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Emerging Female Leadership in the Startup Scene

Emerging Female Leadership in the Startup Scene

Empowering and inspirational female leaders are transforming the ecosystem and trailblazing a path for women.

The startup scene, especially in tech, has long been male-dominated. In Helsinki, a city renowned for gender equality and its knack for producing unicorns and soonicorns, women constituted less than 11% of tech startup founders in 2021.

However, the landscape is shifting as women ascend to influential roles within major organizations in the ecosystem. For instance, Maria 01 appointed its first female CEO, Sarita Runeberg, in 2023. Similarly, women hold key positions at Slush (Aino Bergius), Junction (Iida Loukkaanhuhta), Startup Foundation (Josefiina Kotilainen), FiBAN (Tiina Laisi-Puheloinen), Kiuas (Nea Harjanne), Finnish Startup Community (Riikka Pakarinen) and the Finnish Venture Capital Association (Anne Horttanainen). 

In 2024, does the appointment of women to leadership positions still make headlines? Will this shift impact the startup scene? While women are increasingly appointed to leadership roles across various sectors, the majority of tech startup founders remain men, perpetuating a male-centric image in the startup ecosystem.

Nea Harjanne, CEO of Kiuas, says: “It’s wonderful to see more women in leadership roles. However, the biggest impact of our startup ecosystem is in the founders it produces, and as female founders are still a tiny minority, the true impact of this change in leadership remains to be seen.

Anne Horttanainen (Managing Director, Finnish Venture Capital Association), Iida Loukkaanhuhta (CEO, Junction) and Nea Harjanne (CEO, Kiuas).
From left: Anne Horttanainen (Managing Director, Finnish Venture Capital Association), Iida Loukkaanhuhta (CEO, Junction) and Nea Harjanne (CEO, Kiuas).

The reasons behind this image may be varied, but it’s clear that men continue to secure the lion’s share of funding. The State of European Tech 2023 study reveals that companies founded by women in Europe receive only 1.7% to 8% of funding at various development stages. A Credit Benchmark study further shows that VC funding for female entrepreneurs declined during the pandemic, even as total VC investment increased.

The rise of female leadership in the ecosystem holds significant potential to reshape the startup scene’s image. The new role models foster a sense of community and inspiration among women, who are often perceived as more modest than men. 

Iida Loukkaanhuhta, CEO of Junction, has experienced it herself: “At Junction, diversity is one of our core values, and it’s been encouraging to see more women join our community, just as I did five years ago. I personally ended up pursuing Junction’s CEO position after doubting myself for a long while and now I aim to provide the encouragement to women that I needed back then.” 

Success stories inspire women to venture into careers in entrepreneurship, startups – and investment

A Business Helsinki study suggests that girls need more role models and information about entrepreneurship to consider it as a potential career path. These attitudes typically form by the end of primary school.

In response, startup campus Maria 01 took up the challenge to promote female entrepreneurship success stories. They organized an event for nearly 100 student counsellors and high school students in collaboration with the City of Helsinki in May 2024. The event showcased career stories from female startup entrepreneurs, including Maria 01’s CEO Sarita Runeberg, Heini Salonen from kicker.cloud, and Elina Paatsila from See the Good!

Sarita Runeberg shared her career journey and experiences as a woman in the startup world. She emphasized that startups provide an excellent platform for women to rapidly advance their careers. Growth companies cultivate leaders faster than other sectors, offering opportunities for quick promotion and increased responsibility. Women, even those with diverse educational backgrounds, can showcase their skills and ascend the corporate ladder more swiftly than in traditional corporate settings.

Sarita Runeberg, CEO of Maria 01
Sarita Runeberg, CEO of Maria 01.

The emergence of female faces in the startup community could inspire more women to venture into the funding side of the business too. Diverse teams make better decisions, underscoring the need for more female investors. The EU-funded Supernova program reports that women’s presence in managing venture capital funds in Europe is low, particularly in senior positions, with only 15% of female GPs and over 80% of investment committees being all-male.

Anne Horttanainen, Managing Director of the Finnish Venture Capital Association confirms that much work remains within the industry. “Tesi’s statistics show that women make up only 21% of investment teams in private equity. However, the 42% representation among managers suggests an increase in women at the partner level (13%) in the coming years.

Notably, 17% of CEOs in private equity firms in Finland are women, a figure higher than the 9% in listed companies. We should highlight these women in the media to attract more women to the industry and its studies.  I am very concerned, for example, about how few women pursue finance studies at Aalto University’s School of Business.”

