Women in SaaS: Founders and Investors
It’s not easy being a woman in tech.
As of 2022, women hold only 26.7% of technology jobs, female-founded companies get only 2.3% of VC funding, and only 18% of college students earning computer science degrees are women. Fewer women in leadership positions mean fewer female role models and mentors, making it that much harder for women entering the field.
Fortunately, there are signs of progress.
Globally, the number of start-ups with at least one female founder doubled from 10% in 2009 to 20% in 2019. In the US, the number of women in tech leadership is growing, and studies indicate that female-founded companies generate better ROI. More and more women are founding companies, taking leadership roles, and paving the way for other women.
In honor of International Women’s Day, I wanted to celebrate the accomplishments of some amazing women who are forging new paths in the SaaS industry. Seven female founders and investors generously agreed to share their experiences, inspiration, and advice. Regardless of your gender, I think you’ll find important takeaways in their stories.
Were You Always Interested in SaaS?
The path to a career in SaaS isn’t always straightforward. While all the respondents were ambitious from an early age, they took various paths to get where they are now.
Nina Vellayan, Chief Executive Officer of Engageware, was interested in business from a young age. “In high school, I can remember dreaming about one day running a company… Fast forward, and here I am today doing exactly what I love, learning new industries, and collaborating with partners, investors, and employees to help solve complicated issues in the market.
“Growing up in India in the eighties as a woman, I did not have a lot of career choices,” says Varsha Bhave, Co-Founder and President/CTO of Projectmates. “I was not going take a traditional route—getting married, kids, settling down. I went to architecture school and became an architect.” Varsha’s entrepreneurial journey began after discovering the power of interconnected computers and founded Projectmates in 1997. “I created dozens of websites for architects who, like me, were tiptoeing into the digital world. My first opportunity came from a local architect who wanted me to create hundreds of project websites to track project data for owners. I had the idea to create a website where the architects could create their own status reports for owners and called it Projectmates.”
“I was 100% set on going into medicine,” says Diamond Innabi, Vice President of Software Equity Group, “but the day we went to see the cadavers was the day I switched my major to economics and started researching investment banking. I found it very intriguing, started looking for internships, found SEG my sophomore year, and have been with the company ever since.”
“My dream career when I was younger was investment banking. I didn’t even know what private equity was back then,” says Kristina Heinze, who has since gone on to become a Co-Founder and Partner at ParkerGale Capital. “Once I started working with PE clients, I realized that was my dream job long-term. I worked my way up to VP, then Principal, and after 11 years of working for others, I partnered with four colleagues to start our own firm.”
Dr. Jacquelyn Kung, Co-Founder & CEO of Activated Insights and ClearCare, thought she’d be an attorney, but she turned to entrepreneurship in search of a better work/life balance. With a mother who was an entrepreneur and a father who was a professor of computer science, and living in San Francisco at the time, starting a tech business felt like a natural step. “After my first SaaS exit, hiring managers frowned on my ‘non-traditional’ background, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to work for someone else (they were probably right), so I started another SaaS business. And then another one.”
Despite growing up in a family of doctors and dentists, Sarah Sommer, Partner and Co-Founder of Level Equity, always felt like she wanted to be in business. “When I discovered private equity through an internship junior year in college, it felt like the perfect match, and it’s all I’ve ever done since and the only job I can imagine doing!”
What Do You Love About the SaaS Industry, and What Do You Do Today?
All the respondents expressed a deep love for SaaS and excitement for what the industry has to offer and where it is going. SaaS’s ability to help businesses thrive was a common theme. “I love building SaaS platforms and using the newest technology to help solve a problem or challenge facing an industry,” says Nina. “We work with over 500+ financial institutions to help improve their customer experience, grow revenue, and provide a platform to help them through their digital transformation.”
Karam El-Harami, Vice President at Software Equity Group, enjoys the reward of helping her clients through an important transition. “I love advising founders and CEOs who have worked really hard to build their company over the years through what might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience of selling their company.”
“It’s the most innovative industry,” says Varsha. “It’s an ultimate entrepreneurs’ playground where the barrier to entry is low, and the reward potential has no limits. It has revolutionized how companies do business by enabling them to operate more efficiently, reduce costs, and scale rapidly.”
Kristina Heinze agrees. “I love that there are a massive number of SaaS companies out there, all existing to solve a specific need in the market.”
Cutting-edge innovation also appealed. “One of the reasons I continue to love what I do is I’m constantly learning,” says Diamond. “The SaaS solutions of five years ago aren’t what they are today, and they will continue to evolve for the foreseeable future.”
