A conversation with Gesche Haas, founder of Trailblazer VenturesFeatured
In the U.S. today, women own 39% of all privately held companies. But these businesses only make up 4.2% of revenue.Gesche Haas wants to change that. Her company, Trailblazer Ventures, is a startup studio and lab with the mission of increasing the number of successful ventures launched by women. The company’s first product is Dreamers // Doers, a high-impact entrepreneurial community that currently reaches more than 30,000 women across the globe.Gesche is also an influential voice on the issues facing women in tech today, and her insights have been featured on Bloomberg TV, CNN Money, Business Insider, Forbes, Fortune Magazine, Refinery29, Vice, and The New York Times. She’s also spoken at the United Nations during the sixtieth session of the Commission on the Status of Women, and she was one of the early leaders of the #MeToo movement when a story she wrote went viral.We’ll get to that in a little bit, along with Gesche’s thoughts on how collaborative female-focused communities are changing the world, why empathy can be a competitive advantage, and her advice for aspiring founders and leaders. What led you to start Trailblazer Ventures and Dreamers // Doers?I started my career in finance on the investment side and then went to work at venture-backed startups. During these years, I built a network that ended up being largely female-focused, even though venture, tech, and startups tend to be more male-dominated. I also realized throughout these experiences that many of the challenges I faced in the workplace were due to gender dynamics, and I wanted to address them at a broader scale. I started working on Trailblazer Ventures and Dreamers // Doers initially as a side project and then dove all in. The goal of both organizations is to increase the number of successful ventures launched by women. Our platform empowers and makes it easy for members to both help and benefit from each other, creating systemic changes that better enable women to succeed. I truly believe that 1 + 1 = 100 in the right environment, and we are working to create that space for female founders and funders. Ultimately, this empathy-driven community has become an incredible competitive advantage for women. How did you find your core strengths?When I worked in finance and tech, I often felt like I didn’t fully fit in. As a result, I frequently felt incompetent because I was comparing my performance and skills to individuals who, in hindsight, weren’t quite comparable—it really was apples to oranges. During that time, I took a lot of people’s advice at face value and only later realized that it was, many times, not suited for or applicable to me. Eventually, I discovered how I personally wanted to lead and what kind of founder I wanted to be, based on the factors that meant most to me. But that was certainly a journey that took time. Throughout this process, I connected with other women and realized that many of them had had similar experiences. I realized then that mutual support between women—especially women who listened to each other and offered personalized, non-generic advice—could be a competitive edge. The people with the biggest elbows are not always the winners, rather those with true empathy can ultimately succeed.Now, that’s how I run my company and team. I emphasize personal development and also actively try to create lasting community and connections. For example, I pick questions during group meetings to encourage team members to share more about their identities outside of work and to be vulnerable and open with each other. The positive culture has paid off: We have a very high satisfaction among all our current team members, and they all simultaneously work hard for the company while finding fulfillment in their roles. Having seen many sides of male-dominated industries over time, how do you think the challenges facing women in venture and startups have evolved?I’m inspired by the changes we’ve seen in the last few years. Earlier on in my career, I interviewed for a role serving as CEO of a startup in Europe. As part of the vetting process, I attended a conference in Berlin where I met with an angel investor who later sent me an absolutely inappropriate email propositioning me for sex. I wrote an article about it, which caught the media’s attention and became one of the first on the topic to go viral, in part because names were attached to the story. It was a very jarring experience with substantial backlash—I even received death threats on Twitter. But this initial article helped more women come out to share their own experiences. Since then, sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination have become less taboo to talk about, in large part because of women who have had the courage to share their stories. With greater conversion around these crucial topics, we are also seeing companies step up and try hard to incorporate diversity and inclusion initiatives. (They’re seeing better performance results following these initiatives, too, which isn’t shocking, but it is encouraging.) However, sexism both subtle and overt still does exist, and there’s certainly more work to be done by all to continue to make our communities and cultures more constructive. You are an advisor to a number of phenomenal startups, including, Sensie, Shine, and FORTE. Is the experience of advising startups quite different across various stages and industries?Yes, my role at each company really depends on the founder’s needs. However, there are some general pieces of advice that are broadly applicable across many entrepreneurial experiences. For one, I frequently advise founders to take a step back and make sure they are taking each action with intention, rather than going through the motions as quickly as possible. Time is rarely on your side, so sometimes people do, do, do without thinking things through. But it’s crucial to set aside time to be strategic. By taking this time to reflect, you approach your work with a mindset of abundance rather than scarcity. Each decision you make can then profoundly, positively impact both your bottom line and life overall. What is your best advice for aspiring female leaders?Enjoy and embrace the challenge. The entrepreneurial journey is tough, but it’s also a gift and an opportunity to join forces with other women and build a better future for all of us.