18 Oct 2016

Leading the Way for Women Entrepreneurs

Alumnae address need to bring change to corporate leadership and venture funding arena
by Jennifer Myers


Growing up, Hayley Barna (MBA 2010) thought she was unstoppable.

Then she entered the business world.

“I grew up thinking I lived in a post-feminist world, “ she said. “I saw no impediment in my way based on my gender.”

Six years ago, she and HBS classmate Katia Beauchamp (MBA 2010) launched Birchbox, a beauty product subscription box service that has grown to more than 1 million subscribers.

“We started raising funds and suddenly we were in rooms where there were no people who looked like us,” said Barna, now the first female partner at First Round Capital, explaining that male venture capitalists could not identify with the vision of Birchbox. “The men would ask their secretaries or ask us to wait while they called their wives.”

Barna joined fellow HBS alumnae Marcela Sapone (MBA 2015), cofounder and CEO of Hello Alfred, and Jen Hyman (MBA 2009), cofounder and CEO of Rent the Runway, and Lisa Falzone, cofounder and CEO of Revel Systems on a panel discussion entitled “Entrepreneurship: Gender, Adversity and Success” at the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Boston on Monday.

Hyman recalled that her foray into seeking venture capital for Rent the Runway, a service that provides designer rental clothes to clients, was comical at times.

“I was trying to convince a roomful of men in blue button-down shirts why wearing a new outfit everyday would empower them,” she said.

Hyman said the bigger problem in the business world is the subtle bias surrounding female leadership. She pointed out only four percent of venture capital goes to female-led companies.

“People feel more comfortable working for a man in many cases,” she said. “Men can be aggressive; have a crazy vision with no ideas. She needs to have 10 spreadsheets behind her to validate that vision. We give men more leeway in how they lead.”

Hyman expressed some optimism on that front, saying she thinks the startup culture will evolve over the next decade, as more women find success.

And she is helping to create that change. Last year, Hyman launched the Rent the Runway Foundation, an organization that supports female entrepreneurs, creating a network of thousands of women helping other business women cross the country.

“The world will only change when women lead companies from $0 to multi-billion dollar corporations,” Hyman said. “We hope to inspire women to build a network of support for women who want to change the world.”

Sapone said she found her inspiration at HBS, following the success of Barna and Hyman.

“There is a chain reaction of inspiration at HBS,” Sapone said. “These women had to beat down the door harder than I did. There has been some change and people are interested in what we bring to the table.”

Something Hyman said concerns her are the vocabulary words used to describe male leaders, like visionary and genius, which she said she never hears used to describe women. She added she has made a conscious effort to use those words to describe female leaders.

Later during the discussion, Hyman paused in describing herself and her role in founding her company, settling on “business strategy customer leadership person.”

Barna urged her to call herself a visionary. The crowd of burgeoning entrepreneurs erupted in applause. Hyman declined, saying she reserves that word for other people.

What advice do these successful women have for up-and-coming female leaders?

“Be clear on what you want,” said Sapone, “and be unapologetic in going to get it.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2010, Section A
follow @hayleybay
Class of MBA 2015, Section B
Class of MBA 2009, Section I
follow @Jenn_RTR

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