Julia Boorstin meets a lot of CEOs in her job as Senior Media and Tech correspondent for the American TV network CNBC. But it was the women CEOs who astonished her the most. “The ways in which these women were running their companies, the ways they were driven with purpose, the ways they were thinking about problem solving, they were different from men.”
Boorstin’s curiosity about these rare but remarkable women led to her new book When Women Lead, What They Achieve, Why They Succeed and How We Can Learn From Them (Avid Reader Press) which is as revelatory and game-changing as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was ten years before.
More than sixty female trailblazers in the tech industry including Goop’s Gwynneth Paltrow, Bumble’s Whitney Wolfe Herd and Hello Sunshine’s Reese Witherspoon, were interviewed by Boorstin, who found astonishing commonalities in the women’s style of leadership. They were women who were also succeeding despite one of the most shocking statistics of all – that women-led businesses receive less than 3 percent of all venture capital funding.
“You’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in corporate America where women have less access to capital and to leadership positions than in tech,” explains Boorstin. “Even though all the data indicates that it is financially advantageous to invest in diversity, women still receive less than 3 percent of all venture capital.”
That statistic compelled Boorstin to focus on the women who had defied it with their businesses, her work now being increasingly relevant given that the 3 percent is shrinking according to the Harvard Business Review. The rest of all venture capital – the kind that has allowed companies like Meta (Facebook) and Google to grow to what they are today – goes to male-led businesses, because the predominantly male-led venture capital investment companies tend to invest in the companies that reflect what they know and feel most comfortable with—namely and pointedly, other men.
“I didn’t want to dwell and write about the double standards that women face because I feel we all know about them,” explains Boorstin. “I wanted to talk about how to overcome. I’m a solution-oriented person. And I think the first thing is to understand the obstacles. Understanding why you might feel underestimated, that it’s not personal, is a powerful thing.”
Weaving studies and data between her interviews with the trailblazing women, Boorstin noticed trends. “Over the course of countless interviews, I was struck by a unique approach to leadership which many of these women were taking,” she says. “I saw them solving problems and creating products they wanted or needed that didn’t yet exist. They were finding opportunities that men had overlooked. From Bumble, which inverted the power dynamics of online dating, to the biotech company LanzaTech, which turns pollution into fuel, women were creating and leading some of the most disruptive and innovative businesses.”
She also saw strengths in the women’s leadership that have often been overlooked or simply not associated with great leadership. “Women tend to be more considerate of data in their risk assessment,” she says. “They are more likely to include varied perspectives in their decision making and as a result are better at empathizing with both colleagues and customers. They often lead with vulnerability, a willingness to ignore expectations and to do things their own way.”
For the longest times empathy and vulnerability have been regarded as weaknesses in business, but studies and the personal stories in Boorstin’s book show how valuable these traits can be to business. “These things girls were trained in on the schoolyard can be business superpowers. To me, that’s so powerful,” she says.
How women build communities around them is another theme that Boorstin noticed. “There are studies which show that having other people you trust in your cohort, what they call a microenvironment, can act like a vaccine to protect you against the negative impact of bias,” she explains. “A lot of data shows that the women who are most successful don’t have the largest networks, but they have a small, diverse and very tight-knit and trusting network of people they go to for advice.”
Women are also more likely to have purpose-driven companies. “I kept seeing this idea that you can have a purpose in addition to just generating profits. Study after study has shown that purpose-driven companies are more successful. If you can have a sense of your purpose, even if it’s not directly in the DNA of your company, it really makes a big difference in having strength in the hardest of times.”
When Women Lead: What They Achieve, Why They Succeed, How We Can Learn From Them by Julia Boorstin (Yellow Kite). $41.96 (AUD)