“I was chatting with your husband just now. It’s so great you started a company together.”
That’s the line so many people said to me whenever my co-founder Alex Douzet and I would hand out Ollie dog food samples in our company’s early days. Nearly two years after launching Ollie, people often still assume we’re a husband-wife team. During one company photo shoot, a photographer asked Alex and I to channel our engagement shoot. By all appearances, I laughed it off, but I was frustrated.
As the only female co-founder of Ollie, a national service that delivers freshly cooked, human-grade dog food, why did people assume that I had to be married to one of my two male co-founders, Alex Douzet and Randy Jimenez? My actual husband, Weston Gaddy, is in private equity. People’s assumption when they learn this? He must’ve invested in Ollie. Because how could a woman possibly have founded a company without her husband’s financial support, right? Wrong again.
This type of gender bias is so deeply rooted that many people don’t even realize they’re making a sexist assumption. Yet, research from the Unilever Foundry shows 40 percent of female startup founders frequently experience gender bias while running their businesses. But that’s not the only gender bias I’ve encountered in the startup world.
I’ve also faced critique because I don’t fit the typical “girl boss” story. Because I’m Ollie’s CXO (Chief Experience Officer) and not the CEO (Chief Executive Officer,) I don’t fit the ideal female founder narrative. As a result, I’ve been turned away from opportunities because my entrepreneurial experience “isn’t female enough.” It is frustrating that people–both men and women–try to box females into this perfect ideal of what a founder should look like.
And yet, this is exactly one of the reasons why I wanted to be an entrepreneur. Not enough women have a seat at the table, so instead of trying to find one, I wanted to carve out my own unique seat. Not only to create a role that best suited my marketing, analytic and product skills, but also to create a workplace and product that I believed in. Having found out I was pregnant shortly after launching Ollie, I was also motivated to foster an environment that recognized the challenges of juggling work and life commitments – not only for working parents, but also for the child-free, employees with caregiving responsibilities, and, of course, pet parents.
Here are five things I’ve learned that have helped me carve out that seat at the table:
1. Use who you are as a point of empowerment.
There are certainly times when I’m the only female in a room. But instead of seeing it as being in a minority, I think about how I’m adding value to that group and I capitalize on that. It is not a weakness to be a working parent, nor it is a weakness to be female, so don’t let people’s biases be a part of your narrative. As a mother to a daughter, I don’t want her to think she has to overcome her gender to be successful. I want her to know that if she works hard and puts in the hours, it doesn’t matter that she’s a female. When you succeed, people won’t care if you’re a man or a woman. So take advantage of who you are.
It is not a weakness to be a working parent, nor it is a weakness to be female, so don’t let people’s biases be a part of your narrative.
2. Don’t let your gender box you in.
My first job was in a fairly male-dominated industry–streetwear–so I had to learn how to break into a different type of “boys’ club” very early on. When I started, my boss couldn’t make it to a big trade show one day so I had to meet all the vendors for the first time on my own. I still remember looking out at a sea of baseball caps and hoodies as an outsider…not only because I was brand new, but also because I was a woman and I didn’t have any tattoos and piercings (do earrings count?), I wasn’t exactly the typical streetwear demographic. Even though I wasn’t in their “club” when I first sat down with them, I quickly gained a lot of respect by understanding their market challenges and how to solve for them—and frankly, my no bullshit personality helped too. By the time I left the meeting, I was very much a part of the group from then on.
3. Build a diverse network.
Whether they’re mentors, coworkers outside of your department, or someone you admire in another industry, cast a wide net when building your network. By seeking people outside of your industry and background–both men and women–you’ll gain a variety of perspectives and advice to help you on your professional journey. My co-founders and I all come from different countries and are in different life stages, and that diversity contributes to our success. It gives us an advantage at better understanding our diverse customer base and helps with recruitment. The key is to have mutual respect for each other and value the different viewpoints each person brings.
By seeking people outside of your industry and background–both men and women–you’ll gain a variety of perspectives and advice to help you on your professional journey.
4. Align yourself with people who have the same values.
When looking at a job offer, I didn’t just look at the compensation. Obviously, it’s important, but I also took a careful look at the company’s values, culture, and policies to make sure that their practices were aligned with what I believed in and that employees were set up for success. For example, did they truly value diversity in opinion and background, were they transparent about their product and business, and were they passionate about what they were building. For Ollie, it was our shared passion for health and wellness–Alex is a six-time Ironman and I’m a former professional equestrian–and our love for pets, that brought us together.
5. Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable.
Whether it’s pivoting your career–for me, from streetwear to healthy pet food–or addressing an awkward comment about being engaged to your married co-founder, don’t be afraid to confront things head-on. Being straightforward will make you a more valuable member of the team and a better leader in the short and long run.
Gabby Slome is the co-founder and chief experience officer of Ollie, a national company that delivers freshly cooked, human-grade food that’s tailored to each dog’s nutritional needs. A former equestrian, Slome has had a lifelong passion for animals, and founded Ollie to improve the lives of dogs and revolutionize the $30 billion pet food industry.
To read more from Gabby, click here.