For years, Lisa-Marie Fassl was one of the only women in the room at meetings involving Austria’s start-up companies — a traditionally male-dominated sector in almost any country.

So, to rectify this, she and some of her colleagues set up Female Founders: a Vienna-based organisation launched in 2016 to support, empower and connect female talent. “We thought what was really lacking were role models to bring through the next generation, so that is why we started it,” she says.

Today, the organisation, which claims to be Europe’s fastest-growing community of entrepreneurial women, has thousands of members. It is one of several initiatives and organisations established in Austria in recent years to help promote the role of female entrepreneurs and female-led start-ups.

“You can’t say Austria is the hub for fintech, for example, because it is obviously not,” says Fassl. “But I think it can become the hub for female entrepreneurship, and Vienna especially.”

Women make up more than half the European population but have long been under-represented in entrepreneurship, notes Martha Schulz, vice-president of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber and president of Women in Business Austria, which represents about 130,000 female entrepreneurs. Even so, in 2020, more than 45 per cent of companies in Austria were founded by women, and every third company was managed by a woman.

“Education, training and mentoring schemes are crucial elements in moving forward, breaking down barriers and modifying role models,” Schulz says.

Austria is gaining a reputation as a hub for female start-up founders.

According to longer-term data from Austrian Startup Monitor, more than 35 per cent of all start-ups created in Austria had at least one female founder, with women making up 18 per cent of the total of all start-up founders, up from 12 per cent in 2018.

While nowhere close to parity, it is still notable progress. “If you really look at the numbers, there is not much change, but what I have noticed is that the funnel is opening up in terms of more women in the start-up ecosystem,” says Tanja Sternbauer, chief executive of The Female Factor, a global, invitation-only community founded in Vienna for the next generation of female leaders. “Then, those women turning into founders themselves,” she adds. The Female Factor now has more than 6,500 members, across 47 countries.

“One way Austria is way ahead is in the support systems,” Sternbauer notes.

For female entrepreneurs and the companies themselves, the benefit of these female-focused initiatives and organisations is often multi-faceted, ranging from networking to mentoring to sources of inspiration and funding.

“Having this community aspect itself really helps,” says Barbara Sladek, co-founder of Biome Diagnostics, a Vienna-based healthtech start-up focused on microbiome technologies that aim to transform cancer care.

Sladek says that she and her male ­co-founder have different approaches to leadership and problem solving, which she partly puts down to their genders.

“What happens quite often in Austria is that women try to act in a male way. Having the comfort that you don’t need that and that it is better to do it the way you want to is actually very beneficial.”

Cornelia Habacher, co-founder of Vienna-based food company Rebel Meat, says that organisations such as Female Founders help women to focus on the work “and not so much on all the other things that will hold you back”.

At the same time, though, access to funding remains a concern for many female-led start-ups. “How money is distributed, especially in a small country like Austria, is through connections,” says Sternbauer. “It’s obviously way harder for women to get into the male-dominated connections.”

Women are over-mentored but underfunded, says Female Founder’s Fassl. “This is why we realised, quite early on, that we need to make this move from just mentoring to really helping women get money and to grow their businesses and scale things.”

Female Founders has its own three-month online acceleration programme, Grow F, to support innovative female-led ventures with potential.

While the number of female-led businesses in Austria has risen in recent years, the longer term impact of the pandemic is yet to be known. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index suggests that, when it comes to gender equality, Covid-19 may push progress back a generation, with women disproportionately responsible for childcare and household chores.

“We did a lot of studies in our community,” says the Female Factor’s Sternbauer. “Childcare, support, that’s obviously very important if you are a female founder. Many women have been giving up their ideas or projects, or looking for stable jobs instead, just because of the security aspects,” she observes.

Fassl points out that it will also be important to make sure networks like hers survive. “Sustainability means that you need to have money to pay the people you’re working with, the departments, coaches, because otherwise it’s nice to have, but it’s not going to have a long-lasting impact.”

Still, trends for female entrepreneurship in Austria are strong. “It’s definitely growing, which is good news, though it could always grow faster,” Fassl says.

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