Last year I interviewed a number of tech startup founders from around the world, and we discussed their stories, strategies and approaches to building their businesses. I had some great conversations, and there was a LOT of valuable knowledge shared (so much in fact, that the interviews became a book), however, none of the interviewees were female!
This year I will be featuring more interviews with female founders in tech on the Purposeful Products blog.
The very first interview with a female founder starts here, with Sheena Shah, the founder of ElevatHer, a networking app available on the web, and as a native app in the Google Play and App Stores. Sheena is featured on the FT Founders' 50 list, which recognises fintech's most inspirational founders.
Hi Sheena, welcome. It's great to speak to you! Please tell us a bit about you, and what you do.
Hello! I'm the founder of a networking app called ElevatHer, which empowers women in fintech and finance by giving them the edge, both through the power of networking and the tools for staying ahead of the curve by keeping up to date with the latest industry events. Prior to that I was working at a proprietary trading firm for 4 years.
I’ve been the only woman in my team in many of my roles in tech. What was that experience like for you as a woman on the trading floor?
Honestly, I worked with a great bunch of talented guys that would go out of their way to make me feel included, plus the upside was that there was never a queue for the ladies’ bathroom! But on a serious note even though I loved working with my colleagues, I did miss the connection and network of females that bring a different perspective.
It sounds like your experience was a good one. I ended up becoming one of the lads in some of the companies of the companies that I worked for, which was often very amusing, but as you say, it can be nice to have female company as well!
When did you first start working on the idea for ElevatHer?
The idea came to me about a year ago, from both my personal and professional experiences that I’ve had over the course of my career, which included moving from sell, to buy side and taking jobs across continents.
One of the aspects I really cherish is the network that I've built over the years, but it became a real challenge to maintain and expand that network when I grew in my role, which helped me spin off the idea of developing a platform where women can connect on both experiences and common interests instead of just name and company.
What was the defining moment that helped you decide that it was time to leave your day job?
I kept thinking to myself: "When is the perfect time to leave?" There never really is one!
I started to burn out doing 2 jobs while juggling personal commitments and left in January, 2019 after one year of working at both my day job and on ElevatHer.
I knew International Women’s Day was coming up, so for me that was the perfect date to launch which gave me the motivation to leave and go all in. I don’t think I would have ever left if I hadn’t given myself that deadline.
What was it like for you when you finally quit?
How do I even put it into words?! Every emotion possible was running through me – I was nervous, scared, excited with my adrenaline sky high and the weird thing is, I still feel that 7 months in!
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
As someone who is very new to the startup world I knew there would be plenty of challenges but what I never expected it would be so daunting to be a spokesperson/ambassador for your brand. You've got to learn to be confident, which is a hurdle in itself, and imposter syndrome doesn’t help! It's a challenge that hopefully will get easier with experience, but I doubt will ever disappear.
Thanks for sharing that. That's really honest feedback. I'm a big believer in repeating the message that it does feel challenging to step into all these roles and that it's 100% normal to feel this way. When people don't talk about this stuff others are left thinking that they're odd and that it's only them that struggle. It's a false story to tell ourselves that everyone else has it figured out.
The phrase: "Feel the fear and do it anyway", is as relevant as it ever was. Running a business and stretching yourself IS going to be uncomfortable, but you've got to do it regardless - for your own happiness, progress, personal growth, and to get where you want to be! You can't not move forward just because it feels uncomfortable, right? O.k. I've stepped off my soapbox now!
What's been your biggest tech related challenge, Sheena?
I like to be hands on, so the main challenges and frustrations I found were my own limitations having not come from a tech background.
A lot of my time went into educating myself and having on the job training from my developers.
You do have to get up to speed on the tech side, at least to a degree, otherwise you can end up owning a business you don't fully understand. From working with tech founders I know that the developer - entrepreneur relationship can be a source of conflict, so it's great that you've had a positive experience!
What do you wish someone had told you before you started your business?
That you learn more from failing. I was so paranoid that I had to get everything right the first time, which ended up costing me a lot of time and unnecessary worry.
What’s been the best thing about your journey so far?
Every person that has come into my life has influenced or taught me something. They have come from different walks of life and had different experiences. Everyone can teach you something new, it’s up to you to be open minded and learn from them.
That's a great philosophy. On that theme, someone once told me that people enter your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime...
Where did you find the developers that helped you build the ElevatHer app?
OK, so a bit of background before I answer that question… The reason I created ElevatHer is so the industry can widen the diversity talent pool and open up opportunities for women to progress up the career ladder, and to support women through a network.
We all have different attributes and skills-sets, and businesses will not adapt, innovate or progress as quickly, or efficiently if everyone in the pool is ‘the same’.
With that in mind, it was vital that my developers mirrored ElevatHer’s goal and understood the gravity of what we were trying to develop, which is why I looked high and low to find a team with a 50/50 gender split. Equality starts at home! I did a lot of research online to find the developers and in the end, I was introduced through a family member.
I went over to their offices and we had a chat about the app. Not coming from a tech background meant I was testing the developers’ abilities through softer skills as I knew this would be a constant challenge. They took their time to explain how the process works and showed me a few examples of their previous work. We have a really good relationship, which became more apparent especially in the initial stages of making the app. I would work from their offices because I wanted to learn the more technical side of things, and they needed me to explain how the algorithm should work with the app’s interface
Hold on to that team! I’ve even heard of people who’ve had a personal introduction having to fire their developer and start again from scratch! It's a real problem, and I created a workshop on how to hire and manage software developers to ensure that non-technical entrepreneurs get better results with less drama! The next workshop will run in August / September and you can contact us to be notified of the next workshop date. You can find an example of the workshop here.
So... Google Play Store or App Store? Which gets your vote?
As a tech company which needs to push through updated versions of the apps - always Google Play, but as a user App store!
Definitely! If you're publishing apps to the App Store, allow lots of extra time for failed submissions of your app.
Apple are known for being very strict in reviewing apps and managing their app submission process, and it's common for them to frequently bounce app back to development teams with a list of amends that need to be made to your app before they'll even accept it into the App Store. Sheena, what drove your decision about which platforms to be on?
I wanted the app to be user friendly and have an inclusive community so the decision was easy… be everywhere! Hence why we are both on iOS and Android, but are also web based too.
(A quick note here that managing what is essentially 3 different pieces of software can be time consuming, and expensive, so if you're planning an MVP you might also want to consider which platforms to build traction on first.)
What’s next for ElevatHer?
Expand, expand expand! We're currently available in the UK but are looking at expanding into other countries.
Where can people find you?
You can find us at https://elevather.com/, which has links to both our Android and iOS apps.
Purposeful Products is a business and technology consultancy that supports pre-seed /early stage tech startups led by founders without a technical background.
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