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Female Forward: How We Continue To Build, Grow, and Learn From Each Other

by Taja Dockendorf on 03/30/2022 | 6 Minute Read

Fresh off attending Natural Products Expo West 2022 (after a 2-year hiatus), I can easily say it was one of the best shows I have been to in my eight years of attending. 

The energy, the magic, the show-floor deals getting made, all of the exciting new brands—it was like we all took two years to gather our thoughts, build back stronger, empower our teams, and come back swinging. It was awesome. 

It was also exciting to see all the female-founded companies getting wins and making strides in this new paradigm. After the show, I connected with a few brands that are special to me. I asked them the same questions I'm always asked when talking about the ups and downs of running an agency and launching CPG brands in the past three years.

My goal has always been to inspire and uplift women*. As a 100% female-founded creative agency and brand owner, I know that women are the minority in the creative and CPG space, startups, and overall business ownership. Looking back to pre-Covid, female funding for VC was down and stalled in 2018 at 2.2%, while 100% female-owned and run creative agencies maxed out at about 1%. However, we are making strides and upping that creative owned agency 1% when you look at the overall female-owned or co-owned businesses percentage rising to over 40% in 2022.

So what needs to change to keep raising these numbers and empowering more women to start businesses, get funding, build brands and agencies, and own their destinies? We all need more dialogue like this; articles with insights from other entrepreneurs and positive role models and mentors, and sharing our real challenges and wins, no matter the size. 

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And I'm not talking celebrities, but women—mothers, aunts, teachers, bosses, and friends. The ones that did the work and pushed back when they were looked at or talked to like they were less than our male counterparts. The ones that truly listen to other women willing to share their trials and tribulations to better us all. 

But, as female founders, we need to start by talking openly and continue to make change happen. Being female-founded has its challenges, but it also brings about moments of great success that makes it all worth it—which is why we are growing in numbers year over year. 

How We Overcame Our Challenges As Female Founders

For me, challenges came in the form of mistakes I made and how I chose to show up in correcting my oversights and creating solutions. For other creative minds, it may be trying to appease a challenging client who can't be pleased, and instead of caving and throwing in the towel, they respond by digging deep to find a solution. 

The challenges for a business owner or entrepreneur, though significant, stem from the challenges we have of not being adequately represented in our space and forging our path. As a result, we stumble, pick ourselves up, and try it all again, but this time being wiser, stronger, and smarter. 

“As a female founder, there hasn’t been one big challenge directly related to my gender, but thousands of small things over the years," said Nicole Dawes, founder of the sparkling beverage brand Nixie. "I learned early on not to dwell on them, but to put the anger or frustration I felt in the moment towards my drive to succeed.” 

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Nicole’s challenges mirror the same early roadblocks that Nikki Seaman, founder of the olive brand Freestyle Snacks, discovered.

“Being a female in the manufacturing industry, it felt harder to get vendors to take you and your business concept seriously and be willing to take on the risk of working with a new female-founded business,” Nikki said. "I had to remind myself it's early days. Mistakes happen for everyone. I have begun to brace myself for the many more obstacles ahead. It was an important lesson in remaining even-keeled and pushing forward even when times get stressful or hard."

"That is what this journey and entrepreneurship are all about," she added.  

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Tara Pate, the founder of Daysie, a new coffee and occasions flavored syrup, also echos Nicole and Nikki’s perspective on business hurdles. “I learned there will always be challenges, and how you react now will set the tone for how you react to every challenge yet to come," Tara said. "So I let that idea sink in, and since then, I've spent less time in the ‘woe is me’ headspace and more time in the ‘how do I make sure this doesn't happen again’ headspace.” 

Amy Zitelman from Soom, a sister-owned premium tahini brand, brings a beautiful, honest bit of wisdom we all need to hear. "Check your apologies at the door. There's no room to harp on what could have been,” she said. “Trust your intuition—a woman's is best—and see your strategy through."

This insight is critical regardless of gender, but as a woman, I find that gut instinct is one of the most powerful tools. This innate trait is one that I tap into daily to guide my decisions and move quickly to the right solution. Instincts can also be powered by insights, as facts and numbers are meaningful, too. "Be open to adjusting based on data," Amy said. "Make space to evaluate what's really working, and let go of what's not."

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Celebrating All Win-Wins, For Every Woman!

As a woman and an agency owner, my passion is to provide opportunities and celebrate female-led businesses and create space for designers to connect, learn from, and support each other. No woman's success story should go unnoticed. Instead, we should be looking to inspire one another by celebrating our wins, not settling for less, and using our intrinsic intuition and ability to nurture. 

"Find a network of other female founders you can talk to, peers and mentors," said Nicole. "When I was starting, most of my mentors were men, and it took me years to build a personal network of other female founders, but they have been invaluable resources over the years."

"You don't know what you don't know," said Tara. "And there's a lot you won't know. So surround yourself with experts (ideally women—90% of the people I hired were female) and pay them for their time, resources, and experience. Even as a solo founder, you don't have to do it alone." 

Nikki and Nicole understand that leadership is also a bit of personal tough love, grit, and perseverance. “One piece of advice is that the answer is always going to be no if you don't ask the question in the first place. Let someone else tell you no,” Nikki said.

“Always ask the question; you will never know where or who it will lead to. Be aggressive, even if it feels uncomfortable. You might as well ask if your dream partner brand is open to doing a partnership, or ask that acquaintance from your hometown to connect you with the buyer they are LinkedIn friends with," Nikki continued. "I have found little to no downside in just going for it!"

Nikki agrees, “the answer is always going to be no if you don't ask the question in the first place. Let someone else tell you no. Always ask the question; you will never know where or who it will lead. Be aggressive, even if it feels uncomfortable.” 

I couldn’t agree more. It has always been about putting my elbows on the table, leaning in, and not apologizing for being direct. Admittingly, these traits I learned from my male mentors. I recall one important male colleague in my life telling me to take the emotion out of my leadership style, and I would be a force. I appreciated the advice, but I knew being direct AND tapping into my feelings would authentically be my superpower. I believe I have become more (not less) of a force. 

Remember, be true to yourself, lead by example, push the boundaries, and know that nobody is perfect—it's how you learn from your mistakes that matters most.

*Female-founded and the term "women" is intended to represent all women and people that identify as female or non-binary and encapsulates inclusivity of all who are the minority in this space. 

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