The 21st Century has been conquered by startups. Look at any region of the world, and you find brave souls trying to accomplish the unthinkable. Every day there are dozens of announcements – funding, acquisitions, new idea, and what not. A heartening phenomenon, but I can’t help grieve over the limited participation of women.
There are people rooting for women, and I welcome their efforts, but I find myself disagreeing on the why. My support for more women in startups does not stem from a moral or social underpinning; rather, it’s closely tied to the philosophy of organizational culture I hold dear – the Garden vs. the Forest.
So before diving into what the startup ecosystem will gain from having more women, let’s take a small detour and see what this Garden vs. Forest proposal is all about.
Garden vs. Forest: A matter of culture
The Garden vs. Forest philosophy says that if you’re building a company that will go the distance, culture can’t be an afterthought. Most businesses do otherwise, getting a steady stream of revenue of first, and only then worrying about what the place should “feel like”. This is akin to building a house and then realizing, “Oh, I need a garden now!”. So begin the efforts to cultivate one. But we know how it is with gardens – they are ornamental but fragile, prone to falling apart at the slightest neglect. This is not how you want your organization.
Forests, however, are not carefully cultivated. They are a melting pot of variety, with various life forms contributing in their own way to give rise to an entity that possesses resilience as well as “intelligence”. A forest is self-sustaining, and is able to recover from and adapt to foreign disturbances well.
What does all this mean? It means that an organization following the Forest philosophy doesn’t lay down strict policies for culture, but lets the people mix define the culture at any point of time. Of course this means the culture will be forever changing, but you gain flexibility and evolution in exchange.
Women and startups
And now, back to the important issue of women in startups. More women are not just desirable in the Forest philosophy, they are much needed. That’s because startup forests will wither away without the diversity of talent women bring to the table. For an ecosystem that lives off innovation, the fundamentally different perspectives contributed by women catalyze difference of opinions, explorations, and hence, breakthroughs. Women not just look at relationships and hierarchies differently, they also approach problem-solving in a radically different manner – an indispensable ingredient for innovation.
And don’t just stop at women, I would say. Diversity should come in the form of ethnicity, age, and professional background as well, because only then can we come closer to the ideal of a forest. Such a workforce mix will also be a better representative of our global society at large, which on some level I feel startups need to reflect better.