Tiina Laisi-Puheloinen, CEO of Finnish Business Angels Network explains that one of FiBAN’s top strategic priorities is encouraging female angel investors to join FiBAN and make angel investments. “This initiative aims to bring diverse perspectives and foster a more inclusive investment environment, benefiting the entire ecosystem. Now, only six percent of startup applications come from female teams.

In line with our strategy to diversify the investor community, we have taken concrete steps to foster knowledge of angel investment among women. Last spring, we organized a significant event with the Chambers of Commerce. This event was designed to encourage and educate potential female angel investors, and it featured successful female investors and entrepreneurs sharing their experiences and insights. More than 60 potential female angel investors participated. After the event, FiBAN received an excellent number of female applications. In the coming fall, we will organize similar events with our partners.

Tiina Laisi-Puheloinen CEO FiBAN
Tiina Laisi-Puheloinen, CEO of FiBAN.

Women are more likely to invest in companies founded or led by women, as they naturally understand both female founders and consumers. Having more female investors creates a virtuous cycle of increased funding for companies founded by women, leading to more female success stories shared in the media and public discourse.

Invest in female leadership: invest in the future

So, why do we need more companies founded or led by women? Startups play a crucial role in economic growth, and it’s imperative to harness the immense potential of women entrepreneurs as well as female executives. Companies led by women not only generate more revenue and invest more in R&D, but they also foster a more engaged workforce. Female leaders are more likely to challenge the status quo, and bring innovative ideas and strategies. Isn’t that exactly what we need in today’s world – and in the future?

According to Nea Harjanne, generative AI may open up new opportunities for less tech-savvy groups to establish tech startups in the near future:

“The other change that makes me excited about the future of female entrepreneurship, is the current rapid progress in technology, especially in AI. I believe this progress will open doors for new groups of people to start solving real-life problems with technology in a way we’ve never seen before. Programming is, and has been, male-dominated, but today, not only can anyone set up an online store or build a website, but anyone can automate tasks and build functioning products without writing a single line of code. I hope that we, the new generation of ecosystem leaders, are well-equipped to support this new wave of future founders.”

What changes do the startup ecosystem CEOs envision for the scene?

Female leadership is highly valued within the startup ecosystem. The country requires more growth-oriented companies with global aspirations, and greater encouragement for women to establish businesses, particularly in the tech sector.

Josefiina Kotilainen, Startup Foundation‘s CEO, explains, “We’re committed to fostering the next generation of entrepreneurs. Our ambitious goal is to have 100 Finnish startups, each generating €100M in revenue, by 2050. To reach this target, one of our key priorities is encouraging more women to become founders and entrepreneurs. We’re actively working to make the Finnish startup ecosystem more inclusive, equitable, and welcoming for everyone. This includes conducting a recent survey on inappropriate behaviour within the ecosystem and establishing a new Ethics Committee that provides guidance and best practices for creating a more diverse and inclusive ecosystem.”

Josefiina Kotilainen, CEO of Startup Foundation
Josefiina Kotilainen, CEO of Startup Foundation.

When questioned about her perspective on the future, Anne Horttanainen envisions a potential shift ahead: “Women hold only 13% of board positions in private equity portfolio companies, similar to other unlisted Finnish firms of the same size. This percentage typically rises during private equity ownership due to a focus on diversity. It will be interesting to observe how the quota directive for listed companies might impact those considering an IPO” (Initial public offering).

Also, Nea Harjanne anticipates a transformation within the industry: “I hope to see that the impact of female leadership in key organizations in the Finnish startup ecosystem plays a part in creating an environment where technology and startups are seen as an exciting opportunity by women who previously might not have considered the male-dominated industry as something they’d feel a part of.”

Iida Loukkaanhuhta feels inspired to witness the increasing number of women in influential roles within major organizations in the ecosystem:

Since I strongly feel that more role models in the male-dominated tech industry are very much needed, I believe that the current situation within the ecosystem further encourages up-and-coming entrepreneurial-minded women towards leadership positions. While we are on a positive path, much work remains to be done in inspiring women to pursue a career as a founder. I am eager to participate in discussions on how this topic can be addressed.”

As Tiina Laisi-Puheloinen put it: “This is not a 100-meter run; this is a marathon. We need to keep on doing it!”

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