlsson said: “We realised quite suddenly that what was actually required was a centralised top-down approach, as seen in better-performing countries like Canada.”
Achieving a 15.1% share of women entrepreneurs, Canada was placed third in the 2020 rankings, and even though it is still early days in its efforts, the structures being put in place are yielding positive trajectories in key areas. TNA subsequently monitored and liaised with the Canadian embassy to get behind the numbers and see what a top-down approach might look like, and how to make a powerful impact.
“In conjunction with Industriens Fond, and through the establishment of critical sponsor partnerships with key stakeholders in and outside of Denmark – including KPMG, Magnusson and many more partners – we formed the Women-in-Tech: Founder/Leader – International Mentoring Programme,” sais Carlsson.
“Rather than focusing on grassroots levels and encouraging women to work their way up with very little knowledge of how to do so, this has been our shift in emphasis to pull women up to the top by exposing them to situations, challenges, funds, success stories and opportunities that they would not otherwise be aware of – therefore undoing the systemic gap that has been created.”
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There are three strands to TNA’s strategic programme, with module 1 initiated at the beginning of February 2021 with the International Mentoring Programme itself. Picking up the journey for women-led digital/tech startups at various stages of their business journey, module 2 will serve as an accelerator programme to help the businesses scale, and module 3 is a venture fund initiative to address a lack of access to capital for women-led businesses.
“Addressing the first module, our first cohort of 20 women began on 1 February, embarking on a six-month mentoring programme that has been carefully designed and planned to provide guidance and increase exposure to all aspects they should expect when trying to launch, grow or scale a tech startup,” said Carlsson.
This includes: hands-on mentoring to the tune of 10 hours a month provided by domestic and international “rock star” mentors (such as serial entrepreneurs, investors, lawyers, business leaders); one-on-one support, coaching and advice delivered by expert partners and TNA itself; peer-to-peer sessions where knowledge, skills and business plans are shared to try to earmark potential matchmaking partnerships; community events to create strong networks and again expose cohort members to the wider startup realm; and, finally, access to the Global Tech Advocates impact ecosystem.
Carlsson added: “Cohort 2 will begin in April, and cohort 3 in June, each with 20 members. However, a hugely positive sign already is that we have received almost three times the number of applications, to spaces available – and that’s in Denmark alone.
“By taking this top-down approach, we are changing the story when it comes to entrepreneurial opportunity and, as such, I have already been invited to present this approach to Nordic Innovation’s diversity taskforce with a view to taking this pan-Nordic.”
Viable career path
The sessions being driven through this programme are far from arbitrary. They have been tailored and pointed towards five over-riding factors which, regardless of a top-down or bottom-up approach, continue to inhibit progress for women in tech.
Carlsson explained: “First is perhaps more specific to the Nordics and it can perhaps be phrased as ‘job security’. Many women in Denmark work in the public sector, which is predictable, safe, you get a salary, you get holiday, you get sick pay, maternity leave, a pension. For a woman, those comforts make starting your own business a comparatively unsafe proposition.
“This leads seamlessly into the other four factors, which do very little to encourage women out of this safety net.”
The next, oft-discussed, issue is the absence of female role models – a lack of positive examples to prove that taking the gamble can work. Inevitably, positive steps in this regard can create a favourable “snowball” effect.
“Then there is a fear that they may not have the right skills to be an entrepreneur, and a lack of belief,” said Carlsson. “How do I set up a business registration? What are the legal requirements? Where do I get funding? How do I juggle theses aspects on top of family life?
“A fear around competency is a big issue, as it’s just not seen in the same way with men, who often strive above their competencies, such is the support and infrastructure already there for them.”
Access to networks
Carlsson cited men’s access to networks, often off the back of known experiences and relatable success stories. Women don’t feel they have the same access to networks and mentoring that can help their ideas grow and scale.
The final factor is a lack of access to capital, and knowledge around how to even attain access. “Even the idea of writing a pitch deck will be new to most women and they won’t be sure how to go about it,” said Carlsson. “Men don’t either, but they think they do, and have no fear of failure in that regard.
“It is these valuable skills that we address through our mentoring programme, while they also bring us to an unofficial sixth factor – unconscious bias and sexism in tech and entrepreneurship generally.
“The horror stories that are told around investor meetings, funding pitches and general attitudes towards women trying to make this leap are pretty well known. But we need to normalise and improve the other five issues so that this culture changes. This has been a primary goal of ours for many years.
“Now we are confident of progress, via a top-down approach that will lead to a lot of new businesses, the creation of role models and future mentors, and a concerted message being sent to women across the Nordics that entrepreneurship is a viable career path for them.”