Between Sheryl Sandberg’s new “sort of feminist manifesto,” Marissa Mayer’s rapid post-pregnancy return to Yahoo, and The Atlantic’s viral cover story on whether women can have it all, discussions on female leadership and work-life balance have been everywhere lately.
In today’s media climate, as more and more women step up to either lead or start their own endeavors, this discussion is an important one. In fact, it’s so important that along with learning about emerging revenue strategies and technology management at American University’s Media Entrepreneurship program, my cohort is also learning about how gender can guide leadership.
Lately we’ve been talking to women entrepreneurs themselves about how they see their gender affecting the launch and running of their companies.
I tapped three to delve into their stories a bit deeper. In most cases, they told me being a woman has been, at times, an obstacle and, at times, an advantage.
Challenges of females’ multifaceted business models
Melinda Wittstock has been one of the more dynamic guest speakers to visit our cohort at AU. A 20-year journalist and broadcast leader, she was the brains behind Capitol News Connection, a news service providing customized coverage of Congress. Her latest effort is a startup called NewsiT, a mobile crowd-reporting platform that’s designed to put trust in social media. She sees NewsiT solving the problem of “infobecity,” or information overload. Through the platform, Wittstock seeks to use back-end algorithms to vet content in real time.
In founding this company, Wittstock told our AU cohort, some of the more substantial tasks have been overseeing the technical aspects of the product, zeroing in on the mission and intended paying audience, as well as funding the venture.
Funding, in particular, has posed substantial challenges for her as a woman. Wittstock cited what she sees as a troubling statistic about female entrepreneurs’ prospects for venture capital dollars. Just 2 percent of the money invested by venture capital firms goes to women even as the number of female business owners is surging, according to a study by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners and Wells Fargo & Co.
In her experience, women don’t fit the pattern of what a VC firm expects to see from a founder. Females launching media companies tend to come into the role later in life, deeply understanding their industry yet unaccustomed to courting investors. Where she said they struggle to connect with funding agents is in explaining their concept.
“Women are creating different business models, hybrids, versus men creating more straightforward models,” she said. “These hybrids sometimes only make sense to another female brain.”
That’s certainly been NewsiT’s plight. Articulating many possible ways her startup could grow and make money has sometimes worked against her, rather than helping her by positioning her as well-prepared and forward-thinking, Wittstock said.
Making the actual pitch — and having the confidence to keep pitching even through a stream of rejections — has taken getting used to as well. Wittstock said she thinks women, by nature, often have a harder time selling themselves in this way. To get over this, she’s worked with a pitch coach to master telling her startup’s story.
Above all, success as a media entrepreneur, she’s comes to believe, depends on being optimistic, resilient, and seeing “teachability” in all situations.
A startup part of the grand evolution of journalism
When Laura Frank’s former employer, the Rocky Mountain News, closed four years ago, she needed a place to rechannel her passion for investigative reporting. So, in the immediate aftermath of the newspaper’s demise she launched I-News, a non-profit news organization devoted to investigative journalism and designed to fill a void.
Getting off the ground was incredibly taxing, she said. But the payoff has been hard-hitting news reports that are making a difference statewide. Impact, judged through the reach and the magnitude of the stories, is her highest measure of success.
“(As a result of our work), there are laws and policies that have been changed, and people are engaging with journalism in a new way,” she said. “Five years ago something like this wouldn’t have worked.”
Frank sees her project as part of a grand evolution of journalism and how it’s spread to the public. Early on she envisioned partnerships with other news outlets as a pivotal part of her distribution plan.
The trouble was explaining her idea and generating excitement around it to potential news partners and funders, especially as one of the earlier startups with a hard news, investigative focus. Nearly a year was spent on this part of the process, she said. But as of early 2013, I-News merged with Rocky Mountain PBS, the statewide public television network, and KUVO, a public radio station in Denver, creating a “true multimedia non-profit” and added stability to the startup’s future, in Frank’s estimation.
In launching I-News and serving as its leader, Frank said she didn’t face the barrier that she typically hears female media entrepreneurs encounter most: not being taken seriously.
Instead, her major hurdle — which she views as tangentially related to her gender — has been figuring out how to get everything done, particularly with two young children and a spouse also in journalism. As Wittstock theorized about women leading media ventures, Frank’s business model has been multidimensional from the start, seeking to draw revenue from a handful of sources including grants, media partnership dollars and other services. Explaining this funding mix is no easy feat nor is balancing the management of each.
“Each of these is like running its own separate business,” she said.
Being a woman at the helm of her startup has provided at least one tangible strength, however. Frank said her capacity to stretch funding as far as possible and to find creative ways to solve problems are directly related to her gender and were a major help along the way. These are skills that date back to the first business she started at age 16, a dance studio in her neighborhood.
“Not only did I have to be the executive director but also the head of marketing and accounting and fundraising,” she said.
Learning to lead and communicate more directly
Anne Galloway, too, began her non-profit news venture when her more traditional news job ended. Galloway had started off her career working for small weeklies in Vermont. For a time she freelanced for different outlets and eventually advanced to editor of the Sunday Rutland Herald and Times Argus. She said when the newspaper dropped the Sunday publication that she managed almost four years ago and she was laid off, her next move was almost immediately clear. Galloway felt that she should start an online news organization dedicated to public service journalism, a need that was not adequately being served in her state.
Galloway’s passion was there, but she didn’t have the money to get the effort up and running or connections to people with money, since she’d worked on the news desk for the past decade and barely left the office. Still, she managed to pull together a business plan and called upwards of 100 people with potential interest in the endeavor. Many became either board members, donors or readers of what would later be called VTDigger.
The site’s coverage of the Vermont legislature, from the get-go, resonated with the public. Galloway said in a four-month span in 2010, VTDigger went from 1,500 monthly unique users to 14,000. Today, the site is up to 80,000 monthly uniques, she said. By January 2011, Galloway said, she was able to start paying herself; she now also has a staff of seven, including reporters and a sponsorship director.
Like other females in her position she cites the time commitment, particularly in the early stages of the news company, as a major challenge.
She also had to learn on the job to manage effectively and to communicate more directly. Inherent in her gender, she said, is an inclination to make assumptions that her employees understand the subtle directions she provides instantly.
“Especially with the men in my office I’ve had to be much more direct. I felt that my cues would come across, but they weren’t,” Galloway said. “I’ve also learned that not everyone who works for me has the same passion about the mission that I do, and that’s OK. My sales guy is motivated by money, so I need to speak to him in those terms.”
Firing an employee who wasn’t committed was eye-opening, she said. Managing reporters in her prior newspaper position helped ready her. But being at the helm of a media company and responsible for workers’ paychecks taught her not to blame herself.
“You can like someone but they may not perform, and you have to handle this difficult thing,” she said. “Those were things I didn’t know before in such a direct way.”
Speaking to other female media entrepreneurs, Galloway finds that many start with no capital. Making the sell and being aggressive about generating seed money is something women have to work harder to master.
“What I’ve learned is that you have to have a big long-range vision but not be so rigid about it,” she said. “Hue to the vision and plug away day by day. That makes all the difference.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correctly name the two media organizations that partnered with I-News in early 2013.
Dena Levitz is the manager of digital strategies for the Newspaper Association of America while also pursuing a master’s in Media Entrepreneurship at American University. Dena has freelanced for publications like the Washington Post and The Atlantic’s Cities website, been a news writer for the Washington Examiner and the Augusta Chronicle, and worked as a weekend White House stringer for Bloomberg News. In her spare time she enjoys drinking a hoppy beer, chomping on a cheeseburger or quoting from one of the Rocky movies.