Sarah is equally enthusiastic about the future. “I love the strong underlying growth in SaaS, which acts as a tailwind for everything we do!” She shares that her first job in high school was at her grandfather’s orthodontic office: “There was not a computer in sight. Twenty-five years later, we’re investors in one of the leading dental practice management software businesses. I doubt you’ll find many practices today that aren’t leveraging technology to run their businesses more efficiently.”
What Was the Toughest Decision You’ve Had to Make as a Leader?
Every leader is called on to make hard decisions. Dr. Jacquelyn Kung’s was “Layoffs to preserve cash and save the business.” For Varsha, it was “Selling the company that we worked so hard to build.”
For other women, there was no single definitive decision, just a long series of smaller ones. “The toughest thing for me is the constant series of micro-decisions that I make day in and day out about how to prioritize my career, family, and personal life,” says Sarah.
For Kristina, “It wasn’t a ‘decision’ per se because I never even considered not going back to work, but the toughest thing I’ve had to do was go back on the road right away after maternity leave. I was only able to take eight weeks off with both of my kids…. At times, it is difficult to manage being a mom and a leader in private equity, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
What Has Been our Biggest Challenge?
When asked about challenges, several respondents mentioned the bias they face as women and, in some cases, women of color.
“Inherently, people tend to gravitate and open up more to those that look like themselves…Being a young Arab woman in an industry where the majority is middle-aged white men, it is an extra layer of work to get people to trust in me, trust in my abilities, work with me as an equal,” says Diamond, while Karam notes that she sometimes used to be mistaken for being in a support role.
Nina has also felt the frustration of being marginalized. “[My] biggest challenge as a woman of color and female early in my career was getting a seat at the table and being heard. Women have to work that much harder, even today, to prove they have the stamina, vision, and backing to manage an organization.” Varsha has experienced this herself. “The biggest challenge I had to navigate was to overcome bias as a tech company leader and CTO,” she states, adding that “being marginalized as a small tech company in a competitive situation” was also a big challenge.
Balancing work with personal life is also a challenge. “I assumed that my life would be defined by my career, and then I had my first child and was shocked by how much my priorities changed,” says Sarah. She reports struggling to balance the need to be there for her children with her need to perform at the highest level for work. “I don’t have the answers on this, but letting go of perfectionism across every aspect of life is the best I’ve got,” she advises. “It’s simply not achievable to be perfect at everything.”
“Maybe I’m lucky, but I haven’t felt any additional pressure solely because I’m a woman,” says Kristina. Instead, she finds herself constantly asking,
“Am I managing our people the best I can? Am I helping them develop professionally and personally? Am I providing enough value to my management teams and boards?”
What Do You Want to Achieve Next?
Regardless of where they are in their careers now, all our respondents have goals for the future, and several expressed a desire to make helping others a centerpiece of their future roles.
Nina wants to help the next generation achieve their career goals. Jacquelyn hopes to get more women into technology, both as founders and engineers, while Varsha would like “to start a new career in philanthropy with the same drive and focus I had at the beginning of my career.”
Diamond hopes to “foster a company that the younger generation wants to work for and continue to be a mentor for women who are coming after me. I want to open doors for them that my generation and those before me had to claw open.”
What Advice Would You Give to the Next Generation of Women in SaaS?
When asked what kind of advice they’d give to other women in SaaS, our respondents were enthusiastic. “I’d say ignore the norms; go for it!” says Varsha.
“Keep at it,” encourages Kristina. “Never stop working toward your goal, whatever that may be. No one will look out for you like you will for yourself, so have the confidence that you can do it and put in the work to achieve your goals.”
Nina adds, “Keep learning; never give up. It’s ok to step back in your career at times when your personal life takes precedence, but never give up your passion. At some point in your life, you can pick up the fast track again.”
Diamond stresses the need for confidence. “If you are doing the work, you need to lead with confidence.” She adds, though, that empathy is key. “Unlike the movies, most people do not respond to aggressiveness and drawing hard lines. Be direct and firm, but lead with empathy and honesty.” She’s gained her own confidence from putting herself in uncomfortable situations. “Development and growth sit right outside—and FAR beyond—your bubble of comfort.”
“The best advice I can give to anyone is to surround yourself with people that are invested in your success and that have the desire and capacity to mentor you and help guide you in your next phase of growth,” says Sarah. “I really can’t overstate the importance of mentorship.”
And she adds, “Find something that you are truly passionate about! You only get one life—spend it doing something you really love!”
Reading Recommendations from our Respondents:
Reading Recommendations from our Respondents:
- Build, by Tony Fadell
- The Making of a Manager, by Julie Zhou
- Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott
- Made to Stick, by Chip Heath
- Addicted to the Monkey Mind, by JF Benoist
- Never Split the Difference, by Chris Voss and MasterClass lesson Art of Negotiation