If you had asked me a few years ago how I pictured a startup CEO and founder, I probably would have described someone along these lines: a young man, under 30, living in San Francisco, wearing a black hoodie and jeans, who loves technology. I would not have put myself in that category.
When I worked as an intern during one summer in college at a startup in Y Combinator, I rarely met female founders in the batch, and when I did, they almost always had a male co-founder.
I’m a 22-year-old female CEO running my e-commerce Intimately, social impact fashion startup. Even though my company has been featured in Forbes, The Boston Globe, Entrepreneur, Popsugar, Bust, and other publications, raised a successful Kickstarter of almost $20,000, and won numerous other pitch competitions, it’s still hard to see myself as a startup CEO. Overcoming this hurdle of who I imagined could start a business was one of the hardest barriers to entry for beginning my startup.
After Forbes published an article featuring my company, I had the first inkling that I could maybe be a CEO. But when I looked for podcasts or communities for women who started businesses, I really found two options: the “side-hustle” subculture or women in tech. As neither a side-hustler nor a woman in tech, I felt like I didn’t belong.
My startup Intimately makes clothing for women with disabilities. We don’t aim to be a small boutique that sells adaptive clothing, but rather a revolutionary startup that brings clothing to disabled women in every corner of the world. I didn’t fit in with the Jenna Kutcher crowd, and I didn’t fit in with women like Mathilde Collins.
Turning side-hustle into a successful business
These side-hustle focused communities were helpful because through them, I learned about how to attract my first 100 customers, how to set up email marketing campaigns, creating artistic branding, and packaging.
But I found there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on business models, raising capital, or finance, the hard things I need to know to have a successful startup. This “side-hustlers” idea seemed to be great for women running small businesses but did not give me any insight on how I could create a company that I believed, could change the world. I thought this was my only option, being a side-hustler. It seemingly delegitimized the authority of female startups who wanted to grow rapidly by not making information accessible.
However, communities like Elfa weren’t that helpful either. I wasn’t doing day to day hard coding or working at a B2B Saas or fintech startup. So advice relating to those subjects went right over my head. I needed information about operations, supply chain management, large scale community building, but without finding the right niche of women to learn from, I felt like an outlier, furthering my feelings that I wasn’t a real CEO.
After dealing with this struggle for about two years, I finally began to imagine myself and present myself as a CEO. Our team has now grown to 9 women; we are making sales and winning pitch competitions. Although the journey was long, I do finally feel like a CEO, but now the issue is convincing male investors I’m a female CEO worth investing in.
The road to success is not easy: How did I overcome challenges?
This is a multi-layer challenge; I first need to convince investors that a DTC e-commerce fashion startup is worth investments. Then I spend a lot of time explaining the significance and size of the disabled community. This is a huge hurdle because of systemic and internalized ableism in many folks.
Many don’t know that there are 600 million women worldwide who have some sort of disability that affects the way they dress. Once I spend almost all of my energy trying to convince investors of the importance of adaptive clothing, if they are still interested, they then ask about the mechanics of adaptive apparel.
Our primary focus at Intimately is revolutionizing and redesigning undergarments. I then have to explain the traditional bra and why it does not work for women with disabilities. I explain the connection between intimates and desirability, sexuality, and self-confidence and how powerful undergarments can be to self-worth.
The hurdles began with overcoming my own preconceived notions of who a CEO could be. After years of struggling with that, I now have to face others and convince them that my idea is worthy.
It’s frustrating to have to explain in detail just what the problem is to investors and things that are as common as the bra or underwear. I think a lack of communities for diverse female founders not in tech made it even more difficult for me to overcome these things.