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Female Founders Have Used Their #Girlboss Status to Build Brands. Behind the Scenes, It’s Complicated.

From Outdoor Voices to Thinx, the gap between a female-run company’s shiny brand and the messy realities of many a start-up business can become a liability.

NEW YORK, United States — It is starting to become a familiar story: a venture-backed start-up with a cultish Millennial following and a charismatic, attractive, and more often than not, white female founder takes Instagram and, ultimately, the world by storm.

But they soon prove unable to build on that early success. Accusations of mismanagement and a toxic workplace culture follow, at odds with the brand’s image. The founder exits, often replaced by a man.

This week, it was Outdoor Voices' turn. After BoF reported the ouster of its founder, Tyler Haney, The New York Times and BuzzFeed detailed what went wrong, from mismanagement to ex-employees describing emotional abuse on the job. Their accounts ran counter to the image Haney and the brand had projected online, one centred around inclusivity and empowerment.

Haney posted on Instagram the evening of March 10 that she was labelled “difficult” and “mercurial” because she stood up for herself, her vision and her team. She also pointed to an “unsettling trend lately to interview ex-employees of female-founded companies and report their claims either at face value or without any context,” adding that these kinds of stories will “only serve to drive women back out of the board room.” Haney declined to comment for this story.

This is Outdoor Voice’s story. But it is also, with varying permutations, the story of Thinx, ThirdLove, Nastygal, Away and other companies with female founders. The issues that plagued these brands are part of a larger problem facing growing companies that lack the necessary infrastructure to scale smoothly (plenty of horror stories emerged from WeWork, Uber and other companies led by men). But female founders, particularly those who, willingly or not, become associated with #GirlBoss-style branding, face an additional layer of scrutiny.

The existence of female CEOs in the male-dominated tech world often comes with the promise of a community, ideology or culture that extends far beyond the leggings, lingerie or luggage they’re selling. That can be a good thing: women-led brands can be showered with positive coverage and win customers who align with their perceived values.

But female founders often face a decision to be portrayed as an avatar or influencer of their brand instead of chief executive. And when the gap between that promise and reality is exposed, consumers can quickly turn.

You're kind of fucked as a female founder.

“I felt a lot of pressure to change my Instagram … and become a social media person,” said Thinx Chief Executive Maria Molland, who assumed the role in 2017 following the departure of founder Miki Agrawal.

Transparency, from supply chains to a founder’s Instagram presence, has become its own metric of success for a brand, and female entrepreneurs run the risk of being criticised when internal decisions don’t correspond with constructions and interpretations of female corporate culture.

“You’re kind of fucked as a female founder,” said Sali Christeson, co-founder and CEO of womenswear brand Argent.

She described a time she had to fire a female employee for poor performance and was accused of betraying the values of her brand.

“It was very obvious [that the employee wasn’t performing], but the response was ‘Yeah, you purport to be a company that encourages women to drop-kick the glass ceiling,’” Christeson said. “You can’t conflate two different things.”

You can't conflate two different things.

The girlboss trend, and the feminist branding it's become synonymous with, is a symptom of a growing demand for progressive and socially responsible companies: Nine in 10 Gen Z consumers believe brands have a responsibility to communicate their beliefs on environmental and social issues, according to BoF and McKinsey's 2019 State of Fashion report.

In marketing and on social media, female leadership and empowerment can serve as a shorthand for those progressive values. The term girlboss was created and trademarked by Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, and has since been slapped on everything from descriptions of other female founders to politicians and inspirational quotes on Instagram. Nasty Gal went bankrupt in November of 2016 amid claims of a toxic workplace culture and allegations the company fired employees for being pregnant.

Amoruso went on to launch a #Girlboss media empire including a Netflix show, podcast, book, and website. At the end of 2019, she sold the company to investment firm Attention Capital.

Girlboss as a term has plenty of detractors: some find it infantilising to women, others take issue with the co-opting of a collective feminist ideology for the purpose of bolstering individual entrepreneurial success. It’s also a moniker that is virtually impossible for any CEO to live up to.

It's so much easier to persecute a female founder for not having those policies in place.

Audrey Gelman, chief executive of women's membership club The Wing, wrote in a recent column for Fast Company that "we're still sold a dazzlingly unrealistic image of a superwoman — or in 2020, a girlboss. She raises capital without raising her voice. She has it all and does it all, without error. The myth doesn't account for the reality that running a company is messy, terrifying, and often chaotic, especially in the early years."

Many of these female founders have been credited for pioneering their respective industries for other women, especially since, as Gelman notes, female entrepreneurs rarely receive venture capital funding. In 2019, investment in female-founded start-ups totalled 2.8 percent of all VC funding, up from 2.2 percent in 2018.

Start-ups, regardless of the gender of their leaders, are infamous for cultivating workplace cultures built around long hours and sometimes questionable behaviour. Small companies may not have a human resources department or written policies to protect employees and bar abusive language. But for female entrepreneurs, “it quickly becomes personal,” said Christeson.

Racked described underwear brand Thinx's maternity leave policies as "galling … in light of Thinx's proudly feminist stance." In a story on The Verge, employees accused Away Founder and Chief Executive Steph Korey of limiting time off and creating a "cutthroat culture."

“It’s so much easier to persecute a female founder for not having those policies in place … Those things are also really hard to solve,” said Christeson.

Acknowledging shortcomings and taking transparent steps to address them is important. At Thinx, Molland was tasked with professionalising the organisation, hiring talent that would allow them to scale and bringing in a new board of directors.

“Being able to change course based on data over the last few years has enabled us to be successful,” said Molland.

If you're in it for the right reasons, that eventually becomes obvious.

“It’s trial-and-error,” said Kimberly Jenkins, assistant professor of Fashion Studies at Ryerson University. “They’re going to need to reach out and be educated outside of their network.”

Jenkins points to Chromat swimwear founder Becca McCharen-Tran as an example of the evolution of female leadership within the fashion industry.

When McCharen-Tran started Chromat 10 years ago, the landscape for female entrepreneurs was drastically different: the brand was completely dependent on wholesale, selling an aspirational product to buyers. The brand has since moved direct-to-consumer, which comes with more freedom and allows them to adopt a more inclusive message.

With that transition, McCharen-Tran changed the company’s hiring process to eliminate unpaid internships and asked for feedback from people outside of the brand for input on creative decisions.

That feedback has allowed her to avoid potential missteps and cultivate a positive company culture. Choosing how to handle and move on from controversies is also important.

“I think to be held accountable is an honour and a privilege,” said McCharen-Tran. “If you’re in it for the right reasons, that eventually becomes obvious.”

For female entrepreneurs and founders, the landscape may be changing. The girlboss aesthetic, and the paradigm of feminism and female leadership it represents, have tired many consumers out.

“I think we’re past the whole girlboss movement,” said Caroline Pill of headhunting firm Kirk Palmer and Associates. “It’s been pushed to its limits.”

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