July 28, 2021

Pushing the Entrepreneur-Envelope: a Conversation with Marian Spier

Pushing the Entrepreneur-Envelope: a Conversation with Marian Spier

Marian Spier is a social entrepreneur shining through as an inspiration and mentor to young, determined women across the world with the vision to start a business. Founder of FEM-START and TedxAmsterdamWomen, Marian has made it her mission to elevate the magic of social change and female potential in the business universe.

To put it in her words, “I call myself a social impact and culture strategist. I consult large corporations and cities on how to interact with citizens and employees. I’ve also founded FEM-START for female entrepreneurs to bridge the gender gap of funding in the start-up industry. During the pandemic, we’ve created a COVID mentor program for female entrepreneurs to help get their company back on its feet.”

Since last June, FEM-START’s team of 40 mentors has helped over 100 young women entrepreneurs on topics ranging from finance to business development to mental health. Marian co-founded both her consulting firm and FEM-START. “You shouldn’t do it alone. Always get help with both the business and emotional part.”

In 2010, Marian made the decision to become an entrepreneur to do just that.

She says, “It’s what makes me happy. I’ve been doing this for 10 years. It all started because of the TEDx events, through which I met so many inspirational people. I was convinced: you have to change the world and people’s lives. I’m creating spaces for people who don’t have a space. People say that we all have the same rights, but do we have the same equity… Are we treated the same?”

"When we started TEDxAmsterdam Women, women weren’t visible in the media space. They had a seat, but they had no part in the conversation."

Many underprivileged demographics and economically discriminated-against minorities remain barred from certain opportunities, she observes. As an entrepreneur, global citizen, and member of various influential boards across the Netherlands and beyond, Marian can leverage these groups. Take, for instance, her TEDxAmsterdamWomen initiative. “When we started, women weren’t visible in the media space. They had a seat, but had no part in the conversation.” Marian’s TEDx effort created a platform for women to shape the future. “We had Harriet, a cardiologist, who fought for women’s rights in heart disease research and treatment--” a field in which no prior research has been conducted. “Once she was given a space to speak, lobbyists came in to elevate this message. Now, everyone knows, every doctor knows.”

When Marian said goodbye to TEDx, she began building FEM-START, originally intended to be an accelerator program in Africa and Europe, but with the arrival of COVID, Marian had to adapt: “As an entrepreneur, you need to talk about and test your business model.” FEM-START moved its focus to the Netherlands, and is now an education tech solution to closing the funding gap for female entrepreneurs through a powerful community, business training and access to venture capital.

When it comes to social entrepreneurship and efforts like FEM-START, there is always the question of profit and social impact-- the prejudice against fighting for a social cause and making money at the same time. “Why shouldn’t they go hand in hand? Passion should be there, but you should also be rewarded for the job you’re doing; and why not be rewarded for doing something good? I do not believe in boxes. It’s the same for culture and art spaces, why shouldn’t people working and creating in those spaces be able to make money?”

Here at Minite, we agree-- there is no reason for conflict between the two: after all, money makes the world go ‘round, and the economy is a large enabler of social change. Peter Drucker said it best-- “Profit for a company is like oxygen for a person. If you don’t have enough of it you are out of the game. But if you think your life is about breathing you’re really missing something.” Marian, who has facilitated the organization and/or creation of over 6 large-scale social and entrepreneurial initiatives, clearly isn’t just here for the oxygen. Despite her involvement in all of these efforts, she seems to glow with the most pride as she elaborates on FEM-START. “Once it’s ready, I’ll be thrilled, as it’s the first AI platform for funding.”

“I hope that FEM-START will be a global platform, where women anywhere can learn everything about funding to influence the start-up ecosystem.”

Venture Capitalism is still a tough industry to capture as a female entrepreneur. The very existence and success of FEM-START bites down on this challenge: women who receive financial mentorship feel more secure about starting their entrepreneurial endeavour, Marian notes. After all, education cultivates knowledge and knowledge cultivates assuredness and security-- “they’ll feel more comfortable advocating for themselves.”

“In VC, they see women and they see bias. Will she be able to sell? What if she has children? They’ll always bring excuses of why not to believe in you. Pay no mind. When the door doesn’t open, you go through the window”. Marian went through the window, and it went well. Much of the financial investment for FEM-START came from grants and crowdfunding, she said.

It’s not easy to get traction for such an underrepresented group of the start-up world. Only 30% of entrepreneurs are female, and even fewer manage to raise the funds necessary for their startup. But Marian feels there is a disconnect in the data. “More than 80 female entrepreneurs show up to my events,” she says. And with efforts such as FEM-START, opportunities are growing; and opportunities attract the ambitious.

It is Marian who is effectively the crowd-creator in face of this apparent shortage: the start-up stage is being filled with female potential. “I want to see more women being able to raise funds. There is this bias, that women cannot speak funding language. The media paints a negative picture of entrepreneurship for women. We need more visibility, more role models.” The female landscape Marian envisions for entrepreneurship and funding has diverse faces, where strength is the sweet beauty replacing the otherwise empty-minded expectations of many members of the business world today when it comes to women in the lead. “They will be able to enter the space and sit at the table, inspiring more non-entrepreneurs to join,” she says.

FEM-START is “consciously inclusive”, as a Harper’s Bazaar article calls it. “What does that mean to you?,” we ask. Marian answers with a question-- “what needs to change?” FEM-START is consciously inclusive because it is guided by her challenges to constantly bring equity into the light. “Five years ago, we only had Dutch and Caucasian girls in the entrepreneurship program. We needed to fight for minorities, I needed to fight for minorities. There was a Vietnamese girl I coached who won the startup award for her initiative. She started seeing more in herself, and she carried herself to Hong Kong with her head held high, following the market and raising money very successfully while being treated with the respect she deserved”.

"They’ll always bring excuses of why not to believe in you. Pay no mind. When the door doesn’t open, you go through the window."

Change also has to happen in schools, Marian remarks. During her time working at a Dutch tech university, the ten percent of the class that was female was only made up of five percent that actually completed their education, and then, only two percent ended up going into the industry. “We’ve started changing the narrative. Women in tech should be highlighted. Now, there are more role models visible. They should reach out to other women and step up into the spotlight”. As a visible, strong, female-led team of tech entrepreneurs, Minite tends to see a high number of female students signing up on our platform. Allow us to say-- this inspiration and encouragement go a long way.

Marian’s proudest moments continue to fuel the female entrepreneurial movement. She looks back: “After 10 years of TEDx, I never knew that it would have turned into such a huge movement. Every year it was sold out and saw topics addressed that changed women’s lives. Yes, it was extremely intense and not easy, but to really make a mark on a nation or the world, it’s better to do something for 10 years rather than doing it for just one year.”

Can Marian leave us with some advice for young entrepreneurs? Of course she can. “Don’t be scared, go through the window. Never stop looking for ways to raise funds-- be prepared for the no’s. Push forward and look at the stories of women that made a difference. Curate mental support and find a mentor for advice.”

And what if you don’t have a clear idea of where to go? Well, you can always make your own path. Marian did it, Minite did it, and we’re here waiting on the other side of the window.

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