How Unilever plans to change the ‘hostile’ startup environment for women

Mobile World Congress 2018: Unilever’s Aline Santos calls on the industry to come together to help achieve gender equality – something she says will not happen organically.

Unilever Foundry has made an ambitious global commitment to ensure half of all the startups it partners with will be female-founded within the next five years, but Unilever’s executive vice-president of global marketing and head of diversity and inclusion, Aline Santos, has called for industry collaboration to help it make this happen sooner.

Speaking to Marketing Week at Mobile World Congress 2018, Santos – who is “optimistic” about the future for women but “frustrated” by the pace of change – says the more clients speak up about wanting to bring women on board, the more female entrepreneurs will encouraged to join the industry.

“We need awareness about the need and intention of having more women [entrepreneurs], this is a very positive invitation for women,” Santos explains.

“If you are a woman at a startup, you will feel much more inclined to work with a client that says they would like to have more women working with them than a client that says nothing about it.

“If we do this then we are likely to accelerate that change and achieve our goal in less than five years.”

The pledge coincides with new research, unveiled by Santos at Mobile World Congress today (27 February), which reveals the challenges and discrimination women face when trying to break in to the startup space.

Santos describes the startup environment as being “hostile” towards female entrepreneurs, with just 17% of startups across the world led by women.

Nearly a quarter (23%) of Unilever Foundry’s investment currently goes into female-founded startups – and Santos says investment in Unilever Foundry will only increase as it looks to “scale up” and create a more established global infrastructure.

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Of the women Unilever spoke to, four in 10 say they frequently encounter gender bias while running their business and 42% think this kind of discrimination will remain the same as they scale up.

Gender equality won’t happen organically

With some forecasts suggesting it is going to take more than 100 years until gender equality is achieved, Santos says there is much work to be done – and she is calling on the entire industry to come together to help change something she says will not happen organically.

One of the biggest issues female entrepreneurs say they face is marginalisation in meetings (83%), followed by poor treatment when standing up for gender inequality (80%).

Meanwhile, 82% of women agree they let inappropriate statements slide to avoid looking uptight.

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It is perhaps not surprising that 42% of female founders say funding is one of the most challenging barriers when starting a business given the majority of venture capitalists are men. Nearly a quarter (24%) say investors have been less willing to invest in women.

It is estimated that 82% of investors across all venture capitalist firms in the UK are male and just 13% of decision makers (partners or equivalent) are women.

Meanwhile, 66% of UK firms have no female decision makers at all and 48% have no women in their entire investment team.

Santos hopes Unilever Foundry’s aims to redress the gender balance will “wake up” venture capitalists and encourage them to seek out and fund female entrepreneurs in future.

“One thing implicates the other,” Santos explains. “So if more companies start the same movement to having a  ambition for 50/50 gender balance in the way we invest in start-ups, the big venture capitalists will also wake up.”

Unilever’s ‘Scaling up Diversity’ study is based on the views of 685 founders from startups in the UK, US, India and Singapore. It is designed to examine gender bias in the startup space, chart where bias exists in a startups’ life-cycle and look at the steps needed to implement positive change.

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Following on from the launch of the Unstereotype Alliance last year, the Unilever Foundry and UN Women are joining forces again in another effort to advance gender equality. This will include the creation of a set of ‘innovation principles’ and will see the organisations promote positive role models for women, which 61% of respondents believe there is a distinct lack of.

To encourage younger girls to become entrepreneurs, Santos is also calling to change the acronym STEM to STEEM – adding ‘entrepreneurship’ to science, technology, engineering and maths.

Unilever has also launched an internal movement, ‘Unstereotype the Workforce’ in an effort to tackle unconscious biases from within the business, which Santos hopes will have a ripple effect across the industry.