When Lisa Wang and Yin Lin started SheWorx last August, they wanted to help other women build successful businesses by undertaking challenges with actionable strategies.
Wang and Lin wanted SheWorx to stand apart from the existing happy hours geared towards female entrepreneurs. When sizing up the competition, the pair found that a lot of the events dwelled on the all-too-familiar issues facing women.
“But nothing for the serious female entrepreneur that actually taught them the right skill sets, the right mindsets, to let them meet the right investors [and] mentors to take them to the next level,” says Wang.
So, one morning, Wang, Lin and a small handful of female entrepreneurs gathered at a coffee shop in Union Square to talk about negotiation.
Research shows women are less likely to negotiate, even though they may find the business tactic necessary. Wang and Lin wanted to flip that script.
They invited accomplished investors and business leaders to mentor the women and help them come up with tangible objectives for moving forward.
Wang and Lin knew SheWorx was filling a void in available resources for women to build and grow businesses. But the 27-year-old co-founders didn’t anticipate where that first discussion would lead their New York City-based startup.
“We realized it wasn’t just us,” says Wang, a veteran elite American rhythmic gymnast. “It was something much bigger than us.”
Nine months later and more than 50 roundtables later, SheWorx has gone from a network of 10 women to a global collective of over a thousand female entrepreneurs. The startup also has chapters, led by carefully selected chapter hosts, in three other cities —London, Singapore, and Tel Aviv. By the end of the year, SheWorx will launch in 12 more global cities, including Silicon Valley and Tokyo.
SheWorx’s breakfast meetings haven’t strayed from the core of that first meeting in that Union Square coffee shop nine months ago. For an hour and a half each week, a different mentor, who have included former SquareSpace CEO Dave Atkinson and XO Group’s Gillian Muson, will discuss a specific topic — like building startup culture or navigating next-generation commerce. In turn, the attendees — some of whom are part of SheWorx++, the startup’s membership program — will come up with detailed strategies and a clear road map for what they need to do next to elevate their business.
“We’re setting a bar for female entrepreneurs who are serious,” says Lin, a former associate at Techstars, a New York-based mentorship driven startup ecosystem. “The type of mentors that we bring in reflects that bar that we want to set.”
But SheWorx is not only about confronting specific business issues. The startup collective also aims to create parity within the tech ecosystem. Wang, also a Fortune contributor, says that
women can challenge the stereotypical picture of leadership: a zero-sum game played by well-heeled white men who push others down in order to get ahead.
For its part, SheWorx fosters collaboration, support and strategic decisiveness, she says.
Lin agrees. “With this new wave of businesses, successful businesses started by females, females can start to shape the culture of what the new definition of leadership can be,” she says.
One way SheWorx is helping women redefine leadership is through the SheWorx Foundation, a non-profit that provide business education to young women and disadvantaged women. They also launched the SheWorx 100 Series to tackle the funding gap faced by female founders by putting them directly in front of venture capitalists.
“You can see it in the numbers,” says Wang. During 2011 and 2013, 15 percent of all venture capital-funded companies had female executives, according to a 2014 report from Babson College. Less than three percent, though, had a female CEO.
“It’s a huge disparity compared to what goes to men,” she says.
Wang and Lin aren’t immune to the issues their SheWorx members face as entrepreneurs, though. SheWorx is a startup itself, after all, meaning the pair runs into some challenges, including fighting for funding, as they grow their company. They’ve also faced setbacks in their own professional careers — Wang missed the 2008 Olympics by three-tenths of a point, and Lin left her last venture because of issues within the business.
But they both view their respective career shakeups as learning experiences that made them stronger as people and as entrepreneurs. And those learning experiences — and failure as a whole —are part of the process in “the game of life,” Lin says.
“I like to think of life as a video game, and that every challenge is a level to be conquered,” says Lin. “If you don’t, then you’ve built up some skills. So you can take those skills to another game — another platform — and you continue to play that game until you get to a place where you’re happy.”
It seems that everything Lin and Wang have experienced as professionals have prepared them for the last nine months. And although they hadn’t set out for SheWorx to become a global startup — or to grow so rapidly, at that — Lin and Wang are not all that surprised that their company is on such an upward trajectory.
That’s because they act on their objectives fast. SheWorx’s backstory is proof of that. Wang says that, within 12 hours of meeting, the pair mapped out the blueprint for what would be SheWorx’s first breakfast event. They held their inaugural roundtable a week later.
Success, then, comes down to execution. Wang and Lin say that they’ve completed every goal they’ve set — from the mundane to the ambitious. One thing they stress to their SheWorx members is to dream big and move fast.
“You have to execute,” Wang says.
But, Lin adds, “Quickly and correctly.”
SheWorx will host its next roundtable on May 4 with Ben Sun, co-founder and partner at Primary Venture Partners, an early-stage venture capital fund based in New York City. The May 4 roundtable will happen during lunch.
By Annamarya Scaccia
Annamarya Scaccia is an award-winning freelance journalist who reports on social justice issues. Follow her on Twitter: @annamarya_s