Dana Denis-Smith on the reality of life for female founders


Dana Denis-Smith, founder of Obelisk Support and of the First 100 Years campaign, discusses the challenges for female founders in the legal industry.

Dana Denis-Smith has many strings to her bow. Having worked as both a journalist and a lawyer with Linklaters, she founded Obelisk Support in 2010, offering flexible legal services to clients around the world.

She has also pushed for greater acceptance of flexible and remote work in the legal sector and is the founder of First 100 Years – a campaign that led the celebrations for the centenary of women in law and continues to focus on informing and inspiring future generations of women in the legal profession.

Challenges compounded by Covid-19

Denis-Smith is a signatory on the Save Our Startups campaign, a petition for government support during Covid-19 that was eventually met by initiatives like the Future Fund. But when she was approached there were only four women on the list; she had to push for more to be contacted.

“Busy men forgot to include more women than those they remembered off the top of their head,” she says. “It’s as though no one asks questions anymore – as though diversity isn’t essential in a crisis.” “You only need one shock event to change fundamentals and it almost always hits women hardest,” Denis-Smith says. “We need to get out of this crisis without turning back time and losing progress.”

Although parts of the economy have been able to continue through remote working, parents now working at home have also had to balance this with childcare. “Often women end up taking on most of that load on top of their day job, and we know that can lead to incredibly bad results for women in the workforce,” says Denis-Smith.

Research from Cambridge University shows that women are more likely to have lost their jobs during the pandemic than men. One potential reason behind this disparity could be that women spent more time home schooling and caring for children than men, according to the data gathered in April.  

“We should be talking about this kind of thing,” Denis-Smith says. “We need to avoid the trap of not talking about it just because we’re all in crisis mode. We lay new ground in a crisis. And these new rules will impact us in future.”

Funding disparity laid bare

At the start of 2020, Denis-Smith carried out a survey of female founders in new law – a space that covers lawtech companies, and those that supply the legal sector.

She set out to establish what kind of barriers were facing women as they raised funding to build their businesses. As the pandemic unfolded she realised that those challenges might be magnified by the economic upheaval of the crisis.

The market was already tough for female founders, particularly in the new law space that Denis-Smith surveyed. More than half of new entrants into the wider legal sector are women, but that’s not what she saw reflected in new law. Around 8% of the 3,500 businesses that she surveyed in early 2020 had a female founder; less than 2% of the total were set up by solo female founders.

Even more shockingly, less than 1% of all formal investment in new law went to businesses founded by women. Of the female founders that Denis-Smith spoke to, 62% had received no external investment at all. Just under 20% had secured funding, few made it past Series A, and another 8% were funded by friends and family.

Overcoming artificial hurdles

“One route to empowering women is to support female entrepreneurship by buying from them,” Denis-Smith says. “If procurement teams stop buying – or if they go back to old habits and buy from non-diverse suppliers, which is what’s happening now in the legal sector especially – businesses go back to their old ways, pulling favours and losing any reform the market had.”

Many of the women who answered the survey offered anecdotal evidence of the kind of prejudice they faced as they pitched a business idea. Potential investors suggested that women carry their business idea on “as a hobby, for free”. Some women were even asked if they had frozen their eggs before starting a business.

“These are artificial hurdles,” Denis-Smith says. “Investors need to approach male and female founders in the same way. That means asking them the same questions. It means encouraging ambition in any gender, rather than the current pattern I see of men being encouraged and women rebuffed.”

“Likewise, purchasers need to make sure that their procurement budget is allocated to diverse teams. It should be a target to have women-owned businesses in the supply chain, and those businesses in turn will gather experience and proof-points of success. This isn’t a zero-sum game. Research shows that greater diversity of people and perspectives correlates with greater innovation and profitability, which benefits everyone in the sector,” she says.

Persist as a female founder

“Never give up,” Denis-Smith advises female founders. “Yes, you have got to undertake a cost-benefit analysis and very honestly map out how much of a runway you have to play with, especially if you have a family. Planning as thoroughly as you can is key. But in my own experience, the benefits far outweigh the cost. To start something from nothing, to see it grow, and to always stay focussed is exciting. I love running a business, and I loved discovering that I’m good at it.

“When you know your business idea is good, and you know that you are good at what you do, persist. And, when you’ve made it, make sure that you bring diverse teams into your team and, as you grow, into your supply chain”.

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