Entrepreneur Lu Li on the Startup Gender Gap, and New Book ‘Dear Female Founder’

Lu Li

Women looking to become entrepreneurs face a shortage of role models. Lu Li aims to redress that. Her new book, Dear Female Founder, has pooled together letters from 66 women in business who have generated around $1 billion between them.

It was born of a problem Li herself faced, having left product management at Proctor and Gamble in Switzerland after taking Gallup’s Strengths Finder test. Li founded a Zurich consultancy, then moved to London for luxury brands Fortnum and Mason’s and Selfridge’s.

It was then, in 2014, that she began organizing meet-ups for women. They would become Blooming Founders, which has published Dear Female Founder.

“The idea originated after talking to my community members of early stage female founders and realizing that it’s hard for them to think of female role models in entrepreneurship,” Li told Red Herring. “Having role models is important for your own confidence, because they show that you can do it, too.”

Mainstream media focuses mainly on white, male founders like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, who Li argues “don’t represent the breadth of entrepreneurship. I wanted to change that and bring more women into the spotlight. They do exist in spades. It’s just that nobody knows about them.”

Despite progress tech still suffers an amaranthine gender gap. Barely 7% of tech startups are led by women and only 25 Fortune 500 CEOs are female. “It doesn’t shock me at all,” said Li. “The technology industry has been historically very male-dominated and suffers the same issues regarding gender parity as other traditional industries like finance or construction.

“It’s just a situation we have to deal with,” she added. “But thankfully, the world of entrepreneurship is an open space that is accessible to everyone and is not limited by corporate structures like you have in other industries, therefore I am very hopeful that we can change things to reach gender parity.”

Dear Female Founder will be released on September 14, and comprises a host of business advice women wish they had heard when starting out. Entrepreneurialism is flourishing worldwide among men and women. But that makes the problems they encounter more complex.

“There are a ton of new things to learn, which can be overwhelming,” Li said. “Women start out with much less network than men; they also tend to start as solo founders. The dearth of investment going to women-led businesses doesn’t help either. Female founders are still seen as more ‘risky’ than male founders.

“Is there a pipeline issue?” she asks. “Perhaps. But there is certainly a perception issue too. Women entrepreneurs have to work twice as hard to prove themselves.

Above all Li hopes her book will encourage fledgling entrepreneurs to seek advice, and to believe in their own abilities. The startup world is fraught with pitfalls and it’s easy to become discouraged after the first fall. But, Li adds, “know that there are many others on the same journey who can help you overcome virtually any challenge.

“Find your support network and don’t be afraid to ask for help.”