Julia Boorstin is CNBC’s senior media and tech reporter and the creator of CNBC Disruptor 50. She sat down with Jessica Abo to talk about her new book When Women Lead, What They Achieve, Why They Succeed, and How We Can Learn From Them.
Jessica Abo: Julia, before we get into your book, I want to go back in time and talk about something your mom told you when you were 13. What did she say to you and your friends?
I remember it so clearly. When I was 13 years old, my mom was driving around me and my friends and she said to us, “By the time you grow up, everything will be different.” What she meant is that she saw equality, she saw equity. She thought that we would be able to do anything that we dreamed of, whether it was running a company, being a rocket scientist, or even being president.
You know what? I thought she was right. It didn’t occur to me until I entered the working world when I was 21 years old and a young reporter at Fortune magazine, that she was totally wrong and I was wrong to have believed her.
What have you seen over the years?
Being a business reporter over the past 22 years, I’ve seen, yes, men do hold most of the most powerful positions in business with rare exceptions, those exceptions being the 8.5% of female CEOs in the Fortune 500. But we are seeing progress. I’ve seen so many more women in the C-suite, more women in the COO roles, and CFO roles, and those women are starting to get more power.
Then in the startup space, women are starting to make progress. What I saw as a reporter is that there were so many women creating these game-changing companies who were hugely inspiring to me because of the way they were driving change, not only in their own businesses but also forcing change in their industries at large.
When did you have the idea to write this book?
I knew I wanted to write a book about inspiring female leaders when I was working on the CNBC Disruptor 50 List. Through this project, every year we profiled the 50 fastest-growing, most disruptive startups. And there over a number of years, I started to see more women. These were women who weren’t just succeeding despite the odds, they were actually creating transformative, amazing companies that are redefining the future of their industries.
One day, I was sitting with Jennifer Hyman, the CEO of Rent the Runway, and I was asking her, as a private company at the time, what she thought about some of these big IPOs including that of Uber. She said to me, with a very serious face, she said, “I have not been granted the privilege to lose a billion dollars every quarter. So as a result, the company I’ve built is very different from a company like Uber.”
What I realized at that moment is that she has had to face so many challenges that by definition, her leadership style is exceptional. Here’s the number I’m talking about. Female founders over the past decade have drawn about 3% of all venture capital dollars. That number actually declined in 2021 to 2%. So what I saw at that moment when she was talking about her IPO prospects, is that she’s built a very different type of company, a scrappier, more resilient company, because she knew she was not going to have as much access to capital as her male counterparts.
In addition to the data around venture capital dollars, is there any other data that really stood out for you when doing research for the book?
On one hand, there’s all this data about how female entrepreneurs have so much less access to capital. But on the other hand, there’s all this data about how female entrepreneurs outperform. Female founders on average return capital to investors a year earlier than their male counterparts.
If you look at profitability, numerous studies have shown that female-led startups are far more profitable. If you look at a company called First Round Capital, an investment firm that invests in early-stage companies, they looked back at their first 10 years of operations to try to figure out what it was that was really working among their investments. They’ve invested in big companies like Uber and others, but when they look back at the data, what they found was this: Their companies with a female founder were 63% more profitable. To me, that is so powerful. That indicates that they weren’t even looking for this, but that they need to be putting more money into female-led companies. And they’ve really changed their approach to investing ever since they discovered that. There are a number of other studies that have found that companies with both female and racial diversity have far more success.
You interviewed more than 120 women for this book. What were some of the key takeaways?
Despite how varied and diverse the leaders were, they all had one thing in common. They all pushed themselves to improve and none of them started off as awesome leaders. They all had to evolve their leadership and management styles and really invest in understanding themselves and how to push themselves to get to the next level.
But there are also a couple of key things that female leaders tend to have in common. They tend to be more empathetic. Empathy is a valuable, valuable skill for connecting with your customers or with your employees.
Female leaders are more likely to lead with vulnerability, which is essential to invite collaboration and to make sure that you’re making the best decisions because you’re drawing the perspectives from people from across the organization. Female leaders are also more likely to practice gratitude and gratitude is found to enable patience. So if you practice gratitude, you’re more likely to make a decision for the long-term outcomes rather than a short-term gain, which is of course incredibly valuable in business.
Another key thing is, women are more likely to lead with a communal approach, so pulling in those perspectives from across the organization and also doing divergent thinking, which means pulling on threads of things that might seem tangential, but might give you a better understanding of the big picture of something rather than just converging in and honing in, rushing to a solution for one single thing.
Then another thing that was really interesting is, there’s a lot of data about how female leaders are more likely to have purpose-driven companies, companies that have an additional purpose beyond just generating profits, so some sort of social or environmental good as well.
All of those things are incredibly valuable no matter who’s deploying them. And though female leaders have tended to lead with these skills and strategies, I would say that now more than ever, men and women should be studying and learning from these exceptional women.
What advice do you have out there for women when it comes to the challenges we’re facing today?
We’ve seen women face so many setbacks in the business landscape since the pandemic started. So many women have left the workplace. There have been so many studies showing that it’s going to take decades longer for men and women to get to equity in the workplace. This is a time when everyone is re-evaluating what it means to be a good leader and it’s time to redefine leadership in this new age of hybrid work and so much uncertainty.
I think that these skills and strengths that we all have within us that maybe haven’t traditionally been associated with leadership now is the time to reframe the conversation and say, “I can be a strong and powerful leader with these things that are true to me, but haven’t necessarily been associated with strength or with power.” So whether it’s using the fact that if you’re an introvert, you’re an incredibly good listener, using that to your advantage or taking the fact that you’re really good at building teams and making that your superpower. We all just need to think about what we feel best at and take that skill and really hone it into being a superpower.
And in the meantime, understanding what we’re not great at and either learning or investing in those traits or finding people to surround ourselves with that are going to make us better. We just need to realize that no leaders are born amazing. Everyone is on this constant path of evolution and the more we can get used to pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones, and getting used to failing a little bit more frequently, then more I think we’ll all figure out a better path to success.
Finally, Julia, why should men pay attention to a book about women?
Even though I’m profiling the stories of dozens of phenomenal female leaders, my book is really written for men to read as well as women. That’s because we all want to learn from outliers. We all want to learn from people who have succeeded despite the craziest challenges. That’s what the women in my book are. They’re exceptions to the rule. They’re people who’ve succeeded despite the odds and they have the traits that will help everyone succeed in these new uncertain times.