what we can learn from female founders

interview with Felicia Hommel and Jackie Paloma Paul

Co-founders of the fashion brand TONI CORE and Entrepreneurs in Residence on xdeck, Felicia Hommel and Jackie Paloma Paul, join xdeck for an interview to share their experience in building a fashion startup, as a female-only founding team.

What is TONI CORE?

With TONI CORE, we are building the first fashion brand for all women [*pregnant or not, *nursing or not]. Each item can be worn before, during and after pregnancy and nursing. The collection is meant to last and hence is created with a versatile, timeless and sustainable design.

Felicia and Jackie, please tell us a little about yourselves.

Felicia: I’ve worked in early stage start-ups for 5 years, set up performance marketing, recruiting and finance among other things. I love building businesses from scratch and expanding them into other countries. I completed my bachelor’s and master’s in business at WHU.

Jackie: I am deeply passionate about creating authentic consumer brands and stories that stick and last. I have experience in product management from my time at pinqponq [backpacks] and hence I drive the design developments at TONI CORE. I lived and studied in the UK and the NL from the age of 14 and hold a bachelor’s from KCL and a master’s degree from RSM.

Why did you decide to start your own company?

Felicia: I loved the time at my previous jobs and definitely learned a lot that helps me today, but I always knew that I wanted to do something on my own. I was so anxious to be completely independent and realise my own ideas instead of someone else’s.

Jackie: I am a very motivated, passionate and goal-oriented person. So starting our own company is, for me, the next logical and natural step to take. Yet I didn’t want to start something just for the sake of calling myself an entrepreneur or being in that start-up bubble. Rather it is really important to me that whatever I am about to create is of meaning to me. I always loved learning about the marketing strategies of D2C brands and I am very keen on product development. At TONI CORE I get the best of both worlds.

You are one of few female-only founder teams. Why do you think the startup world has such a small nu

Felicia & Jackie: While it is said that higher risk aversion and financial insecurities might prevent women from founding, we need to show that these characteristics [while generalised] can actually lead to building a much more profitable and realistic business case.

Secondly, the number of investments in female-run start-ups is dramatically low: 2% of VC money is allocated to female-run companies - despite outperforming male counterparts! Also while women, in general, prioritise CSR in their business, men are often more money-orientated; the latter, however, is usually more valued by investors despite the former also clearly demonstrating a worthy business case.

It should not be that female founders have to adapt to the male-dominated start-up world, but the structures and perceptions must keep up with today’s changing times — times in which it is vital to have a diverse founder landscape [not just in gender by the way].

Which measures can help to motivate more females to become founders?

Felicia & Jackie: Firstly, we definitely need more female role-models that show how obstacles can be overcome. In addition, male investors should vocalise their positive experiences when investing in female founders to increase visibility.

Secondly, we need an updated view on the founder lifestyle and the meaning of success. Working 24/7 while raising and burning funding is not the only way to found a company. Founding also gives a tremendous amount of freedom and autonomy, which needs to be more visible.

Thirdly, if you are in a relationship, make sure to choose a supporting one — since we are women, we mention this point. For a male founder it goes without saying!

On a positive note, women are already given a lot of extra support and network [e.g. higher media attention, scholarship programs often welcoming women-run startups], so use these measures to your advantage!

How do you handle a very male-driven startup investor landscape?

Felicia: So far we have been able to captivate and convince investors independently of our gender. However, we do feel that developing a product for women makes it more difficult for male investors to get excited about it and to put themselves in the customer’s position, which is natural, I suppose. Similar to the “hire-alike” mindset, once we have more female investors consequently we will create more female-run start-ups.

Jackie: I sometimes get the impression that since our product is so specifically targeted at women and because we are a female-only founding team, this becomes the focal point during the pitch, rather than the numbers and business model behind it. My hypothesis is that if a male founder team pitched the exact same idea, the investor would focus more on the key metrics and the business model components, in order to identify reasons to invest.

Do you have any best practices to succeed as a female founder team?

Felicia: Be completely honest with each other, talk about expectations and see how they match. Persevere in all situations. Know the purpose of why you are founding your company and it will guide you through the lows. This is true for founders of any gender though I think. Fake it till you make it ;).

Jackie: We started to give feedback to each other very early on, because it is important to build a better common ground, to understand where the other person is coming from and to make room for improvement.

Founding can also feel like a roller-coaster sometimes, so if you are a founding team, make sure to take turns: when one person has doubts, the other must give a pep-talk and vice-versa. It really helps to stay in it for the long haul.

Also if you, rightly so, think highly of your co-founder’s ability, then why not put the same level of trust in yourself?! So always stay humble, but make sure to keep your confidence along the way.

Where do you see yourself in three years?

Felicia & Jackie: Still doing what we love now: building a profitable business with TONI CORE, expanding it to new countries and building a community of great role-models.

Generally, we seek to inspire more women to be independent no matter their undertaking, because it is simply liberating — ha!

We also strive for more male role-models that lead in gender-equality debates. Last but not least, we also have a motivation to improve the financial and societal situation of midwives and create better conditions for parents’ work-life-balance.

Felicia: I would love to expand my start-up network to the U.S. and can very well see myself living there for a few years driving TONI CORE to the next level.

Jackie: On a personal level, I always strive for life-long learning and am very keen to grow as an individual, to learn from my co-founder and the people around me. In the near future I would love to mentor other female founders and invest in their start-ups. But damn since our TONI CORE business plan is “too female-like realistic”, give me 5 years. Ha!