In Review: Bloom Presents International Women's Day 2021
Updated: Mar 28
The past 12 months have been historically tumultuous, thanks to a little-known virus called COVID-19.
But how did a health crisis impact gender equality?
What has feminism got to do with flexibility in the workplace?
How did female founders go about setting up new businesses, pivoting, and securing funding?
Why was there a decrease in venture capital investment to female-owned businesses despite the overall rise in Europe?
And how is the future looking for ambitious women or female entrepreneurs?
Let's dig in.
Each year, Bloom hosts a special panel event for International Women's Day, ensuring representation from both men and women, from founders and investors, and from a diverse range in backgrounds and perspectives.
This year, our founder Stephanie Melodia chaired the following line-up:
Lara Sheldrake, Founder of Found & Flourish
Lara is a speaker, mentor and the founder of Found & Flourish, an online membership, media and events platform for women in business. She is passionate about empowering business owners and is on a mission to close the gender pay gap by providing a safe space for entrepreneurs to found & flourish.
Lara has been featured in the likes of Forbes and Marie Claire for her work with Found & Flourish. She was also listed as one of the top 100x female business leaders across the UK for 2020 as part of the f.Entrepreneur #ialso campaign, and cited as one of the most influential female founders of 2020 by Startups Magazine.
Self-confessed feminist geek, David Fogel is the Chief Operating Officer of P2P agriculture startup Wefarm and Co-Founder of investor network for female founders, Alma Angels.
In the last 10 years, David has worked with over 350 founders across 15,000 startups and invested in over 100 across Europe before "walking the walk" with Wefarm. Over the years, he has invested in successful high-growth businesses such as female-led Settled, Urban and Lingumi.
Molly Johnson-Jones, Co-Founder of Flexa
Molly Johnson-Jones is the co-founder of flexible work and employer brand platform, Flexa - the UK's only place that puts the number 1 job benefit first; flexible working.
Molly belongs to the small minority of startup founders who - together with her partner Maurice O'Brien - secured venture capital investment for their business. Molly and her co-founder belong to an even smaller percentage of the population of early-stage founders who secured seed funding in 2020, during the pandemic.
Molly is on a mission to make flexible work the norm, not the exception, and firmly believes in the role flexible work plays in the advancement of gender equality.
Proudly sponsored by Ada Ventures, a bold VC fund for overlooked founders & markets, led by Check Warner and Matt Penneycard.
We kicked off our conversation with Molly's story raising funding, not only as a female founder in technology, but succeeding in doing so during a pandemic.
She, alongside her two male co-founders, Maurice O'Brien and Tim Leppard, managed to raise £250k in pre-seed funding for their flexible work and employer brand platform, Flexa. Above all else, she commented on how tough the experience was - and how much having co-founders helped (gender aside).
Flexa started fundraising after they proved traction, a milestone they set themselves with their own KPIs of 3,000 candidates and 20 trial companies - which they successfully accomplished ahead of their deadline. The process lasted about 4 months where Molly led the pitching herself.
"The majority of the time I didn't feel like I was treated differently, but there were some times - I can think of 3 occasions off the top of my head - where [the investors] would ask me a question, I would answer, and they would talk back to Maurice, even though he hadn't spoken."
One of the biggest lessons Molly learnt during the fundraising process was to be 100% determined in your pursuit;
"You're going to be pushed back regardless of your gender, but you don't ever want to feel like your gender is getting in the way of things."
The other big lesson was to treat the whole experience like a sales process. "You have to be a salesperson. Financial models and all the numbers come later, you need to sell the story first."
This was something David totally agreed with.
"The truth is venture is not a level playing field - despite the fact we say we're led by the data and the numbers, etc - because at the end of the day people invest in people, so if the average cheque writer is a middle-aged white guy, he tends to resonate more with a young white guy."
In response to Molly sharing some of her fundraising experience, David said:
"As a middle-aged white man living in the UK over the past 6.5 years, I've seen exactly that story happen time and time again; where women entrepreneurs with amazing visions and exiting stories come forward, and suddenly the investor decides to bring his wife to the meeting. In Molly's case, at least the man was the co-founder; I know of an instance where the man was the assistant, and they still spoke directly to him."
It was this awareness that led David and his co-founders (Deepali Nangia, Ella Goldner, and Kristin Cardwell) to set up Alma Angels, a network for female angel investors.
"I decided to set up Alma Angels because it's those people who back you in the very early stages that matters. Our approach was to encourage more women and people of diverse backgrounds to get into investing. When one joins, one need to commit to investing in three female founders over 12 months, and to share insights and knowledge with the community. Suddenly we start seeing deal flow. In the past 12 months, we have shared over 400 companies with 225 founders, 180 of which are women, 70 POC, and have invested over £1M to date."
From venture investment to juggling a toddler whilst pivoting a business, we moved on to Lara's story:
Up until March last year, Found & Flourish was predominantly an events-based business, so naturally Lara was one of many business owners who found herself "pivoting."
Found & Flourish quickly became an online membership with its own challenges of launching a new tech platform on top of co-parenting a toddler. Whilst Lara is quick to recognise her privilege, she candidly shared how incredibly challenging the past 12 months have been on her mental health and wellbeing, citing a non-existent work/life balance - especially as an entrepreneur where there's always "more" one feels like they should be doing.
What held Lara together was the support of her true feminist husband.
"It is so important to bring men into the conversation, because without them we can't do this. We need each other. That's what equality is; everyone having equal rights, equal respect, equal pay."
