Female Founders Conference
Ambassador Victoria Reggie Kennedy
Female Founders Conference
June 1, 2022
Good morning, everyone, and hello to those of you joining us online! I am so delighted to be participating in this Female Founders’ “Lead Today, Shape Tomorrow” Conference.
A special thanks to co-founders Lisa-Marie Fassl and Nina Woess for inviting me to address this impressive gathering.
I am a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion in all facets of our lives – business, entrepreneurship, diplomacy. I’m proud to say that a commitment to diversity and inclusion is also a hallmark of the Biden-Harris Administration, starting at the top. Vice President Kamala Harris is the first female Vice President of the United States AND she is the first African American and Asian American woman to hold such a lofty office.
And when we women achieve high office or business success, we help pave the way for future generations of women and girls to follow in our footsteps. There is public service announcement that aired on U.S. television this year, and the message was as simple as it was powerful:
“If you can see her, you can be her.”
I understand the power of those words from the experience of my own life. When I was in college in the 1970s and making decisions about my future career, the women’s liberation movement in the United States was in full swing. I thought I could do absolutely anything, and it was thrilling. But, as I came to learn, I hadn’t really thought of everything that I might do. I never thought of being a lawyer. Why not? My dad was a lawyer. I knew lots of lawyers. But none of them were women. I didn’t see her, so I didn’t know I could be her.
It took a male professor of 18th Century British Literature to open my eyes. And did he ever.
Are you willing to bask in the reflected light of some man’s glory for the rest of your life, he asked me. He told me the story of Carla Hills, a female lawyer who had just been appointed by the president of the United States to be his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. At that time, in the mid-1970s, Carla Hills was only the 4th woman to serve as a cabinet secretary in the entire history of the United States.
My professor challenged me – if she can do it, he asked, then why can’t you. And with that simple question, he changed my life. I have no doubt that I would not be the Ambassador to Austria today if I had not accepted the challenge to go to law school back then.
These same lessons apply to the future of female entrepreneurs. If you can see her, you can be her. That’s just one of the reasons that the work of Female Founders is so important. Female Founders are role models who directly impact the entrepreneurship ecosystem for female entrepreneurs.
To highlight just how important it is to see women entrepreneurs as role models, let’s look at the realities of the current landscape.
An overwhelming majority of today’s founders, innovators and venture capitalists are male and white.
Women account for only 1 in 7 of Europe’s entrepreneurs and receive less than 2% of venture capital funding. The situation is similar in the United States.
A recent study found that only 3% of venture capital funding went to all-female founder-teams. Moreover, in those start-ups receiving funding from the top venture capital firms, 90% of the partners were male. The fact is that most venture capital firms worldwide don’t have a single woman on the partnership team.
Pity them – they are missing out on productive and amazing talent.
Studies show that women-led tech start-ups have a higher return on venture capital investment and generate more revenue than male-led start-ups. The same is true at venture capital firms: those with more female investing partners make more successful investments, with higher fund returns and more profitable exits. So, increasing female participation should be a no brainer, right?
Unfortunately, there are more challenges to overcome, including what’s all too often inside us: a fear of failure. Typically, girls aspire to be perfect. And striving for perfection is good. But it can, and too often does, make females more afraid to fail and less inclined to start a business because of that fear.
I met a young female entrepreneur recently who told me that her startup had recently failed. But actually, she didn’t use the word failed. She said instead that she had to close her business. And then she went on to describe the new one she was starting.
This young woman was amazing and inspirational. She understood that success is never guaranteed, regardless of your gender. But perseverance, getting up when you’re knocked down, that’s the key for ultimate success.
Fear shatters more dreams than failure ever will. We need to work together to instill the value in women and girls that failure can make us stronger and more successful.
Together, with intentional determination, we can and we must make our innovation ecosystem more inclusive, not just because everyone deserves to be judged on the merits of their ideas and accomplishments… and not just because women-run start-ups tend to be more successful… but because the world simply cannot afford to lose the tremendous potential of female founders. We need the innovative power of women to tackle the many challenges of our times.
A recent OECD study brings that lost potential into sharp focus: if women founded start-ups at the same rate as men, we would have over 25 million more entrepreneurs in the OECD countries alone. Think about the difference all of that talent – your talent – can make in the world.
I know that creating a more inclusive entrepreneurship ecosystem is no easy task and that no single measure will get us there. That’s why it’s so important that we come together for events like this Lead Today, Shape Tomorrow conference where we can exchange ideas, build networks, raise visibility, and hopefully inspire some of those 25 million “missing female entrepreneurs” to bring their great ideas to fruition.
You can count on my wholehearted support in support of this endeavor. Indeed, at the U.S. Embassy here in Vienna, we are specifically targeting female-led entrepreneurs for our two most important programs for start-ups: “Austria to Austin,” and the “SelectUSA Tech Investment Summit.”
- “Austria to Austin,” our student startup exchange program, sponsors Austrian students between the ages of 18-28 for an immersive experience in the U.S. startup and entrepreneurship scene. This year we are pleased to have another class of 20 dynamic entrepreneurs from Austria — 50% of them women.
- “Select Global Women in Tech” is a mentorship program launched by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo in 2021 to help international female founders overcome the unique challenges they face in fundraising, scaling, and promoting their businesses in the United States. We are especially pleased to be collaborating with Female Founders on this program. It is a major step towards strengthening transatlantic cooperation to drive inclusive innovation.
- Just last month, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo launched another program — “Empower HER” — a joint initiative with the American Chambers of Commerce in Europe to promote and empower women’s advancement in international trade. We look forward to bringing that program to Austria as well.
When I look around this room, and think of the many participants joining us online, I see an impressive cohort of pioneers. I see women who have the courage, the energy, and the determination to break through the many invisible barriers of today’s male-dominated entrepreneurship ecosystem, and I see men who see the immense social and economic value of diversity.
You are part of a growing movement in Europe and the United States that is creating a more inclusive innovation landscape.
Congratulations to all of you for the role you are playing in this vital process.
Two members of my team – Verena Gruber and Marta Haustein – will be with you for the rest of the day and can provide you with information about Embassy programs that might be a good fit for your business.
My most sincere thanks to Female Founders for inviting me to help you kick off this high-energy event and for your ongoing cooperation with the U.S. Embassy.
Thank you again, and I wish you a successful conference!