What does the online travel startup scene need – more women
When Jen O’Neal, a founder of Tripping, a vacation rentals metasearch platform, first considered starting a travel company, friends warned her that it was an ‘Old Boys Network’ and she’d have a tough time as a female chief executive.
NB: This is a report by Pamela Whitby, editor, EyeForTravel.
While that has been true at times, O’Neal is pleased to see the growing number of women at the helm of travel companies.
But considering that women drive 70% of all leisure travel spend and 80% of corporate travel bookings it’s surprising that there are not more firms with female representation at executive level.
Even more surprising when you consider that companies with female board members are 66% more likely to outperform those without female board members, when it comes to seeing a return on invested capital.
One of the reasons often cited for this is that fewer women take courses in science, technology, engineering and maths, and a disproportional number of startups come out of these areas.
Women are also said to network differently to men and value having a small number of close friends over a larger number of acquaintances.
And in the male-dominated startup space, success is often driven by networks and connections. In the US, research from the Kauffmann Foundation suggests that what is needed is more role models for younger women.
In the UK, the government is backing initiatives to support Code Clubs at schools and the introduction of coding at the GCSE level aim to address the problem of imbalance at a grassroots level.
But it’s arguable whether change is happening fast enough – especially in the US.
Heddi Cundle, founder of travel gift card company, myTab, refers to the “the incredibly male centric” environment of Silicon Valley where gender has a huge impact on whether you secure investment or not.
“If you have a male co-founder you stand a much better chance of securing funding.”
Cundle, despite countless meetings with prospective investors since launching in May 2011, is still bootstrapping her business.
Somewhat depressingly, research from MIT indicates that she may have a point. In the US, women-led ventures have received just 7% of all available venture capital, possibly something to do with the fact that just 4.2% of decision makers at VC firms are female.
Pippa Kennard, chief operating officer at philanthropic adventure company Inspired Escapes, has to wonder why men are leading the way in the online travel tech show, when “tech companies are feminine by nature.”
Running a good tech company relies on frequent communication, smart grouping of people, listening to the customer, understanding their needs, capitalising on simplicity and elegance, harmonious design and having an eye for detail and so on. So why are men still in charge?
Brought on as an intern to Afzaal Mauthoor, a serial entrepreneur and founder of Inspired Escapes, 24-year-old Kennard was quickly promoted to chief operating officer.
Mauthoor describes Kennard as “wunderkind” in a Mark Zuckerberg or Evan Spiegel type mould and says:
“She holds the company together and with her driving force.”
Inspired Escapes has recently received its second round of six-digit funding. Mauthoor adds:
“We started out targeting males aged 21 to 35 with extreme challenges but it was the softer adventures that flew off the shelf and the people buying those adventures were women aged 25 to 45. We just didn’t know that there was a faster growing market of women in adventure.”
Having said that, Kennard is the only woman on a male dominated executive team, despite the fact that their target audience is women.
Gender doesn’t have to be an issue
Being the only woman in a male-dominated environment doesn’t have to be case. The executive team at Trip4Real, a peer-to-peer platform for local tours and activities operators, founded by Gloria Molins two years ago, is predominantly female. She says:
“Whenever I’ve had a role to fill I’ve interviewed men and women and I always hire the best person for the job. In my case they have turned out to be women.
“I’m not worried if they are going to get pregnant or not. If I feel they are the best person for the role, then I’m willing to take on everything that happens to them.”
Today, 11 of the 13-strong team at the travel startup are women.
It’s also heartening to hear that Molins has faced no issues in raising money. In June 2012 Trip4Real received 75K from the government and less than four months later the renowned chef Ferran Adrià came on board as a lead investor.
The fact that Spanish-based Trip4Real started up outside of Silicon Valley, as well as the fact that Kennard, though she hails from San Francisco, has found success in Europe, could be the reason.
Indeed, one of O’Neal’s top pieces of advice for women founders is to look outside Silicon Valley for funding.
“If you’re planning on becoming a global platform, talk to investors in top foreign markets. In addition to bringing diverse views to the boardroom, these investors should be able to bolster your international connections and help you expand into new geographies.
“We’ve seen that investors outside of Silicon Valley may also be more open to investing in female founders.”
It’s also crucial, whether you’re talking to your team, or to investors, to be able to show a deep understanding of the metrics that define your business.
Cundle grudgingly has to admit that she would advise any female founder to get a male counterpart on board. She maintains this advice even though, when she brought a male co-founder onto her team it didn’t work out.
Although sometimes mistaken for his secretary, having a male co-founder has been a bonus for O’Neal who stresses the importance of surrounding yourself with other founders.
A lonely road
What all women agree on is that importance of having the right team.
O’Neal says that running a company and fundraising can be extremely lonely and Cundle agrees, describing it as ‘a long and isolated journey.’
But by surrounding yourself with other founders, and a loyal core team, you’ll be able to tap into a network of people who understand what you’re going through and can offer advice along the way. Molins says:
“I absolutely couldn’t have done any of this without my founding team.”
What all these women seem to have in common is that they are innately tenacious and have nerves of steel. Cundle says:
“It’s become fashionable to be an entrepreneur but people give up too easily. So many startups just don’t follow through and that gives the industry a bad name. I’m not giving up, not now, not ever.”
NB2: To hear more tips on starting up and staying started, join top entrepreneurs, start-ups and investors at EyeforTravel’s Start Up Village in San Francisco March 23.
NB3: Shouting woman image by Shutterstock
Pamela Whitby is an independent writer, editor and researcher. She currently edits EyeforTravel.com on a part-time basis.
Her work has appeared in media outlets that include the BBC, Economist Intelligence Unit, Investor's Chronicle, the Daily Telegraph, the Observer and News Desk Media.
An experienced 'generalist' she also recently co-authored a book on South African's renewable energy sector, which will be published early this year, and is the author of Is Your Child Safe Online?, a guide for parents.
Pamela grew up in Africa, which she retains strong connections to both personally and professionally, and has lived and worked in the UK, South Africa and South Korea.