Commenting on the wider community at Found & Flourish, Lara shared the fact that lots of women found themselves having to make tough decisions; sacrificing their businesses and careers to look after their children. She was also surprised to hear about the inflexibility their male partners were offered from their workplaces; saying that in one case a father had to lock himself in the study upstairs to work while the mother was left downstairs looking after the kids. Erm, is this 1950 or 2020?
This lack of flexibility from the men's side meant women were naturally left with the burden of childcare.
Lara then shared the following statistics from a 2020 report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and UCL Institute of Education:
Mothers look after children for an average of 10.3 hours per day, 2.3 more hours than their fathers
Mothers do 1.7 more hours of housework compared to men
Women are 23% more likely to have temporarily or permanently lost their jobs during the crisis
47% of mothers were more likely to have lost their job or quit
14% of mothers were more likely to be furloughed
These stats plainly illustrate the gender inequalities that still pervade society today.
In fact, Mandu Reid, the leader of The Women's Equality Party estimates the amount of unpaid labour carried out by women is worth £140 billion to the UK economy.
Flexibility in the workplace? Over to the co-founder of the UK's flexible work platform, who lost her job after requesting to work from home due to her autoimmune disease.
The subject of flexible work has been such a historically gendered term that's always frustrated Molly. In her case, having a long-term illness meant Molly felt she had more of an "excuse" to justify her wants and needs over others, but the idea that we need a reason to work flexibly is incredibly flawed.
"Working mothers bear the brunt of this as they may be seen as less committed - whereas they're actually more likely to work after hours to catch up on things; more likely to be worried about losing their job due to this perception, and so they will actually give so much more to an employer - and they shouldn't be put in a position where they have to constantly prove their worth."
Luckily over the past year there has been an enormous shift. Flexa conducted a national survey in conjunction with
YouGov which found that men are now more likely to ask for flexible way of working. As men have now had a taste of flexible work they now want it moving forward. Potentially one of the only upsides in gender equality that we've had is the fact that flexible work is no longer going to be seen as gendered as it is.
Interestingly, while the desire for flexible work from men has increased, the demand from women has actually decreased by 2 percentage points - demonstrative of the childcare, housework and other unpaid labour shouldered by the women - now keen to return to an office space with clear boundaries and away from children!
One of the best soundbites from the evening came from Molly on this subject:
"Ask yourself: would you say that to a white man?"
"Think about this each time you think about asking a question about looking after children or taking time off for half-term or why you need the afternoon off. Would you say the same to a middle-aged white man?"
Conversely from David's perspective as a man and a father, he's found himself having to make strong efforts in getting involved as an active co-parent, due to the inherent nature of the system rigged towards women as the primary caregivers and household heads.
For typical (heteronormative) family units, David recommends the exercise of writing down all the household chores and listing out the percentages between who does what. Then take that same list and write down who takes responsibility for thinking about all these things. Whether it's food or clothes or after-school activities. All of a sudden the man in the relationship starts to see the difference.
From Lara's perspective, this is one of the few positives that has emerged from the pandemic for gender equality. This level of awareness from the guys is something they would have never seen if we weren't forced to live and work together in the same space.
A commonality Lara and David both share is raising the next generation of men, parents to sons of a similar age. For Lara, whilst the guilt has been unbearable, she is often reminded that she is in fact setting an example as her son grows up seeing both parents working, building businesses, and (trying to) balance it all.
Whilst the stats paint a gloomy picture of the state of gender equality, things are looking up:
History has shown us that women tend to come out better from a crisis. World War II and previous pandemics have thrust women into the spotlight, and it's conversations like these that ensure we are heard and seen.
The World Economic Forum has shaved off 6 months from the previous 100-year estimate timeline to reach gender equality.
Thanks to the #WFH acceleration, flexible work is no longer seen as such a gendered term, as men start to demand flexibility with work as well as women.
And, closer to home, the eye-opening experience for many households has made men realise exactly how much that working mothers do, with true "feMANists" helping to spread the load.
We closed with practical advice from our panellists that everyone can go away and action today:
Lara: "Be an active participant. Sign petitions and get behind movements like Anna Whitehouse (a.k.a. Mother Pukka) flexible work campaign or Joeli Brearley's Pregnant Then Screwed campaign to end the motherhood penalty."
Molly: "My number one piece of advice to anyone, women particularly, is never take anyone's advice. It's often meant well and come from a place of care and help, but the likelihood is they've brought in their own positive and negative experiences, their own bias, their own beliefs, their own beliefs and opinions and politics and religion... so just ignore it! If you have a really strong gut instinct, go for it."
David: "80% of the tech and venture capital industry is made up of middle-aged white guys. So if we want to see that change happening faster, we need to step up, we need to take action. From our perspective we need to start acting. Support female founders, go to events, speak up, empower others by both your words and actions."
Huge thanks to our panellists, attendees, and partners for making Bloom Presents: International Women's Day 2021 happen. Let's get actively involved in eradicating gender inequality together.
Watch the highlights below:
If you're a woman in business looking to join a community of likeminded women, you can apply to join the Found & Flourish membership here.
If you're a flexible employer looking to hire and get Flexified, or if you're looking for a truly flexible job, sign up on Flexa here.
If you're looking to get into investing as a female, find out more about Alma Angels here.
If you're interested in finding out about future Bloom events or agency work, please subscribe to our newsletter.