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Why Are There So Few Women, Millennial Entrepreneurs?

Less than 7 percent of start-ups launched in 2013 were female-led, according to Startup Weekend, a global network that helps developers and entrepreneurs launch ventures. Despite that low threshold, more millennial women are trying to reverse the trend and launching businesses.

One stumbling block to more female-led ventures is mixed pitching skills—vital to securing early-stage funding—some venture capitalists say. Experts and women entrepreneurs acknowledge such differences in work and management styles, and collectively are working to support and encourage more young, female founders.

Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg worked for NBC News prior to launching theSkimm, a daily e-mail newsletter service, in 2012.

“Quitting our jobs to start our own business was one of the scariest things either of us has ever done,” Zakin and Weisberg said in an email. The duo noticed millennials, those 35 and under, weren’t connecting with traditional sources of media, and the idea for theSkimm was born.

The women had support from other female entrepreneurs to navigate unfamiliar territory. “There is definitely a group of women in the start-up world who have been amazing mentors to us,” Zakin and Weisberg said.

Pitching styles

Start-up success usually begins with confident pitching skills.

Women-led start-ups make up about half the portfolio at venture capital firm Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, based New York City. The firm’s chief executive, Charlie O’Donnell, says female founders are more thorough when developing and selling a pitch.

“Guys tend to throw stuff on a wall and see what sticks,” O’Donnell said. “The pitches you tend to get from women—of course, this is a generalization—tend to be better researched, probably at a later stage, maybe already with a customer. So of course they’re going to do better in the pitch process.”

On the other hand, O’Donnell has noticed some women founders can be discouraged too easily. Wary of their thin entrepreneurial resumes, some women pitch with shaky confidence.

Success stories

Despite little or no start-up experience, select entrepreneurs are pushing through.

Sarah LaFleur, who worked for management firm Bain Capital and investment firm Starwood Capital Group, wanted to follow her passion: women’s business attire. LaFleur eventually launched M.M. LAFLEUR IN 2011.

“I wanted to go do something on my own, and there was a real need for professional wear,” LaFleur said. “If you had asked me when I was 25 if I was going to start a fashion line two years later, I never would have said ‘yes.'”

LaFleur and other young entrepreneurs say pitching repeatedly, and hearing a lot of “nos” before getting a “yes” is part of the process.

Vanessa Hurst worked for research data firm S&P Capital IQ when she began volunteering her data skills at smaller firms. She started her first venture, Girl Develop It, in 2010. The international non-profit is focused on promoting code education among girls. In 2012, she founded CodeMontage, separate for-profit venture that encourages programmers and coders to pursue socially-conscious projects.

“I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve heard that tech is already such a level playing field, and if women wanted to be involved they would,” Hurst said. But tech’s gender gap suggests there are challenges, she added.

Plus, only 7 percent of venture capital funding is won by female-led businesses, according to a 2013 study by Fiona Murray, professor of entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

And across the meeting tables, potential investors often are men.

“The fact is, 98 percent of investors we meet with are male,” said apparel company founder LaFleur.

Education is the first step

Looking ahead, start-up founders say tech education is the first step in encouraging more women entrepreneurs.

“I started and I’m the CEO of a company called CodeMontage, and I still get people who wonder who does the coding,” Hurst said. “I still get doubted…Maybe I’ve got a male co-founder somewhere who did all the coding.”

Founders of the e-newsletter theSkimm echoed the need for more women to pursue technical degrees. “It would be great to see more women in the start-up scene and a lot of that probably has to do with getting girls involved in coding and tech from an early age,” they said.

Ultimately, venture founders say the payoff has been extraordinary—despite the hurdles and challenges.

“Once you get the bug of entrepreneurship, you are just driven to create something,” said Hurst of CodeMontage. “It helped me realize the power of committing to a very clear set of values and enabling other people to help you [and] that’s a part of entrepreneurship that I hope I never have to give up …how I can make the world

Plus, entrepreneurship can be an adventure.

“It’s so damn fun, and I feel so alive everyday,” LaFleur said. “It’s the first time in my career where I’m not looking for another job or wondering if there’s something else.”

Reprinted by permission.

Image credit: CC by U.S. Embassy Kyiv Ukraine

About the author: Kelly Kaler

Kelly Kaler is a writer for CNBC.

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