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Like a lot of young women, my first introduction to successful female leaders was through film and literature. The lessons I learned from childhood movies were basic: Princesses need to be rescued (Cinderella, Snow White); to fight you must pretend to be a boy (Mulan); and an outwardly cold demeanor mixed with a catty personality was the best way to get ahead in the workplace (The Devil Wears Prada). Seldom was there a female character portrayed as a strong-willed woman I could aspire to be (where was Moana when I needed her).
Thankfully, as I progressed through adolescence, I realized these fictional characters were just that, fictitious, yet I still felt a very real void of successful female leaders and relationships to emulate. I couldn’t help but wonder why success had to come with such a steep price tag on your reputation and moral character?
Carving my own path
This notion of feeling “less than” or having to “one-up” someone just to get ahead is something women have struggled with for decades. As much as I wish it were different today, not much has changed. In fact, a mere 11% of startups are female-founded (though they only receive 2% of venture funding), and only 6% of CEO positions in S&P 500 companies are held by women.
As CEO of a fast-growing tech startup, I’m part of that 11%. But, it wasn’t my life’s ambition. Without strong female role models to follow, I never dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur. Yet, I’m hopeful my co-founder, Zari Zahra, and I can shift the narrative and show how two women can successfully build a business from the ground up while working in unison.
Because there was no guidebook, we had to carve our own path to find balance in what has felt like an unprecedented professional relationship. Unlike a lot of startup founders, Zari and I weren’t best friends or college roommates. Instead, we were coworkers. After learning she was resigning, I met her by the elevators to pitch my new business idea, hoping to tap into her product-management expertise to launch this vision. It was there, in the lobby, that we lit the spark that later became our beloved Spekit.
This isn’t necessarily the most traditional place to find a business partner, but then again, what is traditional about two female co-founders in a predominantly male-driven SaaS industry? After all, Hollywood would have you believe we should be frenemies instead. While our relationship may not work for everyone, here’s how we’ve made it work along the way:
- Co-founders aren’t one-size-fits all. There’s no job description that tells you what to manage or what lane to stay in. I’ve been a sales rep, a marketing leader and even stepped in to manage the product team while Zari was on personal leave. Some days we’re an old married couple, and other days we’re strategic, driven executives. Learning to make the most of this dynamic takes time to navigate and a strong affection for wearing lots of hats.
- Radical candor and feedback are key. You must put your egos aside. Open communication and radical candor are two of the biggest drivers for professional growth that we live by today. During an early fundraising session, Zari told me that I wasn’t as prepared as I should’ve been. Rather than view her critique as spiteful one-up-manship, I recognized it took constructive criticism to evolve as an individual, leader and co-founder.
- Friendship must have a place. Regardless of your age or background, co-founders spend a lot of time together. It’s important for us to change hats and check in as friends often do. Regular Facetime calls to laugh and share details about our personal lives provide a necessary mental release to avoid burnout and keep our relationship healthy. It’s these social calls that open the door to some incredible strategy sessions.
- We work at it like a marriage. We don’t always see eye to eye, but we challenge one another to be our best selves. It’s easy to go through the motions, focus on our work and forget to check in on one another’s needs. But it’s imperative to carve out time to reconnect. We spent a long holiday weekend together on a remote beach reflecting, relaxing and planning for the first time in more than a year. We could be ourselves without critique and open to listening because we’d built that foundation together.
- We’re more like sisters. In addition to everything else, we’re most like sisters. Everything I’ve ever known about powerful, successful women feels so unbelievable when I think of the deep connection we have. It’s the feeling of knowing what the other needs, even when she doesn’t, that makes us more like family than anything else.
Changing the leadership landscape
For young women who aspire to follow in the footsteps of founders like Sara Blakely (Spanx), Whitney Wolfe Herd (Bumble) or Melanie Perkins (CEO of the highest-valued private company, Canva), we must remove the barriers and challenge the status quo by creating new opportunities that will influence future generations.
On one hand, Zari and I hope to be known for building a product that redefines the way employees learn in the flow of work. But on the other, we want to create a culture that embraces and integrates a new wave of feminine leadership. Whether launching our brand with a hot-pink color scheme, creating scholarships for underrepresented minorities or breaking gender barriers by leading traditionally homogeneous engineering teams, we’re eager to change the landscape and work hard at our relationship.
Whether you’re a Disney princess or an accidental CEO like me, it’s time we encourage women to aim higher, break down the societal norms, shoot for the moon and fall in the stars. Female co-founders shouldn’t be a rarity, but rather, an evolution of the entrepreneurial spirit so many girls possess as young adults but are unsure how to unleash. Together we can move past the antiquated archetypes and set the new standard for women in tech everywhere.