Changing the face of start-ups: Why diversity is not a nice-to-have but a must-have


How can we build a global economy driven by innovation when half the population is missing out on the action? The short answer is, we can’t.


Right around the world, there is a wave of activity directed at building the economies of the future. Governments, businesses and institutions are investing heavily in innovation and technology, as they look to leverage the possibilities of digital transformation.


As a result, start-up ecosystems across the globe are undergoing major growth, with new, agile, innovative companies disrupting the industries of the past and offering new approaches to commerce, creativity and connection.


But right now, all this investment and activity represents a lost opportunity, as we risk growing so-called innovation-economies that fail to tap into the diversity of the population, and in particular, leave women behind.


Women make up around 50% of the world’s population. Yet in the start-up ecosystem–where the most innovative, high potential businesses of the future are being created–women remain grossly under-represented. According to Startup Genome’s 2017 Global Startup Ecosystem report, women make up 16% of start-up founders globally. In my home country of Australia, the 2016 Startup Muster report places local statistics slightly above the global average, with women representing 24% of start-up founders, which is a solid increase from 17% in 2015, but still a long way from equal representation. And when you look at those attracting investment, the stats are as low as 5%.


So why does this matter?

Innovation is not something that is; it’s something that happens. As is the case for anything that happens, a certain environment is required. Where there is space for new ideas not only to be shared but to be challenged, innovation can happen. When we allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable, to think differently, to colour outside the lines, innovation can flourish. It should come as no surprise then that diversity is the key to unlocking innovation. Indeed, diverse views and ideas are essential to drive the kind of disruptive, creative, critical thinking required to take the global economy forward.


Furthermore, there is now unequivocal evidence that shows companies embracing diversity in leadership achieve better results in terms of innovation and creativity, and quite simply, better bottom lines. In fact, female-led companies have been found to drive three times the returns of companies predominantly led by men. So diversity is not just a nice-to-have, it’s a global economic imperative, particularly in industries that will be growth areas in the years to come.


So why begin with start-ups?

The start-up ecosystems of most countries remain somewhat embryonic, presenting a compelling opportunity to get things right. But with current global female participation in tech and entrepreneurship so low, we’re not off to a good start.


To improve gender equality in tech and entrepreneurship, we need to design for it. Those who play a role in supporting start-ups must ensure their programmes are designed to attract, include and support female founders. This means creating spaces for women to learn about the opportunities available, develop key skills, identify in themselves the potential for leading globally scalable companies, and see in others examples of how it can be done. To date, such spaces have been limited. But the community of support is rapidly growing, as the movement for diversity in tech takes hold.


In Australia, for example, the pursuit of gender equality in technology and entrepreneurship has shifted from a social side-issue to one receiving serious attention. From grassroots organisations seeking to inspire women and girls in tech, and hackathons providing a launch pad for women entrepreneurs; to corporate and government-backed programmes helping female founders become investment-ready–the effort for equality is building.


Last year in my own organisation, BlueChilli, which is Australia’s leading start-up and innovation group, we launched Australia’s first venture backed early-stage start-up accelerator designed specifically for female-led start-ups. The collective backing of the programme by industry leaders such as Google and LinkedIn, as well as ANZ, MYOB, GSK, Sunsuper and UTS, is an indication of the value seen in driving gender equality. What’s more, the associated SheStarts documentary series is showcasing these start-up stories to the world, replacing the dominant image of men in hoodies and sneakers, and changing the face of start-ups in Australia. This is an important step, achieving a significant impact in raising awareness about the value of investing in female founders and the opportunities that exist for other women and girls to follow. But to truly move the needle, we need to attack the problem from every angle.


Governments have a key role to play, not only through direct investment in scaling programmes that support women, but also through the design of government policies and initiatives intended to assist the broader innovation economy. There is a real opportunity to make a direct impact on the gender gap by ensuring all programmes funded by government bodies take a proactive approach to gender equality, whether they are specific programmes for females or not. By requiring all applicants to demonstrate a “non-negotiable” approach to inclusivity, governments can ensure the significant global investment in innovation results in more diverse (and thriving) start-up ecosystems.


Without intentional design for diversity, the future economy will remain an uneven playing field–creating a huge missed opportunity for global prosperity. The ideas and perspectives of female entrepreneurs offer vital opportunities for the development of new products, services and creative solutions to major global problems. As the world looks for ways to create a more inclusive innovation agenda, driving gender equality must be embedded as the central plank of the global strategy.


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OECD Forum 2017 issues

OECD work on innovation

OECD work on industry and entrepreneurship

OECD work on Australia


Nicola Hazell
SheStarts Director, Head of Diversity & Impact, BlueChilli Group

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